My Little Harvard: A tiny campus that introduced me to the magical world of letters

The school served up free education and lunch to everyone a global confederation that has been working to fight poverty since the 1940s

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Suresh Pattali

Published: Thu 10 Nov 2022, 9:14 PM

I’m not sure if this is meant to be a shameless encomium to my own tumultuous journey, or an emotional ode to this tiny campus that catapulted me to the magical world of letters. What a journey it has been for a boy who, according to his dad, couldn’t distinguish “is” from “was” but, by a turn of fate, made it to an English-language newsroom.

Armed with nothing more than a writing slate — most of the time broken — and a universal textbook that taught languages to science in primary classes, this boy turned many a corner before wielding the edit pen. But this story isn’t about him; it’s about this red brick alma mater that has produced — and still produces — doctors and engineers, PhDs and MPhils, magistrates and politicians.

The photo that you see here is not the Tagore Memorial Lower Primary School in Kerala’s Thrissur district where we toddled into the world of wisdom at the age of four. The one I knew looked like a haunted warehouse with no doors. At night, stray dogs and ghosts would share a bed on its mud floors while during the day, chickens would scratch and peck the verdant campus.

The school, a signpost to the democratic and secular legacy of the Indian governing system, served up free education and lunch to everyone, thanks to CARE International, a global confederation that has been working to fight poverty since the 1940s. Bags full of cracked wheat and tins of vegetable oil from the US occupied a large space in the headteacher’s office room.

Ikka Pennu, a middle-aged fisherwoman from the neighbourhood who seemed to wield more power than the headmaster himself, would descend on the scene at around 11am to prepare upma, a clumsy lump of wheat cooked in water and sauteed with lavish amount of oil, red chilli, curry leaves and other spices. The macho senior boys, who helped her move cauldrons and set up the kitchen in a makeshift scullery, were excused from attending classes, while children of a lesser god — envious of the physical bias — fumed in anger.

At 1pm, marked by a series of strokes on a gong hanging from one corner of the school, hungry, swarthy kids as well as a rowdy murder of crows would swoop down on the American generosity. While Uncle Sam fed the hungry stomachs in post-independence India, the Soviets took care of their intellectual needs by pumping communist propaganda. A well-balanced diet, indeed.

Talking about the gong, well, that’s my first introduction to the notorious Indian system of corruption. As the school leader, the privilege of sounding the gong rested on me, a system which I misused to make some quick bucks that ultimately landed in the coffers of the ice cream vendor. Children queued in a wait list to get their chance of sounding the gong for a paltry sum of ten paise or Deccan chocolates. It’s also my first lesson in the barter system of payments.

Tagore Memorial was also the place where I first got to taste the privileges of a politician, however small he or she was. Since the headteacher and yours truly shared the same family name and political lineage, I was the sole candidate to lead the institution for a year. It was my duty to clear a pack of homeless dogs from the classrooms before the first teacher and student arrived. Other privileges included getting the first chance to read the day’s newspaper and unlimited access to school stationery.

We knew all teachers and their pedigree, including headteacher Ashokan Master, and teachers Shankuntala, Bivathu, Visalakshi, Bhaskaran, Balan, Raghavan, Dharmapalan, Subhadra, Sharada, Bharghavi and Padmavathy. They would spread across the village during the summer break in May, scouring fishermen’s coves and other densely populated areas, to enlist new students. At the sight of them, hapless children would shriek “I don’t want to study” and hide in their burrows to avoid the forcible enlistment. I was one of those unfortunate kids who were mobilised at the age of four and had their date of birth manipulated to keep the school alive. Now you know why most people in our hamlet are born in the month of May.

The modern me-too cacophony was not alien to the Tagoreans of the seventies. One of our able teachers had to pay a heavy price as he lost his job when a woman colleague complained of sexual harassment. With all tea stalls, grocers and farm hands in the village headlining the saucy topic, parents had a hard time explaining the case to us kids in words that weren’t sensatory. I am told he finally won the case for reinstatement.

Looking back in gratitude, we owe a great deal to the Tagorean teachers. I don’t think anyone else could design such a brilliant agency to sow the seeds of love for English than Ashokan Master. He created multicoloured chalks and other items in his little home lab to teach us “This is a chalk” and “Those are chalks”. He was our Wren & Martin which is as old as our unassuming institution. There is no one left from the old generation to tell us when the school was formed, except that it was called Ashan Memorial before its rechristening in 1942.

During a visit to Boston, I had no issue roaming some of the world’s best colleges and taking selfies with Harvard and MIT in the background, but five decades later, I still shudder stepping into the Tagore campus. The fear of being right or wrong in my life, as was the case when I did my homework in those formative days, still haunts me. I still wonder if I got my “is or was” right. Let my dad or Ashokan Master judge it.

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