by MADHU C. MATHEN (1978)
A recent news item in the Times of India stated that corporal punishment had been banned in schools in Thailand. My mind raced back over a quarter century, to an age in which the cane was a fixture in every house and an extension of every teacher’s hand. Parents and teachers believed that a switch in time saved crime and that the best way to straighten out a child was by bending him over.
I was in the seventh standard. Mr Jacob, our chemistry teacher, would start every class with a quick revision of the previous lesson in the form of questions. Those who failed to answer would be kept standing, while I, the class leader, would be sent to fetch a stick from the adjacent garden.
On this particular day, the revision topic was valency and half a dozen unfortunate ones were left to face the stick. I ran a quick eye over the victims as I set off for the garden. There was fat Sunil, who would let out an ear-piercing howl and prance around the class clutching his hand as the cane struck his outstretched palm. Gallant Rajan, the only one who could unflinchingly look the teacher in the eye as the cane swished through the air and made contact with his rock-steady hand. Then there was agile Anand the cricketer, who would incur the teacher’s wrath by withdrawing his palm at the very last millisecond, shouldering arms Gavaskar-style, and end up getting an extra lash on the thighs. Silent Sabu’s reaction was always poignant–a single tear-drop flowing down his chubby cheek; whether it was an expression of grief or a stoic protest against the injustice of it all, we never could tell.
So, there I was in the garden, testing the slender branches of several bushes. Today’s victims included several of my baiters. So I was not inclined to pluck one of those less pain-inflicting branches that I favoured when the victims included my cronies. Off I marched to the classroom swishing an incredibly flexible stick.
As I handed over the stick, the master’s voice boomed: “So, what is the valency of zinc?” I turned back to see whom the question was addressed to, before realising with a clammy feeling in my stomach that it was indeed directed to me. Now, while I could recite reams of poetry even in my sleep, I never had a head for chemistry. I didn’t have the faintest clue about the answer. I realised that the stick I had wielded just moments ago was going to wound me first.
“Two,” I blurted out, more in anticipation of the number of lashes in store for me, rather than with any idea of the wretched valency of zinc. “Correct” beamed the master, as I thanked my stars.
Though I never touched a chemistry book after leaving school, I still remember the valency of zinc and its fellow elements, not to mention scores of formulae and equations. As one old schoolmaster put it wistfully, applied child psychology was more effective when the applicator was a small cane.
Madhu C. Mathen is Deputy General Manager at Air India and lives in Melbourne. This article was originally published in the Times of India newspaper on 18 September 2001 and later on the 1978 batch’s website. It has been republished here with the author’s permission.
Third annual instalment, in the 25 Years Ago series.
Typically, when a Loyolite is in his primary or upper primary classes, he views seniors with admiration. The good speakers and sportsmen in high school are heroes, and even their routine performances appear extraordinary. 25 years later, when I set aside my 4th standard glasses, and pick up the amateur historian’s lens, I see those years differently.
What happened in 1984-85? Two Loyola athletes picked up medals in the state schools’ meet, Loyolites figured in state school teams (three in rural basketball, one in rural hockey, two in cricket), Loyola were district champions in shuttle badminton, and we won the St Thomas Basketball Trophy. This is typical of the kind of sporting excellence one saw in Loyola in the 1980s and 1990s — each batch would have two or three individual sporting talents (in the 1985 batch, Aju R, John Cruz Stellus, and Pradeep Suthan) who would excel in their chosen sports. These youngsters could fuel a match or two for Loyola, but they were insufficient to power the school to championship trophies consistently. Team games like basketball, hockey and and cricket require more than the odd star.
NCC seems to have had a good run that year. At the annual training camp, “the Loyola troop got the trophy for aeromodelling and shooting, and the overall championship”, says the Principal’s annual report on School Day. Loyolites also won the quiz competition, and picked up the best cadet, and second best cadet awards. I wonder whether such a clean sweep has been repeated since.
The highlight of the sports day was gymnastics by Loyolites. The school magazine captions a photo “We introduce gymnastics”, and the Principal’s Report talks of gymnastics coaching. Was it triggered by a display by armymen, or the televising of 1984 Olympics?
I thought the first computer reached the school in 1985-86, when LOBA donated one white-box PC. But the magazine of 1984-85 talks of a computer club in the school. Wish somebody would throw light on the pre-computer computer club (which teacher guided it? how many members?). The school magazine carried an article “The Computer” by Deepu John (1986; then in 9th standard). An excerpt would be of interest to today’s geeks too:
Once I got hold of a computer. I had heard so much about it. I knew it was a wizard and I knew it could answer any question I asked it. So, immediately with great hopes, I punched in the sentence, “what is your name?” Then I pressed some other button. To my surprise and disgust, I got a reply “ERROR”. I had never expected this. I had expected something like “My name is FABIO FX Z100 XP”. I was disappointed. It was only later that I found out my mistake. A computer cannot understand human language.
Those of us who were in Loyola in the mid-1980s would remember a Jesuit volunteer teacher. Yes, James Conway! He joined in 1984-85, and was a popular (and prominent) figure on the campus. Young, athletic and cheerful, James Conway used to join the Loyola basketballers for games in the evenings. The magazine places on record that he was from Canada; my impression was that he was from Ireland.
I was a bit surprised to find an unsigned article titled ‘Qualities of a Christian Leader’, right after the Principal’s Report. Coming as it did in Loyola’s school magazine, I would’ve expected it to be titled ‘Qualities of a Leader’. As far as I recall, Loyola rarely injected or projected Christianity (or any other religion) into public spaces, in an in-your-face way. The monthly Mass, the weekly Scripture classes, etc were never thrust upon non-Christians. The school song, as well as a few other songs taught in music classes had a Christian tinge, but one noticed that only decades later. The school magazine used to have only the photo of first communicants. The only Christian ritual which seemed to attract student attention was the blessing of the buses at the start of every academic year — even though blessing of vehicles is not a Christianity-specific ritual, the priests went about it in the way they were most familiar with. Religion, in general, took a backseat in those years. No wonder the prayer service assemblies were unexciting.
If you have only two minutes at hand, and you wish to dip into the 1984-85 school magazine, read “My Dangerous Trip to School” by Girish S (1987; then in 8th standard). Anybody who has walked to school from Pongumoodu will sink into nostalgia; others can relive the fun and fear of being chased by dogs.
For a few decades in the US, everybody seemed to readily know the answer to the question, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” (or “where were you when you heard the news of the assassination?”) I suspect that the corresponding marker of popular history in India for a later generation, would be Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The academic year 1984-85 had quite a few other emotional flashes too: PT Usha losing Olympic medal by 1/100th of a second, and the Bhopal disaster. The former was perhaps too parochial, and the latter too distant to make it to the school magazine. But not so the assassination of the prime minister. Two articles, both uncritical, kicked off the Malayalam section. The student article, I suspect, revealed the politics of the average Loyola parent (viewing the Emergency as necessary, and Indira Gandhi being punished unjustly at the end of it); the teacher article, in poetic prose, was silent on the Emergency but loud on Mrs Gandhi’s efforts to usher in stability, protect India’s unity, and defend secularism.
It reminded me how our perceptions change over the decades, be it about politics or sport events of our schooldays.
For this year’s feast online, here’s an unfamiliar dish: an Onam story set in Loyola. Thank you, Jiby for accepting my challenge. – Ashok
Where lies Mahabali?
by Jiby Kattakayam
“Where are you all going for Onam vacation?’ Geetha M’am asked the Standard II class. “What is Onam, madam?,” Aju asked. “Okay, I will tell you the story of Mahabali and Vamanan. Onam is when the good old king, Mahabali, returns to visit Malayalis,” she said, and proceeded to tell the tale. “So Vamanan said a lie?” Rehaan asked. “No. Mahabali was not smart,” M’am replied. Sonu, who loved tales said defiantly, “No, Vamanan lied. If I meet Mahabali I will tell him he is a good man. Will he come to our class?” “Yes, if the school decides to invite him.” Dressing up rotund men and boys as Mahabali was a location tradition and now a marketing technique, but would the school follow suit, Geetha M’am thought, and then changed her mind. “No, Mahabali stays outside.” Sonu was disappointed.
The bell rang. Geetha M’am left. Sonu had made up his mind. As he walked to the door, a fierce tug on his sleeve stopped him short. “To where?” Kiran asked. “I am going to see if I can meet Mahabali.” “Don’t go. You will get into trouble,” Kiran replied, scared. “No one will notice. You just keep quiet. Hide my bag under your desk,” Sonu responded with a threatening glare.
Where do I look? There were two places in Loyola that young boys couldn’t go. The haunted house where the scary man lives and the hollow well where the crocodile dwells. Are there more scary places that I don’t know of, Sonu wondered. He skipped down the steps and slipped out of junior school.
The newly built indoor stadium towered before his eyes. It looked like a palace! Sonu ran towards the monstrous structure. The sun beat down harshly. The lack of shade bothered him. His dad, an ex-student had said that a vast unused playground, and before that a jungle with ancient trees once stood in place of the stadium. A jungle would have been so much fun! Where did the trees go? Who put the trees there? Who took them out? The stadium was locked.
A sudden fear gripped him. What is the punishment for cutting class? What if Mahabali would not come to Loyola? Sonu looked around. No one was around. Like a soldier trying to evade enemies in the computer game Tasha played, he proceeded to the football ground. Stopping at the row of water taps, he felt thirst. Sonu cupped his right hand under the tap as he stretched to reach and open it, and let the water gush into his little palm cup. He moved his cup quickly to his mouth like the seniors did. Drinking this water was now forbidden. But the cooler didn’t taste so good. A few sips later, Sonu, now refreshed began to feel the light breeze feathering him under the cool shade of casuarinas. But I can’t rest here, I’ll get caught, he said to himself.
The sands on the football ground soaked in the colours of the sun, rain, sweat, chalk, blood and tears over the years now glowed yellow in pristine solitude. Paper balls firmed with rubber bands, rubber balls, cork balls, footballs, the stamp of shoe and sandal and the press of rollers had churned it to life and ground it back to death, day in and day out. Seeming to respect its serenity, Sonu stepped off the ground and walked around its boundary. Hitting a laboured stride, he cast a fearful glance at the windows of the junior school classrooms and then a worried, fleeting look at the haunted house and finally reached the reassuring long shadows that the gulmohars cast on the “steps”.
Climbing the “steps”, he headed for the tennis court, forgetting the crocodile’s well. “What are you doing here?” a harsh voice and a rough hand on his collar rudely broke his reverie. “Looking for…” Before Sonu could finish, the hand pulled him down on to his knees and then to his butt. He felt the surge of tears and they sprung out before he could down the shutters. “No. Don’t cry. I won’t tell on you.” Sonu looked up. The older boy had a kind face now and was patting Sonu on the back. “Why did you cry? I was only joking. You too have cut class, haven’t you? I know junior school is a prison. Wait till you get to Plus-Two. It’s a cage then!” “I wasn’t cutting class,” Sonu said indignantly. “I came looking for somebody.” “Stay a while and keep a lookout for the non-teaching staff, will you?” the senior asked. He took out a mobile phone. “Hello…aah Sheela, Ajith here. You didn’t go to school? I just thought I’d give you a ring…” The seniors were always talking about girls. In the canteen. At the bus stop. Inside the bus. Maybe it is that what is called Love. But loving girls! I can barely stand Tasha.
Ajith stood up and paced, phone in hand. Weren’t phones banned, Sonu wondered? Time to slip away. He passed the tennis court and was on the road leading to the school gate. What was outside the school walls? In school, layers and layers of friendships, classes and pastimes had stood between Sonu and the school walls. The world outside came to his notice only during evening walks to the shops with Mummy. His attention passed the open gates and caught a sign that read “Police Station”. If they catch me outside, will it be worse punishment than what the school will give me? He ran past the road, across the hockey ground dissecting it in a neat straight diagonal leaving him at the end of the hostel corridor. The corridor opened into the Loyola College campus.
Sonu suddenly felt small. Should I walk on? What is the time? Like I know to read time. Time was measured in bells. How many have rung? I am too far to hear them now, he sighed. A curiosity to see the college engulfed him. A group of men and women sat under a tree, engrossed in carefree chatter. What were they talking? I’d like to sit like them, and talk. But then isn’t playing football better than just talking? Sonu couldn’t make up his mind and walked. A priest! I am caught, Sonu thought. Now what? Should I run? “Are you lost? The school is that way.” The priest pointed to the narrow road that led past the college, wound around the chapel and then continued to slope gently down. “Thank you,” Sonu muttered.
The bell rang. A clamour arose. Teachers stepped out of classrooms and were soon lost in the black and white that milled all around. It was lunch break. My lunch box! No, I want parotta today. But, no money. He moved in the direction of the canteen, scanning heads for familiar faces until it rested on Ajith again, eating, no sight of the mobile phone now. A tantalizing smell of beef curry that flowed easily around two dead-beaten parottas reached Sonu’s nostrils. “Where did you disappear?” Ajith demanded. Sonu didn’t respond, his eyes fixed on Ajith’s steel plate. “Here, take this.” Ajith offered a fragment of parotta he had just pealed and dipped into the gravy. “Thanks. But I am hungry.” Sonu felt no shame. Ajith smiled and took out his wallet. A frown quickly appeared on his face. “I am sorry. I have only twenty rupees. I need to buy a recharge coupon.” Sonu was disappointed. Why had Mahabali given up all he had, Sonu wondered.
Sonu lumbered about. It was nice to be around people. He watched a boy, his age, bend down and pick up something. A coin. The boy looked at it, put it in his pocket and walked. Thief! Sonu decided. Time, for some policing. He remembered the police station, and shivered. He followed the boy. The thief stopped outside the vice-principal’s office, pondered for a while, looked hurriedly around and walked in. Sonu peeked in. ‘Father, I found this rupee lying on the…” Why did the boy give up his possession? Why did I judge him that way? Sonu was bewildered.
He walked on and stopped at a sign. “Onion Bank of India.” No, it was a U. But how to pronounce that? Sonu stared at the sign in perplexion. Two seniors were coming out from the bank. “The buggers are raising the fees like crazy. My dad said he could educate 10 kids like me at an aided school for the same money,” one said. “Dey Chill. You are studying at Loyola. Not some godforsaken government school,” the other smirked. Sonu looked inside the bank for Mahabali. What need has the king for a bank? Didn’t Vamanan take everything he saved?
He trudged down the steps, past the cage. His dad had told him that there once lived a python in the cage. The python had died. After it had died, a senior named him Kaa. Through the quadrangle and past the basketball court, he walked. Dad said Loyola had good basketball teams and that BB players were the heroes at school. But everyone was playing cricket now. Why would I play a game that no one watches anymore, Sonu thought. A tall, gawky boy hunched in grave conversation with a short teacher, an answer sheet in her hand. They didn’t notice Sonu. “M’am I needed those five marks. It would have got me a Distinction.” “But why copy,” the teacher shook her head. “Everyone cheats, M’am.” Everyone cheats? Did Mahabali cheat in school, Sonu wondered.
I am tired. I am hungry. I want to sleep. Will I see Mahabali in my dreams, Sonu hoped. The place he chose to sleep was the last remaining woods in the school. Beside the indoor stadium, bordering the big estate. They used to go there during lunch breaks and play hide and seek. Sonu looked around for ants and wasps and spiders and squirrels. Satisfied that nothing from nature that would harm him was around, he slept. Soundly.
Wasn’t that the bell ringing? Sonu rose with a start. Was school over? He walked over to the edge of the stadium and peered. The buses were coming in, ready to park and wait for the boys to leap in. One more period to go. He had survived. He would wait. It had been a good day. His first adventure. Would Tasha believe me? Will I do it again? Sonu shuddered at the thought. Mahabali hadn’t shown up. Sonu tried remembering why he wanted to see Mahabali in the morning. The bell rang again, for the last time in the day and Sonu knew it was “three thirty”.
“Let me sit.” It was Arun, the bully. “No!” Sonu responded fiercely. He needed the window seat. No bully could unseat him today. Mahabali was a fool. If needed, I will fight. Maybe the old king is somewhere in the city. I will tell him he is a fool. Sonu resisted the tug of home though his stop was nearing. He slid down in his seat so that the conductor uncle would not notice. His stop went by and new, unfamiliar places opened up before his eyes. “Eda Sonu, why didn’t you get off at your stop?” the conductor uncle on spotting him, asked, flustered. “I slept off, uncle.” Lie. A harmless lie makes a difference, Sonu thought. The conductor made calls to Sonu’s home.
“Mummy, I am done with school. I saw a college and I have also travelled the world. When can I start working?” “Right away. I have forgotten all I learnt in school. You can start with teaching me every day all your lessons,” Mummy said. Sonu’s face fell and his footsteps lost pace. There was no homework from today’s class. What would I tell her? Will truth save me? Or will another lie help? Didn’t Vamanan lie? Where is Mahabali?
Jiby Kattakayam (1998 ISC) is a reporter for The Hindu newspaper, in Kozhikode.
Dr G. Thrivikraman Thampi, who taught Malayalam in various schools including Loyola, died 29 May at his residence in Parvathipuram (in Kanyakumari District), the Mathrubhumi newspaper reported yesterday.
Hat tip: Harikrishna M. (1994 ISC)
* * *
Thampi Sir taught in Loyola in the late 1980s and 1990s. The bald schoolteacher with a doctorate degree stood above his colleagues, also literally — he was over six feet tall. The news of Thampi Sir being awarded a doctorate reached him when he was a teacher in Loyola. Hence, many of us know that it was awarded for his research on place-names, which has since been published as Sthalanama Padana Pravesika. (According to the Mathrubhumi obituary, he won it from a German university, but my recollection is that it was a Belgian one.) My brother, who was taught by Thampi Sir, always used to go ga-ga while discussing his Malayalam classes. Those less fortunate, like me, have to content ourselves with discovering Thampi Sir after his death.
* * *
A neglected aspect of the much-praised student-teacher relationship of Loyola is that students know very little about their teachers. That neglect is most striking and shameful in the case of Dr Thampi, for he was a scholar who, even before he set foot in Loyola, had etched his name in the annals of Malayalam literature and Kerala historiography.
GTT was born on 23 September 1929 in Manavalakurichi, in Kanyakumari district of Travancore state. Growing up in a Tamil-speaking village in a state dominated by Malayalam speakers, GTT became proficient in Tamil and Malayalam. When Kerala state was created in 1956, his native village, along with other Tamil-speaking taluks, went from Travancore state to Madras state (renamed Tamil Nadu). But GTT began his teaching career in 1957 in Kerala. For the next four decades, he taught in various Nair Service Society schools and Loyola, Trivandrum. He also served as President of a cultural history organisation in Kanyakumari district.
Our generation will most likely remember GTT as a teacher. When we are gone, he will be remembered as a scholar and litterateur. His oeuvre comprised researched studies (on place names and ballads), a biography (M Rajaraja Varma), children’s literature (Bhoomi Enna Muthassi), on grammar (Vyaakaranavum Vrithaalankaarangalum), historical non-fiction (Mandaykkaadinte Charithram; in Tamil), and a historical novel (Aditya Varma; in Tamil). He also published articles in periodicals (including Malayali, Malayala Rajyam, Manorama, Vijnana Kairali, and Vachinad) and presented papers at seminars organised by the University of Kerala, the latter on studies of grammar and folk literature.
In 1984, the Kottayam-based Writers’ Cooperative published two works by GTT — Thiruvaathirakali Paattukal, and Valiyakesi Katha. The first was prompted by a “renaissance” of thiruvaathirakkali performances in youth festivals. GTT compiled several songs of this popular art form of southern Travancore (according to the book, the corresponding art of northern Kerala was kaikottikali) and wrote a researched article to accompany the compilation. The second (Valiyakesi Katha) is his most notable contribution. Valiyakesi Katha was a ballad that he had heard of when he was young. When GTT began his literary odyssey by going about collecting thekkan pattukal (literally, “songs of the south”; the vadakkan paattukal are more familiar to Malayalis), he had little hope of stumbling upon Valiyakesi Katha, estimated to be written around AD 1696. After several years, when he discovered this popular ballad of southern Travancore, he published it with his notes explaining the meaning and historical context of the composition. This work became a textbook for MA students of Malayalam, in Kerala University in the 1990s.
In 1999 and 2000, out came two studies on thekkan paatukal. The 1999 work — Thekkan Paattukal: Oru Padanam — was published by the Trichur-based Kerala Sahitya Akademi and is a good introduction to songs and ballads of southern Travancore. In less than 80 pages, GTT lucidly touches upon various aspects of the songs — their language, their descriptive styles, their themes (devotion, heroic exploits), their typology, and the method of writing on palm leaves (even how the leaves were readied and bound with wooden pieces). In it we enter the world of southern heroes like Eravikutty Pillai, who match Thacholi Othenan of the northern ballads.
In contrast, GTT’s 2000 book — Thekkan Paattukal: Chila Adisthaana Chinthakal — published by the Trivandrum-based Rajarajavarma Bhashapadana Kendram, is not for just everyone. It is a sequel to the 1999 book, and intended for those who wish to go deeper into the linguistic and literary aspects of the songs. It is based on a study of 17 songs and ballads, that include those he found in books, unpublished scripts, and palm leaves; those he could recall; and those he heard from others. A dying tradition, some of these songs continue to be sung, in private temples in Kanyakumari district, every evening after deepaaraadhana. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the foreword to this scholarly book was written by GTT’s Loyola colleague, poet, critic, and my Malayalam teacher in high school K.V. Thikkurissi.
In his books, GTT lamented the neglect of the study of thekkan paattukal and in general, the literary culture of the past. “It is not just stories that we learn from the ballads. We can, in them, find the political conditions, cultural customs, and social history of that time. In these ballads, we can see the people of that era,” he wrote. These two recent works on songs of southern Kerala reveal a patient man who went about collecting songs, and decoding them, so that our past can be enjoyed by our future. His native soil was fertile to supply the knowledge of Tamil and Malayalam that such an enterprise called for, but the passion and persistence were cultivated.
It would be a fitting tribute to institute GTT prizes for researched essays in Malayalam by school children, on any aspect of Malayalam literature. GTT, who pored over songs written on palm leaves as well as quickie publications that appeared on pavement stalls will not object to the medium of the document — it can be a humble essay, a creative multimedia presentation, or one prepared for the mobile phone screen. As long as the research exercise fans the flames of curiosity and students learn more about their culture, Thampi Sir would be alive in Loyola, perhaps more meaningfully than he ever was.
This blogpost is based on an obituary in the Mathrubhumi (31 May 2009, p. 8), and four books by GTT.