It has been years since I last went to the Principal's office. And here I am, again ! Face to face with the imperious lady of a principal. The entire school always called her 'Lakshmi Miss'. The very name induced fear and awe in all the children. That didn't seem to have changed much. I could see children walk by the hallway, passing her office and I knew that every one of those kids skipped a heartbeat when they saw her imposing figure, sitting in the Principal chair. God, Are elementary school children THIS small ?! I kept wondering to myself. I am sure, me and my classmates were much bigger when we were in Grade Seven.
Lakshmi Miss looked almost identical to what she looked like when I was a student. Perhaps a larger patch of grey hair and extra count of wrinkles. But somehow, teachers never seem to age. She hasn't lost her poise or demeanor one bit. She had the same booming, commanding voice. It was always a monolog or a sermon with her and despite having graduated from the school eons ago and sitting across her as near equal, I didn't have the nerve to interrupt her.
"Ramesh, I am so glad you remembered your old 'Alma mater'. I am so proud of all my children. When you say you are working in America, I am so happy. That should be a nice example for all the present youngsters to emulate ..."
I looked out. A huge concrete building was occupying what used to be our cricket ground. Many kids were straining themselves as they criss-crossed the tight corridors in the new building. Where do they play now ?
"Oh, yes, that is our new Science building. Remember, it used to be a playground. There is so much 'demand' for our school - we have a nice name in the entire city - we needed extra classrooms ......"
God, how can anyone forget our playground ? How could we allow it to be destroyed ? I remember the many, many cricket matches there. It was always a ritual to quickly run home, grab the snacks and tea and quickly run back to the school playground and occupy the vantage playing areas - before the others came and grabbed it. Sometimes, very serious fights have been fought over the territorial rights and who got there first.
I remember how I even got introduced to the game. Raju, my best friend in school and partner in everything I did, came by my house. Some exciting test series was going on between India and some foreign country. There was electricity in the air. We just started horsing around with makeshift cricket gear. We perched some tree stumps for wickets with stones, right on the street. Some visiting cousins and Raju made up the team and even my father joined us.
It was a memorable moment for my dad when he found out that I batted left handed. "Why, even Ajit Wadekar and Gary Sobers are left handed" he encouraged me, as he had visions of a test cricketer in his own family. Of course, it was a tremendous disappointment for him later, that I turned out to be just another engineer, with nearly zero skills in cricket.
"I will bowl you 'googly' next" he told us kids "Chandrasekhar always bowls it. A 'Googly' is when you try to bowl a leg break with an off-break action - or is it the other way around ?"
He contorted his body, ran from nearly five houses away, and in one violent spell, deposited one of the wildest pitches I had ever seen.
"Somehow I am not getting it today" he told us. Whether I figured out a 'googly' or not, I figured out that my dad was a pretty lousy bowler.
A few days later, when Raju and I discovered a bunch of my classmates were forming our colony cricket club, we asked them to let us join too. I told them I knew to bowl 'googly'. "It is leg-break with an off-break action" I explained to them. When they asked me demonstrate it to them, my pitch was extremely wild too. "Hmm. I am not getting it today, for some reasons" I explained to them. Some of them were skeptical about my skills. But in a few days, I became an indispensable member of our team. Because, my dad bought me a brand new cricket bat and soon this became the best darned equipment our club ever possessed. As long as I let them use my bat, I was included in most of the matches. Raju, of course was a natural cricketer, as many others and quickly became the team captain.
It was not just turf struggle on the playground. But occassionally, when we had 'matches' with another team, we had to negotiate the rules. 'Last man batting allowed' we would argue and set limits to 'boundaries'. If the other team was powerful, we would even try to ask for 'one bump' catches and leg before wickets. Some matches ended abruptly when the ball landed in the blackhole, also known as a very mean, kid-hating neighbors, who for some reasons built their sprawling mansion, right adjacent to the school. It was then time to pass on the collection plate and ask mom for money to buy a new ball.
Some other matches had to be 'ended' with brute force, especially when defeat was imminent. I was always an ideal troublemaker, who could start a fight under some pretext or the other. Usually, I would go in as an 'umpire' and not give 'out', unless all three wickets fell down. That would completely stop a match and save Raju, the team captain, from the embarrassment of 'signing' his name to admit defeat. Between my value as a troublemaker and the owner of a great 'bat', I was able to thwart the challenge of newer, more talented kids who were joining our team.
The bell rang. Sounded rather weak and inconspicous. In a jiffy, a half a million kids sprang out of every cubby hole in school and the noise level went up and in a few minutes, another bell rang and the whole thing abated just as quickly. I looked through the other window in the Principal's office, toward the water fountain. Whoever designed the school must have modeled it after some prisons. The Principal's office was like a watch tower, with a vantage view to almost anything.
"You know, Ramesh, the school has now become an all-girl's school. Not that we could not handle you boys, but ..." Lakshmi Miss rattled on.
I remember it ! In fact, at that very water fountain. That's where I first saw her. It was months later that I even learnt her name was Shobhana. She wasn't in my class. But she was probably the most beautiful seventh grader that ever lived. I remember keeping a vigil at the water fountain from my classroom during lunch hours, every day. She always came around the same time. I don't know how it all started. But after a while, she even glanced back at me and locked eye contacts with me for a brief second. She too knew it and had feelings for me ! That moment, my heart would pound harder and I would reach a transcendental state. I even wrote my very first love letter, but never had the guts to give it to her. I still hadn't even spoken a word to her.
"There is a very active Alumni Association in Madras itself. You should contact the secretary ..." my Principal kept on.
I remember the last time I was unceremoniously hauled into her office and made to beg for her mercy. I still blame Raju for all that. I think it started out with our playing a cricket match with the Housing Board kids. I was supposed to go fourth down or something in the batting order and as we kept losing wickets in quick succession, Raju never let me bat, even though it was almost eight down then. "When are you going to let me bat ?" I demanded to know. "You see Ramesh, this one time, why don't you NOT be in the team. We need all the runs we can get. Let us play some of the other kids. You can always play in the next game ...." I didn't care to let him finish. I remember being absolutely mad, going straight to the batting crease, yanking the bat from the batsman, knocking the wickets down and rushing straight home, leaving the match in utter disruption.
The enormity of my action didn't hit me till the next day, when I refused to talk to Raju and the other classmates. They tried to taunt me, but I just kept my distance. It happened around lunch time. When I was furtively looking at the water fountain. When Shobhana arrived and my day was made, the entire class erupted from behind me. "Shobhana is Ramesh's darling girl" mocked someone. "Hero Ramesh is waiting for the heroine" followed by a variety of vulgar insults and epithets to deride what I considered to be a divine love. Raju was leading the chorus. I pounced on him and pummelled him. My secret 'Love letter' was immediately discovered by another kid. And before I realized it, me and Raju and a bunch of others were in the Principal's office, shaking like leaves.
"Shame on you kids" shrieked Lakshmi Miss "Here I am, instilling strict discipline like some Christian Missionary School and here you are fighting like street kids. And you are writing 'love letters', sir ? And you are not even old enough to tie your own shoe laces. Your parents will have to come and extricate you on this. Look at me. How many times have I resisted marriage and emotional temptations, just so that my motto in life - dedication to kids' education - is achieved. Kids these days are nothing but a pack of trouble. You are on probation."
My parents promised Lakshmi Miss that I will never display such ghastly behavior as long as I studied in that school. And gave me hell once I went home. Raju and I never spoke again. We formalized our 'enemy' status by crossing each others' index fingers or something. Occassionally, the others would keep his book on my desk and watch us twitch and turn in shame. Or when we accidentally touched each other, the class would burst into a crescendo and remind us of our enemy status. For the next year, I moved to another school. Raju did play cricket for Madras district eventually. And I have no idea where Shobhana is or if she ever knew how much trouble I got into over her.
And of course, Lakshmi Miss probably did not remember any of this.
"Old students like yourself can donate money in many ways" Lakshmi Miss kept talking "The best way is to get the names of the other alumni in America and then maybe donate money toward another building or ....."