It all began one evening when Caroline’s father gave her a lesson on democracy and politicians. She lapped it up eagerly, never having heard anything quite like this before. Carol and I were the children of officers posted as instructors at the NDA, Khadakwasla. We were classmates in the NDA High School, managed by Belgian Jesuit priests. When I entered the classroom the next morning, the first person I saw was Carol, she of the abundant curls that obscured her face whenever she leant forward. She was holding court before a fascinated group of boys and girls, telling them all about “polly tishuns”.
‘The pollies get selected to go to a place called the Talk Sabha,’ she said.
‘It’s called the Lok Sabha,’ corrected Leela. Looking at her, no one would have guessed that she was the daughter of Rear Admiral Samson, the Commandant of the NDA. Leela Samson, at the time of writing, is a well known classical choreographer and dancer (or danseuse, as some people with a smattering of French like to say). She’s also the Chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification.
‘Maybe, but they belong to separate teams that keep fighting with one another,’ insisted Carol. ‘The teams are called parties,’ said Jatinder mildly.
‘Will you kindly stop interrupting?’ ‘But what do they do there?’ I asked
‘They make speeches and then start throwing slippers and things at one another. It’s called a debate.’
‘Doesn’t anyone stop them?’
‘There’s a bloke in charge called the Speaker,’ said Anil, ‘but no one listens to him.’
This sounded like a lot of fun.
‘Can I be a polly …?’ I asked.
‘…tishun. You can, but my dad says you’ve got to be a scoundrel to get sent to the TS. Do you steal and tell lies?’
‘Of course not!’
‘Well, you’d better start then. What will you steal? It has to be something big.’
‘I’ll steal a train and drive it round the country.’ As a child I’d longed to be an engine driver.
‘Good! What about you, Vinay?’
‘I’ll steal a plane and bomb the science teacher’s house.’
‘And what will you do, Carol?’ I asked.
“I’ll climb Mt Everest.’
‘You can’t! Anyway, it’s not stealing.’
‘I know, but I’m telling lies.’
We all laughed.
As Carol bent forward to consult her notebook, Anil came and stood beside me.’
‘I say,’ he whispered, ‘are we looking at her face or the back of her head?’
‘I heard that!’ said Carol, looking up and parting the screen of hair that covered her face. ‘Next question’s for you, funny boy. How many “uns” are you?’
‘What’s “uns”’, he asked in bewilderment.
‘Are you uncivilised, uneducated, unruly, untidy and so on?’
‘I’ll try to be uneducated.’
‘No need to try. You already are. You hardly pay attention in class.’
‘I can be uncivilised,’ I offered.
‘Not with your posh accent you can’t. Wonder why your dad taught you to speak the way you do.’
After a rapid fire interrogation everyone was admitted to the TS, which didn’t speak very highly of our moral calibre.
‘Let’s have a debate now,’ I suggested.
‘There’s no time. We’ll have one in the lunch break.’
After a quick lunch we armed ourselves with lumps of mud fashioned into balls under the tap outside our class; we could hardly throw our shoes and books around! I appointed myself the Speaker and opened the proceedings. ‘Teesha’ Raina got up to make a speech on behalf of the ruling party. He was quickly shouted down. Jatinder rose to reply. He couldn’t get beyond a couple of sentences amid boos and catcalls.
‘Alright, you asked for it,’ he yelled and hurled the first missile.
Within seconds, there was pandemonium as pieces of mud whizzed across the room. The boys were soon bespattered with sticky dirt; the floor and walls were in no better shape. The girls had wisely ducked under their desks. Time flew as we gave ourselves up to the joys of the ‘debate’. We only came to our senses when the bell went for the end of the lunch break, by when it was too late to repair the damage we had done. We braced ourselves for the English class. Our English teacher was an attractive young Anglo Indian lady called Mrs Millan. She was the wife of a naval officer, who happened to be in the same squadron as my father. Mrs Millan was the sporty type and could frequently be seen in the swimming pool, the gym and the tennis courts. She liked to wear Western clothes, which showed off her trim figure to great advantage. They also made her look more like a high school adolescent than an officer’s wife. The girls in my class used to go into raptures over her milky white skin, while the boys pretended not to care. In those days many Anglo Indians were very fair complexioned. Sadly, most of them have since migrated to Australia (where they benefited from the then “Whites only” immigration policy) and to England. But for all her girlish looks, Mrs Millan meant business. She was a strict disciplinarian and an excellent teacher.
As she entered the classroom we hastily took our places and hoped for the best. Mrs Millan strode quickly into the classroom and sat down at her table. She looked up at us with a smile that quickly changed into a look of horror.
‘What… who…’ she spluttered, momentarily losing the power of speech.
‘Please, teacher, we were trying to run the country,’ said Teesha.
‘I see. Don’t you think the politicians create enough havoc by themselves? Do you have to help them?’
Then, hands on hips, she rounded on me
‘Were you responsible for all this?’
‘No, teacher, I was only the Speaker, so no one listened to me,’ I replied smugly.
‘What about the girls?’ she asked, looking pointedly at Carol.
‘Please, teacher,’ said Vinay loyally, ‘they had nothing to do with it.’
‘So it would seem,’ said Mrs Millan, taking in their relatively clean appearance. ‘Alright girls, out!’
The girls gratefully shuffled out of the room.
‘As for you lot,’ she said addressing the boys, ‘run off to the gardener’s shed, pick up all the mops and brooms you can find and get back here sharpish!’
We were back in no time, followed by the outraged gardener who thought he was being robbed of the tools of his trade.
We entered the classroom with the gardener hot on our heels. He too was rendered speechless by what he saw. Without a word, he joined in the work of cleaning up the mess. Mrs Millan sat at her desk and fumed, but as the room slowly returned to its original state she began to relax. Once everything was back to normal, the gardener collected his belongings and left. Mrs Millan started the lesson as though nothing had happened.
After the last period, I swung my satchel over my shoulder and began to walk home. When I neared the bicycle shed, a swish of clothing and a whiff of perfume alerted me to the presence of Mrs Millan walking beside me.
‘I shall be coming round this evening to meet your parents,’ she said.
I froze in my tracks.
‘Er…teacher, won’t you be going swimming? ‘No.’
‘The gym… or tennis, perhaps?’ I asked hopefully.
Mrs Millan got down on one knee and gripped my shoulders.‘What a rude little boy you are!’ she said. ‘Don’t you want me to come to your house?’
‘No, no… I mean yes, yes… please do come, teacher… any time you like…’
She released me and stood up.
‘Alright, I shan’t come today,’ she said,the hint of a smile playing on her lips, ‘but I’ll drop in one of these days. I haven’t met your mother for a long time.’
Then she got on her scooter, waved cheerily at me and rode off.
Crumbs! So it was a suspended sentence.
A week passed with no sign of Mrs Millan on our doorstep. I began to relax. Then my parents informed me a few days later that the Millans had invited them to dinner.
‘Will you be talking a lot with teacher?’ I asked my father.
‘I daresay we shall,’ he said, giving me an odd look. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Er … I mean, she has to talk a lot in school, so she might want to rest at home by keeping quiet.’
‘Indeed! Have you been up to anything in her class?’
‘N … no!’
‘You seem to forget they’ve asked us on a Sunday.’
Golly, I had forgotten!
On the following Monday I woke to find Mummy, hands behind her back, smiling down at me.
‘Mrs Millan talked a lot about you last evening.’
‘Mummy, she doesn’t like me. I can explain everything. I didn’t …’ ‘What are you talking? She likes you very much and she’s sent you this.’
Her hands came forward in a flourish, bearing a tin of Black Magic chocolates!
‘Mrs Millan said that you came first in Saturday’s spelling test. This is one of the tins sent her by her relations in England. She is very happy with you.’
I couldn’t believe it, but it was true.
Later that day, as I shared the chocolates with my brothers, Bonny said: ‘Yummy stuff!’
‘Your English teacher is a smashing girl!’ said Caesar
‘Show some respect,’ I said. ‘She’s a lady.’
‘Sorry, but it’s not my fault that she looks like one of the senior schoolgirls.’
Since that day, I have almost never made a spelling mistake.
Col Arun Sarkar is a veteran army officer based in Secunderabad.