Monday, June 30, 2008

Stationary Stationery

Rani-didi helps out at Akanksha, because her daughter’s a pupil. Her English isn’t as confident as Bhavika’s, and she often lapses into Hindi, taking the unavailable-to-me short-cut to understanding. She sounds cross, but don’t be fooled. You only have to see her, lavishly pencilling in whole constellations of Well Done stars, on the kids’ books, to know that she’s a soft touch.
When they’ve finished an exercise, the children come clamouring for it to be marked. Mehur flops his book onto my lap, only to have Swapnil flop his on top. One-potato, two-potato.... The trend picks up steam, (Rani's not the only soft touch...),but before I suffocate under a pile of maths books, I beg for mercy, disinterring Mehur’s and Swapnil’s books from the bottom of the heap, as prior claimants. When I investigate, they’ve both already been marked by Varun-bhaiya, a student-volunteer. This seems to be of little interest to the boys, who thrust their pencils into my hand, wanting me to sign their work, “Didi, name!” and add any further embellishments I think they may have earned, “One star, Didi? Three star?” I feel Rani-didi’s somewhat cornered the stellar market, so instead, I draw a little heart on one, and a cup of tea on the other. This is where it all begins to unravel, like the mats we’re sitting on. We lose the drift of our Odd or Even? number-work, in the Harrods’ sale quest for artistic approval. (I say, artistic, we’re not talking M F Husain, here, we’re talking clip-art, but this lot are definitely know-what-they-like merchants, so I’m home-free.) “One more heart,” says Khaja. “This small heart,” he points, “Make big heart, here.” Since I lost my heart to Khaja weeks ago, I see no problem with this. Sultana, on the other hand, is resistant to market change, and remains faithful to the star system. I have to rub out a primitive house on her book, and draw a sprinkling of stars. Naina gives me her book, and three centimetres of pencil. She’s not happy with the “Very Neat Work!” already inscribed, she wants, “Excellent!” “No!” says Khaja, “no excellent this!” It’s a cut-throat world, approbation. I’m also unsure that Bhavika-didi’s going to be thrilled, to see the kids’ careful columns of figures doodled into extinction, as the teacups blossom in the margins...
Next, we tackle Grammar. We learn to start sentences with a capital letter, to leave a space between words, and to put a full-stop at the end. Sentences in Hindi end with a line, like the end of a bar, in music script: the full stop’s a whole new concept. Sonal’s much inclined to put her football full-stop on the line above, rather than the line where her writing is, but other than this, we’ve largely got the idea. We’re all issued a wooden lolly-stick, to mark the divide between words, our “Spaceman Stick.” I decorate mine with little flowers, as well as my name, then so do all the little girls around me – it’s not tricky to work out, why I like coming here. Khaja, on the other hand, colours his a jolly black. You can’t win them all.
Each child’s “folder” is a green cloth bag, with Velcro tabs, in which all books and stationery are kept. A quick eyeball along the row, reveals that some children have magpie tendencies (check Sultana’s bag for an Aladdin’s Cave, if you can prise it out of her hands...). Number One hot-hot-hot property is the rubber, much prized and fought-over. I see Nikita using a rubber the size of a pea, but then she has tiny fingers, I suppose. Next favourite, in the worldly goods line, is the pencil-sharpener, or the cutter, as the kids call it. This is why Naina’s pencil is so short, they love sharpening. They have a few crayons each, but the interesting colours are whittled down to shards.
I can solve this, I think, in my Lady Bountiful way. I go to Something Special, on Hill Road - my favourite shop in Mumbai, but the grimiest outlet in the whole of retail, every last box of paperclips filmed in dust. (If I have mentioned it before, you’re allowed to go to sleep for two lines, but... are there more than four pairs of scissors in your house? Can you lay a ready hand on at least three kinds of sticky-tape? Do you own any glitter-glue AT ALL? If the answer to any or all of these is “Yes,” you need to get yourself down to Something Special. No, really.) I buy packs of crayons, rubbers, and pencil-sharpeners, twenty-five of each. It costs me £4. And some smiley face stickers. Well, who could resist?
Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” – my signature piece – is by way of being an Old Favourite, by now. It’s chaos, but everyone’s having fun, until Anand gets an elbow in the eye, and we have to curtail proceedings. I wonder about the wisdom of putting our left leg in, and then out, and then in, and then out, and shaking it all about, next time, but I haven’t seen a First Aid Kit in Didi’s cupboard. Still, bring on the Hokey-Cokey, I say.
When I hand over the booty-bag to Bhavika-didi, she says thanks, but then stashes it on a high shelf, out of reach. I’m allowed to give out just three rubbers, to share. At the end of the morning, only one comes back. I’m about to launch a thorough-going investigation, upending everyone’s folder, starting with Sultana’s, Chief Squirrel, when it occurs to me, that these small people probably don’t have much, in the way of possessions, at home. If they want an orange rubber, they’re welcome.
We give Bhavika a lift home, and in the car, she says, that if they have rubbers and sharpeners, they will spend all their time, rubbing out perfect work and sharpening already sharp pencils, just for the pleasure of using the facilities. I’m awash with sympathy, remembering Miss Miller’s desktop sharpener, with the crank-handle, at Beaumont Juniors. We used to stab our pencils, under the desk, to snap the point, so we could queue up to use it.
Tomorrow, says Bhavika, she will explain, that any pupil writing a whole page, with no rubbing out, will get a smiley-face sticker, to cheer up the so-far empty Star Chart on the wall. If the scheme works, I think, the rubber stash in Didi’s cupboard will still be healthy, when Khaja’s grandchildren are on the mat in Room 112, thanking God for the birds that sing.