Friday, October 24, 2008

School's Out

On the way to school, I point to a man, carrying a sleeping child across each shoulder. “Look, Monu, could be you, this time next year. You, with Pooja and Shukti.” Monu laughs. These are his favourite girl’s names. “But I bet you have a boy, first!” He slaps the wheel and shakes his head, “Boy very danger!”

Danger” is the most useful not-adjective I have ever come across. In Monu World, it describes urban decay, local traffic - and local traffic police, for that matter - the Aarey Milk Colony after 9 p.m., muslims, lemon juice from the street vendor, tuk-tuk drivers, Dharavi and all its million residents, alcohol, beggars, pollution in general, Mumbai railways, Kashmir, and now boys. That’s a lot of work, for one little word. I’d be surprised if it didn’t want to go to bed early, tonight.

Boys are not danger, in my book, but Monu’s still going tsk! tsk! and shaking his head, so I tell him my wysiwyg theory, about the nature of your basic boy. “A thought comes into a boy’s head,” I say, miming Ashish doing his takeaways, putting a number in his head, “and it comes straight out of his mouth. No problems. Direct.” Monu nods, being a bit of a wysiswg boy himself. “A thought comes into a girl’s head, and stays. Think-think-think, then yak-yak-yak.” I make my hands bicker with each other, on the back seat. The driver of the tuk-tuk, pulled up next to us at the lights, is mesmerised, and forgets to drive off, when the lights change. “Girls, all time thinking,” Monu says. He’s wising up, the boy from Lucknow. “Boys have a problem,” I say, warming to my theory, “Boy Number One hits Boy Number Two on the nose, problem sorted. Carry on with the cricket.” It’s getting like Punch and Judy, in the back, but without the hand-puppets. Naked Punch and Judy, then. “Girls have a problem, no punch, just yak-yak-yak, all day, and the next day, and the next day.” I mime infinity. I love charades. “Girls mouth-fight,” Monu nods, “very danger.” Too right.

Today, at Akanksha, we break up for Diwali, so everyone’s demob-happy. Bhavika-didi writes some sentences on the board, for copying into our English books.

At Diwali we pray to God.
We wear new clothes.
We eat sweets.
We light diyas in our homes, and burst crackers in the street.
We wish everybody a Happy Diwali

When we get to the “new clothes” bit, Ashish lifts up his blue Ananksha t-shirt, to show me the yellow one, underneath. Two bags of Diwali goodies, one from Bhavika-didi and one from me, are glowing, gently radioactive, at the front, drawing all eyes. How can they concentrate on seven minus nine won’t go, borrow ten? I’m so excited, I can hardly do it, myself, and I stopped using my fingers and toes as an abacus, years ago. The air’s simmering, but we still have to do ascending and descending order, and fractions. Khaja solves his excess of energy, by tickling my feet, every time Bhavika’s eagle gaze is elsewhere. I might have to go and stand at the back, in a minute, for laughing. “Go, take your punishment!"

Instead of punishing me, though, Bhavika presents me with a gift – a photo-frame, and a little embroidered bag for my mobile phone – together with thank-you cards made by the children, laminated for posterity. I promise to keep them forever.

We fold our legs, join our hands and close our eyes early, today, because we have one last Diwali treat, a Medical Check-Up - not as laugh-out-loud jolly, as a picnic or a theatre trip, for example, but more useful. The medical’s sponsored by Larsen and Toubro - the largest engineering and construction business in India – proving that a conglomerate can have a face, after all. Good for them.

We crocodile through the tenement blocks, waving like royalty. The doctor’s in another Akanksha classroom, in an adjacent street. We tiptoe over rotting rubbish and foetid grey puddles; I note that Aanchal’s barefoot, but she’s not bothered, so what right have I to be fastidious? We pass the crowd, gathered round the policeman, beating a man with a stick, and pick our way up the littered stairs, to register and queue. There’s a class before us, and the one after us is already at the door. It’s a long wait, and it’s hot.

At last it’s Ashish’s turn. The doctor holds his hands, looking into his eyes, as if no-one else in the world existed, gently asking him questions, sounding his chest, checking his glands. Ashish is a little soldier, I’m bursting with pride. Next up’s Khaja the irrepressible; I’ve never seen him so quiet. I whisper to Bhavika, that we could do with the doctor in all our lessons, maybe...

The children are given a paper, which serves as a prescription, for the mobile medical van, waiting on the street, downstairs. Ashish gets a bottle of medicine for worms, and stuffs it precariously into the top of the plastic bag he uses, to carry his books. He’s long since chewed off the handles, so has to cradle it in his arms.

My home, didi, come!” He’s desperate to show me where he lives, and I spare a fleeting thought for his poor mother, unsuspecting of her son’s lavish invitation, nursing the pot of dal at base-camp. Bhavika says it’s ok, though, so we go.

We climb three flights of stairs, stepping over broken furniture, paintpots, abandoned shoes and assorted debris. The fragrance is indescribable. Ashish disappears in front of us, on his little dancing feet, then pops his head back out, to make sure we’re following. He’s the Distant Early Warning System, so his Mum and his sister, Savita, are on the landing to meet us. They’re both small and beautiful, unsurprisingly. Then, here we are.

Inside, all the walls are bubblegum pink, and everything’s picture-perfect. To the right of the door, a sofa, where Ashish slings his tatty school-bag, and on the left, above head-height, a small temple with a Ganesh, all pooja’d up for Diwali. Through a doorway, I see a little kitchen, but can’t investigate, because Ashish whisks me behind a curtain, to show me his bedroom, which is also pink. He points at a tiny table, and a mirror, “Didi, see, didi!” - all the mod cons, in fact. “For makeup,” Savita says. Not Ashish, surely? Nor Savita, I tell her, she’s already sundar.

Now I’ve met his Mum, I feel guilty about wanting to take Ashish home with me. I’ll just have to be firm, that’s all.

In the car, on the way back to Powai, I show Monu the children’s cards.

Didi helped me in English. – Mehul”

“Didi, thank you for helping in Maths. - Kajal Brijesh Gautam.” Sunday-best name, too, Kajal. Good job I won’t be here, when you’re tackling differentiation and integration. My mathematical savoir faire stops with goes-intos.

She hep me in learning. - Sachin” I think we should all hep each other, if we can, don’t you?

"Thank you to help us in all the things. – Naina” I’m just beginning to feel like Mother Theresa, when I see Sadabh’s offering.

Thank you for the choclate, didi.” I applaud his spelling, and his honesty. See, boys are not danger, after all.