Friday, November 14, 2008

Happy Baal Diwas!

Nikita invitingly pats the space next to her, on the mat, in the upstairs room, at Mankhurd, so I sit down beside her. She smiles, and sighs, and leans against my knee. I could sit here forever.
Bhavika’s catechizing the assembled troops, meanwhile.
Whose birthday is it today?”
“Chacha Nehru!”
“Right, Chacha Nehru! What is Chacha Nehru’s other name?”
This one creates a ripple of dismay, and I have every sympathy. I know the answer, but I can’t get my tongue round it, either, even if you write it in four-inch capitals on a piece of paper, and stuff it into my fist, so I’m not rating their chances.
Chacha Nehru is...... Jawaharlal Nehru. Who is he?”
“Jawaharlal Nehru
!” No one else on the floor seems to find this unpronounceable, now they’ve had a steer from didi. Just me, then. I’ll stick to Pandit, I decide.
And who was Jawaharlal Nehru?... He was the first Prime Minister of India! What was he?”
“First Prime Minister
!” At least one person’s listening.
Well done, Swapnil!” (Wouldn’t you know? With a bit of luck and a following wind, Swapnil will be Prime Minister himself, one of these days.) “Of which country was he Prime Minister?”
India, didi, India!” Politicians can’t all be bad, it seems to me.
And what did Chacha Nehru love?... He loved children. What did he love?”
So what is his birthday, what do we say, Chacha Nehru’s birthday is.....?”
“Children’s Day
!” We all smile so much, our teeth go dry, congratulating ourselves.
So didi has brought cake!” The mats fizz with joy, and everyone’s tidy padmasan falls apart. Cake.
Who will have cake, yes or no?” No-one has much of a problem, working this one out.

We’ve only just got over Diwali fireworks, and now it’s Baal Diwas, Children’s Day. It’s not news to me, they’ve been advertising it on the tv, all week, promoting a day-long cartoon orgy for all the family. And on the way into school this morning, we pass a fairy princess in a spangly crown, trying to tame her frothy layers of tulle and wave her wand at the same time, as she trips along at her mother’s sari-end. She strikes an incongruously exquisite note, in the detritus of the gutter, which laps at her tiny slippered feet.

The rest of the world celebrates Children’s Day on 20th November, but India makes a bid for independence, and lights her fireworks a week early, on Nehru’s birthday. It’s nearly fifty years since he died, but all the children of India still call him “Uncle” – Chacha Nehru.

Celebrate Baal Diwas!” cajoles the poster on the hoarding by the link road. “Banish child labour!” A sobering thought, amid all the balloons and chocolate bars. “Make Children’s Day happy for all children.” If only. One of the cuties, on the mats, here at Akanksha, was found abandoned, two or three days old, in a dustbin, by the woman he thinks is his mother. It’s all I can do, not to package him up and mail him to myself, in the UK.

At the traffic-lights, Monu points to a child, hobbling down the central reservation, his foot swathed in filthy bandages, a padded crutch under each arm.
See this boy?” We both watch him hop-skipping along, for a moment. “His foot complete.” So, the dressing and the crutches are his professional props? Monu nods. “See, this girl, too.” And sure enough, there’s his sister, equally misfortunate in the matter of sound limbs, crutches flailing. I say, someone should tell them to work different sets of traffic-lights, they add nothing to each other’s credibility. Unless they’re just a really accident-prone family. Still, I don’t expect there’ll be much in the way of Baal Diwas cake, doing the rounds, on the pavement where they live, tonight.

In our Values lesson, we’re doing Respect. What is respectful, what is disrespectful.
If you want didi to teach you something, do you say, “Didi, teach it!”
Yes!” says Sachin, and he’s right, that’s exactly what he does, except in mime. More exactly, he pokes you with his book, and pushes everyone else’s book off your knee, then pinches your arm, to make sure you understand. That’s Sachin’s normal MO.
You will say, “Teach me!”?” says Bhavika-didi, scandalised. Sachin loves either/or questions, because when he gets it wrong, there’s only one answer left, and it’s always the right one.
No, didi!” he bellows, and looks round for applause. He’s sweet, really.

We write respect words in our English note-books. Sorry. Please. Thank you. Excuse me. Not for the first time, I wish I had a video-camera, to make a salutary short, for Year 9 Citizenship Lessons, in the UK. Come to think of it, some of the favoured sons and daughters of leafy Powai could do with a bit of revision, in this module, too. At the swimming-pool, I’m just dripping towards the changing-rooms, when a boy of about twelve hurtles round the corner, and cannons into me. Without looking at me, or missing a step, he scrambles on. “Excuse me!” I say in my loudest, school-missiest, most sarcastic voice. “That’s ok!” he says, airily, over his shoulder. Indignation, more strong than a belt in the solar plexus, quite vanquishes me.

Meanwhile, Bhavika’s waxing warm to her theme.
When Caroline-didi gives you little bottles of shampoo and soap, do you take one and say, “Didi, I have no gift!” – is that what you should do?” I think of the free shop, disappearing hand over fist, last lesson, and wonder if this rings a bell with anyone.
Yes, didi!” says Khaja the Snitch. “Sonal, two soap!” He tugs on my sleeve, and points at Sonal, who pulls a face and turns away. Either she’s innocent as charged, or she doesn’t understand. It has to be said, her English isn’t that hot, though. “Hair-comb, didi, me?” Khaja croons, his nose pressed to mine. Forget thirty pieces of silver, the price of this super-grass is a plastic comb. I harden my heart, and refuse. I would give this child the sun, moon and stars, if I could find a piece of wrapping-paper big enough, but he’s not having a comb, today.

Before we go home, a game. We split into three: Team Sachin, Team Salim and Team Ashish. Each round, a player is nominated, who chooses which level question he wants, worth 10, 20, 30 or 50 points. After two turns, caution goes out of the window with no glass, and everyone’s bidding for tops.
For fifty points, if I have ten sweets, then I get five more – wait, I haven’t finished, keep it in your head – then I give ten to my Mother, how many sweets do I have?” I hold my breath, but Khaja doesn’t.
Five sweets!” Team Ashish do a war-dance of victory.
Swapnil goes for broke, too.
If I have twenty-five sweets, and I want to give forty, how many sweets do I need?” He’s allowed to do it on the board, instead of the back of his eyelids, but even then has to have three goes, to get to fifteen. It’s not the maths lacking, it’s the nerve, but perhaps he should think of an alternative to the premiership, by way of career.
It’s looking like a walk-over for Team Ashish, raking in fifty after fifty. Then Khaja gets a ten-point penalty for dancing up and down to distract Rahul, so the race is on again.

It all hinges on Kunda, the last question of the last round. She’s a wobbly ten-point person, at heart, but she’s carried away by the madness of it all, and bids wildly for fifty. Didi writes “-ag,” “-ot,” and “-ip” on the board, and Kunda has to find three words for each. She’s thinking about it. I have to gag Naina with one hand and Khaja with the other, as Kunda begins to write “tag” in uneven nano-letters. By the time she gets to the last column, we’re all miming “sip” or “dip” or “pip” like it was New Year’s Charades, but she has her own ideas, and finally writes “lip,” bagging fifty for the team.

Final scores: Sachin’s team - 230; Salim’s team – 190; Ashish’s team – 240. Much cheering and laughter. No-one says, “My question was harder than hers!” or “He had help with his!” and mostly they don't say, “It’s not fair!” - so the respect lesson is well learned. I don’t know that the dangerous ten-point dock has taught Khaja anything about sitting-down and shutting-up, but the whole world’s out there, waiting to knock the stuffing out of him, there’s time yet for a bit of irrepressible joie de vivre.

Kunda’s so overwhelmed by her success, she gives me her cake, on the way out. She’s had a baby brother and a brutal haircut in the same week, I’m surprised she can still spell her own name. I put the cake back in her hand, and she gives me a shy smile.
Happy Children’s Day, Kunda!”
“Thank-you, didi!”
she says, and scampers off down the stairs.