Chapter 8: The Gurus
Hussain Bux, the primary school headmaster at Daska, was a sadist. He took pleasure in beating boys, especially the poorer boys whose fathers could not complain. He would put the hands of his young victims under the legs of his chair and sit on it with equanimity, trying to continue teaching while the poor boy writhed in agony. Quite often, he beat the boys with the takhti— a writing tablet made of special wood. A takhtiand a slate were the only two accoutrements of students in those days. All arithmetic was done on the slate and all writing in script was done on the takhti. The slate was cleaned by spitting on it and rubbing it vigorously with the bare palm of the hand or an elbow or the front of the shirt. The takhti was plastered with a yellow clay paste which, when it dried up, gave a smooth writing surface. The takhti was made out of shisham — a very hard wood, which could well withstand the ravages of the takhti fights that the boys engaged in, and for that very reason it also became a favourite tool in the hands of Hussain Bux, the venerable headmaster.
Fakir Chand, the arithmetic teacher was the mania baksh expert. Maula baksh was a rod made of black shisham wood, two feet long and of an inch in diameter. It was polished to a good shine by the very frequent use that it was put to. At the slightest provocation — such as a badly cleaned slate, an untidily written figure or a slip in the arithmetic table — down came the inevitable maula baksh on any fleshy part of the anatomy. The hind quarters of the boys wore a permanent tinge of blue. The tables referred to were not the normal ones upto 12 x 12, for even the first form had to learn 16 x 16. In the next classes, boys graduated to tables for multiples of fractions such as two-and-a-half or three-quarters and their multiples. The boys could reel off numbers like 3x 1/2 = 7, 31/2 x 3 = 10 ½, 3 ½ x 4 = 14. These are the tables that munims, the accountants, had always known as part of their traditional professional training. These were very tough tables but thanks to maula baksh, they sank into the system. None of Fakir Chand's pupils forgot these tables for the rest of their lives.
Moulvi Shohab Din, the Urdu teacher, was a typical case of a frustrated life. All through a whole period in class, he would keep some boy either sitting on his lap or close by and would fondle the boy while teaching from the Urdu textbook Murraka-i-Adab. He never married because he never had a chance. In Punjab the female population is smaller than the male, and about two percent of the men are doomed to celibacy, especially if they come from a family which owns no land. Moulviji was such a person and in his declining years - he was about fifty — he satisfied his repressed lifelong desire for a wife and children by petting the young boys.
In 1934, having finished primary school, Opana entered that holiest of the holy — the Church of Scotland Mission High School, Daska, run under the able guidance of Mr. Nicolson, the Principal, with Mr. Massey as the Headmaster. For the first time in their lives, the boys revelled in the luxury of having exercise books, penholders with 'G' nibs and inkpots made of glass which held fluid ink. So far, they had had takhtk and slates to write on and reed pens and chalks as writing implements. The primary school inkpots had been made of earthenware and the ink in these used to be in the form of ink-soaked muslin cloth which had no chance of spilling when the lidless inkpot got upset or kicked. Every time, before starting the operation of writing, a few drops of water had to be put on the muslin to dissolve the ink. Extra water meant not only faded ink and a taste of mou/a baksh, but also smudged clothes, from a spill on the way home and a few slaps or at least chastisement from mother. Now all those things were to be left behind and Opana happily accompanied his father to the shop of Mian Inam Ulla to buy not only text books but exercise books, penholders, shining copper 'G' nibs, glass inkpots and special granulated royal blue ink powder, a pencil and an eraser, and a fancy geometry box containing the dividers, a compass, a half-foot ruler, a protractor and two setsquares. He was very proud of his possessions and in high spirits. On the first day of school, half an hour before time and accompanied by father, he walked through the portals and into the life of the Mission School, which would be his life for the next six years.
School masters in those days were dedicated souls, respected by parents and children alike, and occupied a place of honour in society. In the Hindu culture a guru or teacher is as revered and respected as one's father and that was the spirit in which they all lived. Some of these teachers left a lasting impression on Opana's mind. Master Moolchand, the mathematics teacher, combined the rare qualities of a remarkable teacher, a wrestler and an outstanding sportsman. His teaching style was superb, the examples cited true to life and vibrant with a humour that never failed.
Much later in life, when Opana learnt about MIURAC1 and APTRA2 (MIURAC stands tor the six principles of teaching and learning: Motivation, Impression, Understanding, Repetition, Availability and Continued availability. APTRA stands for five stages of teaching and learning. Like MIURAC it is composed ot the first letters of these stages: Aim, Preparation, Transmission, Reception and Assimilation,),
he wondered how Moolchand had applied these principles of teaching and learning without ever having heard of them. If a dull boy could not remember the Pythagoras theorem, he would ask him if he knew some elementary principles connected with answering the call of nature. Non-plussed the boy would blurt that there were no such rules for urinating and Moolchand would then start counting:
"First do not use a ground sloping towards you, otherwise your urine will run under your own feet making them unclean. Secondly do not urinate on stony ground, as the spatter will spoil your clothes. Thirdly, always face the wind so that the smell is carried away from you and not towards you", and so on and so forth. If somebody tried to bluff his way through a geometry problem he stopped him short by saying "mathematical problems are not solved by brute force". Outside the classroom, he was an excellent sportsman. He played hockey and football, and was the best shot-putter in the school. He was the scoutmaster and also the drummer for the school band. He was in charge of one of the hostels which housed boys from distant villages who had come to study in the school. The majority of the village boys walked to and from the school, a daily distance up to eight to ten miles.
Hostel life of these schools may be described in the words of one hostel boy as follows: "On Monday morning my mother would dress me in clean clothes and a cap gfkhaddar, hand over a bundle of atta, a tin of ghee, two annas'm coins and one spare set of washed clothes. I would then get on a horse and ride to school. I would go straight to my hostel, open my wooden box, deposit all these things in it, take out my books and go straight away to attend class. In the evening, the kitchen boy would come and ask each of us as to how many chapatties he wanted for the evening meal, measure out the proportionate amount of atta and take it to the cookhouse. When the dinner bell rang, we took our plates and a little ghee in a brass bowl and trotted off to the dining hall, which was nothing but an open space around the cook and his open oven. Here we sat on the floor after collecting our dal and vegetable in the brass bowl, the chapatties were then thrown at us in turn, till our quota was complete.
We washed our own plates and returned to our bunks. The cook was not a paid employee but a petty contractor. For making chapatties and supplying the ok/and vegetable curry twice a day he was paid half-a-paisa per day. The weekly three paisas were paid to him in advance every Monday.
"I would thus be left with five paisas for the week. For the midday break my daily expenses were half a paisa on delicacies like chaat, peanuts, khil or rice and chhole. Sometimes in a fit of extravagance I purchased and ate pichh—a sort of custard obtained from boiling of rice and sweetening it — which cost a full paisa. On Thursday mornings I would put away my first set of clothes and change into the second set. The week's routine continued like this till Saturday, which was a half-day. Our horses from the village would come to fetch us and spending whatever was left of the hoarded money on a churan and collecting the empty ghee tin, the atta container and soiled set of clothes we would set off for home to spend the weekend with our parents—without any homework to do and without a thought of rebelling against this uneventful humdrum existence."
Attached to the school was another hostel for the Christian students where boarding and lodging was free. One master used to call these boys rotijhop— or chapatti— catchers. This referred to the dexterity of these boys in catching the hot chapattis that the cook sent flying at the circle sitting around the cooking range. Their competence stopped at that — it did not extend to their studies.
Around that time, the earlier custom of sending boys to school only at the age of eight started to change. So far boys had entered primary school at the age of eight and by the time they reached high school they were already twelve to thirteen years old. Allowing six to seven years in high school, boys used to finish schooling when they were fully grown men, ready to join their fathers in business or farming. Seniors were thus hefty grown up men. Munshi Bania was one such boy and famous for his exploits. Six feet tall and very well built, he had the distinction of spending two years in many classes. By the time he reached the ninth class, he was already twenty. He if was a dullard and a lazy fellow, always late for school. The day used to open with Munshi getting twelve strokes of cane on his outstretched palms. He kept his arm stretched and received half a dozen strokes on each palm without wincing. The Hindi master was a puny little punditand rumour had it that once when he caught hold of Munshi's shirt to try to slap him, Munshi held up his big hand and declared that he was not afraid of any beating or caning, but warned that it wouldn't be so good for the little man if any of his shirt-buttons snapped. The pundit let him go unpunished.
Lala Gurdit Chand, our senior mathematics master, hailed from Kapurthala. He had the habit of perching his spectacles on the tip of his nose and glaring at you from above them. He needed glasses for reading but his distant vision was quite good. In those days, double or bifocal lenses were not easily available in small towns, so he had to adopt this simple expedient of using and not using his spectacles. He often asserted that there was good in everything. He was once asked what good came from the loss of his teeth or the greying of his hair. His reply was prompt: when an old man loses his teeth he is forced to masticate thoroughly. This ensures a bigger supply of digestive salivary juices, helping his weakened stomach to digest the food quickly. The white colour absorbs less heat than black and so white hair helps an old man to maintain his heat balance better. He was an excellent teacher and as a venerable person commanded the respect of one and all.
Opana finished the eighth class vernacular final, topping the district list and was garlanded and paraded through the streets of Daska. The headmastership of the school changed at abouf this time. In place of Mr. Massey, the tough uncouth and strict man, they posted one Mr. Sham Sunder Singh, a slender, slightly effeminate but a learned person. He was a good teacher and appreciated good work. Opana was his favourite and at every stage of schooling Mr. Singh pointed to the large Honours Board in the entrance hall and urged Opana to top those names that were already there. His encouragement bore good fruit and Opana stood first in school although he fell short of the earlier topper on Honours list by just three marks, securing 660 out of 850 marks.
Opana was now fifteen and a half years old but nobody had so far seriously thought of a career for him. This was quite common in the education system that prevailed then. It was not career-oriented and seemed aimless. The career opportunities available were few and not very well known or understood. The whole system was designed to produce literate babus or low grade clerks, patwaris, overseers, primary school teachers, etc., to help in running the administration of the Empire. Having done well and having a father who could afford to send him to a university, for Opana the next logical step was to join a college. So in 1940, he said goodbye to Daska. He did not know then that it was to be for ever. He spent the next seven years at the University in Lahore and then the country was split into two — India and Pakistan. Except for some summer vacations that were partly spent in Daska, he left it for ever in May 1940. But he never forgot it. Years later, sitting in solitude, he continued to transport himself to Bhagel Singh Ki Kothi, the Church of Scotland Mission High School, the Raya Branch of the Upper Chenab Canal, the Qabar Bazaar, the famous gurdwara—the site of Sikh morchas, Rama Mota's pakora shop, the Ram Lila, Namdhari's Diwan, the various sights and sounds of a commonplace humdrum small town in West Punjab — his very own hometown. His eyes never failed to light up on spotting the name Daska even on a map, a town whose street-plan he could draw — just as it was then — but perhaps no longer the same.