Friday, August 15, 2008

Autoricksha Confessions 8: Cruel and unusual punishment

When I was a kid I used to be fascinated by the tales of lashings by teachers that my father used to tell me. Sure there was the usual slapping and caning. But in particular there was this punishment that my father's schoolmates had to suffer: a teacher would have them stand outside and clasp their knees. Then the teacher would put an ink bottle with the cap open on the student's back. The offender had two choices - go home with a monster backache or stretch, get ink all over the white shirt and risk another hiding from his Dad.

This story used to give me nightmares - especially because it used to evoke the ironic and startlingly violent response from my Mom which went along these lines: "I would have stripped that evil teacher up to his chaddis in public and whipped him!"

Happily teachers were much milder in my generation. The worst of the lot was our PT teacher - who we nicknamed Phantom. He had a penchant for slapping kids with the palm of his hand whenever they laughed, which used to happen a lot since Phantom used to time our marches with the words "LephPhoit, Leph!" But Phantom's slaps were hardly punishment - in fact the one time I received it, I went home happily buzzed.

However, as a class, we were unusually rowdy (yes, I know every batch thinks it was the coolest but bear with me). So teachers devised unusual ways to strike dread in our hearts.

One of our teachers - nicknamed Savdi - was a hawkish woman with super-permed shoulder length hair that were oiled so that they bunched up below her ears. Whenever someone would mess up, she would whip out a small black notebook from thin air - much like a soccer referee - and jot the person's name down. One jot, bad. Two times, danger! Three times, 10 points off your final marks tally in her subject.

Periodically she would hold a torture session. This consisted of her reading out the name of each and every one in class and mentioning their tally. "Chandu! Two!" she'd say and move on to the next one. "Deepak! Three!" she'd say and fix a nasty evil eye on Deepak, making the poor boy tremble for a good two minutes before moving on. "Padhye! Four!" Padhye would get a look that conveyed "You Dead!" Yes, Savdi was one unhappy woman.

Yet at some level I understood the need to do this. Back then mental torture was less embarassing than physical beatings. And there was no way to keep us in control.

The proof of this pudding was in its eating. And it arrived in the form of Father Tango, a freshly minted B.Ed. graduate from an experimental education program.Father Tango refused to raise his hands on the kids. Rather suicidally he also refused to humiliate us into submission. Ruckus after ruckus in our class was negotiated by Father Tango with patience. By the middle of the year, Father Tango was visibly balding.

How long would Father Tango last? Bets were being taken across the school.

One day things came to a head. Sick and tired of the ruckus' we created, not to mention the fellow staffers chuckles behind his back, Father Tango threw his book on the floor and announced: "I've had it! All of you will be in detention today! See if you LIKE THAT!"

We had all read enough Archie's to know what detention meant.

"Where is the detention room in our school?" someone asked

"Right here!" said Father Tango. "No one will leave class at 5pm. You'll all stay here till 7pm!"

And on the stroke of 5 to show how serious he was Father Tango came armed with a largish book and settled down on the table in front of the class.

We all sat there and waited. One minute became two, then three. Pretty soon a spontaneous party broke out.

Girls clumped together and chatted furiously. One of them started practicing some dance. The boys were hanging from the windows, others were throwing things at each other. I was entertaining thoughts of diving from the window to go scalp some neighborhood trees for mangoes. One was standing on the desk trying to reach the back of the fan (this measurement was being taken for a prank to be played on Savdi later). The din was ridiculous.

Father Tango groaned loudly, picked up his book and left. We barely noticed. A good ten minutes later, our Vice Principal Ms. Sukhadia stopped by. No one messed with Ms. Sukhadia. There was something about the way those daggers left her eyes and stabbed you in the chest that quietened down even the worst offenders. The class fell silent.

In her booming voice Ms. Sukhadia spoke: "Shame on you! Shame on you, I say! You have reduced poor Father Tango to tears! Tears, I say! He is crying in the staff office! Crying, I say!"

Then she left. A few minutes later Father Tango showed up looking like he had just finished watching a Meena Kumari movie. He dismissed us quietly. We all felt terrible.

We formed an uneasy alliance with Father Tango from that point on. We tried our best to behave and keep his izzat when he was around. Tried is the operative word here. But Father Tango noticed. He became fond of us. By the end of the school year, the good Father lost most of his hair at the startling pace we had set for him.

But I am happy to say he had a long and fruitful career as a caring teacher at our school.

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