It took a newspaper article – written with all the clinical objectivity of reporting – to jolt me off the couch and onto this post. After educating generations for 125 years, the walls of St Aloysius Anglo Indian Girls’ Higher Secondary School, as we proudly called it, were going down. A routine inspection had found that they could no longer hold up to further repair; the structure had slowly yet steadily succumbed to the ravages of time resulting in the painful decision to tear down the old building and construct a new one in its place.
I couldn’t make up my mind which nagged me more – the impending demolition of a 125-year-old-school, my school, or the article’s trite description of its heritage as one of tiffin lunching in the shade.
Well no fault of the report in question; understandably it stood for news worthiness and factual accuracy. But no hardnosed journalist could possibly know what it felt like to walk along that tree-lined corridor or have lazy afternoon lunches under the far-reaching shade of giant ‘gulmohar’ trees. Nor could they possibly know the impish thrill of thumping up that flight of strictly staff designated wooden stairs; or what it was to spin giddily around the flagpole in an attempt at one-armed gymnastics; or how reassuringly liberating it felt to run wild among the tall grass of the school’s playground during P.E. They didn’t; but I did. And I wanted to recapture it all before the bulldozers arrived.
So on the day that we were supposed to be packing up for our trip back home, I packed husband, kid and camera into the family car and we set off. I didn’t know what to expect… I was excited, a little curious and annoyingly chatty on the drive through the city’s crazy traffic. Finally we came upon those towering, silver gates. I sucked in my breath and scrambled hastily out of the car. The first thing I looked out for was the familiar sight of our trusty watchman who guarded those gates with the vigilance and tenacity of a pit bull back in the day. I was pleasantly surprised to see him at his usual post. There he was like he had always been lounging in his watchman’s chair, an air of deceptive nonchalance about him. Oh! The number of times students playing truant fell for that act only to be marched right back to class!
It was certainly reassuring to find him there, along with a couple of other old timers, peons and clerks, for whom the school was more than just a place of work. We were visiting on a Saturday and yet there they were just shooting the breeze or on call for an impromptu errand or perhaps they, like me, wanted to take advantage of every chance to remember the old school like it once was. Come to think of it though that was they day of a teacher’s retirement party as well, so extra hands were needed to help.
They recognised me as I walked up to them – what a relief! God knows I’ve changed and not entirely for the better! Well, we exchanged pleasantries and stepped inside. For all those times I wanted to be done with school, I was times-infinity happier to be back in that day.
It’s hard to describe the onrush of emotions I felt, and still do, even as I write this, almost a month later. It was as if a floodgate had broken as memories of every day I spent under this alma mater rushed in en masse blotting out the present. Along with it came the bitter-sweet reminder of my grandpa who guided my very first steps through those gates. There I was again clutching his gnarled, work worn hands tightly, shuffling along to class. I quickly blinked away the sting of tears. Sometime between that flashback reverie and the present, hub’s voice sounded in the distance urging me to let him take pictures. He knew instantly of the teary mess behind my sunglasses. But I shook my head. There was time yet for shutter-bugging. For now I wanted to just walk live through every moment like it was all those years ago.
(to be continued…)