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A new story by Nanda Pavaday!

With his kind permission.

Dirty fingernails

One evening when I was reading the newspaper, I came across the name of someone who was in the same class as me when I was in elementary school. This guy was the bad boy in the lot, the one we all knew was the bad apple in the basket. I remember he used to come to class carrying a black bag, but no one knew what was in it because he never had any book or notebook. Nobody knew much about him because he had no friends. He would arrive in class and sit in a corner and not talk to anyone. No one made any effort to be his friend either. We were good kids who all came from middle-class families, and he was not like us in the way he dressed, spoke, or behaved. I imagine that, even at home, many parents would ask their children not to be his friend and to stay away from him.

Pic by Elie Bernager - Un Mariage au Paradis - with his kind permission.

One day the teacher asked all the students to stand in a row, and she checked our fingernails. That boy was the only one in the class with dirty black nails. The clothes he wore to class were also often dirty. The teacher punished him by hitting him on the palm of the hand with a ruler. It was much later that I realized that the pain from the beating must have hurt him as much the shame from being made to feel that he was not like the other children, that he was the only dirty little boy in the class.

Back then, we had, among other things, to learn the names of mountains and rivers, as well as verbs and multiplication tables. All these things seemed to make no sense to this guy. He always looked like he did not get the least idea of what was going on, and could not grasp anything. As a result, the teacher often asked him to climb on the table and stand while the class went on. Sometimes, the teacher would leave the classroom to go to the principal's office. In her absence, she would ask one of the students to write down the names of those who spoke. The boy's name was unfailingly right there on the list of those who broke the rules, and he was being punished by the teacher every time.

One day, that boy's mom came to school to pick him up from class. All the children were surprised to see this strange-looking woman dressed in rags. When she left, one of the children said, "This woman is a drunkard. I saw her drinking rum in the shop near the school." That was the first time that I saw this woman and the first time that I heard someone being called a drunkard. Before that, I thought it was only men who drink rum. From then on, I started coming across that woman in the streets more often. I remember one day when it was raining heavily, and I was running home with my brother. I saw her all drenched in the rain, walking all by herself and singing out loud. She didn't seem to have all her mind. Another time, I was going to the market early morning with my father when I saw her walking with a stray dog by her side. I told my dad that this woman had come to school, and one of the children had seen her drinking rum at the store. My father said, "Just let her be. Only she knows what problems she must be facing." This made me less judgmental of her whenever I saw her again. Sometimes she would be standing under the shop and banging on the door for the shopkeeper to come and serve her rum. She would often make a show of herself, shouting and quarreling with other customers.

When I reached standard 4, the students had to change classes. The brightest students were grouped in one class, the others who did less well in another and then the others who did not do well at all. Later, in standard 5, we were admitted into classes labeled as sections A, B, C, and D.

I was placed into section A with other students whose only goal was to pass the exams with distinctions to get admission into one of the Star Schools on the island. That boy found himself in section D, which was the class with all those rejects of the school system, those children deemed damaged beyond recovery. Most of them hadn't learned much in the past four years at school, failing in most subjects, and everyone knew in advance that they would fail again at the end of the year. They were going to have to repeat their classes, then leave school. They would have no certificate and would try to make a living doing odd jobs, being unfit for a professional career. Somehow all of them had a path that was already charted. It would have been a miracle if any of them obtained a good enough result to get them admitted into a Star School. Their teacher knew that already and therefore spent most of his time punishing them for their conduct and less time teaching them Math, English, and French lessons.

Often when we walked by the section D classroom, there would always be some children who were punished and were made to kneel outside. At other times, we would hear the teacher yelling at the students, and we would hurriedly walk by so as not to attract attention. In those days, corporal punishment was quite common in most schools. Some students would be punished every single day. The teachers gave the impression of being in competition with one another to find the most creative ways to inflict punishments on the pupils in their respective classes. Sometimes they would give a dictation in class, and each student would be punished based on the number of mistakes he or she had left. Some children would make 8 or 10 mistakes, and had to extend their hand, and the teacher would smack them with his ruler that many times. Sometimes it would hurt so much the kid had to change position and present their other hand.

In every class, there would be one or two children who were the teacher's whipping boys. They were called in front of the classroom every day to be smacked on the head or slapped in the face when they did not know the names of some rivers and mountains. At other times, one of them would be caught talking while the teacher was explaining on the blackboard. The latter would turn around and throw the chalk or duster at them, then walk over to them, pull them by their hair and drag them to the front of the class. Sometimes the teacher would ask two girls to hold the boy's hands while he whipped his bottom so many times the poor boy could hardly walk back to his seat. Some teachers came to class every day with a new bamboo stick to beat the pupils, and left in the evening with it broken into pieces from excessive use. Sometimes, the teacher would remove his ring from his finger in the middle of a lesson and put it on the table. This was a preamble to what was coming to the students. At other times, it was his belt that he removed from his pants to spank a student, and most of the time, it was the same kids who would bear the wrath and pent up frustration. These daily scenes were psychologically and emotionally traumatic for the whole class. Some kids were so scared they ended up peeing in their pants. However, no one dared to talk to his parents about it for fear of being punished again. Some parents entrusted the children to the teacher, giving the latter permission to do as was needed to get the child admitted to a Star School at the end of the year.

In those days, I was going to help my dad at his work the market after school and during the holidays. Most of the teachers knew my dad, and I imagine that this was one of the reasons I was not often punished. I felt lucky but also a little guilty not getting any of these beatings that I saw some of my friends be subjected to. Moreover, my brothers and I knew that our parents had faith in us, and we tried to do our best at school to make them proud. After I finished elementary school, I got admitted to a Star School, which made my parents really happy. As for the pupils from section D, they repeated the classes as expected, and most of them then left school and never went to college. I occasionally saw the boy who used to be in my class pass by on the road on a black bicycle, which I assume belonged to his father. I got to know that he lived on the street next to mine, but we didn't see each other often, and when we did, we never acknowledged each other or talked because we never got to be friends.

My time was spent mostly at school, followed by tuition and homework, which left me little time to watch TV and make friends. Some of the neighbourhood boys sometimes came to my place to play football with my brothers and me. It, however, became less and less frequent as I moved to higher classes. After completing my exams, I won a scholarship and went to India for my university studies. When I came back, I had to look for a job and started working. Sometimes on my way back home in the evening, I would see that boy sitting under the shop drinking with other guys. I never got to know where he worked and if indeed he worked. I learned from my mother that his mother had died a few months earlier, and I was sad to hear that he was the only one to stay by her side and take care of her till her last breath. The years passed, and one day I went to the store, and the guy was there, waiting for his order. It was the first time we met since we were kids. That day he spoke to me. He said, "I know you." I replied, "Yes, we were in the same class in elementary school. I remember you too."

I was touched by the fact that he remembered me. It made me realize that all those years, whenever we crossed paths, he recognized me but never dared to speak to me. He probably thought that he was not good enough for any form of friendship or interaction. Often after school, when the local boys came to my place to play football in the yard, he would pass by on his bicycle and see us, but he never stopped to ask us to let him join us. At that time, we had a large mango tree in front of our yard, and people came from the whole locality to ask for mangoes, but he never did. I once read that the poor wear their happiness like a borrowed coat, they feel as if it is not theirs. They wear it with a feeling of discomfort, knowing that it will be taken away from them anytime. It occurred to me that day that this guy lived in this world with a similar feeling of discomfort because he was made to believe that he had nothing to offer to the world to gain acceptance. In the end, he never had any friends and never had a place where he would feel accepted.

Since the beginning of this pandemic, we are everyday reminded that the country is in lockdown and that everyone must stay at home. That night, when reading the newspaper, I came across an article talking about a fire that broke somewhere in the south of the island. A shed had caught fire, and the police found two bodies inside. At first, nobody knew who they were. Upon inquiry, it was found that these two people had come to do some repair work at someone's place but could not get back to their home because of the lockdown. They could not find a means of transport and were forced to sleep in an old shed that caught fire during the night. They both died. The police were finally able to identify the two victims; one of them was the guy from my class with whom no one wanted to be friends.


Extract from the book Tales of simpler times Written by Nanda Pavaday

© tizistwarnoupays

You can read my earlier texts on these links:

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