by Nivedita Salam Mohapatra
I had just started to go to a pre-school in the locality that year. For reasons that I cannot remember, I was adamant on going to school from a very early age. I already possessed a rectangular black writing slate with a wooden border and knew how to draw the English alphabets quite effortlessly. And so, in the mornings my grandmother who lived with us would carry me on her back and take me to this school. Embarrassed, I’d insist on walking by myself as we neared the school.
The school itself was no bigger than a classroom full of kids sitting on reed mats on the floor in neat rows. The teacher stood next to a portable blackboard propped against the wall, almost always holding a wooden ruler used to point out the big bold letters on the board that would elicit a veritable chorus of unrecognizable sounds from the kids that were nowhere close to the English word that the ruler pointed to.
I remember the school to be a makeshift one, nothing fancy, built to bring together toddlers from the locality, obviously to keep them away from home for a few hours that allowed for the families to enjoy some time of peace and quiet. It was unlike any of the swanky crèches that you see today, and it really wasn’t a crèche either, it was a ‘school’. There were kids of various sizes and get up – some dustily clothed with chapped cheeks, some with runny noses with their hankies neatly folded and pinned on to their chest pockets as though unmindful of its whole reason of being there, others with a bruise on their knees or elbows loosely patched up with some red ointment and clinical plaster. They were all bundled up not in the best of clothes, or shoes.
Many wore Bata sandals, or Bata canvas shoes, that didn’t look white at all. I wore my black ballerina Bata shoes with socks, checked flannel pants and jackets, tailor-made at a local store or sweaters and frocks that my mother painstakingly made herself. There were very few brands available for children, if at all. Television and advertising hadn’t invaded homes yet. (Like every other invention, television reached Manipur later than in most parts of India – a couple of years later, right before the Asian Games in Delhi. But that’s another story.)
And so in those days, when India had just come out of the grips of the Indira-imposed emergency, Jayaprakash Narayan hailed as the messiah of the poor, challenger of Indira, when massive post-emergency political changes were taking place all over the country, particularly in Delhi and socialistic ideals hung thick in the Manipur air, few could afford luxuries.
The school was located a little less than a kilometer to the east from my house, on the main road that our leirak joins. Our leirak was a winding one, passing along several traditional Manipuri houses with verandahs and large courtyards in front, some with thatched roofs, others with corrugated tin roofs that shone in the sun, some wooden, some mud-walled and whitewashed, other several newish concrete ones and some with ponds to the side or to the front of the courtyards, often with children splashing around. It wound around lush green lantana hedges or walls of flattened green bamboo matting, sometimes blackened with some kind of tar-mixture to increase longevity that fenced houses from each other and the houses from the leirak and so on. It passed through elaborate temples and large mandaps of two Brahmin families. It was not an asphalted, even or leveled road like it is today but one that was and continues to be used as the main thoroughfare by the locality to reach the main road.
From my gate, the leirak was about 50 meters beyond our neighbor’s vast courtyard lined with tall koubilya (silver fir) trees and thorny lantana bushes. Occasionally in those days, my father would have this short 50 meter stretch from our gate to the leirak filled with truckloads of loose earth gravel that we called chinga-leibak (earth from the hills) and had it leveled to make it motorable for our green Premier Padmini. Perhaps the filling came from the chinga near our house, parts of which were being razed to the ground to make way for a big super-market in later years and hence the name, though I cannot be so sure.
I took great pride in the neat things I drew on my slate with white chalks that my father bought me. These white chalks were tight, dense, rectangular shaped slender things, about 4 inches long, with diagonal etchings on all four sides for better grip, unlike the white loose cylindrical chubby chalks I later saw in the bigger convent high-school I went to. Those let loose a lot of chalk dust, but these tight ones didn’t. I was fascinated by these, though sometimes they were hard to write with. When that happened, we would open our left palm, spit on it, dab the chalk with the spit and proceed to write on the slate. It always worked. These chalks were also called kangkhru in Manipuri. They came in sets of 10 or 12, tightly wrapped in brown paper. I was rationed one at a time.
One afternoon, I was drawing things and shapes on my slate somewhere in the house when I ran out of chalk pieces, so I went to my mother. She was sitting with nene, my aunt, my father’s eldest sister who was visiting, at the back of our house in a small courtyard outside the kitchen, busy in some adult conversation.
“Ima, Ima, (mother, mother),” I called out loudly several times till I spotted them huddled in modas (low-rising cane seats). “I want a chalk. I want a chalk,” I demanded.
“Thoibi ,” she said, using the endearment for a daughter and turning to me, “there are no more chalks in the house. The set is over,” said my mother gently.
I was very disappointed and I continued to pester and demand nearly throwing a tantrum, flaying my arms and legs. They remained engrossed in their conversation and didn’t pay heed to my tantrum till I started to cry. That’s when my mother and my aunt said something to each other and my mother suggestively said to me,
“If you really want, we can make the chalks in no time!”
‘Make chalks in no time!’ my eyes suddenly opened wide, my ears perked up and my hopes went soaring. I stopped crying, dried my eyes and nose with the back of my hands and stood up straight. My mother and my aunt are going to create white chalks for me, I remember thinking.
“How? How will you make chalks at home?”, I asked them excitedly.
“Go run. Run and fetch some of those chinga leibak near the gate,” they said. “Bring slightly bigger, soft earthy but firm ones, not hard stones.”
“How big?” I asked. “About this size,” said my aunt, bringing her fingers together to make a spherical shape, about the size of an inch or two.
“Ok. How many?” I asked. “Three or four should do,” said my aunt. “Now off you go.”
And so, with perfect clarity of my task and excited with the prospects, I pulled up my pants, adjusted my sandals. I then sped off from the back of the kitchen where they were, through a short-cut on the narrow path between our high compound walls and the house, jumped over the vegetable patches along the wall that my grandmother carefully tended to, wildly swung my arms about, almost flew through my grassy courtyard, turned right, picked up speed near the gate, past the pond that we shared with our neighbor, and reached close to the fir trees where I stopped to look for the choicest pieces of chinga leibak.
I looked around me quickly and squatted on the ground a few steps away. I picked up some that looked about the size that my aunt had shown me, threw a few down, and exchanged some more. All this while I couldn’t stop wondering how my mother and aunt would make chalks from these. Maybe they would pound it, I thought. I had seen women pounding rice and separating the rice from husk in the neighborhood in a wooden contraption. I thought they would do the same with the material I was picking up. Or maybe they would do some magic with it? I reveled at the thought of magic! I had heard of magical stories from my grandmother, so I knew there was something called magic which did funny things like making things disappear or have things appear out of nowhere. They’re adults, they can make anything happen! And so thinking, I chose the best chinga leibak a 3-4 yr old could.
Satisfied, I filled my pockets with the few carefully chosen pieces, and ran straight back to them. My mind ran wild unable to comprehend how they would produce white chalks from these earthy blackish-yellowish things, other than magic.
Breathless from that run and my heart pounding with excitement, I held out the chinga leibak in both my palms and stood in front of my mother and aunt.
“Here,” I said panting. “How will you make chalks with these?” I asked curiously.
My mother said, almost teasingly, casting a knowing look at my aunt as though they had colluded on something funny against me, “Well, now,” she said, “what you need to do is to bring your slate and start writing with these chinga leibak!” and gave out the slightest laugh. My aunt joined her in the laugh too.
“But, but…what about my chalks?” I asked her, confused. “Didn’t you say you’ll make chalks with these?” I reminded them. “Aren’t you going to pound them or something?” I pleaded.
“C’mon here and see. See how easily it writes on any surface,” said my mother, scribbling on the concrete floor with a piece of the chinga leibak. “It’ll write easily on your slate. This is your chalk!” They tried to convince me.
I was completely devastated and utterly confused. I also had a sense of being cheated, somehow. So I stepped back and threw the gravel hard on the floor and started crying.
No No No! This is not what I wanted. This is not what I imagined. There was no magic. There was no pounding. I did not want chinga leibak. I wanted white chalks!
How could they mislead me into thinking they will manufacture chalk and so easily and almost dismissively ask me to use this very gravel to write with? I wanted white chalks and they meant to fool me all this time, while I – I had worked so hard to choose those pieces and had run like a champion so as not to waste a second. I wanted to run away immediately from my treacherous family and bawled as though the sky had fallen, seething with anger and frustration at the same time. I refused to talk to them for the rest of the day, much to their amusement.
By evening, my father returned from office and I ran to him for sanctuary and comfort. I complained against my mother and aunt and narrated the incident from the afternoon. I think he bought me a new set of chalks the very next morning.
And that is the memory engraved in my mind – a distant but very sharp, vivid memory of an intensely disappointing day. It is as fresh today as though it were only yesterday – the moment when I flung the chinga leibak pieces from my hand and bawled! How permanent some childhood memories are and how they linger long after you have grown up!
Little did I know at that time that life ahead would throw your way countless more disappointments that you have to overcome and some you live with. Little did I know that, among many other things, the manner in which one handles and deals with disappointments almost defines one’s character. And quite surprisingly, even to this day, I can feel the huge pang of dismay and disappointment at my mother and aunt’s creative solution for a little piece of chalk. And I think of the innumerable disappointments that I have overcome in my life and that which helped me grow.
I wonder now, though, if you can still find those chalks. I must check on my next visit to the stationery shop, I make a mental note.