How My Mother Gave Us An Education

Once again she was there at 8 a.m., outside the principal’s office. The principal, a Jesuit father, walked in at 8:15 a.m. She waited for 15 mins, giving him a chance to settle down, and then, with a gentle knock on the swinging panes of the door – “May I come in Father?”

This is the way it was, almost every day, for two months. Again and again she was there, first thing in the morning, even before the principal arrived. Again and again, the same cordial conversation ensued —

“Good morning Father. My son needs admission in your school. Please admit him.”

“Why do you keep coming here? This is the middle of the term. We have no vacancies.”

“This is the only good school for boys I know of father. My brother studied here. My husband studied here. My son too was studying at St. Xavier’s Jaipur. We have come to Calcutta in the middle of the academic term. Only you can continue his education. This is the only school I know of.”

Sometimes she would add, “I have come again to check in case any vacancy has opened up. In case any boy’s father got transferred…”

Finally, after two months of my mother’s persistence, my eldest brother got admission in Class 5, in St. Xavier’s Calcutta. Had a vacancy opened up? Did the school squeeze one more boy onto its rolls? We don’t know. Yes, my mother’s persistence to be there every morning paid off. This was in 1975.

My father, a self-made man, was totally immersed in establishing his fledgling practice as an advocate at the Calcutta High Court. Often he would return home at 11 p.m. after attending conferences at his senior’s chamber. My mother would wash the one white terri-cotton trousers and shirt he owned, and hang it to dry. The next day in the morning she would iron it and my father would be ready for the gruel of another day. Those days my parents did not know whether they would earn enough to pay the rent at the end of the month. Somehow, month after month, things kept falling in place.

Naturally, it fell on my mother to attend to everything else — home, food, the health and education of the children, errands to the bank, and much else. With her eldest son now in St. Xavier’s, her second son got admission there easily. So that was done.

The initial years of my second brother’s education posed a different kind of challenge for my mother. He had got infantile jaundice a couple of times and had a weak constitution. Thus, he missed long stretches of school. Often, he would be unable to keep pace with what the class was learning. Long before the techniques of Montessori came into the country, my mother had to find organic ways so that he learned how to read Hindi without committing the alphabets to memory, and understood basic arithmetic operations like subtraction that flummoxed him for some time in cute and amusing ways. “Look! I brought back so much money today!” he had said one day on returning from school. He had gone to school with only one note as pocket money, but had returned triumphant with so many coins that the toffee vendor had given him.

With me, her daughter, Mom once again found herself going through the same ordeal — of securing a good education in the middle of the academic year. Only this time, the reason was different, and the duration of the ordeal was longer. Her determination was just the same.

For some reason, even after several months, I was not comfortable in the school I was going to. I used to cry every day. Suddenly one day she took me out of that school — not due to my crying though — it was the school bus and how the school authorities managed it. Many times they dropped me home rather late in the evening. That day things went too far for her comfort, or for any parents’ for that matter. Apparently there was some tiff going on between the bus drivers and the school management. The drivers refused to drive. It was a stalemate situation. The children kept waiting around. Matters kept hanging, the school filled with listless children.

Finally Mom came looking for me. It must have been six or even seven in the evening by now. She had not received any call from the school, and repeated attempts to contact them had failed. All their phones were busy. It was the age of only landlines. No mobiles. No WhatsApp broadcasts. After waiting several hours for the school bus to arrive with her daughter, after having been visited by all the distressing thoughts she could have been visited by, finally the only option was to catch a taxi and come to the school in person.

Fortunately she found me sitting on the curb in the school premises, not too distraught. Clearly she could not have sent her daughter to this place again.

So half-way enlightened through Class 1, I was school-less. Thus began a new spate of visits to school principals of every girls school in the city, my mother dragging me behind her, entreating each principal in as cordial a manner as she could, and the harrowed and over-worked principal shooing her away, sometimes even insulting her.

I do not remember my childhood vividly, but as snapshots. The remaining impressions of childhood have been reconstructed in my mind by the free conversations and sharing-as-friends that happen with my mother now. That scene is from my own childhood recollections — knee-high-to-a-grasshopper, I could see only their saarees as they stood talking, and the cutting tone of a principal’s voice shooing my mother away, that I distinctly remember.

My father’s friend told us about a school in Park Street that we did not know of. Mom thought, “Fine, let’s try this one too,” and so we went. It was a breeze. I got admission. The principal and my mom decided that I might as well start attending classes right away, so I did. Was it after fifteen minute, or two hours, I don’t know – the next thing I remember, my mother suddenly pulled me out of the class angrily and took me back home.

Turns out, as mom now tells me, she had decided to wait in the school itself and take me back home. While she was waiting, she suddenly saw two teachers fighting bitterly, flinging insults at each other. She got up immediately, walked into my classroom, and pulled me out of the place – for she would not have her daughter study in a place where the teachers behaved with each other in this manner.

It hardly mattered to me, whether I sat in the class or not, whether I went to any school or not. I didn’t know I was missing out on being educated. I was not tormented. I was perfectly at peace. The torment, mental and physical, was my mother’s alone. Despite the challenges, her standards did not flag. She knew well enough what kind of an environment she wished me to be in.

Finally my mother decided to enlist her partner into the project. “She is your daughter too. This time you take her,” Mom said to Dad one day. A small advertisement had come in the personal column of the newspaper that La Martiniere for Girls is conducting exams for a few vacancies in Class 2. So there we were, standing in yet another school corridor – only, this time it was my Dad and me. It is another distinct childhood snapshot – standing beside his legs, I look up and see his belly. His face, like the apex of a tree seen from the roots, is further up, and I am wondering, “Does he even know what is to be done in a school?” As far as I could see, my father had no experience in such matters.

I sat in a room with many other girls, answering simple questions on cyclostyled sheets with pictures beside them. I got admission. That was the beginning of a wonderful ten years of primary school education that has played a crucial role in making me what I am today. My mother continued to be with me every step of the way – not interfering much with my studies, but keeping herself informed about each exam, attending each parent-teacher’s meeting, and, best of all, learning all the teenage girls’ slang and speaking our lingo. My friends would say, “Your mother is so cool!”

She sure is.

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