Our primary school consisted of 20 odd students, both boys and girls, but mostly boys, ranging in age from 5 to 10, and one teacher. The school had no building. We just sat under a thatched canopy resting on wooden poles, covering an area of a large bedroom. The floor was raised three or four steps above the ground, plastered with mud, and carpeted with a layer of dry pine needles (actually they are leaves but called needles because of their narrow and long needle-like shape). We sat on the “carpet” cross-legged or however we could make ourselves comfortable. This was in a remote mountainous village in the Frontier province of Pakistan.
There was no blackboard. We wrote on takhtees (about 12″ x 18″ wooden tablets). To make the surface ‘writeable’, we washed the takhtee with a special clay, which, when dried, would produce a whitish, smooth surface. We drew 4 or 5 straight, horizontal lines on it with pencil and then wrote on it. The teacher wrote the lesson of the day on the topmost line and we would copy it on the lines below, on both sides of the takhtee. Washing off the schoolwork from the takhtee at the end of the day and coating it with a fresh layer of clay for the next day was a chore that had to be performed every evening or early morning.
For pens we used reeds with one end cut and shaped into a nib. We carried the ink in a tiny, open-mouthed, clay inkpot. To prevent spilling, we put a piece of cotton cloth into the inkpot, which would absorb all the ink and sit like a saturated sponge in the inkpot. We dipped the reed pen into the wet sponge and wrote on the takhtee. When the sponge became too dry we refreshed it by pouring a few drops of water into the inkpot.
We did our sums on wooden framed slates. We wrote on them with pencils made out of soapstone, called slaitee. Come to think of it, preparing and maintaining a takhtee, a reed pen and inkpot in usable condition was a lot of work for a 5- or 6-year old. Of course, mothers helped, but it was the child who was ultimately answerable to the teacher. And, the teacher was no Santa Claus.
Our teacher was a wiry old man. Actually, calculating backwards, I now estimate he couldn’t have been older than 40, but he looked pretty old to us then. He always carried a plain cotton shawl on his shoulder, a common part of men’s attire in the rural areas of Pakistan, particularly in the North. Other than wrapping it around the body, the shawl can be put to many different uses. Our teacher would use it also as a cushion for the wooden chair he sat on. His chair was the only piece of furniture in the school.
Other than his cotton shawl, the teacher also carried a stick. It was about 3 feet long, made out of a thin, green, flexible twig, freshly cut off a tree. It was more of a lash than a stick. He would use it to discipline an errant student, whenever the need arose. And the need arose quite frequently. When struck, the “lash” would send a sharp, stinging sensation throughout the body of the victim. The burning sensation would stay in the body for a long time, and was more intense when the weather was cold. We knew it from experience.
Another implement that our teacher always carried on him was a penknife. This was primarily for a benevolent purpose – to mend or shape our reed pens. Mending the pens was part of the teacher’s job description. But, he would also use the knife to work on his stick. He would continually scrape the stick with his knife and try to shape it into an efficient “weapon of instruction.” In free moments, he would be seen lovingly working on the stick like a sculptor works on his creation with his chisel.
By midday, we were finished with reading, writing and sums, and would start memorizing tables. This was the fun part because it also signaled the end of the school day. We would recite tables loudly in a singsong fashion. Aik duna duna, dau dunay chaar â€¦ By that time the teacher would mentally disengage from the class and simply watch us recite tables at our own pace and rhythm – and volume. The rhythm of our collective chanting would occasionally send the teacher dozing the way a customer sometimes dozes off in a barber’s chair. But he would look up instantly if he discerned a discordant note in our recital.
The school hours lasted, approximately, from morning until midday. I say approximately because no one had a watch either at home or at school. We followed the daylight hours. When the sun was up, and we had had our breakfast, we would stream into the schoolhouse one by one. When everyone – or almost everyone – was in, the school would start without much ado.
Sometime around midday, when the sun would cast a shadow at a particular spot, marked by a large black stone, the school would be over. Since the black stone was at the back of the class, we would frequently turn our heads to see if the shadow had reached it. We looked back more frequently as the day progressed and we became bored and hungry. When the shadow did reach the stone, or we thought it did, we would look up to the teacher and shout, just like cricket players appeal to the umpire in case of an LBW, “Master Ji, chhutti?“.
The ‘Master Ji’ would look towards the stone, study it carefully to see if the shadow had actually touched it or not and, if it did, he would raise his stick to announce, “chhutti!”. Like the jubilant cricket players, whose dubious appeal has obtained a favorable decision from the umpire, we would rush into each other, tumble down the three or four steps of the “schoolhouse” and run towards our homes, wildly waving our takhtees in the air.
In the rush to get out of the school, one day, I stumbled on the steps, fell down and cut my left shin. It was a routine cut, which, with proper first aid and antiseptic treatment, would have healed in a few days. But since the nearest dispensary was 7 miles away, the only recourse I had was “alternative medicine”. The wound got infected and took much longer to heal, and left a permanent scar, which shows to this day not only on my shin but also on my Computerized National Identification Card as a mark of identification.
Some good old days!
Note: This article was published in The News on July 31, 2008.
Photos: The larger title photo is from Trekearth.com. All other photos are by the author himself.