A couple of days ago I finished reading The Skinning Tree by Srikumar Sen, a very evocative account of life at a boys’ boarding school in pre-independence India. Before I tell you more about it, here is an excerpt from the book, where a very young Sabby is being sent away from Calcutta to boarding school in distant Gaddi during the Second World War, for fear of a Japanese invasion.
“The closing of the windows had the effect of weakening his link with home. There was nothing to see outside now but the odd lantern burning in a hut somewhere in the distance and the light from the carriages running along the rails of other tracks and his reflection in the window. He was going goodness knows where and he could not banish the feeling of being alone. He tried to keep on seeing himself in Cal. Sabby didn’t know what exactly his fears were but there seemed to be a lot of them crowding in on him. The world outside was coming right up close in that square and dimly lit compartment. He could not banish thoughts of loneliness from his mind as he could in Cal, make all the dirt and trash and disease, the misery of the city and the crowds he did not want to have in his world disappear. He could not even think of running away to England where he would be among his friends.”
“England” is not a geographic/political entity here. It is an imaginary place in Sabby’s Cal, whose boundaries are the gates and the walls of his grandmother’s property. So, when he goes out on his own with his much wiser friend Henry Douxsaint and gets lost in the crowds on the road, he is petrified. You remember what it is like to be among strangers, cold eyes, unfamiliar bodies threatening to sweep you away. Sabby is terrified of being taken to a basti nearby and being forced to beg. The few seconds that he is separated from Henry for before they find each other again must have felt like a lifetime.
Srikumar Sen brings the fears and the disappointments of childhood to life very vividly. The bullies make Sabby want to cry; the Brothers in their white habits can whip out the strap any time. He hopes that the Easter vacation will make things easier, but then something unforeseen happens. You know what it’s like when vacation plans are thwarted by unexpected circumstances: how do you make a little boy understand when his only concern is to have a good time and the rest of the world doesn’t matter?
The boys at Gaddi can be generous with one another, but they can also be cruel. They talk of murder and killing freely. They don’t feel for people who they think can get them into trouble. Sabby feels soothed by chapel and hymns and the picture cards of Jesus he is given when he is troubled, but has his peace disturbed by the constant fear of punishment he lives with – what if his shoes aren’t cleaned well enough or his counterpane hasn’t been folded correctly? It is a strange world, one I can’t comprehend either. Who should be held responsible, then, for what happens at the end?
For a few days as I read the book, all the dormant fears of childhood came back to life, and they mostly seemed to revolve around school. I haven’t ever seen a strap or a malacca, but I remember the wooden and steel scales that some teachers brandished, the mortification that accompanied even a minor deviation from expectations in terms of marks and ranks. You’d see classmates upbraided in public and feel helpless about it. A slip from your usual level? Why, you must have neglected your studies. You don’t forget your tiffin box at home, why do you forget to do your homework? Why do you need a fancy pen when you can’t do your sums correctly? You can’t protest about too much homework, because you don’t know what is good for you. When you are an adolescent and things get tougher, when you are trying to make sense of certain mysteries, you should know that you are being immoral. Don’t snigger when you are studying about reproductive systems: if you do, it means you have evil thoughts running through your head. (It didn’t matter that we were thirteen and uncomfortable with the changes in our bodies. We couldn’t talk about them. In a co-ed school, it led to some very awkward situations.)
We grow up with fear. Its nature changes as we grow older and gain more control over some situations, but it never seems to go away. I still wake up in the middle of the night, troubled by dreams of having forgotten most of the answers in an important exam. I remember the collective chill that always descended on classrooms when teachers brought along corrected answer sheets- a silence worthy of an operation theatre. But this constant fear might have prepared me for the present, for more grown-up challenges. When I’m slightly apprehensive about something, I think of the pre-engineering years and everything is all right again. I’ll also think of Sabby now, and be glad that I wasn’t sent away to an unfriendly place in anticipation of a war I didn’t understand.