Published on 12th June, 2016, in Mid-Day.
Thirty years ago, this year, I passed from OLPS, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour (yes, I know every joke that follows) High School in Chembur – the same school as Anil Kapoor and Shankar Mahadevan. And, as I always tell people, it was here – not at home – that I have my earliest memories of Ramayana.
I remember collecting pigeon feathers to help my teacher prepare the wings of Jatayu. I remember watching Lakshmana struggle to mark three visible lines on the well-polished grey stone floor using precious white chalk, otherwise used by teachers on the blackboard. I remember laughing as Ravana picked up Sita, and hooting with others, since Sita was a boy dressed as a girl.
During these school plays, we learned about culture while overcoming stage fright and learning about rehearsals, costumes, makeup and set design. All thanks to the enthusiasm of my teachers, everyone from Ms Gulvadi, Ms Lobo, Ms Pinto, Ms Coutino, Ms Acharya, Ms John, Ms Philips, Ms Pereira, Ms Qadri, to Mr George, Mr Dubey, Ms Gersape Father Maurice, and many more (it’s been a long time and I realise memory of names does fade).
Yes, I also participated as a shepherd in the Nativity play, relieved – or was it disappointed – at not being selected to play the role of Mother Mary, who got all the attention. I never thought of any of these plays in communal, or political terms. Nobody did, to my knowledge. No one was self-consciously secular either.
Days of innocence?
Those were the days, before Babri Masjid, when banners lining the street around the school announced the victory of one Subramaniam Swamy of Janata party. Yes, the very same Subramaniam Swamy, now with BJP, currently in the Rajya Sabha, much loved by Right Wing trolls.
It was while at school that I first learned the word Hindutva. It was an elocution competition organised by a local politician. Was it the late Hashu Advani of the BJP? Not sure. All participants, from different schools, spoke about Hinduism, tolerance, unity in diversity: I remember assuming Hindutva is just a Hindi word for Hinduism. How wrong I was.
I wonder if Ramayana is still taught in my school with the same innocence and enthusiasm. I wonder if children are allowed to play the role of Ram and Ravana, Sita and Surpanakha, without having to deal with politics of gender, religion, caste or race. Do the corruption, cynicism and rage of elders eventually seep into stories we tell our children? Do we now edit stories to make them more politically correct? Is there now a censor board monitoring school plays too?
A friend told me how while telling the story of Karna to her nephew, she hesitated when narrating the episode where Kunti abandons her son. So, she came up with a creative twist: that the basket with the baby got ‘accidentally’ adrift while the mother was washing clothes. The nephew reacted sharply. “Why are you lying, auntie?” before adding, “I know she let her baby go as she was not married.” Did her nephew understand the implications of what he was saying? Or is a story just a story, before grown-ups transform it into something else?