I cannot believe that it has been nearly a decade and a half since I bid adieu to the hallowed portals of my alma mater. It still feels like yesterday that I came back home in my all white (ok Ma – sorry - nearly white) uniform taking the 3:20pm Metro from Maidan station. Last week, I had to go to work on a Tata Capital premises neighbouring St. Xavier’s Collegiate School premises – more specifically the primary division on Wood Street or Small School as we Xaverians know it. As I was entering office, it was time for the small break I think (around 11:15 in the morning) and I could hear a young turk shout out – “Ya sonny, ball please…”
I couldn’t stop myself from peeping into the school from my 1st floor office during the lunch break. The young boys in grey shorts reminded me of the spring of 1988 when I, clad in similar grey shorts walked in nervously into class 2D. All the nervousness melted away miraculously when the kind Mrs. Eva D’Souza took me under her wing and helped me settle down in unfamiliar surroundings. Today, the same surroundings are my second home – one of few constants in my ever changing life. Mrs. D’Souza perhaps epitomized the Small School ethos – she was motherly, kind and firm when it was needed. I still remember the many afternoons spent in class with her reading the vast collection of books she had in her cupboard – she got me hooked to reading and introduced me to the wonderful worlds of Tintin and Asterix. I wonder if the young ones in small school today have similar experiences. I also cannot forget dear old Father Sassel who was full of love for all students.
The Small School canteen was unpretentious and uncomplicated with the favourite in those days being Jhaal Chips sold for a princely 50 paise! It was basically a counter at the far end of the gym, manned by a couple of guys whom we called out to as “oi Canteen!” The term “gym” was a misnomer of sorts because it was basically a paved area where we played hand cricket using the pillars for stumps – I see the legacy continues till date – my father and his brothers have also played the game in their time here! During lunch break and after school, there was chacha selling orange lollies from his Kwality cart.
At 2:45 in the afternoon, school got over and you would know this from a mile away with the collective exuberance of the students rushing out the classes either to “book” their part of the field or to “book” their seat on the school busses waiting. The field those days was barren and brown unlike the lush green today. The buses were run by the portly Mr. Verma, if I remember correctly.The interim period, waiting for the buses to leave (that’s because the senior section on Park Street across the road or Big School got over only at 3 pm), was a very busy time for there was so much to do and so little time – buy chaat from the chaatwala (chaat can be best described as deliciously tangy and spicy Indian salad made of chickpeas, tomatoes, onions and potatoes tempered in a tamarind sauce and garnished with finely chopped chillies, coriander leaves and ginger – sounds exotic isn’t it? It was yummy and still is – tried it out last week - and it still is available for under five bucks!), hojmi (digestives) from the hojmiwala (who can forget the kaala and lal noon/namak and cool? The hojmiwala is sadly no more and so is his stall - this current lot will miss an important life experience), phuchkas from the phuchkawala (the most volatile vendor of the lot), bhelpuri or muri from the muriwala, dosa from Delites (if you could afford it!) or stickers (“Stone stickers” and those of WWF superstars were the rage, back in the day) from the stickerwala.
Once the business for the day was done, it was time to go home. The best way to travel was in Mr. Varma’s rickety jalopies that we called school buses… it was perhaps the best part of school for some (translation: the bullies) and not so good for some (translation: the bullied). Each bus had its own pecking order – the last seats were for the Big School dadas in white trousers and the more junior your class, the farther up front you sat. The rubber band - paper pellet fights on some buses were legendary. So was the inter-bus rivalry. Of course all this only happened once the teachers who also travelled on these buses got off – and then it was every boy for himself, unless you had an elder brother in Big School!
At 3 pm, in front of the chaatwala’s stall, it was surreal but nice to travel back in time…