First published in November 2016
Fear. It had struck again. I could fell its grip tighten on my insides. It seemed to leer at me, challenging me to standup to it, to tear at the ropes it bound me with. It was another new day at a new school, the first of many to come. My father was in the Indian Navy and due to his transferrable job, I spent the first few years of my life in my hometown. But the school out there bailed on me. It offered day schooling only up to the 5th standard and try as I might to convince my parents that I could stay in a hostel, they pulled me out of the comfort of my grandparents’ house to face the nomadic life of a defence brat ( after having shielded me from it for ten years).
And so, here I was, standing in front of a foreign building at 11 AM when school started at 9 AM. This basically meant that if all the administrative work was done by noon, I’d be sitting in a class full of strangers by 12:15 PM. The first sight that met me was that of a dilapidated building that looked like its columns would give away at the slightest tremor. I could take all of it in a single glance. My previous school was paradise as compared to this place. Isn’t it funny that you truly begin to appreciate something when it has been taken away from you? My previous school’s building was so big that people actually got lost in it. Papa muttered something about there not being a Navy Children’s School in this particular base and described this new school with a very encouraging ‘Ugh!’
As I’d predicted, all the formalities were done with by 12:15 and before I knew it, the teacher was mispronouncing my name and asking me to be seated with a girl who looked like she came to school only because the prospects at home were even less exciting. I reasoned, in vain, with myself. “Come on! It’s not that bad…at least you have a swimming pool, albeit a little murky.” I think that was when I realised that it was the central courtyard that was waterlogged because of the rains. “Breathe easy. You won’t get malaria.” When school ended, I tried interacting with a few people but they spoke only in their native language, Telugu which was as foreign to me as Greek.
A month ended in much the same way as my first class and that’s when I decided that I needed to do something about the situation. I spoke to my mother about the problem. My mother had lived in Andhra Pradesh before and thus did not find interacting with her colleagues very difficult. It was decided that I needed to learn Telugu which I would say was all Greek to me but in all honesty, it was all Telugu to me.
To find a tutor in a place where you could only find English tutors who taught in Telugu was a mammoth task and it was with great trepidation that I started learning Telugu from Ratnamma, our domestic help. Her English was as good as that of a boy of four and her knowledge of Hindi was as good as my knowledge of Telugu i.e. non-existent. So, we conversed in signs. That was a colossal disaster. I learnt 5 new words everyday, all of which made no sense to me, for although Ratnamma’s Telugu vocabulary was very good, her sign language and ability to draw were painfully like mine: limited. Those lessons had to be aborted in a week.
I now turned to my mother’s tutor – ‘Learn Telugu in 30 Days’, a book that had more grammatical errors than the examples in ‘A 1001 Examples of Incorrect Grammar Usage’. I still tried to make the best of my limited resources. Thirty days on, my knowledge of Telugu literature and grammar was woefully inadequate but I could piece together words to make sense. Those people who gawked at me in school were coming around now. They seemed to be willing to converse with me now that I could say a few words. Some of my classmates were really friendly. They’d always wanted to help me out but their poor Hindi and English had prevented them from doing so.
Things started changing. Slowly but steadily, I forged friendships that have lasted to this day. I began to be accepted by the teachers who had, till then, thought that I was a moody child. As my social interaction increased, my academic performance got better. I began to love everything about that place. The salty smell that always hung about, the way the clouds seemed to touch the hills when it rained, the way everyone there spoke to each other and took out time to help complete strangers, the way the people greeted each other in the mornings, with a smile, the way my friends and I learnt to study on our own, the way I fell in love with Mathematics. Everything I had known my life to be had changed in the past two years.
I knew that we were approaching the day when my dad would be transferred out and my life would be uprooted again. I tried my best to think about it as little as possible. But I learnt, as every defence brat has to, that change is the only constant in life. That sometimes, you have to leave behind all that you’ve ever held dear to discover a life that you may learn to hold even dearer. That sometimes you may have to leave friends behind to find that the only distance between the two of you is geographical. All these things, I learned gradually. Today, I have a motley of friends, all from diverse backgrounds and different schools of thought. Somewhere the tears I shed on the 19th of April, 2010 when I left Andhra, taught me more than the happiest moments in my comfort zone in my hometown. The first of many uprootings taught me that it was possible to resettle with stronger roots that held ground even during the strongest of storms.