This week's edition to our Olympia Extracts is a fascinating autobiography called, Boyhood in the Valley By Nanjappa Parameshwaran 



To School in the Rain



The Gudalur valley in the beautiful district of the Nilgiris in western Tamil Nadu is in the Western Ghats. After Cheerapunji in the Himalayas the rainfall in this region during the south west monsoon was claimed to be the heaviest in India. Though the claim can be disputed, there is no disputing the fact that the rains did make it one of the wettest places in the country.

It was the children of the region who bore the brunt of the heavy monsoon rains, as going to school in the rain, for the three to four months that the monsoon lasted, meant a day to day struggle for them. The government elementary school, which taught classes from one to five, was in the upper reaches of the valley, nearly a two kilometer trek for the children; even longer for those who came from the tribal settlements in the midst of the forest beyond the little town. The school was almost at the foot of a huge mountain called the Kokal Mountain, the most prominent in the range in the Western Ghats which towered over the town, its eternal sentinel. Another half a kilometer or so, from the school, and you would be actually climbing the mountain.



The monsoon always kept its date with the children in the valley on the school reopening day. It was the reopening day and it was, of course, raining, and raining hard.

It was a small forest of umbrellas moving up the road, and the children under them, with their bags and lunch boxes, were having a tough time making their way towards school in the pouring rain and the howling wind.

Each umbrella was shared by two or three, mostly of the same family. The umbrella was not much of a protection against the lashing rain though, and they invariably got wet from the shoulders downward. Their feet were washed in the muddy rainwater that flowed ankle deep on the road, concealing the pot holes. They had to be wary lest they step into one and sprain their ankles.

Now and then a gust of wind would pluck an umbrella from their hands and fling it away along with the leaves shaken off the big trees lining the road. The umbrella would go careening down the road and one of the children, the oldest of the group, would go running after it while the other children sought shelter under other umbrellas. Or, if the child fought and held on to the umbrella gamely, the spiteful wind turned it inside out. That would be another crisis, as Istook few minutes to set the umbrella right by a sympathetic passerby and that was time enough for the hapless children to get drenched.



Under one of those umbrellas was Kumaran, aged eight and recently promoted to class three. He was dark complexioned and plumb. He had his cloth school bag slung across his shoulder. There was a slate with a wooden frame and an old notebook in his bag.

Kumaran was now used to the rains and the school. But two years previously, when he had had to go to school for the first time, it had been traumatic. Going to school meant that he had to leave the company of his mother, and the comforts, freedom, security and joys of the home. It meant that he had to put on neat clothes, comb his hair and go away from home to an unknown place in the howling wind and rain. No amount of screaming and kicking on his part would stop that from happening. What was most cruel was that even his mother would not come to his rescue but would stand by and watch him being dragged away! His happy world had just disintegrated.

But now, two years on, he could smile sympathetically at the wailing children who protested against being taken to school and, if they were from his own neighborhood, even try to cheer them up by saying, ‘It is okay baby, it is okay. It is going to be fun, you will enjoy it...’

Going to school along with him were some of his neighbors and classmates. It was a large group of more than half a dozen boys.

“Kumara, I got the new textbooks, my father brought them from Ooty yesterday,” said Venkat proudly. His father was a bus driver and he made a daily trip to the district capital which was some fifty kilometers from their town. His house was the fourth up the road from Kumaran's.



There were no regular bookstores in the town. The few grocery shops that the village had sold notebooks and other stationeries but not textbooks. One had to get them from Ooty.

“Have you got all of them?” asked Kumaran.

“Well, almost. Only the math's textbook has not come to the market yet. I got Tamil, Science and Social,” answered the boy proudly. English was taught only from class five onwards in those days. He would have shown them the textbooks right there on the road but for the rain.

“Can you ask your father to get us copies too? We will pay for them, of course,” said Kumaran and others joined him.

“My father will not go to Ooty tomorrow as it is an off day for him. The book stalls are far away from the Ooty bus stand, you know, and he may not like to walk to the bookshops every other day. It is very cold up there… Maybe next week I will ask him…” said Venkat, who did not want to share his advantage with his friends but who nevertheless did not want to say no either.

“I think we can do with old textbooks – didn’t the teacher say so? Don’t you know that our seniors in class IV give away the text books they used in class III for half the price? I have asked one or two of the fourth-class students for their last year’s books,” said Mohamed Ali of the paddy fields, who was always the one for thrift.



Now they came to their first customary stop on their route to the school, the local cinema house. It was a large thatched structure that stood on a rise well away from the road and its hoarding stood close by, the poster on it peeling away in the rain. Rain or shine the children would not - could not - pass by the cinema and the hoarding without stopping there for a few minutes. Resting the umbrellas on their shoulders and twirling them they would talk about the film then showing.

“This film has been showing for nearly a week. When are they going to change it?”

“No idea. But I wish they would change it soon. This is a weepy one—”

“I wish they would get an MGR film... How nice it would be if they screened Nadodi Mannan next. I hear it is a color film.”

“Not the whole film. Only parts of the film are in color. And you may be sure it won't come to this talkies any time now. Maybe for Deepavali, and that is still four or five months away—”

A tall man dressed in a white shirt and dhoti which was folded up above the knee came striding up the road, a leather bag in one hand and a big umbrella in the other. One of the boys saw him and was immediately overcome with awe. He whispered urgently to the others,

“Hey, the headmaster… the headmaster…”

An instant silence fell on the group. They moved aside and bowed their heads stealing side long glances at the tall passing figure.

“Did he see us?” someone asked in consternation after the headmaster was out of earshot.

“I don't think he saw us because we were covered by our umbrellas,” offered another.

“Don't you bet on that. He would recognize us, however covered we were…”A third one expressed his fear.

“What time is it? Are we late?” came another anxious query.

Nobody had a wristwatch. However, Ali assured them.

“The 9.30 bus to Ooty has not left yet. It was still in the bus stand. I saw it as I came up. We can take it easy. We have more than half an hour. The headmaster always goes early to school.”



Nevertheless, they left the spot and started walking briskly towards the school, hoping and praying that the headmaster would not remember their standing before the cinema hoarding and wasting time. If he did, then they would be summoned to class five which was also the headmaster's office. Nobody liked to be summoned to that room. They all dreaded it and always kept well clear of it.



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