One of the occupational hazards of writing for children is the period need to visit schools for interactive sessions. While these can often be inspiring and fulfilling, there are also occasions when they are not. This is the second in our series Back to School.
We bring you some stories from Devika Rangachari and Natasha Sharma.
Of Coffee and Kids: Devika Rangachari
One of my strangest experiences is at a school on the outskirts of Delhi, named after the gated community on whose premises it is located. Getting to it is a nightmare, a combination of my abysmal sense of direction and the taxi driver’s ego that does not permit him to ask for help. Consequently, we wander round and round in random circles until, quite fortuitously, we stumble upon the correct gate. Although called after a pleasant force of nature, this community seems determined to contradict its name and dour denizens line the labyrinthine streets that lead to the school. We brave their scowling faces and make it safely to the school gate.
Once in, the receptionist refuses to acknowledge that I have a pre-arranged session with the students of Class VII.
‘The librarian is in the hospital,’ she tells me accusingly, just as if I have helped to put her there.
No amount of arguing and glaring and appointment-checking can budge her from her stance.
Eventually, a random teacher strides up and asks what the problem is. She then offers a truly brilliant solution. ‘We have eight sections in Class VII,’ she says. ‘So we’ll take you to each of them and you can conduct your sessions.’
More arguing and glaring—to no avail.
‘I will not conduct eight sessions in your school,’ I declare firmly.
And yet more arguing and glaring!
It takes us ages to hammer out a compromise formula. Fifty ‘select’ students will sit in on the session. ‘And you will have to settle for that,’ she snarls. ‘We can’t give you any more.
I begin to tell her that I don’t want any more but then subside into silence. This is a losing battle.
‘Will you have coffee?’ the receptionist chips in.
I turn to her gratefully. ‘I don’t drink coffee. Could I have some tea instead?’
‘Sure,’ she says and, a minute later, hands me a mug brimming with milky coffee.
It is too late to wonder whether this is sheer cussedness/ nastiness/ stupidity on her part because I am being ushered away by a third person who calls herself the librarian.
‘But aren’t you supposed to be in hospital?’ I ask, mystified.
‘Not now,’ she replies. (Not now? Do the librarians of this school take turns to visit the hospital?). ‘I am here,’ she adds, somewhat unnecessarily. ‘It is the other.’
I do not bother to ask what this impossibly vague statement means and trail behind her obediently. She takes me to a cavernous library and motions to a stool.
‘Sit here,’ she says sternly as if she suspects I will turn cartwheels or dance on it instead. Thereafter, she proceeds to lecture me on her problems with the school management and how it would serve them right if I didn’t do the session after all and just billed them for the transport and so on. Our thrilling talk is interrupted by the fifty ‘select’ children who solemnly file into a room off the library. The librarian treats this as a mere annoyance and swings back into her details of subterfuge while I listen, open-mouthed. Meanwhile, I furtively deposit the milky coffee on the desk behind me.
At some point, the librarian stops mid-flow and gestures irritably towards the room.
‘Do your session,’ she says, ‘but no more than 45 minutes. The children have to be somewhere after that.’
I enter the room with much trepidation but begin to enjoy myself enormously a couple of minutes later. This is the brightest, most delightful bunch I have ever interacted with. Time flies and 45 minutes later, I tell them it is time to wind up but there is an immediate uproar.
‘Just ten more minutes!’ they plead.
And ‘Ten more minutes?’ they coax, ten minutes later.
I peep into the main library and the Disgruntled One has vanished. ‘But you have to be “somewhere”,’ I tell the kids.
‘We don’t have to be anywhere,’ they assure me. ‘This is a free period. So please go on?’
We continue for fifteen minutes and then another twenty. There is no sign of any teacher all this while. I could have easily kidnapped the lot, jumped out of the window, bundled them into my car (would have had to convert it into a stretch limo but still…) and driven them away for some dark, sinister purpose.
An hour later, I give up. ‘You have to go!’ I say sternly. ‘Someone will be looking for you.’
‘No one is,’ they chorus. I pretend not to hear and hustle them into a line.
‘Do you know how to get back to your classroom?’ I ask anxiously.
‘Do you know how to get back to the main gate?’ they retort.
I don’t, so I enlist the services of the nearest boy to escort me. On the way down, he says he’s had the most fun ever and could I come every day to chat with them? There is still no sign of any teacher or any adult figure to question what these kids are doing roaming around the corridors cheerfully.
I pass the receptionist once again who stares at me blankly with no sign of recognition. And then, something stirs in her eyes. I see ‘coffee’ written all over her face and beat a hasty retreat to my car.
Devika Rangachari is the author of many award-winning novels. Her book for Duckbill is Queen of Ice.
Amritsar: Natasha Sharma
Interactive sessions, while a load of fun, can be notoriously difficult to rein in and keep on track. Here was one such:
Me: “My book, Bonkers was inspired by my childhood growing up in Amritsar in a…”
Suddenly, fifty hands shoot up in the audience. I can’t believe this connect I’ve made with the kids with one sentence. It’s almost too good to be true. I point to a child who is frantically waving his hand.
Kid 1: “I’ve been to Amritsar.”
Me: “That’s wonderful! Like I was saying, Bonkers was inspired by my childhood growing up in Amritsar in a…”
Since forty-nine kids are still waving their hands in the air and are now shouting “Miss! Miss!” I make the tactical error of inviting a few more to speak before I proceed.
Kid 2: “I’ve also been to Amritsar. I ate lots of halwa there.”
Kid 3: “I’ve also been to Amritsar. I didn’t eat halwa.”
Me: “That’s unfortunate!”
Kid 4: “Miss, I’ve also been to Amritsar.”
Me: “Good to know so many of you have been there. So Bonkers was inspired by…”
“Miss! Miss! Miss!” yells a desperate voice, its owner bouncing on his bottom.
I sigh and point to the child, inviting him to speak.
Kid 5: “Miss, I’ve not been to Amritsar.”
This seems to have gone on long enough.
Me: “Ok. How many kids have been to Amritsar? Raise your hands.”
A few hands go up.
Me: “And how many kids have not been to Amritsar? Raise you hands.”
A lot more go up.
Me: “Now that we have that sorted, I grew up in Amritsar…”
‘Miss Miss Miss!’ yell a few more. Since I foolishly think we are past the whole Amritsar bit, I let out a sigh and make the second tactical error: I pause for a split second.
Kid 6: “Miss, I haven’t been there but my chachu has been to Amritsar.”
I take a few deep breaths.
Kid 7 (not to be left out): “Miss, I’ve been to America. I went there in my summer holiday.”
Still breathing deeply and now processing this bit of information while trying to find a link (both begin with A?) when another voice squeaks.
Kid 8: “Miss, I went to my dadi’s house in Agra in the holidays.”
Kid 9: “Miss, my father says he doesn’t have time to go on holiday and my mama was very upset.”
That’s it then! I take a deep breath, raise my voice a notch and say:
And suddenly, just like that, there is silence. Till a voice echoes through the hall:
“Miss, did you say… forty animals?”
And just like that, it’s all back on track!
Natasha Sharma is the author of many fabulous books for kids. Her books for Duckbill include Bonkers, a hOle book, and the four books of the best-selling History-Mystery series.