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 fourth in our series Back to School.
We bring you stories from Rupa Gulab and Devika Rangachari.
Rupa Gulab: Begging Karma to Bite My Bottom
My heart still sinks to my sweaty socks when I get a cheery message from publishers that says, ‘School visit next week. Can do?’
‘No can do!’ I would shriek once upon a time and startle colicky pigeons in my balcony (their favourite public restroom). Most publishers sighed deeply and gave up. A few persisted with never-ending ‘whys’.
Why? Well, here’s why: My blood rushes to my head when I’m dragged to a stage, I feel dizzy and when I open my mouth to speak, unintelligible noises emerge like ga-ga-ba-ba-goo-goo. You really think I want to look like an idiot in public? My teachers were astute enough to ignore me when they selected participants for inter-class elocution contests. I used to watch my best friend on the stage stridently spout a poem about an old donkey called Nicholas Nye every year (yes,that was the only poem she could remember) and feel terribly envious. Then I’d imagine myself on the stage, shudder, curl up into a ball and want to die.
The other reason is because, as a former proud back-bencher, school visits are like begging karma to bite my bottom. Hard. I clearly remember what my fellow back-benchers and I did when we had visiting lecturers at school. Of course we’d be delighted that a dull chemistry class would be replaced by a book reading or a spiel on Jesus. Not that we paid any attention to the book reading or the spiel on Jesus. As far as we were concerned, this was a free period and we treated it like one. If teachers hissed at us to shut up, we’d get terribly affronted and the visiting lecturer would be the subject of our ire. Often, if we were annoyed enough, we drew them naked.
I so don’t want to be drawn naked. Not even if the artist is an avatar of Peter Paul Rubens. So yeah, I don’t like school visits. I reluctantly do them nowadays only because my publishers are very scary people and they’d probably draw me naked too if I refused to go.
Of Divinity and Plants: Devika Rangachari
I drive up to the school gates in a cloud of dust. This is because the taxi driver is somewhat theatrical and likes to do things with a flourish.
I blink the grit from my eyes and then approach the guards. I am immediately embroiled in an argument. To them, I am someone with a nefarious purpose; I will be up to no good the minute they let me in, so they can’t let me in. However, I eventually win the battle and rush in before they change their minds and haul me back.
I am taken to the principal’s room but am clearly not worthy of entering the hallowed premises.
‘Wait here,’ the escort teacher tells me, waving to a long bench by the door. ‘The principal is very busy.’ Her tone is accusatory. The underlying message is clear: it is people like me who commit the unforgivable crime of wasting others’ time. Therefore, it is fitting that I sit on a bench meant for offenders; I am sharing it with a small boy who wears a mutinous expression, and is waiting to be hauled in and punished.
As time wears on and there is no sign of anyone, I begin to feel as guilty as him and we squirm in unison. I am wondering whether to make a hasty exit and am mentally measuring the distance to the gate when the Hallowed One is suddenly before me.
‘What is your opinion of Janamashtami?’ she asks, sternly.
I rise to my feet and gape at her. ‘I … well …’ I begin when she cuts me short and hails a distant teacher.
‘What is your opinion of Janamashtami?” she bellows across the corridor.
The beleaguered teacher stammers in confusion. ‘It … it is important. It should …’
The Hallowed One raises a hand majestically, and then turns and walks off. As I have no further instructions, I decide to follow her. We proceed down a series of corridors until she hands me over to a teacher and vanishes.
‘You will be interacting with Class VII,’ the teacher says.
We turn the corner and come upon an open space—a sort of courtyard that connects the corridors and faces a block of classrooms. It is noisy and the decibel levels rise as the rows of students sitting in the middle of the courtyard see me. This is where I am to have my session.
‘Oh, this is Class VIII!’ the teacher exclaims. She does not seem too bothered, though, to figure out where the original class has been spirited away
I wait for ages while the teachers try and restore order. Their shrieks combine with the chatter of those who are traversing the corridors and generally lounging in the courtyard, and these combine with dull roars and thumps emanating from the classrooms around.
‘Start!’ A teacher suddenly presses a mic into my hands.
I start to speak when I see a couple of hundred children making their way towards us.
‘Don’t start until everyone’s here,’ the teacher admonishes me.
The unfairness of this takes my breath away. I am struggling to think of a suitable retort when I realise there are even more children coming from another direction.
‘I didn’t want more than 150 students,’ I begin firmly. ‘There are over 500 here. I…’
She cuts me short. ‘Please wait till everyone is seated. No one can hear you.’
Then she turns to the children. ‘See, this is an author,’ she announces with the air of one embarking on a scientific experiment.
All eyes are on me, most of them coldly appraising. So this is an author, I can hear them think. Short and thin with wild hair. They are clearly not impressed.
Every beginning has an end. Clinging to this thought, I start the session, counting the moments until my deliverance. I talk for a while about books and reading, and am asked questions about books and reading.
A teacher suddenly raises her hand. ‘Will you please talk to them about books and reading?’ she asks plaintively. ‘This is why they are here, after all.’
I stare at her, mystified, when a hush suddenly descends on the crowd. Everyone is looking at a point behind me, so I turn. I can’t see anything or anyone, so I turn back. The silence continues, so I look behind me again—just in time to see the Hallowed One peeping out from behind a pillar. This is, perhaps, her idea of fun.
‘Continue,’ she says grandly, waving a hand in my direction. She has now emerged fully from hiding.
I turn to my audience and continue for a couple of minutes when a hand falls on my arm. It belongs to one of the teachers.
‘Principal Ma’am wants to give you a plant,’ she says in tones of mingled reverence and envy.
I am about to be irrevocably blessed. Oh, joy! A gift from the Hallowed One, no less!
So we stop, mid-flow, and the plant-presentation happens.
‘Now please wrap up everything in five minutes,’ the teacher hisses at me. ‘These are very busy children!’
The minute I stop, the Hallowed One approaches the group of teachers. ‘What is your opinion of Janamashtami?’ she asks them.
I race out of the school, clutching the plant, past the bemused guards and into the safety of my car.