By Lina Krishnan
At my school, on the 30th of January, at ten minutes to eleven, a bell would ring once, like a Buddhist gong. It was a reminder to keep silence; for this was the hour and the moment when Mahatma Gandhi was gunned down. It was a time to reflect on his message and his life.
While these few minutes of silence might be common practice across India in those days, our school also had more permanent reminders of Gandhiji; there was a sculpted bust of his with a sign that said: Bapu walked here.
As young children, we had the mistaken impression that he had walked from here, and not from Birla House, to his last prayer meeting where the assassin met him; later we realised that was not so; he had merely visited earlier. Perhaps from the Harijan Basti* next door, where older students from our school went to take non-formal classes with the children of the community.
We too were sent, when a little older, to continue this form of teaching. To be frank, we did not feel much like teaching, nor did the children there like studying with newbies like us. At the time, envy was the only emotion we felt at their lack of educational fetters, a sort of Tom Sawyer meets the free-spirited Huckleberry Finn scenario. We would have to return to our classes, strict teachers and tons of homework, while those fortunate beings could fly kites and run about. After a few visits when they relaxed with us, it dissolved into fun and games and that was better than our amateur attempts to teach them.
It was years before I realised that we were the students there, learning life lessons about a world beyond the trappings of our public school life and middle class existence. In this, his birthday month, I would like to think of an old man, schooled in British law courts, yet spending a life outside, fighting both the Empire and injustice on many levels. He was probably nudging us in a puckish way, to walk in his footsteps, towards the not so privileged and to discover the symbiotic web of life in the human ecosystem.
*Harijan Basti: A low caste colony
Lina Krishnan is a poet, abstract artist and photographer in Pondicherry. She has a chapbook of nature verse, Small Places, Open Spaces, with Australian poet valli poole.
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