It's my favourite story from the Sainik School Tilaiya days. It was around 2 am on a cold December night in 1989. The asbestos roof on our dormitory building added to the chill. I was awakened from my sleep by a loud call from behind the white bed-sheet curtains that our seniors hanged to mark their spaces as well as assert their seniority, "Re satvaan class, koi hai re?" 'Satvaan class' was the code for Class VII students, the Sainik School Tilaiya equivalent of bonded labour for their seniors. Class VI students, the junior-most kids in the Tilaiyan hierarchy, were put in a separate dormitory to undergo a year of initiation to the Sainik School way of life.
As everyone in Class VII had by then understood, such loud calls were supposed to be ignored during that part of the night. After all, a collective thrashing in the morning was a small price to pay for a good night sleep! However, I could not ignore that call. It was well too loud. After a second "re satvaan class", I remove the quilt, put my sweater on and walked towards the white bed-sheet curtain.
"May I come in, Sir?" Seniors were Sir for us.
"Aa re." It was amazing how we were never offended by the 're'.
I walked in and saw my senior huddled on his wooden chair, a quilt wrapping his entire body. He was still shivering, and so was I. I saw a table lamp illuminating a couple of books on his desk. I moved closer.
"Haan, ye pen utha to." (Please pick this pen) He points to a pen on the floor.
I pick the pen. He takes his hand out of the quilt and takes it from me.
"Ja, so ja." (Go and sleep now)
What? That's it?
Yes, that's it. That dear senior of mine at Sainik School Tilaiya had the right to wake me up from deep sleep at two in the morning, only to get his pen picked up from the floor.
Now that the word, or rather a video of a bunch of kids being brutally beaten up by another bunch of kids, is finally out, I am suddenly pushed to a schizophrenic range of memories from the glorious eight years I spent at Tilaiya.
Sainik School Tilaiya (now in Jharkhand), established in 1963, is a part of a chain of Sainik Schools run by the Ministry of Defence across India. Since Bihar didn't have many schools to boast of in those days (and still doesn't), parents would do anything to get their children admitted there, even to the extent of ignoring the overarching objective of the school: to train youngsters for the Indian Army. Bihar is a state known for its IAS fixation, and sending children to Army is definitely not a social ambition. I guess they already knew what was no more a secret at more than a dozen Saink Schools all over India: not many kids from those schools made it to the Army.
Nevertheless, since the school was still supposed to try, the culture encouraged at the campus was like the one at an Army regiment. Seniors enjoyed absolute impunity in treating their juniors the way they liked to. The PT instructors - ex-Army men themselves - would reserve the choicest punishments and expletives for the children. The school authorities - all senior Army officers - knew it all, and hardly ever reprimanded those seniors or the PT instructors, and even encouraged the practice if they saw 'discipline' being compromised on the campus. Any Foucaultian would have a field day studying the Sainik School phenomenon.
So you had an environment where children as young as 12 and 13 were supposed to polish their seniors' shoes, get them water, take their laundry to the washerman, buy samosas and jalebis for them from the only mithaiwala on campus (and you got one or two in return for the services rendered) - and if you fail or disappoint or delay, be thrashed by their seniors. The children even remembered some of their seniors for their legendary ways of punishment, and dreamt of doing the same to their juniors someday.
Well, I guess it's time to tell you something I haven't so far. I had a place to hide. One of the senior teachers at Tilaiya happened to be my mother's uncle and one of the most feared on the campus. Every time I faced a senior and he asked where I had disappeared when I was actually supposed to be around him for his service, I would take my grandfather's name. He would freeze. No further questions asked.
Which reminds me of another story. It was the Holi of 1992. The tradition at Sainik School Tilaiya goes like this: the juniors, taking advantage of the 'bura na mano Holi hai' spirit, make sure they corner their worst abusers of the year and in the name of playing Holi, give it back to them. Of course, those bravehearts' faces should be painted enough to escape easy recognition.
The night before Holi is Holika Dahan and is marked by cultural presentations. I had written a poem for that night, lampooning our abusive seniors. Skeptical of the consequences, I had already shown that poem to a school captain and taken due approval. Yet, I had no idea my recitation of the poem that night would set the agenda for the morning that followed. My batchmates took it all on the seniors who clearly had not expected such an onslaught.
After almost two hours of 'Holi war', it was time for the best lunch of the year, which, despite the month of Ramadan, I couldn't afford to miss. As I was savouring the special pulao, paapad and pua at our mess, a loud banging of spoon on the table silenced us all. One of the seniors announced: "All Class IXth students to fall in outside the mess after lunch."
It was a familiar announcement for the Tilaiyans. It simply meant that a long, vicious and violent punishment awaited the 100-plus students of Class IX who had, only a few hours ago, painted their faces and dared the seniors to their kind of Holi. I didn't care much about the lunch and immediately sneaked out of the mess. As I said earlier, I had a place to hide.
My grandfather's house was not far from the mess. I was safe there, but I could hear it all - the mixed cacophony of painful shrieks and loud abuses. The campus was stunned, except for the sound of 100-plus bodies collectively subjected to brutal Army-style punishment. I later came to know how one of my batchmates had fainted, only to be promptly brought to senses by the seniors for further beating. I later came to see the swollen faces and bruised bodies as I entered the dormitory that night, scared; my heart pounding with the thoughts of the possible consequences of my disappearance.
Of course, as soon as I had settled on my bed, a 'satvaan class' came to tell me I was wanted by the seniors. I entered a room full of them, fuming and almost ready to pounce on me. But they didn't, or rather, couldn't - and you know why.
My batchmates, however, still remember that day simply as the Holi of 1992.
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