My Days by R. K. Narayan


  We were a very dedicated and purposeful troop that assembled in the compound of a home called Malabari House, for training and drill under a scoutmaster. Performing at least one good turn a day was an inescapable duty for a scout. So we were given little good-turn notebooks in which to record the daily good turns made. It was hard to find any occasion for this fulfilment. I remember watching the street wistfully, hoping someone would stumble down or get run over so that I might rush to him and practise my First Aid (we were taught tourniquet-tying, and bandaging the skull, leaving the ears out). But alas, casualties were rare. I remember many a time jotting down in my notebook, “Gave a coin to a beggar,” or “Unrolled the mat for Granny to sleep on.” A scout started as a “Tenderfoot,” and then was promoted to “Second” and “First Class” and given the appropriate badge for each class. I failed to attain the First Class badge, though I coveted it. I could never light a camp (or any) fire with just one match-stick; my knowledge of knots never went beyond the reef-knot, though there were four others to be mastered; and I could never read the signs and track a buried treasure. I always went astray. With all that, when Lord B.-P. visited Madras, I was one of those (ten thousand) who presented him arms with a bamboo staff.

  After scouting, football became an addiction. We called our team “Jumping Stars,” and kicked our football at a place called the Lake. (I don’t know why; there was never a drop of water within miles of it; it is still called the Lake or the Spur Tank, though it is arid as a desert.) We were about ten—classed into goalkeeper, full-back, half-backs and centre forward—for each side, and we jealously guarded ourselves from being swamped by more; we had a captain called Jumbu. He collected four annas from each of us from time to time and financed the rest from his own funds. He wore the whitest dhoti and shirt and had the darkest face and hair; he tucked up his dhoti and always played centre forward and had an inborn sense of leadership. We all obeyed him blindly and looked to him to throw out marauders from rival teams, who would arrive earlier and try to take our ground at the Lake. Every day we met him at the corner of Subramanya Pillai Street. I could never guess where he lived, I never knew where he studied. He did not study at my school, but mentioned some unknown school in Saidapet—another world, in our view. God alone knew when he found the time to go to school and return home, as we always found him ready for the team at the street corner, wearing his whitest shirt and hugging a football inflated and ready to be played.

  Our team was formed by Jumbu and we were from different schools. As soon as we were finished with school we gathered at the street corner and marched along to the Lake playground, lightly tossing, kicking, and passing the ball over the heads of pedestrians in the street or through the wheels of carriages, from one side of the street to another. People passed along unmindful of the nuisance. We went down Vellala Street, and across Ponni Amman Street and reached the Lake. At the field we had our ground beside the railway line. We rolled up stones to mark the goalposts, divided into sides, and kicked, passed, and dodged until darkness fell. Panting and perspiring and hungry, we turned homeward, retracing our steps; we paused at the street corner again to analyse the day’s game and talk about plans for the morrow. We had problems to face sometimes, such as a challenge from a superior team, or fear of losing an evening game as the seams of the ball-cover were splitting at an awkward moment. But Jumbu handled all situations calmly. At the end of the year Jumping Stars did creditably, as out of the ten week-end matches on our records (at best our own composition, perhaps not verifiable) we had won ten—our only reward of victory being the lemons that were distributed, half per head, to quench the thirst; and even those were produced by Jumbu, we never knew how or from where.

  CHAPTER FIVE

  After the C.R.C., my uncle got me admitted to the Christian College High School, using his influence as an old student. I felt proud of my new school. I left home with a lunch pack early morning by tramcar to George Town, nearly four miles away, through crowds and traffic into the heart of the city. I had been suddenly let loose into a larger world. Purasawalkam, to which I returned in the evening, seemed a backwood. Christian College was practically the first building on the Esplanade, and beyond it was a road skirting the beach. From the college terrace one had a view of a blue sea and steamers on the skyline, and a salty air blew in all day. Our masters were well dressed, kind, and reasonable men, the students very different from the crowd I had known at the Lutheran Mission and the C.R.C. High School. Spacious corridors, a Gothic tower with a bell, a chapel, well-lit classrooms and halls, and an accessible library. At lunch-time, I carried my packet of rice and curd to a bookshop nearby and ate it behind the enormous shelves. It was one of the oldest bookshops in Madras, importing books from all parts of the world. I cannot explain why I was supposed to go there to eat my lunch, except that the proprietor was related to my uncle, who wanted to make sure that I ate my lunch in peace and privacy. After lunch, I browsed through the book-titles in the shelves until I heard the booming bell at the college tower. Some days, if there was a longer recess, 1 crossed the road, hopped over the railings, and wandered through the enormous corridors of the High Court (the same place that had received a knock from Emden years before), making myself inconspicuous so that the sergeant who prowled around crying, “Hush, silence, silence,” could have nothing against me. At the end of the day, I raced along with some of my class fellows to the Beach Station, clambered on an electric train, and got off at Egmore, the station nearest my home, saving thus the one-way tram-fare. I never bought a ticket for this journey, but on the advice of experienced friends, jumped off at Egmore and scampered through the coal-yard. I continued this practice until I bragged about it one day at home and was severely reprimanded by my uncle, who warned me that I might find myself in jail for this adventure.

  The Christian College was, however, a short-lived glory. At the end of the first term, when we had Michaelmas holidays, I was sent off to Mysore, where my father was now transferred as the headmaster of Maharaja’s Collegiate High School. (“Collegiate” meant that it had a university entrance class.) My father had no good impression of my earlier schools, was on the whole prejudiced against Madras schools, and decided to keep me in Mysore. Dr. Anderson, my headmaster at the Christian College, wrote him a personal appeal to send me back, and my uncle also pleaded with him to let me continue in a school where admission itself was an honour. But my father said, “My school is good enough. Travelling every day in a tramcar is a risk, it is not safe. . . .”

  Thus ended one phase of my life as a man of Madras; I became a Mysorean thenceforth. At first, naturally, I missed the life at Madras—the companions, the streets and the noise, and above all the snobbish glow of belonging to the Christian College. But soon I began to appreciate Mysore. It has an elevation of over two thousand feet and that makes the climate cool. Unlike Madras, where even a shirt on one’s back proves irksome, here one could dress properly—coat, cap, and footwear, which my father insisted on both as a headmaster and as a father. The hilly roads of the city, seeming to go up and down, fascinated me, and the outline of Chamundi Hill illuminated at night had an air of shimmering mystery. The sky seemed to be more colourful and intimate, and the great number of trees all along the roads made passage to the school each day a delightful experience. I enjoyed the crowd at home too. I had now two more brothers to complete our family picture. My elder sister was married and had gone away to her husband’s home at Coimbatore. My father himself seemed mellowed and ready to practise a philosophy of live and let live. His routine was the same as it had been elsewhere—school, club, and home; and he had now a much larger number of students and teachers to manage.

  Soon I realized the advantage of studying in a school where one’s father was headmaster. One got more people seeking one’s friendship. The teachers were on the whole more gentle—except one troublesome botany teacher who fretted against the headmaster as well as his son, and who would go on saying: “I don’t care if someone is the headmas
ter’s son. I’ll throw him out if he doesn’t come to class with coloured crayons.” It might be crayons one day or a slightly awry outline of a paripinnate leaf on my drawing sheet, or a blunt pencil or the snapping sound of a clip-board—anything that fifty others in our class might be guilty of. But the teacher focused his attention on me and would begin a long peroration on how he would deal with sons of headmasters. At that moment the whole class would turn in my direction and grin. But I had become less sensitive to such situations, and grinned back, which would infuriate the teacher further. He would put aside the drooping plant in his hand and say firmly, “I would not hesitate to send him out, even if he is headmaster’s son. This is no laughing matter. Beware!” his eyes rolled in anger. I don’t know how my father treated him officially—no means of verifying, as my father never discussed school matters at home. But my suspicion was that the botany teacher was no favourite of his. My father was as strict with the teachers as with the boys, and treated both alike. Voices were hushed when he passed by the Common Room. Still, a few teachers suppressed their resentment and got on with him, and were anxious that the headmaster’s son should not disgrace himself through bad performance. Hence I was often advised by one or the other of them, “If you have any doubts, come to me without hesitation.” Where was any room for doubts? Doubts arise only with at least partial understanding. If I could have had a definite notion of the measure of my ignorance, I could perhaps have specified the solutions as well. I used to feel embarrassed when such an offer was made, and I would say rather sheepishly, “Never mind, sir,” or, “It doesn’t matter, sir. . . .” Our zoology teacher was the one who persistently tried to improve my understanding; he would retort, “What do you mean, it doesn’t matter? It does matter. Don’t you want to learn and pass?”

  “I don’t want to trouble you.”

  He was a very short teacher, about four and a half feet tall. From a distance, one could easily mistake him for an overgrown baby but for his suit and turban. He sketched the anatomy of insects in so many colours that his fingers were always stained with chalk. Sometimes one side of his nose would also be streaked pink or green, and one could not help a smile while facing him, and he would smile back innocently. His initials were M.M. and we called him Millimeter. Unlike the botany teacher, this man was very cautious and never called me to account as the headmaster’s son, but he had a persistent habit of cornering me in order to clear my doubts. We had practical zoology on Saturday mornings, and we were allowed to ply our scalpels on the carcass of some creature stretched on a board. I felt no doubt proud and important, like a surgeon in the making, and the scent of carbolic lotion was for us an exclusive perfume. I went through the motions of dissection with a lot of conceit, but with no intelligence whatever. I did what my neighbour did and came out of the class when the bell rang. And now there was no use questioning me about my “doubts.” How could I tell the teacher, after he had lectured to us a whole morning, that I existed under a whole cloud of unknowing? My trouble was absolute abstraction from my surroundings. My mind was busy elsewhere—watching through the large windows the cows grazing the fields.

  Next to religion, education was the most compulsive force in a family like ours. My outlook on education never fitted in with the accepted code at home. I instinctively rejected both education and examinations, with their unwarranted seriousness and esoteric suggestions. Since revolt was unpractical I went through it all without conviction, enthusiasm, or any sort of distinction. Going to school seemed to be a never-ending nuisance each day, to be borne because of my years. At Madras, in my Lutheran Mission days, my uncle was strict and would not allow me to stay home, however much I tried. When I lay in bed groaning with a real or feigned headache, he would merely say, “Get up, get up. I’ll myself take you to the school and speak to the teacher to treat you lightly.” At my father’s school in Mysore, it became even harder—a headmaster’s son faces a headmaster at school and a father at home. Though my father was generally uninterfering, he was addicted to watching the entries in the Attendance Register (the most unsightly volume in the world). Even in the classroom, where he was supposed to take an hour a week of English prose, he constantly paused during his lectures to snatch up the register and pick out the absentees between last week and this and demand an explanation. This was such a routine that he never got beyond the opening lines of a Lamb essay. “‘The elders with whom I was brought up were of a nature not likely to let slip a sacred observance, and ringing in the New Year . . .’” At this point he would turn his attention on someone and demand, “Sacred observance—can you explain what is a sacred observance? Oh you! Where were you last week? Urgent business, I suppose; let us see how much urgent business you generally have, from time to time. Get the register.” With a father and headmaster of this temperament, you were not likely to let slip a day. He would unhesitatingly make you stand up, and then declare the punishment, and, further, summon you to his room at home to say what a disgrace you were. So at high school, I maintained a hundred per cent attendance, although I had constantly to overcome the temptation to dawdle around a nearby nursery garden or a tiny lily pond outside, overshadowed by immense trees and studded with little brick monuments on its banks for the dear departed of a century ago. I resolutely absented myself from such felicities and got into my class with the first bell, otherwise the gates would be locked and late-comers shut out, until the headmaster arrived and let each one in with a proper admonition and warning.

  Before actually entering the university for my B.A., I had a whole year’s reprieve by failing in the university entrance examination held in the high school. I had expected to fare ill in physics and chemistry, both of which had defied my understanding. I never understood what I was expected to do with the “data” provided with the so-called problems, the relevance of “atmospheric pressure” or “atomic weight,” or what to do with logarithm tables, or the why or how of a “normal” solution. These points never became clear to me either through my own efforts or through our teacher’s explanations. I had been certain of failure in these two subjects, but, as if by a miracle, I had somehow passed in them, though not with flying colours. On the contrary, I had failed where I was most confident—English. I failed so miserably and completely that everyone wondered if I was literate at all. My father, in spite of his strict attitudes in school matters, had one very pleasant quality—he never bothered about the examination results. He always displayed sympathy for a fallen candidate; he had no faith in the examination-system at all. But even he was forced to exclaim in surprise, “Stupid fellow, you have failed in English! Why?” Proficiency in English being a social hall-mark, I remained silent without offering any explanation, though I knew why. One of our English texts was a grey-bound book of chilling dullness called Explorations and Discoveries, pages full of Mungo Park’s expeditions and so forth. In my whole career I have not come across any book to match its unreadability. I had found it impossible, and totally abolished it from my universe, deciding to depend upon other questions in the examination from Oliver Twist or Poetical Selections. But I found in the examination hall that four out of six questions were based on Explorations—that horrible man the question-setter seemed to have been an abnormal explorationist. I gave up, left the examination hall in half an hour, and sat in contemplation on one of the brick monuments beside the lily pond.

  My outlook on education has not really improved with the years. A few years ago when my daughter in exasperation threw up her studies, crying, “Why should I bother about arithmetic?” I let her drop out without a word. Thereby she found more time at home for books and music. Now when my grandson shows any disinclination for school, I always support his cause, but of course his parents take a different view. As a grandfather I view his unseen masters as complicated, sinister beings who cannot be trusted. I keep my ears to the ground to find out if there has been any incident at his school. I was opposed to the system of being prescribed a set of books by an anonymous soulless body of text
book-prescribers, and of being stamped good or bad as a result of such studies. My natural aversion to academic education was further strengthened when I came across an essay by Rabindranath Tagore on education. It confirmed my own precocious conclusions on the subject. I liked to be free to read what I pleased and not be examined at all.

  CHAPTER SIX

  After failing in the university entrance examination, I had a lot of time, since I could appear for the next year’s examination without attending classes. That left me free for a whole year to read what I pleased, and ramble where I pleased. Every morning I left for a walk around Kukanahalli Tank, with a book in my pocket. It could be Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, or Tagore’s Gitanjali, or Keats in the World’s Classics. After a walk around the tank, I sat down under a lone tree on a rise of the ground, opened the book, and partially read and partially observed the water birds diving in. Of course cows and goats, ubiquitous in Mysore, grazed around. But everything fitted into the scheme beautifully. I read until noon and started back home. I do not know if it was wise of them to have failed me and let me loose for a whole year and thus spoil me. Sometimes I went back to the Kukanahalli Tank in the late afternoon, when the evening sun touched the rippling water-surface to produce uncanny lighting effects, and the western sky presented a gorgeous display of colours and cloud formations at sunset. Even today, I would assert, after having visited many parts of the world, that nowhere can you witness such masterpiece sunsets as in Mysore. I would sit on a bench on the tank and watch the sun’s performance, the gradual fading of the colours in the sky, and the emergence of the first single star at dusk. When the monsoon broke, one could watch dark mountainous clouds mustering, edged with lightning; these would develop awesome pyrotechnics. In June, drizzle and sunshine alternating, leaving gold mohur, flame of the forests, and jacaranda in bloom along the avenues. In July and August the never-ending downpour, grey leaden skies, and the damp air blowing. I was fascinated by all the seasonal changes. Tagore’s poetry (although I may be somewhat more critical today) swept me off my feet in those days. When I read:

 
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