"Saare bachhe jehrre bahut gareeb ne, te jehrre-jehrre anusuchit jaati wale ne, apni-apni seat te kharre ho jao.”
("All those children who are very poor, stand up. Also those who are scheduled caste.”)
I was a 14 year old. The year was 1982. Class VIII. Section A. Govt Junior Model School, Model Town (city's name being withheld - Ed). Class Incharge teacher Ms Surinder Bala was a kindly spinster, a strict woman with a heart of gold who would bash up students single-slap right-left cheek fashion. One slap for every wrong step in a mathematics problem. On that December morning, she was collecting monthly school fee from students. A princely sum of Rs 5.75 per student.
Not every student would bring the fee in time, which was by the 10th of each month. A month earlier, the parent of a particular student, clearly well off economically, had proposed to pay a lump sum monthly amount to school in lieu of the fee charged to students who were either too poor, or were scheduled caste (which, to us, also meant poor).
A day earlier, we were called to the office of the headmistress, Mrs Jaswant Kaur, one by one. She asked each student in my class individually what did his or her dad do, if the mother was a housewife, how many brothers and sisters a kid had, did we get pocket money, how much — everything that could help her decide if a student was poor enough to deserve a fee waiver. It did not take her long to decide that I was poor enough. "Kise nu dasna nahi
(Don’t tell anyone),” she instructed me. This felt good to an eighth grader.
Two days later, Ms Surinder Bala was on the job in the classroom, the list of beneficiary students prepared by Mrs Jaswant Kaur in her hand.
"Saare bachhe jehrre bahut gareeb ne, te jehrre-jehrre anusuchit jaati wale ne, apni-apni seat te kharre ho jao.”
Some of my classmates stood up. Eight of them. "Bachhiyo, tuhadi sab di fees maaf kar ditti hai. Saare gareeb te anusuchit jaati de bachhiyan di fees maaf kiti ja rahi hai (School fee of all you poor and SC kids is being waived off),” she informed us, telling us that we were also supposed to inform our parents. And it was then that she noticed I was among those sitting.
"Kaka, tera naam nahi payiya list vich? (Kid, your name is not in that list?)”
My shoes would give away my complete economic history. Shoes were sort of Aadhar Card of those days, you can say.
Ms Surinder Bala was more aware of my financial situation than any Arjun Sengupta or Tendulkar Committee could have found. I used to be the kid who would deposit his fee late, much too late, every month. Besides, if you had missed the state of my shirt and my pant, my shoes would give away my complete economic history. Shoes were sort of Aadhar Card of those days, you can say.
"Kaka, tera naam haiga list vich. Kharra ho ja.” (Your name is very much in the list, kid. So stand up!”) She had given the list a look over, and thought she was the harbinger of good news. I had to counter this: "Nahi Madam ji. Vadde bhain jee ne kiha mainoo fees maafi nahi mil sakdi. (No Ma’am. The headmistress told me I was not eligible for fee waiver.)”
Entire class was looking at me. "Nahi kaka, tera naam haiga list vich!” (Oh no kid, your name is there in the list.)
"Nahi Madam ji, mere daddy ji kehnde sirf garib bachhiyan di fees maaf honi hai.”
(No ma’am. My father says fee waiver is only for poor kids.)
This was a super-duel going on in the class – much more fierce than between Arun Jaitley and P Chidambaram. My perceived economic standing was much more important than my real situation. I would have welcomed any GDP fudging idea.
I knew what being poor meant. I got to study the layers of poverty on an everyday basis. Till Class V, things were better. I knew kulfi was a delicious treat but having one every day was bad for health. A now famous kulfi wala was just a presence on a footpath corner in my town in those days. (Now the family has contributed a powerful local politician to the state and owns many restaurants.) I would get to have a kulfi once or twice in a month; some kids would have one every day. Clearly, their parents did not care about the kids' health. Mine did.
"Nahi Madam ji, mere daddy ji kehnde sirf garib bachhiyan di fees maaf honi hai.” My perceived economic standing was much more important than my real situation. I would have welcomed any GDP fudging idea.
By Class VII, things were clearer to me. I could not have a kulfi a little more often because we were poor. Period.
By Class VIII, I had grown up enough to know that announcing my name among poor kids was bad for my social standing, my morale. True, my shoes announced it pretty loudly, but I could not do anything about them. This was more important. This was branding. They were now making up lists.
Further details would either make you cry unnecessarily, or you would laugh at the ridiculously little thing about which I was being sensitive. Either situation would be bad, the latter would even strip you of some of your humanity. Let me just say that a perplexed Surinder Bala cut off my name off that list, and I had to throw too many tantrums at home to convince my father not to peddle it to the school and pick up a fight with my class incharge as to why my name was not in the list of poor students whose fee had been waived off.
My headmistress, Mrs Jaswant Kaur, was the wife of a top communist leader, the late Jagjit Singh Lyallpuri, a fact I was to learn later in life. No wonder she had asked us kids our financial position so discreetly.
Punjab School Education Board is going to again introduce Board Exams for students of Class VIII, just as the one in which I appeared back in 1982. But neither did it know then, nor does it fall within the realm of its capacities now, to understand how to reward a student for the innovative, determined struggles he or she puts up to come unscathed through a maze of poverty, ramshackle schools, teachers ill equipped to handle teenagers' anxieties, and a life punctuated with the kind of landmines and IEDs that lists of poor students and announcements of government schemes for SC, ST students can often be.
Years later, I met Ms Surinder Bala. I had bought a swanky new car, and wanted to drive it first to the house of any of my really, really favourite people in life. I chose her. Dedicated to the core, she would teach us maths and English even after school was over. Often, even on Sundays. "Je merit na aayee teri, dove'n galla'n maar-maar ke lal kar deva'ngee (If your name does not appear in the merit list, I will box you on both sides),” she would not leave much to imagination. I had made it to the merit list, a little because of her gangster-style threats, but largely because of her dedication to seeing her students through.
Punjab School Education Board is going to again introduce Board Exams for students of Class VIII, just as the one in which I appeared back in 1982. It does not fall within the realm of its capacities to understand how students lead a life punctuated with the kind of landmines and IEDs that lists of poor students and announcements of government schemes for SC, ST students can often be.
A million thoughts flew past my mind as I drove to her house. She had retired long back, and lived with her brother's daughter, Rozy. We went out for a spin in my car, drove down to the school. It was Sunday, but the school's gates were open, as were all the classrooms. Nothing much had changed. We went to my old classroom. I reminded her of what had happened in my class — her class, actually — back in 1982. The entire story of the list of poor students, and my name in it, or not.
"I am sorry,” she said, and broke down. "No, ma'am, I am sorry,” I was crying. She said may be she should have handled it better. "May be I messed up because I did not have kids of my own,” she reasoned. I was now crying loudly; I knew this time I had messed it up.
We spent a good part of an hour in that school. I told her it was she who I would be thanking for the rest of my life for everything. For the school I later went to, for the education I got, for the wife I had, for the car I bought, for the books I read, for the ability to tell you a story like this one.
"But I will never forgive myself for reading out that list in that class, I am sorry. I should have known better,” she kept saying on our way back. As we reached her gate, she said, "Please do not tell Rozy about it. She would judge me.” I assured her I won't. "Tu mainoo maar lai bhaaven jiven main kuttdi si tuhanoo,” she said. ("You can slap me now the same way as I used to slap you kids in those days.") Both of us cried again. I shouldn't have brought up the incident at all. I am sorry till date, Bala Madam.
Mr Chief Minister, my teacher is not alive. But you owe the farmers an apology.
When Chief Minister Amarinder Singh will call out the names of the farmers, one by one, to the stage on the morning of Sunday, January 7, in Mansa, to give them certificates that the debt of the poor men has been paid off by the government, it will only be because he does not know what being poor means.
When he will hand over the certificate to the farmer, a certificate that has the picture of the benefactor, a Maharaja, it will only be because there is no one who could tell him that it does not behove a king to insult people for their poverty.
That you do not call big time singers to make a song and dance about poor people's inability to pay back even their measly debts.
That you do not hold jamborees with the money of the poor people to hold functions where the facts of their poverty are announced in a gathering of thousands and telecast to an audience of millions, showing people the faces of men and women who resisted committing suicide because of poverty.
The poor are not a public display item, Mr Chief Minister. The debt amounts of individual farmers are not to be flaunted in public, on television cameras.
You should not shame hundreds of thousands of farmers by putting up their names for a public display in the very villages in which they have lived for generations, working much harder at eking out a living than you ever had to in your entire life.
You do not need that function. Calling it off will get you more votes. Your opponents also put their picture on everything - a cycle, an ambulance. Score a victory. Don't do it.
You have no business to drag their poverty-stricken, disease-ridden, hopeless lives into the town square and then claim to be their leader. They pay for your arrogance, and much else, including your helicopter.
You owe them an apology.
You can simply write to the banks, government treasury can square off the debts, and banks can send a letter to the farmer’s address, the same address where your government sends kurki missives. You do not need that function. Calling it off will get you more votes. Your opponents also put their picture on everything - a cycle, an ambulance. Score a victory. Don't do it.
Ms Surinder Bala is not alive, and you are not so young. So, obviously, I can’t ask her to box our politicians on both cheeks. But shouldn’t you pull back, pause, and think?
If Rozy reads this, she will forgive her aunt. As for you, good luck with your cheeks.
The school where Ms Surinder Bala taught
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