The Penguin Book of Schooldays: Recess

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Item Code: IHL374
Author: Palash Krishna Mehrotra
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2008
ISBN: 9780143100119
Pages: 375
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.9 inch X 5.9 inch
Book Description

Whatever else we forget in our lives, memories of our schooldays stay on forever. We may think of them with longing or wish that we could forget about them, but there's no getting away from them. That crucial winning run scored in an inter-class match will act as a salve for all future failures; that prefectship denied in high school will fester despite the progress one may have made in life thereafter.

Recess: The Penguin Book of Schooldays brings together over fifty moving and human accounts of school, covering a period of around 200 years, as seen through the eyes of some of the finest minds India has produced—from Lal Behari Dey and Dayananda Saraswati to Premchand and Harivansh Rai Bachchan; from Andre Beteille and Nirad Chaudhuri to Vikram Seth and Amit Chaudhuri; from Ismat Chughtai and Sheila Dhar to Dilip Simeon and Shuddhabrata Sengupta.

The poems, essays and stories in Recess take us to the heart of the Indian school experience covering missionary, religious, residential, municipal, village and refugee schools; and reflect on the different emotions that this institution evokes: indifference, rage, fond nostalgia. While Satyajit Ray remembers participating in an event called 'musical drawing' and writing with 'nibs that had to be dipped into the inkwells built into our desks', Ved Mehta writes about learning Braille for the first time and taking part in a variety of races: Biscuit Race, Leapfrog Race. Mihir Bose reminisces about his days at St Xavier's High School, Bombay, and its sports master Father Fritz who predicted Sunil Gavaskar's rise to greatness as a cricketer even as P.T. Usha shares her experiences at the Cannanore Sports Division, training for future glory while

Coming to terms with eating eggs and meat. Farrukh Dhondy’s delightful take on the eternal conflict between day scholars and boarders contrasts with Omprakash Valmiki’s somber account of the obstacles he faced as an untouchable in order to become the first high school graduate of his neighbourhood.

This magnificent collection casts a clear and mostly unsentimental eye over a familiar childhood battleground, making us recall and re-examine our own schooldays. Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s delightfully irreverent introduction sets the tone for what is the most comprehensive anthology on the subject to date. Subversive and honest, Recess will remain the definitive record of the Indian experience of school for years to come.

Palash Krishna Mehrotra was born in Bombay in 1875 and educated at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, the Delhi School of Economics and Balliol College, Oxford. He is Contributing Editor at Rolling Stone, and writes a regular column for Mail Today. In the past, he has worked for and taught at the Doon School. Eunuch Park, his first collection of stories, will be published by Penguin in 2009. He is currently writing a non-fiction book on young India called The Butterfly Generation. He lives in Dehra Dun with his grandmother.


The Penguin Book of


Edited by

Palash Krishna Mehrotra


For Shankar, Rishi and Tanks Thank you for de-schooling me

Boxing my ears, a teacher said, How much is thirty-three times thirty-eight? Rapping my knuckles, a teacher said, And where's Sheffield then? Where's Sheffield? Squeezing my thigh, a teacher said, Let's go to the mango grove.

—Arun Kolatkar, 'Biograph'

When I was thirteen I finished going to school. I do not want to boast about it, I merely give it to you as a historical fact.

—Rabindranath Tagore,


If we went to the school in neat and clean clothes, then our class fellows said, Abey, Chuhre ke, he has come dressed in new clothes.' If one went wearing old and shabby clothes, then they said, Abey, Chuhre ke, get away from me, you stink.'

—Omprakash Valmiki, Joothan: A Dalit's Life

School seemed to prove that work was one thing and living another.

—Farrukh Dhondy, Poona Company




Lai Behari Dey
From Recollections of My School-days


Swami Dayananda Saraswati
From Autobiography of Dayananda Saraswati


Fakir Mohan Senapati From Story of My Life


Rabindranath Tagore
From My Life in My Words


From Boyhood Days


Ramabai Ranade
From Memoirs of Our Life Together


Krupabai Satthianadhan
The Story of a Conversion


M.K. Gandhi
From An Autobiography or
The Story of My Experiments with Truth

K.S. Ranjitsinhji
From The Jubilee Book of Cricket


Big Brother

3 8

Jawaharlal Nehru
From An Autobiography


B.R. Ambedkar
From Autobiographical Notes


Nirad C. Chaudhuri
From The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian


Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit
From The Scope of Happiness


Asha Mukul Das
From Santiniketan: Learning from a Way of Life


A.N. Sattanathan
From Plain Speaking: A Sudra's Story


R.K. Narayan
From My Days


Harivansh Rai Bachchan
From In the Afternoon of Time


Ismat Chughtai
From The Crooked Line


Satyajit Ray
From Childhood Days: A Memoir


Nayantara Sahgal
From Prison and Chocolate Cake


Dharma Kumar
Scenes from Scholastic Life


Sheila Dhar
A Taste of British Guiana


Ursula Sharma
From Rampal and His Family


Ved Mehta From Vedi


V.K. Madhavan Kutty
From The Village Before Time


André Béteille
Boarding School


Kamala Das
From My Story


Keki N. Daruwalla Childhood Poem


Sasthi Brata
From My God Died Young


Eunice de Souza Sweet Sixteen


Adil Jussawalla
In Memory of the Old School


Vilas Sarang
On the Stone Steps


Farrukh Dhondy
From 'Boomerang'


Mihir Bose
From A Maidan View. The Magic of Indian Cricket


Dilip Simeon
Of Bagpipes, Horses and Golden Orioles


Omprakash Valmiki
From Joothan: A Dalit's Life


Vikram Seth
On Founder's Day


Rohinton Mistry
From 'Exercisers'


Richard Crasta
From The Revised Kama Sutra: A Novel of Colonialism and Desire


Manohar Shetty Fireflies


Narendra Jadhav
From Outcaste: A Memoir


Aamer Hussein Singapore Jay


Rukun Advani
From Beethoven Among the Cows


Cyrus Mistry
From The Radiance of Ashes


Upamanyu Chatterjee From Weight Loss


Sharmistha Mohanty From New Life


Amit Chaudhuri
From 'Four Days Before the Saturday Night Social'


Suketu Mehta
From Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found


Sudeep Chakravarti From Tin Fish


P.T. Usha
From Golden Girl


Rohit Manchanda
From In the Light of the Black Sun


Rani Siva Sankara Sarma
From The Last Brahmin: Life and Reflections of a Modern-day Sanskrit Pandit


Shuddhabrata Sengupta Recess


Tenzin Tsundue
From 'My Kind of Exile'


From 'Celebrating Exile—I: Education and Outlook'


Paromita Vohra Osmosis


Anjum Hasan
Coming of Age in a Convent School


Siddharth Chowdhury Fuselage


Palash Krishna Mehrotra Pornography


The Superfuzz School'


Copyright Acknowledgements





I got the idea for this anthology when I took up a teaching position at Doon School, Dehra Dun. School teaching must be one of the most unglamorous professions in the world. Everyone from the neighbours to college friends to the students themselves think you are a loser. Many of my own students asked me the same question over and over again: 'Sir, if you went to St Stephen's and Oxford, then what on earth are you doing here?' W.H. Auden, briefly a schoolmaster himself, once wrote, '...if one were invited to dine with a company representing all trades and professions, the schoolmaster is the last person one would want to sit next to.' He goes on to complain, 'Far too many masters are silted-up old maids, earnest young scoutmasters, or just generally dim.

It is difficult to say why we do what we do. I have an innate mistrust of statements of purpose. They always have a false ring to them: 'I want to join your multinational because I have excellent leadership qualities'; 'I want to do a course in development economics because I want to eradicate poverty ; I teach because I think children are the future and I want to play my role in shaping this future.

I had no such lofty ideals. I've always liked kids more than adults and am blessed with enormous reserves of patience. These were, I thought, good enough reasons to take up a teaching job.

I taught for three-and-a-half years. I got ragged plenty as a new teacher. I lost my temper quite a few times. But, in the end, it was all worthwhile. I left not because I was unhappy but because I had received an advance for a book I always wanted to write. It required travelling and I couldn't possibly be in two places at the same time.

Mention the word 'school' and you get a variety of responses. Some feign amnesia. Some get dreamy-eyed. Some never seem to get over that crucial goal they scored (or failed to score) in a 7B vs 7C hockey match. Public school founders day functions are a good occasion to observe this type. No matter what life gives or takes from you, no matter how old you get, you always return to the playing fields of your early adolescence. You might have been unfairly overlooked for promotion, your business might be failing, your parents might be dying, but these tragedies will ultimately be overshadowed by the prefectship that was denied to you in high school. Finally, there are those who hate school unequivocally. All they remember is the terror and the trauma, I once met a woman at a party who launched into an attack on the nuns in her old school. With every whisky she seemed to get more worked up. 'What were they thinking?' she kept muttering. 'Who did they think they were, those frustrated bitches.'

Schools can be extremely unpleasant places no doubt, but why does this experience overshadow everything else? Sasthi Brata, writing in My God Died Young, wondered:

How does a man remember what words who spoke at what time (especially when that 'time' happens to be the 'years of immaturity')? Why would 'bamboo meeting bum' (at adolescence) make a greater impact on a man's life than adult love, misfortune or achievement? Why should one display a 'passionate interest in the contents of lavatories' when there are flowers, Bach or butterflies? And if school was such a dreadful place why dwell so insistently on those days?

A few pages later, Brata attempts to answer the question himself:

Because pain is easier to recall than happiness; because the exact temper of a beautiful sunset or fulfilled love is harder to capture in words than cruelty, the instances of battered vanity, or the chill of adolescent fear. Also because (however unwilling we are to admit it) these things leave permanent impressions, mould our personalities more than the ecstasies of an autumn afternoon or birdsong on the first spring morning.

Cruelty is an integral part or school life. Brata writes about the boys in his school being 'psychological fodder for pathological monsters but from experience I know that school is not a simple power equation with the boys on one side and the teachers on the other. Children are capable of perpetrating enormous cruelty on fellow children. The opening of Michel Houellebecq's novel Atomised covers this ground rather well. The school in the novel is French but what goes on inside it underlies a reality that is universal.

Children can also be extremely cruel to their teachers. In Cyrus Mistry's novel The Radiance of Ashes, the school bully plays an oily prank on Ghanshyam, the Sanskrit master, a gentle soul, whose reputation of being a sacrificial goat preceded him, communicated unfailingly to every fresh batch of students by those satiated gremlins who reluctantly moved out of his academic orbit'. He slips on a puddle of oil and slides down the stairs, hurting himself badly in the process. Ghanshyam's wife has cancer but the boys are unaware: 'And all these months while they were making life miserable for Ghanshyam, just for a lark, a giggle, a distraction, privately he had been trying to cope with something much bigger. Something that was probably quite beyond their comprehension.'

Sexuality, too, is integral to school life, not least because it is within the school's boundaries that children grow into adolescence, where they become aware of themselves as sexual beings. The response of most Indian schools is to deny that this happens. But denial and control is one thing, fact another. In her novel, The Crooked Line, Ismat Chughtai writes about a teacher who is forced to leave the residential school where she teaches because a student, who has recently developed a crush on her, sneaks into her room at night and is discovered cuddled up in her bed. Kamala Das describes a lovelorn girl in boarding school who writes romantic letters to herself, while Cyrus Mistry tells us about a coercive arrangement in a day school: After school hours, a very select few boys—and particularly one effeminate puny fellow by the name of Percy—were entrusted with the dark privilege or providing Hippo with secret pleasures in the cubicles of the vast student latrine.'

It is also in school that we are made aware of our social status, the hierarchies to which our parents belong in the outside world. Schools are part of the fabric of society, and, to that extent, they mirror the prejudices of the larger society in which they are situated. In the school in which I studied, every new academic year began with the teacher asking the boys what their fathers did for a living. Upamanyu Chatterjee writes about it in Weight Loss: 'On the first day in the new class, Miss Jeremiah had asked everybody what their fathers did and Dosto had ceased to be part of the blur when she discovered that his father held a position of some importance in the Ministry of Communications. Within a week, she got her home phone connection...

In his autobiography, Joothan: A Dalit's Life, Omprakash Valmiki tells a story about a story. Master Saheb is teaching a lesson. He tells the boys, with tears in his eyes, that Dronacharya had fed flour mixed in water to his famished son, Aswatthama. This episode is narrated by Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata, to illustrate Drona's poverty: he couldn't afford milk so he fed his son gruel. The young Valmiki, a Dalit, cannot resist asking a question: 'So Aswatthama was given flour mixed in water, but what about us who had to drink mar? How come we were never mentioned in any epic?' Master Saheb is livid: 'Darkest Kaliyug has descended upon us so that an untouchable is daring to talk back.' Valmiki is beaten with a teak stick: 'Chuhre ke, you dare compare yourself with Dronacharya ... Here, take this, I will write an epic on your body.' Valmiki concludes: 'This epic composed of feudalistic mentality is inscribed not just on my back but on each nerve of my brain.'

Many boarding schools claim that they have been able to create classless, casteless Utopias. Vikram Seth, in his founder's day address at Doon School, has spoken of the difference between residential schools and others: 'For though in a day school we would have had the company and affection and example of our parents, we would also have absorbed their social prejudices, and after school hours we would have mixed largely with children of the same social background, locality and economic class.' Doon School was different because the boys 'got the same amount of pocket money. Caste did not matter, religion did not matter, the part of the country you came from did not matter, the social status of your family was unimportant.' How true this claim is, is a matter of contention. One might argue that boarding schools create Utopias within a largely homogenous class, and in doing so they perpetuate larger social inequalities (by drawing their student base from a certain class only) rather than do away with them altogether. Also, though Utopias they might be, they very soon spawn their own hierarchies and class systems which bear an uncanny resemblance to the hierarchies in the outside world. In one residential school that I know of, the sons of old boys go into a particular house; first-generation students at the institution are distributed among other houses. This separation is done at the time of joining. Students might eat the same food and wear the same white shirts, but the divisions between old and new money, which exist in the world outside, have managed to establish themselves in the heart of boarding school Utopia.

Schools are established for the purpose of imparting education and instilling, to use a dubious phrase, 'good values'. Often, they end up being about other things. More often than not, they end up killing the student's curiosity. The poet and Tibet activist Tenzin Tsundue has written about how the classroom got in the way of his natural inclination towards poetry: 'Behind one such closed door, in front of the stunned and staring eyes of my classmates, our teacher demanded from me a recitation of the poem we were told to learn by heart the previous day. My poor memory could retain only the first few lines and then I went blank.' It was the world outside, not school, which rekindled his interest: 'I hated poetry in school until I discovered graveyards. The old inji graveyard on the hillside of Dharamsala was a quiet getaway. The beautiful lines the living wrote to their dead loved ones engraved in ornate calligraphy on headstones revealed to me what poetic magic words could create.

Fortunately, children are not fools who believe everything that schools tell them. As Farrukh Dhondy writes in his story 'Boomerang', there was 'a tacit understanding, a rejection of "character", "tradition","discipline" and gentlemanliness. We had as much use for these as we had for test tubes of mud from the school drive.

Schools have long been seen as places where children first manifest their adult personality. It's a simple, convenient linearity which suits everyone. Someone who is good at sport in junior school will be good at sports in his second year of college. Someone who is studious in his younger years will grow up to be an academic. But, as experience shows, schooldays are a notoriously unreliable guide to what the future holds.

The sociologist M.N. Srinivas was more interested in cricket than reading as a schoolboy. He even had his own team, the Bradman XI, which won a small shield in a local tournament. And Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the philosopher and statesman, displayed little inclination either towards books or sports. As S. Gopal writes in his biography: 'His main activity was to play truant and walk long distances from village to village, utilizing the scholarship money and whatever was sent from home to pay for his food en route.' Once, he was even waylaid by a highwayman who searched for the gold ornaments that Brahmin boys were supposed to wear in those days. Not finding anything he finally let him go rather than push him into a well. This didn't discourage the young Radhakrishnan at all. He continued in his wayward ways, not turning up in school on the day the forms for the lower - secondary examinations were being filled. This was a public exam in those days and a mandatory requirement for promotion into the next class. A sympathetic headmaster overlooked the rules and filled the form out on Radhakrishnan's behalf. Gopal writes: 'Radhakrishnan was sensible enough to turn up for the examinations themselves.'

At best, schools can point out the straight and narrow. There are roads leading off the beaten track, but school was never in the business of pointing them out. Those who are good enough find them on their own; those who can't are condemned to attending class reunions for the rest of their lives.

[...continued from the front flap] coming to terms with eating eggs and meat. Farrukh Dhondy's delightful take on the eternal conflict between day scholars and boarders contrasts with Omprakash Valmiki's sombre account of the obstacles he faced as an untouchable in order to become the first high school graduate of his neighbourhood.

This magnificent collection casts a clear and mostly unsentimental eye over a familiar childhood battleground, making us recall and re-examine our own schooldays. Palash Krishna Mehrotra's delightfully irreverent introduction sets the tone for what is the most comprehensive anthology on the subject to date. Subversive and honest, Recess will remain the definitive record of the Indian experience of school for years to come.

PALASH KRISHNA MEHROTRA was born in Bombay in 1975 and educated at St Stephen's College, Delhi, the Delhi School of Economics and Balliol College, Oxford. He is Contributing Editor at Rolling Stone, and writes a regular column for Mail Today. In the past, he has worked for and taught at the Doon School. Eunuch Park, his first collection of stories, will be published by Penguin in 2009. He is currently writing a non-fiction book on young India called The Butterfly Generation. He lives in Dehra Dun with his grandmother.

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