"A profound unmitigated loneliness is the only truth of life"
- R.K. Narayan




It was after a long time that I had returned to this place. I stood at the threshold of that very gate where, decades ago, I used to stand albeit on the other side and stare blankly at the people and things passing by. I would stand bogged down and decrepit, my face hard-pressed against the railings, not knowing what drained me – the temptation of the outside or the frustration of the inside?

I surveyed that imperious and formidable structure that stood beyond the gate. A place as dreary as the ivy that had dried on its walls and as squalid as the mossy balustrades that girded its perimeter; an air that always smelt more of rust than dust. Vivid memories descended upon me of that midsummer afternoon when I had walked out of its solemn premises. Unlike some of my mates, I had not jumped its walls or scaled its gate. I had ceremoniously walked out, ushered by the gentle and endearing janitor chacha, to a crowd of well-wishers that had duly come to receive me. Yet, my exit had not felt any lighter or happier than the other escapees.
 
Within those walls, chacha was the kindest soul one could encounter: his round face, button nose, and the flowing mane reminded one of an aging Socrates. On the day of my release he had walked with me, puffing gently, his varicose hands trembling. At the end of that walk, a safe distance away from the gate, he had mumbled something in my ears and left. I had not heard him clearly; it had sounded something like “know thyself.” Not understanding the meaning of that phrase I had just walked faster without looking back.

And many winters later, as if on destiny’s leash, here I was, back to the place where a walk had ended and a race, begun.
 
I looked askance at those high brick walls – imposing, impervious, which had rendered many free spirits listless. Those walls that imprisoned both body and mind. The walls were old and the stench of dried urine in the corners told a story of official apathy. Yet, even to this day, the bricks in them had not lost their shine. Every single brick, fiery red, so well lined-up, in perfect harmony with each other and exuding an almost hypnotic attraction; like they were demanding an audience, to whom they waited to proudly proclaim that being a brick-in-a-wall was the best and most natural position to be in.
 
I pulled myself away from the seemingly magnetic brick wall and looked up ahead at the distinct square quadrangle where many desolate souls stood in formation, overlooked by the cocky warden whose large nostrils acted like echo chambers for his grunts. His gait and mannerism underscored the fact that he was still the same disdainful figure who exercised such traction that it left no room for distraction. I remembered that we used to stand for prayer every morning in the very same formation and, then, when the prayer was done, marched to our cells in perfect straight lines. Even a small misstep or straying out of line would invite a barrage of spanking.

I recalled how my prayers would go – one prayer on the lips and a different one in the heart – and wondered if any of the current crop prayed like I did. An uncontrollable wave of sympathy suddenly swept over me. I did not know if it was for the past which I could not change or for the present which did not seem too different from the past.

The quadrangle, by the way, was still named square-one. No one knew the origin of that name – probably it was to stress its central location with reference to the compound, or probably it was one of those warden’s bright ideas to impress some message of unity upon us inmates. Nevertheless, what mattered to me right now was that fate had brought me back to this place and I could not help but chuckle at the irony of being back to square one.

Oh! But one thing had changed. The statue of the grand old Father-of-the-Nation, which, during my term here was freshly erected among the eucalyptus groves, was now no longer fresh and clean. Bird droppings had created a mosaic over the shining black granite bust making the old man look afflicted, diseased. His spectacles were blinded and the affection of his toothless smile had, literally, eroded away.

I looked at the entire picture once again and my heart sank. What so closely resembled a prison camp was actually... nothing but... the school of my childhood and youth.
Yes, this was my school, the supposed temple of my childhood, where, it is said, we were prepared to go on to become the pillars and lights of society.
 
But, sadly, the only symbolism it evoked in me today was that a remand home, a prison where a young mind was herded and shaped to fit a mould, instead of being cultured to grow freely in the crucible of its own creativity. When I had stepped out into the society, far from being a pillar for others, I had lost my own bearings; and far from being a light for the society, I ended up being blinded by the fiery trail left behind by hapless souls who burnt their engines running the idiomatic rat-races.
 
My school had launched me into the world on auto-pilot, like a pilot who did not have control of his own ship. It had taken several crashes and burns for the spell to wear out. After many moulting experiences, I had finally broken open my cocoon and found my wings. Now, I was back with a dream – to try to make our education system more humane and open – and a hope to realize that dream.
 
I waved to call the warden’s attention. But, as was expected, he was not to be distracted from his self-imposed serious duty of being the menacing monitor, which we had secretly amended into the more apt, man-eater.
 
As I was about to gesture again, I heard a chuckle from the bushes beneath the Mahatma’s bust. “Hey Ram,” beckoned three lads who hid there.
 
I was transfixed. “How do you know my name?” I enquired of them.

They did not appear to acknowledge my question, instead went back to chatting amongst themselves. I wondered why they were not in the prayer formation; were they being punished or did they sneak out?
 
I nudged the gate open and peered through the opening. The lads sat there, with no clear purpose, as if marinating in Dolce far Niente. One of them had swollen lips yet he managed to smile with the others. I guessed if he had been rapped on the mouth by one of the teachers for having repeated a phrase wrongly. Another one had swollen eyes, maybe from excessive reading at nights. I wondered if he could even see through that swelling. The third had swollen ears. Oh! He was definitely caught playing a prank and had his ear twisted in punishment.
 
That reminded me of my own horror story with punishments. Almost my entire childhood was spent in fear of the cane. Some of my teachers seemed so fascinated with routine caning and flogging that we wondered if they did night jobs at the tannery. Then there was the kneeling down in the sun. Which seemed fun at first – a break in the sun from the monotony of the classes – until our knees started swelling and giving way. The pain stayed for days. Sometimes the sun would gift us a stroke and we would tremble all night in our sleep. My knees carried some of the bruises even to this day. I wondered if the seed of my frequent migraine attacks was sown in the punishment of those days.
I let the boys pass and began moving towards square-one.
 
Every step that took me closer also made me apprehensive. I knew the cane was still in there, dancing upon tender knuckles, and the gravel lay basking in sunlight, biting into bruised knees. But more significantly I knew those teachers were in there, who no doubt loved us but with a love that was blind to the realization that every educated action of theirs only served to dip us into some mould.
 
Moulds, that took our humanity away.
I had to break those moulds...
I had to break those moulds!
 
Where history was not a teacher but a driver. Where mathematics was not a game of numbers but a labyrinth of calculations. Where learning science was all about knowing the answers than asking questions. Where facts were force-fed like bullets fired into our brain. Where knowledge was dumped on to our plates in large servings, at the other side of which we were expected to emerge even hungrier. Where our minds were treated not like fertile soil ready for sowing, but dry earth that sucked in every drop of water irrespective of its purity. Where our personalities were kneaded like dough used to make an exhibition of the Terracotta Army.
 
That was the mould I had to break.
 
Where they said the school was like a melting pot, and stressed on working in groups and complementing each other; only that the melting pot cooked us so well that it seared our independent thinking and dissolved our individuality. Where creativity was limited to arts and crafts, and cultural events meant song and dance. Where they narrated to us stories of the many Gods and made us believe that all were real and equally omnipotent, just like every teacher’s subject was the most important. Where they broke the courses down into various subjects, and made knowledge look like a shattered mirror.
 
That was the mould I had to break.
 
Where the point is driven deep that competition is the living reality of every passing moment. Where we learnt that every walk of life is a race (ironically, they also told us never to be a racist). Where ranks and grades were always awarded comparatively, and excellence was to be achieved by aiming to be better than the rest instead of striving for the ideal of perfection. Where the highest marks were to be scored in the tests and exams, irrespective of the indelible marks we carried on our knuckles and knees.
 
That was the mould I had to break.
 
Where they empowered us enough to stand on our own feet, but never to fit those feet into someone else’s shoes. Where games were played not to enjoy but to win, and the winner took it all. Where knowing the difference between value and price was not part of the syllabus.
 
That was the mould I had to break.
 
Where they chose the languages we learnt, whose alphabet and grammar became the closet that our minds had to think in. Where they controlled the language we spoke in and, hence, bound our tongue. Where they first started by teaching us words and, in return, took our word, on compliance. And then they moved on to sentences. Every teacher pronounced sentence upon sentence, and we were mere witness. They dictated and we repeated. Sentences that were the nuts and bolts from which our language, our attitude, our personality and, eventually, our life was fashioned. Thus, in a way, sentencing us for life.
 
That was the sentence I had to help the new minds escape.
 
Lost in thoughts and treading nervously, I had reached the threshold of square-one. The warden finally cocked his head up to look at me. I waved at him. He curled his brows as if trying to scrutinize my appearance. I tried to sheepishly gesture that I wanted to meet him, but all I could manage was an awkward dance. The students or the other matrons did not even bother to turn.
 
The warden gestured at me to vacate the premises and summoned the security guard to close the gate behind me. I do not think the warden recognized me but, irrespective of that, I was not given even a minimal hearing. I was hastily swept aside, like every fresh idea and dissenting voice always had been. He had brushed me off like that irritating white chalk mark on a spic black-board that invariably gets dusted away.
 
I was not sure if my nervous appearance or shaky mannerism belied my purpose. All I knew was that I had come to scrape the thick hide of pedagogical tradition that had enveloped my school and was, now, leaving without making even as much as a scratch mark. I tried to gesture a request again but the warden had turned away by then and the security guard was moving towards me. Today was probably not my day. I would come again, another day, another time, with ammunition to permeate the iron dome of my teachers’ minds.
 
I sincerely hoped to find the strength to do that.
 
I began walking back to the gate when I chanced upon Mahatma’s bust again. I bowed at the bust, which, again, smelt more of rust than dust, and glanced one last time at the three lads still crouched beneath. Swollen lips, swollen eyes, and swollen ears. I knew I had to do something... something to stop this building from producing more such monkeys.
As I turned to leave, I heard it again. 
 
“Hey Ram.”

But this time the voice was of an old man.