And so the papers have announced that the monsoon has set in over Chennai. It is my favourite season. I can still recall as a kid snuggling in bed in my ancestral home in Mylapore, even as the thunder rolled overhead and the rain splashed on the wooden windows throughout the night. The tiny garden used to be divided into pockets of soil crisscrossed by cement walkways and these would fill with water – ideal for sailing paper boats. There was a parijata tree that would drop all its flowers on the walkway to greet everyone after the rains. Strangely, though our house was deep in cow and buffalo territory, it had no mosquitoes. My uncle the humorist was of the view that they lived in the dung and were quite happy to remain there.
One of the joys of that phase in life was waking up to the possibility that Vidya Mandir was closed owing to the rain. And the school did so with regularity. Long before the Government took to declaring holidays owing to rain, VM had begun the tradition. It was as though Tara Miss, would on seeing a cloud in the sky, consult with Rangamani Miss, the two Alamelus and the Misses Rukmini, Vimala, Kanaka, Jayalakshmi, Saraswathi, Leela, Sarasa, Gomathi, Neela, Kiran, Lakshmi, Saundara and others and then wave a magic wand to declare a holiday. To my imagination, the teachers were a happy family that lived in the school and I assumed they confabulated over tea in the Ladies Staffroom and declared the day off, informing Narasimhan the pan-chewing and chronically bad-tempered (but with a heart of gold) attendant to stand at the gate and tell everyone to go home.
Yes, in those days there was no way the school got through to you. You put on your uniform, yoked the schoolbag (complete with leaking thayir sadam nestling among the books), swung the water bottle and beetled off, fully confident of being back in a few minutes. The school rarely let us down when it came to this expectation.
VM, being as per legend constructed on a pond belonging to the Vembakkam family, was low lying and the grounds turned into vast lakes each time it rained. But that was scarcely the reason in my view. The teachers genuinely felt that the students needed to be happy and so declared these holidays. We learnt a lot more that way. I spent time with my grandmother, listened to her stories, heard aunts, uncle and cousins learn Carnatic Music from DK Jayaraman, read some history book for beginners or just pulled out random tomes from my grandfather’s collection to gaze at the pictures and attempt to draw them. There was no pressure of any kind and I think I absorbed more that way.
The purpose of declaring the day off was often negated by the fact that many of us just hung around at school even after being told to go home. You got to have tea with the teachers and sometimes there were interesting projects. You could help Anjaneyulu sir paint props for school day (we were forever preparing for this annual event). On one occasion Gomathi Miss led us on a walk down the flooded grounds pointing out insects that had just come to life. There was Alamelu Gopal who gamely threw the volleyball each time it landed in front of her as she stood looking like the Blessed Damozel leaning out of the gold bar of heaven. There was a memorable day when Kiran Miss decided to get rid of old exam papers by asking us to make boats and they went in a flotilla down the waters.
Shifting to Calcutta meant lots more rain (who can forget the Maidan in the monsoon?) but lot less holidays. The city just got along with it. Back in Chennai after many years and with two sons joining VM, I was much amused to see that the holiday tradition continued. Sanjay Subrahmanyan, whose children too studied at VM once declared to me that the school ought to be paying us a fee for taking care of the kids so often during the monsoons. Alerts came via SMS ( in the 1990s) and then it was the responsibility of the PTA rep for each class to inform the other parents. Sarada was one for a year and I can still recall a particular classmate of my elder son calling each morning, even if it was cloudless, to check if there was school. I now see him going about the city as a young entrepreneur who greets me with a Hi Uncle but in my mind he is still the child that called and asked “Uncle innikki school unda?”
After so many years I am still unable to entirely shake off the temptation of stealing a day from work each time it rains. Such is the VM effect. I wonder if the school closes so often now. The Misses Tara, Kanaka, Sarasa, Saraswathi and others who have gone, and the ones who are retired but still around will want it to be so. God bless them all.