ABOUT THE STORY Upon its publication in 1996, the Kannada writer Siddalingaiah’s autobiography Ooru Keri (Neighbourhood) was immediately judged to be one of the most significant works of Dalit writing in Kannada. What was distinctive about it was that, as the great Kannada literary critic DR Nagaraj pointed out, it resounded with a “poor man’s laughter”, taking joy in the many pleasures of both childhood and adulthood that cannot be suppressed even by the most iniquitous social structures.
The first chapter of Ooru Keri, ‘Magadi and Manchanabele’, is a beautiful account of Siddalingaiah’s childhood set within the frames of family, caste, high religion and folk religion, school, and perhaps most importantly landscape—a landscape that, as in Pasternak, teems with life and seems to redeem human acts of injustice and spite. Of course, Siddalingaiah’s story is not fiction, not even by the current convention of seeing memoir as a construct that is also ‘fictional’. But equally, reading the account of the “I” of this piece of autobiographical prose, we see that, like the pooris that are so rarely available to the child Siddalingaiah and are always viewed and eaten with wonder, fiction too may be a kind of luxury good not available to all, and sometimes the fiction writer’s instinct expresses itself more coherently in other prose forms. Poetic and ruminative, Ooru Keri appears this month in an English translation by SR Ramakrishna, published by Navayana as A Word With You, World: The Autobiography of a Poet.
OURS WAS THE LAST HOUSE in the dalit colony. There had once been a house beyond ours, but its roof had collapsed, and mud walls, three or four feet high, were all that remained of it. Like me, children from the other houses climbed onto the squat walls and peered into the distance for a glimpse of their parents returning from work. We sometimes shouted out to them to come home soon. Whether they could hear or see us from such a distance we didn’t know. The fields, owned by a man called Ainoru, stretched some five or six hundred feet beyond these walls. His beautiful house stood on the land, as did a huge well and a pump cabin. The water from this pump irrigated his fields. As for the people of our colony, it was a big thing if we got any water to drink. Our people trudged to a flower garden some distance away and fetched water from the well near it. I never saw anyone but dalits fetching water from this well.
One day, as we stood on the ruined walls and watched for our parents, we noticed something. A man had fastened a yoke onto the shoulders of two other men and was ploughing Ainoru’s fields. It was amusing to watch the two men trundle on like bullocks, while the third followed them, swinging a whip and making them plough. Then I realized that one of the men carrying the yoke was my father. A strange agony gripped me at that moment. Some women came up to us and sighed, “What a plight has befallen poor Dyavanna!” This doubled my agony. When my father returned home after toiling like a bullock all day, my mother warmed up some oil and massaged his shoulders with it.
My father had three bits of land. The land closest to our house was what he cultivated as a sharecropper. The owner was a brahmin who lived in Magadi town. We called him “Ainoru” too. We called his land the “mango tree land”, because a very old mango tree stood on it. We had to go past a giant tamarind tree to get to this patch of land. Beneath the tree was a huge boulder. People said a ghost haunted the tree and that it clapped at passersby to lure them closer. They were terrified by the thap-thap sound the tree often made. One evening, returning home by myself, I heard that clapping. I fled in panic, stumbling and falling along the way. I felt safe only after I reached home.
The owner of the mango tree land was a generous man. When my father, mother and I went to town and stood in front of his house, he gave us chitranna and poori left over from the night before. I had never tasted these delicacies, and found them delicious. I was overwhelmed by an unexpected gratitude. Occasionally, Ainoru also gave me some old, tattered shirts and pants that his son had discarded. I was younger than his son, and the clothes hung loosely on my frame. I wore them folded up, looking odd among my companions.
My father grew flowers and vegetables on a tiny plot that we called “Sanjeevaiah’s garden”. It was on the bund of a water tank. I once earned two annas selling flowers at the Magadi weekly market. One day, coming home from the garden, I stopped for a moment on the bund. People were at work on either side of the tank. Someone called out; in a flash, women, men and children shot, fast as arrows, towards the brahmin house with the pumpset. I was scared, and hung back a little. I reached the house later than the others. The dalit labourers sat in a row a little distance from the front yard. People from Ainoru’s house were giving away leftover poori and chitranna. I was disappointed to be the last to get there, but was delighted that my parents had taken their share and were on their way home before all the others.
WE HAD A MAARI TEMPLE IN OUR COLONY and celebrated the Maari festival with great devotion. The priest was an old woman who happened to be distantly related to my family. The goddess Maaramma would possess this woman from time to time. These episodes were frightening to witness, but I was more than a little proud that the woman was related to us, and quite sure that the goddess would not harm us in any way.
Jaldagere Amma was another goddess in Megalahatti, the dalit ghetto. She had many devotees, my mother among them. On a particular day every week, the goddess would possess a woman. We would go and sit near this woman expectantly, well before the goddess possessed her. Her gestures were fearsome. When she ground her teeth, making a nora-nora sound, people trembled and broke into a sweat. My mother used to consider this woman her elder sister, and I used to call her “aunty”. She was very kind and affectionate, and so I never felt scared when she was possessed. She was shapely and beautiful to look at. The goddess had started to possess her after her husband had abandoned her and run away with another woman.
The people of our colony were dreamers of dreams. Dead grandparents and parents, brothers and sisters haunted them in their dreams. A dead girl, for instance, would appear in her living friend’s dream. Perched on top of a tree, she would wave out and call the friend to go with her. Then there was the dreaded Jadé Muni, the ascetic with matted hair. Men who returned home late in the night said that they had seen the face of Jadé Muni, and had barely escaped the fate of vomiting blood and dying. The women and children were terrified by these stories. Spirits clapped, called out and cackled at those who walked alone. If they walked on courageously, the spirits said: “Go, I spare you this time.” People took these things seriously. They depended on the gods to protect them from these spirits.
Around this time, the Koogu Maari scare gripped the village. The buzz was that the goddess would stand in front of a house and call out the name of one of the women. If the woman answered, she would vomit blood and drop dead. “I heard a call,” some women said, “but I didn’t answer because I was wise to the goddess’s tricks.” Such evasion appeared very clever to us. “Come tomorrow,” some people scribbled on their doors, in the hope that Maari would read the message and go away. Some said the cause of this apparition was a comet that had been seen in the early morning sky. People woke up early to check for themselves, saw a comet, and ended up even more frightened than before.
To make things worse, a holy man came to the village, and predicted that a rain of fire and a deluge would end the world in fourteen days. Some clever fellows, waiting for just such a chance, suggested that people cook and eat their favourite dishes and invite their relatives over so that they could see their faces one last time. Even the poor feasted in the midst of their fear of death. As for the rich, they hosted huge ceremonial feasts. The people of our colony took advantage of this situation.
When the village was thus caught up in the comet panic, the Mysore Maharaja visited Magadi. I don’t remember why he came; I don’t think anyone knew either. All the same, the crowd that came to see him could easily have filled a fairground. We climbed on to our parents’ shoulders and caught a fleeting glimpse of the king.
WHEN MY PARENTS WERE AT WORK, I took care of the house. As evening fell, I would look for the hens and put them under the baskets. I would then light a little oil lamp. The moment my parents returned, they would prepare to cook. On some days we cooked and ate sweet tubers. On others, we ate kadle poori, drank water and went to sleep. What we grew was barely enough to pay the interest on my father’s loans. The money my parents earned as labourers was simply not enough to support the family. My mother would sometimes go to the Savandurga forest to collect firewood, which she sold at the weekly market. She would fling down the firewood bundle as soon as she came home and run inside, saying she wanted to pee. Coming out again, she would pull some sugarcane out from inside the bundle and give it to us. Manchanabele, a few miles from Savandurga, was my mother’s native village. She would say she had climbed the hill and seen her village in the distance. “This triggered memories of your grandmother and grandfather,” she would say, wiping away her tears. For a while, I would be lost in her memories of Manchanabele.
Beside our field was a path along which the Banjaara women walked to the forest to collect firewood. In the eyes of the dark Holeyas of our colony, they looked like foreigners. Some mischievous boys would tease them from a distance. The women cursed them in turn. A young man called Puttanarasa claimed, with some pride, that he had provoked an old Banjaara woman from close quarters and that she had thrown down her bundle of firewood, lifted her skirt, and pulled him in under it. He said he had wriggled out with great difficulty. Although no one had seen this happen, everyone believed him, and many envied him.
The family across the street was poor like us. The husband was short and lean. He was always smoking a beedi. His wife was a very strong woman. She beat him every day. But never once did he hit back. Never once did he stand up to her or talk back. He had a close friend in Megalahatti. The two men were always together. Their friendship went to such lengths that one day they went to a studio in town and got themselves photographed together. Each one hung a copy of the photograph in his home, causing much amazement. Suddenly, one day, they had a fight, and ended the friendship. Each of them took his picture from its frame, tore off the portion with the friend, and put the glass back in. From then on, each one had a full frame on his wall, but only half a picture. It became a symbol of their ruined friendship.
Around the time of the fight, there was a drought in that part of the country. For the poor, there was barely a morsel of food to be had. The rich held ceremonial feasts to appease the rain gods. At such feasts, the Holeyas were made to sit in a corner, and were noticed only after people of the upper castes had been served. I was grateful for whatever little food came my way, and didn’t dwell on the discrimination.
My sisters, Shivalingamma and Puttamma, were born around that time. My father, already deep in debt, found it difficult to take care of us. He started going farther and farther away to look for work, and came home only at intervals of three to six months. We were scared at night, and wouldn’t sleep at home. We preferred to sleep in the house of Magadamma, who was my mother’s distant cousin. Her son went out into the fields every night to keep watch over the haystacks. He would take me along. It was a pleasure to spread out the hay and go to sleep on it with more hay pulled over us like a blanket. Sometimes we made a small opening in the haystack, crept in and spent the night there.
One day, my mother was making rottis. All three of us children sat at the stove, watching her. On a little loft, above the stove, was a trunk. Two cobras, fighting there, suddenly dropped down on the hot pan. We ran for our lives as the snakes slithered around. The entire street gathered to look for the snakes, but couldn’t find them. After that, we didn’t feel safe at home even during the day.
We were all delighted when my father came home after one of his long stints away. But when he told the family his news, my uncle, who lived next door, my mother and my grandmother, were dismayed and tearful. My father sat quietly, looking downcast. The reason for all this sorrow was simple, although unusual. Two groups had fought in the far-off place where my father had been working. The police had stepped in and arrested some people, and they had identified my father as one of the witnesses. My uncle said to me, sadly, “We have never ever set foot in a police station. But your father will have to now.” I felt tears welling up in my eyes.
WHENEVER ONE OF US WAS ACCUSED of some wrong, he would assert his innocence by saying, “I swear on Manteswamy, I didn’t do it.” The significance of those words dawned on me the day our guru came to visit us. I discovered, thus, that we had a family god, as well as a guru. Hearing that our guru had arrived, our entire family went to the mulberry tree up the street that day. We fell at his feet and presented him with our offerings. This guru was descended from one of Manteswamy’s disciples.
Manteswamy was our family deity. To his devotees, a visit by the guru was like a visit by Manteswamy himself. The Manteswamy cult had not taken root in the Magadi region, but it was widespread in the Mandya and Mysore districts. Our ancestors had migrated to Magadi from Athagur in Maddur taluk. The guru was from those parts. It was our good fortune that he had come such a long way.
They said our god was himself a Holeya, but this guru was from a higher caste. Perhaps that is why he didn’t step into the Holeya colony. We felt grateful that he had come at least as far as the mulberry tree. We were happy the whole day that we had accumulated spiritual merit by doing this good deed. We felt proud that we had a guru to bless us.
Another day, the word on everyone’s lips was that a minister was visiting us. Megalahatti, inhabited only by Holeyas, was abuzz with excitement and festivity. A thatched enclosure was erected and chairs were arranged in it. The streets were decorated with garlands of mango leaves. Every house had contributed money for the ceremony.
We children hung around out of curiosity, not having anything else to do. We wanted to see what a minister looked like. The grown-ups were expecting his arrival any moment. The women stood in a group, gaping. The elders waited respectfully, holding medium-sized garlands. The sun rose to the middle of the sky, but still the minister was nowhere to be seen. The cattle returned home, but there was still no sign of him. People despaired completely when the sun set and darkness fell. The ceremony didn’t begin at all. The hired chairs were sent back. I vaguely remember that the minister expected was K Prabhakar, a dalit in the S Nijalingappa government of the 1960s.
TWO OF MY UNCLE’S DAUGHTERS did not go to school. They grazed cattle instead. I went along with them to graze our cows and sheep. I was very fond of one particular sheep, and I think it liked me too. I was grazing it one day when it was pregnant. To my great wonder, it let me hold its lamb as it gave birth. The little newborn started hopping around. I called out to the others. We made the little sheep drink milk from its mother’s udders. To prevent the mother sheep from harming the lamb, I placed my right hand in her mouth. I don’t know what she thought I was doing, but she sank her teeth into my hand. Blood streamed out. I tied some leaves around the wound. To this day, I have scars on my fingers.
My father was very affectionate towards me. He would sometimes take me along when he went out. He had friends from various castes. When he went to see his friends in the upper-caste colony, he stood in front of their houses. They made me sit on a stone bench and gave me things to eat. He would occasionally take me to an eating house in the village. The people who ran it would make the two of us sit some distance away from the others. The idlis they gave us were delicious—lost in the pleasure of the idlis’ shape, softness and taste, we were oblivious to all else.
Sometimes my father went out with his friends to drink. The leader of the group that walked to the distant liquor shop was an elder brother of my father’s. My father would heave me onto his shoulders and take me along with him every time. Other children, like me, came to the liquor shop, riding on their fathers’ shoulders. As the grown-ups drank and got high, they turned compassionate towards their children. We would be treated to liquor and meat chops before we returned home late at night.
MY FATHER INHERITED, from his father, two portions of land which we called Hosa Hola (new land) and Haluru Hola (land in Haluru). My parents and I walked a long distance to Hosa Hola where they would labour much of the day. They made me sit under a tree while they worked. They took a break for lunch in the afternoon and went back to work till the evening. I once heard my mother tell someone, “I must make my son study, at least enough to read our relatives’ letters.”
Soon afterwards, my uncle and some others told me they were going to send me to school. They wanted to sign me up that very day. I slipped away and they tried to grab me. I ran hard, but they wouldn’t give up. They carried me, shrieking and wailing, and admitted me to school. On my first day, when I thought of home, my parents, and our sheep and cows, tears welled up in my eyes. Some boys in the class were even more distressed. A teacher lashed me with his cane. I let out a loud wail, but quietened down after that.
Our teacher, Nagappachar, was a tall, fair man who wore an elaborate dhoti and a black coat. He was very strict. Once, an inspector visited our school. We were all terrified of him. He spent a long time at the school and tested the students by asking them to read and write. He had odd lips—curled up. I had studied them closely during his visit. Later, I often curled up my lips like him to amuse my classmates. The boys, reminded of the inspector, laughed uncontrollably. When we were let off to go and play, they would buy me toffee and beg me to mimic the inspector. I became very popular among the boys.
The teacher was bored in class one afternoon. He told the students to sing. One of the boys blurted out, “Sir, he can do inspector lips.” Intrigued, the teacher turned to me, and demanded, “What is that? Come on, show me.” Encouraged by my classmates, I enthusiastically mimicked the inspector’s speech, his gestures, his facial expressions and his gait. The teacher’s eyes filled with tears as he tried to control his laughter. Every day, after that, he would make me stand during the last period, and say, “Do something.” I was afraid I would get a beating if I mimicked the teacher himself, so I would entertain the class by squinting my eyes, or contorting my face like a madman and grinning stupidly. I became a minor celebrity in my class.
Nagappachar was a good teacher. Once in a while, he would get the boys to stand in a line and take them out in a procession through the village. He would lead and we would follow. When he shouted the first half of the slogan, “Compulsory education—” we would yell, “—is in force!” When he said, “Children of six years—” we would shout, “—should be sent to school!” This procession was entertaining for everyone in the village. We marched past the dalit colony too. The teacher distributed peppermint among the students after the procession.
ONE EVENING, I saw hundreds of people coming towards our house in a procession. At the head of the procession was a horse, and seated on it was my uncle. It was a victory procession in honour of my father’s elder brother, Aalayya, who had won an election to become a member of the Magadi municipal council. He got off the horse and touched my grandmother’s feet. The procession turned back. My uncle was the most educated and courageous man among the dalits. The people had made him contest on the plough symbol and had elected him without his having to spend a single paisa. He worked hard and earned a good reputation.
This uncle was very disciplined. His wife had been dead many years and he hadn’t married a second time. He regularly read the epic Jaimini Bharata, the sixteenth-century Kannada version of the Mahabharata. Sometime later, however, his life ended in tragedy. He had borrowed money from a woman, a moneylender, and could not repay her. She demanded that he return the money. Humiliated, he went to a well, worshipped it with flowers and incense sticks, and jumped to his death.
Another of my father’s older brothers ran an eating house in Megalahatti. Only dalits ate there. I went there often to fetch idlis. He treated me kindly, inviting me in, giving me coffee and seeing me off with the idlis. Later, he moved to Bangalore. He had set out with hopes of opening an eating house in that city, too. He had packed all his bags and vessels in a bundle and loaded it on top of a bus. When he got off, the bundle was gone. Someone had made away with it at the previous stop. His hopes of a new life were shattered.
Life in the village was becoming harder and harder. My father, burdened with debt, moved to Bangalore. The news spread slowly that he had left us and gone away, and we grew anxious. Every day, the teacher made me stand up in class and asked whether we had cooked anything, and if I’d had anything to eat. With his kind words, he instilled confidence in me. My mother, my two sisters and I spent those days in hardship and fear.
My mother’s family came to our rescue. Her brother came over to our colony and took us with him. We left the Magadi house and moved to Manchanabele. Compared to my father’s side, my mother’s family was well off. My maternal grandfather’s house was big. It had a neat front yard and a cowshed. Only Holeyas and Muslims lived in the village. Manchanabele was surrounded by hills, and the river Arkavati flowed nearby. Grandfather’s garden and fields stretched out by the river, and we spent a lot of time near the water.
MANCHANABELE WAS MORE COLOURFUL than Magadi. All the men and women in the village were friendly, and spoke to us affectionately. The boys there were lively and adventurous. The Muslim shopkeepers would recognize me and give me things to eat. My maternal grandfather, Pooraiah, was a tough and assertive man. The women in the house trembled when they heard his voice. He would spend a long time in the morning washing his hands, feet and face, and drawing a naama mark on his forehead. He would then tie his turban and sit in the front yard, where he would be served his morning tea. The rest of us then got our tea, served in brass tumblers that sparkled like silver. I have rarely, in my life since, enjoyed such tasty tea.
Grandfather had once heard a speech by Mahatma Gandhi. He said he had seen Gandhiji from a distance. When Gandhiji had asked non-drinkers to raise their hands, grandfather had been one of those who had. So there was no drinking in his house.
His wife had no end of folk tales to tell. She took me along to festivals and weddings in other towns. One day, I was running along the street at a wild speed. My hand brushed against the clothes of someone walking in the other direction. The man stopped in anger. I stopped too, but in fright. He walked away only after my grandmother had begged his forgiveness over and over again. She was afraid we might have to face the wrath of the upper castes because of my carelessness. She said I should never ever run that fast again. She ordered me to join my hands and say “Namaskara, swami,” every time I came across someone important. I followed this policy without fail and won everybody’s praise.
I once attended a wedding with her in a neighbouring village. The groom was very old, but full of life and excitement. He was marrying a second time. The young man helping with the arrangements was his son from his first marriage. At most weddings, we were made to sit and eat along with the bride and groom.
My grandmother, mother and aunt were experts when it came to fishing. They waded into the stream and caught all sorts of korava and snake fish. We ran after them with bags in our hands. They put their catch into our bags. We had to use all our strength to close the mouths of the bags. When we got home, the women smeared the fish with ash and rubbed them on a stone. It was our job to hold pots of water and pour whenever we were told to. A delicious meal of fish saaru was served on such nights.
GRANDFATHER HAD A SIZEABLE HERD OF COWS, and the bullock we had brought along from Magadi joined them. They called it Magadi. I was particularly fond of this bullock. I was by its side all the time, rubbing its back. It gave me loving looks. Memories of Magadi town flooded my mind whenever I was with this bullock, and I would think, too, of my father in Bangalore.
There had never been a theft in Manchanabele. As night fell, people sang, told stories and amused themselves by the light of oil lamps. One day, someone said thieves had come to Chikkanahalli, which was close to our village. The thieves had broken down the door of a house and flung some sort of powder on the faces of people sleeping inside. The victims, when they woke up, could only watch with open eyes, unable to move or get up. They were able to move only a long while after the thieves had stolen everything valuable in the house. People in Manchanabele were unnerved by these stories. Word of the thieves was everywhere. A day later, we saw a man looking for something in the garbage pit opposite our house. He was picking out strange things and putting them into his gunnysack. My mother, who noticed that we were frightened, told us he was only looking for bones, and that he was a relative of ours. That calmed us down.
On one occasion, our whole family went to Avverahalli, near which my mother’s elder sister lived. It was evening by the time we crossed the stream and reached her house. I was filled with wonder when I saw my cousins riding buffaloes. In the mornings, peacocks came in clusters to dance at the foot of the hill across from their house. A little way down, the Arkavati flowed with a julu-julu cadence. The river ran towards Manchanabele, skirting the trees and meandering along the hills and mountains. My aunt’s husband, Kalingaiah, was well known in that region. He used to go shooting with a rifle at night. I tasted rabbit meat there for the first time.
The festival in honour of the village goddess was in progress. The deity would possess someone, and, while in that person’s body, would run a good distance. The devotees ran after the ‘deity.’ When the deity got tired of running, it stopped. The devotees stopped too. The yajamaana, who mediated between the deity and the people, was a thin old man. He would take the deity to task.
Yajamaana: Where were you all these days?
Deity: Is your village my only concern? I have to look after all three worlds.
Yajamaana: Do you know how hard life has become for us?
Deity: You say that as though I am happy about my life.
The dialogue between the divine and the human continued in this manner. In a little while, the deity would start dancing. The people would dance too. The din of the instruments would drown out all voices.
In Manchanabele, I had an uncle who was sharp, though not hardworking. Once, a stray buffalo wandered into Manchanabele after nightfall. Three or four strong dalits in the village grabbed it. They took it to a rock at the back of the village, slaughtered and apportioned it, and feasted through the night. Blood had spilled all over the rock, turning it red. It looked like the scene of a crime.
The next morning, a man from some other village came by.
“Did our buffalo come this way?” he asked my uncle, who was hanging around. Uncle remembered all too clearly what had happened the night before, and was smart enough to know what might happen if the man went towards the rock. Without once referring to the buffalo, he said, “You shouldn’t have come here at this bad time.”
The visitor was taken aback. “Why, what terrible thing has befallen this place?” he asked.
Uncle said, “Ayyo, everyone in the village is sick and has diarrhoea. Three or four people have died already. You poor man, I’m afraid you might catch it, too.”
The visitor fled with unseemly haste. For a long time, everyone praised my uncle’s presence of mind.
In a neighbouring village, a man used to be possessed by a goddess. People called her the Sheep Goddess. When the goddess entered him, she would shout (in his voice, of course), “Sheep! Sheep!”
“Which sheep, mother?” the devotees would ask humbly.
“Any sheep!” the goddess would roar.
The devotees would rush out, bring whichever sheep they could find, and place it before the goddess. After the goddess left the body of her “priest,” he and the devotees would slaughter the sheep and have a good meal. People who had lost sheep were in no position to say or do anything. They were afraid the goddess might harm them if they said anything against her.
My uncle happened to be present during one of these episodes of possession. As usual, responding to the goddess’ demand, the devotees grabbed a sheep and brought it in. For some reason, the goddess said, “I don’t want this sheep. Bring me another.”
That was the first time ever that the goddess had refused a sheep. The crowd was astounded. They became anxious that they might have done something wrong.
“Why don’t you want it, mother?” they asked. They beseeched her in a variety of ways to accept the sheep.
She wouldn’t budge. “When I say I don’t want it, I don’t want it,” she said curtly, as though breaking a stick in two. It was an impasse.
So my uncle asked the people of the village, “Whose sheep is it?”
No one had thought of that. Someone examined the animal and declared, “It belongs to the possessed priest.” It dawned on them that he was refusing it because it was his sheep. They realized that the possession was a pretext to eat mutton. People who had lost their sheep earlier flew into a rage. They beat the priest to pulp. The Sheep Goddess ceased to appear after that day.
Uncle was an actor too. They used to stage the play Harishchandra in the village. He would play the role of the truthful king. He played the role so well that the women of the village would sob and cry. When I was thus spending my time in happy idleness, going from place to place, my uncle decided to send me to school again. Manchanabele had no school, but the neighbouring village, Anekempayyana Doddi, had one. I got used to the other boys within two days of joining the school. The school had a male and a female teacher, but we used to address both of them as “sir”. Four classes were conducted in a single room. Both teachers sat on chairs and taught us.
One day, even as we were watching them, our master gave madam a stinging slap. She started wailing and scolding him. We heard her say, through her sobs, “You said you would get ear studs made for me, but you haven’t.” The master snapped at her, “That’s the last thing you’ll get.” Madam’s wailing got out of hand, and the lessons became unbearable. On such occasions, master would just sit around looking angry. And then, suddenly, he would give her another slap. Madam would curse him. Sometimes, master beat her so hard that she ended up looking like a crushed coconut. This was good entertainment for us. Hiding our glee, and pretending to be scared, we would sit and watch them squabble.
I lost interest in these squabbles after I found out that they were a married couple. Soon enough, it occurred to the teachers that the students were enjoying their fights. They started sending us out into the forest to collect firewood for their house. I didn’t enjoy walking in the hot sun and gathering fallen branches. So I would set out from home as though on my way to school, but I would head for the riverside. I would place my slate and books on the bank, take my clothes off, and jump into the river. I loved keeping my head above water while the rest of my body went under; I did this for hours, until it was time to go home. Sometimes, my classmates came that way, looking for firewood. I would duck and hide from them. Wallowing in water was certainly more fun than going to school just to collect firewood. Thus, my days in Manchanabele were spent more on the riverbanks and hills, and at feasts and weddings, than on studies.