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The Blurred Memories of a Wonderful Year: 1956

Dr Rajagopala Soondron

Was it in 1956 that a new strategy was set in motion by the then Department of Education: religious classes would be held for our Christian friends, while at the same time the non-Christian pupils would be taken care of by some teachers, who could coach them as they so wished? That’s how we came to know Mr Typhis for the first time, a thin fortyish man, who welcomed us in a class on the ‘girl’ section of the school. Whereas French would be the lingua franca in classes, we were suddenly amazed to discover a teacher switching to Creole to tell us… stories.

For me it was the greatest class of all; stories in Creole at school!! So every week I would be secretly looking forward to see Mr Typhis again; he would take a few steps forward, scratch his almost bald head while looking downwards in a pensive mood, and spin a story about a naughty boy, trying to play mischief to his own friend, would dig a pot hole in a grassy path by a forest so as to trap the latter. It turned out instead that his own mother, coming back with a bundle of grass on her head, stepped into the hole and broke her leg. The moral of the story was that one must not dig holes for others. That was perhaps the greatest lesson I would remember from those non-religious classes. And Mr Typhis would even reveal to us, always in Creole, why Indian songs always started with a long musical pause. That was to give the singer time to ponder and work out what he would sing about!! The following year Mr Typhis took us in his Fourth Standard class, and turned out to be quite different – but that’s another matter.

I had many Christian friends in my class; however, I would soon realize that they were different from me, especially during recreation/lunch time. Everyday children in my vicinity would come to school with our half ‘maison’ bread, well buttered, courtesy of the mother and the Blue Band company. In fact, at home our parents would be buying a big ‘tin’ of that margarine with the hope that it would last a month or so. But I was always puzzled by my Christian friends’ bread; sometime it would look flat, triangular and totally different. And the wonder of wonders they were not only buttered as ours but they had also some rosy, pink stuffing inside. And with time I would learn that that was ‘sandwich’ stuffed with ham, and sometimes with corned beef. Eating meat at school! That would be real luck.

Decades later Blue Band Margarine, yet again, would come up in a reminiscence with some classmates; one girl of a well-to-do family decided one day that she had had enough of that ‘di berre plime’ bread her mother gave her everyday; why not change it for a Blue Band bread and have a new gustatory experience? It would have been folly for anyone to refuse that trade off, so she readily found one of her friends as taker. Just to say that that light, pale yellowish, creamy, saltier and tastier butter was not accessible to every school child.

Having switched from ‘crayon l’ardoise’, we had become fans of granite pencils. They were always the dull, matt reddish HB ones. Sometimes we might have had the good luck of having some coloured pencils; but that was once in a blue moon. But what a surprise when one night Dad, who rarely gave us gifts, came home late and brought two pencils that kept my elder sister and me spellbound. Here were some extraordinary writing implements; not the usual red but of a sheen never seen before. One was of a beautiful pale pink and the other a bluish green colour.

How to describe it never came within my grasp at that time. Now we know, those pencils of 1956 were of a metallic coloured hue. But the real surprise was that, as they were sharpened, the shavings would emit a wonderful fragrance. We had always associated pencils with writing homework – that distasteful duty – but suddenly we saw them in a different light; they were not only beautiful looking but nice smelling too. The following day we brought them to school and paraded them to all of our classmates; they made us proud that day. Have we ever met fragrant pencils since then? Never. Still wondering where did the old man get them from.

That academic year would have ended wonderfully for all of us, but it was not to be. It had an anticlimax; the bad news came as a surprise – for the simple reason that children would always be kept in the dark and would never know what were in the grown-ups’ mind. So one day I suddenly had the feeling that my world had collapsed. How would a child of 8 feel if all his bosom childhood friends, from the same vicinity, were suddenly to leave him and walk away from his school life? Was it mid or end of the year – when the teacher Mrs Desveau suddenly called out many names of my buddies; they were asked to pick their satchels and get ready to change school!!

Possibly my friends had been wised up to their parents’ plan for them; as to my father he did not, and so I was in total darkness. Most of my class buddies were to be transferred to the new Colonel Maingard Government School, situated at the extreme west end of the road, some one kilometer away. How come I was not included? Later I would learn that my father had not opted for transfer though I was in that catchment area. So out of the blue I found myself almost friendless - Anand, Dinesh and many others walked away from me. That left me sitting alone at my desk, in total disarray and in tears. It was perhaps my most miserable day of that year. But time would give my dad reason – my school always did better in the ‘p’tite bourse’, and decades later the other one would be closed down for one reason or other.

But the icing on the cake would be the Indian picture “Anari”, which would extol the glory of 1956 in one of its songs. Raj Kapoor, that eternal pauper, was ushered into a night club by his “ange gardien ” Lalita Pawar, where a voluptuous Helenish siren would be the life and soul of the end-of-year party; and they would be dancing and rendering that lively memorable song ‘1956 … 1957 … 1958 …1959… 9. 9. 9. 9’. The young adults were already glorifying the 50s and making ready to welcome a new decade. Had we children been more mature, we would have known and taken the cue, that that was the curtain -- the death knoll of those memorable 50s -- of our childhood.

That was sixty years ago -- we were about 8 years old.

Nowadays psychologists and experts will tell us that it’s necessary to teach our children as much as possible before their 7th - 8th year, the time of a fantastic memory; that early period of life is the most important in the child’s development, it is the most malleable and adaptive period. After that the brain is already set, and soon goes through the turmoil of puberty, readying to face the future and the world. And it would also be the time when children will start remembering their previous night’s dreams and their elders, and the good and bad turns they would be going through.

Is it possible that Mother Nature did play one of her tricks on our immature mind and help us to keep such a most vivid memory of that year 1956? Or is it that we have just been dreaming and thinking of reinforcing and embellishing those blurred memories of that wonderful year? Who knows?

Dr Rajagopala Soondron

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