I remember a vista of a vast field of green grass under a very bright sunshine and a river with the kind of smell that spoiled everything. It was ages before I had any idea what a classroom was supposed to look like. It would take forever before I was thrown into one without my consent and with a bunch of kids who were, more or less, of my size. We all looked bewildered - just like sheep being taken to a slaughterhouse.
We are lined up in pairs and march towards a classroom through a garden full of tall trees, shrubs, plants and pots of flowers along the way. It was like walking through paradise. Magical and beyond description until you enter that dreadful and deadly classroom space full of desks, wooden shelves and a massive blackboard with markings in chalk - a crime scene where innocence is slowly put to silence while the magic is gradually drained out like blood from a living body.
Those who were assigned with the task of terminating our natural connection and our innate ability to blend with organic life and whatever lies in store, were none other than the grown ups who seemed to be in charge of the whole place.
Everything seemed to be where it should be but it was too regimented or organised that it felt totally out of place and was probably happening to us in our first days at school. Nobody knew what was going on but it was a sort of social experiment - a preparatory programme for the evolution of these clueless four or five year-old kids into a life of a semi-detached existence.
The clue was in the uniform we had to put up with everyday. It was a white overall not that different from what doctors and nurses wear in hospitals. The unspoken rule behind all that cover up was: don't get dirty, or else. How is a child supposed to play around in the Garden of Eden without getting dirty? We were supposed to be lost in the jungle but we find ourselves in this organised paradise and feel the loss before we even started?
It didn't make any sense at all! Have the adults gone childish?
We would come out for a short break in between lessons and walk around like unauthorised inspectors. We couldn't play hide and seek because there was nothing to seek and nowhere to hide. It was too clinical for comfort.
Then came the day... that fateful day!
It began just like any other day. We lined up in pairs - boys with boys and girls with girls and all marching to separate classrooms - to spend at least four hours on the grill and in a language no one understands. In one of the sessions, one teacher came in and after taking some time to prepare herself, said something in that weird language. The whole class kept quite as if nothing was said at all - absolute silence.
I remember raising my right hand and saw another kid on the left corner of the room doing the same. What happened next is an event that is still vivid in my mind. I can recall it in slow motion.
The teacher had a pile of papers in her arms with a box of pencils and goes to every desk and places a printed image of a fruit together with a blank paper and a set of coloured pencils for each kid. When my turn came, she just passed me by as if I didn't exist while the boy sitting next to me was given the whole gear. I can still remember the picture of a green apple for his drawing exercise.
I remember asking myself, 'what is going on here?'
After she was done with the delivery and given instructions on what is to be done, which was so obvious by then, she started walking towards where I was sitting. She had something in her hands. As she came closer and closer, I had the feeling that I was the target or the purpose of her mission. She stood right in front of me and pulled a piece from a scotch tape roll, picked the scissors and cut enough tape to...
I still had no idea what she was going to do with it.
Then she used her fingers to hold each end, stuck the tape on my lips and made sure it stayed there and went to the other boy to do the same.
I just couldn't figure out what was going on and thought it was probably part of some classroom exercise. But no... no! no! no! Absolutely nothing happened till the session ended - a good half an hour or more. At one moment, I did think of removing the tape but was terrified she might do something worse.
The other kids spent their time drawing pictures of whatever kind fruit stared at them. Myself and the other kid looked at each other from a distance every now and then and knew exactly how the other felt. It is really strange that I don't remember noises or voices associated to that specific event. It was as if I lost my hearing or the kind of feeling you get when you watch a silent movie.
The sense of relief I felt after she removed the tape at the end of the session is beyond description... and we talk of freedom of speech? We were being silenced long before we could even open our mouth and speak!
I felt like I could breathe again and thinking about how I was breathing when the tape was on. It was really a confused sense of sensing reality.
After we were sent home for lunch, I remember not wanting to go back to that school or classroom. But how can I tell my father or my mother about what happened? It was beyond my capacity to describe what happened in any coherent way and, looking back, they would have probably thought I was making it up.
It took me a couple of decades to figure out why she did what she did and why I did what I did.
What she probably asked was: is there anyone in this classroom who wasn't interested or didn't want to participate in the drawing class. She must have assumed we understood or spoke her language. In my case however, it was a matter of showing a response to whatever she was saying. I had the feeling or urge to react since the whole class was as dead as a mouse. The other kid probably felt the same. We were both punished for being 'potentially' disruptive.
I couldn't think of any other explanation. How she can assume we understood her language at that age or what teaching qualification she had at the time is still beyond my comprehension.
A few years later...
I remember going to church trying hard to connect with Almighty God. It wasn't that easy. It always felt like something good had to happen but nothing came out of it all the time. It is the waiting that kills you. Whenever something bad happens, I used to ask myself, "Where was He?"
'Accept, submit and all will be well' was the kind of mantra we were told to recite. It was the survival of the meekest. Maybe stuff happens when he [with a capital H] goes to sleep. We must have created god in our own image. Otherwise, we wouldn't be so obsessed with ourselves or our own self-image. Imagination aside, this is what I remember for real.
One day, our own father who lives in our real house took a one-week holiday and stayed at home.
"I am your little god!" he used to say - just to remind us he is the boss. Don't even think of trying to mess with me.
One morning, he woke up early and bought a sheep from right outside the main gate of our house. There used to be an endless stream of cattle, sheep and goats on their way to the big market every Saturday. By midday, he had it slaughtered and butchered at home. The atmosphere had a stench of blood, bile and abattoir.
He took over the kitchen and declared, "I love my kids so much that I'm going make them some good food... the kind of stuff they never dreamed of!" and blasted off with his imagination with an apron in front. Every time someone knocks on the main gate, he would drop his apron and act as if he was doing something else.
A man wasn’t supposed to be seen in the kitchen.
It took him quite some time to warm up to the task ahead and immerse us all in an atmosphere of a new trend of healthy cooking - according to him, that is. He prepared all sorts of vegetables cut to the wrong size. The onions, potatoes and tomatoes were done in two-halves; the carrots and garlic stayed in one piece and the peppers – in green and red – were sliced in four. They were cooked all together with lamb chops, spare ribs and huge dices of meat and thrown into a pot the size of which we haven't seen before. He covered the whole mess with boiling water.
The icing on the monstrous stew of many colours was a massive dose of black lentils. That will excite the broth to the very core, he says. It will give it some stability and foundation, he adds.
He talks as if he is creating a new form of life out of his primordial soup.
Our mother - Hail Mary full of grace - is walking by, observing with the kind of look that smells of blood and just pretending to help out here and there while shaking her head every now and then.
Starvation is beginning to bite. It was almost two in the afternoon and just when we were getting ready to have our meal, he said he had to take a break and left instructions on how it should be served... as if he had prepared an out-of -this-world dish.
All it took was one taste and it was just awful – absolutely horrible!
Ever since then, we dreaded the day he says he was going to take a holiday!
None of us had the stomach to take another taste of whatever he cooked. He probably didn't like it either. No wonder he left too early. We later found out that he had turned one of his kids to an informer - someone to let him know whether we loved his cooking or not. We obviously didn't and, as usual, took the blame for being tasteless.
I remember wrapping lamb chops, onions, garlic and pepper in paper and hiding under the bed. The others must have done much worse. We couldn’t dump it in the bin in case he found them.
Our father who art in heaven, gives us our daily bread and forgive our trespasses as we cannot forgive those who trespass against us and so forth.
A day later...
Our mother wasn't happy at all but trying hard to reconcile herself or her kids to a situation that went out of control a day earlier, she says, "Your father means well and did his best but he spent a week's worth of shopping in one day. He probably thought he was cooking for the whole week. Easter Lent starts next week anyway."
Easter Lent, also known as fast-40, is the time of year when you cannot ask for more of anything.
We were put on a fast-track to our yearly reminder of pain and suffering. All I could think of was nothing but looming starvation!