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Today morning I realized – to my shock – that I have been living in my hometown for twenty-two years now. Twenty two years! It means I have lived here for almost two-thirds of my life. That’s an awfully long time to be staying put in one place. Maybe not for some, but it definitely is for me. You see, the first two-thirds of my life was spent living the life of a nomad. So this somehow seems improbable.

My father had a transferable job. The longest we stayed in a place must have been four years, and that was only once, the rest of the time it was either two or three years at a place at the most. Then came my marriage to an army officer and with that came postings to out of the way locations, part of an infantry man’s life. The tenures this time were even shorter, one and a half to two years at the most. This went on up till the time the First Born was in the ninth grade. That is when the big change came.

The schools where the L&M was stationed at the time were a huge problem. In the primary school, there were no benches or desks for the students. In the ad hoc classrooms (we were told a new building was coming up), the little ones sat on dhurries spread on the classroom floor, hunched up over their books as they wrote in them. The Second Born often complained of backache. Before coming to the new place, others had advised me to show up at school frequently so the teachers recognized my son and would be careful not to hit him. I am talking of defenseless seven year old children. You bet I visited the school every now and then.

As for the high school it came with a different set of problems. As the new boy in class, the first question the First Born was asked by his classmate was whether he wanted to see his bhabhi (sister-in-law). The boy then pointed out a girl to my son. I believe that was his subtle way of informing the new boy to stay away from his girl. It is another matter that the girl herself was totally ignorant of her chosen status as the boy’s future bride. The boy even offered to find a girl for the First Born too. He had just turned fourteen at the time. All this was in a school where the boys and girls were not allowed to mingle and had to leave separately when school was over.

I know this is going to be a sweeping statement, but the teachers there were not really interested in teaching. The students on their part seemed uninterested in learning too. Sadly my son’s abilities were going to waste, as were of course those of all the children. Some student would come drunk to class (sometimes it could be a teacher too), another student would come with a knife. There were whispers of drugs. No one did anything to stop them. Or may be they had tried and it all failed, and apathy was the result. For us anyway it was all a bit scary. The one good thing was the First Born was liked by all as the ‘good’ boy. The saving grace was he studied his lessons on his own, not depending on the teachers.

Things stood thus when one morning I woke up with a start. My brain had, out of the blue, painted a terrible picture of the First Born failing his tenth grade board exam which was the next year. And why would he fail? He was after all an excellent student. But that exactly is the problem, my brain clarified. People knew him to be good in his studies, that he would do well in his final exams. What if someone substituted his paper and passed it off as that of some other student? I mean anything could happen. It was that kind of place. When the results were announced, what if we found the First Born had failed and instead some other student had scored well? What could we do then? How could we prove there had been tampering, more importantly how could we rectify matters? How would all of this affect my son? I was worried sick at the last thought. We would have failed him as parents if we couldn’t set things right.

I woke up the L&M and told him I wanted to move back to our hometown. You must understand that until then I had insisted that I would accompany him wherever the army sent him (and families were allowed). I didn’t care if the places were remote or did not have all facilities or even if the schools were not up to standard. I‘d manage all that, I had repeatedly tell him. But that particular morning, I voluntarily offered to go back to our hometown for the sake of the First Born’s education. There was no time to be lost. The coming year was the crucial one.

It wasn’t easy. We had to get special permission to move the children to a school down south without their dad’s transfer certificate. But we were lucky, once the ball was set rolling, things happened fast. I returned to my hometown with better school and college facilities (the L&M joined us years later when he left the army). …And that’s how I ended up settling down here twenty two long years ago. Seems like yesterday though.

© Shail Mohan 2020