Poignant tales from an innocent past

Mumbai: Indian school days are hardly Enid Blyton`s Malory Towers where stories lurk in every nook and brew in every cranny of the classrooms and hostels.

Schools here are usually associated with nose-on-the-grindstone regimen, cramming sessions and the pressure cooker of term-end examinations.

Dream schools such as Rabindranath Tagore`s Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan are a rarity among the millions of knowledge holes that dot the country passing off as primary, secondary and high schools.

However, a new anthology of short stories by some of India`s leading short story writers tries to revive the dead soul of our long-gone school days with tales of nostalgia - and wonder that strikes the newbie in the education machine. And emerges a winner with a bagful of delightful tales.

The collection has pooled in writers such as Subhadra Sen Gupta, Bulbul Sharma, Paro Anand, Jerry Pinto, Ranjit Lal, Gautam Benegal, Anupa Lal and Trisha Ray to weave narratives about scholastic education from childhood memories, events and social, temporal, spatial and emotional canvases.

Known for her retelling of history for children, Subhadra Sen Gupta titles her story, "A Disobedient Girl" -- in 19th century Bengal when girls had just begun to go to school.

At that time, women were supposed to keep strict purdah and not allowed to leave the house unless accompanied by male relatives or servants, the author says about the historical backdrop of her story.

The movement for women`s rights and education in Bengal were led by reformers such as Raja Rammohun Roy in the mid-19th century in the midst of criticism by the orthodox Bengali gentry that "educated girls became widows". Women were gradually allowed basic education but were expected to be servile to men.

The story narrates the joys and agonies of a young 19th century woman from an old-world family fold, who suddenly discovers her way to school.

Leading children`s story-teller and activist Paro Anand builds her narrative, "They Called Her Fats", around Fatima Whitbread who won her first Olympic bronze medal in "javelin throw" in 1984 and later in the World Championships logging five of the six longest throws in history and breaking world records.

"Long ago, a little news item on the sports page of a newspaper told me something about this incredible woman. Since then I have tried to gather as much information about her as possible," Anand said.

There is something about school gates, the writer says recalling her memory of school days.

"When I went back to teach in the school I studied at, I had the same sinking feeling getting past them that I`d always had as a student," she recounts with nostalgia.

Veteran writer Ranjit Lal spins a tale of a misfit Sushmita, who struggles to be accepted in her school.

"I went to Green Lawns School in Mumbai, the only school that would have me despite my health issue. There was actually a girl like Sushmita...," Lal said.

The stories stand out for their innocence and the simplicity of the prose and themes.

The book was released Wednesday by writer and MP Shashi Tharoor and his wife Sunanda in New Delhi.

IANS

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