It is I, your faithful newsletter writer, back into the fray with another edition of the alphabet series. If you’re an old reader, you might remember these, new readers, begin with A (for Appu Ghar) and make your way all the way up to J (for joke.) I like the format of these things, using an alphabet to bounce an idea around, a little structure to an otherwise not-very-structured project.
Tomorrow, I am off to Kerala, Kochi to be exact, to spend a week there. So, of course, Kerala has been on my mind, and when I thought about “K” it was a Kerala-specific set of memories that got me going. Being a Delhi half-Malayali for me has been as odd as being an Indian in Berlin—part of you is forever foreign, forever unknown. To add to that, my knowledge of Malayalam is practically nil, so while I could claim a different ethnicity to everyone else, I was still an outsider in Kerala where my roots lay. (Lie?) I was—and remain, to some extent—an odd, mixed-up sort of Indian, one part here, another part there, no claim to home or belonging. I used to battle this by being as fiercely Delhi as I could, and yes, this city has more of me than any other one, but there’s a difference between something becoming your home because there’s no other space that you can claim, and something becoming your home because you love it so much. Slowly, and also in only a six month period, Berlin is where I feel love for an actual city, sometimes I walk down the streets and consider how lucky I am to live here, but again, I’m not a Berliner, I’m not One of Them, but neither am I One of Us. Language is so important, without it you’re always on the outside looking in. I’ve gotten used to it, in fact, I think as a writer, being on the outside is essential to writing well, how can you observe if you’re in the middle of things? But Kerala, despite being where half my family is from, has no resonance for me beyond the biological.
When I was eight, we moved from Delhi to Trivandrum* for two years. The year was 1989, across the world, in a city I didn’t even know existed then, a wall was taken down. In that same November, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad was allowed to lay a foundation stone on a disputed bit of land. A man called Sachin Tendulkar made his debut on the cricket fields. It was that sort of year, a big year for a lot of people, including me, a Delhi child who had never lived anywhere else.
*do I need to keep typing Tirunavanthapuram or can I just stick to Trivandrum? You get it, na?
Trivandrum in those times was slow—it’s still slow compared to Cochin, but it had a sleepy small-town atmosphere which didn’t seem to at all fit with it being the capital of the state. Everything felt old worldly, at least it does in my memories of it: a large library smelling of old books, a bakery for fresh bread, Kovalam beach, deserted for most of the time except for the sporadic foreigner washing up on its shores. In our neighbourhood (actually, less a hood, and more a hill with three houses) there were only two other children. Next door lived a lady, an Indian lady, who could’ve been left behind by the British Raj. She had rose bushes and two Pomeranians and a grandson who came to visit every now and then and a trunk full of Rupert annuals. We were a little far away from the main hustle of the city, which made us feel even more isolated, living a country life. I had a dog, a nice one, called Bobo, I had a tiled roof you could reach quite easily and watch the sunset on. There was a rock garden in the middle of the house where I put caterpillars and pretended like they were dinosaurs stomping about. I made up stories, I read books, I walked with my dog, it was a nice life.
And then they put me in a school.
UGHHHH I hated school. Like, I get that everyone has to learn blah blah blah and you cannot get ahead in this world without an education blah blah blah, but okay, indulge me for a second in a conspiracy theory. Who decided that we need to go to school to have a rounded childhood, eh? SURELY once you finish learning to read and write and do basic maths, your education should be OPTIONAL. Think of all the years I have wasted in a hot classroom being completely bored and unhappy because I was there and not out in the world doing my own thing. I understand that parents have to work and so someone needs to watch your kid and school is the best option, but there should be choices for children like me, who just wanted to read out of syllabus and never be in a classroom again.
In 1989 though, I was still bright as a button and eager to start learning. The relentless grind of the CBSE system had not yet killed my life force, I was fresh out of a Montessori school where I was promoted ahead of my peers, because of my reading (I had to go back to them for Hindi and Maths) and so I felt like a Child Genius. At my old school, we were taught to enjoy our lessons, no rote learning, but learning through play. The teachers were called Aunty. I was excited to go every morning, excited to race through my textbooks, excited about all of it.
My parents were told there was only one good all-round school in Trivandrum, and that was Kendriya Vidyalaya. This may come as a shock to some of you. After all, Kendriya Vidyalaya is one of those less desirable things: a government school. Government schools are notoriously bad, known for lack of facilities, lack of teachers, overcrowded classrooms and so on. This is one of the platforms the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi ran on, and won. Next door to my mum’s house now is one of their “model schools” featuring bright murals and a wall of charity (where you can hang up old clothes you no longer want for those in need). One of the murals says in Hindi: “Now government schools are good too!” However, it’s now 2022, back in 1989, this was totally not a thing.
Here’s how the KV model is slightly different though. Unlike most super local government schools, they believe in a unified syllabus so no matter which KV you go to in India (or the world—there are also branches in Moscow, Kathmandu and Tehran, inside the Indian embassies there.) you’ll learn the same thing as everyone else. This is because they’re not just any government school: they were built for kids of defence personnel. Army kids had their own Army Public Schools, so Kendriya Vidyalaya expanded to include children of any government employee, because you had to bounce around so much. This meant that it was hugely popular, and people had to pull all sorts of strings to get their kids in. Up until this year, there was even a MP quota, which they just removed, presumably because it was exploited by everyone with high connections. There are school fees for most, so it’s not entirely funded by the government, unless you are a SC/ST person, the child of an employee of the school, or an only girl child after class VI.
Of course, I was blissfully unaware of any of this when I rocked up in my frock and my fringe, ready and able to begin class IV. While waiting for the coveted seat to open up, my parents had popped me into a convent school called Holy Angels, from which I emerged proselytizing about how we were all going to go to hell because we didn’t go to church and also composing lovely little lullabies, among which, my mother remembers, one was called, “Sleep Baby Jesus.” I don’t remember any of this, but I do remember envying the girls who got to go to catechism class while I had to do boring old moral science. Standing outside the classroom one day, I glimpsed a girl raising her hand lackadaisically, her forefinger and pinky slightly raised, the rest of her fingers curled towards her palm, like a rock on gesture, but more graceful. I remember longing to raise my hand like that, to be so unconcerned, so cool, no eager stabbing of the air with my palms, just a take-it-or-leave-it hand. I thought maybe her Catholic Classes had taught her that air, that insouciance, and so maybe that’s why I yearned to be one of them, so I could be too.
Of course Kendriya Vidyalaya had a school uniform, but I joined in the middle of a term, so I had to go into school in mufti, as it were. My hair at the time was gathered in two small ponytails at the side of my head with a thick and glorious fringe across my forehead. I told people I was Japanese when they asked, rattling off some nonsense words, pleased at the attention. Older children kept asking if it were my birthday, because that was the only time children were allowed to be out of uniform. You stood up in class and handed round a bag of sweets. Everyone sang happy birthday to you. My first birthday there was on a weekend, disappointingly, I had one friend from school who I invited but she never came, even though I waited for her. It’s okay, there were other children there, perhaps even my cousins, but I remember I thought she was going to come, I had given her my phone number so she could call and ask for directions, and she never did. I stopped looking out for her at school after that, and she, I think, was pleased to not have the pressure of me liking her.
Actually, she’s a good jumping off place, Asha Lata. She’s probably forgotten who I am even, all these thousands of years later, but I remember her for being the first person I considered being “best friends” with at that school. All my life I have been obsessed with the idea of having a Best Friend. Someone like the books, someone you hung out with every day, who loved you for who you were, who was a kindred spirit, a twin soul, someone to whisper and giggle with, someone basically to be your Person. It wasn’t even like it was only confined to literature. I saw kids pairing up all the time, and I decided the time was ripe for me to enter New Best Friend territory. I don’t remember how I decided Asha Lata would be this person for me, but she was probably nice to me my first few days at KV, and she seemed best friend-less so I decided for both of us. This was my MO at both my previous school and the one I would go to next: one girl was slightly nice, I, guns blazing, taking it as a declaration to stand by my side and serve next to me in battle and so on, took all those relationships from zero to a hundred within the first week. All the girls had the same sort of temperament, they all seemed slightly… bewildered I guess? We had nothing in common, any of us, except they were quiet girls, like me, so I thought that was enough to bond us together. I adored all of them briefly, and when I eventually got bored—again: we had nothing in common—all of us split with no hard feelings. In fact, thinking about it, I’m not sure the others didn’t have the same sense of relief to no longer have to live up to this grand fantasy I had in my head about the two of us.
After the Great Birthday Betrayal, which ok, I never actually thought she’d come, I just hoped, I went to our special lunch eating spot one day, to find she was there with three other girls. I had discovered that spot, a little hollow in a copse of trees, I was the one who suggested we eat there instead of on the playground with the rest of our classmates, it was our place, and now it was filled with other girls who eyed me unkindly and broke into giggles and rapid fire Malayalam when I sat down. I didn’t yet realise Asha Lata was done with me, I nudged her and asked what the others said, she looked at me, and turned away and laughed to the others, “Paavam.” Poor thing. I held my head up high but that killed any ambitions I had to have a particular best friend, and I stayed Best Friendless for the rest of my time there, with just occasional friends and admirers who I talked to and enjoyed the company of but never invested in, really.
One of those friends and admirers was a boy from the Gulf. It was he who stood up for my honour when another boy shoved into me. “Watch where you’re going,” he snapped at the other boy, and the other boy said, “What’s it to you?” and I, blushing deeply, said, “Yes, what is it to you?” because I didn’t want everyone to tease me saying I had a boyfriend, and that was a mean thing to do but he remained my friend. In fact, I think he could’ve been a Best Friend, if I’d met him before the Asha Lata incident, if I were not so wary. He collected stamps and so did I, briefly. We talked about comic books. He was nice. I don’t remember his name.
This other boy came into our class with a host of others, all in the middle of my second year there. This was 1990, and Iraq had just invaded Kuwait. Malayali parents working abroad, afraid for their children, began sending them back “home” and this whole bunch, more cosmopolitan than the rest, more foreign, shinier, chunkier, all turned up in our classroom. That’s how I remember the Gulf war, new children there suddenly, amongst us.
We had a maths teacher with a strange habit of beating us when we got the answers wrong. For the boys, he’d slowly caress their shoulders, as they waited flinching, and then he’d twist their ears. For the girls, he’d pinch your thigh, just above where the hemline of your skirt was. This only happened to me once, but it was shocking, I still remember the absolute pain, and the oddness of having being hurt there, such a strange place to inflict trauma. Was it sexual? We were only eight or nine, so I hope not, certainly he never went any further than pinching tender thighs as punishment. He was also the master for the junior Scouts and Guides, called Cubs and Bulbuls. My foreign relatives had just brought me a pen knife, a proper Swiss Army knife that I took to school to show him. Bearing down on a twig, he used a stone to bash the blade and promptly snapped it. He was so apologetic, almost twisting in remorse, that I considered it a good trade, his servility for the safety of my body the next time I got an answer wrong. I think he thought we’d make him pay money to replace it, I wish he’d taken the same agonies over hurting us, but you know, maths teachers, across my education, have been universally terrible. They all seemed to hate children, so strange, why be a teacher at all? They all got frustrated really quickly if you got an answer wrong. There was one nice master in boarding school who worked really hard with me after hours, but he was the exception.
I liked our class teacher a lot though. She also taught us Hindi, I think—you could choose between Malayalam and Hindi—and coming from Delhi, my Hindi was better than the rest of my classmates, a RARE occurrence which I greatly enjoyed. I even tried composing poems in it, and I wrote a little one that she admired greatly, as well as one in English class about a magic feather that you could hold on to and would take trips around the world. She liked the poems so much she submitted both to a children’s magazine, and told the whole class about it.
I entered a lot of competitions when I was in KV. The school bulletin board would hold all sorts of notices, and as K knows, whenever I see something new, my usual remark is, “I bet I’d be really good at that if I tried!” (Most recently, watching King Richard, wondering if I had an inner Serena Williams hidden inside me that no one ever noticed.) (I am the most unatheletic person in the world, but I could’ve been a tennis star if I’d tried.) My mother took me at my word, both of us excitedly picking poetry to do a recitation contest, an extempore contest where I rattled on about the dangers of junk food, a painting contest, I did it all. Never won anything, but it was fun to attempt. KV had an annual fancy dress show, all these kids showing up in cardboard contraptions being tubes of toothpaste, policemen with their own little booths, I thought I had an ace in the hole. I went as Mary Had A Little Lamb, borrowed a goat kid from a neighbour and my line was, “I’m Mary, and this is my little lamb!” I thought for sure my live prop would cinch it. That damn kid refused to walk across the stage with me, he was supposed to trip prettily at my heels, the rope I tied around him wouldn’t budge and at the crucial moment of me giving my lines, he gave a great “Baaaaa” and ran off and had to be caught again. I didn’t win anything for that either, and gave up on both fancy dress competitions and animal husbandry in disgust.
That’s my last memory of Kendriya Vidyalaya, I think. A goat, the tall coconut trees in the distance, the sound of laughter as I chased my prop, the time I was from Kerala in Kerala and still not of it. The next time I went to Trivandrum was a lifetime later, a fancy literature festival at a fancy hotel, sitting in an infinity pool, so far away from that little girl with the mosquito bites up and down her legs that it might’ve happened to someone else.
If you liked this post—or any of my others—would you buy me a coffee? THANK YOU to everyone who’s bought me one so far, you make me feel so validated.
Because I am in the middle of major book work, I have a lot more links for you to read this week. Procrastination: the enemy of writers, but the friend of readers!
How wellness influencers became cheerleaders for Putin’s war.
Ann Patchett has a dream publicist, sigh.
How do they pick people to be on banknotes?
I liked this article about Ayodhya so much, I promptly ordered his book and am enjoying it.
The strange case of the male calico cat.
Ten types of odd friendships you’re probably part of.
My new Voice of Fashion column is up! This month: SEQUINS! MURDER!
A vegetable vendor’s quest for a just world.
Meet this hyperpolyglot who made me SO JEALOUS while I struggle to remember everything I learned in my last set of classes.
That’s all I’ve got! Speak soon, and have a great week.
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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