This morning, as I washed the sleep off my face, I heard the children singing their morning prayer. Our house shares a wall with the Army School, and at around seven thirty every weekday, you can hear the children sing. Six years ago, I was one of them.
In all Army Schools and Kendriya Vidyalayas around India, we sing the same song at morning prayers. It is a bhajan whose words have been carefully scrutinized for secularism. I first learnt the prayer in Jammu, where I’d transferred to the Army School because it was the only school at any reasonable distance from out house. Prayers were scheduled at 7 am and so K and I would leave home on our cycles at 6:40. I had inherited K’s old cycle, which was a miniature boys cycle, perfect in every tiny feature. I had however refused to learn how to ride it until it was painted in baby pink and K would wince every time he saw the desecration.
Winter mornings in Jammu were bitterly cold so I'd wrap myself in layers of sweaters, a scarf, gloves and woolen socks. Still, the wind would find a way in, whipping the tails of my scarf about and stinging my face to a hectic red. I would race to the school, to get out of the wind as soon as possible, determinedly pedaling my pink cycle as the wind tore at my pigtails.
I'd park my cycle and rush to the classroom, where my friends would be waiting. We would hold hands and try to get warm. The boys tumbled each other outside, the exercise keeping them warm while we girls shared our warmth and traded gossip. No matter how icy I was after that cycle ride, there would always be someone to rub my fingers and bring back the circulation.
Then a bell would sound and we'd all troop out for the assembly and there we would sing our bhajan to irregular beats on the PT drum. We would sing lustily in an effort to distract ourselves from the cold. Then we would recite our pledge, cold red fingers stretched ahead in a salute. Then there were excruciating readings of the news and the "Thought for the Day" before we were finally commanded to stand motionless during the national anthem.
I don’t think I ever really understood what we were singing then. The song is carefully chosen because it never takes any one God's name. Instead it asks a pretty generic God for gifts of knowledge, love and patriotism. The tune was a little tiresome, each stanza sung in exactly the same way. Our voices uplifted in chorus, were hardly melodious.
That school was built from modified barracks, with asbestos roofs and no flooring. After reading about how asbestos can be carcinogenous, I used to anxiously examine my skin for lumps. I was rather hypochondriacal those days. A line of termites spread over the walls of our classroom; the boys used to poke at them with compasses in an effort to gross us out. Snakes were common and their appearance in classes made for fervid lunch hour discussion.
That was the first government school I ever went to. Till then I had been to an elite kindergarten school and a public school where the children were rich and everyone spoke English. In Army School. I made friends with many people far less privileged than I. Looking back, I was often thoughtless and vain those days, but those friends still stood by me and accepted me for what I was. It was cold, sure, but there were always smiles and pleasant voices to warm me up.
I've learnt many songs in many schools: Christmas carols, patriotic tunes, catholic hymns, complex classical pieces and even Irish drinking songs. But the song I'll always associate with my childhood is that monotonous bhajan I sang on a stony field in Jammu, as my feet turned numb with cold.