Of impressionable days

Of impressionable days

Edited by Palash Krishna Mehrotra,
Penguin Books, 2009,
pp 355, Rs 450

‘Recess’, edited by Palash Krishna Mehrotra, is an excellent compilation of the memories of school days by an eclectic mix of Indian luminaries ranging from Gandhi to Nehru to Satyajit Ray, to name just a few. As the inner flap states, “Whatever else we forget in our lives, memories of our school days stay on forever.  We may think of them with longing or wish that we could forget about them, but there’s no getting away from them.” 

A few quotations at the beginning of the book serve as a teaser for what is to follow. Mehrotra’s introduction to the book is as brilliant as the contributions of the many great minds whose childhood recollections, fictional pieces and verses make up this collection. Mehrotra writes how the impetus for this anthology came from the prejudice that he sensed towards school-teaching from all around him — that it was “one of the most unglamorous professions in the world” and that only a “loser” could tread this path.
In his observations as much as in his selection, Palash tries to cover the whole gamut of emotions pertaining to school life; besides the innocent joys and sorrows, there are the cruelties, the gradual awareness of one’s sexuality as also the discriminations that rise from the dimensions of class and caste.

In his foreword, Palash also quotes from the novel, My God Died Young, by Sasthi Bratha to explain how the cruelties of school days can leave a lasting impact on the mind — “Because pain is easier to recall than happiness; because the exact temper of a beautiful sunset or fulfilled love is harder to capture in words than cruelty, the instances of battered vanity, or the chill of adolescent fear…these things leave permanent impressions, mould our personalities more than the ecstasies of an autumn afternoon…”
Mehrotra does an excellent critique of the school system concluding that it often ends up “killing the student’s curiosity.”  For scholastic under-achievers and their worried parents, Palash provides a ray of hope as he writes of “non-achievers” in school who went on to gain fame and recognition.

Mehrotra is in good company in his criticism, as Rabindranath Tagore is known to have been trenchant in his observations on the regimentation of schools leading to his setting up his beloved Shantiniketan where a liberal form of schooling was adopted.
To quote from his autobiographical extract in the book, “Children are not born ascetics, fit to enter at once into the monastic discipline of acquiring knowledge. At first they must gather knowledge through their love of life, and then they will renounce their lives to gain knowledge, and then again they will come back to their fuller lives with ripened wisdom.”

An excerpt from Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography speaks about his anguish at being branded a liar by his gymnastic teacher on account of his carelessness, and the lesson learnt “that a man of truth must also be a man of care.” 

But the anthology is not all serious and there are many tales of sheer fun and youthful pranks attempted on classmates and teachers alike. The book is a must read for all book lovers as each one will find something to transport her back to her school days. The evocative style of the writings are sure to whet the appetite of the reader and have her scouring for the whole autobiography or more writings of the contributors featured here.


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