Mahatma Gandhi had inaugurated the boarding school in 1934 when he was on a visit to Coimbatore. Mr.A, who founded the school, was a Gandhian, in thoughts, words and in deeds. M had almost seen him everyday. Founder’s residence occupied the central place in the campus. He was a bachelor with frugal habits. He wore only white Khadi clothes, a full-sleeved kurtha (called Jibba, in Tamil and a Dhothi (called vaetti). M saw him doing vigorous morning walks on the school grounds. He was more than 60 years of age. There was a special soft glow in his skin. In the evenings, he sat in a bamboo chair in the sandy square listening in very low volume to the News in his tiny transistor (of foreign make, – of course a gift from someone). M was surprisied at the low volume, for M, a thirteen year old boy, sitting in front, could not properly hear the voice. Mr.A used an old broad-bodied Chevrolet car of the sixties, presumably presented by some one, whom he could not refuse, for it was the only thing in his life that was not in conformity with his simple life-style.
On one side of the square in front of the Buddha statue, there was this grey granite-stone building with its high ceiling that looked grand. On the ground floor, one of the rooms was occupied by the founder; another room at the other end was a sick room. One more room in between these rooms was the class room for 9th Standard. Boys in the 9th Std were required to attend to Mr.A when he rang the bell for them very rarely. On the first floor was the Prayer Hall. Mr.A had used his enormous personal wealth and contributions from many others for the fourteen institutions that the school started with one Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi after the morning prayers held at Six in the morning. He knew Ramakrishna and Vivekananda through one of the disciples of Vivekananda, Shri Shivananda. He spoke intimately about Mahatma Gandhi with whom he had travelled at lot. He was passionate about all the three great men. He was inspired by them. M had on many occasions talked to him, heard him speak to the audience, about the opportunity we have, in this life, to serve the poor and the needy. He wanted each of the students to aspire for excelling in any of their chosen fields and told them that they have enormous potential to achieve great things in life and that they were born for this. M had seen, observed and interacted with this great man for nearly six years, albeit from a distance. M was moved to tears whenever he heard about Mahatma Gandhi. Only after he grew up, M could realize that Mr.A’s life and words had influenced him in many ways than he could perceive. Mahatma Gandhi’s words had also trickled through Mr.A to him.Many years later, M read the autobiography of another Gandhian freedom fighter, Mr.Y, who had described and justified that Mr. A, then a Congress candidate for election in the district, was an ass in that he would carry out his responsibilities entrusted to him dutifully and faithfully. On that day, M decided that he would also become an Ass for it would be an honour to be an Ass like Mr.A, who was a symbol of sacrifice and hardwork.
M had to get up at Five thirty in the morning, take bath and had to rush to the prayer hall by six. Mornings in the place were very cold for him. He had come from a hot climate. It was difficult for him to take bath in the cold water. Many smart boys occupied the water-taps in which water flow was better. M did not and could not compete with them. He had neither the inclination nor the strength for enterring into altercations with the other boys of his age. He always wanted to avoid fights. He could not also mouth epithets others so easily used. He was weak and slow in doing everything. As if he was numbed by the circumstances.
On Sunday mornings, many boys were busy doing their routine chores like washing clothes. M had a lot of work. Nothing seemed very interesting. He was doing many things simply for the sake of it. He hated washing his dresses. He could not know or tell why he hated it. He had made up all kinds of excuses like that he had no detergent soap, had no money for buying soap or that he could do it later. Most of the times he had no money even for a haircut and there were other attractions like eatables. Even if he had asked for it, his parents could not send money immediately. None of the teachers or teacher-in-charge of his class ever asked him about the reasons. They also never spoke to him about his family. He was hesitant to initiate a conversation. One of the teachers, Mr. Govindasamy, commented many times that his shirt was not very clean and asked why he did not use blue for the white shirts? He also called M the ugly queen-2. M swallowed the insults. After all insults did not harm him physically and those insulting were neither the Rishis and nor their words turn true once mouthed. There was nobody to whom he could relate to emotionally. He always felt that there was a lump in his throat that stopped him from speaking his mind. In all those six years he never had more than three sets of trousers and shirts. It was a luxury to dream of more shirts or trousers. Many times he had to borrow shirts used by his class mates the previous day. They also resented this as the shirts got dirtier next day and that increased their work. He almost never had a comb and borrowed it most of the time. He also never applied oil to his hair and missed the weekly oil bath. He had a very small metal trunk, which was always almost empty for he had nothing to keep in it.
Sundays were the days when small vendors crept into the campus. Ice-cream seller was the most prominent. Another man always had collected crowds of students around him by telling stories liked by adolescent boys. He also sold some stationery, mostly Ball Point pens that were a craze at that time. M liked having ice-creams and on most of the Sundays he could never fulfill his dream of having an ice-cream stick. There was also a small shop manned by the students that sold many eatables and stationery. M could only visit the shop or the vendor of ice-creams in the hope of someone fulfilling his desire for eatables. He almost never had any cash with him. Students were not allowed to keep cash or dresses other than the uniforms. Many parents who resided in nearby towns visited their sons and brought them eatables and small cash. M’s parents were staying far away. It took at least eight hours travel by bus to come to him. One or two times his father and mother came and went within one hour. It was hard for them to come all the way from more than 500 kilometres just for a visit of a few hours if not minutes. One of his parents would come, very rarely. They would never come to-gether for that would involve more expenditure than they could afford. He could see his sister or other relations only when he went home on holidays. There was a library in the school. He started reading books. He read books that were beyond his age. He read about chemical elements in the books borrowed from the library when in class 8, but when it was included in the syllabus in class 9 he started to look at them indifferently. That, he understood later, is the contribution of the system of education. He discovered in books companions and friends and guides he lacked in real life. He read poetry, novels, science subjects, travelogues. His curiosity only increased. He found that books gave him the confidence that he could survive lonely in the crowd with barely anything but doubts and unanswered questions.