A long, long time ago, I entered the cool shade of the canteen at St.Joseph’s School, Agripada. I waited in the lattice screened porch, for my turn at the counter. When it came, I asked the nun at the counter for a bar of my favourite sticky toffee. The toffee was made in the school kitchen by the nuns, and was nothing but a wedge of cooked jaggery, wrapped in cellophane. But it was delicious. Sometimes it would be soft and crumbly, sometimes brittle and burnt, and sometimes it was just right, sticky enough to stretch between your teeth throughout the recess.
This particular day, I hesitated for a moment and asked for two more toffees. Sister Martha gave them to me with a peculiar look, and then said, “The Principal wants to see you later.”
I must have been 11 or 12, and the Principal had never wanted to see me before this. I’d been in that school since I was a baby, and through those years, our Principal was Sister Catherine. She was a skinny woman, the nun’s veil looked too big for her tiny face. She had a sharp, nosy face, and big buck teeth, which kept her mouth a little open all the time, and made her dribble a little when she talked. She could have been the butt of jokes if she were not so precise in her running of the school, appearing around corners at the unlikeliest of times, doing the rounds of classrooms as and when she wanted, keeping us all under her clever eyes.
As I dragged my feet to her office, I almost popped a toffee into my mouth, mechanically, but remembered to stop in time. I would have had to throw it out before I went in, and that would have been a huge waste. I went and stood meekly at the door to her office which opened on to the playground. She beckoned me in, without even looking up. I stood at her desk. She said, “Sister Martha says you buy three four toffees everyday. Why?” I looked at her, for a moment, surprised by the unexpected question, relieved too, that I was not in some major trouble, though what that could have been, I did not know.
I said, “Yes, to share with my friends.” She said, “You have to stop it. That’s not sharing, that’s buying for friends. It’s not allowed.” I was dismissed. There were no kind explanations, no discussion of right and wrong. Just “Not allowed”. I came away, feeling outraged that the school could stop me from buying sweets for my friends, also feeling slightly ashamed without understanding why. Of course, those toffees never tasted the same again.
And because I had been only told that “buying for friends was not allowed”, I continued as I grew up, to “buy for friends” by doing their homework, or “buying for boyfriends” by giving too much of myself, or “buying for a husband” by turning a blind eye to his infidelities. It took many, many years to understand what Sister Catherine had been telling me, which if she had been kind enough to explain, may have saved me much grief. But then these were the days before school counsellors or over protective parenting.
Yesterday, Aiman looked at me with solemn eyes, which is her prelude to discussion. “There’s a very rich boy in our class, who is always giving everyone treats.” I said, “Hmm”. Over the years, I’ve learnt to draw out Aiman gently. Each move has to be precise, or she will flee into petulance or silence. I must show concern, involvement and yet, be casual enough to make the discussion palatable. Aiman continued, “I’ve never taken any treats, but all my friends do.” I asked, “Which ones?” She named her whole gang. “He wants to take us all to Cafe Coffee Day, for a treat after the exams. Should I go?”
I don’t have an easy answer. All her friends are going, but should she go for such an expensive treat? I suggest going Dutch. It has occurred to her, she has spoken to her friends about it, but the rich boy insists it is his treat, and her friends don’t understand what the fuss is about. Hmm. I suggest, “Why don’t you go for the treat, but take some chocolates for him?” She looks at me with big, incredulous eyes. “Mom, all my friends will laugh at me.” Yes, I can see that. So I suggest, “Well, why don’t you take chocolates for everybody?” She’s not so sure about it, neither am I. Both of us are wondering whether we are fussing too much about it. But so far, that seems the best solution, if she wants to go, and yet not take a too expensive treat without reason.
Aiman continued, “Mom, this boy gives treats everyday.” “To whom?” “Oh, anyone who’s with him. He also gives money. Children just ask him for money, and he gives them 200-300. He doesn’t even ask for it back.” “So how much money does he carry around in school everyday?”, I ask, really curious. “Two three thousand.” I take that with a pinch of salt, because Aiman is still very conservative about money and a few hundreds would seem like thousands to her.
But in the six years we’ve been living here, I have seen children her age going about with at least a hundred rupees in their pockets every day, even when they go down to play. Several kids have running accounts with the local grocer shop, which their mothers pay at the end of the month. Soft drinks, chips, chocolates, treats to friends, are every day expenditures on open accounts. Sometimes, we’ve wondered whether we are too strict with Aiman about money, and other things. But I’d rather she has the ability to question, analyse and form her own opinions, even if it means she’s sometimes, “funny” to her friends.
All those decades ago, I had only one rupee at my disposal everyday, which was not a big amount even then. But without loving monitoring, I was not able to deal with the freedom my parents gave me. I dread to think what lies in store for the rich boy with hundreds in his pocket, “buying for friends”.