My difference defined me from the beginning, when I was a child in school in which everyone spoke a different language to what I was used to at home. This signed me out from the very first day. My name was very different to what everyone else’s was. And gave birth to a lot of snarky nicknames. Grade 1 was full of bullying.
One day after school, on the walk from the classroom to the gate, I was surrounded by about 8 other little children. They called me names, poked fun at me and pushed me around. I think I must have retaliated in a frenzy of anger or something, because the next day at school, they had all brought their mothers to class. They proceeded to accuse me of a list of infractions which i had no recollection of at the time. And as they pointed to a deep scratch behind one boy’s ear, and a mark on another’s forehead which I apparently gave to him with a blow from the end of my little yellow umbrella, I could only stare at them open mouthed and mystified. Could it be that this was a huge conspiracy of parents, kids and my class teacher, all lying to implicate me, the Different Kid in class? Others claimed I had scratched them, spat at them. I didn’t remember any of this. I was given a loud talking to and a scolding, though no one hit me aside from getting a few hits on the back from my teacher.
The bullying reduced after that, except for from one guy called Manoj. he was a fat kid who would push me around all the time. Until one day i tripped him up as he was passing me and he crashed all over a chair, and started crying.
In grade 2 I think I was both lonely and needed security. So I started giving half of my pocket money to the toughest kid in the class. Viraj wasn’t big or imposing by any means. But he could talk as if he was. He had all these stories of being related to gangster relatives I think. He definitely gave the impression that his family was powerful. And he, me and couple of other kids formed this little gang. One of the other kids was Waruna, a tall strapping boy with a nature like a kitten’s. Viraj was the leader, we always did what he said. But one day we both picked him up and threw him into a pile of sawdust. It was a game we were playing. Me and Viraj had already done that to Waruna, I can’t recall if they had done that to me. But when it happened to Viraj he got up and started sniffling.
One day I saw Viraj when I was at home. He was sitting on his father’s bicycle, on the piece of wood in the front where his father would nail the lottery tickets he was selling. He had pulled up on my street, my middle class street with respectable houses with gardens and parapet walls. My father and some neighbours were standing around the bike, picking tickets. The moment I saw him I was very excited, you see I near worshipped Viraj back then, I screamed ‘Viraj, Viraj’ and ran to him. I crashed into the bicycle and it toppled and he fell onto the street. But he was strangely silent. All his usual bravado was missing.
In grade 3 I turned on Viraj. He had become distant. And didn’t want to be my friend anymore. I stared feeling guilty about giving him all that money, which my parents had given to me to spend on myself. So I told them about it. They came to school and complained, and the teacher scolded Viraj for taking my money. After that we didn’t talk much,
I studied Buddhism, and got good marks. One day they said I could take an exam of my own religion. And I went to a schoolmaster who asked me some questions, and then wrote down a number on a piece of paper and asked me to take it to my teacher. The marks for the test from my own religion were far less than what I got for Buddhism. The teacher told me that I should become Buddhist.
My grade 3 teacher was an old crone who seemed to take out all her frustration about life on her little students. She had a stick from a tree with a tight little knot on one end. And one day she hit me so hard with it that I got a nasty bump on my arm. I told this to my parents, and they were alarmed and complained to the teacher. She apologised to them but hit me again after they had left for telling on her.
In grade 4 I changed schools. I went to a school that was more cosmopolitan, with kids who spoke all languages, and where all religions were taught and respected. I made friends and interacted with other kids more genuinely. I am not connecting the difficulties of my first few years of school solely to racial discrimination, I don’t think any of the children in my classes, just like me, had any real idea of the broader politics of our times. But we all were no doubt influenced by our parents and our environment.
More than anything, my early years of school are a stark illustration of how the prevalent attitudes of our times can be magnified into malice and alienating behaviour through the actions of our most tender and innocent citizens.