Early morning cool gives way to searing heat degree by degree. Attendance is taken, suitable punishment for the absentees are devised. Single file we march out in to the quadrangle. A sea of bluish-white uniforms, frayed collars and white tennis shoes. Hair oiled and braided, adorned only with tattered ribbons and lice. The scruffy ones are made to stand at the back.
One arm distance to the front and double arm distance to the sides. Ahalya Bai, Sarojini Naidu, Vijayalakshmi Pundit. We are divided along these names. But they mean nothing to us. Instead we worry that the green belt is not as nice as the bright, red one.
We whisper about what we will do when we get home, what movies are on television and speculate on the choice of sweet distributed this year – Lacto King again? Rottweiler Ruby tells us to keep quite. The chief guest will be here any moment now. Bets are placed on the length of his speech. Will he pronounce banyan as baniyan like the last one did?
The Chief Guest is late. He will no doubt stress the importance of punctuality in his speech later on without sensing the irony of it all. Irony. A word we did not know then. But sensed.
He tugs at the flag. It unfurls slowly, releasing rose petals, hanging limply in the still air. We salute.
Inside the cool, dusty auditorium we sit on the floor glaring at the smug, prize receiving class mates in the VIP section. We sit patiently through the speeches – the chief guest, the trophy hoarding 11 year old who gesticulates wildly as she quotes Bhaarathi and the fawning Principal – her beehive bun threatening to fall over and crush the chief guest. Or so we imagine.
The national integration cultural show. Song, dance and skit. We clap – not because we enjoy it but because everyone else is. We shift restlessly, our behinds sore, our calves patterned with dust and the zig zag imprints of our rubber soles.
Finally it is over. We stand up, legs, feet and backside numb. We limp towards the exit taking the chocolate we should be so grateful to receive and walk home. Finally.