When I was in class 6 I had a mathematics teacher called Usha Aggarwal Miss. She terrified me. Usha Miss was convinced I was a makku in mathematics and took great pleasure in conveying this opinion in front of the entire class. Convinced she was right, I decided my only course of action was to fall sick five minutes before maths class was scheduled to start. Headaches, stomach aches, dizzy spells – there was no ailment to large or small for me to suffer from. Of course I didn’t fall sick every day, just once or twice a week. I would inform Usha Miss of my predicament in a well rehearsed trembly voice. If it was a good day she would imperiously flick her hand at the door and it would take all my strength not to skip out of the classroom to the school infirmary. If it was a bad day my pleas would be ignored and I would be directed to the blackboard and asked to solve sums.
The infirmary consisted of a series of dank, musty rooms furnished with little other than beds fitted with maroon rexine mattresses. On some days all the beds would be full and I would be told to sit on a corner stool while other girls lay still on their backs. We weren’t allowed to talk to one another but through silent signals we conveyed our relief. Reciting Wordsworth, remembering the year the Battle of Panipat was fought, marking mountain ranges, rivers and areas with high rainfall on outline maps of India – we had all evaded our demons.
My favourite bed was one that faced the double doors leading to the busy main road. Fitted with window panes that had not been cleaned in decades, it offered a hazy, cobwebbed view of the outside world that never failed to thrill me. Buses, autos, men and women all passed by propelled by the need to be somewhere and do something important. To my 11 year old self they all seemed so grown up and glamorous. I remember thinking ‘One day I will be out there, with places to go and things to do. I’ll be free.’ I would then close my eyes and imagine this older self, breathing in the smell of wilting cotton balls and medicine far past its expiry date. If only my grown up self had known that adults have no infirmary rooms to escape too.
I stopped running away from maths after class 6 thanks to a series of kinder teachers who didn’t think I was a makku. I also learnt that one could sit in the middle rows of the classroom and be invisible.
It’s funny though. All these years later I can still smell the medicine and see the maroon rexine beds… but for the life of me I cannot remember what Usha Aggarwal looked like.