By Raheel Khursheed
I was three when my parents enrolled me in the rickety, ramshackle Lyceum Public School. Just off the main Martand market in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, the school was housed in an old mud and wood building by a small stream. The students would kick up clouds of dust when they ran up and down the wooden stairway of the two-storey building. Everything was the colour of mud walls.
My earliest memory of a teacher, any teacher, is that of Kantroo Sir. A bespectacled, bald man in his late 50s, Kantroo Sir was the school principal. His name would invoke terror. His small office, a sparsely furnished, mud-walled room was a particularly dreaded space.
The legend was that many a student had disappeared, never to be seen again, after being summoned to it. It was said that Kantroo Sir’s office had a rathole in one of its corners and that’s where erring students would be sent to live if found guilty. Naturally each encounter with Kantroo Sir in his office meant that one was walking that fine line between survival and abandonment to the netherworld.
Being a particularly naughty kid, I have walked that line several times and emerged victorious. Each time I would be let off with a warning in chaste Kashmiri, Hataw Raheel Khursheeda, gagar waji barath, yaad roezi (‘Oye Raheel Khursheed, I will put you in the rathole & that will teach you a lesson you won’t forget.’)
Each encounter however, Kantroo Sir made it clear, brought me closer to being banished to that rathole forever.
The closest I came to being put in the rathole was when Kantroo Sir bought a rooster from the local village and tied it to a tree by the mud wall that separated the school from the adjoining village. Some classmates excitedly brought the rooster to my attention.
As I went to see how the rooster was faring by the tree, a rare instinct of compassion or stupidity (hard to tell what) overtook me.
I undid the cord that tied the rooster to the tree. In a flash, the rooster jumped the mud wall and disappeared into the village surrounding the school. The children clapped excitedly at the rooster’s newly attained freedom. I smiled a beatific smile.
As I stood there basking in the glow of my heroic deed, someone went up to Kantroo Sir and told him the entire story. Kantroo Sir raided the playground, located me and took me to his office by my ear.
This was it. The moment of reckoning had arrived. I was to be sent to the rathole.
Images of my life in the rathole started flashing in my head. As we entered the office, Kantroo Sir let go of my ear. He sat in his chair, took out a note pad and started writing. He asked me to stand in the corner and contemplate what I’d done.
But all I could contemplate was the rathole. I stared into it and it stared back at me, growing in size in my three-year-old imagination. The longer I stared, the darker it grew.
Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, Kantroo Sir looked up from his notepad. I swallowed a lump. Instead of putting me in the rathole, he handed me the note and asked me to bring my father to school the next day and if I didn’t, I would be put in the gagar weaj (rat hole).
Sometime after that my father admitted me to a ‘bigger’ school. I passed classes and played more pranks.
Sometime around that time, armed conflict broke out in Kashmir. At the very outset of the insurgency, the Pandit exodus took place.
With their unfortunate departure, the Pandits could no longer play the traditionally role of teachers in the Kashmiri societal set up, creating a vacuum that elders in Kashmir still lament about.
I don’t know whether Kantroo Sir left or stayed back, but I never met him after leaving Lyceum Public School.
Raheel Khursheed is an Independent Journalist and Communication Consultant based in Srinagar, Kashmir.
First came in Sify News.