(STORY OF THE CHIPKO MOVEMENT)
Ichibo enjoys poetry, hates Maths and would rather ear puris than idlis. Life is uneventful till Ichibo’s new English teacher talks to her students about the Chipko movement.
Can Ichibo and her friends stop the felling of trees in the compound next to the school? Will the Headmistress carry out her threat to expel Ichibo? Will Ajith, the journalist, keep his word?
Radha Padmanabhan taught English at the Malabar Christian College. Earlier, she worked for the Indian Express and wrote a very popular column for children. She lives in Calicut
Ichibo woke up with a start. It was the first day of school after the summer holidays, and she was excited at the thought of going to a new class and meeting her old friends. She jumped out of bed, brushed her teeth, and entered the kitchen to ask her mother for a glass of milk. Ichibo’s mother was surprised to see her daughter up so early.
“Good morning, Ichibo. You are early today!” said Ichibo’s mother with a smile.
“Good morning,” mumbled Ichibo. She drank her milk quickly and rushed back to her bedroom. She went to her table and looked at all her new books which were covered with brown paper. How Ichibo loved her new books! Her mother and she had spent an hour the previous day covering them. Ichibo had enjoyed sticking the labels. The labels read “Suchitra Sreenivasan, Standard VI, Model High School.”
Suchitra’s pet name was Ichibo. When she was young everyone had called her “Suchi baby.” As she couldn’t say “Suchi baby,” she had turned it into Ichibo. The name had stuck and she was known to all her friends as Ichibo. Only the teachers at the school called her Suchitra.
Ichibo stuffed all the books into her school bag. As she had a shower, she thought with a shiver of excitement of all the friends she would be meeting. She was specially thinking of her gang of five. Among her four friends was Gayathri, who giggled at the least provocation. They called her the Giggler. Then there was Anita, whom they had first called Ani and later on the Bunny. Shakunthala became Shuck and then the Duck, and Shruti was known as the Shrew.
The mothers of this gang of five knew of and hated these names. They had chosen names for their daughters after a lot of careful thought and considered the names very special. To have them changed in this manner horrified them.
Ichibo realised with a start that she had been too long at her bath. She wiped herself and got into her crisply starched uniform. Her mother had to comb her hair which was very thick and very long. Ichibo’s mother took great pride in combing out all the knots and making a thick, long plait.
Just as she was finishing her breakfast, the school bus honked. She grabbed her books, wished her mother “goodbye” and didn’t wait to hear her mother say, “Have a good day.” The bus took nearly half an hour to reach the school.
Chattering happily and excitedly, the children entered their old classroom and sat at their old desks. At the sound of the bell, each class was led to a higher class. Ichibo and the gang quickly occupied desks in the same row.
As soon as the class teacher arrived, she was greeted with both silence and surprise. “She’s new,” said Ani the Bunny.
“I -heard we’d have a new teacher,” said Shruti the Shrew.
“I hope we will like her,” said Ani the Bunny.
Gayathri the Giggler just giggled.
“Sh...,” said Ichibo. She took to the new teacher at once. It was almost like love at first sight.
The teacher said, “I am your new teacher. You can call me Miss Sheela. I will get to know your names during the roll call.”
Ichibo noticed that the new teacher looked at each one of them with great interest as she read their names out and they answered, “Present.”
“I want you to write about ‘Your First Day in School.’ I will give you twenty minutes. I will read out the best essay. Try to make it interesting,” said Miss Sheela.
Soon the whole class was at work. Ani the Bunny whispered that she didn’t have a single idea.
Shuck the Duck started to write but without any interest. Gayathri the Giggler giggled softly as she wrote, although there was nothing to giggle about. Ichibo, however, loved essay writing. She seemed lost in deep thought for a few minutes. And then, although her ball-point pen went racing over the paper with great speed, it couldn’t quite catch up with all she wanted to say.
Ichibo wrote about ‘smells’ connected with the first day in school — the smell of crisp, starched uniforms, the wonderful smell of new books, the clean odour of lime-washed walls and the smell of freshly polished shoes.
The class waited until Miss Sheela had gone through all the essays.
“The best essay,” said Miss Sheela, “was written by Suchitra.” The whole class clapped for Ichibo. Miss Sheela, the teacher, said, “That was really good, Suchitra. You do have imagination and you are a born writer.” Suchitra received the essay and shyly said, “Thank you.”
“Besides,” joked Miss Sheela, “you do have a sense of smell.”
All day Ichibo walked on air. She liked Miss Sheela. How lucky they were to have her as their class teacher! So unlike the Maths teacher, Mrs. Martin, whom they feared and hated.
Back home, Ichibo’s mother asked her, “Had a nice day? What happened at school today?”
“Oh,” said Ichibo. “We have a new teacher.”
“And did you like her?” asked Ichibo’s mother.
“She’s okay,” said Ichibo. “She complimented me on my sense of smell.”
“Your sense of smell?” asked Ichibo’s mother, wondering what her daughter meant.
“Yes, my sense of smell. Didn’t I say sense of smell?” retorted Ichibo impatiently, as she went up to her room.
Ichibo’s mother shook her head and didn’t know quite what to make of it.
It was a long bus ride to school. It took almost half an hour, but on Tuesdays Ichibo wished it would take longer. The first period on all Tuesdays was Mathematics. Mrs. Martin taught Mathematics to all the higher classes and she was uniformly feared and disliked.
The bus picked up some children on Church Road and was now heading towards the main shopping centre of the city. Ichibo knew all the shops. One that she could literally smell was “Hot Buns” where they sold mouth-watering cakes and eats. Another shop was “My Fair Lady,” where her friends got their hair cut. Ichibo had never visited the place because she had very long hair and it was never cut. The school was on the other side of the town and the bus had to pass through the shopping centre. From here it was only a ten-minute drive.
The bus had stopped to pick up Ani the Bunny. Her house was only three stops away from the school. Ichibo just, smiled at her and was in no mood to talk. Tuesdays always depressed her. Maths was no way to start a day!
It was not that Ichibo was bad at Maths. But she was very careless and one cannot be good at Maths if one is careless. Adding up rows of figures bored her and her mind would wander to a line of a poem taught that day. Her answers would then go haywire. Besides, Mrs. Martin was not merely a harsh disciplinarian; she would often make fun of a girl in front of the whole class.
Mrs. Martin gave them ten sums to do from a Mathematics text; Ichibo finished the first five quickly enough. Mrs. Martin went round the classroom stopping at each desk and correcting the sums as and when they were finished by the students. The first five sums done by Ichibo were correct. Mrs. Martin went to the other side of the class. When Ichibo was doing the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth sum, she thought about the new English teacher. “What a nice teacher Miss Sheela is! How intelligent! How interesting! Time in her class just flies and the bell seems to ring much too soon.” Naturally the answers to sums No. 6, 7, 8 and 9 were wrong.
Mrs. Martin came to Ichibo’s desk. “Wrong, wrong, wrong and WRONG,” she said crossing out sums 6, 7, 8.and 9 with a red pencil. “How could you get an answer like 100 lakhs? It should be 10 lakhs. An extra zero makes a world of difference.”
Ichibo stood up with her head bowed down.
“Take sum No. 7,” said Mrs. Martin, “What should you do with the numbers 1178 and 92?”
Ichibo was silent but Mrs, Martin wanted an answer. What does one do with 1178 and 92, she wondered? Ichibo looked down at her notebook. She had subtracted. She quickly said, “Add.”
“No,” shouted Mrs. Martin.
“Multiply,” said Ichibo brightly.
“No, No, No,” thundered Mrs. Martin.
“Divide,” said Ichibo in a low voice.
“I know that in Maths you can only add, subtract, divide and multiply, stupid!” said Mrs. Martin. “For each wrong answer you must do five more sums as homework.”
Ichibo felt very hurt. She had been called “stupid” in front of the whole class. She hated Mrs. Martin with all her being. During lunch time the gang consoled her. . Shuck the Duck, who was the best student in Maths, said, “Don’t worry Ichibo. I’ll work out all the sums and you can copy them. And don’t forget to come home this evening and see my computer. The others are coming too.”
That evening Ichibo went to the Duck’s house. All her friends were there. She played for an hour or so. The computer games, even the number games, were fascinating and when it was time to go, Shakunthala’s mother said, “Come whenever you want to, Suchitra, and play with the computer!”
Though the evening had passed off pleasantly, Ichibo was still feeling depressed. All through dinner she did not speak a word.
“Of course not, my magpie robin,” said Ichibo’s father. He called her that because as a little child she used to chatter away all the time. “Who called you stupid?” he asked.
“Never mind who,” she said and stumbled into her room blinded by tears.
Her mother wanted to follow Ichibo and find out what had happened. But her father advised her to leave Ichibo alone.
Ichibo got into bed and cried herself to sleep.
Suchitra had copied the “Punishment Homework” of 25 sums from Shuck the Duck’s notebook. Mrs. Martin had not forgotten. As soon .as Mrs. Martin had read out the roll call, she said, “Suchitra, let me see your homework.”
Ichibo handed her homework to Mrs. Martin. Satisfied that all the 25 sums had been done correctly, Mrs. Martin gave back the book and said, “That’s better. You are not such a stupid girl after all.”
Although this remark was meant to encourage Ichibo, she felt humiliated again. She took the book and went back to her desk.
The gang felt very bad for Suchitra. Ani the Bunny took a piece of paper and scribbled
“If Mrs. Martin goes to Hell,
Standard VI will ring the bell.”
She folded the paper and passed it on to Gayathri who read it and giggled. Shruti the Shrew quickly took it from her and read it. At that moment, Mrs. Martin looked at her but Shruti stared back with a blank and innocent look. Shuck the Duck read it and smiled. The note was thrown to Amar. It was then passed on from boy to boy.
Mrs. Martin sensed that something was happening. She saw the suppressed smiles, the eyes shining with amusement and heard the muffled giggles. The class seemed to be sharing a joke. Was the joke against her?
Mrs. Martin marched up the aisle and snatched the paper from Abhay’s hand. She went to her desk and tried, to piece together what was written. She read slowly and loudly “Standard VI will ring the bell” but the rest of the paper was so badly torn that she could not make head or tail of it.
“Who will ring the bell?” she shouted across to the boys. Gayathri the Giggler started to giggle but controlled herself when Mrs. Martin stared at her. “What bell?” Mrs. Martin persisted in asking.
The class was silent. All the boys and girls appeared to concentrate on their books. Mrs. Martin, who did not understand what had happened, had to let it go.
At lunch the girls discussed Mrs. Martin.
“Why is she rude?” asked Gayathri the Giggler.
“Even if I get one sum wrong, she scolds me and...”
“She doesn’t have a single word of encouragement for us,” said Shuck the Duck.
“She is not at all like Miss Sheela,” said Ichibo. “Miss Sheela is a pet.”
“She makes you want to work for her.”
“We will have Mrs. Martin for the next three years,” said Ani the Bunny.
“She calls me stupid and makes me feel stupid,” said Ichibo morosely.
As she said this, the school peon came to Ani the Bunny. “The headmistress wants to see you,” he said and left.
Ani the Bunny started to tremble with fear. “Do you think the Headmistress knows that I wrote that note?”
“How could she?” said Ichibo. “And even if she does, Mrs. Martin did not see the first line asking her to go to Hell.”
“All the same, I’m scared,” said Ani the Bunny and there were tears in her eyes.
“I’ll come along with you,” said Ichibo. She had decided to say that it was she who had written the note. After all the note did echo her feelings. And she would face the consequences no matter how bad they were.
Ani the Bunny timidly knocked on the door of the Headmistress’ room.
“Come in,” said the Headmistress. Two frightened little girls entered the room.
“Oh, I want you to do something for me, Anita,” said the Headmistress. “Mrs. Martin stays near your house. She left early today saying her husband is not well. Will you kindly give her these books this evening?”
The two girls heaved a sigh of relief. They ran back to their friends skipping with joy.
“What happened?” asked Shruti the Shrew.
“It had nothing to do with the note. She wants us to go to Mrs. Martin’s house and give her these books,” said Ani the Bunny.
“I’ll come along with you,” said Ichibo. She was still not completely sure that the visit to Mrs. Martin was not connected with the note.
After school was over, Ani the Bunny and Ichibo took the school bus. Anita got down at the stop near her house. Ichibo’s house was another five stops away as usual, but Ichibo got down too. She was accompanying Anita to Mrs. Martin’s house to deliver the books given by the Headmistress.
Ani the Bunny and Ichibo stood nervously outside the door. They rang the bell. Mrs. Martin came to the door.
“Oh you,” she said. “Come. Come in.”
She asked them to sit down. The room was very small. It served as a drawing room and a dining room. They politely took their seats.
“And what brings you here?” said Mrs. Martin.
The Headmistress asked us to give you these books,” said Ani the Bunny.
Just then a girl of about 15 years entered the room. “Oh, this is my daughter, Maria,” said Mrs. Martin. The girl smiled at Ani the Bunny and Ichibo. Mrs. Martin made some signs to her and she left the room.
“Maria was born deaf,” said Mrs. Martin and sighed. “Though I’m a teacher, I couldn’t send her to a deaf and dumb school. My husband has been ill for the past few years and I have to work. And Maria helps look after Robin.”
Robin was her six-year old son. He came skipping into the room grinned at An! the Bunny and Ichibo and skipped out.
Maria came in with a tray of tea and biscuits. “Maria is a good girl,” said Mrs. Martin. “I don’t know what I would have done without her,” said Mrs. Martin as she put an affectionate arm around Maria, who snuggled up to her.
Ichibo was surprised. Here was a different Mrs. Martin. Not the haughty, proud, ill-tempered teacher, but a woman with many problems. “Poor Mrs. Martin,” Ichibo thought. “What wicked girls we have been!”
“I feel awful that Maria has to cope with all this work. But I have to earn my living. My husband has not had a job for the past five years. And I am the sole breadwinner.”.
All the time she was talking, she held’ Maria close to her and looked upon her with great love.
Mrs. Martin kept on talking. “I know I am very strict,” she said, “But you will thank me the day your Standard X results are out.”
The two girls listened to Mrs. Martin not knowing what to say. They ate the biscuits and drank the tea. Maria took away the cups and saucers.
It was time to go. “Thanks for bringing the books, Anita and Suchitra,” said Mrs. Martin.
“Anita is, of course, very good at Maths. But you are a very bright girl, Suchitra. You could do well in Maths if you only cared to.”
“Bright, Mrs. Martin?” asked Ichibo.
“You stupid goose, of course, you are a bright girl!” Mrs. Martin exclaimed as she saw them to the door.
After they, left the house, Anita said, “She called you stupid and bright at the same time. Funny, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s not,” said Ichibo. Ani the Bunny looked at Ichibo in surprise.
“What’s happened to you?” she asked.
“Nothing,” said Ichibo. “Only don’t say anything nasty ever again about Mrs. Martin.”
Everyone looked forward to the Geography classes. Mrs. Shantha could never control the class and all the children did exactly what they liked during her period. She could never scold them no matter how naughty they were. Even when she tried to be strict she would end up laughing at what they had done. Besides, she was fond of practical demonstrations. And it was easy for the class to have fun then. Today was one such day and Mrs. Shantha had brought a basin of water and a block of ice to class. The class watched Mrs. Shantha place the basin of water on the table and put the block of ice in it.
Ichibo was munching on a gooseberry. Ani the Bunny had brought a small bag of them to class. Two pieces of paper contained salt and chilly powder. The girls dared not eat gooseberries in any other class. The trick was to hold the geography book high enough while you popped a gooseberry into your mouth. The gooseberries were passed silently and swiftly round the class. Soon everyone was munching on gooseberries.
“Ice in a basin of water,” giggled Gayathri. “What on earth is she going to teach us!”
As if in answer to her question, Mrs. Shantha said, “Today’s lesson is on the Artic Circle and icebergs.” As Mrs. Shantha glanced around the class, she suspected that, the girls were eating something.
“Have any of you seen snow?” asked Mrs. Shantha.
No one answered. No one could with a gooseberry in the mouth. “You, Suchitra, have you seen snow?”
Ichibo nodded vigorously.
Gayathri the Giggler giggled.
“Quiet,” said Mrs. Shantha.
“I have,” said Amar from the other side of the classroom trying to help Ichibo.
“I didn’t ask you,” said Mrs. Shantha.
Ichibo quickly put her hand to her mouth and in a flash of a second the gooseberry was in her hand.
“I have, Mrs. Shantha,” said Ichibo.
“Where?” asked Mrs. Shantha.
“In Shimla. Last winter, I had gone there for my birthday,” said Ichibo.
“I have seen snow too,” said Gayathri the Giggler.
“So have I,” said Ani the Bunny.
“We went to Kulu in May. It was my birthday,” said Shruti the Shrew.
“Mine is in February,” said Shuck the Duck.
“When is yours, Mrs. Shantha?” asked Amar.
The questions came thick and fast. Mrs. Shantha said, “Quiet, quiet. Are we talking of birthdays or of snow?” she asked the class.
“Birthdays, Mrs. Shantha,” answered the whole class in chorus. Mrs. Shantha quickly glanced outside to see whether anyone had heard what was going on in the classroom.
The boys in the class were restless. Some of them were throwing paper arrows at each other. Some were playing with marbles on the desk. A steady hum of thirty voices could be heard.
“Quiet, quiet please,” said Mrs. Shantha. The noise subsided a little. “QUIET!” shouted Mrs. Shantha. The noise died down.
To keep the class silent and busy she asked the class to colour the Arctic region on a map. Meanwhile the block of ice had melted in the basin of water. She had meant to teach them all about icebergs and to point out to them that a large portion of ice remained under water when it floated. The bell rang. Mrs. Shantha sighed. It would be difficult to finish the geography syllabus. She could never manage to control this class.
At the lunch interval the gang sat together under a tree. They always shared whatever they had brought and hardly ever ate what their mothers sent.
When Ichibo opened her lunch box she was disappointed. Idlis as usual. Ani the Bunny had puris, and peas with paneer. Ichibo willingly swapped her lunch. She loved paneer and peas. Idlis and dosas and lime rice were what her mother packed for her on most days. She enjoyed her lunch immensely.
Back home, her mother asked her the usual question, “How was school today!”
Ichibo loved her school but she said “Oh, boring as usual.” Then she suddenly brightened up and said, “I had a fantastic lunch, Amma, paneer and peas and puris.”
“Paneer, peas, puris!” exclaimed Ichibo’s mother. “I packed idlis today. Oh Ichibo, you must have eaten someone else’s lunch instead of yours. The lunch boxes must have looked alike,” said Ichibo’s mother.
But Ichibo merely smiled mysteriously.
It was Saturday, the 13th of December, and Ichibo woke up that morning with a feeling of excitement. It was a very special day, her birthday. She got dressed and went to the living room.
“Many happy returns, Ichibo,” said her mother.
“Many happy returns, my little magpie robin,” said Ichibo’s father. “Come and see your gift. It’s too big to bring into the house. So I’ve left it outside.”
Ichibo wondered what it was. The best gifts were those that came as a surprise. Ichibo’s parents never told her what they were going to give her for her birthday. They never even asked her what she wanted most. But it was really surprising how they managed to give Ichibo exactly what she wanted.
Outside in the garden stood a brand new bike! She had learnt to cycle barely a month ago on Amar’s bike. It had been difficult because Amar had a very heavy, old bike. But Ichibo, being somewhat of a tomboy, had learnt to ride it. Ichibo’s new bike was red in colour and shone and glistened in the sun.
“Thank you Appa, thank you Amma,” shouted Ichibo. Then she got onto the bike and was off.
“Take care,” shouted her parents after her.
When she came back all flushed with the excitement of owning a bicycle, her favourite dish was on the breakfast table. It was masala dosa. Her mother knew how to make them crisp and golden brown. She filled them with peas and potatoes and cashew nuts and topped them with dollops of butter. They sat down to breakfast.
“How many friends have you invited for the party today, Ichibo?” asked her mother.
“Oh, about 10 to 15,” said Ichibo vaguely.
Ichibo’s mother was busy in the kitchen the whole day. All the snacks had to be made at home. The dining room had to be decorated. Ichibo did not help her mother. She felt it was her birthday and the party was for her. So why should she help? Ichibo went upto her room and spent the morning reading.
In the afternoon as Ichibo was about to leave the house, she said, “I’ll be back well before the party.” Ichibo’s mother thought that she wanted to go and play with Amar as she usually did on holidays. Instead Ichibo caught a bus and went straight to “My Fair Lady.”
“I want you to cut my hair short,” said Ichibo to the attendant.
“You have such beautiful, thick, jet black hair. Are you sure you want it cut?” asked the attendant.
“Quite sure,” said Ichibo.
“What length would you like it,” she asked.
“Up to my shoulder, no, even shorter.”
Snip, snip, went the scissors and Ichibo’s waist-length hair fell to the ground to be swept away and put into the dustbin. How proudly had Ichibo’s mother looked after her hair, combing and brushing it, massaging the scalp with oil and drying the hair gently after washing it! All those years of care lay in a heap on the floor. It took all of twenty minutes before the hair-dresser was satisfied with her work. Ichibo looked shyly at her face in the mirror and she liked what she saw.