When school’s out, I see much more of my neighbour Fen, who first took me under his wing when he was all of six years old. In the initial absence of saar, he took his manly responsibilities seriously, supervising diligently when a mason concreted a post into place or a delivery man unloaded a washing machine. He introduced me around, warned me where to watch for snakes, and briefed me on who was moving into each new house.
He dropped by to play a game of chess with me the other day. He has come far since he used to refer to a pawn as motta, or baldy. It was my first game in perhaps three decades, so I said we would refresh each other on the rules as we played. He and his friend Jerry said, for example, that you could place your king and queen anywhere you liked at the outset, but I thought not. I was confident of being a match for any 10-year-old. In the third game, however, Jerry checkmated me. If I had recalled the castling move I might have saved my king, but there you are. They were younger and smarter.
There are usually three or four of them together, all of identical height. During the school year, their recreation time seems evenly divided between playing cricket and searching for the ball among the dry leaves. But in the summer, there are planned activities. Some of the girls are taking computer classes as well as the customary fabric painting and tailoring.
Many of the children here enrolled in the Vacation Bible School, which met every afternoon in Rachel’s house. Fen says the pastor read Bible stories to them and then quizzed them. We often heard the group singing. Now that’s done and there will be a children’s club that meets every Saturday.
For children younger than 6, the baalwadi at Annie’s place runs throughout the school holidays. There are between 12 and 15 children there at any time. They sing, play and nap till late afternoon. They get a hot meal of rice and mung kanji every day, and sometimes they get milk. Unless our Union minister for women and child development replaces all that with glucose biscuits.
Once in a while Annie invites me to a meeting held on the premises, and I get to see the little hive close up. The kids help with the mandatory half hour of rearranging chairs and participate enthusiastically in the chai and snacks part of the programme. One or two wail away the time till the meeting is over.
The older youth have overrun the paddy field north of our pond. After the paddy harvest, we often heard the “thock” of a football, but one Sunday we found the players had actually marked out the field with white powder and strings of tinsel. Two uniformed teams were playing.
Spectators were sparse in the morning. Near Subrahmania Master’s house one man sat on a red plastic chair, and a bit to the east stood a small clutch of girls. Occasionally, a woman might pause in her sweeping to watch. A few men were perched on our fence posts, and I sat for a while on a bund, till discouraged by a parade of ants and complete ignorance of the game.
By afternoon, many more spectators had come in. They sat on their motorcycles and autos and on the stacks of paddy. It was a tournament with semi-finals and finals, Thankamani told me later. She said people came from as far away as Palakkad town to watch. Now every Sunday and holiday, we hear the stuck-pig sound effects indispensable to young men at sport. Sometimes the noise rises to a brawl and sticks are brandished. But this is not Kannur, so they resume play once their pride is satisfied.
In a few weeks the pre-monsoon showers will start and there will be rice, not football, in the paddy field.
Fen had planned to learn photography from a man who runs a studio nearby, but saar offered to teach him instead. He has learned about adjusting apertures, keeping his back to the light, and choosing between wide angle and zoom. But Fen’s real aim is focused on the computer rather than the camera, as he confided to me one afternoon before class. By summer’s end he wants to learn to Photoshop a picture of himself standing in front of the Taj Mahal.
(This is part of a continuing series on life in Akathethara in Kerala.)
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