The Troublemaker

Growing up in a small village in India, with lots of land to roam about in, and with many children such as siblings, cousins, and friends, I always dreamed about growing up and having many children of my own. My parents, uncles and aunts lived together in this ancestral home, and the family employed many people who helped with running the household. We all had our little chores to do and to adhere to some rules and be well behaved in front of our elders, but we never worried about other things. So, it was natural that we thought life would be pretty much the same when we were older. But as we reached adulthood, we realized that this was just a pipe dream.

The village had one elementary school, next door to our house, with a thatched roof, blackboards, and broken furniture. We sat on small benches and when the monsoon season began, the rainwater seeped through the thatched roof, bringing down with it some insects, caterpillars, and occasionally, a millipede or two. Almost all the teachers, including the principal of the school, were known to my parents. There was no well in the school for water or even a clock, so every time we had a break, students would come running to our house and one of the helpers would pull buckets of water from the well to quench their thirst. We had a grandfather clock in the main room and my father would send one of his attendants to the school with the right time scribbled on a piece of paper to make sure that classes started and finished on time.

You must be wondering, what exactly did my father do for a living after he left his law practice in Trivandrum and moved back to Koovappady? 

He managed the large joint family, because he was the smartest of the lot and he was savvy enough to purchase more land and property and become a landlord, so to speak. We had paddy fields, sugarcane, coconut trees, banana trees, papayas, mangoes, pineapples, and a whole lot more; we had several people working the land for us. We kept goats, cows, and buffaloes as well. People used to refer to my father as the “smartest lawyer in the village with no cases to try and no money coming from the clients.” He was very well respected by all the villagers, and in many ways, he tried to make life easier for them. Our family owned the local bank, my uncle built the local middle and high schools, and he was also the manager of the high school. We always had food in the house, and we fed almost anyone who came to our house. My uncle had a significant role in hiring the teachers at the school.

As I mentioned before, my mother gave birth to twelve children, of which five died during childbirth or shortly after, she had a couple of miscarriages, and I was the youngest of the seven children who survived. My oldest sister got married when I was only three months old, and I have a nephew who is only eighteen months younger than me. My oldest brother was finishing up college when I was a baby, and when he got a job in the big city of east India, Calcutta, he would bring yo-yos and other toys, colored pencils, and children’s books for us when he came home for the holidays.

I really enjoyed elementary school. Everyone there treated me as though I was special. My teachers loved me, and my father always waited near our house’s big gate to greet me, since the school was right next door. I was a very smart student and almost everyone, the students, and the teachers, liked me. With all that praise coming my way, it is no wonder that I thought I was a real star.

Things started to change once I entered middle school. There were many more students from the neighboring villages and a new group of teachers who did not know who I was. My older siblings and cousins were in high school by then and they had different friends — suddenly, they all started behaving like grown-ups. I felt totally displaced and angry at the turn of events, and I started doing some daring, and at times, silly things. That is when I got branded as a “troublemaker.”

The monsoon season brought torrential rains, the roads flooded, and the lakes and the rivers overflowed. At times, the little boat run by a ferryman got us across the flooded roads, and we went soaking wet to our classes. The water lilies and lotuses bloomed in plenty on the lakes and canals nearby, and one day, my classmates dared me to join them in wading into the lakes to pick some. Believe me, my father had strict instructions on what we could and could not do on the way to school and back. So, I debated with myself for a few minutes, and finally decided that what he does not know will never hurt me. I had a grand plan – I would go with my friends and pick all the water lilies I could, leave them in my favorite aunt’s house, change into dry clothes, comb my hair, and go home, pretending like nothing happened. So off I went to play hooky with my classmates and friends. Oh boy, it was a lot of fun! I executed my plan to perfection and came home looking innocent and tired. Sure enough, my father was waiting at the gate and wanted to know why I was nearly three hours late in coming back from school. I spoke to him about the pouring rain, the ferryman and teachers trying to decide whether to cancel the school day or not and mentioned nothing about my escapade. I was happy looking at his face because I honestly thought that he bought my story. It was such a thrill to be able to fool him, and I started walking back to my room. Suddenly, I heard him shouting, “Ammini, come back here!” I got scared. He slapped me twice without an explanation. Later, he told me that one of them was for disobeying him and the other for lying. I was totally baffled. How had he found out?

He sat down beside me, asked one of the helpers to fetch some salt and started rubbing it against my legs. That’s when I saw them. Oh my God! I had several leeches stuck to my legs, having a free meal of my blood, and he was trying to get them off me, using the most common country remedy, salt. The salt crystals did something to the firm grip they had on my skin, and one by one, they fell off. Little did I know that the lake had leeches. Later he told me that he did believe me at first, but as I turned and started walking, he saw the leeches hanging on the back of my legs, and he knew that I was lying.

Right around this time, another event happened in the middle school that also was cause for great concern. My favorite aunt had donated money to the school to build a set of classrooms in her name. She was quite rich but could not have any children of her own. I was in one of those classrooms, and I wanted everyone, including the teacher, to know that I was special because my aunt was the one responsible for building these classrooms.

I thought of a plan to do this. Looking back, it was rather stupid, but at that time, it seemed grand. I took a nail and hammer from the house to school, drove the nail into a wall and hung my school bag on it. The students were quite inquisitive, but I waited for the teacher to arrive before I would make my grand announcement. When he did, he was shocked to see a school bag hanging from a nail on the wall in the brand-new building. He wanted to know who was behind this atrocious act. With a grin on my face, I admitted that it was me, and I gave him an explanation. He ordered me to come up to the front of the classroom, took his cane, and spanked me in front of all the students. I could hear jeering from my classmates, and I felt utterly humiliated. But I was defiant — I reminded him that my uncle was the manager of this school and that my favorite aunt paid good money to build this classroom. The teacher then sent for the principal, who in turn talked to my uncle and my father. Guess what? They all decided that I needed this spanking, and my father was ready to add to my misery by giving me a couple of more beatings. I was saved by my mother, who pleaded with my father to spare me.

My father could not believe that I was becoming such a troublemaker and destroying his reputation as a highly respectable, law-abiding landlord in the village. He consulted with my uncles and his older children, and they all agreed that I should be sent to a Catholic Missionary school as a boarder. I was twelve years old, and I was sent to the Sacred Heart Convent School, eighty miles from my village. With the troublemaker banished from the village, my family reputation was restored, and things started looking normal for my parents and uncles. My mother was devastated, and she was the only one who was sympathetic towards me, but I had a lot of learning ahead of me.