I knew about slate and chalks as I too used it when I came back to Kerala from Malaysia. On my first day at Stanley memorial school in Kottayam, my mother bought me a black slate with a wood border and a box of chalk from the Jacob’s store near the bus stand. I had to learn to read and write Malayalam language and my mother felt it is better I use a slate. The shop also sold colourful chalk and I wanted them as well and Amma told me
“If I keep buying you everything you want, there won’t be any money left to pay your dowry”. So I only got white colour chalk.
My teacher would write the words on the black board and I would copy it on my slate.
After the school is over in the evening while waiting for the school bus to take me back home, I would spend hours doodling on my slate.
Ammachi continued her story
“My parents bought a packet of chalk beginning of each school year and it was expected that the chalks should last the whole year. I had to use a chalk till the very last bit, and sometimes my writings wouldn’t be legible at all, imagine writing with a chalk the size of a green pea!
When my hand hurt from holding such a tiny bit of chalk, I would borrow some from my brother. My parents bought him new chalk every time his chalk finished. They used to say,
‘he is just a boy and you can’t expect him to be careful all the time’, besides he needs all the help in studying so he can find a job in the Government sector. For each chalk piece that my brother gave me I had to trade a feather from my collection.
Those days I used to find beautiful feathers on the ground and collected them in a small container. Once my friend Mariakutty who stays near the school, gave me a peacock feather and told me,
’ Thangamma, if you hide the peacock feather inside your book and never expose it to the sun, it will give you new baby feathers.’
So I kept the peacock feather in my father’s Syriac bible – it was the only book in our house that no one used, except when the priest came over for prayer meetings. The bible had brown leather cover with a golden cross on the cover. My father kept all the title deed for the house and other important documents inside it for safe keeping. He told us children not to play with it, but I wanted my peacock feather to give birth to new baby feathers, so without anyone seeing I placed the feather inside the book. Every evening I hid under my bed, checking to see if my peacock feather gave birth. When I saw no new feather babies I thought may be I accidentally exposed the feather to sunlight. I was sad that I would never get any more baby peacock feathers.
“One day my father told me, ‘ Thnagaamma, you don’t have to go to school any more.’
‘Why Appa, why shouldn’t I be going to school?’ I asked him. After all, my school headmaster visited our home just a few weeks ago telling my father how well I was doing at school. I still remember what he said. ‘Your daughter is one of our brightest and most hardworking students. We hope she will be the first of our girls to write the matriculation exam.’
“Ammachi, how come no other girl ever wrote the matriculation exam before?”
“Nina, most Syrian Christian girls were married off when they were 12 or 13 years old and they stopped studying after that. You can only write the matriculation examination after completing ten years of schooling and most girls got married before that.
“ I had no idea what marriage means then, of course my cousins all got married but I never thought about my own marriage. At the age of 11, I was more preoccupied with the fish in the river and having a good time with my friends chasing the elusive Uppan bird and finding cashews and eating green mangoes with salt and red chilli powder without anyone catching me.”
I knew about the Uppan. It had a peculiar cry and it sounded like ‘uppa, uppa – the reason why the bird was called Uppan. The bird was brown in colour, always alone and quick to fly. I have spotted it only three times so far, but heard its cry far more often. Every time I heard the bird crying I would run outside in search of the bird while singing a rhyme:
(uppan bird, does your mother want salt? does your father want salt?)
Ammachi continued with her story. “My father told me, ‘You are a big girl now, and we have found a boy to marry you. Soon there is going to be big celebration as you – my only daughter – is getting married.’ I suddenly felt scared. My friends all had funny knowing smiles on their faces when they heard the news and they stopped coming to my house. I couldn’t understand why. My father told them to stop coming to our house, as he wanted me to act like a woman and not run around with them. Suddenly I had no one to talk to.
“So I asked my mother, ‘Amma, why are you getting me married off?’