February 20, 2020
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Fags' End

At last a voice given to all those who were miserable at school.

Fags' End
Recess: The Penguin Book Of Schooldays
By Edited By Palash Krishna Mehrotra
Penguin Pages: 355; Rs. 450
You open this book eager to rediscover the romance, nostalgia or the sheer horror of school. Richard Crasta captures the cringing-in-the-shower, the chronic "penis shame" and "girl shame" of adolescence. Kamala Das’s ugly girl writing love letters to herself and being banished from convent school is an exemplar of repressed sexuality. A searing piece on the same theme is by Ismat Chughtai. Aamer Hussein’s story on inchoate sexuality is a classic coming-of-age vignette.

Perhaps the most delicious verite narrative on growing, knowing, looking back and reconciling comes from Paromita Vohra. It makes the turgid pieces from Amit Chaudhuri, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Sudeep Chakravarty, Rukun Advani, Farrukh Dhondy seem laboured. Dilip Simeon’s account of his school years is a deeply felt, reticent piece. Besides those by Satyajit Ray and Tagore, the essay that really stays with me is Vikram Seth’s address to students at Doon School. At last a voice given to all those who were miserable at school: institutions that focus on turning out Xavierians, Mayoites, Doscos but never individuals.

Besides, Recess offers many insights into situations that have and also haven’t, tragically enough, changed, in the course of a century. Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Ramabai Ranade, 50 years apart, both privileged women from liberal Hindu families, talk of how a woman’s education was not a priority even among the elite. The heart-rending piece on Dalit discrimination by Narendra Jadhav recounts scenes still played out with sickening regularity.

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