Down Memory Lane… Then Turn Right at Artillery Center

Strike and Boycott – two words that I had never heard of while in school were commonplace when I got into Engineering College!  It looked like we were boycotting classes for no reason at all or at the whims of the student leaders who had the muscle power and political backing to do whatever they wanted. Halfway through the first year at the JNTU College of Engineering , we found ourselves on strike again. The reason for the strike must not have been too important or compelling, as  I do not remember it now. Coming from Kendriya Vidyalaya system of schools (Central Government administered schools for the children of transferable Central Govt employees) where there was heavy emphasis on  strict discipline  to  this engineering college  – where there was no respect for authority, the contrast was stark and was quite shocking and amusing for me.

Initially it started as walking out of the classes and raising slogans against whoever/whatever was supposed to be “oppressing us”.. then goofing off on campus, while the militant student leaders did their thing, like  throwing stones at passing buses and shouting at the policemen that were lined up and ready for action.  The rest of us spent most of our days sipping endless cups of chai in the makeshift canteen which was run by a middle aged north Indian lady near the bicycle stand. She was quite entertaining – regaling us with stories of student life in Delhi. I remember her telling us how “smart and fast the girls of Miranda House” were.  She had two kids working for her, appropriately named “Chotu” and “Munna”. Back then, these seemed to be the most popular generic names for every chai wallah’s helpers! These guys would walk around the “campus” peddling chai, yummy samosas and curry puffs to all the students hanging around.  It was barely a “campus” – hardly 4-5 acres on which we had the engineering college and a much larger Architecture and Fine Arts College.

Reunion – Bollywood Style!

On day 3 of that particular strike,  I could sense that the atmosphere was beginning to get more tense.  The students  spilled onto the main road across from the college which connected Mehdipatnam area with Nampally/Abids area. Mahavir hospital was directly across from the college on the other side of the road. Slogan-shouting students halted the buses and emptied the horrified passengers from them. Then they flattened the tires of these buses – which essentially made  the main road impassable! I watched all this in horror! A line of policemen, looking stern and  ready with their Laathis (wooden rod used by police in India as a club) were waiting for the order to thrash the students who were generally disrupting the traffic and creating havoc.   I saw one lanky policeman smiling at me..   “Yashodhar?” he said softly.. hesitantly..   I was shocked. He introduced himself as Ramsingh! I immediately made the connection. He was my classmate from  KVG (Kendriya Vidyalaya Golconda) – which was my school from 2nd grade to 11th grade! Wow.. This was quite a  surprise. I had not seen him since 6th or 7th grade – which would be about 1972! I thought he either dropped out or moved to some other school. I remember he stood out in the class – as the tall one (along with another one- Nasir). He was the  quiet and shy type and was always hanging out with his  close buddy Ramswaroop (who was at least a foot shorter than Ramsingh).   He said that he left KVG and went to a state school after which he went into police force.   It felt great connecting with an old friend after almost 6 years. Excitedly and animatedly, we started catching up on the past 6 years right there on the main road surrounded by rioting students and stalled traffic!

“Where is Ramswaroop – your twin, now?” I said with a wink and a smile..
“Guess what –  S.Sridhar and Y.V.N are here in JNTU with me – Civil and Mechanical”
“Where is your brother P.Sridhar?”

“Remember Mahalaxmi , who lived in Langerhouse? She is  married  and has a baby now!”

As the Police Inspector arrived, he had to go back and line up with the rest of his police buddies. I went back to my friends who were quite curious about my police-friend. Luckily for us, that day, the lathicharge (i.e clubbing by the police)  did not happen and I did not get thrashed by my long lost friend – which would have  been quite a bollywoodesque event!

“two jigri dost get separated after 6th grade and then meet up after several years under tragic circumstances. One is a cop and the other rowdy student!    The good guy (cop) gets to beat up the bad guy (student disrupting traffic  – and thereby stopping blind-pregnant-old lady from entering the hospital for delivery.  Right after a few blows, cop recognizes Yashodhar and then emotional reunion scene ensues “Ramsingh!!”  “Yashodhar”!! Hugging followed by a  sentimental song. Then each get’s his own heroine to sing songs with etc..  After several song and dance sequences, they both get to fight the real villain – the dirty politician who was behind all the student agitations.  Throw in a few more sentimental scenes about the mom losing eyesight in the beginning of the movie and regaining at the end of the movie after singing the heart wrenching song in praise of multiple gods – and we have a 70s style blockbuster!”

That evening I went home and told my family and other friends from KVG about meeting my old friend Ramsingh under the unusual circumstances. I located the old photo album – which was bulging with black and white photos. I quickly found the class photo that I was searching for  – the one from 5th grade! In fact, that was the only class photo that we ever bought! My brother Sridhar and I were in the same grade from 2nd grade onwards when we transferred to KVG from a state school.  For some reason,  we never bought any other class photos except for the 5th grade one!!

Class Photo: KVG, 5th grade (1971)(click for enlarged view)
Class Photo: KVG, 5th grade (1971)  (click for enlarged view)

There it was – with our principal Mr Gangal, class teacher Mrs Sudha Mathur , and the entire class in the old KVG school which was in military barracks right next to the wall of the Golconda Fort. Ramsingh was in the middle of the last row along with the other tall ones – Nasir and  Arif. These guys were quite literally a foot and half taller than me!  It was fun going through the photo – reminiscing about each of the classmates from 5th grade!

“Didn’t Leena become a model? Yes we saw her and her sister Neelam  do a fashion show at the convention center in Khairatabad”
“Sudha is doing M.B.B.S in Osmania”
“Rajan’s dad owned a large poultry farm in Premnagar. I wonder if he followed in his dad’s footsteps”
“Remember how Arun got into trouble with Nabi sir for skipping classes and stealing from the army canteen”

As you can see, ours was a co-ed school. But we hardly ever talked with our classmates of opposite sex – out of mortal fear that we’d be teased for having an affair (Ha!) . The only contact I had with a girl (4th or 5th grade) was when one of them violently disapproved of something I said! Those nails did leave scratch marks that lasted for a while!  I didn’t notice it back then , but now, I find it remarkable that everyone except two of the girls had a solemn/serious look in this photo.

A Sentimental Fool!

Later we started talking about our graduating class. I started getting very nostalgic and sentimental about the school, my friends and the teachers.  I was upset that we did not buy the class photos of other grades especially the one for the final year graduating class. The strike continued to drag on. One day while I was at college, I suddenly decided that I should go to school and see if there was any way that I could now buy a copy of the class photo! I was never the  spontaneous and sentimental type  person back then (same as  today!).  So I surprised myself that day by quietly leaving my friends and  riding off westward (on my trademark blue BSA  sports bicycle) towards Kendriya Vidyalaya Golconda!

So, off I went on the familiar bus route that I had taken for 11 years –  from Masab Tank and cutting through the army territory to finally arrive at the school in Langerhouse. We had moved into this new school in about 1973. Back then, we all helped with the landscaping for the brand new school grounds as part of the CCA (Co-Curricular Activity) classes.

I walked into school office  – where I met the accountant- Agarwal sir. I introduced myself and explained the reason for my trip back to school. He told me that the school did not have any of the class photos and that I would have to go check with the photographer.  He said, “go to Artillery Center Stadium area and just ask anyone about Babbar Studios!” Everyone in school  knew that Ramesh Babbar’s (my senior in KVG) family owned the studio and they were the official photographers for all school photos – including class photos and other school  functions.

I immediately set off towards Artillery Center Stadium, which was adjacent to the Golconda Fort. This was only about 3 kms from school but back then it felt like it was far far away! Once I got to the stadium area, I pulled into the army housing/offices area next to the stadium and asked the jawans about Babbar Photo Studio. They pointed me to a small grey/light blue single floor building which was quite indistinguishable from all others around it. I don’t  remember there being a signboard. I walked in and immediately recognized the photographer. As I mentioned earlier, he was quite a fixture at all school functions. He was tall and fair and had salt and pepper hair. I was out of breath from all the cycling activity as well as from the excitement. It took me a few minutes to calm myself down and explain to him who I was and why I just showed up at his doorstep. He was quite amused by  my little spontaneous adventure that day and said that he would be able to help out. After I told him that ours was the class that graduated after 11th grade in 1977,   he rifled  through what looked like files in a filing cabinet and finally located the negative! I was ecstatic! He told me that he would be able to make me a print if I could wait for an hour! I could not believe it! This was way more than what I had expected. When I left JNTU campus that morning , I had absolutely no expectations of what I would achieve! I was sure he could see the thrilled look on my face!  I told him that I could wait for  as long as he needed. While he got to work on the photo, I walked out and sat on my parked bicycle. I had to pinch myself to be sure that I was not dreaming..

A Parade of Memories

There I was in front of the studio and I could see the majestic and imposing Golconda fort in the background and the Artillery Center Stadium in the foreground. The stadium was the site of all of our  School  Annual Sports day events. This was a huge event for the school. The sports day was modeled after Olympics. The entire student body was divided into 4 groups – Subhash House, Nehru house, Patel house and Sastri house, all of which competed in sports and games. In preparation for the sports day, we used to practice calisthenics for months, along with marching with the Army band.  There were a lot of popular and rousing tunes that the Army bands used for the marches. I clearly remember this following one, but did not realize till much later that this was the famous marching  tune called “Colonel Bogey March” and was used in the world war II movie “The Bridge on River Kwai.”

If I close my eyes, even now I can picture the students in all white emerging through the ceremonial gateway to the loud bugle sounds followed by the army band (in their regal finery).  I can still hear Seshgiri Rao sir (our Hindi teacher) – providing commentary from the commentator’s box as we marched with pride. He used to describe the festive and colorful atmosphere and his favorite quotation was the popular poem from our 6th or 7th grade Hindi book –

“Hum Panchi unmukth gagan ke, Pinjar badhh na Ga paayenge” – that nicely summarized the indomitable spirit of the young ones marching through. Excellent  English language commentary was provided by Mrs. Ramayya, who had the perfect diction for such commentary.
 The parents were also included in some of the games and races as well. I remember my parents winning a prize in the lemon and spoon race one year!
As I was deep in flashback mode, reminiscing about the glorious school days, I had not realized that it was over an hour and that the photographer had walked out to announce that it was done!  I snapped out of it and almost ran back in  – as I was eager to see the end product
11th Grade graduating class with all of the teachers of the school (1977)
11th Grade graduating class with all of the teachers of the school (1977) (click for enlarged view)

There it was on the drawing board – about 8 x 10 or so in size. He had actually mounted it on a beautiful cardboard frame. I eagerly scanned through to see who all were there! This was a unique photo in the sense that – in addition to all of my classmates and friends it also had the entire staff of the school (both teaching and non-teaching).  There was my 2nd grade class teacher Mrs Joseph and all of my 11th grade teachers along with teachers for all the years in between. Right in the middle was Mr Gangal – our principal, uncharacteristically without his suit! I guess it must have been a very hot day!  I immediately noted that at least 4 of my classmates were missing from the photo – Ravi, Rangesh, Nagendra and Kanaka .. and, oh yeah.. there’s that broken window that I remember so well!

I repeatedly expressed my gratitude to the photographer for going out of his way to fulfill my request, which he certainly did and so beautifully too! He refused to take any payment for his work and said that he was happy to help out!

I rushed back home with a beaming smile and the class photo! With a dramatic flourish – I unveiled the photo to my surprised family! We all gathered around it and reminisced about every individual that made an indelible impression on us for over 10 years in that school (granted.. some of those impressions were accompanied  by choice blessings like – “Naalayak” or “Badthameez”, but they were  impressions nevertheless).  Sridhar and I promptly wrote down the names of everyone (students and staff) on the back – just so we won’t forget the names as the photo and/or memories fade!  Folks.. today, I would like to announce that after 35 years neither the photo nor the memories faded!