The security guard at the gate took his job seriously. At first hesitant to let me in, I let him know I was here to see the Principal, Mr. Tiwari. After answering a few other questions, this seemed to give him enough reassurance to proceed with the second phase of entry. This required me to fill out a visitor slip, which I then had to bring over to a man, who I assumed was some sort of manager, standing twenty feet away.
Biting my lip on wanting to verbalize my thoughts on the unnecessary bureaucratic double work, I instead thanked the guard and presented my slip to the man as instructed. Taking the slip, he led me into his office, a building a few feet from where we stood. It’s façade, including its doors were made of glass. Inside, was a wooden desk at the far end, flanked by rows of leather couches on either side. Motioning me to sit, he then went around the desk, so he could call down to the school’s administrative office.
A few seconds after dialing he started speaking Hindi to someone on the other end. “Han Ji! Vahan ek aadami Shri Tiwari ko dekhane ke lie yahan jata hai. Han, former student.”
Being in situations like this before, where my fate lied in the hands of another, there was always part of me that was afraid of rejection. As I waited for the reply from the Administrative Office, those fears began creeping into my head.
Will they turn me away, telling me I am not welcome? I thought. What will I do if that happens? Try to sneak in? How would the school react? Would I get arrested? I know Indian Jails are horrible…
“Thik hai,” the manager said finishing the call and hanging up the phone. I held my breath. He looked at me and with a slight wobble of his head, said, “Ok, you can go see.”
Relief. I wouldn’t be forced to try to try something stupid to get into the school.
“Thank you so much!” I said, shaking his hand. Without wasting another moment, I walked out of his office and started to make my way down the hill.
The path had the same design as I remembered. It was made from poured concrete and divided into four-inch segments. Indentations separated each segment, to funnel water off the path, so it wouldn’t become a functioning stream during the monsoons.
The last time I walked this path was when we left for Winter vacation at the end of November 1988, the plan was to return to GNFC the following March. Unbeknownst to us, larger issues were at play between the school’s administration and 3HO, which would force us to move to a different school the following year.
The path down to school consisted of five switchbacks. Interspersed between these turns were the living quarters for the teachers and school administration. Along the way were signs with quotes that were either inspirational, extolled tough love, or encouraged thought. After the last switchback, the path spilled out on to the far end corner of the Main Field, a large gravel-covered expanse, used for athletics, school functions and a place for the students to line up before entering the Dining Hall.
Several students were standing at this confluence and a few others were walking across the Main Field. From looking at the school’s website, I already knew that the student body consisted mainly of Indians, sprinkled with a handful of expat Sikh children from Southeast Asia, so I wasn’t surprised that my appearance elicited several double takes and long stares. I smiled and said hello to all I made eye contact with. Sometimes this was met with a shy smile, with the student quickly looking away. Other times it was a gleeful hello.
I walked at an angle across the field towards where I remembered the Principal’s Office to be. Most of the buildings surrounding the field looked the same, with a few small noticeable changes. The addition of a second floor above the Dining Hall, and a rooftop covering connecting it to the Kitchen. The Bursar’s Office looked different too but I couldn’t quite figure out why.
For the last six months I had thought a lot about this moment and how I would feel. If I were to take my queue from movies, I would be lead to believe that in a situation like this, returning to the place where so many powerful memories remain, it would result in a big cathartic release.
At that moment, on the school’s Main Field, I had no Wayne’s World-like wash to a flashback or I didn’t fall to my knees, ala the opening of Saving Private Ryan, where a man so overcome by the pain of his memories, collapses at the grave of a fallen comrade. Then after crying, begins a flashback.
Perhaps the emotions didn’t hit me right away because I started working on healing these traumas last year and had done my fair share of crying (ok, a ton), while trying to process and forgive. If I just showed up without doing the work, who knows how far across the field I would have gotten before losing my shit?
Walking off the Main Field I had a chance to test my theory. Between the Assembly Hall and Library, to the left was a place where I had one of my initial traumatic experiences at GNFC, the spot where I had met Nanak Dev for the first time.
It was my third day in India and Nanak Dev was in his fourth year as the head guide for the Americans. He was seated at the aforementioned spot, a concrete bench that was built along the outer wall of the Library, facing the Main Field. Several American boys surrounded him. As I approached, they gave way so I could be brought in to face him directly. Dressed in the trappings of a traditional Nihang Sikh, his dark eyes and angular face were framed by a vibrant blue turban and an impressive black beard.
Despite my homesickness, the familiarity of the beard, turban and clothes, paired with his charismatic smile and the smell of sandalwood oil gave me the sense that everything was going to be ok.
After confirming that I had been given the lay of the land, he said, “Ravi, we have a game that every new kid has to play. Give me your hand.” Smiling, I obliged. He placed his right hand around my knuckles and used his left hand to hold my forearm. In the middle was my wrist. He began to roll my hand.
“Have you ever had a wrist massage?” This elicited a chuckle amongst the kids. Even at ten I recognized the sound of malice. The hairs on my neck began to rise.
He looked around with a knowing smile and continued, “I’m going to bend your fingers to your forearm, and your goal is to not cry. Ok?”
At ten, not really not having the capacity for critical thinking, I did understand this; I didn’t know any of these people. I wanted them to like me and if I didn’t cry, they would like me. I would gain acceptance. I nodded my head and hoped for the best.
He began to bend my wrist and I tensed my body in anticipation. Very quickly, pain shot up my arm and I instinctively tried to pull away.
“No, no. Stay right here,” Nanak Dev said, looking at me as if he knew how this was already going to end. He pulled me in closer and applied even more pressure.
I resisted the urge to cry, by exhaling through my open mouth, until my lungs emptied. On the inhale, the pain sharpened and I felt like I reached my limit.
I asked in a trembling voice, “Please, you’re hurting me. Can you let go?”
He laughed, pushing my fingers closer to my forearm.
Coming undone from the pain, I felt completely helpless and with nothing left, I began to cry in earnest, pleading that he let me go. Unrelenting, he continued to hold my wrist in this stress position, pushing even further. I had never felt pain like this before as sobs began to wrack my body.
“Ravi,” he finally said, “you are a fucking pussy.” A laugh rolled through the surrounding kids.
With that he released my arm, hit me across the head and pushed me away. The pain began to subside and shame began to creep in. I had failed my first test, which set the tone for the coming failures and social ostracization over the next few months. Pain by the hands of this man, followed by crying and public humiliation.
Looking at this concrete bench thirty-four years later, the memory played through my mind, without the intense emotions that had been attached to it in the past. I was able to acknowledge this memory and let go. So far so good.
Walking past the Library towards the School Bell, a short man in a pullover sweater walked along side of me looking at me as if he was expecting me to say something.
Obligingly I said, “Uh…I’m here to see Mr. Tiwari.”
“Yes sir. My name is Mohan. Come this way sir.” He said.
With that he led me into what used to be the entrance to the dorm rooms of Atari House. In the hallway he took the first right, which opened up into a waiting room, with offices further down the way.
“Please sit sir,” Mohan said, “I will let Mr. Tiwari know.”
Seated on one the couches, I looked around the room. The wall to the right held various trophies and a list of the special guests that came for Founder’s Day, the school’s annual anniversary celebration. To the left were some photos of nondescript landscapes. Directly in front of me was a faded print of the school’s namesake, Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru. This was the most common painting of him. In it, his eyes are heavy lidded, which I perceived was intended to show a man at peace, while also giving you the sense he was a someone you did not want to mess with. Like the Mona Lisa’s smile, there was a mysterious element about his gaze. Ecstatic reverie in the divine, or just sleepy?
“Hello,” someone said, breaking my transcendental moment with a man who died almost 500 years ago, yet was responsible for me being born. I looked down from the Guru to see a young bespectacled Indian man standing by the entryway of the waiting room.
“Hello,” I replied, “are you also here to see Mr. Tiwari?”
The man chuckled. “No, I am a teacher here only. I am teaching commerce, from grade ninth to tenth.”
“Oh, I see.” I said, slightly taken aback by how young this teacher looked. I thought it interesting that the waiting room also functioned as some sort of Teacher’s Lounge.
The teacher then said, “Are you here about the teaching position?”
“No, I am a former student.”
“Wow! That must have been a long time ago,” he said with such earnestness that I couldn’t help but smile.
Just then, Mohan re-entered the room. “Mr. Tiwari is ready to see you.”
Mr. Tiwari was gracious and accommodating. We made small talk asking about each other’s lives and tried to make connections where we could. For the five years I was at GNFC in the 80s, he was the House Master for Atari House. He had become the Principal many years later and suggested that he would be retiring in the near future. After about an hour conversation he wrapped it up by saying I was free to go around the school on my own. He suggested I explore the upper part of the school before joining him for lunch, which was in thirty minutes. After lunch, I could then head down to see the rest of the school.
Now I could get down to business. Walking out of the Administrative Offices, I turned left towards the Senior classrooms, three rooms accessible from the thoroughfare I was on by a concrete walkway. Just past this to the right was the School Bell, a real bell used to constantly remind you of where you needed to be during the day. Further on, was a small garden shaped in a half oval, punctuated on the far end by a metal fence and two flagpoles bearing the Sikh triangular yellow flag. At the end of the garden was an amazing view of the Doon Valley below. I spent the rest of my time before lunch walking around this area, enjoying the sun and letting the memories float back.
There was a perfect hiding spot just below the flagpoles we would use to skip out on mandatory evening prayer. It could fit three kids at most, so you had to be careful who you clued in on about the place. It became popular enough that sometimes it would be full when you got there, forcing you to try to find another place, where you usually ended up getting caught and punished.
Just around the corner from this garden used to be the Cafeteria, a shop that sold snacks, a miserable hole in wall that every kid had such a love/hate relationship with. Love for the fact that when it was open and you had money, it helped stave off the constant hunger that was faced from being underfed. Hate for that it was rarely open and the employee who was hired to run it had absolutely no incentive to sell anything. He moved at a glacial pace, causing huge lines to form some days, tempers to flare and often kids getting left without the chance to buy a snack, if they didn’t reach the window before the appointed closing time.
My last classroom in 1988 was on the far right of the three Senior Classrooms. Sarib, the patron saint of skateboarding for us American Sikhs was in the class ahead of me and he cut a space out of the wood shelves in a cupboard of the classroom, allowing for enough room to keep my skateboard there so I wouldn’t have to carry it down the hill. One evening towards the end of night study, I had my skateboard at my desk. Deciding to put it away before study time finished, I dropped it to the ground and rolled on it over to the cupboard. Outside in the dark I heard some cursing in Hindi and looked over to see the School Captain, Balraj emerge from the dark, storming into the classroom with a field hockey stick in hand.
Yelling while lifting the hockey stick to strike he said, “Saala, you think you are bloody special?! You think you can do just anything?!”
I began to reply, but by that time he was already swinging the stick at me. He started by hitting me multiple times on my legs, before they gave out and I crumpled to the floor. Undeterred, he continued raining blows ferociously along my side and back. He finished by giving me solid kick before rejoining the other school prefects out in the dark, where he was congratulated for his efforts. I had trouble walking and lying down for the next few days. Balraj was 17. I was 15.
The bell began to ring, bringing me back to the present day and signaling to the school that it was time for lunch. Quickly the students gathered to form lines on the Main Field and were let in the Dining Hall to eat. The Dining Hall had been remodeled as well, becoming one single room for all four Houses. Joining Mr. Tiwari at his table, we stood until, somewhere on the other side of the hall, the prayer that I knew so well began to be spoke,
“For what we are about to receive, oh Lord make us truly grateful.” With that lunch was on. We had twenty minutes. Eating the school food for the first time in 30 years, even though we used to despite it, I must admit, I enjoyed quite a bit.
With lunch being finished, I began my journey down the hill to the dormitories. Although so much had changed, there was still many places with memories. The ghosts of my childhood haunted every part of the school and it was impossible not have some memory or feeling rise up wherever I went.
Having a chance to walk around the entire campus on my own, there was so many things I could continue writing about. Stories about friends, the games we would play, the fights we would have, the ways we would make up. Rigorous studies, crazy teachers, ridiculous school functions. Trips to Town, where we would stay until we spent all of our money or managed to eat so much that we could no longer perform basic functions. The traumas perpetrated by adults and on each other.
One day, I will write more about this, just not today.
I left the campus after saying goodbye to Mr. Tiwari and several other teachers I had met. Outside of the gate, I walked back over to where I could get a clear view of the school from the road, so I could do one last thing.
Having recently begun practicing several Buddhist technics of meditation, which I have used as a way to work through my trauma, one of the more powerful ones has been Tonglen. The essence of the practice is that you are taking in with your breath all the negative emotions of a specific situation, person, or on larger scale, the pain and suffering of all humans and in turn breathing out the opposite; positivity, love, acceptance and compassion. This is done for those that have harmed you directly, for the hurt you have done to other people and for the pain caused to others by others that you will never know.
Standing on the road, I brought my hands into prayer and inhaled the pain and anger surrounding Nanak Dev and Balraj, exhaling love and forgiveness. I breathed in the violence and abuse I passed on to other kids and breathed out healing and compassion for them. I breathed in the collective pain for all the children of GNFC and was doubled over with the depth of sadness that struck me. As I bowed and began to exhale trying to transform that feeling into joy, the loneliness and sadness of so many children separated from their loved ones combined with pain of abuse and how it was passed from child to child was too much to bear. Tears for all of these things could not be held back and I began to weep uncontrollably.
The clanging of a small tin bell broke the spell and I looked over to see a cow ambling towards me, swaying gently and chewing its cud. Somehow this had a calming effect, as if the cow was telling me that everything was going to be ok and that I needed to try again.
Repositioning myself, I breathed in once again, taking in all the pain I could imagine from every boy whom had every gone to this school and breathed love and kindness back into the world.