Amina set off for school carrying two readers, one Gujarati and one English, a few notebooks and a tin box containing a pencil, an eraser, a dip pen and some colouring pencils. She held them in the crook of her left arm while her right arm swung loosely, brushing the tips of the blades of tall grass that grew along the sides of the dirt road. There was a sparkle in her eyes, for it was the start of a fresh new year and the first day after her school had moved to a new location.
She turned onto Mosque Road and passed her old school, the Ismaili Girls’ Primary, a low, corrugated iron building, its metal roof glinting in the sun. It was empty and sat forlornly in the dusty yard that surrounded it, with the large guava tree by the gate. Amina felt a whiff of nostalgia, recalling the many times that she had climbed the tree to get at the ripe guavas dangling from its branches. It was against the rules to climb it, but the mild-mannered Mehta Master, the old principal, usually turned a blind eye to the less serious of the children’s misdemeanours.
The new school, smart and modern, was around the corner from the old one. It rested on round pillars which provided a colonnade effect with a wide staircase that led upstairs to the classrooms. Amina admired its glowing white facade with the shiny new blue paint on its doors and windows.
A throng of students was playing in the pillared court when Amina arrived, their shrill voices piercing the morning. Amina sought out her friend, Zubi, and they spun around a column until the bell rang and the teachers directed the students upstairs to their classrooms.
Amina’s classroom was large and bright and airy. There were windows along the length of an entire wall. Amina had a window seat and, from it, she could see the town’s mosque with its minarets slicing the sky.
The teacher, Miss Jamal, looked around the class, lingeringly, as though she was trying to memorize the faces of the students. She talked about how standard five was going to be different from standard four. For one thing, there would be three English classes a week instead of two, she said, and although all the rest of the subjects would be taught in Gujarati, as before, the work would be more advanced. She had a quiet voice that made Amina think of the murmur of rain outside her window when she lolled in her bedroom on a lazy afternoon.
The school had a new principal, Mrs. Pringle, who walked in during the morning and was introduced to the class by Miss Jamal. She stood straight and tall and surveyed the class through her red-rimmed glasses. She had short, blond, curly hair that sat like a neatly fitted cap around her head. She wore red lipstick which gleamed brightly on her light skin. Amina stared, fascinated because she’d never before been in such close proximity to a white person.
Mrs. Pringle made a speech with a lot of big words which no one understood. Miss Jamal stood by, her expression cool and detached. After the principal left, she translated the speech into Gujarati. It was about a new beginning and about coming changes that would give the school a strong and bright future.
The following week, Miss Jamal made an announcement to the class. “You remember Mrs. Pringle talking about changes she plans to bring in to improve the school? Well, the first change will be for all the students to have a uniform.”
Zubi put up her hand. “You mean like the police?” The class giggled.
“It’s sort of the same idea. All the students will dress in clothes that will be the same colour and design. It’ll be a white shirt and something called a pinafore, a green one.” Miss Jamal drew a pinafore on the blackboard. She said Mrs. Pringle wanted everyone to show up in uniform by the first of November.
Amina went with her mother to a shop where the fabric for the uniform had been specially ordered. “Hmm,” her mother said, frowning, feeling the cloth between thumb and forefinger. “So thick!” But she bought the amount needed and they returned home. She took Amina’s measurements, cut out the material, and began sewing.
“How long will it take, Ammi?” Amina asked every so often, hopping with impatience.
When it was ready, Amina tried it on, looked at herself in the mirror, and smiled, her eyes lit up with surprise. It was quite different from the light cotton dresses she usually wore. The pinafore was bright green and crisp with several pleats running down from a band across the chest towards the hem, and there was a stiff belt at the waist that held the pleats in place. It was the kind of garment she’d occasionally seen on European girls in pictures in magazines. Wearing it made her feel as though she’d turned into someone else.
“I’m an English girl now,” she said, putting on a prissy expression and pinching her speech in a crude imitation of what she imagined an English girl to sound like.
On November one, she walked to school in her new stiff outfit, feeling slightly unreal, as though she was in costume got up to act a part in a play. Zubi ran over to greet her as soon as she walked through the gate. They looked at each other’s uniforms appreciatively and grinned.
Teachers waited amongst the pillars to gather the students into an orderly group for an assembly. Assembly was a rare experience for the girls. The last time one was held was over four years ago, not too long after Amina first started school, when Mehta Master had brought the students together to prep them to greet a visiting dignitary.
Amina was keyed up with expectation and the students were restless and jabbered exuberantly, shuffling about to get into position. Mrs. Pringle hovered on the outside of the crowd, clapping her hands to bring about silence, but no one heard her over the racket. “Quiet, everyone,” she yelled, and the teachers marched up and down the group echoing her words and shushing them. At last, the din subsided and Mrs. Pringle began to speak with a solemn air.
“Good morning, girls. This is a great day for our school, a day for us to take pride in. We have taken the first step towards giving our school an identity that will mark us out as unique. From here on, whenever you are seen in the community with your uniform on, you will be recognized as belonging to a proud institution.
“In the coming days, there will be many other steps that we will together take that will add to this special . . . ”
Amina listened, but Mrs. Pringle’s English was too advanced for her to follow. Her attention was riveted on the movements of Mrs. Pringle’s perfectly lipsticked mouth as the words flowed from it.
The assembly ended and the girls, ignoring the principal’s futile calls that they line up to go to class in an orderly manner, galloped up the stairs, shoving and jostling, a cacophonous column filling the stairwell.
Amina sat down at her desk, the pleats of her pinafore fanning out around her legs. She sat rather stiffly at first, for fear of upsetting the arrangement of the pleats, but she lost interest in them as the day progressed and the classroom grew hot. She began to sweat inside her heavy garment. Her mind wandered and she looked out of the window at the far off minarets shimmering in the heat haze. Miss Jamal’s voice droned in the background.
When school was over, she walked home slowly. Two blocks down, she ran into Jagoo, the sweet vendor, who’d once handed her a jalebi free of charge when she’d accompanied her mother to his shop to buy some snacks. She’d eaten it on the way home, taking succulent bites of the golden syrupy whorl and relishing its velvety feel on her tongue.
Jagoo stopped and stared at her. “What’s this funny dress you’re wearing, Amina?”
“It’s my uniform,” she said.
He grinned, displaying a set of crooked teeth stained brown from chewing paan. His gaze traveled up and down her body in a creepy way.
“I have to go home,” she said. “I’m hot.”
“No wonder,” he said and laughed out loud. Amina sensed his eyes following her back as she walked away. She was furious.
“Where’s your uniform?” her mother asked next morning as she put Amina’s breakfast in front of her.
“I don’t want to wear it.”
“I don’t like it. It’s stupid.”
Her mother didn’t insist.
“It makes me feel too hot,” Amina explained when Miss Jamal asked about it.
Next day, a few students from some of the other classes also showed up in their regular clothes, a random assortment of colour dotting the schoolyard amidst a sweep of green and white. Over the week, their numbers swelled, until Mrs. Pringle sent word to the teachers asking them to enforce the uniform. However, Miss Jamal said nothing when Amina continued to show up without it.
Two weeks later, when Miss Jamal was writing multiplications on the board, a note arrived for her. She glanced at it and asked Amina to go to the principal’s office. Amina stood up, and ignoring the wicked glint that shone in her classmates’ eyes, sauntered out and down the hall to Mrs. Pringle’s office.
Mrs. Pringle sat behind a very tidy desk. Her grey eyes, enlarged by her glasses, looked straight at Amina.
“Why aren’t you in your uniform, Amina?”
“Because it feels hot.”
Mrs. Pringle paused, as though she was thinking. Amina waited, hopefully.
“You have to wear it,” Mrs. Pringle said at last. “You can’t come to school in just any old clothes.”
“But it makes me hot and sweaty. I can’t breathe.”
“That’s nonsense. Once you’ve worn it for a while, you’ll get used to it. I want to see you in your uniform tomorrow.”
But next day she sailed in wearing a floral dress and romped about the schoolyard without the least concern.
“You’re going to be in trouuuuble!” her classmates sang. Amina laughed, and pushing away a strand of hair that had strayed over her eyes, began skipping rope.
“Maybe you should wear it at least some days,” Zubi suggested. “That way, she might think you’re trying.”
“It’s a dumb thing to wear,” Amina panted, jumping high to perform a crossover.
At recess, Mrs. Pringle spotted her scampering down the stairs and decided to involve her mother. She sent a note home with her asking her mother to see to it that Amina wore her uniform, but it failed to bring about the desired result.
“Did you give my note to your mother?” she asked Amina.
“No. My mother can’t read English.”
Mrs. Pringle enlisted help from Miss Jamal. Miss Jamal duly delivered the message and next morning Amina’s mother insisted that she wear the uniform. Amina refused.
“It’s too hot and it makes me sweat and I might faint.”
“Don’t exaggerate, Amina. Your principal expects you to wear it and you have to obey her.”
“But I hate it! Nobody likes it. It’s horrid and uncomfortable and she shouldn’t force us to wear it. Mehta Master never made us do such stupid things.”
Amina yelled and slammed doors and carried on, but her mother didn’t budge and Amina gave in. However, on her way to school, she unfastened her belt and let it dangle from the belt loops. The pinafore ballooned around her, allowing a rush of cool air to flow up her legs. Later, when Mrs. Pringle caught her running with her skirt flapping about and told her to fasten her belt, she obeyed, but promptly undid it the moment the principal was out of sight.
Mrs. Pringle brought in other changes. She wanted the girls to wear proper shoes instead of the sandals and champals that they shambled to school in. She decided on white socks and black lace-up shoes of the kind until then only worn by men. And she advised that the girls who had shoulder-length or longer hair, which nearly all of them had, tie it up at the back.
Amina took an instant dislike to the shoes and socks. “They’re stupid. Only men wear those things,” she said, screwing up her face in disgust. However, she didn’t struggle with her mother. She put on all of the required gear when she dressed in the morning, but after leaving for school, she unfastened her belt, and when she reached her class, she removed her shoes and socks.
It wasn’t long before Mrs. Pringle caught a glimpse of her at recess, tearing across the schoolyard in pursuit of another student, barefooted, hair disheveled, belt dangling and pinafore billowing around her slight figure. Once again, Amina was summoned to the principal’s office.
“They pinch my toes,” Amina responded to Mrs. Pringle’s stern question, contorting her features in feigned distress.
“Show me where they pinch. Sit down on this chair and let me have a look.”
Amina did as directed, lifting her foot and displaying her dust covered toes.
“I see nothing that looks sore there. It’s not red and there are no blisters.”
“There was a bis . . . bil . . . blister this morning when I had the shoes on.” Amina wasn’t too sure what a blister was, but she thought it sounded like something that it would be helpful to say she had.
Mrs. Pringle’s features softened and Amina thought she was about to smile, but she didn’t. “Return to your class and put your shoes and socks on,” she commanded. “And I want you to keep them on all the time that you’re in school. If your foot becomes sore, I want you to show it to me. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Mrs. Pringle.”
“Yes, Mrs. Pringle.”
“And I want you to do up your belt. Right now.”
Amina’s brows puckered. Mrs. Pringle waited, standing tall and rigid.
“Come on. I don’t have all day.”
Amina picked up the two loose ends of her belt and fastened them with an impetuous gesture, causing the pleats to bunch up in the middle.
“Straighten your pleats.”
She looked down at her pinafore, grabbed fistfuls of the material on either side of the buckle and gave a clumsy tug which spread the untidy tangle without restoring the pleats.
“You’re a sloppy, disobedient child,” scolded Mrs. Pringle, bending down to do the job herself, bringing the pleats into position with quick, impatient movements.
On her way back to class, Amina unbuckled the belt. Miss Jamal, who had just opened her copy of Gujarati Folk Tales and was about to read a story from it, looked up when Amina entered. Amina sat down and prepared to listen, glad that she was back in time for the story. She didn’t put her shoes and socks on. Miss Jamal darted a fleeting glance at Amina’s feet, and returned to the story.
Mrs. Pringle next instituted daily morning assembly, to be begun with the singing of the British national anthem. Teachers were asked to have their classes memorize the lyrics. Amina loved the rounded sounds of words like ‘gracious’ and ‘victorious,’ rising and falling like waves in the ocean, and learnt the lines eagerly. The following week, after the girls were summoned to assembly by the bell and order and silence were restored, Mrs. Pringle began to sing the anthem, waving her arms to get the girls to join in. They sang in uneven voices, a wild medley of accents, pitch and tones struggling for harmony.
Amina sang with gusto, face tilted up and eyes rolled towards the ceiling, savouring the sounds of the new words rolling off her tongue. After the singling, Mrs. Pringle lectured the girls on the virtues of good behaviour and proper attitudes. “Discipline and order are the very foundation of a good education . . . ,” she intoned. The girls stared, with only the vaguest notion of what she meant.
Assembly was followed by a rigorous inspection when Mrs. Pringle marched up and down the rows of students to determine their conformity to the uniform. She stopped beside Zubi, slid her hand under the shock of hair that flowed down the girl’s shoulders and held it up. Zubi grinned sheepishly, squirming under the stares of her schoolmates. “Tie that up. It looks untidy,” Mrs. Pringle barked, abruptly dropping the hair and moving on.
To pass the inspection, Amina presented herself at assembly every morning in full regalia. As soon as she was at her desk, however, she shed the detested footwear, let her hair loose and undid her belt so that her waist disappeared inside her puffed out pinafore. For several days she escaped detection, prancing about the grounds at break time, free as air, but, eventually, Mrs. Pringle caught up with her and ordered her to back to her office.
“You know why you’re here, don’t you?”
“You will stay back after class today. You will sit at your desk and write twenty five times the line, ‘I will always come to school properly attired.’”
“Please, Mrs. Pringle, what does propally attaid mean?”
“It means dressed in the correct manner.”
Amina was amused by the popping sounds, like firecrackers, that the phrase made. “I like those words. Can you please say them again?”
Mrs. Pringle didn’t oblige. Instead, she wrote the line out for her on a sheet of paper. Amina looked at it. Pointing at the last two words, she asked, “How do you say them?”
“Properly attired. Now go back to class. And if tomorrow I see you with any part of your uniform missing, or your hair loose, it’s going to be fifty lines. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” Then, remembering, she added, “Mrs. Pringle.”
After school ended, Amina sat at her desk and wrote in her beautiful cursive script, copying the sentence Mrs. Pringle had composed for her. She said the line out loud as she wrote it, making the popping sounds with relish. Miss Jamal, who’d been asked by Mrs. Pringle to stay behind to supervise, and who sat at her desk marking her students’ homework, glanced up at Amina and smiled. She resumed her work. When she looked up ten minutes later, Amina’s eyes were closed and her head rested peacefully on top of her notebook. She went to Amina’s desk and woke her up. She stood for a moment, hesitating, as Amina looked groggily up at her. Then she sent her home.
Next day Miss Jamal asked Amina to stay back when school ended. A few minutes after the rest of the class had filed out of the room, Mrs. Pringle appeared. “What was the problem yesterday, Miss Jamal?”
“I let her go home because she’d fallen asleep,” Miss Jamal answered, her expression blank.
“Well, she’ll just have to stay behind again today,” said Mrs. Pringle, looking at Amina with a lift of eyebrows that produced tense creases on her forehead. Turning to Miss Jamal, she added, “and this time, she’s not getting away with it. I’ll be supervising her myself and she’s not going home until the twenty five lines are complete.”
Miss Jamal said nothing. Quietly, she collected her things and left the room. Mrs. Pringle told Amina to get her notebook out and start writing.
“Can you say the words out loud again, please Mrs. Pringle? I like the way you say them.”
“I don’t have time for fun, Amina. Get on with it, and I want silence while you do it.”
Amina picked up her pen in her ink-stained fingers, opened her notebook, pushed her hair back and yawned while Mrs. Pringle stood glowering. Resigned, Amina began. But soon her concentration sagged, her handwriting slurred and when Mrs Pringle looked at her next, she was asleep. Mrs. Pringle woke her up and insisted that she continue. But barely had she written two more lines before her head lolled. Mrs. Pringle gave up.
Amina found the principal pacing her office when she entered. There were tired circles under her eyes that made her skin glow whiter. A rattan cane lay across her desk.
“Look at you. Slovenly, after all my efforts to correct your habits.”
Slovenly. Amina repeated the word inside her head. She wondered whether it referred to her bare feet or her beltless pinafore. She wanted to ask but Mrs. Pringle looked very cross.
Mrs. Pringle picked up the cane. She stiffened and looked hard at Amina. Amina held her breath as the possibility that the principal might cane her crossed her mind. But Mrs. Pringle frowned and put the cane back down. Amina sighed with relief. Girls were, after all, rarely hit, though she knew it was common at the boys’ school. Only once had Mehta Master ever struck a girl. She’d hung her head in shame afterwards and the other students had whispered behind her back.
Mrs. Pringle picked up the cane again and raised it. “I do this very reluctantly. You leave me no choice. You have defied all my efforts to correct your habits. You need to learn that there are consequences for disobedience. Put your hand out.”
Amina gasped. The image of the disgraced girl flashed through her mind, but she steeled herself against the blow. She stared straight ahead, neither moving nor flinching, as the cane came down, striking each palm with a thud. After Mrs. Pringle was finished, Amina spat out, “I hate you!” and ran from the room.
She didn’t return to her class. Burning with humiliation, she raced down the stairs, tore across the yard, and rushed out through the gate. She ran down Mosque road, not stopping until she reached her old school. She stood for a moment by its decrepit gate to catch her breath and looked longingly at the abandoned building, shadows dancing on its rusty metal front.
Her mother was in the courtyard winnowing lentils when she arrived home.
“How come you’re back early?”
“I’m never returning to that school! Never ever!”
Her mother looked at her dirty bare feet. “Why? What happened?”
Sputtering with rage, Amina related the incident of the morning.
“Well, why can’t you just do what your principal wants and stop making your life difficult?” her mother, scolded, but she held Amina and let her vent.
Amina resisted her mother’s efforts to coax her to return to school the next day. She played panchika in the yard, tossing the stones up in quick succession and catching them with the skill of a juggler as they rushed back down, sorry that her friends weren’t around to watch and admire. She walked down the street which was quiet except for the occasional call of a peddler announcing his wares. She looked wistfully at the homes of her friends as she passed by, their front yards gaping empty.
The following morning, she woke early, put on her full uniform and set off for school. She had decided that she wasn’t as upset anymore as she had been. She entered her classroom and, as before, she undid her hair tie and tossed off all the bits of the uniform that she didn’t like as soon as she’d sat down. She would put everything back on before going down for recess in case of a run in with Mrs. Pringle.
When the bell rang, Amina picked up the two loose ends of her belt to tie them up, but on an impulse, dropped them. She rose, and barefoot and with her hair streaming, joined the surge of students leaving class. On the landing, she ran smack into Mrs. Pringle. She stopped, startled, expecting to be ordered to her office to be caned. Mrs. Pringle too stopped, and for a moment the two looked at each other as though spellbound. Then, without saying a word, Mrs. Pringle moved on. Amina sprinted down barefoot. She felt buoyant, as though she might take off into flight like the white-headed eagle she’d once spotted by the sea, spreading its giant black wings and lifting itself off the ground to soar through the open sky.