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  • Chaitanya Kirtikar

The Taste of Freedom

The air was stale and frigid in the dim lit classroom. The general pandemonium that accompanies almost any situation involving a bunch of adolescents confined together at an early hour with a series of assignments they do not wish to complete filled the room. No voice, however powerful or authoritative it may be, could pervade the depth of the sheer chaos that dominated the environment. A frazzled teacher stood in front of the rows and rows of graffiti encrusted benches, his hand holding onto a folded history textbook, its pages hanging limply from a peeling cover.

Every individual effort to coerce these students into learning something was met with a ridiculously audacious resistance coupled with a seemingly innocent stupidity that made them almost wholly unaware of the fact that their whole lives could be affected by the outcome of the examinations that were now so near.

Eventually, the last few dregs of shame in the more sensible of the batch motivated them to shush their classmates until a more reasonable level of noise was reinstated. The tired teacher leaned against his desk, rubbing his temples as he waited patiently for the remaining discussions to die down. The deja vu had been hitting him harder recently, especially with respect to this particular class, and even after almost three decades of teaching, it still made his head hurt when the class was too noisy. Given his age, it was a wonder that he still managed to put up with teenagers: the only hair left on his head that was not pure white was bundled in greying streaks at his temples; but he feared even that would not last long given the state of this current batch.

“I hope everyone has finished talking.”, the class went silent for a moment as his gruff old voice resounded in the air conditioned classroom that was somehow still sweltering with heat.

Five whispers and another bout of cackles from the last benchers followed by a minimum of one comment from every individual in class later, he was finally back to explaining the Quit India Movement of 1942. The class stared back at him with an insipid nonchalance, the words coming out of his mouth ricocheting off their heads.

He could not quite understand this new generation. Granted, he may be a specimen of an era long gone; yet the way these students just took everything for granted gave him a sick feeling, a sense of – something akin to disgust which sometimes drove him to despair. While he had to admit the portion these days was far vaster than what he had endured when he was their age and perhaps the modern sense of curiosity had found a new direction in their pursuit of development, he always felt that something was lost to this generation. Something was missing in the manner in which they had been taught to perceive their country, their people, their homeland. It was not patriotism, it would be thoroughly wrong to say these children were not patriotic- afterall, regardless of whether the morning announcements were heard or whether the rules obeyed; every single one of them would stand for the National Anthem, regardless of the presence or absence of a teacher in class; which was still far more than what was observed with respect to other such mandates.

Yet they did not seem to understand, or rather comprehend the sheer depth of what generations before them had lived through; the sacrifices they had made to reach this point, to form this classroom, to publish these textbooks. It was not ignorance. Every single one of the students he had in this classroom was well aware of the history of India’s freedom struggle. It was just that at this point, after years of relentless memorisation and repetitive chapters, everyone in that classroom had managed to develop a sense of ad nauseam towards these lessons. They had lost perspective of the gravity of the history they were learning: it had become print in a textbook to be learnt and forgotten after receiving a full score in a ridiculously weighted examination.

As he spoke, the words flowed out of his mouth in a steady stream of knowledge with a sense of passion that had not been extinguished in three decades, and was nowhere close to waning now seemingly thinned for the first time. He could not but let a sigh escape as a miniature wave of whispers swept across the classroom in the brief moment of silence that ensued. He remembered the same faces he was standing before now when they had first ascended to the secondary section and given him the opportunity to teach another batch. He remembered saying the words he was about to utter now, he remembered the sheer number of answers he had received then, hoping that at least a few would pop up now,

“Why do we study history?”

A brief pause ensued, this time genuinely prolonged. He himself was unsure where he was going with this, or just how futile an attempt this was going to sound like, but it felt necessary, and he felt bound to do it.

“It seems a bit pointless, yes; to make you rote learn facts that do not seem to have any actual application in your lives today?”

Another pause ensued, this time with a drop of awkwardness diffusing through the ambience of the room. He continued,

“I still remember the answers you gave me in my first class with your batch. They were interesting answers; well thought and considered for your age back then.”, a loose smile slipping onto his face. The class was surprisingly quiet for this one moment. “A lot of you said that we study history so that we never repeat the mistakes of the past right?”

A few people nodded as the memory presumably trickled back to them.

“Perhaps today, in the light of the current chapter, we should consider another reason to study history.”

Looking up he stared at the single branch that was swaying outside the window of the classroom, one he had seen for years and years when he stood here.

“We should be studying history to understand the value of what we have; what others earned for us, to remember their contributions and to appreciate the taste of freedom.”

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