Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Dame Touch

We were five girls in a class of thirty-two. What I remember most about those days is an intense camaraderie between the girls. We were one unit, thinking alike, walking in step, sharing a bond of affection that was going to last forever. We often knew what the other was about to say before she said it. And we were permanently ravenous, particularly after meals, when we made a practice of haunting the kitchen to ‘scrounge’ for extras. For many of us, even our handwriting was close to identical. It still is.
The boys inhabited a shadow world, a khaki blur. They were an alien species with their own characteristic idiom and figures of speech, and brusque ways of relating, which we viewed with some apprehension. Occasionally a boy would do something dreadful, for which he would get caned. Violence against girls was not permitted.
We sat in the same class but were separated by a heritage of apartheid, which allowed no physical touch and frowned on conversation and even eye contact.
One of the things I remember about those days is the clear conception that Lawrence was originally a boys’ school. We had the impression that a few girls had been graciously permitted to attend but their numbers were kept restricted.
When I tried to verify this information, my friend Joseph Thomas (Aravalli 1957) wrote back with reasons by which it could be concluded that our school, founded in 1858 and though originally intended for girls also, did actually start as a boys’ school and eventually became co-ed in 1949.
Why then, more than twenty-five years after that, did it still seem as if it was a boys’ school that admitted girls on sufferance?
Could it possibly be because in those days, it wasn’t just Lawrence that was a boys’ school but that the whole world was meant for men, and women were tolerated provided they fulfilled certain conditions?
It was indeed a time, as Joseph pointed out, when most parents hesitated to send their daughters away to boarding school even while sending their sons. From this it might be concluded that none of us girls at Lawrence in those days were from oppressive families which discriminated against us on the basis of gender. At home we were given equal opportunity. We had strong female role models in our families. At school, too – if memory serves me right – the Maams were just as strong, opinionated and bossy as the Sirs.
And yet, the girls in my time never achieved on par with the boys.
Years later, when the time came to select a school for my daughter, I was advised to send her to an all-girls’ school. A friend who was an educationist (a few years later she became Principal of Arya Vidya Mandir school in Bombay) told me about studies which showed that girls in a mixed environment tend to conform to preconceptions of feminity. In a co-educational environment, she said, they were found to have a tendency to suppress their natural skills and potential in such a way as to remain subordinate and inferior.
To me this was a new idea, but thinking about my time in school, I felt it might contain a germ of truth. At Lawrence, in our days, it was always the boys who topped the class. In my batch, we never had a girl who ‘came first’. In the year above my class, Nalini Ambady sometimes did; the year below had Hema Nayar and the year below that had Vinita Babulkar, who were known to have broken that glass ceiling. I remember this wisp of trivia from the distant past with clarity, perhaps because it was such a rare and wonderful thing.
In our days, even we privileged ones were nurtured at school to a division of roles. Girls had needlework classes; boys had carpentry. When two of my classmates, Claire Pereira and Kanchana Chandy, jumped through the hoop of fire at the Founders’ PT Display, they were apparently the first girls to ever do so in the history of our school, and were not succeeded by other girls for some years to come.
Whether it was academics, extracurricular activities or athletics, the girls’ achievement paled against that of the boys. But whether this was due to statistical probability or a meek submission to what was then seen as the natural order of things, remains unclear. Nowadays, as everyone knows, Indian girls, despite the continuing deluge of pressure they withstand, fare uniformly better at examinations than their male counterparts. New studies inform us that this is because girls have been socialised to be more sincere (an observation that neatly creates an inherent possibility that perhaps boys are more intelligent).
Every generation faces the churn of roles. As new social ground is broken, new and often frightening spaces of freedom emerge. At the same time, insidious new tyrannies unexpectedly establish themselves.
Our young men are no longer oppressed by the need to be the sole providers of their families. In the past, men often sacrificed their education and their youth to go to work to support their widowed mothers, get their younger brothers educated and their sisters married, before they launched into starting their own families. Today their energy is focussed on ‘careers’, invariably on futile promotion, increment and position, to the exclusion of health, leisure, physical environment, personal growth and relationships.
Our young women, meanwhile, are gradually being emancipated from the traditional wisdom in which a woman’s body is a sex commodity and a baby machine of family proprietorship. And yet, despite the heady ecstasies of sexual freedom, it seems unlikely that they will ever shake off the oppressive demands of their fragile biology, making them perhaps even more prone to abortion, cysts, fibroids and hysterectomy than previous generations (with infertility appearing as an added bonus). Unreformed slaves of public opinion, will they ever be free of the urge to starve themselves, to depilate, and to crave that a diamond ring be offered them on bended knee by an earnest, sincere and dependable male?
When I visit school and interact with the students now studying there, I get the impression that the girls are much smarter, and more confident and sophisticated, than we ever were. The boys appear more vulnerable. Could it be the pendulum swinging the other way? Perhaps the influence of our female HM, an absolutely unthinkable entity in our days? Or just my imagination?
first appeared in The Old Lawrencian, the newsletter of the Old Lawrencians Association, Lovedale 2Q 2015
'Dame Touch' is an evocative expression peculiar to the language used by inmates of The Lawrence School, Lovedale.

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