Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Palma non sine pulvere

‘He is too young for fifth grade’, the bearded priest said somberly.

My parents shuffled uncomfortably in their seats. ‘He is a good
student . He will manage, Father ...’, my mother replied with a
hopeful voice.

‘Do you know what that means, boy?’ father D’Souza had asked me ,
running his fingers through his black beard, looking at the nine year
old boy sitting across the table. I shook my head looking at the
school emblem he was pointing to.  The colorful emblem had a shield
with two lions and a banner that said “Palma non sine pulvere”

‘It means - No reward without hard work’, he said in a firm but kind
voice. ‘Are you ready to work hard, boy?’

I gave a fleeting glance to my parents who were sitting in the
principal’s office with me. Then working really very hard not to look
at the three feet long cane lying on the table between myself and the
principal of the school that I was about to join, I nodded.

We walked out of the Principal’s office beaming. My parents much more than me. And it was not without reason - I had just secured admission in St Peters College. The school was one of the oldest convent schools in India.  Spread across a sprawling fifty acre campus, this all boy’s school, established in the middle of the nineteenth century, was one of the prominent schools in Agra. The school had hosted visits by known dignitaries, boasting visitors like Prince of Wales and Mother Teresa among several others.


My mother had started my schooling much earlier than other kids. As a result, I was much younger than my classmates and invariably the smallest kid in the class.

‘You should try to be like Golu uncle’, mother would say very often. Golu Ganguli was a genius relative, who started his first grade when he was three years old and became a licensed doctor before his twentieth birthday.  

I have no doubt that the genius would have been much happier if his parents had given him a lesser academic challenge - and a perhaps less funny name.

Apparently, I had not inherited the genes of my genius uncle and had to spend a large part of my early school years trying to figure out what was being taught in the class. An equal amount of time was then spent suffering the consequences of not being successful in my effort trying to figure out what was being taught in the class.

The only part of the school day that I looked forward to was the mid day recess.

The somber countenance of the campus would erupt into a joyous outburst during the school recess.  Sound of laughter, screams and shouts would ring across the school, overflowing from the large campus walls into the roads surrounding the school.

Several vendors lined up in these roads. Chuski Ice Cones, sweetened Suparis, tangy Churans and hot Samosas were in constant demand. While most of the vendors timed their arrival during the break, some had their business open all through the day, relying on the unauthorized trickle of students who dared to sneak out of their class to cater for a food emergency.

One of those enterprising vendors was the Chuski ice cone seller who stood with his hand driven cart lined with colorful syrups in glass bottles neatly arranged along the perimeter. Right in the center of the cart a big slab of Ice lay covered with jute cloth. The Chuski wala  would expertly shave a block of ice into a small earthen cups, dowsing the white ice with a colorful blend of syrups before slipping it into one of the several eagerly waving hands.

The hustle and bustle of the recess got vastly amplified during three 
weeks every year- just before the elections for the school parliament.


The members of the school parliament were elected by a secret ballot during the school Election Day. There were three political parties in the school and canvassing was allowed in the school recess time. The parties staged processions through the campus with large banners soliciting  for vote. 

Students distributed leaflets and shouted ‘ Vote for Labor Party’ , ‘Vote for Liberal Party’, ‘Vote for Democratic’, ending in a friendly faceoff slogan shouting match at the end of the recess.

I loved participating in those noisy gatherings. Rubbing shoulders with the big high school students who seemed larger than life, my loud voice made up for my small stature.

After elections, the leader of the party with majority seats was appointed as the Prime Minister - the face of the college, who made key note addresses and represented the college in all inter college gatherings. Inside the college however, it was the reign of the number two in command - The Law & Order Minister.

The Law & Order Minister, acted as the head of the student body helping in the enforcement of the school’s code of conduct and discipline, acting as the first line of governance before a disciplinary issue was escalated. Escalation usually meant sore bottoms for the offenders.

The Minister had the authority to make an offender run around the school grounds as a punishment for loitering during school hours, coming late for the morning school assembly or coming to school without proper uniform. Often seen taking inspection rounds around the school, walking through the hallways and playgrounds, he was the envy of lesser mortals like me, languishing in the confines of the classroom.

The smallest boy in my class, I always ended up standing in the front row of the morning school assembly, looking with awe at the symbol of authority among the students, standing next to the Principal’s podium.

I could not guess at that time that several years later, I will end up being one.


‘You are perhaps the smallest law and order minister we ever had’, Mr. Nath had joked after I was sworn in.

I still remember walking around the campus for my first inspection round. The freedom of walking outdoors during school hours. The fresh air and the distant sounds of the classroom chatters floating through the windows.

And the hot sun!

It was so hot that I was drenched with sweat even as I tried to walk under the shade of the trees that were scattered along the edge of the huge playgrounds. I walked along the perimeter of the school to the side door of the school. The iron door almost singed my palms as I opened it. I peeped out - there were no loiterers. Glad that my work was done, I was looking forward to the cool comfort of the classroom fan.

‘This job may not be as much fun as it appeared to be after all’ , I thought flicking droplets of sweat from my nose.

The chuski ice cone wala who was standing next to the door, smiled at me sheepishly. I smiled back and reaching into my pocket, pulled out a coin.

‘One large cup please’, I said wiping sweat from my brows.


 ‘How is it?’ I asked my ten year old son Rishi as he bit into his ice cone.

We were sitting on the warm sands of Redondo Beach in California. It was a hot day and the cool breeze blowing from the Pacific was refreshing. A pair of seagulls started to hover around expecting tidbits from the lone occupants of the beach.

' The bestest ice cone in California !'  Rishi joked and offered me a bite.

‘How about I tell you the story about the bestest ice cone in the world?’ I winked, ‘It was sold just outside the bestest school in the world’

As I gazed at the horizon, I could almost feel the sunny sky above my school in Agra, the fresh air and the distant sounds of the classroom chatters floating through the windows, the hot sun, the sweat, the smile of the chuski wala.

And the taste of the large cup of chuski ice cone.


Author’s Note:

As a concluding remark I do want to mention that eventually I started
to enjoy the entire school time in the bestest school in the world.
Not sure why, but classes stopped being boring, the games started
becoming more interesting, and it was no longer just the recess that I
looked forward to everyday at school.

It was perhaps because of Mr.Vashist’s enactment of simple harmonic
motion, where he played the role of the pendulum, running across the
classroom with an excited smile on his face.

Or maybe Dr Gagil’s unique approach of teaching Hindi using English.
‘Write a letter to your friend telling him about the environmental
changes in the neighborhood’, he would say somberly in fluent English.
The students were supposed to translate his instructions into Hindi
before executing them.

Or perchance Mr. Sharma’s jokes on scientific etymology, Mr. Sinha’s
discourse on differential equations punctuated with stories about his
motorcycle, Mr. Anthony’s leisurely approach to physical education,
making boys sweat while he kept an eye standing peacefully under the
shade of a tree twisting his mustache, Mrs. Bhatia’s encouragement
to a small boy to stand up for himself and against bullies or Mr
Edwards diligent coaching in gymnastics that helped me claim the
position of team captain.

Or because of the countless school friends who touched each other’s
life without any of us realizing that we did. Much before our thoughts
were conditioned by the toil of the world.

Several years after I graduated from St Peter’s, I was sitting with my
Thesis advisor in his cramped office at MIT. ‘Are you sure about your
research topic?’, he had asked me ‘ It will be a lot of work’

‘Palma non sine pulvere’ I said with a hint of mischief in my voice.
My advisor gave me an amused grin.

‘How true, isn’t it?’ he replied. I had not expected the middle aged
professor of German descent to interpret the Latin motto of my school
in Agra.

‘No reward without hard work’, he continued, ‘You know Prithvi, hard
work is the reward in itself - isn’t it?’ , he said looking out of the

I followed his gaze. The frozen Charles river shone brightly under the
winter sun.  The naked maple trees lining the river stood shivering in
the wind. A branch pine tree ran across the window laden with fresh
snow – like heaps of fresh ice cones!

“Hard work is the reward in itself “

Had I finally understood the motto of the bestest school in the world?


triloki nagpal said...

Beautifully written PR. You know how to make the reader LIVE in the story. Keep it up.

Varsha said...

Hmm! Made me think. Your writing has a lot of philosophy written in an easy manner. Enjoyed reading it.

banved said...

Loved it! Especially the transition to the rodendo beach chuski. I spent 12 yrs there without knowing what the motto meant. Thanks for the spark.

Anonymous said...

You are a logical extension of your younger days.Only chuski stuff has changed. It is niw red. Luv Baba

Anonymous said...

Great one Prithvi, I couls recall everything and perhaps you should add a line about Dr. Ajay Babu class of chemistry and the way he will say Kaan di oxide (CO2)....great reading..:0

Jitendra Mathur

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