Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Rishi Valley

Fourteen Year Later

Our Volvo bus from Hyderabad is late by about an hour. I’ve been up for an hour and a half watching the dawn slide off the railway tracks that cross and re-cross the road on which we are. It is the old meter-gauge railway line that’s no longer used.

At 7.15 the bus drops us off at a village with an unpronounceable name. A van from Rishi Valley is waiting for us. We enter the mouth of the valley and watch Lion Rock standing sentinel as it always has done. As I point out landmarks to my son, the driver realises I’m an ex-student and becomes chatty.


As I go through the routines of bath, breakfast, assembly I’m filled with a sense of relief. I had imagined that this place would be strange, smaller than I remembered, darker and more inadequate. It most certainly isn’t that; but this feeling inside me as I let the silence seep in, is not nostalgia. Nostalgia is inherently false and tarnished. Nothing can live up to it. Being back here is not an act of remembrance; it is of a return. Something umbilical ties me to this place. It is home, so I do not resent the changes that have taken place in the time I’ve been away. In fact, I delight in rediscovering the old and marvelling at the new. I’m amazed that I’ve forgotten nothing: every tiny ritual – the silence bell before lunch, the day divided by the ringing of the big bell – the routes, names, paths and activities.


From the Principal’s office one can see Boat Rock – a fanciful piece of granite perched on top of a hill. Excepting only our talk, the silence is complete. If the leaves rustle, or if there is a snatch of birdsong, it is so fleeting as to be almost unnoticeable. Perhaps it is only my citified ear, used to more noise, unable to detect sounds in lower registers. Given time, I might be able to separate all of this. Even the new lab being constructed just outside the senior school building seems to rise without any sound.


There’s been a lot of construction going on in the school. As we walk around, I can see the lab coming up and at least two other buildings on the way to the Big Banyan Tree. There is steel and cement lying about; there are construction workers. But they seem to work silently. I don’t know how they do it. No construction in the city seems to take place without a large amount of noise and dust.

In the fourteen year I’ve been away, several new buildings have come up. I’m not sure how old each of these buildings is but they seem to merge seamlessly with not only the old buildings but also with the trees around them. I had imagined that the place would have had to be scraped and raw on the surface; to go through a necessary phase of ugliness before turning beautiful. But these buildings, held safe within the nest of surrounding trees, don’t look like they have disturbed a single thing while they came up.


On the first day I drag my son to every single place I urgently need to see: the Big Banyan Tree, the Junior and Senior Schools buildings, the new library, Asthachal (which now no longer takes place because of the mosquitoes) and a short way up Cave Rock hill. I want to see everything at once so that I will have time to see it all again, at leisure. By the end of the day, my son is exhausted. His seven year old legs have walked more than ten kilometres all told, and he’s ready to pass out. This happens every single day that we are there. We walk and walk and walk until he gets cramps in his legs and at night he’s asleep almost before he’s changed into his night clothes.


The Big Banyan Tree was rumoured to have died. This is the tree that J Krishnamurti saw and decided he wanted his school be where the tree was. When we were in school, the area surrounding the tree had been cemented up to allow for performances under the tree. Stone benches were laid out around in semi-circles.

The benches still stand, but the cement has been removed. It appears that they were choking the tree and because the tree couldn’t put down its aerial roots it was dying. There must have been other reasons. Whatever the problems, the tree seems to be reviving now, though it looks more sparse and bleak than it used to.

The first evening there is a dance performance. We used to have ML Vasanthakumari living on campus and the Bharatanatyam performances used to be full-length ballets done in collaboration with Kalakshetra. MLV Akka, naturally, used to compose the music for the whole ballet and sing. (I’m trying hard not to say those were the days!)

Now, however, there is no one with the stature or the inclination to do things on such a grand scale (this is a separate post altogether, this business of the education at school) and so the children put up several individual pieces, moving from Allaripu to Jatiswaram to Tillana.

The performance is in the open air, just outside the auditorium. Between each dance, the sky drops like velvet on us and I can’t remember seeing as many stars in the sky in the last 14 years. The Milky Way is clearly visible, as is Scorpio. I used to be able to name more constellations but now I can’t remember any. All around me the children take this utter darkness for granted and worry more about the dog in their midst.

The performance is, I’m afraid, rather mediocre. I feel disinclined to excuse it because they’re children. If you’re learning dance, at least the first thing you ought to get right before you’re allowed to perform, is your posture. Not one person dancing that evening got that basic thing right. Half-way through, I decide not to put my son through this any more and we leave.


The second evening, there is a film. Nothing we want to watch, so we hang out with Vidya. Vidya and her husband, Kartik, run the rural medical centre. It is a much bigger set-up now than it ever was. This is separate from the ‘hospital’ meant for the school.

Vidya seems to do work outside of her responsibilities at school. She has some slides she must examine and write reports on before sending them off to Madras. My son has a lovely time looking through the microscope, playing with Kartik’s dinky cars and reading Asterix comics.


Sunday is a packed day. There are matches in the afternoon – handball for the girls and football for the boys – and folk dance before dinner. After dinner, the school has arranged for a reading from my book, in the Library.

The girls match is sharper and more exciting than the boys’ football. There, the boys kick the ball with more enthusiasm and less skill, with no idea of how they’re contributing to the game. This same spirit of happy mediocrity I notice once again during folk dance.

I remember more dances than I thought I would but I notice that they’re dancing them differently. I must be getting old, but I can’t but call it a corruption. Every step, separate and purposeful is elided over and made into one continuous sloppy movement. Sunil, who is now in charge of folk dance, can’t tell the difference because he doesn’t know most of these dances. They were taught when we were in school and he wouldn’t know a right step from a wrong one. But I do and I can’t bear to watch my favourite dances being butchered the way they are. We leave for dinner and wait outside the dining hall.


After dinner, nearly all of the senior students turn up, in addition to the teachers. The mezzanine of the library, which has been built for such purposes, is full. I had asked earlier if I could sell copies of my book and the school had said I could.

When I stop, it is nine. After only a few questions that the teachers start to ask, there are several kids with their arms up in the air. The questions come rapidly for the next hour, some of them very interesting ones and some others that are usual but don’t sound annoying coming from these children.

One boy asks me if I feel weird hearing English read aloud. I say no, but I want to answer this at greater length. I remember that sense of embarrassment when hearing ‘My heart is beating’ from Julie. I know what he means, in a way.

There’s a question someone else asked me that I know is important but I can’t remember it now. Maybe it will come back later.

At the end of the reading, I find I’m six copies short. I tell the school office that I will courier the copies when I return.


The next day, it’s time for us to leave. The taxi arrives at 10 and after some minor wrapping up and saying all our goodbyes, it’s time to leave. As the taxi turns on to the main road, I realise that I haven’t taken a photograph of Lion Rock at all. I hope that it will be there the next time I return and make a vow to not let another 14 years slip by before I make another visit.


equivocal said...

"MLV Akka" was a GENIUS. I cant believe she was singing for you amateur thespians!

Space Bar said...

Ha! Is that jealousy I'm hearing? But you know what? I was a philistine in dem days and chose games over singing lessons. Besides which, you had to be really good for MLV Akka to teach you. Only those who chose music as their elective and did exams and stuff in it, were taught by her.

km said...

Much as I enjoyed this, I still want to read that other post.

//yes, i know I am being pesky here.

Space Bar said...

km: yeah, yeah, yeah. give a girla chance, ok? i'm doing this backwards. so i'll end with that one.

Anonymous said...

I was in the ninth standard when you came to visit. I remember sitting around you in the mezzanine, listening to your poetry and remember distinctly that I liked it. Us ninth standards weren't supposed to be there but Sid had granted his consent for us to to pile on at the last minute. I was also at folki that evening and though I understand your rather disenchanted feeling about the majority of us who make a hash of the dances, there always a few ( albeit most of them usually girls) who keep the good old pedigree of the dances alive. And though I left Rishi Valley to study in Singapore last year, I'm planning to visit sometime next month. I know that you were away from the valley for much longer but I find it quite upsetting that you found the students "mediocre". RV may not stress too much on the finer details of a Bharatnatyam performance or find it important to make the kids feel that football matches must be played with skills deserving of a League player, but the school sure does teach kids how to enjoy what they do and do it with admirable simplicity. There's plenty of time for excellence once we're out of the valley.

Space Bar said...

anon: i'm sorry you're upset. rv is a special place and i can understand why any criticism about it would hurt. perhaps you could mail me off the blog? we can talk about this more.

my email is on my profile page.

Anonymous said...

"Being back here is not a remembrance; it is of a return. Something umbilical ties me to this place." A similar tryst with RV has led to a fledgling project by a few young RV alumni, just out of school, The RV Storybook. It is a place for what you might call nostalgia, remembrance, or just re-living RV - that is the intent, at least. I was in my 7th when you visited, and I have but a tiny memory of your visit. We'd be glad if you'd take a look at our manifesto, our recent contributions, and perhaps tell us, (by means of a post, if possible) what RV meant to you. http://rvstorybook.wordpress.com/, http://facebook.com/rvstorybook.

P.S. We also have all the folki songs up online for RV alumni to listen and dance to. ;) And that has been our most popular post yet!

Space Bar said...

Athyuttam: Thanks for dropping by on this ancient post and linking to the RV blog; some lovely posts there.

Are you in Hyderabad? Something on your blog...