I was studying in Class 6 in the Government Upper Primary School, Puthuvely, when a uniform dress code was established in the school for students – khaki trousers and white shirt for boys. I had no white shirt. All my shirts were dark coloured or checked. White shirts got dirty very soon and would have to be washed every day. And we could not afford that much detergent. But now, it had become mandatory to wear white shirt in school. Also, there was no money to purchase a new shirt. A new shirt would have cost around five rupees, which was huge.
Mother had a solution. She gave me one of father’s shirts. He had only white shirts. He wore shirt very sparingly, only when he used to travel very far by bus or on special occasions. When I wore that shirt, the colour or make of the trousers that I wore (or did not wear) didn’t matter. The shirt covered including my knees completely hiding my trousers. I stopped almost all kinds of plays and adventures that normal boys of my age used to engage in, for two reasons. One, it was very inconvenient to engage in any kind of activity wearing such a huge shirt, and two, I did not want to dirty the shirt, lest mother would have to wash it every day.
It must have been a week or two after the uniform rule came into effect. Every day I wore father’s shirt. One day the headmaster, (he was my mother’s cousin) called me to his office. It was frightening to be called by any teacher to the staff room. It was usually to award punishment for some mistake we did. And to be called by the headmaster was even more scary. I entered his office ready to be punished for some unknown mistake which I might have committed. I slowly approached him. He smilingly handed me a piece of paper and a 50 paise coin. He asked, ‘Have you seen Koothattukulam Textiles?’ I said, ‘Yes’. During those days that was the biggest textile shop in Koothattukulam. He continued, ‘All right. Go there, give this letter to the manager. He will give you a packet. Bring it to me.’
I was so much relieved. Wow! It was not for awarding a punishment that he called me. Instead he wanted me to run an errand for him. I was proud to do it. After all, he was the very strict headmaster whom all the students feared and even teachers respected very much. And he was my uncle!
Koothattukulam was about three kilometers from the school. I took a bus. The ticket cost 10 paise. I collected the packet and returned to school. By then school time was over and students had departed. When I gave the packet to him, he said, ‘It is for you. Take it.’ I could never imagine that he would give me a present. He continued, ‘It is a white shirt, wear it in school from tomorrow.’ I did not know what to tell him or how to thank him. It was wonderful to receive a present from anybody. And to get a shirt was even better, and that too, from one's headmaster!
I ran the distance of about two kilometres to home. To reach home I had to cross tiny hills and valleys, narrow passages through paddy fields, cross streams, and climb through stone walls. I was nearly breathless by the time I reached. I proudly told mother what had happened in school. She listened to me carefully, looked at the shirt, and silently kissed me on my forehead which was profusely perspiring.
I didn’t understand then why mother cried instead of being happy.