I have taken part in an excursion (tour) from school only once, when I was in the ninth class. We visited Mysore (now Mysooru) and Bangalore (now Bengaluru). Usually students from ninth and tenth classes are discouraged from taking part in excursions because these are supposed to be the most important years in one’s school life. Tenth is the ultimate class where one appears for a public examination for the first time. Eleventh and twelfth classes used to be in college and was called pre-degree course. My parents allowed me to take part since the previous year I could not go having fallen ill at that time.
The charges for the three-day trip were 30 rupees including food and lodging. [A few days after we returned, an amount of one rupee and thirty paise were returned to each participant as balance.] We started in a brand new bus named CTS. It was a 51-seater bus. But our number was more than the capacity of the bus. We, therefore, put a bench in between the two rows of seats which was also used for sitting. During the journey we cracked jokes, sang songs and enjoyed the journey as much as we could. Travelling through Nilgiri hills was an ecstatic experience. The hair-pin bends were actually hair-raising. We had breakfast at Ootty which was our first major stop after starting the journey the previous night. We were feeling cold, but our enthusiasm and energy could not be dampened by the little cold weather.
We reached Mysore, our destination, late in the afternoon around three o’clock. Everyone was terribly hungry. We got out of the bus and as soon as we got the signal, we barged into the hotel pointed to by the teacher. This was certainly not a five-star or even three-star hotel. But who counts the number of stars when there is fire in your belly? Rice was served to us along with some curries. It was only after we had taken the food that we even looked around for our friends.
When we got out from the hotel I heard Joseph telling to another boy that there were fish bones in the curry. I thought he was cutting a joke. Or he wanted to make fun of me, a declared vegetarian brahmin. But he seemed not to notice me at all. He was not even looking in my direction. And he looked and sounded serious. I was worried. Was it true? Did I consume fish? I couldn’t believe it. No, it cannot be true. I was sure it was a deliberate attempt by some of the boys to malign me. But his words echoed in my brain again and again. I tried to find out some signal which would tell me that he was joking. But there was none. At last I took Balachandran, who was a good friend whom I could trust completely, to some distance and asked him if the curry was prepared with fish. He said, “Yes, it was fish curry.”
I actually wanted very much to hear a ‘no’ from him. I wanted to think that those friends who talked of the fish curry were trying to fool me. His confirmation fell on me like a bombshell. This was unbearable and beyond any stretch of imagination. I consumed fish! I silently went and sat in the bus. I wondered why I haven’t fallen unconscious after hearing Balachandran’s words. That would have confirmed that I was actually a true vegetarian. It could also have made me a hero among the whole group. They would have said, “Look at him, he took fish, and he has become unconscious. He is a true vegetarian.” But, unfortunately, it didn’t happen.
How I wished I vomited. At least that would have showed that my body didn’t accept the food I consumed. I even pretended that I felt like omitting. But it was useless. Nothing of the sort happened. I was silent the whole day. The realization that I did something which amounted to a religious or ethical crime troubled me a lot. I could not enjoy the trip as I would have wished. Some friends sympathised with me, but others didn’t care at all.
The next day when we were going to a hotel for lunch, I stopped right in front of the hotel and refused to move. Others had gone in. They didn’t even notice that I was not going in.
Chacko Sir, who was coming much behind us, came near me and asked, “What happened, Namboothiri? Why don’t you go in?” (Namboothiri is my caste name as well as surname, which I had formally done away with, a few years after settling down in Delhi.)
My throat had become dry, and no voice came out. My eyes were to the brim too. I just pointed to the hotel’s name board where it was written ‘non-vegetarian’. He suddenly understood my agitation. He then took me to a nearby vegetarian hotel where I was the only one from the whole group. He also made the payment in advance to the manager. He asked me to meet the others outside after my meals.
From that day onwards it has become my habit to read carefully the name board before entering any hotel. I do it even today. It has become part of my routine.
This is my first confession of the incident after that fateful day. Why didn’t I relate it to my parents on return? In fact I had discussed the matter within myself several times, almost for the entire duration of the trip. I knew they would not outcast me. It is possible that they might scold me, but mildly since it was not entirely my fault. But most of all, they would feel extremely unhappy and troubled. I was sure that mother would have cried for several hours or even for a few days thinking of the horrible crime I had committed, though unknowingly. At last I came to the conclusion that it was better to forget the whole episode as if it hadn’t happened at all. But can one actually forget such an incident? I couldn’t.
Tailpiece: I had borrowed a muffler from one of our neighbour-relatives since we were told it could get quite cold and we needed to carry some warm cloths. When I was taking bath on the second day in Mysore, I had kept the muffler outside the bath room. But when I came out after my bath, it was missing. So careless of me! Later on some people told me it had been foolish of me to have left it outside the bath room. But that was the first outing in my life, and I did not anticipate that such a thing could happen. We purchased a muffler (it costed ten rupees in 1969) and gave it to them, but they refused to accept it. The family was our relatives and was comparatively well-to-do. They said the one I lost was an old one and they didn’t mind at all that it had been lost. I used this muffler for a number of years in Delhi.