[Why do we say we are celebrating the 66th Independence Day this year? There was only one Independence Day, which was on 15 August 1947. The rest are anniversaries.]
I was in school then. Independence Day anniversary always used to be an occasion for enjoyment. One, it was a school holiday; and two, we used to have a function in the school. A school function is always a festival. The function was organized in the large hall which was in normal days divided into several class rooms using temporary partitions. Only in the high school did we have separate brick-walled class rooms. I do not remember if we had elaborate cultural programmes that day. Probably we did not. But there was an assembly of students and teachers presided over by the headmaster. (We had headmaster or headmistress and not principal in school. Principals were heads of colleges.) He and other teachers gave speeches on the importance of Independence Day. We knew Independence Day was a BIG thing, but actually did not know what it was. What was it ‘to gain independence from a foreign power’? Why did they talk all those things against the British? What did Gandhi and Nehru do? We didn’t know, and we didn’t care. Well, the teachers knew all those things, that was enough. But yes, we had pictures of several leaders in our text books and we did learn a few things about them, that’s all. In higher classes, of course, we studied several of those things in detail.
After the speeches, some of the senior students sang patriotic songs. And the function ended by around 11 or 11:30 a.m. Oh, yes, I forgot to say that we started the programme with ‘Vandematharam’ and ended with ‘Jana Gana Mana’ and a lot of enthusiastic ‘Jai Hind’s and ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’s (Triumph to you, Bharat Mata).
But the most important and enjoyable part was yet to come. We were taken to the nearby small town named Koothattukulam. I do not remember how we were taken. Our school did not have a school bus. And I do not think we hired a bus. We probably went using public transport. The ticket then used to cost 10 paise. I do not know if we got concession being students and also since it was a tour arranged by the school management and teachers on an Independence Day anniversary.
During those days there were only two classes of buses for the state-owned KSRTC (Kerala State Road Transport Corporation)—Ordinary and Fast Passenger (FP). While the minimum charge in an Ordinary bus was 10 paise, for FP it was 40 paise. We always used to avoid the latter. Why should we pay three times more for the same distance? (I wish the same realization had prevailed later on also. It didn’t. When we grew up, time and comfort became more important than money – AC class in train in place of ordinary second class, air travel in place of train journey, own vehicle in place of public transport, and so on.) These days I think there are about a dozen classes. The ordinary, FP, Limited Stop FP, Super FP, Limited Stop Super FP, Express, Limited Stop Express, and Deluxe. Have I covered all? I remember once I also happened to see a Lightening Express. It was a mini bus travelling at extremely high speed (as if it owned the complete length of the road) and stopping at only very important stations. While the Ordinary, FP, and Super FP are painted in red with varying sizes and shapes of yellow lines on them, Express is green and yellow and Deluxe and Lightening Express are predominantly white.
The one and only thing we did at Koothattukulam was to visit the police station! I have no idea why it remained the only destination of visit on Independence Day anniversaries year after year. Maybe the teachers wished and hoped that we would never have a chance to visit the place in future unless it was in police uniform! Whatever, the police station was so much of an enigma. The word ‘Police’ in general and policemen in particular had a very fearsome image in our minds.
I remember one common occurrence where small children refused to eat food at home. Usually the mother takes the child on her hip supporting him with the hand which also held the plate with food, usually rice. The other hand had small quantities of rice pressed and made into tiny balls with hand. She takes the child out in the open showing him crow and other birds, small animals such as squirrels, the moon ‘uncle’ if it is night, and so on and so forth. If the child is not interested in any of these and still refused to eat, then she starts telling him that devil, ghost, or demon will come and harm him. But the child has not seen the devil, ghost, or the demon and sometimes even this threat is ineffective. So the next step will be to threaten him in the name of the policeman. And that was probably the last step. When the mother says, “If you do not eat, I will call the policeman and he will take you to jail and beat you up”, at which the child realises that his mother means business and usually relents and starts eating. So a policeman in our mind used to be more ferocious than a ghost or demon!
And it is to a place where several of such ferocious people work, that the teachers took us! The station was situated several feet above the ground level, so we had to ascent nearly fifty steps to reach it. The policemen, however, smiled at us and also talked to us lovingly, which puzzled us. They took us all around the police station explaining the places. We used to look at the lock-ups where sometimes we noticed a prisoner or two. We looked at them as if they were some strange animals caged in a zoo! We wanted to see how criminals looked different from ordinary people. But we were disappointed because they looked just like any other man we had met. Sometimes they used to look pathetic, probably for being made a showpiece in front of the children. Maybe he had children of our age, too, who knows!
The criminals were as fearsome in our minds as were the policemen. One day I wanted to ask the name of one such prisoner out of curiosity. But I dared not even open my mouth in front of him. Suppose he breaks out and kills me for asking the question? I told Rajan, who was more enterprising and smarter than many of us. He ventured to take up the challenge. We stayed a few feet away from the door of the lockup (so that the prisoner could not reach us through the grills and there was enough space for us to rush out in case he breaks out!) and asked his name. I think he smiled painfully and told his name without showing any anger. And Rajan was our hero for several weeks!
Once I even touched the chair of the sub-inspector (SI) (the highest ranked police official in the world!) when he was busy elsewhere! During those days an SI used to be very powerful and ruled the vast area under the station like an emperor (maybe even now he does). So touching his chair was indeed a great achievement and adventure! I drew the attention of a friend while touching the chair so that he would vouch for it when I would boast about this great event in the class the next day. He looked at me admirably but dared not follow my adventure.
After spending some time, we left the station descending the steps. On our way down, a policeman gave us a toffee each. Sometime we got the costliest toffee available in the market those days, which was Parry’s toffee costing five paise. I think Parry’s ruled the roost till Coffee Bite appeared costing an enormous 25 paise apiece. But this was several years later.