Mrs Rumbold was our class teacher in class five. She was heavy-set, probably in her mid-50s or mid-40s. In the eyes of a 12-year-old, everyone after 20 seems the same age. She had a really white handkerchief which hung smartly from her brown belt. We would enter class chatting away in high-pitched voices, but as soon as we saw Rumbold Teacher at the desk doing her work, our chatter would reduce to mumbles and whispers. We quietly left our school bags at our desks and lined up outside the class for inspection. Mrs Rumbold sat at the teacher's desk checking our class work while we put our school suitcases in place. Sometimes she would look up from her stack of exercise books and look blankly at a girl over the rim of her glasses. The look had nothing to do with the girl. A pall of silence would fall between them, teacher and student. The thought crossing Mrs Rumbold's mind was probably nothing of importance. Maybe she was musing over the hot stew she had had last evening for supper that burnt her tongue, but the girl would freeze into a statue for a good while.
Mrs Rumbold wore shifts with a thin belt. The shifts were usually of a colourful floral print. “Clack, clack, clack,” she would walk in her brown court shoes with block heels. To me, she was a disapproving Major General—“Attention! Stand at ease. Quick march, left, right, left, right.”
Before we started the assembly in the auditorium, we had to line up in front of the class for inspection—inspection of our nails, our shoes, our school uniform, and our hair. I never scored above a B+ under Rumbold Teacher's eagle-eyed scrutiny. For some reason, she started checking from the back of the line. As she got closer, I would get a whiff of her Chinchilla perfume and hear the “clack, clack” of the Major General's shoes grow louder. I could tell she disapproved from the wagging of her forefinger, her eyes getting bigger, and her nostrils aflare.
My shoes were never shiny. I wanted to scream, “It is not possible to have spotless shoes, Teacher, when about eight of us are going from Dhanmondi to Bailey Road in an Austin Mini.” Amma sat in the front with my younger sister by her side. My four cousins and I would be behind them, all jam-packed in the backseat. Abba would be driving, smoking away, and swearing every time the car rode over potholes. Throughout the journey, we, the children, were chirpy. We routinely chanted the names of the Government Quarters as we passed them—“Nashiman, Niharika, Orunima, Shagorika”—in unison, or “E-S-S-O, Esso Esso,” also in a chorus, as we passed the petrol station. The two five-year-olds in the car spelled out the names of every shop and every word on the billboards. We were a happy group of children if you looked at our faces. But below, the five pairs of legs were very cautious. We were constantly trying to keep them from being stepped on. Once in a while, there would even be a tussle among them, when someone overstepped their boundary.
Rumbold inspected each student from head to toe. As her eyes scanned me, her sight would sometimes stop at the school uniform and almost invariably at the shoes. Then we had to step out of the line as a measure of punishment for not being up to the mark. Amma made two tight braids, with the ends tied in white or black ironed ribbon. Every week the nails were cut with a sharp blade. Rumbold Teacher didn't have anything to say about that.
As the inspections rolled on, she asked some very harsh questions. My friend Kismat once replied back in no unclear terms that her parents simply could not “afford” to get her uniform made when she was reprimanded for her school dress, which was so shabby that the blue colour had almost turned to white. At least one-fourth of the students in the class had faded or dirty uniforms except for the daughters of company wallahs whose uniforms were bright blue, and shoes perfect with snow-white socks. But for girls from the struggling middle class such as us, we never had the nerve of Kismat. To say our parents could not afford new clothes for us was the equivalent of putting them down. But Kismat was unusual in many ways, unlike her, I could not speak back and say the overcrowded Austin Mini was not a place where shoes stayed shiny. Gosh!
I was petrified of Mrs Rumbold. I even said a little prayer each night before I went to sleep. I would say three times under my breath: “Allah, please make sure that Rumbold Teacher is not angry with me. Ameen.”
I hoped and dreamed that one day she would not halt by my side to disapprove of the state I was in, but give a nod of approval and sail past smilingly.
Alas, that day never came.
Sara Zaker is a theatre activist, media personality and Group Managing Director, Asiatic 360.