Jaunpur is a small town in eastern Uttar Pradesh. It is incredibly ugly, with buildings of odd shapes in odd plots, standing often in pools of stagnant water or garbage, objects of pride no doubt to their owners, but objects of contempt from any architectural, environmental, social or political point of view. The ugliness of Jaunpur extends to its filthy streets, its garbage-ridden lanes, its lack of trees, its cheap hoardings and signboards, its air of stagnation.
Jaunpur is not stagnating, however. It is moving forward, keeping up with the nation, imagining and constructing, not only buildings of dubious quality, but also young citizens. We went to visit a school called Radhika Bal Inter College. This was in every respect a building typical of Jaunpur: ugly, odd-shaped because constructed in parts and seeking to save on costs, and surrounded by dust and garbage. No one had thought to plant a tree in the little space at the entrance. No one had imagined creepers climbing up its sides to hide its faults. The back field was bare without a trace of landscaping or gardening, and blowing around with plastic bags. The new Science ‘block’ could have been beautifully painted; instead, it was somber, and untidy with large-sized messages in Hindi and English about morals that young people should remember.
The school was a happening place. We went because we have been running a school for fifteen years and have made it green, attractive, a dynamic centre of learning, bursting with new ideas and efforts. But we have not got the affiliation to CBSE that we sought. Radhika Bal Inter College has. It has four kinds of affiliations and is going to get two more. We have slightly over a hundred children. It has over one thousand. We have budgetary problems and build carefully and imaginatively. They boast that they build the biggest possible classrooms and have purchased more land and will now build yet more and so on and on.
The manager and principal of the unattractive school are proud of their achievements, their visions, and their competence. On our side, we have our vision and our achievement, but are aware of our lack of competence—since we have failed to get the desired affiliation with CBSE.
We showed them the file returned by CBSE with a letter that listed about twenty points that we should take care of. It started with, “Buy two acres of land, build a new school, get a new No Objection Certificate, hire new teachers….” and ended with “There are not enough books in the library.” The Principal, Manoj Singh, who had taken on the work of helping us, murmured, “apki file men to dam hi nahi hai.” We squirmed.
Tea and samosas arrived. Manoj Singh bent over the file more seriously, began to tick off items. He rang his bell. “Bring me some paper from the press,” he said. I rolled my eyes mentally. An office without a sheet of paper. Mine had reams….Still, he had got the affiliation and we had not.
“Are the two plots separate or one?” he asked. Our present school was in an under-one acre space. Our projected school was in a two-acre space, as mandated, ten kilometres away.
“Two,” I said. “I want to show the larger one, and say that the present one is the city office….”
“No, no need for all that. Just say one. The big one.”
“But, but,” stammered I. “There is nothing there, only some construction….”
He shook his head in a dismissive way. “Show it as one plot, otherwise you will need a separate NOC and all that.” There was a lady sitting next to him who nodded and echoed him.
“Next. Classrooms? How have you responded?”
“I have shown that they are the right size. They actually are. I had just included some extra ones. Shown that our library is in two parts, stacks and reading room.”
“No. You have to break the wall between them; have one room.”
We protested, describing the rooms, defending the vision of our beautiful library with its sunny windows, its clean linoleum, its shelves of books. He shook his head categorically, repeatedly, “No.”
He looked at the budget for the library. “Too small. Show fifty thousand.”
“Our books are donated,” said I with dignity. “Where would we have fifty thousand to spend?”
He smiled slightly, paid no attention, and moved on to the next point. He had a nice smile. All the time he was talking to us, visitors came to see him, shook hands with him and sat down nearby. He gave them his nice smile and then continued our work. They sat around and left.
We came to the tricky question of the teachers. I began to explain the problem. He cut me short and on the newly arrived sheet of paper began to jot down his points as he spoke.
“You must show one and a half. Thus, eight for the primary—you can’t have seven and a half—five for the secondary. Then, clerk, librarian, physical instruction teacher.” As we looked at each other, he added. “They must be all qualified. Remove this person, and this, and this.” He slashed ruthlessly through our list.
“We cannot find so many trained teachers.”
“I will give them to you. Show all of them.”
His giving of teachers meant his loaning of their names to show on our list. Then he drew up their expected salary, with 50% DA. This salary had to be shown as transferred through the bank. How does one pay three to four times the affordable amount legally through the bank? He did not meet our eyes. “Yes, you have to show that.”
“You mean, get them to sign on a false amount?”
“You mean, pay them that amount, and get it back?”
We came to the tricky question of students. he grimaced at our list of the actual numbers in our classes. “You have to show at least forty.”
“Forty? How? From where?”
“Well. Put in names. Show them on the rolls.”
“And when the inspection team comes?”
“You can show some extra children. You can show that many are absent. That they have gone off on an excursion.”
We looked at each other, and fired by the dramatic quality of the first suggestion: show some extra children, discussed how that could be done. It was absurd. I went into an irrelevant discussion of its absurdity. Manoj Singh simply shook his head.
The question of staff. He slashed through our lists again. “Don’t bother to show any of these. Just put one clerk, one peon.”
“But we have all these….”
“Forget it. The more extra you add, the more they will have to question.”
The lady by his side sat and nodded and echoed everything he said.
Similarly, he demanded that we leave out every other claim we made or asset we had which did not satisfy the bare minimum. No, a little elaboration was needed. He looked severely at our Management Committee. “No offices? You have to have office bearers.”
“Oh really?” We started noting. “Which ones?”
“Chairman. Deputy Chairman. Manager. Secretary to the Manager. Deputy Manager. Secretary to the Deputy manager. Treasurer. Vice-Chairman. Secretary….”
We watched as Manoj Singh wove the most fantastical discourse of what this school was like that was submitting an application for affiliation to the CBSE. We were proud of our school and its features. He dismissed almost every one of them and constructed his own imaginary edifice in its place. He did not pause or blink but went on constructing and constructing. He was totally disinterested in a metacommentary. When I said, “You mean the whole population of India is making up facts and living out a falsehood?” he did not look up, meet my eyes, or smile. He shook his head as usual, denoting assent, and carried on.
When we finished, we were left with a packet of utter falsehoods, all our truths having been swept under the carpet. We were now launched on the path to convince the CBSE with forgery and playacting that we had all the features they required in a school.
As we left the school—the lady next to the Principal turned out to be the director of the school, and his aunt—we looked again at its ugly exterior in its filthy surroundings. The Manager saw us looking and repeated proudly how he had built it and nurtured it. They were all bursting with pride about their school. They and we inhabited two different worlds.
We walked through the narrow garbage-ridden gali to the main road. I thought, “My India. I like this place. Such wonderful human beings. And they survive in spite of the system. This sky, this sun, this garbage. All mine, lovely. And so much to be done. I wish I could just stay here and do it. So much to write about. Such absurdities, such Dickensian incredible reality.