Brown paper packages, tied up with strings…


Some memories are a lot, lot more than just that…memories.

A few days before the start of a new session at school, my paternal grandfather – Bauji – would round up all the children; me and my cousins and sometimes even some neighbourhood kids, in the living room of our house. A chataai would be laid out on the floor, and we would all sit down on it, cross-legged and in a circle. Next to each one of us kids would be piles of books and notebooks – next year’s courseware – sellotape, rolls of brown paper and plastic sheets. He would sit close by, on his chair.

Bauji would then, start rattling out instructions. Some of the older kids – who had witnessed this whole process many a times – would roll their eyes, impatient to get on with it. He would go ahead nevertheless, slowly, and in meticulous detail, for the benefit of the new additions to the group; there were always one or two. Sometimes, if there were too many new kids or many young ones, he would even demonstrate what was required to be done.

The task at hand was to cover our courseware with the brown paper and plastic sheets. Stick a pretty name tag on the face of it and write our names; always in capital letters and legibly, he insisted. ‘First impressions are important…’, he would declare, and then quickly add ‘…but not everything.’. It would be years before the insight behind that confusing statement would start to dawn upon us. At that time, we just stared blankly at him for a few moments, before resuming our work. Sometimes our parents offered to join in, to help; but my grandfather always discouraged it.‘How else would they learn?’, he would argue.

It was just one of those things we did while growing up, without questioning the rationale of or even fully internalizing the learning from. But just like most childhood memories, this one too has a new pearl of wisdom for me to chance upon, every time I sift through its sands.

Bauji was a teacher and a book lover. So the most obvious lesson in the whole thing was to learn to love our books. He said, when we spent hours pruning and prepping our books like that, we bonded with them on a whole new level. That, according to him, would be the initiation of a long association with those books – one where we promise to respect them and preserve them with utmost care and they, in return, would bestow on us their knowledge which will sail us through to the next year. He always had an example ready of some random kid, who didn’t take care of his books, tore them or scribbled on them (‘Never with a pen! Always, with a pencil, if you must!’); and hence didn’t fare so well in the exam. Now, looking back, it seems like such an obvious thing – that a kid who doesn’t care much for his books probably doesn’t care much for his studies either and that explains his poor grades. But back then, when he told us that story – with that gentle yet foreboding timbre all grandparents have mastered thanks to years of storytelling – it seemed so scary and mysterious. We were convinced that the poor kid failed, despite best efforts, only because his books had cursed him. That made us all swear to never do such a thing. Just like we had sworn not to tell lies, lest all out would teeth would fall out. Or always finish our food, lest a monster would occupy the empty spaces in our tummies.

As simple as this whole book-cover task might seem, it was a real craft. We must cover them properly, but without wasting too much paper or tape. (Something I never quite learned, I still use a lot of tape in everything I wrap). There was a symmetry of folds to be followed. And that brown paper – so easy to tear – needed a certain dexterity to handle. Also, there was the whole thing about the shared scissors. There was always just one or two for the whole group. We had to learn to find a rhythm where the scissor was passed down to each person just when he/she needed it. So it was a team sport. But also interestingly, a competitive sport because everyone wanted their work to turn out the neatest. However, surprisingly, it never stopped us from helping out a friend who was facing trouble folding the ends properly or dealing with the sticky tape. I guess, probably because, again, it would be years before the competitiveness and the ‘dog-eat-dog’ attitude of the world, would make such a solidarity seem absurd and self-destructive. That synchrony in our actions and that spirit of camaraderie, was perhaps the best lesson in teamwork I have ever seen. And this I say as a Learning and Development expert with over twelve years of experience under my belt.

Usually, during this activity humming a song – from the list of songs pre-approved by Bauji over the years – was welcomed. And it was a pretty long list too. But somehow I always remember either ‘itni shakti humein dena daataa…’ Or ‘aye maalik tere bande hum…’ being sung; until someone, expectedly inspired from all the brown paper strewn around would start with ‘…brown paper packages tied up with strings. These are a few of my favourite things…’ And then the whole gang would burst into a chorus.

This morning I picked up my son’s books. He is probably too young to understand the bubbling excitement with which I have been doing, what perhaps to him is a mundane chore – wrapping his books up with paper and plastic. He doesn’t yet know the endearing muskiness of old memories;  or the guilt of not appreciating it enough when it happened. I remember quite a few of us complained back then – why can’t we pay the shopkeeper extra to have this done, like many of our friends do? Or perhaps, ask the servants or our parents to do it for us? Now looking at how much I love books, and how I cannot stand them being disfigured and damaged; I am just glad Bauji never listened to us.

There is no gang, no chorus, to accompany me today as I work my way through those books; so for now I am making do with some music on my phone. It doesnt feel the same, at all. Every now and then my eyes well up, as I am reminded of Bauji, and realise that he is not there anymore, to compliment me on my workmanship. I guess, no matter how old one grows, they never stop missing their grandparents.

But, I think… I hope, he would be proud of how I have done up these books. Prim and proper, with not too much paper, wasted. Except for the tape, of course. That I am yet to learn.



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