The grounds around the mansion were vast. Yet another venture was being born in it. Away from the cottage, and at the far end from the fountain, there was a clearing. A round hut with half walls of mud and a straw roof had been built there. The roof was supported by bamboo poles. It was set in the shade of a big banyan tree, and even on the hottest summer day, it was cool under the tree. Bird song emanated from every branch because the branches were home to scores of birds who fearlessly nested on them.
Raji was supervising the construction and the workmen had already brought it down and rebuilt it twice because she was not happy with it. The walls were lime-washed and Malar’s drawings covered them. There was a red house sitting in water with ducks around it, there were pink clouds on the ground and animals with wings on them. It was an impossible world, but to Malar, it was real. Raji was so proud of it, she had warned dire consequences if anyone dared to question its logic or get her to redo it.
For a year, she had taught Malar from the cottage. Schools in Madras had refused her admission because she did not have lineage behind her. Unfazed, Raji began to school her at home, with Subramanya’s support. Before long, she began getting requests from Kuppi and others to school their daughters as well. She now had five students. The cottage was getting too small and Damodar complained about being disturbed by the chatter of the children. “Raji, I’m finding it hard to work here. Please shift your school elsewhere,” he had pleaded one day.
She went to the market one day and bought a blackboard, chalk, slates for the children and wooden toys and clay for the fledgling school. Malar went with her. She chose all her favourite toys and demanded more for her friends too. They also bought little picture books with Tamil text. Raji was as excited as a child and bought more than she needed. Malar clutched the heavy parcel to herself, refusing to let go till she reached home. At home, she divided them into neat parcels, one for each of her friends, but was careful to keep the best slate and a full box of coloured chalk for herself.
A year later there were more girls in the school so Raji had to add on one more hut. One day, when she was struggling to keep all the girls busy in both huts, and failing somewhat, she caught Mama’s gaze on her from a distance. He was smiling as he walked towards her. “Do you want help Raji?” he asked.
“But you’re a lawyer and a judge. What would you know about teaching children Mama? Do you know how troublesome they can be? You won’t have patience with them.”
“Let me try,” he requested, “you never know. I might be a good teacher. I taught you, don’t you remember?” Raji was exposed to yet another facet of a man who never ceased to surprise her. His interest fitted in perfectly with what she was doing. She had another teacher for her school.
Their little school soon began getting noticed. As it grew she took on a young college student who needed to fund his own studies. The small salary she gave him helped. Seshadri Teacher as the girls called him, was mousy and nervous with adults. But when he was with his students, he kept them spell-bound. Two years after the school began, they had three huts, three teachers and 20 girls.
Raji had strict rules for her school and no one, not even Mama was allowed to break them. The students must not be judged ever. None of their ideas must be mocked or ridiculed. If a child chose to believe in pink clouds, she must be allowed to do so till she worked out for herself that clouds were grey or white and the sky was blue. She could be helped but never forced to believe in anything without questioning. The days on which the girls seemed disinterested in studies, they must be encouraged to go out and explore the grounds, paint, draw or tell stories to each other, or just play pullangulli. These rules were written on a slate and put up in all the huts. The result was happy, eager young minds, hungry for learning and knowledge.
Raji was walking towards the school early one morning. There was no bell to signal start of school. The girls chose which class they wanted to enter and how they wanted to study. Some girls ran up to her and hugged her close. They began playing joyfully together. She heard a horse carriage approaching in the distance. Two women sat in it. One of them was known to her. Raji held on to a bench for support, she was so shocked. It was Sivu, with a young girl, her daughter as Raji learnt later.
Raji ran to Sivu and helped her down from the carriage. Her daughter followed. An hour later, bathed and clean, they all sat in the hall drinking steaming hot fragrant coffee and eating Pankajam’s snowy, fluffy, flower-soft idlis with tangy chutney. Despite the delicious breakfast and Raji’s warm welcome, Sivu seemed sad and tears lurked in the edges of her eyes. She told Raji the reason she had travelled to Madras but broke down several times before she could finish. “We got Padma married a few years ago. The boy was so good. He had a government job and seemed like a very good match for her. He took her home after the marriage… When she went there…” Sivu couldn’t speak, she was sobbing. Padma stepped in to complete the story. “Raji Mami, when I joined him, I found he was already married and had his fist wife living with him. He had married me because they didn’t have children. I wanted to go back. My parents didn’t want to take me back. They said they couldn’t keep me with them, the villagers would talk. But I left home one day and went back to them. Tell me, how could I live with a man who had lied to me? Amma said you can help. That’s why we are here.”
Pankajam sensed an opportunity here. This was familiar ground, she could give advice. She said firmly, “Sivu was right. You’re married now. You have to live there. So what if he’s already married? He’ll still look after you. You modern girls! With funny ideas of marriage! Raji, send her back. Sivu, don’t worry, we’ll speak to Padma and convince her. Why don’t you both rest for some time?”
Raji chastised Pankajam after Sivu and Padma left the room. “Amma what advice were you giving Padma? How can she go back and live as a second wife? Would you want that for me?” Pankajam was indignant. “What silly ideas are you going to fill into her now? Are you going to tell her to leave her husband? How will she survive with the tag of a woman whose husband doesn’t want her? Raji, be careful what advice you give her.”
“Yes Amma I will, don’t worry. Leave this to me. Mama and I will advice her.”
Later that evening, they gathered again. Mama was in the room too. “Stay back with us Padma,” he said firmly. “This marriage has no future and you have no security. You are an educated girl. Work in our school. We’ll pay you a salary and you can stay with us.”
Padma looked relieved, Sivu’s face was knotted in concern and Pankajam was shocked with the advice. They all knew better than to argue with Mama, his advice was always so sensible.
Sivu left back for the village next morning. She was relieved Padma had found a good solution to her problem. She would be safe with Raji. Padma, wearing one of Raji’s sarees already looked confident she could face the future. She waved to her mother for as long as the carriage was visible.
To be continued…