About four decades ago, when I was promoted to the ninth standard, I became the junior most in the senior section of our residential school. All of a sudden you find yourselves right at the bottom of the pyramid. You got precisely three minutes under the hot water shower and had to vamoose half clad, whereas the prefects and final years continued to wallow unmindful. Within a month of joining senior school, you became an expert in the art of vanishing at the sight of an approaching final year student, lest you should be handed down some odd job.
It was an afternoon in the month of October, and there was a cold drizzle. Two of us ninth-graders got caught doodling by a senior, aspiring to score well in his ISC biology. “Since you both are loitering around, why don’t you go down to the lake and try to get me a few earthworms? It will be great to dissect and see them.” It was half query and half command. A small band of us ninth-graders set out in full earnest.
Even a trek on a damp afternoon, high up in the hills, can be exciting, in the right company. Six of us donned our rain capes and put on gum boots, and scrambled down the eucalyptus forest, squelching our way through the mud, and within half an hour reached our destination. One could hardly call it a lake. It was more like a miserable, over grown puddle.
“May as well have something to eat,” Susheel pulled out two cans of baked beans and an opener from his battle jacket, with the air of a conjurer. He passed the open cans around. Susheel was known to make up slogans impromptu. He shouted out, “Jai Javan”. Someone responded, “Jai Kisan”. The rest of us joined in the fray. Although the war cry had nothing whatsoever to do with the current situation, it elevated our morale.
Earthworms and human beings have lived together for millennia, but none of them would have been prepared for the assault that was to be unleashed on them by six crazed, sloganeering, schoolboys. In no time, we managed to pick them off by the dozens and along with all the slush and muck, put them into the glass jars. Eventually we handed them over to the budding scientist who wanted so badly to see their innards.
We had somehow missed out on Tom, the merriest among us. Later in the day, the senior asked him to clean up all the muck. Tom did precisely that. He threw out the muck, including the worms. For good measure, he even wiped the jars clean. We had expected a commotion but nothing of that sort occurred. Instead, there was a stony silence from the seniors. I think they came to realise nature study is best done first hand.
A couple of years later, when we were in the final year, the biology teacher took an introductory lecture on nematodes, and went on to demonstrate by dissecting an earthworm. There was a muffled laughter from the back-benches. I looked towards Tom and detected a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.