Pocket money is seldom what school students expect it to be — money that fills one’s pocket. Indeed school life would never be complete without the reassuring jingle of small change in one’s pocket and all the little pleasures it brings.
In my boarding school days in the 1950s, pocket money was far from princely. Every week the parsimonious prefect doled out four annas (25 paise) each to the seniors and half that amount to the juniors from the funds parents sent him.
What could one do with such largesse? Yielding to the compulsions of adolescence, the bolder ones amongst us burnt up this pittance on fags — smoked clandestinely in the toilet with peppermints munched thereafter to freshen one’s breath — or an action-packed western at the nearby theatre. Bunking was risky since those caught received no less than “six of the best” on their behind. But the delightful prospect of watching burly John Wayne’s exploits usually outweighed the risks — never mind if one was sandwiched tight on a backless bench right below the screen with one’s head angled upwards, giving one a crick in the neck. These were exclusive frontbenchers’ perks.
Of course, the school’s tuck-shop swallowed much of our pocket-money. And when we ran out of cash we made a beeline for Archie, the wizened grandma who sold homemade snacks over the compound wall, confident that we could coax her into giving us credit. Her small tin trunk held a variety of mouth-watering sweets that we eyed wistfully as she tried to recall — her brow deeply furrowed — whether we had any dues. Once satisfied about our creditworthiness, Archie did oblige us but once she shuffled into the prefect’s room to complain about a defaulter who owed her as much as five rupees. Summoned, the culprit flatly denied the charge. “My conscience is clear, father,” he declared self-righteously, hoping to lie his way out of a hiding. “Often a person with a clear conscience only has a poor memory,” the prefect observed pointedly, fingering his cane — and gave the liar his just deserts. Then sometimes, when caught out of bounds by the watchman, we bribed our way out of trouble with our pocket money rather than face the prefect’s ire — a classic case of the end justifying the means! The thrifty, however, saved their money for the proverbial rainy day — only to have it wheedled out of them by their impecunious pals. For many, making ends meet was never easy, the weekly dole being nothing to write home about. Yet we did write — to get our parents to press for a hike! Interestingly, the clinking of coins in my pocket still evokes memories of those cash-strapped days.