True to her promise, Rosey, one of the members of the ‘Value from waste’ team had arranged for two college students from the city, to teach the children of Nelloor, some craft work, during their annual holidays.
The two students arrived one hot summer morning, like casual back packers, with caps perched upon their heads, swinging their water bottles. When they dismounted from the bus, they looked this way and that and asked a passerby, the way to the government school building.
It was May, and the Nelloor sun spewed off a sweltering heat. In spite of its numerous trees shielding the town from direct heat, Nelloor still felt the warm waves, when an occasional breeze blew from Thennar. The sun seemed to be shooting fiery darts into the very heart of Nelloor. However, the intensity of the heat was filtered by the leaves and boughs, leaving the leaves looking a sad green, dry, crisp and dust laden.
The children of Nelloor had already spent a week of their holiday, making frequent trips to Thennar, to dive in for a good swim or just stayed indoors watching TV. Girls skipped ropes till they sweated. Many of them played all day, under the boughs of the banyans and peepals. The boys played with coloured glass marbles which was a popular sport in small towns.
Some children swung happily on the aerial roots of the banyans. Some lazed upon the parapet walls that ran along the river’s edge at intervals. They laughed, talked and munched on the raw mangoes, guavas and gooseberries which they plucked from trees along the river and the roadways of Nelloor.
When the two craft students, Pooja and Mala reached the school, it was very quiet and empty, except for the Principal and a few teachers lingering over the exam paper correction, in a class room. The school premises was fairly clean except for some broken or faded school benches, chairs and tables left outside for repair work or repainting. A few worker were doing some repair work on the roof.
Mala and Pooja stepped into the room and wished the Principal and teachers a very good afternoon. They then went on to inform them about Rosey, who had sent them to Nelloor to teach the children, as promised, some arts and crafts made with recycled paper.
The Principal was instantly interested. Indeed, he remembered Raju and Rosey very well. They had given a talk on the uses of recycled waste paper. They had taught the children, that even waste products has value and could be put to good use. They had learnt that natural resources like energy and water could be saved with recycling anything – be it, paper, plastics, or glass! The children had continued to segregate wastes and had waited eagerly for school holidays to begin and this team to arrive.
Soon they allocated two class rooms for the craft class.
“I will announce to the children, regarding the classes, and have them here tomorrow,” promised the Principal. He then set about appointing a teacher for enrolling the children interested in the craft class.
“How long will the classes last?” asked the Principal.
“Just a couple of days, sir,” said Pooja.
“We will teach them the basics of paper mache making. The children will catch on and learn to make different objects of their own, once they know it.”
“Wonderful!” said the Principal beaming from ear to ear. He was a simple, cheerful man, clad in a white dhoti and checked shirt. He was very hospitable too.
“Where will you stay, until the classes commence, my friends?” he queried.
Pooja and Mala looked at each other and then at the Principal, wondering.
“Well, stay in my house. I have a guest room! My wife and I, we will take good care of you!”
As was the custom in Nelloor, an auto rickshaw was arranged and a man announced to the folks through a blaring speaker,
“Craft classes for children! Join today! Join today! Meet at the Nelloor Government School! Craft classes at the school! Children don’t miss the opportunity! Free classes! Free classes!”
Mothers stopped their cooking, cleaning or washing to listen. Men in a hurry to the farms or offices, or standing by tea shops browsing through the newspaper or busy with their shops and groceries stopped to listen. Children playing with marbles, girls skipping, or swinging upon the banyan roots, stopped to listen.
Meena, the mother of Ravi and Rani, paused as she stooped over a basket, selecting brinjals from the vegetable vendor. A tottering old man half asleep in an easy chair in the veranda, awoke with a start and looked aghast at his daughter in law, Meena. Of late, even the slightest sound startled the old man, Yakov.
“Not to worry, mama*” said Meena, as though reassuring a small child.
“It’s only an announcement.”
“Ah” said Yakov, and closed his eyes as though he had fallen asleep.
Raju and Ravi, Meena’s children ran to the veranda and heard the announcement, too. Their eyes lit with excitement.
“Craft classes, amma!” they exclaimed.
“Didn’t Raju anna and Rosey akka promise us craft classes! Well, here it is, at last!”
“Amma,we will join straight away! Come on, Rani, let’s go to the school and enrol immediately!”
“Wait, wait, children” said Meena. She seemed worried.
“Rani, if you are off to craft classes how who will help me with all the house work? You know very well that Ponni, our maid has not come for work, these past three days!”
“And Ravi, who will help me with watering the plants, getting me things from the shop, and caring for thatha* since your father is away at the Farmer’s Conference? If Ponni had come, I would have managed, somehow. But now…..?”
Meena stood with a helpless look on her face and the children were really disappointed. They wished their servant, Ponni, would not absent herself so often and for so long!
“What’s the matter with Ponni!” complained Rani. She was quite glum, now, and so was Ravi. They both walked to the garden dolefully, where stood a thick leafy hibiscus shrub, in full bloom. The vibrant red flowers seemed to want to cheer them up. There were jasmine shrubs and mullai* creepers entwining up the bamboo sticks to form a fragrant, shady bower. Other flowering plants like pink, red and white arali* grew high above the compound wall and people walking by on the road never failed to admire the profusion of blooms.
Meena had planted a lime tree, years ago where hung green and yellow lime, filling the air with its heady citric aroma. Rani plucked the fat, yellow, ripe limes, to make themselves some chilled lime juice mixed with nannari* syrup. The children thought it was the most heavenly drink, for a hot summer noon!
Next to it was the curry leaf tree with its dark green leaves shimmering in the afternoon sun. The two moringa or drumstick trees were just starting to grow tender, long drumsticks, and Ravi loved the sambar* his mother made with them. The five teak trees, which Meena had planted years ago, and had tended so carefully, trimming and pruning it’s branches, were now tall, strong and mature.
Mangoes, though small, were growing in heavy clusters on the mango tree between the red and green slender, sword- shaped leaves. The guava tree was full of raw guavas. The squirrels had already begun feasting on some of the riper fruits.
There were beautiful butterflies fluttering among the lemon yellow flowering Allamanda bushes near the steps leading into the house. Yakov, the children’s grandfather watched the butterflies and bees during his waking hours.
Yakov had, in his prime, been one of the pioneers of Nelloor, who had not only cleansed the town and river of its plastic wastes, but had also actively recharged the potential of the environment with extensive tree planting. Now, at the age of eighty four, he spent his days in a well earned restful peace and quiet.
Early in the morning, the birds chirped loudly, as they pecked the ripe guavas and chickoos. There hung a simple rope swing from the neem tree on which Ravi and Rani, often played. The garden was certainly an arbour of peace and delight; for the children spent long hours at play here. They even studied for the coming tests or exams under the cool shade of the trees, during weekends.
Ravi and Rani sat brooding over the turn of events. They didn’t want to miss the craft class.
“Shall we take a walk to Ponni’s house and see what’s going on?” said Ravi.
“Do you know where she lives, Rani?”
“She once said her house was somewhere between the new marriage hall at the middle of town and the fruit market,” said Rani trying to recollect a conversation with Ponni.
“Then let’s go, Rani! We will tell amma we are going for a walk!”
Soon Rani and Ravi were walking towards the middle of town. They waved to children from their school as they passed them by. Many of them were headed for the river to splash and swim in the waters of Thennar. They chatted and laughed as they walked towards the river.
When Ravi and Rani reached the fruit market, they stood on the pavement, wondering which of the many side street housed Ponni and her family. Even while they thought aloud to each other, they sighted Ponni, clutching a small brown bottle in her.
“What are you both doing here, children? Did you come to buy fruits for Yakov?”
“Why have you absented yourself, Ponni?” asked Rani without answering her queries.
“Aiyo!” said Ponni tapping her head twice with her hand. “Why do you ask! My daughter, Vani has taken ill and wants me beside her the whole time. If I leave her she cries, and the fever goes up. I’m hurrying with the medicine now, after making her sleep!”
“I should have let Meena amma know, but I am unable to leave this troublesome child!”
They had been talking and walking along with Ponni until they reached her little house. It was a two roomed house, where they cooked and slept in one room. This room had an old wooden cupboard and wall shelves and a painted trunk. Pots and pans were neatly arranged on the shelves and clothes hung from the rope which swung from wall to wall. Some of Vani’s dolls and play things lay around the thin cloth mattress on the floor, where Vani lay, sleeping. The next room was the bathing room.
The sleeping child muttered and groaned in her sleep and Ponni touched her forehead, and said softly,
“Aiyo, it’s very hot, still!”
Vani’s eyes opened and she saw her mother with the medicine bottle, and she let out a wail,
“I don’t want the medicine! I will not drink the medicine! I hate it!” And she cried louder, until Ponni chided her gently and said,
“No medicines, now, my darling! Be quiet! See who is here! Ravi anna and Rani akka have come to see you!”
Vani looked at them both, still pouting and ready to cry if her mother should bring the medicine near her. Rani asked her why she became ill, and her mother said,
“Too many raw mangoes and gooseberries! Ah, she never listens to me when I tell her to stop. While I’m away at work, she eats nonstop!”
Ponni’s husband had died a few years ago, and she had to fend for Vani and herself on her own. Vani attended the municipal school nearby, where education and books were supplied free. She had her midday meals in school, so Ponni was free till evening when Vani would return home.
Being the only child, and fatherless, Ponni was never harsh with her. In fact whenever she made some extra money she indulged in getting Vani anything she wanted, with her limited means.
Ravi and Rani watched Vani and Ponni. They told Ponni to try and come for work soon. Vani hearing this, let off another loud wail and Ponni had to put her on her lap and rock her. But Vani only kicked up her legs and cried the louder.
Neighbours peeped in, and went away, saying,
“Oh, it’s just Vani and one of her terrible tantrums!” as though they were quite used to hearing this spoilt child.
“How can I go anywhere with this little donkey, behaving like this?” said Ponni, tears welling up in her eyes.
“I want cotton candy! And the pink sticky toffee!” cried Vani, not cooling down for all the cajoling and rocking her mother was doing.
Suddenly Rani said,
“Just a minute,” and asked Ravi if he had any money with him. Ravi searched his pocket and found just two five rupee coins. Rani took them and went to the fruit market outside and bought the child an apple.
When she gave Vani the big, red, shiny apple, she quietened immediately. She held the apple, and watched Rani and Ravi eagerly, to see if the cotton candy was on the way.
“If you are a good girl and do as your mother says, I will bring you a gift one day,” said Rani, to the sniffing Vani. Ponni wiped her nose and eyes with her saree pallav.
“When?” said Vani.
“Hmm. Maybe next week! But that’s only if you’re a really good girl. I will ask your mother how you behave every day.”
“What gift?” queried Vani, lying down quietly, now, on the cotton mattress.
“Oh, something nice! Something really nice!” said Rani and Ravi together. Ravi had joined in, for he was quite impatient to leave. He had never seen such a horrid child, he thought! He didn’t know how Rani was so gentle and patient with her.
The children had no idea, as to what they would gift Vani, but they had to leave and make sure Ponni would be at work the next day.
“Come for work tomorrow, Ponni!” called Ravi, to the servant maid. He cautiously looked at Vani to see if she would start howling again. But no, she lay quietly holding the red apple tight.
When the children reached home they told Meena where they had been and what had happened.
“So Ponni is coming tomorrow? That’s a big relief!”
“May we go in the evening and enrol for classes, amma?”
“You certainly may!” said Meena, smiling at them both.
When the children reached the school, there was already a crowd of children waiting to give in their names for the craft class. Some of them had come straight from the river, after a swim and were dripping!
The next day, the children reached the school at ten o’clock as they had been told. Ponni had come for work promptly, and the children took a packed lunch of curd rice and masala potato and pickle, with a bottle of fresh lime juice flavoured with nannari.
Pooja and Mala stood at the doorway of the classroom. They wore jeans and a coloured, light, t-shirt, as do most city students.
“Welcome, children! Come, come, fill in the front rows first and don’t leave gaps in between!”
The children went into the room, smiling and very excited for the long awaited art class. Most of them sat with their own friends or gang of friends and chatted away.
When all the desks were filled, the Principal sent for reed mats which were spread on the floor, and the children still arriving sat down on the mats.
At ten o’clock, Mala and Pooja began their class.
“Let me introduce ourselves to you all, first! I am Mala and this is my friend, Pooja. This week, we will be teaching you to make paper mache and few things which could be made with paper mache.”
The children listened in silence.
“Let us first start with how paper mache is made. Get the things, Pooja,” said Mala, turning to Pooja, who had already put a big zip bag on the table.
The table was not the usual teacher’s table. It had been replaced by a large work table, by the Principal, that morning.
Rolls of newspaper were taken out from the bag, by Mala and Pooja.
“Well, I need some help here! Who will give me a hand?”
Almost all the children said,
“Me! Me! We will help akka!”
Pooja and Mala laughed and said,
“Well! We need only twenty children, though!”
And they picked twenty children from the room full of eager ones. Pooja gave the all the newspaper bundles and said,
“Tear them up into tiny pieces, children, like this,” and she proceeded to demonstrate, by tearing the newspaper into little pieces. Mala provided them with big cardboard boxes into which all the bits of paper went, until the boxes were filled.
Meanwhile Pooja had brought in a kerosene stone, which she lit and placed a large vessel upon it.
“Here is a stove lit and ready, children,” said Pooja, and into the large vessel she poured half a bucket of water.
“Now let’s wait till this water heats up, shall we?”
“Meanwhile, here are the rest of the things you need to make the paper mache pulp!”
Both Pooja and Mala laid four big bottles of Camel gum, which the children usually used at school. Then a packet of powdered salt and a small packet of something the children couldn’t guess, since it was tightly wrapped up.
The water had come to a boil, and the children could see the steam floating up into the ceiling.
“Well, now that the water has boiled, I need some of the twoof the senior students to help me with cooking the paper pieces in the boiling water!”
Two girls from Ravi’s class jumped up and stood at the large work table, ready to help.
“Now start putting in handfuls of paper, children, while I show you how to stir the mixture.”
The two girls eagerly obliged as Pooja stirred the water and paper bits in the vessel, slowly. More paper pieces were added in handfuls and Pooja handed the ladle to one of the girls to stir. The girls took turns to stir, while the rest of the children chatted and watched.
Soon the paper had turned pulpy and soft.
“Ah, now it has become soft and pulpy, like oat meal, children! Yes, that’s it for now, until the mixture cools completely!”
With that Pooja put out the fire in the stove.
“Now this is a packet of powdered salt, children, since we need to add a spoonful of salt to prevent the mixture from becoming mouldy.”
“And here is the gum, the usual Camel gum, which you all use in school! Yes, since we’re making a large amount of paper mache pulp, we need three or four bottles of gum!”
“And this packet contains two hundred grams of cinnamon. Do you know what cinnamon is?”
Some of the bigger girls who help their mothers in the kitchen immedialtely said,
“A spice, akka*!”
“I have bought cinnamon at the grocer’s for my mother!” said another girl.
“Well, yes! Cinnamon is a lovely smelling spice, children, and very much a part of our Indian cooking!”
“I didn’t think we would use cinnamon to make paper mache, akka!” said some of the girls on the mat, pronouncing ‘mache’ as ‘mash’.
“Mash? No,no, mache is prounounced as ‘mashay’! Let’s hear you all say mashay!”
“Mashay!” yelled the whole gathering!
“Mashay!” said they all in glee, glad to have got the pronunciation for mache right!
“I made the same mistake when I was a kid, until my teacher corrected me!” said Mala smiling around at the children.
“Well, the mixture is still very warm, children. Since it’s almost lunch time, let’s have a break. When you’re back from lunch we will continue. The paper mache will have cooled, by then.”
The children began getting up and said
“Bye, akka!” before they went home for lunch. Many of them had brought along their lunch like Ravi and Rani, and sat on cement benches, which stood beneath the shade of the numerous neem, pungai, gulmohar and marutham trees which sheltered the school grounds with its green foliage.
The children returned from lunch sooner than expected and Pooja and Mala had to begin classes straight away. They buzzed around the vessel of paper pulp, like honey bees, until Pooja sent them all to their seats again.
The pulp had cooled well and Pooja and Mala again called upon the children to help disintegrate the bigger pieces. Quite a few eager hands of boys and girls went into the vessel and the pulp was soft and smooth in no time!
“Wash your hands and get back to you places, children!” said Pooja.
When the children were seated, she brought a large sieve into which she scooped in the paper pulp and pressed it till the water drained. Again, she had some of the children help, so the work was quickly over.
Now the water was poured off at the base of one of the trees outside. And back into the vessel went the soft, drained paper pulp. Mala emptied the bottles of glue into the pulp and began mixing it all, to blend the pulp and glue well.
“Now here goes the salt!” said she, and sprinkled four or five teaspoons of salt into the mixture.
The mixture resembled clay.
“Run to the Principal’s house and get cook to powder the cardamom, will you?” said Pooja to Rani.
Rani ran off with the packet of cardamom to the Principal’s house which was just behind the school. His wife put the spice into an electric grinder and soon Rani was handing Pooja the strong smelling powdered spice.
“Thank you, thank you!” said Pooja and patted Rani on her cheek.
The cardamom powder joined the glue and salt in the vessel and the rich smell of cardamom filled the classroom. Mala let the children take a turn in mixing the pulp and it certainly was something they all enjoyed immensely!
Soon the mixture was really pliable and Pooja rolled up medium sized balls and handed them to the children in the classroom.
“Fifteen to a group,children! Please sit in groups of fifteen!”
The children opted to sit on the floor with a ball of the mixture in hand.
“Now roll them into marble sized balls, children….., like this! You can also do dice shaped beads,” said Pooja and demonstrated the method, along with cylindrical and oval shapes.
And she began rolling small round balls with the clay like pulp. Soon the different shaped mache beads lay on the work table. It was sticky, due to the glue, and easy to roll.
“If you find you have added more glue, just sprinkle a few teaspoons of maida flour from your mother’s kitchen shelf!” said Pooja.
Meanwhile Mala was distributing tooth pricks to each group and Pooja said,
“Have you finished, already? Good! You are very fast, children! Great!”
Yes, naturally with fifteen children to a group, the paper mache pulp were now all quickly and neatly rolled into different shaped beads, were ready for the tooth pricks.
Mala showed them how to carefully pierce a hole with the tooth prick, right in the middle of the bead. Once the hole was made, the beads were laid to dry, on the floor.
Mala and Pooja had the children lay all the beads carefully along the wall at the end of the room, to dry for the night.
“Wash up, children, said Pooja. We are done for the day! Very good! You did a good job! Super!”
The children helped Mala and Pooja wash the vessel, and clean the work table, and put away the things. Soon the class room was spic and span and the children hovered around the two teachers, asking them what they had to do tomorrow.
“Tomorrow, we colour the beads!” said Mala. And the girls especially, were filled with delight. Not so with the boys, though. They were quite bored with making beads and some of them thought it quite silly.
“I should have gone swimming, amma. Imagine learning to make beads all day!” grumbled Ravi to his mother as did most of the boys, that day.
“Well, it’s more important to know the method, Ravi. You can make whatever you wish once you know how it’s done” said Meena.
She noticed Rani looked quite elated by her day’s learning.
“Tomorrow we paint the beads!” she said to her mother, her eyes shining and bright.
The children went to school the next day, including the boys for all their grumbling. They were all eager to see the finished product.
Pooja and Mala stood at the entrance and welcomed the children. They were all geared up for the day, in their jeans and lovely t-shirts.
In fact, some of the girls came to the art class, wearing jeans, a little self consciously. They loved the way the two students from the city dressed and wanted so much to dress like them!
Yes, they were a quaint combination of the urban and the rural, for their mothers oiled their hair thoroughly and pinned fragrant strands of jasmines to the braids, so thus they arrived, happy and smiling happily! And they wore coloured bangles and chains to match.
Greeted Pooja and Mala.
One of the small girls brought Pooja and Mala jasmines, grown in her garden and woven into a strand. Though the two students had short hair, stylishly cut, they pinned the strands, so lovingly given, to their hair with a hair pin.
“Thank you! Thank you! What a lovely smell!” said they and gave the little girl a nice hug.
“Are you all ready to paint the beads?”
“Yes, akka!” said all the children cheerfully, and stared in awe at the small bottles of beautiful coloured paint on the work table.
Today the desks and benches had all been shifted to the back of the class room. Old, faded bed sheets were spread on the floor. Again, the children were divided into groups and the paint bottles and brushes were distributed to the groups.
Mala stood at the head of the class and dipped her paint brush carefully in the blob of paint she had laid on an old plastic plate, which served as a palette. She then delicately painted the bead holding it between her fingers in her left hand. She painted the bead red. Laying it to dry for a while, she again painted small dots, dashes, geometrical shapes and flowers very carefully and slowly on each bead.
Soon the children had a go at painting the beads. Though they painted clumsily at the start, they soon began to paint quite neatly, by the time it was lunch break. Pooja and Mala were very happy with what was transpiring before them!
“ Hmm! You are all little artists in the making!” said they, praising the kids. Indeed, there lay on the sheets an attractive array of the most brightly coloured and neatly designed beads they had seen!
The children had finished all the beads before lunch break, to Mala’s and Pooja’s surprise.
“After lunch, we strand the beads!” said Mala as the children trooped out for lunch, chattering gleefully like little birds.
By the end of the second day, a box full of coloured bead strands lay in the big box which they had first used to fill with the bits of torn paper.
Though tired, the children were filled with a sense of achievement.
“Now that you have learnt how to make beads with paper mache, you can make bigger shaped beads children, to make a paper mache garland or decorations for doorways, or curtain beads!”
“And tomorrow, something special for the boys!” announced Pooja. The boys cheered, and went home, happy they were to learn something more to their liking, tomorrow!
The next day Pooja and Mala repeated the paper pulp making, with the boys and girls doing all the tearing, heating, stirring, measuring and mixing on their own. When the pulp was made Pooja handed them small boxes in which we buy bottles of medicine. Almost all the boys had a box. Some of the boys were given small plastic bowls.
Next Mala taught them to spread the pulp evenly over the boxes and bowls. Each layer was left to dry thoroughly, till it was smooth and strong. Once they dried, the simple cardboard boxes looked thicker and more solid, and was ready for painting.
Pooja showed the children how to gently remove the bowls, when the paper pulp was quite dry. Once again, the bowls and boxes were painted in vibrant colours. Then designs of animals, birds or interesting shapes were painted on the boxes and bowls and it was plain to see that the boys were really enjoying their craft class! Gone were the grumblers and mumblers!
The Principal who saw the products produced by the children was visibly stunned.
“Oh my! I had no idea there was so much hidden talent in my children! Thank you, Pooja and Maya for teaching our children! Thank you very much, indeed!” and with that, he shook the hands of the two students vigourously.
When Ravi showed Yakov , Inban his father who had returned, and his mother the paper mache box he had painted with colourful butterflies, they were enthralled! Rani showed them the strand of coloured beads and they couldn’t believe she had actually made it!
“Brilliant!” said Yakov and Inban and patted Ravi and Rani on the back.
Meena fixed a hook and catch on Rani’s bead necklace. It shone beautifully like dull glass.
That evening, Rani made her way to Ponni’s house. Vani had recovered fully and was playing outside with a stray puppy. When she saw Rani, she smiled shyly and stood still. It was quite hard to believe this little girl had been so fussy last time!
“I can see you’re well again!” said Rani.
“Is that your pet puppy? May I pat him?”
Vani nodded, not saying a word.
Then Rani said,
I heard you were a very good girl, Vani, is that right?”
Vani nodded her head vigourously again.
“So here’s the gift I promised you!” and Rani gave her the beautiful red paper mache necklace which she had made.
Vani took it and her eyes gleamed with delight.
“Come here, Vani,” she said and hooked the necklace around Vani’s neck.
“Ah! Great! You look like a little princess!”
Vani went charging into the house and viewed herself in the small mirror which hung on the wall. She loved the gift instantly.
Then she came to Rani and gave her a hug and said softly,
“Thank you, akka!”
and charged back into the house to admire herself!
Rani returned home, with plans of all the other pretty trinkets she would make, during the rest of her holidays.
Mullai- a type of strong smelling jasmine creeper.
Nannari- the extract from the nannari root. Mixed with sugar syrup to make a refreshing juice.
Sambar- a strong flavoured vegetarian curry made with dal and vegetables.
Akka- elder sister.