It was ‘Show and Tell’ day for class three students. A constant murmur of excited restlessness ran through the class. “Shhhh, calm down everyone.” Mrs. Nair the class teacher shushed the students for the hundredth time.
It was Selva’s turn next. He heaved as he lifted his volcano model and carried it to the teacher’s desk. Mrs. Nair sighed, seeing yet another volcano model. Selva smiled at her nervously and she nodded for him to proceed.
Selva turned to the class and smiled. He pointed to his crudely made flour volcano that had hastily been painted in shades of black and brown. “ Volcano,” he told his classmates, poking the still wet flour. He opened a small packet of bicarbonate powder and poured it into the mouth of the volcano. There was a moment in which the class held its breath. Then with a lazy bubbling, the volcano bubbled and gurgled, dripping colored foam down the wet sides. Selva smiled in relief and simply said, “Volcano”. There was some enthusiastic applause. The bicarbonate was too old Mrs. Nair thought, it didn’t bubble enough. Having seen hundreds of model volcanos, she was an expert in the matter.
“Um…Good job Selva.” Mrs. Nair said noting a ‘C’ against his name.
“ Ok, next is Nancy.”
“It’s Nancheli, mam” Nancheli said as she stood up in excitement. She pulled the large briefcase from under her seat and carried it carefully to the teacher’s desk. She beamed at Mrs. Nair and her classmates.
“Today for show and tell I have got a few family heirlooms to show you.” She said proudly, pushing back her ponytails.
She opened the suitcase and pulled out a small earthen pot.
She held it up for her classmates to see. Her eyes gleamed as she waited for her classmates to recognize it.
“So, you just got a pot?” One of her classmates said.
“No, it’s a spittoon,” Nancheli said.
“Um…what?” Another of the classmates asked.
Mrs. Nair raised an eyebrow.
“It’s a spitoon. My great-grandfather had to wear it around his neck all the time.” Nancheli smiled.
“Did he eat a lot of paan? My grandmother used to too and she would spit all around the house and my mother would get mad. This spittoon would have been a good idea for her.” Another of her classmates said.
“It wasn’t because he ate paan, you Dumbo, it was because he was untouchable. See he would wear it like this.” Nancheli wore the pot around her neck. It was too large for her small head and it made her bend forward. She tried to spit into it and only partly succeeded.
“Mam, what is an untouchable, mam?” one of the children asked Mrs. Nair. Mrs. Nair was on the edge of her seat glaring at Nancheli.
“Can we make Selva an untouchable mam, he is always touching me?” another child said.
“Nancheli, take that pot off your neck right now.” Mrs.Nair hissed.
“Ok…” Nancheli lost some of her enthusiasm. She returned the pot to the suitcase and moved onto the next item, “my next item is…” she said removing a piece of cloth from the suitcase, “this blouse.”
Mrs. Nair looked at the old frayed blouse with suspicion as if it might explode any moment.
“What is so special about an old blouse?” A girl in the first row said
“It is my great grandmother’s blouse. The first that my great grandmother could wear after the tax on blouses was removed. Before that she could not wear anything on top.My grandmother says she loved this blouse. It is kind of pretty.” Nancheli’s eyes were bright again. She wore the wrinkled blouse over her crisp uniform.
There was a flurry of questions in the classroom.
“What is a tax, mam?”
“Can we choose not to wear a blouse, mam?”
“Can I come to class without my shirt?”
Mrs. Nair braced herself against the barrage of questions she had no answers to. She stared at Nancheli and mouthed the words, “Principal’s office. Now!”
Nancheli sat outside the principal’s office on a long wooden bench, her suitcase beside her. Her principal, also a Mr.Nair and her class teacher were having a heated discussion. Nancheli’s mother had already been called. She knew she was in trouble, she just didn’t know why. When her mother arrived, Nancheli tensed afraid she was going to be scolded. But her mom smiled at her as she walked towards the office. Nancheli relaxed.
Inside the principal’s office, Mr. Nair was bristling. The few of his remaining strands that were usually combed over his smooth head were in disarray. He glared at Nancheli and then at her mother, “Mrs. Nadar, this is unacceptable!” He shouted in a muffled tone.
Mrs. Nair stood beside the principal and nodded in agreement.
“Ok, Mr. Nair. But why is it unacceptable?”
Mr. Nair moved uneasily in his chair trying to come up with an answer.
“Are you afraid of the authenticity of the articles that Nancheli displayed today? I have enough evidence to prove their authenticity.”
“Oh, we don’t care about the authenticity of the articles.” Mr.Nair shot a disgusted expression at her suitcase.
“Are you referring to the events she is referring to? They are authentic too. Several historical books will support that.” Mrs.Nadar said placing a hand on her daughter’s shoulder.
“We don’t care if those events really happened.” Mrs.Nair huffed at her.
“Are you saying you don’t care about history? But, you teach my daughter history.” Mrs.Nadar looked at Mrs.Nair in confusion.
“That is not what I meant. History is a difficult topic. It needs to be controlled around children.” Mrs.Nair said.
“Are you saying history needs to be censored?”
“That is not what I meant.” Mrs.Nair mumbled.
“This is inappropriate for a child of her age. And definitely inappropriate for her classmates.” Mr.Nair glared at Mrs.Nadar.
“Ok, maybe you are right. At what age will this be appropriate for my daughter. In which grade can she bring her history for show and tell?” Mrs.Nadar asked in a calm voice.
“ Well…well…” Mr. Nair searched hard for his words.
“So Nancheli is allowed here but not her history?”
“Please stop twisting the context of the events.” Mrs.Nair fumed.
“I could request you to do the same.” Mrs.Nadar smiled at her.
“There are some parts of history that are best forgotten so we can move forward together,” Mr.Nair said through gritted teeth.
“Agreed. You are right. There are also parts of history that we should never forget so we never repeat it. Don’t you think so.?”
“Umm…yes…” Mr.Nair said.
“So we are agreed on that. Now we just need to agree on which parts of history we need to remember and which to forget.” Mrs.Nadar said.
Neither the principal nor the class teacher said anything.
“And I think until we decide on that, Nancheli can continue coming to school. You will recall her suspension?” Mrs.Nadar said.
“She will keep her history to herself?” Mrs.Nair raised an eyebrow.
“For now.” Mrs.Nadar had a malleable tone in his voice.
There were a few moments of silence in the room, some sighs and nods.
Nancheli would return to her class the next day. She smiled at her principal and class teacher. When she lifted her suitcase, it seemed heavier than before. But it was a comfortable weight, it seemed to meld itself around her wrist.
As Mrs. Nadar and Nancheli walked out of the school, Nancheli turned around and stared at her school, “I thought I was the one doing Show and Tell today, Amma, not the school.”
Mrs.Nadar smiled at her daughter, “All the world is a show and tell, but often you learn more from what people won’t show and what they won’t tell.”
“But for now let me show you an ice-cream parlor and tell you how to finish a sundae.”
Nancheli skipped happily to her well-earned sundae.