“Freedom of expression?! But there’s no such thing as that! Naresh, what have you been teaching them?!”
I thought I saw a flicker of genuine bewilderment brush against Mr. Wilson’s sneer. But I could have imagined it, of course. I was busy concentrating on blocking out the Silence that had exploded like a bomb in the staff room.
The red pencil decided that it had had enough. It did not like the printed sheets that lay at its mercy. They didn’t have very flattering things to say about anything. They reeked of nasty, scandalous truths! Red couldn’t stand the smell.
A neat slash. That’s all it took. A controlled action in a guise of carelessness.
Across two weeks of sleepless work. Yet another bruise across Unsilence.
I felt Christine stiffen beside me. My lips had disappeared into a thin line long ago. A murdered fight lay in bloody mess inside my stomach.
It was against the rules to argue, my footsteps said, as they led me out.
* * *
Sister Margaret was a short, plump woman with a sunny face. The picture of affability, you’d think, until your eyes fell on her favourite accessory- a thin, vicious cane held almost apologetically in her tiny right hand. Of course, the instrument of correction was only used for major offenses. Like looking at a Boy.
School taught me many things. Life’s lessons simplified, compressed into a few basic principles:
Hair is a Mad Person, meant to be straitjacketed in steel pins and black ropes. Ribbons, I mean. A strand of hair sticking out of the line shows that your character is majorly flawed.
A good girl pulls up her socks till her knees. If she doesn’t, she is most likely to grow up into a slut.
Prayers are meant to be learnt as formulae. You have to gobble them up like bad medicine (without a spoonful of sugar), and puke them out during Catechism exams and Sunday mass. You must pray aloud. God can’t hear silent prayers. What do you think? He has magical powers?
You shouldn’t talk to boys. Or even look at them. It’s a crime. I’m sorry, did I say crime? I meant sin. God will send you to hell for it.
Words are meant to be choked down. Talking is a vice. It has to be curbed. Haven’t your parents taught you anything?
Finger. On. Your. Lips.
A refrain taken up by the kindergarten teacher. Said in different words by others. Always meaning the same.
That’s what the red pencil said to me today.
I entered college, thinking I could finally step out of the line, and write MY name on my body and my mind.
But the first thing they said to me was-
Toe the fucking line.
It’s yesterday all over again. A tall, grim man stands in a white cassock in place of Sister Margaret, his raised eyebrow a veiled threat, dictating life’s lessons, simplified and compressed, once again…
(more creatively, this time)
(Also, please shut up)
Being yourself is against the rules. Sorry.
While his faithful disciples stand around pointing machine guns at denim, extra piercings, reactionary newsletters, answers other than the ones in the textbook, signs of protest, people walking on the grass, people sitting on the steps, people holding cell phones, people resting their backs on the walls, people not taking part in mechanical discussions, people hugging (gasp)…
Sigh. Life must have been so simple when there were only ten Commandments to follow.
In our modern, progressive, free-thinking world, freedom of expression is still a hunted animal, an extremely endangered species. Killed actively in concentration camps called ‘Reasonable Restrictions’.
Of course, my journalism textbook has a completely different definition. Honestly, what has Naresh sir been teaching us?
* * *