MUSINGS My domestic employee took me through the arduous task she had on hand — her child’s forest project

It is a well-known fact that school projects are prime opportunities for parents to showcase their talents. The pupil’s marks are in direct proportion to the litres of midnight oil her mother has burnt. Some schools have dispensed with this farce but others are just discovering it: these are the English-medium schools for the low-income-group which, in an attempt to emulate the elite, have taken to giving grades instead of marks, and assigning projects.

For the past week my domestic employee B, mother to Class 1 pupil Aa (her name auspiciously begins with two a’s), has been existing in a heightened state of consciousness. Her mind has room only for the one word she chants: “forest”. The forest took over her life the day Aa’s teacher gave the class their first ever project to do. “Who will do post-office?” asked the teacher. “Who will do wall-clock? Who will do farmer and fields?” The easy projects were snapped up, and when it was the turn of “forest”, only a few hands went up. One of them was Aa’s.

“If only she had chosen bus-stand,” B said to me the next morning. “It would have been so easy, just buy a few toy buses and make some roads.” But her grievance was short-lived. The assignment had caught her fancy. Every morning she would seek my approval for her ideas. “The teacher said we must use thermocol,” was the first of her daily pronouncements. Perhaps models of trees and wild creatures had to be glued to a thermocol board, she guessed, and I agreed. “Do you have toothpicks?” she asked me the next day. To prop up the animals, she explained. I regretfully showed her my one remaining toothpick. “Never mind, I will use sharpened broomsticks,” she said brightly. On Day Three her request was: “Can you write something about the forest? A message?” She prompted me by stating in English, “Grow more trees, protect the animals.” I composed a suitably juvenile paragraph which she made Aa copy on a thickish piece of paper, to be affixed to two sticks inserted into the thermocol, like a little billboard. “Can I put dinosaurs in the forest?” This was Day Four. One of her relatives had offered little plastic dinosaurs that Aa had been quite taken up with. I told B that the chances of coming upon live dinosaurs in a forest today were pretty slim. After conveying the meaning of extinction to her in simple terms, I convinced her to drop the plan.

I get no time for even a tea break at home these days, she told me. After working in three houses, picking up Aa from school and feeding her, she would sit down to work on the forest till midnight. Her fingers were bruised from wielding the scissors. The felt pens were all drying up, the green and the brown most rapidly. As B described to me her craftwork — done thriftily, of course — a virtual forest took shape before my very eyes. She got her husband to bring home fresh twigs of trees with leaves that would not easily wither, and these she chopped up to form mini trees. She snipped the ends of her grass broom, coloured them green with a splash of yellow, and stuck them to the thermocol to form a bed of grass. Sprinkled on the grass were flowers which she laboriously drew, cut out, painted and pasted. Birds and beasts were made from scratch. A plastic bowl upturned and covered with paper painted brown became a hillock. Here were two giraffes grazing; there, a pair of elephants and their baby; an owl sat on a tree and a lion crouched in its cave. “Naanu ondu Discovery channel maadu bittide,” she cried happily.

And suddenly, impending disaster! A highly agitated B quoted the teacher telling one of the ‘forest’ mothers: “Don’t make a model, ree, it will be very difficult. Just draw a picture of a forest and stick it on the thermocol board.” B was distraught. “Should I also draw a picture?” she wailed. “But I have done so much work already!” I reassured her that the teacher was merely permitting those less creative to take the easy way out. Why do 2-D when you could go 3-D? She was much relieved. As the deadline approached, her head buzzed with last-minute ideas for the finishing touches. “I took ice-cream sticks and split them and made a fence!” “I almost forgot to colour the water in the pond blue!” Occasionally she would take a stab at being modest. “Let me only get the marks I deserve,” she would say nobly. “I am not saying I should get A grade; I am sure others also have done good work.” Other mothers, obviously.

The day she carried the project to school, admiration poured in from one and all. The teacher appreciated the message, apparently, and read it out to the class — ahem, that’s a small pat on my back. B, I realised, had never done a project in her life. How could she have? She was a government school dropout who was barely eleven when she accompanied her mother as an apprentice, and before long she had become a full-fledged domestic worker herself. It was plain to see that, through her daughter’s project, she was recapturing a childhood she never had.

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