When we were little, reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic—enunciated alliteratively—were indispensable components of our lives. We lived in Karol Bagh, one of New Delhi’s newer colonies, then home mostly to Punjabi house-lords who had tenants from different parts of India. We schooled at St Thomas’s, at the end of what in childhood memory seems a short left turn after a rather long stretch on Ajmal Khan Road, the extended shopping lifeline of West Delhi Wallahs, to reach which we look a right turn from the street on which our home stood.
In class V, our batch shifted to the senior school on Reading Road. This event changed our everyday lives. Until now we walked to school with a parent and walked back home, escorted, of course. This was no longer possible. We were now required to take school buses to cover the distance from one end of Karol Bagh, swivel around the roundabout, sashay on to Link Road and then turn right on to Reading Road, a little over two kilometres as the crow flies from our habitation. We lived on Saraswati Marg and it seemed then that this goddess of Learning had sent us to study on Reading Road, charting out a much needed learning curve in our lives. Oddly enough, the road on which our school was located seemed to have been christened most appropriately. Reading Road was home to a whole plethora of schools such as Harcourt Butler, Raisina Bengali, the Delhi Tamil Education Association(DTEA)and St Thomas’s.
I spent three years at the middle school on Reading Road, while younger siblings studied in the junior school. Father decided at this point that it was time for us all to transfer to another school. His anxiety over my brother whose five ungendered years at St Thomas’s were drawing to an end and vestigial nostalgia for Tamil roots made him choose DTEA, which was located further down Reading Road. In the mid- seventies, my brother and I enrolled at this co-ed institution. Oddly enough, our transfer from one school to the other came at the time when the Central Government decided to Indianize all English nomenclatures for roads.
And so it came to pass that all of a sudden we were being schooled on Mandir Marg. The name change left us traumatised as what had seemed like a divinely ordained journey now had us feeling rather dislocated in terms of life purposes. Were journeys from Saraswati Marg compelled to end on Mandir Marg? If so, could “reading” have much significance in our lives? This anxiety never really resolved itself in the subsequent years of schooling. Possibly, the numerous temples on Mandir Marg served to rationalize the new name which has remained unchanged since.
Recently I stumbled upon the originary source for the nomenclature of Reading Road. I also discovered that Reading was not a verb form in continuous tense as we had understood it for all these years. Reading was a proper noun and the name of a twelve hundred year old town in Berkshire county, in England. I shared this information with nonplussed parents and siblings along with the correct enunciation. Despite the misleading spelling, the name of the town was to be pronounced as “Redding.” When we schooled at Reading Road, we were juggling three languages; Tamil, Hindi and English; and three mythologies. Nobody was really an authority on the recent colonial past and Indianizing colonial names seemed to be our earliest a historic assertion of a monochromatic future.
A friend from childhood who had studied at Reading Road, shifted to Reading a few years ago and in September this year, en route to a conference at Plymouth, I was able to visit Reading . Wandering through the quiet cottaged residential areas of Reading was a learning experience. Roomy and tree lined, with winding roads, and two rivers the Thames and the Kennet running through it. The town has grown exponentially over a thousand years, but the nature of the growth has been inclusive.
Reading is quiet and picturesque. It has a modern city centre with shopping plazas and theatres and food joints, all of which meander into walkaways and quiet residential sections. There is an ancient Abbey built by Henry I and sacked by Henry VIII. Well preserved and currently under renovation, the Abbey is close to the city centre. Compact two- storied cottages dot tree lined streets and walks. Reading’s roads are punctuated by apple and pear trees, in abundant fruit. The hedges separating houses with gardens from the street are full of blackberries and blue berries and one can imagine that in these little lanes in earlier times children must have gone berry picking in the summer months for diligent mothers to turn into jams and preserves.
The shops and supermarkets don’t really encroach upon the peaceful residential pockets. There is a local library with easy access in every neighbourhood, other than the main Library at Reading which occupies pride of place at the City Centre. I am told that plenty of good neighbourhood schools abound within walking or cycling distance. The schools I pass by are lovely buildings, spruced up and spacious. Significantly, there are no school buses, occupying roads and lanes around the school.
Even today, Reading remains a magical town where children walk to school and never need to be packed into awful tin box vans and cycle-rickshaws. Endless bus journeys to and from different ends of the city is not part of their schooling curriculum. How refreshing this is from the crush and crunch of schooling at New Delhi. There is endless pressure on schools, on transport and endless stress in residential colonies where school buses block little streets and make life well-nigh impossible for the greater part of the morning and the afternoon for residents, long out of school. Reading Road in the UK is also a long connecting road linking the town to the next.
Perhaps, it is a good thing that the road at New Delhi is no longer called Reading Road. It was at best a very poor, truncated imitation of the original. Commuting to school marks the beginning of the social trauma that public life in New Delhi is all about. Children cannot walk to schools or cycle to them because we do not have cycling tracks in most parts of the city. Nor do children go to schools in their own locality. We do not have the concept of neighbourhood schools. Or rather, we have no serious plans to implement an idea whose time is long past. The tiers in which our schooling exists: public schools, government schools and government aided public schools, have rendered unimaginable the concept of a school within walking or cycling distance from a child’s home.
Reading has around hundred parks and walkaways along its two rivers. New Delhi has its own polluted river, the Yamuna, possibly much wider and longer than either of Readings’s rivers. Yet, those of us who have grown up in the city can barely recall the river as framing our memories of everyday living. The walling out of the river from our imagination is a huge loss, both emotive and experiential. Unlike Reading, which has well maintained large parks, New Delhi has numerous not so well maintained parks, with little or no civic amenities. Wherever meagre civic amenities exist, they remain under lock and key, and this feature is replicated in every Indian town.
Every locality at New Delhi boasts of baraat ghars. The state apparently encourages marriages, but hasn’t stretched itself to think of extending and enriching lives after marriage. Today, New Delhi, aspires to be a heritage city. Yet, its quotidian needs, its natural resources, as well as its ancient monuments meet with scant regard. It is time that RWA’s and individual citizens addressed very seriously the urgent need to enable the learners of the three “R’s” to enjoy their years at school and allow them more time inside of playgrounds and libraries than within buses and tin vans.