I think it was the summer of 1989, for it is nearly always summer in Madras. I was in 7th grade then and, according to a lot of friends, haven’t changed much. We followed this rather arcane curriculum of numbering our subjects as 1 and 2 (Math 1, Math2, English 1, English 2…) and I fail to recall which one of those numbers applied to the class where we were asked to prepare a pinhole camera. The mechanics of this was simple: Get a hollow cylinder (which should be called a pipe, but our teachers thought that they were being quite scientific as against sounding like someone from the hardware store). Seal one end with butter paper (and we actually applied butter on standard paper when any oleaginous substance would have suited the purpose) and the other which a thick material. Poke a pin-hole through the thick material and pray that you get an image of some distant object upside down on the butter-paper.
We had decided that we should employ talcum powder cases (like that of the nearly erstwhile Cuticura, or of Gokul Santol)as one end would be shut anyway. We did a lot of hunting and excitedly constructed the contraption for, to a child’s mind, any activity with expensive names like camera, engine brought a lot of importance. I think I chose a Gokul Santol dubba (I think I did so because I didn’t want to have anything to do with a Kutti-Cura… kutti in Tamil means small).
When the d-day arrived, everyone proudly held their cameras in hand (one girl had even painted hers! I am glad there wasn’t a pink bow to it). Some of the fractious boys (and every class had its share) had bullied the students of the other classes to lend theirs. Some of the lazy ones borrowed from their friends in the other “divisions”. There was a lot of whispering and speculation as to who possessed “honest” cameras and who were the ones who had “stolen” (for anything non-honest was considered stolen to our inarticulate minds) cameras.
The teacher walked in. She was a rather puny lady with a voice that broke with least warning, resembling a little puppy on ice – running fine a bit and then skidding. She demanded to be informed if anyone had borrowed cameras from students in other divisions. No one spoke a word. Some students got up to say that they didn’t finish their project and these were the ones who had secretly vowed to turn informers.
Things went as expected. Some student would be called, he would present his piece. If it was an honest camera, he got some marks depending on the clarity of the tree with its root heavenward on the butter-paper. If it was stolen, some student would blow the whistle. Then there was a lot of ruckus and Yes-No and eventually a zero on the marklist. One girl who had stolen started crying even before she was exposed, which was exposure enough.
One boy was about to go and do his presentation. He was my friend (and that meant a lot back then!!) and I gestured to a whistle blower not to expose him. Surprisingly the presentation went rather smoothly for him. I was amazed at the powers of my gestures and considered the prospects of a career as a mafia Don with the imperceptible nod to signal that someone must be made to “sleep with the fish”. I was stirred out of my reverie by a call to my name skidding badly on my teacher’s tongue.
I walked over and did my presentation. The tree looked rather nice and helplessly strung upside down on the butter-paper. I was tempted to rotate the camera in order to rectify that, but knowing that it wouldn’t earn me any extra marks, I didn’t bother.
“Ma’am he stole it.”
Which poor soul was caught now? I turned around to see all the boys and girls (minus the weeper) looking at me. Me? ME?
“No, ma’am. I made this. I can assure you I made this?”
Damn! That was my first lesson in never assuring assurances without preparing for one.
“Ma’am he told me not to tell you that he had stolen this camera.”
Damn! So that is where the intent of my gesture had gone. Like signalling my own henchmen to fill me with lead and thinking all the while that I am such a good Don.
And the topic hardly changed for the next 2 min. She was about to give me a zero when I offered to take everyone to the shop where I bought the talcum powder case and getting my father to vouch for me. The teacher asked me and the whistle blower to resolve this by the next class.
Well, I was able to prove my case and got 7.5 out of 10, but I look back at this incident every time I see a similar one happening in my present day (which became a yesterday). People still love to blow the whistle on others without a basis. I am undecided about whether whistle blowing makes sense (except in really criminal cases and the like), but doing so without basis is quite silly according to me. There is nothing to gain for the whistle blower except for the possible sadistic pleasure of watching another person suffer his fate (and I am only talking about whistle blowers who had themselves defaulted and are trying to redeem themselves by turning into that). Even in corporate circles at the non-executive level, people seem to be resorting to this childish behaviour and feeling quite pleased with themselves. Wonder whether we ever grow up. I definitely haven’t and am busy collecting assurances and proofs for the world, lest someone decides to shout out “Ma’am he stole it.”