I have always loved marching. The rhythmic and organized rise and fall of feet and arms in a hypnotizing pattern has a beautiful sense of steady choreography to it.
This love was instilled in me at the young age of 10. I was studying in a small school that had started with my batch. So, effectively, I was the senior-most student in the school at Class 4.
My school operated from an old, two-storeyed British-era house in Belgaum. We were a small knit family, the strength of my class being all of seven members. But for such a compact number of students, we had excellent teachers. They wouldn’t teach us just our subjects. No. Several other important things were incorporated in our curriculum; like dance, arts and crafts, Sanskrit, music, an hour set aside only for story-telling, and ample amount of time to play outside in the backyard of our school/house.
Our school was ambitious, yes sir. The fact that all the students were aged 10 and less did not stop us from hitting all the competitions organized around the town. That was how we gained exposure. Among those contests, there was a local marching competition and all the big and old schools from our town participated in it. Not deterred by the fact that we would be facing full-blown “grown-up” students from class 7 to class 10, our school had also entered itself to compete for the marching trophy.
We had a PT teacher, and like all PT teachers, he had a mean look about his face (mostly because of his substantial mustache) and we were terrified of him. His mustache and those angry eyes scared us to no end! He began training us for our first marching competition. He started by dividing us into groups of five people and asking us to march to his count of “Left, right, left, right…”
When it was my turn, I couldn’t get my arms and feet coordinated. I just couldn’t. While my left foot was going up, so was my left hand, the opposite of what I was supposed to do. My PT teacher was yelling himself hoarse at me. His anger was making it that much harder for me to grasp everything and I was going from bad to worse. His frustration at me peaked and slap, slap, slap! Three smacks right across my face.
I was stunned! Hurt and humiliated, I burst into tears, lost it and ran away into the building. One of my teachers, Mrs. Kamat, was watching the practice. She was a kind old woman who grew strawberries and bananas in her garden and distributed them among students at the school. She had a face that reminded me of my grandmother. She used to wear her saree like my grandmother too. I had always felt warm and safe around her; she was the one who told the stories in the story-telling period.
As I rushed into the inner courtyard, wiping my copious tears, I bumped into her. She clasped my arm and without a word steered me into an empty classroom. I realized it was our story-telling room. There were no desks there; you were required to sit on the floor while listening to a story.
She sat on the chair reserved for teachers and held me at an arm’s distance and peered into my face. She asked me why I was crying. Between ragged sobs, I told her I was a complete failure at marching and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do something that all my classmates could.
She wiped my tears and in her presence I calmed down. She said she would teach me; marching was really easy to learn. She asked me to walk the length of the room, up and down. Puzzled, I did as she told me. I walked. She asked me to walk again and I did. And again. But this time, she asked me to notice how my arms worked while I walked. I observed that while I was walking naturally, my right arm swung up while my left foot was forward and vice-versa.
It was then that she explained that marching was the same, only it was more rigid and in coordination to the others beside me and to the music. She made me walk a little stiffer and eventually to the chant of “Left, right, left, right.” And what do you think, reader? Lo and behold, I was marching!
She took my hand and led me back to my PT teacher. Shyly, I demonstrated my marching to him. He bestowed a twitch of his mustache upon me, which I took for a smile and his satisfaction that I could march now.
After practicing for a few weeks, we marched in the big competition, where we were admired by many who called us ‘Tiny-tots’. They marveled at the ‘Tiny-tots’ marching excellently, with their little faces scrunched up to look military-haughty. Our team entered many marching competitions later and we made ourselves proud.
Years later in another school, I was to be made the captain of my school house in my class 12. That year, in our yearly marching competition between all the school houses on Sport’s Day, I was the only girl leading a house team, shouting the marching commands and holding my house’s flag straight and high. I hope I have done Mrs. Kamat proud, the lady who taught me how to march.