I wore my favourite shirt on that chilly, September morning: button-up, collars, short sleeves, and coloured in a tie-dye chaos of reds, blues, greens, and oranges. My mother had purchased matching shirts of different sizes—one for me and one for my elder brother—from the Tibetan-refugee market in the Mussoorie bazaar. It was one of her many last-minute purchases before she and my father admitted us into boarding school in Mussoorie for the first time. We were left a thousand kilometres away from home. My brother was fourteen. I was ten.
That September morning was also the day before my English exam. I put on my colourful shirt, stuffed in all the money I had—a soggy 20-rupees note—in my jeans-pocket, convinced the dormitory warden that I needed to go to class early for revision, and then, decided to enact my masterplan.
I was going to escape from school.
It was the mid-90s, and my parents were a middle-class couple from Varanasi, a city like many others in North India with a failed public-school system; to them, a boarding school in a Himalaya was a status symbol, a sign-post of some disposable income. The higher the income, the more extravagant the school.
The Mussoorie Modern School, however, was low on the extravagance scale. I shared a large hall as my bedroom with 80 other elementary school kids. We were served meat once a week. All my clothes—including that tie-dye shirt—constantly smelt of mould.
Years before my parents could even afford that boarding school, I remember being in Varanasi when I was much younger, small enough to fit standing in the space between the seat and the handle-bars of my father’s Bajaj scooter. My father sat on the seat behind me to drive the scooter, his two arms caging me in as he steered side to side and served as my protective boundary. My brother sat behind my father, his limbs wrapped in a tight embrace around my father’s waist. My mother sat behind my brother, squeezing herself into the last few inches of the seat cushion. On that two-seater scooter, the four of us were a tight, snug fit, carefully equipoised as my father drove us all forward.
Over the next few years, I saw him graduate from owning that scooter to buying a van that carpooled me and my four cousins, to owning a couple more of his own cars, to moving our nuclear family out of the extended family home, to earning enough to send my brother and I off to boarding school in another part of the country. Like us, millions of other young Indian families rose after the economic liberalisation of the early 90s, going from lower-middle-class to middle, and then flirting with those on the upper strata, too.
After a couple of false starts, my father had finally found business success to be able to provide us with a better education, a better life. And throughout this journey, he repeated the same adage to my brother and I, on the scooter, in the car, over the phone from Varanasi to Mussoorie.
“This is nothing,” he would say. “You kids have to have the ambition to be better than me. To achieve much more than I have.”
A better education—studying and living away from home—was supposed to be the first step towards this future achievement. It was only years later that I understood my parents’ motivation to push us away from the comforts of home. They wanted us to have the opportunities they never had. No schools in my hometown or anywhere nearby would’ve offered that option, and they sacrificed family togetherness for our education.
As an unhappy ten-year-old, however, I wasn’t concerned about the quality of my education or the lessons in self-sufficiency that boarding school promised. After my first two months in Mussoorie, I yearned for home, for the safety net of my parents, for my mother’s warm embrace. I wrote weekly tear-stained letters to my mother to bring me back home and sobbed with practiced self-pity in the hostel’s phone-booth whenever they called, glutinous snot forming crusts of sorrow over mouth and cheeks. They didn’t flinch, however, convinced that I would eventually settle down into my new reality.
But my parents had underestimated my ambition for freedom. It took weeks of methodical planning, and early on that morning of the English exam, when all the guards were still asleep, I ditched my classmates outside the dormitory, jumped off the ledge by the ramp rising up to the school building, fell into a steep jungle of devdar trees, muddied my favourite shirt almost instantly as I tumbled down the khud to the bottom of the hill, crawled on all fours under the barb-wire of the lower fence, and climbed over the ten-foot gate that was the final bastion of my imprisonment.
I landed with a thud on my little feet on the road outside, ignored the pain of impact on my soles, and raced away from the school.
I was free.
When I reached Mussoorie’s Library Bazaar twenty minutes later, the euphoria of freedom began to simmer down. I had only plotted an adroit escape out of the school’s boundary walls; but, now, with a measly twenty rupees in my pocket, how was I going to get home? A bus ticket on that budget could get me to Dehradun—a whole five percent closer to Varanasi from where I’d begun—and then leave me hungry, penniless and stuck in another unfamiliar city.
As the sun rose into breakfast time, I decided to focus on my hunger instead. I spent all my money on packet of Lay’s potato chips and ten tablets of Hajmola candy from a store. Then, I returned to school, taking the more picturesque trekking path up, allowing the woods, the foliage, and the clean Himalayan breeze to calm me before the inevitable punishment.
I turned myself to the guard at the main gate. A few hours later, I was back in the dormitory, where the PT Teacher unleashed a fusillade of canings on my butt, each strike delivered with his taut, efficient ferocity. I spent that evening nursing the stinging pain on my ass-cheeks, sobbing, studying for the English exam, and eating Hajmolas.
My parents reacted more with concern than anger when they hear the story, and perhaps, my desperate act made them rethink their decision. A year later, they shifted my brother and I to a better boarding school in the same town. This one was more prestigious, cost them a lot more, and punished me with detentions instead of canings every time I bunked a class or escaped to the bazaar for lunch.
I liked the new school, and I was older, too, suddenly weaned off from the necessity of home. I began to find my new comfort zone and a company of friends that quickly became akin to an extended family. I missed home occasionally—mostly when I craved home-food over the school’s bland rice and dal—but whenever I returned to Varanasi for the holidays, I yearned to be back in Mussoorie, to be back with friends and to my independence away from my parents.
I spent my adolescence and teenage years all in boarding school, coming of age over seven years away from my parents. Then, I went off to college abroad, and was never homesick for Varanasi again.
Mussoorie Modern School doesn’t exist anymore; the massive metal main gates that I used to find so intimidating as a child now stand bolted and shut. In a visit back to my old haunts recently, I recalled that day in the mid-90s again. I remembered that, days before my escape, I had approached my elder brother with my plot. He had advised me against it—but hadn’t taken my threat seriously.
My brother didn’t run away with me that day, and I never would have expected him to. He took fewer risks than I did, and only as an adult, I understood why. Four years of separation between us meant that I had fewer years than he did on the family scooter. He viewed money as a necessity, I thought of it as a bonus. My brother listened to my father’s adage. His goals became my father’s goals: to follow in his footsteps, to learn and manage the family business, to aim to be more successful than my father was.
I was different—and I continue to be. I looked at my father’s sudden success as an opportunity, a sort of freedom. While my elders were forced into their professions for economic survival, I could risk—with less fear of hitting rock-bottom—to follow my heart. Their ambition was out of necessity, mine could be a choice.
So, I chose a different path that separated me from my family. I moved to a different part of the country, and later, to a different part of the world. But my parents weren’t happy with me: they blamed my education—the education they enabled—for encouraging my sense of independence and separation. It took many years for acceptance to creep in, and that process still continues today. In small doses of family reunions, my parents tolerate—somewhat—that I would be happier carving my own path than following theirs.
When I look back, I know that my parents never changed. Their priority was always envisioning the best-possible life for us. They enacted whatever means necessary to achieve it.
But me? I changed drastically. I was once a boy yearning to run back home. I’m now a man stubbornly running further away. And even the most ingenious plot couldn’t conspire of a way back.
Karan Madhok is an Indian writer, journalist, and editor of the Indian Arts Review The Chakkar. Currently based in New Delhi, Karan‘s fiction, translation, and poetry have appeared in Gargoyle, The Literary Review, The Lantern Review, F(r)iction, and more. A graduate of the American University’s MFA programme, Karan is working on his first novel.