20. The School for Girls
Four months before this, on the 12th of November, 1898 (the Feast of Kali), Nivedita had opened her school.
Its first pupils were three puny and timid little Hindu girls. Its financial capital was eight hundred rupees, just enough to tide it over the first months. Its schedule of lessons was entirely irregular, since the children did not come at set hours. Even its plans were not definitely formed. “Let yourself be guided. You are going to learn everything from your pupils,” Swami Vivekananda said when Nivedita asked him for advice. But a large sign in Bengali, School for girls, hung on the door of the house; and an exquisite design drawn in rice powder on the threshold, garlands of leaves and streamers of colored paper on the roof offered a bright and hearty welcome on opening day. Guests had been invited and a crowd had gathered in the street
The guest of honor was Sri Sarada Devi. She arrived toward three in the afternoon, accompanied by several women, and followed by Swami Vivekananda with two other monks. She pronounced a whispered blessing, which was repeated by an elderly lady, and then went into the courtyard over which a roof of branches had been built. There she sat down to welcome the women of the district and their children.
The three little girls who were the school’s first pupils had been brought in by Swami Sadananda. They were so shy that when anyone so much as looked at them they hid their faces in their hands; if they were spoken to, tears would fill their eyes and their faces would become sullen. But they did not run away. Both frightened and curious, they were glad to remain in the “Sister’s” house.
This new experiment claimed all Nivedita’s attention and vigilance. She had worked out just what could be attempted with her eight hundred rupees (most of it a gift irom the Maharajah of Kashmir), and according to her calculations, this sum would keep the school going during the initial period, while she was gaining the Hindus* confidence and working out her educational system. “After that,” she said, “if the school proves workable, and attains its aim, I will write a report which will be circulated in both England and India. When it is fully developed, the school can exist only with the support of regular subscriptions from its protectors.”
When Swami Vivekananda told Nivedita she must ‘learn everything from her pupils,” he was referring to Sri Rama-krishna’s spiritual experience when he. had taken food with pariahs, Christians, Moslems; when he had dressed like them, and had observed their customs, so that he might know their souls. In the same way, the little girls of Bagh Bazar had become Nivedita’s teachers. “Later on,” Swami Vivekananda had added, “much later on, after a long period of assimilation, you will build on solid rock: the thousand details of Hindu family life will supply you with the right foundation.”
The pupils of the school came when they could, sometimes brought by an old woman, sometimes by a mother carrying her latest-born baby. During the first few days the children stayed in the big hall, eyeing one another, not saying anything, hardly ever trying to play. If nobody was watching, they would become bold enough to show one another their bracelets and their necklaces of glass beads and shells. Their first coquettish gesture was to compare their coiffures. Their tresses were lengthened by threads of silk of many colors. As more pupils came, some of them would have their faces daubed with saffron which gave a golden tone to their bronzed skin, like ripe fruit.
Nivedita watched them living. She tried to find out what they had in common beside a total lack of discipline. She was interested in their moments of silence, their habit of keeping themselves apart. It was obvious that they were most familiar with acts of worship, for, when they took to playing, these even had a part in their games. Several girls made a rough figure out clay, to which, several times a day, they brought offerings of flower petals. Yet they played with it as if it were a doll, lulling it to sleep or beating it as they felt inclined; and when the game was at an end they smashed it to pieces, crushing it to the tiniest bits. Then they made other figures which they treated in the same way, and they laughed over them and got a great deal of pleasure out of these creations which they fashioned and destroyed. Subconsciously, these children realized the existence of a whole made up of ephemeral parts. This made their reactions very different from those of little girls in the West, who, at their age, have made many discoveries and possess treasures which they want to keep; and this education seemed to reach them far away, through sacramental activities which they had acquired quite naturally.
The pupils brought to the school all the intimate life of their own homes. Their impromptu games derived from the actions of adults. They strutted around an imaginary well, carrying a jug of water on their heads without spilling a drop. They played the good hostess, bowing to and serving imaginary guests with studied mimicry. The educational games which Nivedita had studied so long, the object of which was to give the child concrete ideas about life, were of no use at all: the Hindu child already had a concrete awareness of life. These little girls knew the chants that accompany the work of the potter, the weaver, the drawer of water. Their mothers had made them learn countless episodes from the sacred epics by heart. They were never tired of drawing on the ground the symbols that represented their whole universe: Surya the sun, Chandra the moon, the print of Krishna’s foot, the coiled serpent, or the thousand-petaled lotus surrounded with tiny flowers. They did this with a sense of repetition which recalled the continual recitation of the japa – a short prayer that is repeated indefinitely.
Nivedita’s delicate task was to get the most out of this rich human material and, by teaching the girls all they could absorb, to add color to their grim poverty-stricken lives. She noticed how every little girl, even at the age of ten, was fully conscious of having no other liberty than that of the soul; of being an instrument, which, through marriage, would pass from one family to another, with no ornament save that of complete purity. These children looked at life with no curiosity, each one knowing that for her the inner courtyard of her present home and that of her future dwelling would constitute the secret existence in which her individuality would yield in obedience to her elders. With her veil over her face in the presence of the older women and the men of the family, never speaking to them first, never contradicting them, each learned how to conduct herself with dignity and to know her place in the family hierarchy. But this knowledge, this rigid program, did not rob her games of savor and audacity; and it was precisely that liberty which Nivedita sought to give her at school, and to foster in all her activities.
The children worked in the big room, each one being given a particular task. Reading, writing, and arithmetic became the elements of the Cosmos with which the children played, unconsciously relating them to the notions of time and space. The result was an unbounded enthusiasm, for instead of repeating unintelligible phrases like parrots, the pupils discovered the relation between her thoughts and the words which describe nature, and the value of numbers which advance from unity to the multiple.
The collective lessons were based on games. The arithmetic lesson took place around a basket of tamarind seeds turned out on the ground. The children picked up as many seeds as they could count, multiplied them, bought and sold them, without forgetting a share for the beggar-woman who always came to the door. Then a basin full of clay gave them the joy of molding forms, inventing images, and creating everything from the fishes of the sea to the stars of the heavens.
The children’s religious life was that of their family transferred to the school and blended with the progressive elements of modem education. The vital problem was how to nationalize the modem and modernize the old, so as to make the two one. The slightest mistake might have ruined the whole enterprise. Nivedita took the responsibility of introducing some of her guru’s ideas. Talking with her about the practical aspects of her work, he had said to her:
“Out of the old ancestor-puja create hero-worship. Let your girls draw and model and paint their ideal of the gods, as you have images for their worship. Every book is holy, not the Vedas alone. . . . The ceremonies employed must be Vedic, with the pitcher full of water on the lowest step of the altar, and lights always burning. Gather all sorts of animals: cows, dogs, cats, birds. Revive old arts, and sewing, embroidery, filigree. The aim of all this has been to express this order: serve humanity; pay homage to beggars and sick babies and poor women every day, as a practical training of heart and head together.”
Nivedita’s first assistant was Santoshini, a child slightly older than the others – she was twelve – whom Swami Sadananda had singled out at once as being exceptionally gifted. But she was headstrong, unruly, and very difficult to handle. She remained so until she heard that her father, an extremely orthodox man, was trying to find her a husband. The stubborn child then screamed, “Keep me by you, I don’t want to be married, kill me instead!” It was then discovered that she had made a secret vow of chastity so as never to leave Nivedita. After Swami Sadananda had watched her carefully to test her real desires, he suggested mildly, “Why shouldn’t we take her in as a boarder?” This at any rate would be a solution until the child’s father had been approached, but Santoshini rebelled again. “I don’t want to live with anyone who’s not a brahman!” She protested for several days, but gradually gave in. Without any bidding she found her place in the household and took charge of the smaller children in the morning. “Why haven’t you brought your little sister, today?” she would ask. “Were you ill yesterday? If your hands are dirty, the Sister will not be pleased. . .
For Sri Sarada Devi, the school was a constant source of interest She questioned Nivedita about the behavior of the children, down to the smallest detail. “Endless concessions have to be made/’ Nivedita admitted in a letter to Mrs. Bull, “and it it were not for Swami Sadananda, who is the greatest strength in this matter, I should lose everything by some sudden fit ot inflexibility in the wrong place.” Meanwhile, Sri Ma would explain the reactions of the children and their mothers, and would smooth out difficulties in relations between them. She came to the school on every feast day and distributed sweets to the children. Undoubtedly it was the anniversary-day of Sri Ramakrishna that was the best day of all. By the time it was celebrated, in 1899, there were thirty children in the school. After the special puja, seven large closed carriages took Sri Sarada Devi and the women of her household, Nivedita, and all the little pupils to the orchid gardens of a friend of the Ramakrishna Mission. It was a women’s outing. “And you must not think that all this meant wild extravagance!” Nivedita wrote to a friend. “Altogether it cost less than twelve rupees apiece. Isn’t it wonderful what one can do here?”
The thrifty Nivedita, however, was not tree from anxiety. Running the school was expensive. None of the children paid the monthly fee of one rupee that was reckoned in the budget; she even had to give many of them the cotton saris they wore. Several children received medical treatment; among them the little leper girl whom the ayurvedic doctor said he could cure. And Swami Sadananda kept on searching out children who were interesting but even poorer. When he saw that Nivedita was worrying about money, he strengthened her with his faith:
“Don’t be afraid! Here we don’t know what real poverty is. In the old monastery at Baranagore, after Sri Ramakrishna died, Dame Poverty laid her hand much more heavily upon us. We had no clothes to cover our bodies, and we went begging for our bread. In the evening Swamiji would take his cithar and sing, to encourage the younger ones. We pondered on the beauty of his chant, and we forgot our hunger.”
There was no doubt that Nivedita was looking to her friends for assistance. Before Miss MacLeod had left Calcutta she had been one of the first visitors to the school, and had played with the children all one morning. But beneath her gay and carefree outward demeanor she had seen all that was lacking in the household, and she had been appalled by the sight of these sickly girls, and of Nivedita’s poverty. Her decision was soon taken: in her own well-to-do existence she was to become the chief help to Nivedita, and to give generously to her in order that she might give to others in return. The very next day she came back, in a carriage heavily laden with provisions for the children: tins of biscuits, grapes, jam, condensed milk, butter, sugar; and with this an assortment of classroom equipment, from slates and exercise books to rolls of cloth to be cut up, along with thimbles and bobbins and scissors. For her friend, personally, she had added a pillow and – supreme luxury – some tea.
Nivedita no longer counted on the help of Henrietta Muller, with whom she had made initial plans for the school. The two had met in January, 1899, to discuss the project, but their aims had been completely divergent, and this was their last talk about the school. Miss Muller had clung to the Christian conception of charity and would have given all her fortune to the work if it had been conducted along those lines; but before the guru’s immensity of idea and project she had been, indeed, panic-stricken. According to Swami Vivekananda – and Nivedita – the school belonged to the children, who brought their own family religions to it. To tolerate Christian infiltration would have been to betray the Swami’s highest ideal. The interview between the two women was sad; it was the end of their collaboration.
“I can’t take anything from you,” Nivedita said. “Don’t hold it against mel By the grace of the Divine Mother I will work alone.”
Amid these difficulties teacher and pupils felt themselves doubly united, doubly attached to one another; they formed one great family under the protection of the Mother whom they invoked every day. When the storytelling hour came near – the liveliest moment of the day – the children would leave their work and cluster around Nivedita. “Tell us about Her,” the little girls would beg. “Tell us how She loves us. . .
And, for the hundredth time, Nivedita would tell the true story of the love of the Divine Mother for her little ones:
“Baby darling, what is the very first thing you remember? Is it not lying on mother’s lap and looking up into her eyes and laughing? Did you ever play hide-and-seek with mother? Mother’s eyes shut, and baby was not. She opened them, and there was baby! Then baby’s eyes shut, and where was mother? But they opened again and .. . oh!
“When mother’s eyes were shut, where was she? There all the time! But you could not see her eyes. Yet she was there . .« And what do we call Mother with her eyes shut? We call her Kali, the Divine Mother.
“Were you ever for a very few minutes unhappy? And did mother or auntie or someone else come and pick you up and love you and kiss you, till you were not unhappy any more? Sometimes God is like that, too.
“We get so frightened because those eyes will not open. We want to stop the game . . . we feel alone, and far away, and lost…. Just at that moment when you cried out, the beautiful eyes of the Mother opened and looked at Her child like two deep wells of love. . . . Kali, Kali!
“There is another game of hide-and-seek that the Great Mother plays. . . . She hides sometimes in other people. She hides in anything. Any day you might see Her eyes just looking into mother’s, or playing with a kitten, or picking up a bird that had fallen from its nest
“Stop playing, just for a minute . . . and say, ‘Dear Mother Kali, let me see your eyes!’. .
The story went on thus for some time, for it was a true story. And the little children opened their eyes wide to see the eyes of Kali. As for Nivedita, she felt the smile of the Divine Mother caressing her tenderly.