The Brilliance of the Sacred Heart of Buddha
On clear days, it is not difficult to see the movie of my life unfold.
I have just turned eight. I am standing at the front of the line of thirty little girls. These nine-year olds are wearing the Catholic school uniform, black leather Bata sandals over dusty white socks and whiter starched baggy shalwars with a frock on top. For now, our heads are covered with a folded length of muslin in respect for the prayer we will be reciting, the Lord’s prayer, the Muslim version:
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent the Merciful, Thee alone we worship, Thee alone we ask for help…
Morning Assembly at Sacred Heart
This is the morning Assembly. After the prayer, we sing the national anthem.
Pak Sar Zameen Shad Baad/ পাক সার জমিন সাদ বাদ/پاک سرزمین شاد باد /”Blessed be the Sacred Land
The anthem is in Farsi, not Urdu, the national language. We understand a few verses, not all of them, but we know to bow our heads at the end, showing respect to Khuda, Allah, God… Sayyai, Khudae zul jalal. Protection in the shadow of the Almighty.
When I look up, I see Sister Gabriel, looking down at her sandaled feet. Is she saying a silent prayer for her family in Italy, the ones she left in the mid-50s? When she joined the convent in Veneto, did she imagine she would be standing here waiting to teach Biology to the senior students of this Catholic school in a Muslim country?
The Assembly over, Sister Gabriel smiles as we walk past her to our classrooms. I lead my class to our room which is on the second floor of the winged cemented building.
Selma also leads her class to the room adjacent to my classroom. We are both younger and shorter than our cohort. We have been promoted to the next level of our classes because our time in England has put us behind in our Urdu skills. The first five grades in this school are all taught in Urdu, so not knowing Urdu has benefited us here. We are a year ahead of where we should be.
Buddha in the Classroom
My first class is with Mrs Ghulam Massih the Slave of Jesus. She teaches us Social Studies and today we are studying about the Buddha.
His name was Siddhartha Gautama, she tells us. A prince. Can you imagine children? A prince, but his mother died, and his father wanted to save him from the unhappiness in life. So his father kept him from leaving home
I am mesmerized by the story. I look out the window at the shanty homes that surround our school. I can hear the hum of the fans that have been switched on in preparation of the heat of the day.
And then one day, he leaves home.
And he sees the misery of the people around him. He sees the pain, the poverty, he sees death.
And I’m already following the young prince not thinking of the quiz that will follow at the end of the story. I forget the accuracy with which I will have to remember this story, at times verbatim, to get the grade for the assignment that I will share with mummy.
And then the Quiz
The story ends. Mrs. Ghulam Massih is now writing five questions on the board. She has a neat cursive style. She expects us to answer the questions accurately based on the story she has just narrated.
I take out my notebook and sprinkle a few drops of ink from my pen on the floor in preparation to write. The first question is about Buddha’s real name. Done. The second is about the name of the wise man who advised the king to keep Siddhartha from leaving home. Did she mention it when I was looking out the window at the woman squatting at a mud stove making the day’s meal? Or was it when her naked baby ran across the mud floor and put his arms around his mother’s back as she blew into the smoke to build a fire?
Organizing my pencil box
As I think, I organize my pencil box- red pen, sharpened pencil, eraser, sharpener, six-inch ruler, a protractor that I’ve never used, a compass that I have played with to make circles. As I shut the box, my textbook falls off the desk, and I bend to pick it up. My hand brushes the side of the desk, and I pull at a piece of dry gum. I play with it and decide to throw it in the wastebasket in the front corner of the classroom. It will give me a break from having to think. I might even get a glance at the other notebooks on the way back to my seat. Questions are always written in red, answers in blue, and it’s the second one that I need to know.
Four more years, I think to myself. And I’ll be done with school.