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Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Sum of All Misery: Holiday homework is the bane of the vacation

Who cares about Aurangzeb's sieges, or why Alexander wanted to conquer India - why can't we just live in the present?

Written by Sunanda Mehta |
Updated: June 12, 2016 11:59:41 am
school illo_759 Alexander was able to overrun India during the hot and humid summer all those years ago because he didn’t have to spend four weeks doing holiday homework.

Five things my school summer holidays taught me:
1) Writing 60 pages of English prose, in running hand, on four lined notebooks could probably improve your handwriting (if that was the motive, and not sadism), but not if you do all 60 pages at one go on the last day. It may then have quite the opposite effect.

2) Ashok, the hoarder, unfailingly buys eight dozen red apples for Rs 50 a kilo but cannot calculate how much he needs to pay if he bought 20 dozen. He needs you to figure it out for him, because not only is he remarkably dim, but clearly suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and needs to get a life.

3) The items India exports to Tanzania and imports from Taiwan are the same in April and May as they are during the rest of the year. Pasting specimens of those items on blank pages of scrap books is not likely to change the history/ geography/ economy of the country. Nor has the World Bank ever, ever, spent its summer waiting with bated breath for sixth graders to complete a feverishly exciting project to know whether it’s going to be a “boom” year or a “bust” one.

4) Why did Aurangzeb lay siege on the Qutub Shahi dynasty in Golconda is really no one’s business, but his. Not mine. Not yours. Not anyone’s. Especially given that it happened in 1687. Why can’t we just move on?

5) Finally, do you know why Alexander was able to overrun India during the hot and humid summer all those years ago, and add “the great” to his name after the Battle of Hydaspes? Because he didn’t have to spend four weeks doing holiday homework. So his mother allowed him to go out and have fun and he did just that.

It was the beginning of the end – of 10 months of excruciating school work and, ironically, the end of freedom during the summer break. For written in the school diary on the last day were two little words that put a knife through my celebrating heart: holiday homework. “He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom,” wrote the inimitable PG Wodehouse. That aptly described my demeanour every time the school broke off for summer vacations.

It’s been close to 40 years but the pain is still there – a little dull perhaps, but very much present. The pain of packing your clothes for the month-long trip to your grandparents’ home and keeping space for the notebooks, textbooks as well as the swimming costume and summer frocks. The solemn determination to finish all the holiday homework in the first week itself, and being free for the rest of the holidays, was always followed by the dread of finding out in the last week that you hadn’t even got through one page of good handwriting, let alone solving hapless Ashok’s domestic accounts. And the anguish of spending the entire intervening period constantly pushing aside that nagging, persistent guilt that took away so much from what should have been a carefree lap in the swimming pool or a delightful ride on the giant wheel.

But no, it was as though a voice inside your head would be constantly needling you – should you be eating that ice cream without finding out, as your geography teacher asked you to, which country is the largest producer of dairy items? How can you eat that apple so callously when poor Ashok is mentally crumbling because of it? It wasn’t that I had been the only one picked through an (un)lucky draw to be assigned holiday homework to. Everyone had to do it. But till date, I haven’t quite figured out why it affected me more deeply than the others. Especially since I was always that overzealous, over-conscientious, always-in-the-good-books kind of misguided student whom everyone hated. So why did holiday homework stir such negative emotions in me? Perhaps, it’s because I refused to have fun during the academic session, that when the school broke for vacations, and the holidays came with such a cruel rider, it almost felt like a betrayal. Et tu St Mary’s Convent? I am sure there was an answer in the deep recesses of my mind that only Sigmund Freud could have dug out, but where do you have the time to read him if you have to track the Mughal empire’s battles?

In my case, the purpose of holiday homework never really bore fruit. My handwriting today is such that I have often been offered honorary membership to the Medical Council of India. I gave up dreams of pursuing art as a career after I spent five consecutive summer vacations making 30 identical “Scene at a riverside” paintings comprising mountain peaks, sunrise, a river and a boat.

But the real killer was when about 15 years ago, my son trudged in on the last day of school before the vacation with a stricken look on his face. But before I could offer a word of deep empathy he thrust a large scrap book in my hand, and said, “Here, geography project. Everyone’s mother is doing it for them”.
It was as though Wodehouse had quietly resurrected himself to add, a tad wryly, “In a series of events, all of which had been a bit thick, this, in his opinion, achieved the maximum of thickness.”

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