Free From School
By Rahul Alvares
Public Domain Books
Chapter 14: Chief Guest At Belgaum
A year had gone by since I had finished school and what an exciting year it had been. Having to go to college now seemed quite tame in comparison. But as I busied myself with filling up the admission forms and getting the ID card photographs ready another surprise awaited me, and it came from a totally unexpected place.
I was invited to be Chief Guest at an Environment Day function to be held in Belgaum on 5th June, World Environment Day, where I was to speak on my experiences during the past year. This was surely the crowning event of my one year sabbatical.
The invitation came from Dileep Kamat who was one of the organisers of an environment awareness programme, which he and others in Belgaum had organised for school children during the previous month. The programme included painting and essay competitions. The concluding part of the programme was to be held on 5th June where the finalists would give their speeches and the winners of all the competitions would be given their prizes.
Dileep, his wife Nilima and their son Partha are family friends of long standing and whenever Uncle Dileep comes to Goa he stays with us. As he explained, the purpose of the environment programme was to inculcate the idea that one can do things on one’s own and one has to think out ways and means for this. And so, he said, he had considered the idea of inviting a young person, whom the students could identify with, to speak on the occasion. The Committee had wholeheartedly approved when he suggested my name as I had done something quite unique during the past year; and the fact that my preference was in the field of ecology made me an ideal choice, according to Uncle Dileep.
Of course I was delighted and accepted the offer. Who wouldn’t be? Uncle Dileep said that all my expenses would be taken care of. I had an uncle (my father’s youngest brother, Benjamin) at Belgaum, at whose house I could stay. There was only my bus ticket which the organisers had to pay for.
I started preparing my speech straightway as there was only a week left to go and I knew that I had do a good job as this was a big occasion for me. As usual I turned to my mum for help. She helped me choose the points I would speak on, then I wrote out my entire speech which she corrected and I set about memorising it.
Public speaking was not a major problem for me nor did I suffer from stage-fright as I had participated in several school competitions and also represented my school in inter-school debates. In fact, I had been awarded the Best Speaker prize in my final year at school. Still, speaking at a competition was one thing and being the main speaker for the day was quite another.
My mum gave me several tips on how to address the gathering, what I should do if I felt I could not remember the next line and so on. I rehearsed the speech several times at home and when I left on 3rd June for Belgaum I felt quite confident and well-prepared.
Along with essentials like clothes to wear, etc. I carried with me in my haversack my red-eared turtle, and another small turtle found locally in Goa, the croc teeth and photos of myself at the Snake Park, the Croc Bank, etc.
I arrived in Belgaum on 4th June and was met at the bus stand by my cousin Lucano who took me straight to his home. That evening Uncle Dileep came to our house, briefed me about the next day’s programme and when he left he took with him the photos which he said he would put up on exhibition at the hall.
The next day Lucano took me to the venue at 3 p.m. The function was held in the school hall. There were children from several schools already there along with their parents. I noticed my photos put up on a cardboard on one side of the hall. My uncle Benjamin and aunt Grace and my other cousins also came for the function which began at 4 p.m. The hall was quite full when I entered. I was seated in front with my cousin Lucano next to me.
The programme was compered by one of the students. It began with the prize winners of the elocution competition delivering their speeches-one in English and the others in Marathi and Kannada. Then one of the students introduced me to the audience and I was called up to the stage to deliver my speech. I spoke in English and initially had to halt every little while for Uncle Dileep to translate what I had said into Kannada. Fortunately, however, after a few rounds of this English-Kannada speech it became obvious that the audience did not need the Kannada translation since they all understood English quite well. Then it became easier for me to continue and I finished with great confidence and was roundly applauded.
As I had done in the workshops I had conducted in the Bangalore schools earlier, I then took out the red eared turtle which I carried around for the audience to see at close quarters while my cousin took around a local turtle which those who wanted could handle. There were many students and parents who wanted to be photographed holding the turtles. I also showed the croc teeth to those who were interested.
The compere then announced that they would like to get on with the rest of the programme, but in view of the fact that several students wanted to ask questions, a question-answer session would be held, after the programme of skits was over. I returned to my seat and watched the skits which were on the theme of ecology.
After that was the prize distribution ceremony and I was called up to the stage to hand out prizes to the winners of the various competitions (elocution, as well as dramatics and drawing which were held earlier).
After this, the organisers allowed questions from the audience which I answered on the spot. I was quite happy to find that the audience had heard me attentively for there were many questions both from students and adults. Most of these concerned information about snakes. From this I gathered that snakes not only frighten people but fascinate them as well. The function ended at around 6.30 p.m. Before departing, the organizers gave me an envelope containing Rs.300 which more than amply covered my expenses for the trip.
Uncle Dileep invited Lucano and myself for dinner that night. On seeing that he had an interest in keeping the small turtle, I happily left it behind for him. Next morning I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of the local Kannada papers had reported the previous day’s function and there was a photograph of me at the function and a report on it as well. I was thrilled beyond words.
Later I wrote an article on my one year sabbatical for the Hindustan Times which appeared on the Youth Page together with a couple of photographs and was pleased when my parents told me that several of their friends had read it and had complimented them and me for this bold and unusual step of taking a break from studies. The same article was eventually carried by several other newspapers and magazines including The Utusan Konsumer in Malaysia.
In my speech at Belgaum, in the workshops I had conducted at Bangalore for the school students and in the article I wrote I always recommended at the end of my presentation that every student ask their parents for a break from regular studies when they finished school as it is something they would never regret.
And I wish to repeat here, at the end of my book, that June 1995 to June 1996 was the most wonderful year that I can ever remember. I learnt a lot, not only about the things I wanted to learn, but about many other things as well. And best of all I had a lot of fun and a whole lot of freedom to do all that I ever wanted to do. I certainly look forward to another sabbatical! And so, by now, should you!