More than 30 years ago, Paul Durai, then a carefree adolescent from a village in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, failed his Class 10 board exams. If he had to give the exams again today — particularly the science papers — Durai is confident that he would sail through.
Durai works as a school office assistant and his primary duty for the past 28 years has been to oversee the science laboratories.
“After years of setting up and observing experiments in physics, chemistry and biology, I could ace them all,” says the 48-year-old, one of three laboratory assistants at Matunga’s Don Bosco boys’ school.
Durai, who grew up amid coconut trees and sea breezes on his family’s modest coconut plantation, came upon the school job quite by chance. After his father died when he was 19, the family of four — Durai’s mother and three siblings — continued to make a living from farming.
Durai realised that if he wanted to earn more to help support his family, he would have to leave his village and seek a good job elsewhere, so he set off for Lonavala, where his paternal uncle worked as a baker at a Don Bosco school.
“I had been living with my uncle for two weeks, looking for work, when a priest from the institute asked me if I would like to work as an office boy at their school in Mumbai,” says Durai. And that’s how his new life began.
Durai lives in the school’s hostel, sharing a room with two other members of the non-teaching staff.
Over the years, his salary has risen from Rs. 275 a month to Rs. 20,000 today — just enough to support himself, his mother, his wife and their 18-year-old son, an engineering student in Kerala.
“If I had studied well and passed Class 10, I would have been eligible for the post of lab assistant and could have earned a higher salary,” says Durai. “It’s unfortunate that I can’t.”
Durai begins his day at 5.30 am, with a bath in one of the hostel bathrooms, after which he heads straight to the school office. Here, he collects the day’s newspapers and delivers them to the principal’s office, reading the headlines on the way. Breakfast — like lunch and dinner — is eaten with resident students in the hostel mess.
Then he and his colleagues start their day, cleaning the tables and floor of the school’s two laboratories and checking timetables and experiment schedules to ensure that the labs are primed and stocked for each session.
“I need about 30 minutes before and after each lab session, to clean and set up the apparatus,” says Durai. “I sometimes read the textbooks too, to understand what the experiment is about. If a boy has missed a class, I am given the duty of showing him the experiment during recess the following day. I enjoy this part of my job.”
Durai also maintains a register of apparatus that has been broken and needs to be replaced. “Students are always dropping test tubes,” he says.
His work done by 5.30 pm, Durai cleans up one last time, makes sure each window is shut, then heads out to spend his leisure time chatting with other resident staff members and reading magazines and short stories in English and Tamil.
“I miss my home, but at least I get to go home twice or thrice a year, during the vacations,” says Durai. “My family wants me to retire now, but I’d like my son to finish his studies first.”
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