It was in the Brownies that I first learned how to fold. Some may think that Boy Scouts and Girl Guides learn how to survive in the wilderness, and that is true, but they also learn how to be dutiful members of society. Thanks to the Brownies and to their Indian counterparts, the Bulbuls, I can tie a reef knot, save a person whose clothes have caught fire, and send signals using the Semaphore system (should I find myself stranded on a desert island without wifi and with a handy set of flags); but I can also perform other functions critical to survival in a civilized society: making a bed, tying a necktie, and folding a man’s shirt. Much as I hate to admit it, of all the above skills I have undoubtedly used this last one the most.
Our school in Greece hosted a very British Brownie troupe that was my only organized after-school activity in an era when children simply came home from school and played freely. We were divided into groups by colors and for an unexplained reason our leaders, all teachers at the school, were named after different species of owls—Grey Owl, Brown Owl, Tawny Owl, and so on. Our motto was: “I promise to do my best, to do my duty, to God and the Queen; to help other people every day, especially those at home.” Looking back, most of the skills we learned seemed to be involved with securing things, from tying our Brownie scarves, to learning the critical distinction between the reef knot and the granny knot, to executing tight hospital corners when making a bed. Perhaps my crisp folding of his shirts were intended to secure my future husband’s professional position, as well securing my status as an indispensably efficient wife.
Here’s how you do it: after buttoning all the buttons, lay the shirt out front-down on a flat surface. Fold each of the sleeves and half the shoulders carefully and symmetrically inward, toward the center of the back, and then fold each sleeve back outward again to the outer seams. Fold the bottom of the shirt, including the cuffs and tail, upward, to form a rectangle. Turn the shirt over carefully, and there you have it. (Mind you, this is harder than it sounds, and takes repeated practice before it is perfected.)
Scouting in India was extended to Indians in 1913, just before the First World War. My Aunt Kumud writes in her autobiography about learning the values of service and self-reliance as a girl scout in the 1930s, leading to her enrolment during the Quit India Movement in the Rashtra Seva Dal (founded by Sane Guruji, also known as the Konkan Gandhi), and her lifelong work as a Gandhian social worker.
As junior girls in independent India, we were not called Brownies, for obvious reasons, but Bulbuls. Incidentally, Brownies were originally called Rosebuds by Lady Baden-Powell, but apparently the girls didn’t care for the name, so instead she named them after the hard-working, domesticated elves in the popular Victorian children’s book, The Brownies, who, by the sound of them, may have been the model for the house-elves in the Harry Potter series, who are so sickeningly devoted to serving their masters that they have no desire to be free. I suppose, then, that India struck a blow for freedom in naming us after songbirds rather than house-slaves.
The only two things I can remember doing in Bulbuls were sewing badges onto our uniforms (I wonder if the badges today are iron-ons) and laying tracks in the woods. A group of us would set out, leaving various marks at forks in the trail to indicate which way we had gone, and a second group would set out a little later and attempt to find us. Someday this could be useful in helping my pursuers track me down—should I want to be found, that is.
I was too old for Scouting by the time we immigrated to the States, but when Nikhil was little we enrolled him briefly in the Cubs with a few of his friends. His neckerchief and Tiger Cub badge are still in a drawer somewhere, but the structure was rather too regimented for our tastes, and became increasingly so as the boys grew older. We parents found ourselves doing more work than the boys did, it seemed, mostly involving building extremely complicated models out of inadequate kits, following unintelligible directions. (To be fair, it was Andrew who struggled with the directions for the go-cart, while I probably made a nice cup of tea and Nikhil and his friends took off somewhere to play.) Amazingly, Nikhil had to learn to fold as well—in fact, a whole meeting was devoted to it—but now the focus seemed to be less on duty to home than on duty to nation, for rather than a man’s shirt, he had to learn how to fold the American flag.