A Class III student of Loreto House was warned by her class teacher that if her schoolbag weighed more than one kg, she would be sent back home with it. 'Tell your mummy to buy you a small bag,' she was told, in keeping with the new and improved system of lighter loads for the little ones.
So off the seven-year-old went shopping the next day for the start of the new school year. Small the bag may be, but it must be a fashion statement too, an assertion of her individuality in an educational environment where uniformity is synonymous with discipline.
Jangling key chains, stickers, colourful threads and other accessories cover this youngster's pink Barbie bag now, like many others. Inside the bag, apart from books, is a two-tiered pencil box with secret compartments to store pocket money. (Some Barbie pencil boxes are even equipped with a mirror and comb!)
A walk-through any shop that sells school items ' stationery to schoolbags ' is a study in marketing madness. For boys or girls, toddlers or teens, mundane school items from tiffin boxes to water bottles, pencils to their cases have now become status symbols and style statements.
Every character and show on channels like Cartoon Network, Pogo and Disney is represented, Pok'mon to Powerpuff Girls. At Landmark, the Back to School section is doing brisk business. A popular item is the trolley bag ' yes, a backpack on wheels to be taken to class. According to floor manager Manoj Mishra, around 20 such bags are sold per day now.
Among pencil cases, the boys prefer the Superman ones with the in-built pinball-type game. There are others in the shape of cars and trucks.
'Every year we add new designs, depending on what TV shows, cartoons, etc are popular. There are so many varieties that we can't keep tabs on what come and go. But the children know exactly what they want. These days, the kids tell their parents what to buy,' adds Mishra.
When a Class V student of La Martiniere for Girls picked a trolley bag for herself, her parents were initially jolted at the idea of their child taking 'something akin to a suitcase' to school. But they were soon convinced about the merits of the books-on-wheels concept as it eased her complaints of backache.
The cause of suffering, says doctor Susmita Choudhury, is 'chronic muscle spasms'. The clinical director, paediatrics, Bhagirathi Neotia Woman and Childcare Centre, adds that carrying heavy bags can lead to postural deformity. Back, knee and shoulder aches, giddiness and nausea due to neck ache, eye problems and fatigue are other common complaints due to the chronic degenerative process.
'A schoolbag is a significant item in a child's life, and it has long-term bio-psycho-social influences,' explains Sumit Dutta, a psychologist attached with St Mary's Orphanage, Dum Dum.
The younger lot still bears the biggest burden. 'The CBSE Board keeps saying that the load must be made lighter, but new subjects are added every year,' points out Anindita Chatterjee, principal of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
Reeta Chatterjee, principal of Apeejay School, Park Street, though, asserts that the system is changing to ease the burden. But still, it's the younger ones who carry heavier bags.
Hear it from GenX. 'The Class V or VI students have the heaviest bags, because they ' or their parents ' feel they have to carry all their books every day. But in the higher classes, we often share books, or use them from the library. My sister is in Class XII, Loreto House, but she has the lightest bag,' says Tanmoy Das Lala, a Class X student of St Xavier's Collegiate School.
Stuti Agarwal, who has just finished her Class XII Board exams, looks back at two of her lightest years in school. 'Once I got to Class XI, I started carrying the least amount of books,' she smiles.
But heavy bags seem to be the least of the children's school problems, observes Brendan McCarthaigh, CEO of the NGO Serve. 'There's too much brouhaha about schoolbags, but actually, the children seem to love them. The value system has gone haywire, so that even stationery items are used to show off,' he rues.
Anindita Chatterjee of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan takes a different line. 'Coming to school must be fun, it shouldn't be like a confinement for the children' This trend of carrying fancy schoolbags is good for the children ' at least it makes school interesting for them.'
So, up to Class VI, her school has introduced special bags for the children with Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters. 'They are not compulsory, parents can buy them if they want,' clarifies Chatterjee.
Cartoon characters are clearly the craze, confirms the Ballygunge couple whose elder got home the trolley bag and whose two-year-old son has just been bought two bags with Bugs Bunny and Co. on them to make his first school experience more enjoyable.
'It's actually the gadgets, like mobile phones, that matter most to the kids. And some of the bags even have pockets for them,' observes Reeta Chatterjee of Apeejay.
As with any fashion accessory, the styles change among the different age groups. 'I used to change my bag every few months, depending on what the style was. After Hum Tum was released, the side-sling bags were very popular. So I bought one of those,' says Stuti, who makes quite a personal statement with her bag, dressing it up with accessories like key chains ' 'they are favourites, because they make a musical sound when you walk' ' stickers and coloured threads.
Tanmoy's bag is an all-purpose backpack, but not of the ordinary kind. It has innumerable pockets, zips and other compartments. His sister's bag is, of course, a side-sling.
Amongst the older teens, less is more, at least in terms of load. 'I have eight different bags for different purposes,' admits Sourendra Kumar Das, a Class XI student of Salt Lake CA School. 'One for regular classes, one for exams, and a different bag for each subject tuition. It is easier to handle the many books. The bags are all side-slings. They are funky and fashionable, but also simple and artistic.'
Decorated with his doodles, scribbles, pictures and quotes, the bags are an assertion of his individuality. But the ubiquitous schoolbag is no gender bender. 'Bags seem to be a fashion with the girls in my school. Each one is different, and they're more like vanity handbags rather than something to carry books in,' Sourendra shrugs.
• Big size
• Cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Superman
• Trolley bags
• Bright colours
• Smaller size
• Brands like Nike, Adidas, Giordano
• Pencil/pen cases
• Key chains
• Coloured threads