17 May, 2015

An English teacher who could yodel as well as she could teach

Pic clicked by a parent who'd come
to collect his kid's mobile phone
that had been confiscated :D
Facebook, for all its drawbacks, has been truly connecting old friends, class-mates, neighbours from decades ago and your favourite teachers from school. Even though it brings out the closet voyeur in me, I'm happy about the way it keeps me updated about birthdays of long-lost friends, anniversaries of ex-colleagues (last to last to last job!) and the retirement date of THE teacher you grew up loving and admiring.

She taught me English, taught me music as we prepped up for annual days & school functions. English classes were always fun - Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol remains etched in my memory mainly because she encouraged us to turn it into a "radio show". I grew up admiring her calm disposition, her effortless grace and her sartorial elegance. And if this was not enough, one fine day she left me gobsmacked and slack-jawed, when during a "free period" she picked up a classmate's guitar, sang "The Lonely Goat-Herd" from the Sound of Music and yodeled, yes - yodeled! Pitch perfect and flawless. She was there to comfort me at my father's funeral. She was there at my wedding as well, telling me I looked picture-perfect - just before I stepped into church to walk down the aisle (pulling my brother along with me - I was in a hurry to meet B at the altar, you see.)

It has been really difficult for me to choose favourites from among my school teachers - ours was a close-knit family, blessed with some of the most talented and loving teachers. But all my teachers from school would forgive me if I play favourites and choose Rachel Thomas ma'am over others - because I'm sure she is their favourite as well.
Students stopping to hug, kiss and
take blessings from Rachel ma'am

In fact, this was confirmed when this Friday, I decided to sneak out of office during lunch hour and popped in at school on the last day before it closed for summer break. Rachel ma'am had been given a farewell that morning and I managed to reach school just as the day got over. I walked right into the all-too-familiar chaos of students running around looking for their bus. I tried to contain the waves of nostalgia that swept over me, as I walked towards the main gate. And there I saw her, standing at the gate as row after row of her students streamed out, each and everyone of them, forlorn and bereft,
stopping to tell her how much they would miss her. I stood there for a while, not wanting to interrupt them. Now and then some students would take her blessings the traditional way - bending down and touching her feet. Others would simply hug her, at a loss for words. Every single one of them seemed to be personally affected by her retirement and the fact that they won't see her once they back from the summer vacation.

The students' sadness was only matched by the sombre mood of the teachers as they walked up to their Principal, telling her how much they would miss her constant guidance. I could have just stood there silently, witnessing this genuine outpouring of love and respect for Rachel ma'am if it were not for Shakuntala Ghosh ma'am - who called out to me and gave away my hiding place. (I love Shakuntala ma'am for the way she brought history to life for us - I keep telling my husband how much I regret opting for Science over Humanities.)

I teared up, seeing her as thrilled on seeing me as I was on meeting her. I think I had managed to surprise her by showing up out-of-the-blue. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that she actively keeps a tab on what's happening in my life (she's on Facebook too, you see.) She also confirmed the fact that Joey takes after me (please note, Mr.Husband.) I was not surprised when she told me that a student from the primary section broke into sobs during assembly that morning - because "Rachel ma'am was leaving and I won't ever get to see her again"!

Ma'am, I am proud to have been taught by a wonderful person like you. I am sure your kindness and love have touched many students, just like me. What you have taught us goes beyond books and what you mean to us goes beyond words. I'm happy that after 23 years of teaching, you are retiring this year, looking as young as you did a decade ago. May the good Lord bless and keep you, wherever you go. Love you.

"May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

30 January, 2015

The man from whom I learnt the word "malice"

It was from the editorial columns of the Hindustan Times that I learnt the word, "malice". It was the "Dirty Old Man of India" to be specific, who made me familiar with this word, as I read his weekly column, "With Malice Towards One & All." My sense of humour was largely shaped by his column - irreverent, dirty, deadpan and yes, malicious :)

So when Khushwant Singh, passed away last year on 20 March (celebrated as the International Day of Happiness, ironic, eh?), I realised that I had never read his most celebrated book, Train to Pakistan. It wasn't however until this year, that I finally picked it up, as part of my New Year resolution to resume devouring books at a breakneck speed (was temporarily halted in 2014 by Yohann, who made me a mother on 3 June 2014 :P)
My baby & my book :)

Published in 1956, the book is largely historical, drawing from the events related to the partition of India after independence. His book would haunt Indians and Pakistanis who would have witnessed and/ or been victims of the horrors of the holocaust, as his fictional story comes quite close to the facts. The partition was no longer just a chapter from my history textbook by the time I finished reading this heart-rending account of a village where Muslims and Sikhs had lived in harmony, as brothers for years, until 1947 - Mano Majra. It is quite probable that Khushwant Singh, who himself fled from Lahore when India & Pakistan were born, drew from a lot of his own experiences.

“In the summer of 1947, when the creation of the state of Pakistan was formally announced, ten million people—Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs—were in flight. By the time the monsoon broke, almost a million of them were dead, and all of northern India was in arms, in terror, or in hiding. The only remaining oases of peace were a scatter of little villages lost in the remote reaches of the frontier. One of these villages was Mano Majra.”

Mano Majra lived in a bubble, away from the communal politics. Khushwant elaborates, “The mullah at the mosque knows that it is time for the morning prayer. He has a quick wash, stands facing west towards Mecca and with his fingers in his ears cries in long sonorous notes,Allah-o-Akbar....The priest at the Sikh temple lies in bed till the mullah has called. Then he too gets up, draws a bucket of water from the well in the temple courtyard, pours it over himself, and intones his prayer in monotonous singsong to the sound of splashing water."

Mano Majra lived in a bubble, away from the struggle from freedom. According to a villager, “Freedom is for the educated people who fought for it. We were slaves of the English, now we will be slaves of the educated Indians—or the Pakistanis.”

I started reading Train to Pakistan expecting a political perspective of those days. But Singh expertly brings out the human element, the social standpoint of the partition. Every character in the story, has been fleshed out in detail, yet each one of them is a stereotype of the various forces that were in play and that led to the creation of two nations. I was left unsettled and pensive by the time the story ended.

Other lines from the book that have stayed with me:

“Morality is a matter of money. Poor people cannot afford to have morals. So they have religion.”

“The last to learn of gossip are the parties concerned” 

“His mind was like the delicate spring of a watch, which quivers for several hours after it has been touched.”

This Khushwant Singh is way better than the one who wrote, "The Company of Women" - a highly forgettable book, according to me.