Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Teacher (with a capital T)

I came across a wonderful post recently. It was in Malayalam and I felt it should be shared with people who do not understand my mother tongue. That should explain this translation attempt, one that does not do justice to the words (what's the English equivalent of thoolika?) of Deepa Nisanth, Assistant Professor at Sree Kerala Varma College. She teaches Malayalam.

* * * *

My first encounter with him was at the examination hall in the college where I was teaching. He stood up before the mandatory 30 minutes that you have to suffer, and asked for the thread to tie the answer sheets together (not that he had a lot of sheets to string together). I looked at my watch and asked him to wait for a while.

 “What will I do sitting here, I’m done with the exam. Can I leave?” His impatience and arrogance brought out the worst in me. And since I am not the fountainhead of virtue, my “teacher-ego” reared its ugly fangs. “No, not before 30 minutes,” I said. 

In my defense, I had just started my teaching career and was using the “teacher” tag to the hilt, as some of my students who bore the brunt of it would attest. I glared at him for a while after which he backed off and sat down fidgeting.

When it was 30 minutes on the clock, he stood up again and asked for his fundamental right of exit. I gave him a serious look (inwardly feeling smug over winning an academic battle) while dropping the thread into his hand. He tied the papers, handed it over, and left in a huff. My ego had won.

* * * *

After a few days, I found him seated in MY class. I had no idea that he was MY student. He had no record of an attendance in my books prior to that day. After registering his "landmark" first attendance, I admonished him “you will not have to sit for exams if things go like this”. He didn’t utter a word.

While taking the session, I noticed that he was sleeping, seated in a bench in the farthest corner of the class.My blood boiled as I watched his slumber in MY class, WHILE I WAS teaching. By the time I reached him, a nudge from a student sitting nearby had woken him up and he stared at me with his blood shot eyes.

“Done with sleeping?”

He stood up leaning against the desk, his head bowed.

“Why did you join college? Just to waste some other kid’s opportunity?” Seething anger was making it impossible for me to speak, while he stood there expressionless, looking out of the window. “Find some other place if you want to sleep; not in MY class.”

He just took his note book and left. The class was silent.

* * * * *

One day I was walking home after buying some books from Thrissur town, when my left slipper died on me. I walked into the nearest footwear shop. The boy sitting in the shop looked up at me. It was HIM.

He stood up and folded the newspaper he was reading. “Looking for footwear?”
“What type?”

I pointed at a piece kept on display. He picked it up. While trying to fit my feet into it, I asked, “Do you work here?”
“Yes, till five in the evening.”
“So, you do not go to college?”
“Aren’t the exams coming up?”
“Are you not writing them?”
“I should.”

I did not know what else to ask, so I quickly made the payment and walked out. It was awkward. I sensed that he was also getting uncomfortable with my questioning.

* * * * *

It was a night in Guruvayoor town. After idling the good part of the evening away, Nisanth (my husband) and I stepped into a store to buy something for our son. My kiddo was sleeping when we left home, and I knew he would create a ruckus when he wakes up if we do not offer him a bribe of sorts.

Again the same face! “Teacher!” he smiled and walked to us. I think it was the first time he referred to me as teacher.

“He’s my student.” I introduced him to Nisanth. He smiled and shook hands with him.
“So, did you quit working at the footwear shop in town?”
“No, I still do. I work there during the day…and here, during night.”

A pang of guilt washed over me as I remembered the day I asked him to get out of my class.

“Where’s your house?” My husband asked, and he responded.
“When will you reach home?” Nisanth had some concern in his voice.
“I don’t usually go home,” he said.
As if to get away from the “interrogation”, he asked what we wanted to purchase.
Nisanth ordered something and he went to fetch it. Seeing the pale look on my face, Nisanth asked what was wrong. “Nothing,” I shrugged.

The colourful plastic birds strung up there in the ceiling of the shop were fluttering in the wind. I was the one who stood motionless with something truly heavy sinking into my being.

* * * * *

I was sitting alone in the department one day when he walked in. He had some papers with him.
“This is my class assignment. I didn’t know that the due date was over; no one told me. No friends, so to speak, in the class.”

I looked at the the papers he handed over. He had beautiful handwriting. The assignment title was calligraphed neatly and there was even a little bit of artwork.

“Do you draw?”
“No.” He shook his head.
“Then who drew these?”
“Those are mine.”
“And you said you do not draw?”
“Oh, is that drawing?” He smiled, and that cheered me.
“How was the exam?”
“Nothing much. I will fail.” He exuded confidence.
“That’s alright. You can attempt again.” I was in no mood to let go.
He smiled again.
“Who all are there in your family?”
His smile waned.
“Everyone, means?” I was going to get to the bottom of this today.
“Younger sister.”
“Mom and dad?” I continued to maul at his wounds.
“Dad passed away when I was young.”
“She is at home.” There was an intense loathing in his voice.
“Don’t you go home?”
“Then, where do you sleep?”
“Somewhere in Guruvayoor town...after closing the shop. Once in a while I go home…whenever I feel like meeting my sister. I do not get sleep anyway, Teacher. It’s the same for me wherever I lie down,” he said with a wry smile.

This was starting to burn me. I needed to lighten the mood. “Then come to my class. Peaceful sleep guaranteed,” I said. Both of us burst out laughing, but I think he was the first one to guffaw.

It was time for my class. He said the byes, and walked away.

* * * * *

On another occasion, I was walking back to my department and I found him waiting there for me. The disheveled hair and distraught face told me something was wrong.
“What happened?”
“Teacher, I need a big favour from you. I need some money.”
I did not feel like asking for the purpose. His face was evidence enough that the need was dire. I took my purse and handed it over to him. “Here, take what you need.”
He took a few notes and handed it back.
“I will return this….might take a while….but I will.”
“Don't worry about it....Take your time.”
I stood by the department door, watching him walk away in a hurry.

* * * * *

The next time I saw him was during an examination season. “Teacher,” he called out to me as he approached. Handing over some notes that he took from his pocket, he said “returning what I took.”
“If you need it for something, keep it. You can pay me later.”

“No, Teacher, I have more money. See?” He leaned a bit to show the contents of his shirt pocket which contained a few hundred rupee notes.

“Fruits of my labor…” he said, not making an attempt to disguise the pride that came with the line. I smiled and took the cash from him.

“If I don’t give it back, it will be tough for me to ask again, should I need help. You will also find it difficult to give. I was in a really tough spot then….had to pay my sisters’ fees….had to run around a lot to arrange it.”

I nodded.

“Do you remember that time in the exam hall when you made me stay back when I wanted to run? It was also for her.”
I gave him a quizzy look.
“It was her admission day at a college….Was worried if I would be late for the train.”
“You could have told me then.”
“I did not think you would believe. I felt like killing you back then. There was so much anger in me…and I cursed you like anything that day.”

I laughed out loud.

He told me about his family. About his mom who left two kids and a bedridden dad at home to live with someone else. About her return with her companion after his dad passed away. About two kids who spent lonely nights on the cold floor of the house. About his prayers all through the night for a deluge that will destroy the house and kill his mom and her guy. 

All of this, without the faintest trace of emotion. I listened in silence forcing my tears to flow inwards, imagining the insecurity and pain of two lost childhoods.

After the outburst, he stood in silence for some time, while I struggled to find words.

“I’ll leave, Teacher.”
“Are you not writing your exams?”
“No. I will fail.”
“Fail, it is alright to fail….but you should Write and fail.” I said.
He looked at me for a bit, before nodding a yes.

* * * * *

Met him after 3 years, yesterday! I was talking to my little one when I saw him park his bike outside my house. What a surprise!

“Teacher, you should have the courtesy to tell people when you change your contact number.” He was looking happy and chirpy.

“Where are you these days? What are you doing now?” I had a hundred questions.

He spoke about his job at length. And then, he looked at my daughter. “I came to know that you had a baby girl. I had gone to college once, but you were on leave.” He took a toffee from his pocket and handed it over to her. She took it, but flipped and ran away when he tried to lift her up.

“Where is your son?”
“He’s not here now…out with his dad.”

He was ecstatic when he spoke about his sister. She was getting married soon. He mentioned everything happening in his life, but left out one word - mother. And knowing how much it bothered him, I was wise enough to not bring it up.

“Teacher, you have started greying!” He had discovered that lone deviant strand of grey hair that peeked out from my forehead.
“Must be because I’m growing old.”
“Ah, ok. Teacher, when will you retire?”
“I think I have another twenty - twenty five years to go.”
“By that time, all those strands will be grey, right?”
I laughed. He does not know I have an anti-ageing shield in my vocation.

I had never seen him so happy, and I prayed that it stayed that way forever. My mom brought some tea and we exchanged pleasantries for a while.
“I will get going, teacher,” he said while handing over a cover to me.
“What’s in this?” I asked while taking it.
“I bought this for you. Please open it only after I leave. Otherwise, you will make fun of me.”
He waved while starting his bike. I opened the cover. A golden yellow saari and a book – Nooru Simhaasanangal (One Hundred Thrones) by Jayamohan. I had read that book before.

Inside the book, in his handwriting, was written, “To my teacher who shattered my frozen grief with laughter. I do not particularly like the word “mother.” But, sometimes, I feel like calling you that.”

Are the words becoming hazy? Are they getting smudged?

"In this little reason for a life, what matters is not the momentous's the little things... the little things" 

* * * * *

Here's the only exhibit in case you're thinking this is pure fiction.