Notes from an imperfectly remembered past
This is my attempt at using Women’s day as an excuse to reminisce about some women teachers who in one way or another left some trace that persists in my adult memory, especially when I listen to the child that speaks to me in my head and tells me to make a record, to write these reminiscences down, before I grow too old or too tired or too busy to listen to him. I don’t think I will stop listening to him, though.
Meenu ma’am. I stand in the second row from the front.
Outside of home, where my mother and my sister reign supreme, I have learnt from women in many ways. Memories have a habit of fading away, or failing that, reshaping themselves in our minds every time we recall them. My recollections, therefore, are probably coloured by the present, but I will stick to the story that I like to tell myself, and most of it is true, though I may miss or mix a detail or two. It is my nursery teacher, Meenu ma’am, that I remember as the first school teacher I have any memory of. She really liked my handwriting, I’m told by my mother. Then, in first standard, there was Shukla ma’am whom I distinctly remember asking me after the morning assembly, on a Vasant Panchami, “Are you a Bengali?” I said yes. I did not understand the question but I was too timid or perhaps too embarrassed to admit that. I guess I said ‘yes’ because she seemed to guess I was a Bengali, and since I didn’t know any better than my teacher, I must be a Bengali. Besides, I figured saying ‘no’ might provoke further questions that I wouldn’t know how to answer. I came back home that day and, over lunch, asked my mother, “Ma, what is a Bengali?” She laughed. She asked me why I asked her that. I told her about the question my teacher asked. My mother said my teacher must have assumed I was a Bengali because I carried this yellow handkerchief with me to school which my mother gave me every year on Vasant Panchami. She also told me that people from Bengal are Bengalis and that I am from the Kumaon hills and that I could call myself a Pahari. That was my first lesson in an identity of that kind. That said, I don’t think I went back to correct Shukla ma’am’s impression that I was a Bengali.
In my second standard, my class teacher was Pant ma’am. I remember her as this fairly strict lady who always wanted me to do better than I did. She used to think my handwriting had worsened as I moved up from one class to another. I do not know if that was the case and unfortunately I do not have any of my notebooks from that time to go back and check. I wish I had preserved those childhood notebooks, just to look at the things I wrote, and the shapes that I made on paper. Then in third standard there was an even stricter lady, another Shukla ma’am, who gave me a really hard time but she meant well. She seemed to complain that I was slipping from my ‘first rank’ in class. In any case, I think I stood third in that class. I wonder why everyone was so insistent about those things. It bothered me and perhaps also conditioned me into thinking that it was my sacred duty to stand first in class. Although I remember my mother telling me not to worry about those things, even as she was strict about when I should study and when I should go out and play. Instinctively, I knew she wouldn’t love me any less even if I messed up things, which I often did.
Fifth standard was defined by an old lady teacher, Mrs. Mukherjee, who was a Bengali and who was really, really strict. She taught math and science and she came to like me in due course of time when I did well in those papers. Everyone in class was petrified of her, even I was. But it was fun to hear her break into Hindi once in a while when she was angry at some kid who did not follow her reprimand in English. Then there was Rimjhim Pandey ma’am, who taught English literature in sixth standard. She was incredibly nice to everyone, and her name made me think of rains, and I like rains, so perhaps I associated the image of falling raindrops with her. There was Asthana ma’am in seventh standard who used to think I had a problem because I apparently wore this really brooding and glum appearance and I never seemed to smile. She once made me write on the blackboard, during a grammar lesson on ‘former’ and ‘latter’, something like, “Ravi and Ma’am Asthana are friends. The former never laughs and the latter always smiles.” I was embarrassed. I didn’t know what to do but smile sheepishly and meekly suggest that I did smile, that I did laugh. My friend, Kundan, helpfully chipped in with, “Ma’am, it’s not his fault, his face is like that only.” Everyone burst into laughter, including me. I don’t have any grudges against him, though, for another random memory that comes to mind is of this one time, during the Hindi class, when I got Dayal ma’am, who was this ferocious Hindi teacher, to reprimand Kundan for some mischief that I had done. He got punished for it, and I had the laughs.
There was Chowdhary ma’am who taught History and Civics and who always mispronounced my second name. I never bothered to correct her, though. Her classes were somehow fun to attend for she had, I think, this knack for a narrative style of lecturing, almost like story-telling. A biology teacher, I think her name was Sadhana Singh, also comes to mind. She used to make us do these botany practicals of sorts, a particular one that I remember being one that involved dissecting a hibiscus flower (“China rose”, I called it) to examine its petals, sepals, the stigma-style-stamen, etc. In fact, I remember stealing that flower from someone’s garden early in the morning that day, along with my partner-in-crime, Kundan, because we really needed the flower for the class and didn’t know where to find it. I am not sure why but it didn’t occur to us to go ask the owner if we could take the flowers. Another thing I remember the biology classes for were the prizes she used to give away for doing well in her tests. I earned a Cadbury Temptations once.
I could go on reminiscing but I think I should stop, and sleep. It’s a rather disjointed recollection, this one, but that is how my memories are — a patchwork of moments I remember for no particularly profound reason, except that the child in me wants to tell these stories every now and then, and I must listen to him when he speaks, and sometimes write them down too. I hope he is happy.