By Rajesh Kumar Sharma
A friend, who also is a teacher, recently sent an sms: satinder singh passed away this morning.
Satinder Singh introduced me to the art of reading literature. He taught us to read patiently, to wait like birds even as reading hatched taking its own time. And he taught us to navigate literary works like wayfarers exploring the labyrinthine patterns of some Persian carpets.
I remember the day -it must have been in 1980- I first went up to Satinder Singh. As always, he was there outside the classroom well before the class began. I had been reading a poem by Tennyson and had some questions. He heard me out and asked me to see him again the following day.
'Read this book over the weekend and come back to me,' he said, handing me The Complete Poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson. I looked apprehensively at the forbidding tome but he reassured me, 'You'll read it through, I know.' And he smiled, patted my shoulder and walked into the class.
I was in the first year of my Bachelor's course and full of doubts, including those about my ability. But he seemed to know his students better than we knew ourselves. He believed in us and made us believe in ourselves as if by magic. He was the only one who used Goethe, Kierkegaard, TS Eliot, e e cummings, Stephen Spender, Milton and Voltaire in composition and translation classes. He would often stay with a word or line for a whole hour, mining and polishing its gold. At times, he would spend days on a short passage. He taught, and taught us to read, unhurriedly.
It so happened once that he had to share a course with another teacher. He taught Julius Caesar, while she did poetry. She sliced her way through poems at such a pace that she often ended up finishing off three poems in forty minutes. 'A teacher's test is how long his cupped hands can hold water,' he had once remarked. He was so right, I realized.
After one of his brightest students did his Master's with a gold medal, he said, 'I want you to be a teacher. Because you are one of the best.'
His house overflowed with books just as he did with kindness, affection and modesty. Such men are lonely seekers of wisdom. Several among his colleagues secretly envied him, often letting the envy show itself, in unguarded moments, as scorn. They bought shares and land and enlarged their houses, while he quietly laboured to enlarge his library and mind.
When I went to Panjab University to continue my Master's, he was probably the happiest among my teachers at Government College, Hoshiarpur. 'We've given you whatever we could. Now you need more. Learn and grow.'
I last met him some fifteen years ago. He asked me, 'Do you still read books? Or have you stopped reading?'