Thursday, September 4, 2014

My School Teachers: Portraits in Miniature

(Written for The Teachers' Day, September 5, 2014)

By Rajesh Sharma

For days I have been rummaging my mind – its chests and cabinets, bureaus and bins, school bags, backpacks, pouches, knotted handkerchiefs, match-boxes, teeny brass caskets, rubber-headed metal inkpots, slim little corked vials of touch-me-not glass, even flyers folded into flying machines grounded like dead butterflies among spiders’ remains and lizards’ egg shells – to pull out memories long since resting, deposited and forgotten like used postage stamps and untouched coins, to blow the dust off them. I do not really know why I am doing this. It might be for ritual gratification. Perhaps it is to propitiate guilt.

Memories can be sticky, smelly things. Or they can turn into powder under the touch, like expiring bones awaiting final dissolution.

But the dust that settles on memories is gold dust. Its shimmer lends them an illusory immortality.

He tied his beard, never tucked his shirt in, taught us Punjabi, and had red eyes. ‘Do not ever take to the bottle,’ he said one late afternoon, a butter slice of the spring sun melting and sliding down his neem-green turban. We were about to leave school to go to college. ‘It has ruined me. Let it not ruin you, my children.’

That is all I remember of Master Gurmel Singh. And of the red eyes bedewed with love.

Sat Pal Master taught mathematics. A short, dark man with bulging, buttony eyes which we sometimes caught regarding us with a parrot’s wonder. His absolute precision with the kinetic geometry of physical punishment struck terror.

He tutored privately also, for money. Many boys went to his home, racing against time before the winter dawn broke. He lived in Bajwara, a nearby historical town, home – in Emperor Akbar’s day – to the legendary singer Baiju. But he also taught extra hours in school, for free. ‘Those I do not tutor privately will do better, let me tell you,’ he would warn.

Year after year he would be proved right.

Datta Sir must have been a wrestler once upon a time. His muscular arms said it. And he was happiest munching fruits and uncooked vegetables during the break. Having finished off his portion of bananas, he would ask other teachers to pass on their banana peels to him. ‘They contain many nutrients,’ we had heard him say.

Todi would sometimes take out his beating stick from the coat’s inside pocket, after the boys sent out to find a stick had returned empty-handed and smiling. He was a cool punisher: he talked – admonishing and praising with an even hand – while bringing the stick down on your palm.

The palm exploded with chilly bombs.

He shaved daily and always wore a river-blue turban. Whatever your credentials, even a minor, occasional slip would invite his severe justice.

In the streets, you knew him from the tinkle of his bicycle’s bell. Here too he was a perfectionist.

Master Beas Dev was known to wield his right hand like a dhobi’s bat. That bat landed on my back once – I was screaming through a window, the back to the door. Everybody was screaming, the teacher being on chhutti. YAAAAAAAA…what a relief!

That day, and I have never screamed.

He was like a bull dog with a bear’s paw.

Outside school, you met in his eyes a foal’s trusting innocence.

I never saw it, but he must have possessed a soft, velvet soul.

Harbans Singh Drawingiya – the diminutive fine arts teacher. Working on a canvas, he hovered so close that his moustache threatened to brush the wet surface. He had a little squint, the kind that gently fires the vanity of some self-nominated intellectuals who have looked long at ideas. Seasoned with myopia, the squint lent a strange pathos to his skull which turned at unusual angles on its perch.

He taught geometry too. When we went up, sternly commanded, to the black board to draw a figure, our minds went suddenly blank – we knew he was itching all over to thrash us. Before we could even begin, the scale would hit the bum. And a flood of mumbled curses, as often unmerited as earned, would follow and mingle in the general ridicule and laughter of the entire class. The victim would drown in shame.

A portrait of the martyr Udham Singh hung in the school entrance. Masterji used to boast it was his work.

It did not bear his signature. Perhaps the Head Master had not allowed it.

The boy who gave him, to be preserved for ever after like pickle in a funerary urn, that unforgettable, singular name, must have been fascinated by his grace.


We first saw him through this name.

The Reptile.

His face looked scaly, though it was merely oversigned by pimples, like a paper on which a teenager scribbles the dripping fruit of his discovery of the fancied bridge between signature and singularity.

His gait had poise and firmness, and a reptilian fluidity. His wardrobe bespoke of a sartorial discrimination that placed him far above the crowd of tasteless colleagues.

He was said to be a teacher of Physical Education, but he had never been seen teaching. He looked after his sprawling farm. He owned a scooter when most school teachers rode bicycles.

His heart, legend had it, had a tender pimple which bloomed at the sight of Kali Auntie, a dark spinster who entered our field of vision only during rehearsals, in the town's parade ground, for the Republic Day show. She taught in a local girls-only school. Old boys told of how older boys had serendipitously hit upon the name - Kali Auntie was the word for a black glass marble with a milky flame.

In one of the exercises, we placed our hands behind our heads and slowly bent forward, to the beat of drums, bringing our noses down to nearly touch the ground. As the noses went down, the mouths opened just enough to let out a collective Ka-a-a-a-li Aun-tie-e-e.

It rose like the murmur from a bee-hive that has been upset, on a hot and drowsy afternoon, by a naughty gang of stone-throwing school boys returning home from school.

(To be continued)