I pen this piece on Ms Damayanti, my English teacher in school. An unobtrusive personality who deserved recognition, but never really looked for it and never evaluated her own worth.
Why do I write about her? Because Ms Damayanti was an ordinary lady with extraordinary teaching skills that had a strong bearing on my English education in my formative years. I comprehended her teaching strength much later, by which time, regrettably, I had lost touch with her.
I realised Ms Damayanti’s infinite contribution to my language prowess only after I went for higher studies and had to use English extensively. I think of her often enough and thank God for her advent into my life at the time.
English is not my mother tongue. The first language that I spoke in was Bengali (one of the many languages spoken in India). But today, I am most comfortable with English, in reading, in writing as well as in thinking. Although I do think in Bengali at times, but English is always the dominant language. In a home where members primarily spoke in Bengali, how really did this happen?
Firstly, let me tell you what Ms Damayanti was like. A typical South Indian lady, in all probability from Chennai, who wore a white sari with some innocuous border, carrying a large, nondescript black bag and who hardly ever smiled. She was short, dark and was least bothered about her appearance. Her hair was tied in a careless bun which allowed most of her curly hair to escape and bounce around her face. The smattering of grey in the hair added to her years and I really don’t know how old she was at the time. I don’t even know if she was married because we addressed all teachers as ‘Miss’ or ‘Ma’m’.
Even her English pronunciation was far from perfect. She spoke English with a heavy accent and didn’t have a voice audible enough to reach the last benches of our class.
Ms Damayanti had little patience with the girls, generally. Her class was usually after our recess. Many a times we used to crowd around her when she took up our homework notebooks, one by one. At the time, quite often, not so pleasant a smell emanating from someone in the crowd of girls would reach her quickly. She was very averse to such air pollution and would immediately pinch her small, thick nose and glare at us. She would place her thumb on the forehead of each of the girls standing close to her and start pushing them back. ‘बच्चा लोग (children) go back, go back’!
Secondly, I don’t remember much about Ms Damayanti’s teaching style, but she was never impatient while teaching. I was very attentive in her class and took a lot of interest in learning English. Our class was on the first floor and I used to sit at the desk next to the window, overlooking the road. Surprisingly, the noise of the steady traffic never bothered me when I was in her class.
She used to insist on our using ‘Wren and Martin’ for our grammar and there was no escape. Because of her I had memorised almost the entire book! And because of her my English grammar gave me a solid foundation for mastering the language. I started enjoying learning English and made sure I finished all my homework as correctly as possible.
She taught us new words all the time and made us use them in sentences. We were to carry a dictionary with us to the class. A habit that stayed with me for very many years.
My most significant memory of Ms Damayanti is her objectivity. She had no favourites in class. Each student was as important to her as any other. Marks were accorded strictly by merit. She was forever correcting us and was never tired of referring to ‘Wren and Martin’ when she was teaching.
‘Wren and Martin’ was a hard bound book and its cover was red with the print in black letters. My dictionary had a red cover and print in black, too. Since then, these two hard bound red covers are vividly etched in my mind. As is Ms Damayanti, a teacher par excellence.
Thirdly, Ms Damayanti and the red book, ‘Wren and Martin’, made my English what it is today. It forged my interest in reading English fiction and non-fiction. It initiated me into a world of words which stood me in good stead over the years.
As many people in my life, whose value I grew to understand much later in my life, has left me with regrets that are difficult to come to terms with. Sometimes, when I reminisce my school days, Ms Damayanti looms upon me, larger than life.
A harsh world which judges a person by appearance, my English teacher lagged far behind and was most forgettable in her unkempt state of attire. And there was nothing to write about her personality. No one would even recognise her if she passed by. But I have learnt to fathom the stature of Ms Damayanti by her God gifted talent as a teacher and how she moulded me to easily master a language foreign to me. To the extent that it is my first language today.
They say ‘a teacher takes a hand, opens a mind and touches a heart’. Ms Damayanti did all of it for me, but I did not bother about her at the time. I do so today and my heart and mind are full of gratitude and reverence when I think of her. She is way beyond the times of social media, so connecting with her is next to impossible.
I keep on looking out for her in my sub conscious, just to touch her feet and do sashtang pranam (prostration of the body in obeisance at the feet), which she so rightfully deserved. A way too late, but Ms Damayanti is a cult figure in my mind and will always be. My deceptively unusual English teacher.