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.
The world has come to a grinding halt. Indians are coming to terms with sitting quiet, a characteristic quite alien to them. And me? Well, for me the last two months have taught me to ‘never say never’ as I struggle with my daily routine. Let me explain.
I am, I must admit, a person who enjoys solitude. But in some measure. This lockdown is a double whammy! Banishment with punishment. My life now revolves around looking for and identifying all the pulses, vegetables, spices, pots and pans, ladles, cutlery, kitchen cloth, wipes, vacuum cleaner, sweeping gadget, to name a few. And then keeping the apartment spic and span.
Additionally, I manage to whip something up with my new found culinary expertise and finish the rest of the chores. After all the laborious tasks, I trudge to my books, iPad and laptop. Cell phone is enjoying its own solitude as well, since my clients are resting and I have no energy left to socialise. Social distancing is really at its peak as far as I am concerned.
Talking of social distancing, I have been flooded with links of ‘free’ webinars and online meeting sessions for personal as well as professional benefits. I am spoilt for choice and pick the ones that suit my time and intellect, hoping they come in handy at some point.
But not all the hours are so nerve racking. The pandemic does have its brighter hues. I have found some quality time to read posts on Instagram, YouTube and Facebook to enjoy the writings, art and craft posts that some have uploaded. So much talent online. Outstanding creativity that I have seen in uploaded video clips, music and poetry with a soul and a fair share of Indian and international recipes.
It’s a huge stress buster for me to sit and enjoy these posts in the dead of night. In fact, a few of the uploads are so good that they take my breath away! I sincerely feel that these few authors should certainly graduate to the next level in their creative pursuits as soon as possible.
And then again, I enjoy listening to senior counsels discuss relevant legal issues lucidly, across nations. Ted Talks, web series and movies also take away a fair share of my beauty sleep. So much to catch up on!
But hey, I have not just been a good listener and viewer! I also do my bit. I have gone back to reading and writing. I realise how much I had missed them in these insane years. So many ideas and wishes have sprung up on me that they threaten to engulf me in the times of my ‘solitude and silent nights’.
Now the predicament is how do I find a balance between what I love to do and what I was doing pre-lockdown? Post lockdown, my life, I reckon, will not be able to go back to what it was. Life has always thrown challenges at me ever since I can remember, but this one is probably going to be the mother of it all.
In fact, when I start getting back into my creative groove, my love for travel should come in very handy. Also, this new found practice of managing the home front by myself has made me confident of my own ability to deal with my body and mind more deftly.
On the flipside, time on hand is also a spoiler. Deluge of memories that I have to sieve through all the time – some very poignant, drains me out emotionally. And the roads to choose from, for my onward journey, driving me away from my comfort zone, gets me edgy.
In this soulful, emotional tryst, I have found forgotten talents and lost few travails that I would have held on to, under different circumstances…
My head reels now! So much thinking is tiring. Not just for me. People across the globe must be tired. The uncertainty is killing! Hope the pandemic slackens its pace and the world is able to breathe easy at least…in another three months maybe?
Difficult times indeed. Vaccine, I understand is far away. May the opportunity to make mega bucks come quickly to researchers and pharma companies to find the right medicine for this virus. If it’s from India, even better.
My visit to Tungi happened all of a sudden, just when the winter chill was quietly setting in. I needed a break and I couldn’t have asked for a better place.
But this story is not about me or my Tungi resort. It’s about an experience that I had there, which stayed with me forever.
One afternoon, we just set out to visit the nearby villages on persistence of one villager who was very keen to show us around.
As we trudged up the uneven, unkempt lanes, it was difficult to appreciate the beauty of the place, which was actually oversold by the self professed guide.
I lost my patience soon enough and took off separately into the first village that I set my eyes on. I was greeted with loud barking of dogs, which immediately deterred my adventurous swagger. I hesitated to step up any further, when I chanced upon a small boy holding onto a couple of fairly large sized dogs, and looking curiously at me. The dogs betrayed their antecedents by barking away rather raucously and with greater gusto.
By then my prestige was at stake. I looked at the boy and stepped forward bravely, hoping he would be able to hold onto the two ferocious animals till I crossed over the stretch.
Surprisingly, God was kind and I moved into the village without further trauma. Or maybe I was destined to walk in there.
There was nothing to write home about the village. I was sorely disappointed. It was full of cow dung, dirty water milling all over the place and most huts had asbestos roofs. Since there were stacks of rice husk, the air was dusty and heavy.
I just moved up, wanting to find an exit path, when I chanced upon a small hut to my right. It looked rather out of place, neatly laid out with a wooden door having nice flowers decorated on it.
It looked so quaint and vibrant, that it lifted my mood. I started to dig out my cell phone to click some pictures. As I was rummaging my bag, my diary fell out and I tried to grab it before it fell into the dirty water. Unknowingly, I think I may not been so diplomatic with my expletives, because an old lady came out of the hut to watch the small scene being enacted in front of their habitat. Fortunately, I retrieved my diary without much damage. This time more with my acrobatic efforts than with God’s grace, I must admit.
However, back to the hut. By now I had three spectators, one dog, one small girl and the old lady. I smiled at the easiest link, the girl. She, in turn, smiled back and ran into the hut. The old lady called out for someone. I waited. I was curious to see the members who stayed in the hut.
All of a sudden, I saw an energetic, smiling young woman come out of the hut, wrapped in a bright pink sari. Her smile from ear to ear was as electrifying as was her sari. I was dazzled and absorbed this emissary of Pink in silence.
She was a tad dark and her teeth were sparkling white. The sari was immaculately worn in the nauvari style (6 yards) and sat loudly on her complexion. The घुंघट (veil) was up on the head, unruffled and majestic. But there was nothing majestic about the young woman. She was warm, kind and homely. I realised that she was the only one who spoke Hindi. Rest all spoke the local lingo.
She asked me if I wanted something. No, I said. I was certainly eager to see her hut. I didn’t have to wait. Much to my happiness she called me inside and I quickly walked in with her. I was ushered into a longish room, which doubled up for the kitchen and the living room. It was neat, clean and the utensils competed with her in their dazzle. Numerous steel utensils lay well organised on shelves. On one end stood two चुल्हा (hearth).
The hut was made of a single brick wall with an asbestos roof. There was one inner room that housed four old ladies, one floor-ridden, and the small girl. The backyard was covered and their buffaloes were kept there.
She introduced herself as Uma and then introduced me to her mother-in-law. I declined an invitation for tea but said that I would take some pictures. The two women were ever so enthusiastic. Uma went on to tie her sari in the regular style for her photo shoot!
After the photography session, Uma took me around. I saw a few more villagers, their homes and a small Shiva temple. But no one was as eye catching as Uma and no house matched her hut. Not even that of the मुखिया (Village head).
As we walked, Uma chatted. There was one man in Uma’s family, her husband, who had gone to the field and was expected back soon. She said she spent her time tending to her family. Apart from her mother-in-law, she had three more aunts to look after. One aunt was very sick and couldn’t get up. The local doctor had given up on her. The buffaloes gave milk which was used at home and was sold too.
But she didn’t want her daughter to lead this life, she said with determination. Uma wanted her daughter to study in Mumbai. She said she would take her there. Her aunt, her mother’s sister, stayed in Borivali. And Uma had her plans in place. I smiled.
A strong woman with progressive aspirations. Who would imagine that in a remote, unknown village, a woman in pink was dreaming big for her daughter? I marvelled at the tenacity of such a breed of women. They didn’t let adversity cower them down. They dreamt and the dreams flowed down to the next generation.
It was time for me to leave. As I bade her goodbye I knew I had a memory that would stay with me forever.
The picture that I share here has given me so much hope and positive energy when my chips are down, which is more often than not, I just can’t express. Uma and her happy, smiling face works like magic on me.
There’s always another day, Uma tells me from the picture.
Saloni and I met on the road on a sultry Monday morning.
There I was. Amidst chaotic, unruly vehicles at a signal, drivers impatiently waiting to move. I too wanted to move. I was getting late for a meeting and the traffic snarl did not help one wee bit. 930 am, as I impatiently looked at my watch. How on earth would I reach?
Feeling helpless, I rolled down my car window, peeping out. Blast of hot air greeted me. Honking of cars, buses, autos, shouts of hawkers and from that din, there popped up a small, piquant, smiling face.
I looked at her in utter surprise and recoiled, automatically reaching for the window button. Not to be outdone, the girl pushed her small hand through the window thrusting a bunch of flowers almost into my face. Both, me and my driver barked in unison, पीछे हटो (move back)! She did move away, but the flowers stayed. In the meanwhile, the signal turned green and we started moving. The flowers fell onto my lap and the girl started running with the car. It was scary indeed.
We turned at the crossing and she braved the traffic to reach us. With my heart in my mouth, I got out of the car. And that chance face off on the day was the start of a short journey that I traversed with this little girl, Saloni.
We connected that very instant. There was something about Saloni. Something that made a reticent person like me reach out to her every single day, sharp at 0915 in the morning, at the crossing, where she waited with her flowers. She got off work at 11 am and went to a school nearby.
She sat in the car with me for a few minutes, much to the disapproval of my driver, and talked incessantly. Her mother was a house maid and her brother worked at a garage, she told me.
Saloni loved studies, which made me start buying all her flowers, everyday, so that she could study.
My daily ritual with Saloni gradually became a habit. Apart from buying all her flowers, I also made time for her. I would get her something to eat and help her with her Maths. I used to go on a Sunday morning or on a holiday as well, to meet Saloni. To buy her flowers and for her Maths.
Saloni was quick on the grasp and concentrated easily. I decided that I would pay for her education. I told her that I wanted to meet her mother.
Life has its own queer twists and turns. And I was a victim of circumstances. Immediately after asking Saloni to call her mother, I had to travel out suddenly and I had no way of letting Saloni know.
I took the same route after almost a fortnight, at the same time to look for Saloni. I couldn’t find her. A new girl, a little older than Saloni, was at the crossing. One day, I was taking the train. So I got off the auto at the crossing, to hunt for Saloni.
Saloni was nowhere to be seen. I walked upto the other girl to check on Saloni, but she said that she didn’t know Saloni. I looked around for a known face but to no avail. It was hot and I started perspiring. Unable to take the heat and the noise, I moved off.
Despite a daily search on the spot, I couldn’t trace the girl. One day, all of a sudden I chanced upon a familiar face. A boy whom I had seen selling some small items when Saloni was around. I called him and enquired about Saloni. ‘पता नहीं (don’t know)’, he shrugged. With some cajoling and with some monetary exchange, he told me that she lived with her family in Dharavi. I took an incomplete address from the reluctant boy who clearly wasn’t interested in my queries.
On the next Sunday morning, I took off for Dharavi in search of Saloni. The address was only an indicator, as it certainly didn’t do much to the identification. It was a difficult time, locating Saloni’s place. After endless walking around, I was directed to a small, dingy room almost at the end of the colony. As I stood outside the door, hesitant to knock, a woman walked out. She was startled to see me and gave me a hard stare. ‘किसे ढूंड रहें हैं मैडम (who are you searching Madam)’? ‘Saloni’, I asked.
‘अच्छा तो आप हैं (So you are the one)’! ‘Could I meet her? Where is she?’ I could sense trouble as the woman glared at me. ‘She is married and lives in Agra’.
I have faced many losses in my life. People I have cared for, I have lost. More often than I care to remember.
But this was about a 7 year old girl whom I had taught how to dream. To take flight on her own wings. And I had promised to help her fulfil those dreams.
Standing in that heap of dungeon, I was almost in tears. I was speechless and just couldn’t believe what I had heard. In just 12 days! ‘But she is just 7’! I stuttered.
The woman spewed venom. She said I had misled her daughter and made her believe that she could run her life her own way. ‘आपके पास पैसा है आपने बोला। फिर कहाँ गये आप? (You have money so you encouraged her. Then where did you disappear)?’
She said Saloni waited for me days on end. She didn’t want to marry. She wanted to study. ‘हमारे में यह सब नहीं चलता मैडम। बार बार रिश्ते नहीं आते। (Such things don’t happen in our community. Matches don’t come again and again.)’ ‘The boy. What does he do’, I asked. He was a widower with two children. A potter by profession.
I walked away from the lane despondently. A black Sunday indeed. And I never met Saloni again, all of 7, married to a much married man.
I pen this experience of mine for two reasons.
There are many Saloni’s in India. I had a chance to save one but couldn’t. I know what failed dreams are like. I know how Saloni must have felt when she didn’t find me at the crossing, day after day. I will never be able to forgive myself for this.
Timing is everything. I didn’t reach out at the right time, even if I had the inclination, I failed Saloni. In essence, I failed myself. Have I not failed any other time? Yes I have. But here it is not about me. It is about a girl who saw the world through my eyes.
I wonder if this breach of trust was a greater letdown than the legal implications, moral obligations and checking the veracity of the mother’s statement.
But the fact is, I have never been able to come to terms with this feeling of doom.