Platitudes mildly sautéed in piety usually mark Teacher’s Day celebrated today in India. In the Indian context, the teacher or guru is elevated above god because it is the teacher who opens the doors that might eventually lead to god. Or so they say. I have a view of my teachers, or at any rate those whom I can remember, that can be fairly characterized as uncharitable.
The quintessence of the Indian respect for the teacher has been inevitably captured by Kabir, the 15th century iconoclast poet-philosopher. His era was 1440-1518. Kabir said this of gurus:
To whom do I pay my respects — my Guru or Govind (Krishna)?
To my Guru it is because he led me to Govind
Mercifully, I never confronted a choice as difficult as Kabir. For one, I can think of no teachers who came anywhere close to inspiring any measure of respect, let alone pure reverence. And for another, one has never really come across Govind because one has been spared the burden of faith. At best, I was sometimes confronted with two teachers standing together outside my classroom and the question was “Which one should I avoid first?”. And the immediate answer, even before the question fully materialized, was “Both.”
Most of my teachers were eminently forgettable in that they did their thing and faded away faster than the chalk writing on the blackboard that the next teacher erased. Most of them left chalk dust of memories which causes nothing more edifying than coughing fits.
Two years ago I heralded this day by writing this:
On Teacher’s Day in India today, I want to thank all my teachers for playing absolutely no role in shaping me.
The chorus of cicadas that I hear in my left ear permanently these days is perhaps the only enduring legacy from my school days. That’s where a middle school teacher called Shukla (I do not remember his first name) slapped me when I was in the sixth grade. My transgression? I got my report card signed by my mother a day earlier than I was supposed to.
I am sure the world abounds in great and noble teachers. It is just that none of them taught me. Most of my school teachers were not necessarily bad. They were just plain forgettable, except Shukla who is still ringing in my memory. I am willing to concede that the less than happy memories of my teachers is more a reflection of who I was as a student than how they were as teachers.
People, especially in a country like India where tradition demands that teachers be practically worshipped, forget that they too have all the human frailties. Their needs are no less than yours and mine. Their motivations are no less base or selfish than ours, nor are they any more lofty. It is easy to attach improbable nobility to certain professions such as teachers or doctors when all they are really doing is living their lives the best they can like the rest of us.
This morning I saw messages of genuine gratitude that people have expressed on Facebook for the role their teachers played. Some of them speak of how their teachers molded their lives and made them better human beings. I do not mean to be an ungrateful SOB but after rummaging through my brain for more than five minutes I did not discover anything uplifting.
Apart from Shukla’s slap, another lasting memory I have of a teacher is one about Panubhai in the ninth grade. Panubhai taught us English, mainly in Gujarati. I had to reformat my brain soon after leaving high school to be able write what vaguely resembles the English language. Panubhai played no role in it.
What I remember of Panubhai is an expression on his face that forever foreshadowed a rebuke. Once he told me in his rather unpolished Gujarati: “Ala khoti chaddi pehri ne ayo chho. Chal ghare ja tu. (Hey, you are wearing wrong shorts. Go home).” Instead of the standard khadi blue shorts and white shirt that was the school uniform, I had worn a pair of shorts made from stretchable polyester material that had briefly become popular in the 1970s. I did not intend “briefly” as a pun.
Nearly 40 years after the incident, I have still not resolved how from his teacherly perch some 20 feet away, he could see my shorts. I am not even going to ask the more important question of what he was doing looking at my shorts so closely.
The last lasting memory of any teacher is my organic chemistry college professor who was blissfully unaware of the existence of the Z sound in any language. We would be particularly tickled every time he explained the composition of benzoic acid. He had this habit of stretching “ben” longer than necessary and then finishing it with “joic” inordinately emphasized. Many of us lived in the vain hope that some day his “bennnn” would conclude with what our profane minds had already concluded it with. It was logical that this professor’s zeros were jeros.
The only somewhat charming note to this otherwise rancid post about teachers is reserved for Kapila Behn, my Gujarati teacher in the ninth or tenth grade. Or may be it was the 11th. From what I remember of her she had a genteel bearing accentuated by her finely wrapped white khadi sari and cat eye glasses. I remember her as someone who was already fairly old. But then when you are in your early teens, everyone else is fairly old. She spoke in soft tones as she introduced us to great Gujarati literary works such as Saraswatichandra by Govardhanram Tripathi.
Among the impressions I recall about her was she looked as if any moment she could break into the popular song from the 1961 movie ‘Ganga Jamuna’ that went: “Insaaf ki dagar pe bachhchon dikhao chal ke.” (Children, tread the path of justice and fair play).
So that’s that about my teachers.