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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Letter from an old boy

Below is an email I received from an old boy who had been in my class nearly a decade and a half ago. With his permission, I am reproducing it here just as he wrote it, with only his name withheld. I love to get letters like this, if only because they tell me that I did leave strong memories behind on thoughtful and sensitive minds. The contrast with a lot of people who gushed when they were in my class and have now fallen entirely out of touch could not be starker.

Dear Mr. Chatterjee,

I stumbled upon the story of the monk carrying a wet beauty across the river, in your blog some time ago, and it brought back a dash of memories. Yes, I do follow your blog closely, albeit anonymously (I can almost hear the lusty ‘boo’ that you just sounded out in your head), enjoy doing so as it makes for excellent reading, have often considered writing to you apropos the same, and then shelved the idea. Not least because I feared it might get lost as just one more hosanna sung by yet another awestruck ex-student from your Tendulkaresque fan following. J
But the sudden flashback made me realize that this letter might just turn out differently, given that I was neither one of your favourites nor one of the sycophantic hangers-on (Please do excuse my somewhat uncharitable choice of words. It’s not a blanket verdict.), who were always glued to your table in the Xavier’s library for reasons other than a love for books, and because not all of my memories associated with you drip of milk and honey.
So here goes, dear Sir, the story of a superbly charismatic teacher and his ‘uncommunicative’ student, the way I lived it.

My first memory of you goes back to my early impressionable years in St. Xavier’s (I must have been about 9 or 10 at the time) when the school souvenir was published. It carried an article of yours which ended with a prayer; that the school  be forever spared from ‘Father Time’s ruthless scythe……’; the words have stayed with me for almost 18 years now, and I remember wishing, as a young boy who loved the English language with a rare passion, that one day I grow up to be able to write the way you do. Well, grown up I have, write like you, I can’t, but it has been a worthwhile pursuit all this while and will continue to be so.
I do remember running into you a few times in the library during 5th, 6th and 7th grades, ever so briefly. I loved reading books but the solemnly heavy, disciplined air of the library was a tad overwhelming, not to mention the possibility of ending up on the wrong side of the librarian’s legendary temper. So my visits to the library would be few and far between, more like short, fast reconnaissance missions, probing the place to see if it held a reward commensurate with the risk. I remember the strong smell of cigarettes, the sweet scent of old books, and the fact that while you were in charge, you loved the place with a fierce sense on ownership, as only a true aficionado could. Nevertheless, it was a fortress of sorts and I kept my distance.
And then one day our Physics teacher called in sick and you stepped in to fill the void.  It was brilliant. Because suddenly, paying attention was not painful any more. I sat there, riveted, to words that came out eloquently in a perfectly neutralized accent, without a stutter, woven effortlessly into strands that made all the sense in the world. Physics had never been a bad boy, but that day, it was a walk in the clouds, it was fun, and felt like an old friend. And to think that throughout those 40 minutes, you never felt the need for a piece of chalk or paper. I also realized with some satisfaction that I am not a habitually bad listener, just happen to have choosy ears.
I do not remember if that class had anything to do with it, but I started frequenting the library a bit more after that. And one day, ran into a wall of bullets. I went to return a book a day too late, and while explaining the same to you, ended up saying ‘tomorrow’ instead of ‘yesterday’ without realizing it of course, only to have you snap back with “TOMORROW has not come yet. What are you trying to say?” Sensing trouble, I repeated myself but this time, correctly. Fell flat. “Then why did you say ‘TOMORROW’? Did you or did you not? ” Unsettled, I barely squeaked a reply in the negative when the heavens burst asunder. “Are you trying to say that I am a LIAR? First you come to return a book late and then you have the cheek to call me a LIAR?” Words were flying past my ears now like gunshots and I, quaking in my boots, thought through a haze of shock, surprise and fear, “Is the man out of his mind? I am half his size, am just a pupil with my heart in my mouth here while he is a teacher with all the power in the world to make the rest of my tenure here absolutely miserable. Why on earth would I ever dare to say or suggest anything like that?” Struggling to retain composure, I quickly apologized. That visibly calmed you down, and the onslaught ended with a parting “That should have come in the first place. Keep the book back in its place.”
Once outside, I promised myself, never ever again. Borrowing books was just too dangerous.  It was the most unfortunate experience I had ever had with a teacher other than the time when the Late Rev. Albert Wautier whipped my backside blue (he had caught me and a friend boxing during the recess) and a most forgettable episode involving a trigger-happy, brutal oaf whose name I will not disclose here.
So when the first day of Class X came around and I found myself in 10A, I lost no time in muscling my way to the last bench and promised myself that over the next year I would maintain a kind of discreteness a Mossad agent would be proud of, would never open my mouth unless it was absolutely necessary, would not wear a wrist-watch in class, kill myself before I yawned, keep my nose to the grind and of course, listen like I had never listened before.


The next eight months were just fantastic. I remember waiting eagerly for the English lessons at the start of each day, and even more so for those priceless moments when you would digress slightly and wade into a delightful little anecdote or tell us about the lives of great dictators, painters, scientists, engineers, of warriors, poets and warrior -poets, stories of wealth, tyranny and conquest, about Cortes and Pizarro, Churchill and Himmler, and so on. It helped that you were easily the most charismatic teacher around, had the kind of diction like you do and blissfully for me, during those forty blessed minutes every day, acing exams was put firmly in its place and life was good. My initial apprehensions too faded away over time although I kept my guard up, being the burnt, wary child I was. I did badly want to talk to you after class on many an occasion and get to know you a little better but then there was always that impenetrable crowd of your fans to be dealt with. And I have never been very good at working my way past crowds. Please do not be offended. Some of those who flocked around you were indeed smart, gifted young people who always knew what they were doing. It was the presence of the sycophantic rabble of yes-men that put me off and kept me away. I did realize that I was the one missing out but then it ensured that I became an absolute sponge in class.
Things were no different when the time came for us to collect autographs and say our goodbyes. There was hardly any breathing space around your table and from the back I could hear you complain, “Ami aar parchi naa. Ekta baani-generator hole bhalo hoto. Ghuriye jetaam aar shundor shundor kotha beriye ashto.” I feared that when my turn would eventually arrive you would be at a loss. But then the expected never happens, does it? You almost snatched the diary right out of my hands and your pen sprinted across the page without pausing for so much as a moment.
My schoolbag and with it that diary were stolen that very day but I do remember some of the words that you wrote for me:
“….You were so uncommunicative that I could never really know whether you liked being in my class or not. But I enjoyed having you there and hope you felt the same way…..”
Those words prompted me to go right back and tell you why I had behaved the way I had and more importantly to let you know that the months spent under your tutelage had been nothing short of an absolute delight, a beacon of knowledge and sense amidst a mad scramble for marks and one-upmanship. Understandably, you found it incredible that I had carried all that baggage around for such a long time and as a parting cure, told me the story about the Buddhist Monk who scandalized the wits out of his pupil by carrying the beautiful damsel in distress across the river on his shoulders.

I hope to remain, 
Sincerely yours,

PS: If any portion of this mail, especially where I have used uncharitable language to describe some of my schoolmates, has offended or hurt you in any way, or if the sheer length of it has by now got on your nerves, it's not what I intended and I proffer my sincerest apologies. 


Sayan Datta said...

That was a delightful read, Sir. Clear, precise and engaging narration - it brought back a wealth of memories. To a great extent I can relate with the writer, but perhaps that is because I have been an introverted person all along and have had very similar experiences in your classes.
For now, Sir, I will mention only a few things. First is (though I have said this before, I see no reason not to say it again) - in all my 11 years in Xavier's, I absolutely disliked school. A decade is not a very long time, and yet, I don't have much reminisces of most of my early years there. Perhaps I have deliberately chosen to forget them. Yet, I don't think that my entire school life was meaninglessly wasted away. I feel now, as I felt then, that those two enchanting years made all the eleven years seem worthwhile. I can very well see the kind of a person I would have been had I not been in your tutelage. Perhaps it was fate that I was in your section. I am Sir, like countless others, indebted to you beyond measure.
Do you remember, Sir, that the other day you were telling Rashmi about how I used to sit quietly in one corner of the classroom and how you never knew that you had an avid listener? Let me tell you - even I hadn't known until then that listening could be so easy. Some students loved you, some disliked you, but it was absolutely impossible to ignore you. You used to speak with so much force and conviction and wit and so often you interlaced serious thought with humour that I am willing to bet that you got all of us (even the ones who disliked you) thinking. Some of us were honest enough to admit that we had indeed been blind for most of our lives. Those who weren't sought solace in speaking ill about you.
However, unlike the writer, I was never really frightened by your temper. There was this intellectual aura around you and I felt so little in comparison that I never found the nerve to approach you. It was only after I approached you much later and got to know you much more closely and personally that I discovered that you are as delightful a person as you are a teacher. I still remember the warmth with which you received me even after so many years.
Sir, you once told me that 'If you have to teach Latin to Jack, you must love Jack as well as Latin.' You Sir, have loved both. You are, Sir, the only real teacher I have ever known.
The writer of that letter might have his own reasons not to write on your blog. I, for one, however, wish that he writes a lots more. I am sure that he will be a wonderful person for all of us to know.
Sayan Datta

Anand Tiwari said...

Superb! Hats off to both the teacher and his equally sensitive, illustrious student. I did not have the privilege to be taught by Suvro da but I do get a sense of what I missed out at Xaviers by passing out in 1987.

Thanks for publishing this letter and a bigger thanks to the gentleman who wrote it. You are indeed a worthy pupil of a great teacher.

I think the trip to Durgapur with the sole objective of sitting in your class has now made it to my list of things to do before I die.

Shilpi said...

This is a lovely read. I'm thinking the boy may have used "the Libran librarian's legendary flashes of flame...."

I can quite see you barking out, "Tomorrow?"...and then immediately calming down upon the apology.

So smoking was permitted back in the day - in the library no less? Makes me say a quiet 'whoa'. I've heard that it was permissible in the classes here - while teaching and all.

The 'Baani generator' bit makes me laugh....that bit is priceless. Even more priceless is that the boy has preserved the memory...all the things that we remember. I am gradually grinning widely. For I too slowly remember or am made to remember the important ones.

I think I now have connected the memory wires. On the one day that I did attend your evening class - it was an example of 'forgiveness' that you were sharing with us. Not the difference between 'regret' and 'being sorry'. I made a mistake while elaborating on the same in my haste while chatting with Pupu...for she had asked me, "Tomaar baba-r class bhalo laage ni?!

Thank you for this post.../letter.

Regards and love,

Nishant Kamath said...

Wow! That was very well written. And it seemed very candid and straight out of the heart.

The description of the library (with you in it) and that of the classes brought back some of my memories (some of the descriptions you'd given us of the Rialto and of the tomfoolery of Launcelot Gobbo, of the court-room scene, to name just a few). And a small incident regarding the lines you used to write on our slam-books: Maal Sir (of all people) told us, with amazement in his voice, during a class-break once (during my 11-12 of course) that you had something different and specific to write for each student every year!

I can't be a judge of this, Sir, but I think, from reading the letter, you might have gotten more in control of your temper when I was in your class. I can't think of anyone in my batch who was scared of you because of your temper.


Sunup said...

A decade and a half ago -- so this would be around the same time frame when I too was your student. I can see a lot of me in him too. And about your temper -- I must say I really haven't seen or experienced your temper much. I just remember a single instance when you were irritated with the class and just walked out. No flared nostrils, no reddening of the face, no angry words, nothing of that sort. You just got up, swinging your grey full sleeved sweaters over one of your shoulders, and walked off in your grey Power sneakers. Just seems like yesterday though.

Love & regards

Sayan Datta said...

From what I remember, whenever you became angry with the class you used to walk out briskly and go to the library. Probably it (the library) helped you remain sane in an increasingly frustrating environment.
Sayan Datta

Amit parag said...

Brilliant, I loved bit of the letter.

Words of great teachers are like lighthouses, navigating regardless of proximity or remoteness, but guiding always. A great leader might free people from physical slavery but a teacher can lift the mind out of spiritual and intellectual quicksand.

Debotosh Chatterjee said...

My experiences with sir's temper were quite bizarre ! got scolded once in class 9 when i was doing some gup-shup while sir was telling us a story! lets not discuss about that because i still consider sir as one of the few good human beings i have ever met in my life(i haven't met many though :) ) !

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I published this letter because a) the writer is very articulate as well as sincere – a combination that very few people can boast of these days, b) while not pulling any punches, it is unashamed about admitting how the writer underwent a drastic change of heart: a warning to many others not to make up their minds too quickly, c) although he is rather harsh in his judgment of his classmates, it gives some indication that all was not well about the school even so many years ago (mostly a mad scramble for marks in exams and other forms of one-upmanship rather than a healthy pursuit of real education), d) it conveys something about what I felt regarding many things, and how strongly – about teaching, about knowledge, about the library, about the worth of every separate individual – and maybe also unwittingly gives a hint why so many of my colleagues had quietly or not so quietly begun to wish that I’d go away, and e) it gives the readers some idea that being shy and retiring can be a barrier to getting to know people whom, if you know them, you might find to be most interesting. May that help a lot of readers to come out of their shells while there is time!

Thanks, also, to those who have written comments. (My ‘legendary temper’ apparently did not affect everybody the same way!) It would be nice to hear about the reminiscences of some more people…

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

Thanks for sharing the letter. He seems to be from my time.

The “Bani generator..” comment does bring a smile.

It is always so refreshing to remember those days. My brief stint in school was enriched by you. In fact, talking of smoking I wonder whether you still prefer those Capstan roll-on “self-made” cigarettes. I can still picture that there was this “easy-chair” in the library.

I like the “yes-men..” bit too about your fans.

I will write more to you over email soon.



Percipient Shameek .... said...

Dear Sir ,

The letter was brilliant....
Reading this , it took me through those wonderful twenty months once again.....!!

Regards ,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

My apologies to the letter writer. I had hoped that his missive would draw many more similar happy reminiscences from many other readers, but I was apparently wrong. In any case, so much for my 'Tendulkaresque' fan following...