MY STUDENT – MY TEACHER
In my early forties, I made a career change – from that of a secretary in a commercial organization to a teacher. Uncannily, the first job I landed as teacher also included the responsibilities of warden in a hostel of 65 girls in the age group 15-20, grade 11 to final year of graduation.
Images of harassed matrons from umpteen movies and stories came to mind – myself, a strict middle-aged spinster, and these giggly, monstrous girls constantly upto tricks, imitating me at my back. But how contrary real life often is! The girls in my charge were simple and sweet girls from middle class families, mostly from rural areas. Having left home for a purpose, they were full of dreams of careers and bright futures. In a couple of years, I settled down to a happy and mostly peaceful routine. There was, of course, the occasional runaway, the instances of ragging, regular fights in the bathroom and mess, but nothing that could not be handled without some counseling and some retribution.
Now when I look back at my short stint, I find it crowed with a lot of memorable experiences. One that stands out, happened in the third year of my assignment. At the start of each new term, I had to send to the Mess a list of the new entrants, specifying the number of vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Two days a week, there was a sweet dish for the vegetarians and a chicken/meat dish for the non-vegetarians. On the very first occasion that year, one sweet dish was missing. I was sure one of the senior girls must have cheated, but on checking and re-checking I found that no one’s integrity could be doubted. Next, I had to line up the girls and call out their names. The ‘veg.list’ went off without a hitch. Then as I reeled off the names on the ‘non-veg. list’, one girl interrupted me, “Ma’am, my name should have been on the other list.” “But I thought since you were a….” I could not have completed without saying something insensitive. Generations of accumulated, pre-recorded, Brahminic data said – weren’t all Muslims meat-eaters? (And of course, a host of other things, which I dared not voice). I had not even bothered to cross-check Aliya’s admission form. I had been so confident of my cosmopolitan awareness. “No ma’am, we are Mulla’s – pundits. We do not eat meat.”
This was something new to me. Curious, I later asked her, “Are there many such people in your community who do not eat meat?” “I don’t know about that ma’am,” she said, “but I am sad to say there are many like you who ask me this question. Perhaps, you come from places where people are boxed into religions and castes. But in my village, we do not have such distinctions. In our ‘mohalla’ Ganpati, my parents are the first to offer ‘aarti’. Our entire village is like that, ma’am.” The heart of India, I thought, lies not in its villages, but its villagers.
“Where the world has not been broken into narrow domestic walls..” How many times I must have taught this line. Still at 40, the mind is a solidified rock of set notions, which must be broken with tiny pinpricks like these!