He looked at the obituary again, unable to believe it. He read it again and again. The photograph was familiar; the eyes had the same glint, the nose, and the features. Beautiful. A beautiful woman in the full flow of youth. His eyes wandered over the other death announcements, obituaries, and came to rest once again as if drawn to it. 'Shobhana Nair left for her heavenly abode'. How could Shobhana Teacher (they had appended the surrogate surname 'Teacher' to all their teachers) be dead? Surely, there was a mistake somewhere.
Again he looked at the eyes that fixated on them as awkward teenagers not long ago. Yes, they were the same. Just a look was enough to freeze them. When she entered a class a hushed silence would fall over it, in awe of the fragile woman whose beauty and character seemed to radiate through her. In their awkward adolescence, they considered her idealism their only hope against the big, bad world outside. She was a woman who had contributed to her profession and to her students by doing more than what was required from her.
He stared at those luminous eyes disbelieving, his own eyes filled with tears.
He still remembered the day she first came to school. There was excitement all around and curiosity. Soon the buzz spread. Is the new teacher for our class? Is she going to speak to me? I saw her coming down the stairs, oh, what beauty! Was it really her own skin or was she applying make up? Was the bright red bindi she wore very expensive? What sari did she wear today?
They were all children from working class backgrounds. They were students in a school in a remote suburb of Bombay bordered on one side by a silent swamp and on the other by the echoing clatter of rails. He distinctly remembered the school, wall of which were unpainted, the steel reinforcements still sticking out. Inside the classroom, the walls were white washed.
The school couldn't afford fans and in the summer the heat that swept in through the windows was killing. The back yard was thickly overgrown with weeds. These weeds, if he remembered correctly, were never cut but were stomped and flattened by hundreds of feet to play football, volleyball and cricket. Around the back were plantain trees and a few bushes into which they dived chasing colorful butterflies. In those bushes they urinated daily and watched the bushes dry and die, a juvenile revenge for keeping them confined to their classes for long periods. Inside the class it was hot and they perspired freely. Yet it was school, loved and hated, exhilarating and disappointing.
They left it each evening to return the following afternoon, bathed, powdered, tiffin in their bags, note books and text books neatly packed, uniforms washed and ironed. The Hindu girls wore sandal paste on their foreheads. The boys, if they wore sandal paste, were ribbed to no end.
They exchanged comic books during intervals. War comics and Wild West comics. They would read comic books hidden between textbooks in class. Sitting hunched over a single comic book a group of them would eagerly devour the story during the recess. "Read fast, fast na," they would tell the slower readers as they were consumed by the suspense of what would happen next and would fume and fidget.
A boy was suspended for writing obscenities in the toilet. "Aaaaah! What cheek," the girls would exclaim. A girl was suspended for receiving a love letter. "Hey! Fast one!" the boys would shout. This was the kind of news that made it to the headlines in the rather mundane school. The stern Principal, Mukundan Iyer, came with a cane hiding behind him and whacked anyone found playing 'statue' (a game where you had to freeze when two fingers were pointed at you like a gun). The morning assembly and prayer were full of suppressed giggling and whispered comments. All this flashed through his mind like it was yesterday. If it was yesterday, how could Shobhana Teacher be dead?
It was spring outside when she walked into their classroom with the sweet smelling freshness of the jasmine that adorned her hair. She always wore a bunch of stringed jasmines in her hair. She wore a red sari that matched the vermilion in the center of her forehead and in the parting of her hair. None of the other teachers dabbed vermilion in the parting of their hair. That was her uniqueness. She was so different she stood out from the crowd. Vermilion in the parting of her hair was a symbol of piety.
In a society, which resorted to teasing as a means of attracting the opposite sex, nobody would dare tease a woman with vermilion in her hair parting. They would know that she had a husband and that they stood no chance whatsoever. Such was their belief. Not that anyone would dare to tease Shobhana Teacher. She was a woman who held her head high and didn't hang it in shame. She was a woman who could look straight in the eye of injustice and speak the truth. That first day she had stood in front of them like a Hindu goddess, full of confidence, her unafraid eyes surveying the eager faces raised to her.
"Good Afternoon... Teacher..." they had chorused, the 'a-f-t-e-r-n-o-o-n' and 't-e-a-c-h-e-r' bit was long and languid from the afternoon torpor. It was hot.
They listened to her in rapt attention as she spoke in class. Her voice had the sweet affection and admonition of an elder sister or an indulgent aunt, not the sharp, cutting, bullying shriek of the other teachers.
"Thank you... Teacher..." they had chorused when she left class.
She turned around. A smile lit her face.
"No need to thank me... I am only doing my job... It looks as if you are relieved to see me go..."
From that day though the 'Good Afternoons' continued to be sung, nobody sang 'Thank You' when the teacher left. She came well prepared and had all her facts in memory as she stood before them talking about history as if was a story, and was a well-remembered experience in her life. She did not declaim nor was did she badger like the other teachers. She spoke persuasively, giving an example here, a well intentioned but humorous comment to which her students laughed. She held their gaze and they held hers, even the duffers who sat on the last benches were enthralled. She looked at them, compassionately, without arrogance or condescension.
He could vaguely remember an English class in which there was a passage from a lesson that had the exclamation 'bah' in it.
She said a perfect 'bah' with a delicate inflection.
"Bah," he had repeated after her aloud, unknowingly, unwittingly.
The class erupted into laughter.
"Murli, I thought you were a good boy," was all she said turning towards him. That was enough to silence him for the rest of his life.
From that day the mortal fear of being thought a bad boy by Shobhana Teacher would haunt him. No, he shouldn't do that. What if Shobhana Teacher thought him a bad boy? That instant his view of life changed into something that stood for her. With just one sentence she had firmly entrenched him on the side of good as against evil.
Not that he was a bad student. He constantly ranked third in class. But every time his mark sheet arrived on his desk it had the admonition in red ink on it: "Try to achieve the first rank."
He had looked up 'achieve' in the dictionary then. He had a vague idea of its meaning, but wanted to be sure. It was exactly what he had thought it would be. Achieve, achievement, achiever, reach or attain, accomplish. He must reach and achieve and accomplish. And her signature on the mark sheet! A big curved 's' followed by a long line and a few squiggles at the end. Someone who could sign so beautifully had to be beautiful.
Another day, she was teaching an English lesson (it was abridged from a famous book, he couldn't remember which one) that had a character named Sambo in it. Now, Sambo was black and the lesson was unashamedly racist in describing his dark skin and flashing white teeth. When a student read that part everyone snickered looking at a dark-skinned boy, Damodaran, sitting in the extreme left desk in the middle row. Damodaran, too, had smooth, dark, velvety skin and flashing white teeth. When the lesson came to Sambo capturing a crocodile and flashing his teeth, someone said, "Like our Damodaran," from one of the back seats and they all laughed.
The duster descended with a bang on Shobhana Teacher's table. The laughter fluttered and then died on their lips.
"Who said that? Stand up if you have courage," she said between clenched teeth.
The class fell silent. You could even hear the wind howl in the swamp outside.
"What do you think, because you have a bit lighter skin you are superior? 'Do your parents teach you this at home? I will throw you out of this class and have your parents come here begging to take you back."
"What rubbish," she continued after a few moments' silence, which seemed to last till recess. Her eyes were flaming, truly aggrieved and hurt. "At your age have you become so hard and inconsiderate to talk like this? What have you seen so far? Better go and beg in the streets than come here and make such comments."
Everybody shifted uneasily in his or her seat. The prospect of having their parents come to school scared them, as did the prospect of being beggars in the sweltering heat outside their classroom windows.
She stood there glaring at them. She considered it an insult to her not to Damodaran. Damodaran was crying. His soft sobs filled the silence. She went to him put her hands around him and asked him to go and wash his face. Then followed a long discourse on how people perceived each other. She talked of how color was made an invisible weapon to subdue and divide people. How the invaders and colonists thought that ethnic Indians were inferior because of their darker color. How they were sorely mistaken.
Not a single student ever teased Damodaran again.
He could still remember the incident when he had to participate in a debate and he was scared at the prospect. He had to address the entire school and he felt that they would surely murder him with their eyes. The very thought made his knees shake. It was Shobana Teacher, the president of the debating society, who gave him the subject of the debate when he met her on the first floor verandah. The very sight of her made him tremble and stutter. It was then he saw her from up close. Her skin was much more finely toned than he had imagined. It was as if her skin had no pores and required no powder or make up. There was something inexplicably beautiful about it. The red bindi had a character all its own. It sat on her skin like a shining red sun, dominating her face. It really seemed like an invincible third eye looking at him. In the effusion from the bright afternoon sun, she had seemed like a wonderful creature.
"Don't be shy like a girl," she said smiling. As if girls were shy. Not a single girl in his class was shy according to him. Their shyness was only imaginary, a veil, a front, to hide their words and feelings in a society that deprived them of their legitimate rights.
"Can you speak on 'Should India Remain a Democracy'?"
Again he was silent. He wanted to escape and run away. Those eyes looking at him seemed even more intrusive than that of the whole assembly staring at him when he would speak.. What if he was to stumble and forget his lines? What if?
"You need not think about them." She said as if she had read his thoughts. "You have to think your thoughts and express them. Think about what is inside you and what you feel about it. Say what you feel is right. Read and understand your subject. No problem if you are wrong. Speak with conviction. You will improve as you go along."
Suddenly it all became clear. It was as if he was being given an opportunity. He had never had the attention of his friends all to himself. Now this, this unforgettably beautiful woman, was giving him a chance to speak to them about his ideal world, what he wanted it to be when he grew up. That was true courage and he felt courageous standing before that bold and radiant woman. That debate completely changed his outlook towards public speaking.
Then he clearly remembered the school annual day when the play 'Mrs. Addis' was to be performed. Everybody, even her jealous colleagues, admitted that Shobhana Teacher would fit the role. Some clever make up was applied to her face to turn her into an old woman. She wore a caftan that reached to her toes and had small round glasses perched way down on her pert nose. Though her stance was always proud and erect, she stooped her shoulders for the role and said her lines with a slight tremor in her voice. So convincing was she that many parents who attended couldn't recognize her as Shobhana Teacher.
"Teacher, you looked exactly like the real Mrs. Addis," students gushed, though they could never have imagined what a fictional character who lived somewhere in the western world would or should look like.
"Yes, it was a superb performance, just solid and fantastic."
"Teacher, you should have been an actress, you would have given a tough fight to Hema Malini."
Such were the stories woven around her, which ultimately invested her with almost legendary traits, a halo of sorts. Now lost in sweet memories he felt his skin prickle with goose bumps as he imagined the massive crush he, like many others, had on her.
Then he passed his final year in school and entered college. With college came a new life and a freedom and radical idealism of the dopey, rebellious and hippyish seventies. Nobody had prepared him for college, no, not even Shobhana Teacher. She, being from Kerala, was the product of an intellectual ferment altogether different than that prevalent in Bombay then. In the confusion that ensued, school and Shobhana Teacher were forgotten. He never even visited school again except once to collect an award she had announced for 'achieving' the highest mark in her subject. How he had 'achieved' something he had badly wanted! Newer, adolescent crushes were developing in the college campus and his schoolboy crush for her was temporarily forgotten. He felt lost in the thousands of loud-talking boys and girls who considered college a place to flirt, romance and play pranks. The teachers didn't give a damn who attended class and who didn't. Teachers in college never took any interest in their students. They didn't even know their names. Yes, one teacher remembered the number of the table on which he worked in the laboratory when he met her to clear a doubt about Charles Law.
"Table number 21, hope that clears your doubt about “Charles Low”?" This teacher had said as if it was some lowly task she had to perform.
He wanted to learn why things were done a certain way in the laboratory, not mechanically repeat what he was told to do. At the back of his mind must have been the ideal teacher that Shobhana Teacher had been urging him to learn and understand.
"What is the purpose of analyzing these powders and solutions day in and day out? Tell us how it would be useful and what we can do with it."
"You do what you are told to do and fill up your journals," was all “Charles Low” would reply.
Then came the news that Shobhana Teacher was diagnosed as suffering from an incurable disease. Cancer. Why had it to be her? She had to resign. That was the time his father had a fall on the way back from the market and had died after two months in hospital. Things happened so fast, he could not even think of going to the school to meet her. How would he face her after all these years?
Then one day he saw her! He was in a train and she was on the platform of Chembur (a Bombay suburb) railway station. His eyes were drawn to her as if by some magnetic force that existed, unknown to both of them. There she stood proudly erect and dignified. The disease had done nothing to lower her values and her self-esteem. Only the hair had gone gray, a dignified gray, but the eyes were still sharp, focussed as if blazing with an unquenchable fire. It seemed life had chosen her to display how courage could be had when faced with adversity. The train started and was moving away.
He saw her glance in his direction. He raised his hand and waved. Their eyes met briefly, locked, it seemed as if a million words and thought passed between their eyes. Words and thoughts of suffering, pain and disillusionment. For a brief moment her lips parted in a smile. Yes, she had recognized him, after all these years. How their worlds had changed since he had seen her step into their classroom carrying the sweet smell of jasmine? How can she die? She cannot. She still lives in the minds of students like him.
"Thank you, Shobhana Teacher," he folded the paper and whispered reverently to himself.