Monday, March 21, 2011

Gurur Devo Namah!

Beads of sweat trickled down my face as I waited in the staff room for the mother of all disciplinarians, English professor Usha Nair. Our class wanted to skip English lessons to watch a Bollywood blockbuster and since I was top student, we voted 59-1 that I was to secure my teacher's approval.

After what seemed like eternity, Prof. Nair appeared. ‘Hi Anjana’, she said, ‘need help with your lessons?’

‘N-n-no’, I stammered. Her mouth tightened as I said the words movie, skip and class. I now had visions of 'detention' written all over my record.

Then a miracle happened. She broke into a smile and asked, “Can you make that 61? I’d like to go too!” In that moment of immense relief, I knew Prof. Nair would be among my favorite teachers.

What made Prof. Nair different was that she saw in each of us great possibilities. Here we were a bunch of clueless teenagers from low-budget families, in search of our life’s mission and fearless in our youth. We worked equally hard at academics and mischief! Rather than label us a bunch of loonies, she took the time to look into our souls and understand the path that each of us was taking.

‘You must write’, she told me one day as I described an accident I witnessed. Before I could tell her I wanted to be an engineer not a writer, she had already asked that I submit a write-up of the accident on her desk next morning.
That write-up was the beginning of several articles and poems. Prof. Nair spent countless hours of her personal time critiquing and refining my essays, stories and poetry. I even wrote a poem about her! When the inter-college arts competition was announced, she declared I was going to be in our writing team.

Food and accommodation arrangements were notoriously dismal at art festivals. As we students shivered in the cold while practicing dance, music and drama (she had identified and groomed most of us), Prof. Nair was there - as our coach. She gave up better food and air conditioned lodging for teachers choosing instead to eat with us and sleep on a narrow wooden bench for the entire week. We will be champions, she repeated with such conviction that all of us wanted to prove her right.

And so we competed with all our might against students from across the state. Prof. Nair was more energized with every prize we won; she kept pushing us further. ‘You’re ready’, she told me. ‘Pray for a moment, then give it your all’.

I did give it my all – bringing in prizes for poetry, essay and story writing. With 21 points, I was set to be declared ‘Sarga Prathibha’ – the best writer of the festival. However, a multi-lingual writer emerged on the last day with 22 points, stealing the title from under my nose.

Prof. Nair was right; we were champions by a huge margin. We lit a celebration bonfire and carried her on our shoulders shouting ‘Our college rules!’ On our ride home, she came up to me and said ‘I know you’re disappointed. View this not as failure but as an indicator of how far you’ve come. Keep writing.’

Fifteen years have passed but memories gatecrashed as I bumped into Prof. Nair last week. ‘The movie I saw with your class was the best ever’ she said patting my cheek. As I touched her feet to seek her blessings, she put her hands on my head and simply said ‘Keep writing’.