I dreamt of him last night. Not that I don’t think of him during my waking hours. Of late I pause and think of him several times a day, and every time it is with a deep sense of gratitude, love and misty eyes. Today he is standing there, right in front of me, with his chalk-stained fingers, trying to hold together the pages of his tattered copy of grammar exercises and scolding us to pay attention.
What a wonderful vision to have, on Teacher’s Day!
It has been 50 years and yet I remember him as if it were yesterday: crumpled shirt frayed at the collar, yellowing white trousers, an old pair of chappals that went slap-slap as he walked, an umbrella and a cloth bag filled with books and copies, his body a little stooped and pulled slightly to one side with their weight. His hair was never tidy, tousled as it was by his fingers raking through their salt and pepper glory – more salt than pepper – his lined face with its gap-toothed smile….The sight of him at one and the same time made my heart soar and touched me deeply. Here was a teacher who relentlessly drove himself and his students to bring up their level of knowledge in his chosen subject – all without any thought for himself.
He came into my life when I entered the 8th standard – in a new city, new school, bewildered with the slew of new subjects and languages I had to cope with. The math was suddenly too difficult to fathom (not that it had been easy till then, as I had written in another post), I had to learn Marathi and Sanskrit besides. In this mayhem, English class was an oasis of calm, brightness and joy. And Subba Rao Sir with his single-minded devotion to making his students understand the intricacies of grammar, made it the most memorable class for me that year.
There have been many teachers in my life – before and after him – some academic teachers, others who taught me valuable life lessons and yet others who pushed me on to the spiritual path. There were even many English teachers among them, from primary school through high school and college. There have been many whom I have admired, respected and learnt from, but Sir holds a special place in my heart and mind, I don’t know why. Or don’t I?
I had loved English, ever since I could read books. I loved writing too, for I could feel the power of the carefully selected words to make an impression, an impact, to move or shake, even from a very young age. I learnt the rudiments of grammar in school, the mandatory nouns, verbs, adjectives and such. They were part of the syllabus and so had to be learnt, but beyond that, they had no power over me. Till Sir came and changed it all.
Did I say, he had made just ‘that year’ memorable? How remiss of me! He made me fall in love with English grammar. Admittedly, English grammar can be most confounding, almost as much as the illogical spellings and pronunciation of English words. I pity all those who didn’t have a Subba Rao Sir to demystify the subject and make them enjoy using the gerund, the dangling participle and the clauses with gay abandon. I learnt under him that subjunctive mood had nothing to do with my moods or anyone else’ for that matter – subjective, subjunctive, or otherwise. Today I might not remember the terms I had learnt in those far away classes, but can use them perfectly (or at least I hope so!) when I write.
How he made us work! We would run through hundreds of pages of exercise and every sentence successfully completed made me exult. It was years later that I understood the similarity between math and grammar. They were precise (well, grammar rules could sometimes flummox one!), and were high scoring. So, what I missed out in math, I made up with my grammar and the more I worked, the deeper into its thrall I fell.
Sir took special classes for us during the lunch hour. Many groaned at the forced ‘labour’ but I never complained. Even if it meant that I got to eat just half a roti in the 10 minutes he gave us to finish our lunch. You see, I was such a slow eater that I would need at least half an hour to eat a meal. But the 20 minutes we saved out of the lunch break could have me complete maybe an exercise or two from the particular topic he was teaching us. How could any old lunchbox compete with THAT thrill? The best thing was that he was already present in the class when the last of the stragglers came in, which meant that he himself would have finished his lunch in the same 10 minutes he gave us!
The tattered copy of Wren & Martin, handed down several generations to me, was lovingly bound with my name added to the distinguished list of my siblings and other older relatives who had used it before me. I still have that copy and thumb the pages lovingly whenever I need to brush up the grammar terms before teaching kids. Compared to what we learnt back then, and even what my older son learnt years later, the grammar that is taught in high school today is almost basic.
On this Teacher’s Day, I humbly thank that great teacher, who laid the strongest base for the craft that I subsequently honed and turned into a profession. Every time I write a good sentence which manages to bring out the exact meaning of what I am trying to convey to the reader, I mentally bow – deeply – to the greatest English teacher I have had the privilege of learning from.
Thank you Sir, for if it had not been for you, I wouldn’t be out here, daring to write!
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