Jayamohan is perhaps the best writer in Tamil today if not the most famous. He has a website (https://www.jeyamohan.in) where readers discuss various current issues and the writer participates actively. In one of the recent posts, a reader has commented badly about teachers in general and primary schools in particular. I have always held my school and my teachers very highly and think whatever success I have had in life is mainly because of the teachers I had in school. You can check my blog on my favourite teachers here: Two Great Teachers. I was saddened by the contents of the blog since I was also a student of Government run schools. Unfortunately I can’t comment on the blog because I have no knowledge of what the teachers do in Government Schools in Tamil Nadu now.
But the blog reminded me of one of the best stories written about a teacher. The story is narrated by a student of her many years after the incidence had happened. I consider this to be one of the top 5 stories of Sundara Ramasamy. I have blogged some of his stories – Father by My Side – பக்கத்தில் வந்த அப்பா – Sundara Ramasamy Stamp Album – Sundara Ramasamy Prasadam – Prasad – Sundara Ramasamy.
Our Teacher – எங்கள் டீச்சர்
The Maharajas of yesteryears have wholeheartedly worshipped the Goddess of Knowledge – Saraswathy. Otherwise would they have built such a big building here? when you tell people it’s only a high school, everyone gets astonished. They say they have not seen colleges built as big as this.
I was studying in eighth class then, for the second year. I believe I started failing in school only from that class.
In the same year, Elizabeth Thomas came to the school. She belonged to the state of North Travancore (a province in Kerela in the British Raj). They kept saying she would come, she would come and at last she arrived.
Padmavathi teacher must have felt like she was in hell, being the only female teacher amongst the forty male teachers. She would comment about this openly according to ‘B’ Section students. She would say, “somehow I should get out of this school.” They added that she was planning to complain to the district school inspector. “I think she should resign and leave the school” this was the comment from Seshan after analysing the issue from all the angles. He was big in gestures. Actually, he was big in size as well. If there was a fight, he would sharpen his pencil on the floor to pierce the opponents. In those days, his name was very famous in the school circles.
This shortcoming felt by Padmavathi teacher was addressed eventually. The inspector’s visit was not in vain. Elizabeth Thomas has joined the school.
People gathered in droves in front of the ‘Assembly Hall’ to look at the new teacher. Some of the girls have climbed the majestic ladder, on the right side of the hall, to get a better glimpse of the new teacher. The more mischievous among them, pushed the girls below to have a clear line of sight. They were giggling and laughing as they looked and examined critically the teacher who was making an entry into the hall.
Padmavathi teacher, clad in a chocolate silk saree, climbed down the stairs on the opposite end of the hall, holding her saree with the tips of her fingers. She walked briskly towards Elizabeth teacher, with lots of love and smile on her face, held Elizabeth teacher’s hands and guided her to the waiting hall. Only this much has happened. But the circumstances of the event made it look like it was all pre-arranged by God’s grace.
“Who is more beautiful?” asked a small girl to her friend without realizing the headmaster was standing behind them. When he raised his hands, and shouted, “why are you crowding here?” they all raised their skirts and ran towards their classes. (Stupid children how long are they going to remain like this?)
But when they walked together, that question arose in everyone’s mind. The answer would change every day or the by the hour or by angle you looked at it. The beauty was given to both of them equally by the maker so there is no clear answer for unreasonable question. But Padmavathi teacher’s make-up was more grandeur.
Both were almost of same age. When they walked in a pair, happiness and sadness would hit your mind. They would walk in style in the morning sun, their conversations filled with happiness and laughter. It would take a while for them to walk from the compound to the building. As the distance got reduced, the desire to spend more time together would prevent their legs to walk faster. How much time you can pass by stopping at every other step or by making a motion of moving or by standing wherever they decided to stop? We would watch them till their legs disappeared on the steps of the veranda. Just after couple of minutes, their heads would appear just above the exam hall ladder and we never got tired of watching this.
Our hearts and thoughts were engulfing them and the reason for this is not just that they were affectionate towards us and their extraordinary ability that came out during their teaching. Their affection towards each other and the comradery between them attracted our minds. The affection that blossomed in their minds reverberated in our hearts. And that thought alone was a sweet fragrance to us. Lot of stories were spun to expound this affection and attraction between them.
It would have been great had this tone of friendship remained as it was. But, there is no compulsion that things would happen as per our desire.
Hot air had started blowing between Elizabeth Thomas and Padmavathi teacher.
o o o
There was a huge gap between our standards and ‘B’ section standards. The top ranks always went to them. It does not mean that ‘B’ section was a warehouse of all the brilliant brains. Their answer paper was a proof to the ability of Padmavathi teacher. She was an expert in opening the skulls of the students and keep the lessons inside it. The other teachers were jealous of this and informally agreed about this. Last year, when handing over ‘Srimathi Seetha Lakshmi Memorial Prize’ the principal commented, “If Padmavathi teacher kept her heart at it, she could teach Pythagoras Theorem even to a bandicoot” and that was true.
Even during that year, in the quarterly examination, ‘B’ Section student P. Raman scored hundred out of hundred in Mathematics. Bespectacled Sarojini, who was considered to be the top student in our class could not score more than seventy marks. Out of forty-seven students, including me, 75% of our class students failed in Mathematics. More than a dozen students scored in single digits and three of us scored zero!
In this situation, we handed ourselves over to Elizabeth teacher. The first day in the class, she asked our quarterly exam marks. We were ashamed to share it but one by one we told our marks. She must have felt ashamed but without showing it, she said she would give an easy question and started writing on the blackboard. But even that simple sum troubled us enormously. Many students could not get the answer even after going step by step. When she probed us more, she found out most of us could not even solve seventh standard questions. Elizabeth teacher smiled and said, “I think you all crawled to this class from seventh standard.”
We smiled apologetically.
“OK Let it go. I can take you all to higher class like soldiers on march past” she said.
We just stopped short of clapping our hands. We were happy.
All heads nodded.
On the very first day, she tied all of us in her ‘pallu.’ (the edge of saree).
From that day, she really laboured hard. She started from the basics. She would never get tired of repeating a lesson hundreds of times. Weekly tests were conducted to assess our progress. Every day there was home-work. It looked like she was punishing herself for all of us and the omissions of teachers who taught us earlier. Her efforts and her devotion to the task and her determination to make us succeed, made us take pity on her. To make her successful, we started concentrating hard. Her teaching was so attractive and for the first time we started looking at numbers with affection.
One day, suddenly she shocked all of us. “This year Seetha Lakshmi memorial prize would come to our class” she declared. What is this? Can we really pull it off? Is it easy to score hundred marks in the final exam?
We did not open our mouths.
“Why no one is talking…. Sarojini… what do you say? She poked us.
Sarojini looked down.
“We will get the prize. I am sure about this” she commented again.
We were frozen. Why? Can’t her words become true? With determination and hard work what can we not achieve?
As the days passed, we were becoming confident that we would get the prize. If we saw ‘B’ Section students, we held our heads high and walked past them.
We also had our fights because of this.
One day, in the morning, in front of our class, I was standing with Ravindran thambi, Devesa Sarma, Kolappan, Krishnasamy, Appukuttan and Samu. Just then Seshan and his friends and P. Raman and few of fans from ‘B’ Section arrived there.
Casually Krishnasami mentioned, “We will win the Prize this year.” Seshan immediately pounced on him.
“Who told you?”
“Our teacher only told us.”
“Does she know astrology?”
Kolappan came forward.
“She does not know astrology. But she knows how to teach well. She knows to respect the talent of students. That’s all! You can go” he shouted.
Kolappan has participated in freedom movement. He was put in prison for a day for opposing British rule. He was in love with Tamil language. People who opposed him ran the risk of being boycotted by the society.
The fight became severe.
“No one can beat P. Raman” commented Seshan.
“P. Raman can only eat” said Samu and continued, “P. Raman – Sappatu Raman” (person who hogs food).
“I will break your teeth” Seshan shouted.
“OK let me see that” Samu showed his face to Seshan.
But Seshan did not break Samu’s teeth. But he did not keep quite either. He pushed Samu aside and shouted, “Jai ho Padmavathi teacher.” His friend joined him and shouted, “Jai ho.” Our freedom fighter could not take it anymore. He shouted which almost shook the school building, “To Elizabeth Teacher” and we shouted from the base of our stomachs, “Jai ho.”
“To Mahatma Gandhi ji”
Seshan sat down and started sharpening his pencil tip. We thought blood would spill now. Fortunately, the school bell rang and we ran into our classrooms.
When Elizabeth teacher heard this, she said, “why are you getting into unnecessary fights?” She also said that Padmavathi teacher has complained that we have laughed at her.
Kolappan stood up and said, “they are saying we can’t win the prize. They are belittling us.” He murmured “our blood is boiling.”
o o o
Elizabeth teacher’s confidence and our hard work did not go in vain. In the half-yearly exams, we scored high marks. Sarojini got hundred out of hundred. Bespectacled girl hoisted the flag. The paper was corrected by Padmavathi teacher and she herself, had to give those high marks.
I don’t remember exactly how many marks Mathematics King P. Raman scored; but it was not hundred. I am sure of this because P. Raman and his fans and Seshan and his friends blamed that Elizabeth teacher has set the question paper very tough.
“You need brains; you fools” said Kolappan.
The situation instigated one more round of fights and arguments.
“You come out of school, then you will know” Seshan said.
Kolappan was showing off as if he was afraid, “Ah Bugs, ah mosquitos, I am afraid” he was mocking them.
The headmaster came to distribute answer papers and in front of us praised our teacher highly. What can make a teacher happier? She was proud; her face became red, head bowed and her eyes focused on her feet. She could not even ask us to sit down after we stood up to our Head Master when he left the class. She could not feel anything and was lost in herself. Pride was oozing out of her eyes and face.
Once the sight came back to her eyes, she smiled. After a while she started laughing like a child. We joined in her laughter. She praised saying that we have become examples for good students. She went near Sarojini and patted her on the back. Sarojini stood up. We could not hear what she murmured. But as her lips swayed, the teacher’s beautiful face turned grotesque. She went and sat in her chair. She was trying hard not to cry in front of us but the tears were struggling to come out. Her face and neck swelled. What happened teacher?
The bell rang.
Teacher stood up.
“Sarojini, did the girl say that her teacher told her this?”
We were looking at Elizabeth teacher.
Teacher’s eyes filled with tears. She turned away from and looked at the wall opposite.
In a faint voice, she asked, “did I tell you the questions before the exam?” Her tone touched our hearts.
We could not understand what she was asking. We were staring like dead bodies.
“Did I teach the questions?” she asked again.
As she waited for our answer, that short time, diluted our hearts. “Then God Knows the truth” she murmured as she walked out of the class.
How Padmavathi teacher could make up such a lie and put it on our teacher? She told her students that our teacher has taught us questions beforehand. They were outrageous words.
Our conscience knew the truth. She did not tell us anything. Actually, we did not know, till that moment, that our teacher had set the question paper. She did not talk about this. Nor she indicated what type of questions would come in the exams. She did not give us a model question paper indicating what would come in the exams. This was just outrageous. She was not a person who would teach the question beforehand and try to win accolades in that manner. She knew to turn mud into gold. How many teachers in the past have given up on us? On the first day, she encouraged us by saying if you set your heart you can achieve anything. He asked us to walk with our heads held high and that’s what we did.
Just because we did good, will it become unbelievable? Even assuming that Goddess Saraswathi has put all Padamavati teaher’s students in her lap, does it mean the Goddess would not look at us? Will the teacher’s ability and the students’ hard work will vanish in thin air? Jealousy; pure jealousy. No teacher, you did not teach us those questions.
Elizabeth teacher did not come to the school the following day. Rumors started floating around that she won’t be coming back. What would happen to our fate? Will we have to go back to those ring masters and struggle? Is that our fate?
Fortunately, the next day when the school bell rang, as if possessed by the bell’s tune, teacher came in. It looked as if she was determined not to return but her firm resolve loosened up.
Not only that day, even the days after, we never saw our teacher with Padmavathi teacher on any occasion. They footsteps fell in two different directions in the school. The vanishing pair of legs on the verandah and the reappearing pair of heads above the exam hall ladder became old story.
She did not show any emotions on that day. As usual she concentrated on teaching with determination and attention. Her talk was bubbly.
As the final exam was nearing, one day she started the topic of memorial prize again. We never thought she would open up the topic which would remind that sad incident and the atrocious accusations made against her.
She wanted us to win the Seetha Lakshmi memorial prize.
“Just see for yourselves. We will get the prize” she said.
“This time the prize will come to us teacher” said Krishnasami.
“Even you are thinking the same?” the teacher was very happy.
It was funny. She was taking even Krishnasami’s words seriously.
“But one thing!” she continued. She started looking at her nails and immersed in deep thought. “This time the question papers are prepared in the city. I can’t teach you the questions beforehand” she said and smiled with a tinge of sadness.
It reminded us that the thorn which pierced the heart, stayed there. It seemed that she was preventing time from healing the wounds.
If we win the prize in the final exams, will it not prove her capability and our capability? If it happens and the headmaster gives the prize to our teacher, the claps that would emanate, would shake the person who made the false accusation like a thunder. The truth will come out and remove the stain which struck on our teacher. And she was believing that we would make this happen.
The exam was approaching.
She prepared us as the soldiers would get prepared for going to a war. We imagined that a nation was waiting to see our courage and accomplishments. She would revise the old lessons, clear our doubts individually and conduct classed even on Saturdays. She was toiling hard all the time.
From whichever angle you looked at it, you would come to the conclusion that her desire should get fulfilled. She had the full right to enjoy the happiness that would come out of it. Only when a person like her touches a cup or a glass, it shines and becomes a prize. One should be lucky to give that prize in her hands or to see that happen or to clap on that occasion.
But we were not that lucky. The final exam tested her more than it tested us. It’s not a big thing that our dreams failed. We can bear it. But she had to bow down in front of every one, ashamed. That she got caught in that moment of weakness can be called fate or weakness. The words sound meaningless. But such a small incident pierced the life of a person like Elizabeth teacher and resulting sadness touched our hearts even after twenty years when you think about that.
It happened on the last day when we had the mathematics exam.
It was just five minutes for the exam to get over. Sarojini stood up to give her answer paper. Elizabeth teacher who was standing beside her said very softly “you have five more minutes. See your answers again.” I could hear these words and as I was sitting just two desks away. The difference in her voice and the depth in her tone made me look at her face. It had lost some shine.
Since the teacher told her, Sarojini looked at her paper again.
The final bell rang.
Elizabeth teacher rushed to her and said, “did you see till the last question? Why this hurry? Her voice slurred as she picked answer papers from other students.
I saw Sarojini turning the last page of her paper and biting her lips, made some correction.
“I object to your actions” a loud voice filled the hall.
Padmavathi teacher was standing there. Elizabeth teacher did not look at her. She turned her face away and looked at the window.
Padamavathi teacher started running upstairs. I remembered on the first day, when Elizabeth teacher joined the school, Padmavathi teacher was getting down the same stairs.
The enquiry started.
Initially Elizabeth teacher did not answer any of the questions the headmaster asked her. She was standing like a statue. It looked like her heart has frozen like a rock.
“This is my last question” said the headmaster and continued, “when you told Sarojini to look till the last question, did you have an intention to correct her answer which she had written wrongly?”
After a long pause teacher said, “Yes I did.”
Headmaster went upstairs.
When I came to the verandah, our teacher was walking along eastern wall like a shadow.
After that I did not meet her. They said she had resigned her job and went back to Kottayam.
Sundara Ramaswamy (1931–2005), fondly known as “Su.Ra” in literary circles, was one of the exponents of Tamil modern literature. He edited and published a literary magazine called Kalachuvadu. He wrote poetry under the penname “Pasuvayya”. His novels are Oru Puliya Marathin Kathai(Tamarind History), tr, Blake Wentworth, Penguin 2013, J.J Silakuripukal (J.J: Some Jottings, tr, A.R Venkatachalapathy, Katha, 2004) and Kuzhanthaigal, Pengal, Aangal (Children, Women, Men), tr, Lakshmi Holmstrom, Penguin 2013.
Ramaswamy was born on 30 May 1931, in Thazhuviya MahadevarKovil, (a village in Nagercoil). At 20, he began his literary career, translating Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai‘s Malayalam novel, Thottiyude Makan into Tamil and writing his first short story, “Muthalum Mudivum”, which he published in Pudimaipithan Ninaivu Malar. He died on 15 October 2005 (IST) aged 74.