Teachers are fascinating people. At least I can say that about the teachers till I was in school. They inspire thousands of students every year. I have mentioned about two such teachers of mine in my blog, Two Great Teachers. Some of the most interesting short stories I have translated are about teachers, Ku Azhagirisamy’s Kumarapuram Station, Crown of Thorns – முள்முடி – Thi Janakiraman and Our Teacher – எங்கள் டீச்சர் – Sundara Ramasamy.
When I read about Mr. Prapanjan’s, one of the well known writers in Tamil, I remembered this story which is my favourite. I keep wondering are these teachers just born great or is it an acquired trait?
Mary the lamb – Prapanchan.
மரி என்னும் ஆட்டுக்குட்ட்டி – பிரபஞ்சன்.
“Tamil Sir…. I am thinking of giving TC to Arputha Mary and sending her away.” said the Head Master.
I asked, “Which Arputha Mary?”
“Are there nine hundred ninety eight Arputha Marys in the School? The same Arputha Mary in Class X.”
I folded the newspaper and tried to put a face to Arputha Mary. Yes. The gum chewing and with that constant chewing, ignores, the school, the teachers, students, rules and regulations and the one who thinks, ‘I don’t give a damn about anyone.. poo’ girl came to mind. She is a student of mine as well.
“Why TC sir? (Transfer Certificate)
“Why? Are you in this world? Is she not your student?”
“Yes. The one who comes to school once in a while, thinking she is doing a favour to us.”
“Hmm. You are telling me.” He threw a very heavy attendance register and some files in front of me.
“Look here. In the past six months she has come to school for a total of twelve days. I am sending a letter every month informing about her attendance. None from her home had come to see who is that idiot sending letters. At least we can ask her to get a medical certificate and help her to continue, but she is not showing up. She comes to school like our DEO (District Eduction Officer). Even when she shows her face, is she coming like a student? How can I describe it? Sitting on french bicycle like a lamb, wearing pants. What kind of pants! It hugs her all over like a photo frame. We live in constant fear when her dress will give up. And her shirt. Why doesn’t she button up. The top two are always open and she wears a long chain which dance like a snake from one side to other. She doesn’t feel shy that boys are in the class. In this damn school, there is no uniform, no regulation, nothing. I know. You would have enjoyed watching this.
“Keep quiet. I have spent forty odd years in this. I know human psychology. How old are you?
“Twenty Nine Sir.”
“My experience is forty years.”
“There is no rule in the school which states girls can’t wear pants.”
“So? Is there a rule which states you can come naked to school? She is eighteen. She failed in every class and has just arrived in Class X. In our days, at eighteen, girls will be having a kid each in hip and shoulder. As if that’s not enough, they will be biting into raw mango. Last month, one day she took pity on us and came to school. In six hours, hardly six hours, you know what did she do. She was laughing and talking to some scoundrels – what you call them? friends? outside the school gate. Our history teacher, the poor chap, told her not to misbehave outside school and asked her to go the class. Do you know what what did she tell him?”
“Tell me Sir.”
“She asked him if he is jealous. In front of those boys. He came and cried. She told him curtly, he is responsible for what happens inside the class and not outside the school.”
The Head Master’s face reddened, but he continued.
“It did not stop there. In the afternoon she picked up a fight with PT teacher. He was teaching her some exercise and making her to repeat. Unintentionally he touched her while teaching and can you imagine what did she ask him?”
“She would have asked him not to touch her.”
“Normal human beings would say something like that. But she said something, I am ashamed to repeat.”
The Head Master held his held between his hands. He was sweating profusley.
“She asked him if he doesn’t sleep with his wife. Poor chap. He has now gone on leave. He says he has no intention of coming back. I can’t take this anymore. I also have four children. I can’t live with these beasts. My blood pressure is shooting up. We should dismiss this donkey.”
“Sir if we give TC now, her life will be spoilt. She can’t write her school final exams.”
“Even that donkey is not worried about it. Why are you bothered?”
We should not keep quiet thinking why should we bother? It’s not my nature as well. Also that Mary, the little lamb, is a young girl. Has she sinned so much that she can’t be forgiven? Even if she has, I am not a saint who could throw stones at her to kill her.
When I told my wife Sumathi about what happened at the school, she repeated what the HM told me.
“Why are you getting involved in this? Probably she will talk to you the same way she has spoken to other teachers.”
I convinced her and took her to meet Mary in the evening.
Her house was not far from my place. In a row of houses opposite to the station, she lived in one of them, with a pial in the front of the house, tiled in the front. The pial was gathering dust and the house had not been swept for days. There were sofas and chairs inside the house but they were strewn all over the place.
I called out, “Mary.” Only after I called out for the third time she emerged from inside. Her hair was disshelved, half asleep, her lungi and shirt had so many creases.
She was surprised to see me; must be doubly surprised to see my wife as well.
“Come in sir. Please sit down.” She dusted the sofas, rearranged them. We sat on the sofa and when I asked to her sit, she sat on a small chair.
“Did I disturb your sleep?”
“It is OK sir.” She was feeling shy and looked at the floor. She tried to make her look OK.
“How come you are here sir?”
“We were going to the beach. I just remembered your house is on the way. Since I have not seen you for past many days we thought visiting your place. Uninvited guests. Are you not well?”
“You must be smelling the balm. Would you eat something?”
“No thanks. Is no one at home?”
“Is this a home? In a home, mother should be there and father. Dad has gone long time ago. Gone means not dead. He had just left us. Mom has not totally deserted me. We meet occasionally. Sometime once in two days. That is why I asked, is this a home. I feel like staying in a lodge.”
I felt uncomfortable. It was as if I was looking at a child who goes around begging, carrying a damaged aluminium plate.
“How do you manage food?”
“Mostly when I am hungry I eat something in hotels. If mom is at home, she would cook something. Hotel food is better than her cooking. I am not saying it is not good. I can’t think my mom is cooking for me. And she doesn’t think she is making for her daughter.”
Sumathi asked her, “Is it not your mother?”
“Yes. But she is living with someone else now. I don’t like him and he doesn’t like me. They are living their lives and I try to manage mine.”
A tight silence ensued. I stood like an alarm clock that stopped.
“Mary at least if you come to school, you can feel a change.”
“For what use? For whom?”
She sighed. I thought I should not speak more on the subject.
“Come let us go to the beach?”
“Me? she asked with some enthusiasm.
She ran inside with excitement to get ready.
I looked at Sumathi.
“Such a pity! she commented.
“Who is not? I asked her. “Her mom who left her here, her dad everyone” I said.
Mary emerged like flower which just blossomed; the roadside which just got wet from rains, like a pebble in the stream, very fresh. She was wearing pants which looked beautiful on her. I thought the dress was OK and comfortable.
“Smart!” I said.
“Thank You sir.”
We walked towards the beach; I was waking in the middle, Sumathi and Mary on either side. It was just a short walk.
The seashore was a happy place. Children were sitting on the stone horses. And their parents enjoyed watching them. The youth who bring life to this world. The peanuts were getting roasted on the sea sand over a brassiere.
The kids were flying colourful balloons. We bought some peanuts.
“Sir get me some kara vada.” I bought some and she ate it.
“I did not eat in the afternoon sir. I was feeling lazy and I slept.”
“You will dinner with us in the night.” Sumathi told her.
“It’s OK sister.”
“What OK. You are coming with us.”
Sumathi and Mary were few steps behind me when we returned. Mary was holding Sumathi’s hands and talking.
We only had sambar and eggplant curry. We also had dried fish.
“This is excellent sister; sambar and nethili karuvadu is a great combination.” Mary was ecstatic.
Nowadays Mary comes to our house everyday in the morning and evening. She had idlis at our place in the mornings. All the 365 days in our house, the breakfast is either idli or dosa. I used to comment, if I hide the grinding stone, Sumathi will die of heart attack. Mary would laugh loudly on hearing this comment. In the evenings she spent sometime with us. It was hilarious to see her, trying to sit on the floor in her tight pants.
“Hey Mary, you are used to roaming around the village in cycle. Why are you helping Sumathi with cutting onions?”
“This is very good sir. The tears that come when you cut onions is a thrilling experience.” How thrilling?
“Sir can I ask you something?”
“You can ask not one but two or three questions also!”
“Sir I am serious. Are you not troubled by my visits?”
She kept quiet for sometime and asked again.
“Everyone is saying I am a spoilt brat. Why are you allowing me inside your house and feeding me?”
I felt like laughing.
“Don’t say that. You are not spoilt or rotten. No one is bad in this world, not your mother, not your father. No one.”
“I am behaving like this to take revenge on my mother.”
Ten days passed. One day Mary asked me.
“Sir why did you not ask me why I am not coming to school?”
I looked at her face. Few tear drops were just ready to roll down from her eyes.
“You should have asked me sir. You should have slapped me and asked why am I not going to school. I am like this without a care in the world because no one asked me. No one has loved me so far the way you have loved me. Only the people who have shown love have the right to ask. But you did not.”
“I thought it should come from within yourself. So what? nothing is lost. We will start afresh today. You have joined Class X from today. We will go to School from tomorrow.”
Mary covered her face and started crying.
Prapanchan was born in Pondicherry and did his schooling in Petit Seminaire Higher Secondary School, Puducherry. His birth name was Vaidyalingam. His father ran a toddy shop. He attended the Karandhai College and graduated as a Tamil Vidwan. He started his career as a Tamil teacher in Thanjavur. He also worked as a journalist in Kumudam, Ananda Vikatan and Kungumam. In 1961, he published his first short story Enna ulagamada in the magazine Bharani. He was influenced by the Self-Respect Movement. He had published 46 books. In 1995, he was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for Tamil for his historical novel Vaanam Vasapadum (lit. The Sky will be ours) set in the times of Ananda Ranga Pillai. His works have been translated into Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, German, French, English and Swedish. His play Muttai is part of the curriculum in Delhi University and his short story collection Netrru Manidhargal is a textbook in many colleges. He was married to Pramila Rani and they have three sons. He was living in Chennai and Pondicherry.