[Every year September 5 is observed as Teachers’ Day. A day to remember one's teachers. This is a story about one of my favourite teachers.]
When I used to be in school, a ‘teacher’ was always a lady teacher. A male teacher was always referred to as ‘sir’. For example, Annamma teacher, but Joseph Sir.
Annamma teacher used to teach us English in Government Upper Primary School, Puthuvely, where I studied from classes five to seven. She was one of the teachers I liked very much.
Annamma teacher took three months’ maternity leave and was away for her child birth. Though it was not very common for students to write letters to teachers, I could not help and wanted to write to her. For several days I thought about the propriety of a student’s writing to a teacher.
At last I decided, “Yes, let me write to her.”
And I wrote a letter to her. I don’t know what all did I write but I particularly remember one sentence. I had asked, “What about the matter for which you have taken leave?”
I thought it was impolite to ask a teacher, ‘have you given birth to the child?’, and I resorted to the long and curved route. I thought it was wise and polite. And I was proud.
I waited for a few days for her response. I was very impatient. But when I didn’t receive any, I thought, maybe the postal department has faulted and not delivered my letter to her. Or, I also thought, maybe she was too busy to respond to one of her several students. Or maybe she was busy tending her new-born. How does she get the time then? I was sad, but gradually reconciled to the situation. It would have been great to receive a reply from her. I could have become a hero in the class – the one (the only one!) to receive a letter from the teacher, which is not very common those days. But, alas, I was disappointed. Several days, or maybe a few weeks, had passed after sending the letter.
Then one day I was standing in the play ground talking to a few friends during lunch break. Mathew sir called me, “Jayanth”. That is how he used to call me, neither Jayan, which was a natural shortening of my name, nor Jayanthan, the full name. May be he was instrumental in my signing my name as ‘Jayanth’ in my Secondary School Leaving Certificate book. This remained my signature for many years. Those days we had the notion that one’s signature should not be legible. (So that nobody imitates it, and withdraws the thousands of rupees which you dreamt of acquiring when you grew up!)
[Only God and kings could have a lakh of rupees. And a crore remained only on paper. It was only used for indicating something which was far beyond one’s imagination. Even thinking of a crore of anything frightened us. No man could earn a crore of rupees. Not in this world, not in any worlds! Not in this life, not in several lives.
Another word which we children used to express any number beyond our wildest imagination is kaakkathollaayiram (kaakka means crow and thollaayiram means nine hundred). Kaakkathollaayiram was the ultimate number and no number could exist beyond that. Fortunately none asked us, ‘what if somebody adds one to that?’ Well, if somebody dared to raise such a stupid question, we would have said, ‘No, nothing, absolutely nothing, can be added to kaakkathollaayiram.’ I don’t know if anybody has researched to find out the origin of the word. As far as I know, it existed even kaakkathollaayiram years ago.]
Now, to return to the story.
When I went to Mathew sir, he asked me, “Jayanth, did you send a letter to Annamma teacher?”
I looked down on my toes and trembled. I wanted to say, “No”, because I now suddenly realized what I had done was a crime. But lying was not in my habit then. I could not lie to anybody, what to talk of lying to a sir!
I hesitantly said, “Y-e-s.”
I was sure to be reprimanded for doing something which I should not have done. I stood in front of him with bowed neck ready to be reprimanded or even thrashed on my thighs with a cane. I was so tense that I thought I stopped breathing.
He then asked, “Yes? What did you write to her?”
He did not look or sound angry or threatening or ready to punish me. But I was still not sure what was in his mind. His was a tricky question which I didn’t want to answer. How could I tell him that I asked her about her child birth? Oh! God! What should I do? How did he know I wrote to Annamma teacher, in the first place?
I remember mother and some other relatives had burst out laughing and could not stop it for a long time when I told them that I asked the teacher ‘what about the matter for which she took leave’. So I didn’t answer. I also thought maybe it was wrong for me to have asked such a question to a teacher.
I didn’t know if Mathew sir expected a response from me. When I continued to look down without responding and ready to be thrashed, he must have felt sympathy for me. He didn’t repeat the question. Instead he said,
“All right, here is a reply from Annamma teacher.”
I thought I was dreaming. A response from Annamma teacher! This was something for which I had been waiting anxiously for several weeks. I was disappointed when I didn’t receive any. I had, however, reconciled, at last, to the fact that I was not going to receive a reply from her. So the sudden announcement by Mathew sir that she had replied was like a little bombshell. I didn’t know if what I heard was what he actually said.
But, it had to be right. Here was Mathew sir standing in front of me, holding a post card in his hand. He handed it over to me. Sure enough, it was from Annamma teacher. I could instantly recognise the beautiful rounded handwriting. I don’t remember what all she had written in that card, but she had not replied to my all-important question. But Mathew sir told me that she had a baby girl a few weeks ago.
And, sure enough, I became a hero in the class. I showed the letter to everybody. Most of them were jealous of me. I made sure that I did not hand over the letter to anybody, lest they should by chance tear or otherwise damage it. I remained a hero for several more days. When I reached home that day I proudly showed the letter to mother. She had not believed that the teacher would respond to my letter. She too was happy that the teacher did.
That was probably the first and last letter I wrote to a sir or teacher while in school.