Yesterday my daughter and I were studying maths for her upcoming finals, and while taking a five minute break she was telling me about this funny video about Jack the Ripper.
Then I started telling her something about the funny version of the Frankenstein’s monster movie that I had seen many years ago and how the hunchbacked servant gets Dr. Frankenstein an abnormal brain thinking that it belonged to someone called “Mr. A B Normal”.
Then I asked her if she had heard about the novel Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. She hadn’t.
When I told her the plot, she asked me if I have read the book. “I haven’t read it,” I told her, “but I have been read this book.”
Today while lying in my bed in the early morning, a chain of thoughts took me to old memories, and I remembered how I came to be acquainted with this book.
Our special school (where a few kids with cerebral palsy studied) had just started and there were, maybe, 5 to 10 kids.
There was no formal education in the beginning.
Most of the teachers were volunteers.
What we found immensely fascinating, and a bit intimidating, was that they all conversed in English.
Among ourselves we wondered why they spoke English when they were not from England but from India, but back then we couldn’t figure that our teachers came from different communities and regions.
They were mostly Bengali, Parsi, South Indian, Punjabi, Christian, Anglo-Indian, and even a British. So, English was the common language.
Although we read books of different subjects like English, Hindi, maths and science, there was no particular order of grades.
We read different books from different grades depending on our comfort level.
We didn’t even follow a timetable.
If we wanted to play, we would play.
If we wanted to study, we would study.
If we simply wanted to fuss around, we would fuss around.
One of our favorite classes was reading.
We either read books given to us, or our teacher read a book to us.
Even our principal, Mita di, used to read to us.
Many people had donated old books to our school and we had more than 100 books stacked in an aluminum almirah.
There was a Sherlock Holmes compilation.
The Animal Farm.
Alice in Wonderland.
Many more, and of course, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, graphically explained with one or two sentences printed at the bottom of every page.
If I’m not forgetting, Nirmal didi joined our school within a few months.
Among all the teachers in the school, she had to become our class teacher.
She and we, I mean the entire class, never saw eye-to-eye.
She took it upon herself to inculcate a sense of method in our wayward lives.
She made us study not when we wanted, but when there was time to study according to her.
She actually made a timetable for us.
If she thought the play time was over, it was peremptorily declared over.
No reading books or shuffling through picture books if we hadn’t studied what we were supposed to study within a given timeframe.
She even used to make us sit quietly, with our fingers pressed hard against our lips, if we couldn’t stop ourselves from talking to each other.
The grapevine among the four students in our class was that she could even beat us up if we upset her enough.
Nobody wanted to try her limits, so, such drastic circumstances never came to manifest.
Fortunately, we got a small respite from her reign of terror.
Due to some domestic compulsion she had to take a leave of 20 days.
Happy times were back.
We knew that she would be back in 20 days, so we wanted to make the most of the opportunity and whenever some teacher came to teach us, we would refuse to be taught and the teacher would go back, either laughing, or exasperated, depending on her disposition.
Some or the other person would come, including Mita di, to read us a book, teach us a bit if we felt like, or simply to sit around and observe us to make sure we didn’t harm ourselves with too much excitement and independence.
One day, when we were busy vandalizing the aluminum almirah that contained all the books and some old papers from the 18th century, a bright, round face burst into the classroom with a cheery and giddy, “Hello kids!”
It was Vinita didi, standing at the door, bearing the widest grin we had ever seen in our lives. Behind, looming over her shoulder, stood Mita di, with a smile of an elder presenting us with a new toy to play.
Mita di told us that Vinita didi would be our class teacher while Nirmal didi was away and asked us not to trouble her much, while exuding the same benevolent smile.
After introducing her, she quickly left.
Although we immediately liked her (at least I remember that), we were not in a mood to accommodate a teacher in our lives, having just had a taste of Nirmal-didi-lessness in our lives.
As we all got ourselves busy in whatever we were doing before being interrupted, she quietly dragged a chair, made herself comfortable upon it, and started observing us, smiling and laughing occasionally.
After a while we completely forgot that she was even in the room.
Then she suddenly got up, took a book out of the almirah and said, “Let me read you all a story.”
We liked her enough to not say no to her, so we went back to our seats.
That day she read to us Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with all the gory details.
Her expressions would change according to whether she was reading about Dr Jekyll or Mr. Hyde.
We listened to the story in rapt attention.
More than the story, we were enraptured by her facial expressions and the way she made ominous gestures with her hands while dexterously moving the book from one hand to another.
Fun, thrill, excitement and adoration permeated the surrounding atmosphere.
She came every day for all those days Nirmal didi was away.
On her last day, we were all crestfallen.
More than feeling bad about the prospect of Nirmal didi coming back, we felt miserable that Vinita didi would no longer be coming.
When we insisted that she shouldn’t leave, with her patent smile, she said that she was here just for those 20 days because Nirmal didi had taken leave and there was no other teacher who could take care of us full-time.
One of us even started crying.
The next day she didn’t come but Nirmal didi too hadn’t turned up yet as she was delayed by a couple of days.
There was another teacher who was very close to us and we told her that we didn’t want to study with Nirmal didi and we wanted Vinita didi back.
The teacher told us to go meet Mita di and tell her to talk to Vinita didi.
Mita di gave us a patient hearing.
She told us that Vinita didi really liked spending time with us during those days but she wasn’t looking for a permanent place in the school.
We all insisted that she must talk to her and convey to her that we wanted her to come back.
Under no condition we were ready to accept Nirmal didi as our teacher especially after being taught by Vinita didi.
I don’t remember whether Mita di had Vinita didi’s phone number or not.
There was a British teacher, I think if I remember her name correctly, she was called Breeda didi, or something like that, who was Vinita didi’s neighbor.
(For that matter, even Dara Singh was Vinita didi’s neighbour during those days, Vinita didi had told us).
As we were informed by Mita di, a message was sent to Vinita didi via Breeda didi, and I don’t exactly remember how many days elapsed between the message and Vinita didi’s appearance, but I remember that by the time Nirmal didi joined back, Vinita didi was already our class teacher.
Nirmal didi was assigned to another class.
The rest, as they say, is history.
She spent close to 20 years in the school as a teacher.
This was the perception among us kids.
We always believed that it was our exhortation, pleading and relentlessness that brought her back to the school.
The engine of this perception was further fueled by what she said a few times when she was angry, “You guys got me stuck here.”
Although I left the school after 6–7 years of her joining, we always remained in touch.
A few of us called her our second mother because the way she talked to us, scolded us, encouraged us, whacked us, threw stuff at us, chased us around, doled out love and affection, and sometimes, even pleaded with us, only a mother-like person can feel so secure and entitled.
Whenever I visited my Alma mater, there was no chance I wouldn’t seek her out and spend some time with her.
Even when she was teaching she would make me sit in the room and chat with me while doing her work.
When she left the school, it was as if the soul of the school had left.
“They have destroyed the garden,” she complained once when we were talking on the phone. “The garden looks like it’s managed by the Communists.”
She used to manage the school garden when she was still there.
“That’s fine Vinita didi,” I said. “You managed the garden your way, now they are managing their own way.”
Even till her last days, I never knew she had throat cancer.
Whenever I called, I was told that she was resting, or she was sleeping.
I often brag to my wife that I got my sense of humor from Vinita didi and also never fail to mention that she said the very same thing once in front of a gathering, “This fellow got his sense of humor from me.”
I will read Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde very soon.