After putting it off for ages and ages, at last one gets down to cleaning that attic/bookshelf/wardrobe to accommodate new acquisitions that cry for space. And what joy – when one finds amidst all that junk, such treasures that cannot be parted with!
An article written ages ago, newly discovered among old papers, thus claims its space in this blog. Here it goes –
A student whom I cannot forget
In my early forties, I made a career change – from that of a secretary to a teacher. Uncannily, the first job I landed as a teacher also included the responsibilities of warden of a hostel of 65 girls in the age group 16-20, in various classes of junior and senior college.
Images of harassed matrons from umpteen movies and stories came to mind – myself, a strict middle-aged spinster, and these monstrous girls constantly upto tricks, imitating and mimicking me at my back. But how contrary real life often is! The girls in my charge were simple and sweet girls from small town middle class families. Having left home for a purpose, they were full of dreams of higher education and bright careers. In a couple of years I settled down to a most enjoyable routine. There was, of course, the occasional runaway, the instances of ragging, regular fights in the bathrooms and Mess, but nothing that could not be handled with some counselling and some retribution.
Now when I look back at my short stint, I find it crowded with a lot of memorable events. One that stands out, happened in my third year. At the start of a new session, I had to send to the Mess, a list of the new entrants to the hostel indicating the number of vegetarians and non-vegetarians. On Wednesdays and Fridays, there would be a sweet dish for the vegetarians and some chicken/meat for the non-vegetarians. On the first Wednesday that term, there was one sweet dish short. I was sure one of the senior girls might have cheated, but on checking and re-checking, I could not find fault with them. Next, I lined up the new girls and confirmed the Mess list. The ‘vegetarian’ list went off without a hitch. Then as I reeled off the names on the ‘non-veg.’ list, one girl interrupted me. “Ma’am, my name should have been on the ‘veg’ list. “But I thought, since you are a….” I could not have completed without saying something stupid and insensitive. Generations of pre-recorded Brahminic data in my head said – weren’t all Muslims meat-eaters? I had not even bothered to cross-check Aliya’s admission form. “No, Ma’am,” she corrected me, “We are Mulla’s….pandits…we are vegetarians.”
Curious to know more about her, I called Aliya Mulla to my room at night. “Are there many people like you?” I asked. “I don’t know that there are many people like me, Ma’am, but there are certainly many like you who ask this question,” she said, a little aggressively, and then added softly, “Perhaps because you are from a city you tend to box people in convenient slots.” (I did not see any connection and hitherto I had prided myself on my cosmopolitan, urban or rather, urbane, rootlessness). “Back home where I come from,” Aliya continued, “we do not know such distinctions. My father is a respected scholar in Marathi and Urdu, and in our ‘mohalla’ Ganpati festival, my parents offer the first ‘aarti’. Our entire village is like that, Ma’am.” The heart of India, I thought, lies not in its villages, but in its villagers.
“Where the world has not been broken up into narrow domestic walls…”
How many times I must have taught this! Still at 40, one’s mind is a solidified rock of indelible knowledge and little nuggets of unlearning must find narrow, slippery crevices to hang on to!