This morning I went to a saloon to get my beard trimmed.
A 20-22 year old barber attended to me. After he ran the machine to trim my beard I saw my mustache kept long, flowing down to my chin, something like a french beard but not a complete french beard. When I asked the barber to shorten it and keep it like a regular mustache he said, “yeh achcha dikhta hai.” (This looks good.) When I said it might be so but I want it short he took the machine in his hand again saying, “tasweer bolti toh tasweer banaaney waaley ko badi takleef hoti.” (If paintings could speak it would have been difficult for the painter.)
Completing 24 years of service as a teacher amma- my mother, Yashodha A. Acharya, retired from her service 31 October 2015.
Born in a semi-rural town in coastal Karnataka my mother had quit her studies after class seven since my grandfather could not afford to send her to school. Girls were not sent to high school also those days. But after a year of she dropping off the school, Govt Girls High School began in Byndoor just opposite our house.
The Principal of the school went home to home asking them to enroll their children to school. My grandfather, after few meetings with the Principal, agreed to send my mother to school again. Though he agreed my mother refused to go to school since she thought she going back to school would become an economic burden to the family.
With one uniform set, she says, she went to school wearing it for an entire week and then washing them on Sundays. In rainy seasons when the clothes wouldnt dry easily she would hold the uniform against the fireplace where water would be boiled for bath and dry it. She wrote copies with pencil on empty sheets and wrote notes on the same sheet over the pencil written copies since it would save her from wanting to buy more books.
But the school days ended with her completing class ten. The day she completed her class ten exams, she tells me, all her classmates decided to have an ice-lolly to celebrate the completion of SSLC. My mother had silently walked back home since she did not want to ask my grandfather to give her money for ice-lolly. But that year she won a prize for 100% attendance where the gift was a match box which she promptly had handed over to my grandmother not feeling proud but a feeling content.
After several years she married my father who literally forced her to enroll for a teachers training programme- TCH. Very reluctantly she joined and completed the course. But when she got her appointment order I had descended on earth and she was taking care of me and politely refused the Govt offer. She then, when I had grown up a little, took up a job in Academy School, Manipal and after a couple of years got a Govt offer yet again and she grabbed it.
While she was teaching at Academy School, Manipal,a Kannada medium school, which was close to the school I was studying in i.e. Madhava Kripa, a English medium school, every evening after my school hours I, with my sister who was a year senior to me in school, would walk to my mother’s school and then with her walk home. (My mother wanted to put my sister and me to a Kannada medium school but since all our neigbours were sending their children to English medium school she did not want us to suffer from complexes and sent us to English medium school)
Every day visit to my mother’s school had a great impact on me which, of course, I did not realize back then. The students at the Academy School were from a different class and caste unlike the school where I went to study. If not for regular visits to my mother’s school probably I wouldnt have realized that there is another world out there, there is another Manipal out there, there is class division out there and that there is a different experience out there.
I knew most of the then students there very well. They also knew me very well. We- they and i- interacted closely, those days as kids, they being slightly elder to me. They were all, i can remember, very interested in studying, learning and talented too! They all, i knew, came from a economically difficult background. As i grew up, i got absorbed in my world, my mother got Government job in some other school and my interaction with the Academy School the children there stopped. But every now and then my mother would remember her students and tell me how they all, though being smart and intelligent students, could not continue with education. That kind of became a constant reminder to me about the other world that exists out there to which the Manipal, for its way of being, could have made me blind to or insensitive to.
Even when my mother left the Academy School and joined the Govt school in Hebri, then Athrady and then Alevooru, the kind of the students she had were similar, coming from difficult and marginalized backgrounds. She would, once in a while, tell me about some students and their difficulties. They were just stories from mother’s school back then but silently somewhere it kept shaping my inner world and my outlook.
A boy who had to leave schooling because his parents, as migrant labourers, had to move to some other place, a boy who would tell he couldnt do homework because his parents were fighting at home, girl who when asked, other day of joining, “tell us what is your name?” replied saying, “what is your name?”, of boys who would go work in hotels during summer vacations, of boys who would work in bars after school hours all to be able to buy note book, a pencil, a bag, a girl who left school to take care of the new born at home, girls who would pronounce the Kannada words differently and not like ‘standardized Kannada’, girls who would drop out of school day dance because it would demand buying a new set of bangles, of students who spoke about rotation hunger at home as they cherished mid-day meals, of students who wore the medal they won on the sports day, every day to the class, of parents who would come and beg the teachers to make their children reach a position better than theirs, of parents who, being caught in their struggle to make ends meet, couldnt bother much about their own children… Human stories innumerable came to through my mother making me realize what privilege is, what cultural/ social capital is, what class divide is, what caste is. If not for these stories my understanding of all of this with my limited reading would have certainly fallen short and been just an empty signifier.
My mother’s school experiences was my school where human life and human conditions were spoken about without jargon, without theoretical framework, without the academic air.
Whenever my mother heard a new song, watched a new play she would immediately say, “I should teach this to my students.” She being she the asocial that she is, has, more than once, taken the effort to go in search of the play director, the singer just to get that script that song just to make her students learn. Her commitment to her work remains unquestioned. To the point that few months ago due to gallbladder stone she was asked to immediately undergo a surgery to which she said, “I will retire in October. So let me get this surgery done after that when I will not be committed to school.” But the pain escalated quickly and she had to undergo a surgery.
While in hospital she kept cursing the stones saying, “Couldnt it have waited till I got retired?” She took rest for a few days with the stitches still on waiting for it to be removed. The day her stitches got removed the first question she asked the Doctor was, “Can I go to school now?” The doctor said, “Yes.” She asked if she could take the bus and all. Doctor said, “Yes.” She thanked the Doctor and we came out. While we were walking back she tells me, “Oh, wait. I did not ask him if I should continue the medicines,” and goes back to the Doctor. Well, medicines were secondary for her and getting back to school and performing her duty was primary.
My sister and I for a few years, when my mother was made the class teacher of class 3, would make fun of her saying she is a “Third class teacher.” But in real she was always a first class teacher. Most of her students, who because of socio-economic reason, have ended up being bus conductors, cleaners, hospital attendants, recognize her everywhere and speak to her with great affection even to this day. I still remember a student of hers coming home during my sister’s wedding and saying, “Let know if I have some work in your daughter’s wedding.”
Once a student of mine took me to an ice-cream parlour and introduced me to the waitress there saying, “he is my Sir.” The waitress, who was quite close to my student, said, “I have seen him since he was a kid. His mother was my teacher and she was our favourtie teacher.” When I heard that the twinkle in my eyes had outshone the brightness of the sun. Many others who I would meet at different walks of life would fondly ask me how their teacher is doing and remember their school days saying, “whatever she taught us is what we learned,” “if not for your mother we wouldn’t have gotten interested in learning.”
It is difficult to say, for any son or daughter, as to what they learnt from their mothers. But on this day when my mother has retired from her service as a teacher I can only recollect what I learnt from my mother’s life as a student and a teacher. Without this learning I would have been a poor human being or would have been quite inhumane.
My mother and her school life has been my first gravitation of reality.
I bow down, humbly, to amma, my mother…
Photos: Prateek Mukunda