“You cannot start a sentence with ‘but’ or ‘because'”, Mrs. Pandit said in a reprimanding tone as she stared me down.
“Yes, I can”, I said, half expecting to be thrown out of the English Language class. I proved her wrong and she acted hostile for the complete week.
The year was 1994 and my romance with the Queen’s language was at its peak; thanks to the delightful masterpiece “Modern English Usage” by Fowler. I was blind to everything else, including fear of getting into the bad books of the teacher I secretly revered. Mrs. Pandit and I had a strange chemistry. I was never absolutely sure we liked each other and yet at times we were falling short of breath expressing our admiration for the other. She disliked my guts and conspicuous rebellion of some of her language dictums. I disliked her ice-cool demeanour and almost invincible command of the language. I was stubborn, she was stern. Fireworks were guaranteed each time we crossed paths. And the class enjoyed it.
She knew the pride I took in my knowledge of some of the finer nuances of the language. I was embarrassingly bad in certain areas but endearingly elegant in others. My essays never got what, I believe, they deserved. However, once in a while she would write an encouraging remark to keep the rebel within limits. A classic example of carrot and stick approach. But she was good, really good. I hate admitting this, but back then, she was probably better than I.
We also connected outside school. Her elder son was my classmate in previous years so I would visit her house. She used to visit my immediate neighbour and once in while say hello to my parents. God, did I cringe when she did that! And what the hell were my parents doing making small conversation with a sworn enemy?
We parried, cut and medicated each other. Until one day I crossed the line.
I loved the last row of the class. Distant from authoritative teachers, full view of the class crowd and endless gossip on who is going around with whom, the upcoming football match and everything in-between. If there is Heaven on Earth, it had to be the last row of a classroom. That day Mrs. Pandit was spoon-feeding the class with her masterly understanding of Macbeth. While she droned incessantly, trying her best to get some sense into my classmates, I, with my buddies, was lost in ‘personal’ conversation. We did not hear the class going silent, nor did we see them turn and stare at us, some even giggling. Bloody perverts.
“Sunil, Sandeep, Gurdas!”, boomed Mrs. Pandit from beside the blackboard.
“Uh”, said all three of us, coming out of our intense whispered discussion of a certain ‘Miss’.
“It seems you’ll do not need my class”, she said more like a question which should not be answered.
But that was a crazy day and we were heady with spicy stories.
“Yes, we can do without this class”, one of us said. Which one I do not recall.
Followed by an uncomfortable silence as the weight of that sentence sunk into the room. Mrs. Pandit for a second appeared baffled and we could feel ourselves becoming terrified.
“OK, out you’ll go”, said Mrs. Pandit
We walked out with a smirk. We were shit scared but when you have rows and rows of girls waiting to see what happens, there is no option but to act like a man.
“Damn” we said the moment we were in the corridor and out of earshot.
The class ended in 25 eternal minutes and Mrs. Pandit walked out without even a glance at us. This was going to be nasty we thought. Our weekly timetable had the first period as English on four out of five days. The next day Mrs. Pandit walked in and immediately said “OK, out. And go straight to the Principal’s office. I have informed her of what happened yesterday and she would like to talk about it.”
We walked out, not exactly smiling this time. And went straight to the office of Mrs. Datar.
“So, is it true that you informed Mrs. Pandit of not needing to attend the Literature class”, purred a cool Mrs. Datar, clearly enjoying her morning at our expense.
“uh, hmmm Yes”, we said in unison as if that will allow for individual pardon.
“Fine then. Starting today, you are excused from the English class for literature and language until the end of this year”, said Mrs. Datar.
We looked at each other bewildered. That’s it? What kind of punishment is that? Will we get to appear the yearly exams? What of the board exams right after that?
“Your attendance will be marked and you will be allowed to take all exams as usual”, continued Mrs. Datar. What’s the deal with teachers and mothers? Can they hear us think?
We walked out of the Principal’s office hesitantly, unsure whether this was a victory or a defeat. And went straight to the boy’s toilet to relieve ourselves of the nervous mass collecting inside us. Only then did we speak our first words.
“Do you think they will call our parents?”, I asked, remembering that the enemy had sweet access to my camp.
“Let them call if they want”, said Sandeep. Sure! I thought looking at him with a grimace. He had parents who gave two hoots to authority. Mine looked at school like a temple.
“Boss, my dad will throw me out”, said Sunil, hardly audible. Was he choking on himself?
“You come and stay with me then”, said Sandeep, as if that were a real possibility.
“Ya sure. Out of class, out of house and staying with you. What next? We marry each other?”, replied Sunil, regaining some of his famed acerbic humour.
But nothing of that sort happened. To the contrary we made further enemies with our bold demands. The first period (remember was mostly English) begun at 8:20am. The library opened when it struck 8:40am on Mrs. Basu, the librarian’s, wristwatch. We made a case that we had nothing to do and the library should be made available so that we can utilize our time better. Like we really wanted to. An order was passed and the school library started opening at 8:20am, much to the displeasure of Mrs. Basu.
For the next 3months we did not attend any English class. But did keep up with Mrs. Pandit’s notes with help from our only true sympathizers, other backbenchers. All three of us did well in our exams. I excelled in English and topped my batch. But I never approached Mrs. Pandit with my feat, feeling somewhat shy and guilty. On the last day of school, she called out to me in the corridor and congratulated warmly on doing so well in her subject. I think I did not receive that compliment very graciously. Because I knew, if not for her firm guidance, I would never have come so far. And I knew that she knew this. But we did call peace and wished each other well in life.
As time passed I was left with only sweet memories of Mrs. Pandit and we kept in touch one way or the other. Last year (2006), when visiting my hometown, I called Mrs. Pandit and proposed we catch-up. She sounded eager and we fixed a rendezvous that I come down and pick her up from the school where she was vice-principal. I was there well before time, and we spent memorable hours chatting at her place over a cup of tea. She had aged and become more beautiful and earthly. And she thought I had grown into a peaceful, and loving person. I was flattered by that observation. My English teacher was still teaching me, about the language of life and love.
I never fully fathomed the above episode. Mrs. Datar was not known for her kindness and the ‘punishment’ she doled out that day in 1994 was unusual. What had transpired between Mrs. Pandit and Mrs. Datar for her to give us that strange punishment? I will never know. Maybe I will ask Mrs. Pandit when I next meet her.
Lately, Mrs. Pandit has become more visible with a blog and profile on Orkut. She writes moving poetry and “Eternity & other poems”, a compilation of her works, was published by Writers Workshop. The hardback volume is a beautiful maroon red cloth cover with gilded lettering and traditional geometric border. It has a special place in my bookshelf.