Once Upon a Time a Girl: Not to Speak of the Cats and the Skull

Spring, it would appear, is invariably followed by summer and summer in its turn by autumn, and so on and so forth. No wonder therefore that as the spring moonshine girl receded into the past, other seasons invaded. And I grew older. And older. Though not quite as old as I am today. In fact, I was quite young still, when the spring moonshine girl disappeared into a galaxy tucked away in an unknown corner of the universe.

I think I was a student of the MA class when yet another girl showed up at a forgotten crossroad of my wayward ways. Well, I exaggerate, for I have not quite forgotten the morning when Sovan-babu spoke to me as he sat in the well-appointed living room of a friend’s home. “There’s this tenth class girl who needs to be tutored. Will you be available?” he asked me with a fixed smile on his kind face. Sovan-babu was a regular at the friend’s home, having been a devoted student of his father, who taught History in the Jadavpur University. He wore a dhoti and a long shirt whose colour wavered between butter and buttterscotch, and never forgot to carry his umbrella. A bachelor by all accounts and a person devoted to old books. He was himself a collector of sorts, or at least one who was intimately connected to collectors of precious gems of our literary past. I cannot recall any expression other than a smile on Sovan-babu’s dark face. A smile that never failed to invite, not even the most insensitive specimens of our race.

The wages of my labour, Sovan-babu told me, would be Rs. 40 a month, which was a dramatic rise from the spring moonshine Rs. 5, that had sent me scurrying towards safety. I was elated frankly, since a bus ride from the southern end of Calcutta those days to its northern outskirts cost no more than 50 paise. And Sovan-babu being a totally dependable person, I jumped for the offer and showed up at the home I was directed to visit no more than a week later. I arrived exactly on time.

Sovan-babu was waiting there. It was once again a somewhat low middle class room in a large two storied building. The building must have seen better times when it had been built perhaps three decades ago. Old, but not quite as old as the Red Fort. Somewhat like the older me compared to my moonshine day. What caught my attention, though, as soon as I entered the room, was a shiny black human skull sitting on a shelf filled with accumulated almanacs from the near and distant past. There could have been other museum pieces sitting there as well, but what I saw, apart from the skull, was a large sized bed inherited from more affluent days, going by the quality of the wood. However, unlike the spring moonshine home, the bed did not occupy the entire room. There was enough space left for a dark brown Burma teak cupboard too, jam-packed with unorganized books and papers that peeped through its panelled glass door. And there were a few straight backed wooden chairs as well and a writing table of unknown vintage once more. As opposed to moonshine, the student’s books were sitting there in a pile on the table under the scrutiny of the aforementioned skull from the wall at the far end of the room.

Apart from Sovan-babu, the girl’s father was expecting me too and at some point of time after I arrived, the mother showed up as well. Smiling, welcoming people and well-fed too going by their sizes. The father was clad in a somewhat worn out white fatua and a dhoti reaching down to the knees, worn South Indian style. It is difficult for me to recall what we conversed about, but whatever it was, we were soon nodding our heads in agreement. I had been hired as Aparna’s (name unchanged) teacher, to teach her mostly English and Mathematics. And I have forgotten of course at which point of time during the proceedings the pretty young Aparna had entered the stage. As I have already told you, I was older now, but not too old. Besides, Aparna wore a saree, unlike the moonshine kid, who was just a little girl in long skirts.

Now don’t get me wrong. This is no love story that I am weaving out for you. It will not lead to broken or joined hearts, if that’s what you are expecting. It is just a story of a growing young girl, who needed extra help outside her school. Aparna was a sweet young girl, full of reverence for her new found teacher. And the teacher was hell bent at that stage of his life on turning into a professional teacher some day in the not too distant future.

I arrived on the day we agreed upon for my first session and this time I had a better look at the inside of the building as I climbed up the stairs to the first floor. It appeared to be a house full of people as well as rooms. The people lived as separate families occupying two or three rooms each. Peaceful coexistence, for each family appeared to own the rooms it lived in and I ended up with the impression that they had once been a joint family. With time the family had grown in size probably, making joint living an infeasible proposition. The reasons could have been economic too, but I didn’t care much to exercise my brain over the issue.

The room this time was empty, except for Aparna and I sitting across the table from each other. Two people in a large room, leaving out the skull that stared at my back as I faced Aparna. It was not a particularly scary experience, I know not why. Skull it was, but it was a friendly looking skull, not entertaining deep dark thoughts against any one in particular. Since the skull was after all a skull though, I did inquire about it when I saw Sovan-babu next time. It appeared that Aparna’s father, Amiya-babu, had started out life quite differently from the way he was living now. In particular, he had not planned to raise a family at all and so Aparna’s appearance in this world was directly linked to Amiya-babu’s change of mind.

Amiya-babu, I was informed, had left home to live the life of an ascetic in his young days. And no ordinary ascetic at that. He had chosen to be a tantrik sadhu! Which explained the skull, perhaps the only relic he had saved from his tantra filled days. As I looked once in a while at the good natured Hobit shaped man, I found it most difficult to visualize him sitting on a corpse and practising whatever tantra yoga a tantrik performed. Quite clearly, he had been disillusioned and come back home to announce that he was no longer interested in tantric occupations. Instead, a family of his own and a pretty daughter attracted him more. God, being merciful, was not deaf to his appeal and hence, there I was, teaching Aparna under the ever watchful guardianship of the skull that had lost its charm. Or had it? I will have more to offer on this matter as we move on.

Aparna, as I found, was fairly weak in English and I had to work hard to make her learn. Her mathematics was OK as far as I could see, but it could have been better. She was not exactly a serious student and I soon found myself scolding her once in a while for not working hard enough. Her parents sat in the adjacent room and listened to the radio almost every evening I visited them. Sometimes though, my voice rose a few decibels above the radio waves, especially when I took Aparna to task for neglecting the work I had assigned her. And the parents would hear me clearly it seemed, especially the mother. Hidden behind the curtain separating the two rooms, she would join me in chiding her daughter in a shrill voice. An embarrassing situation for me, for Aparna reacted quite strongly. Not vocally though. Her eyes spewed fire, as she frowned in dogged defiance at the table. “I won’t forgive you for this,” she appeared to be yelling at me in thundering silence.

But there were interludes of entertainment as well. Provided by the father. As I recall, they owned a few cats that roamed freely inside their rooms. And Amiya-babu was obviously fond of them. He would speak to them whenever one or the other of them appeared in the adjoining radio equipped room. Quite invariably he invited them to his vicinity with a loud but affectionate “Meow”. Like my voice, his meow floated over in the opposite direction to where we sat and caused immense embarrassment for Aparna. She was not quite prepared to present a meowing dad to her tutor. There were variations too in the meow theme. On one occasion, the radio announced that a programme of light classical Bangla songs was about to begin. I have no idea why Amiya-babu began to imitate the announcement immediately. And he kept repeating the imitation at ever higher pitches and in a variety of notes and tunes, till suddenly he shifted gear and ended up with a few bouts of his meows. On some of these occasions, Aparna would turn red trying to suppress her embarrassment and, once at least, she left the room to bring her dad back to his senses.

Even though I maintained a straight face for Aparna’s comfort, I used to be greatly amused by these incidents and described them later to Sovan-babu. He was surprised the first time he heard about this and even went to Amiya-babu’s home to find out if I was imagining things. He came back with the message that Amiya-babu believed that he was engaging in these antiques to help me feel at home. I don’t think I ever produced the impression of feeling constrained or shy in any way, but Amiya-babu didn’t give up his efforts to make me feel relaxed, even after his conversation with Sovan-babu. He kept on maintaining the comfort level at his home to his daughter’s endless discomfort.

Amiya-babu and the skull in the room were the most interesting memories I have from my Aparna-teaching days and I often wondered who Amiya-babu was meowing at, the silent skull or his cats?

This is an inconsequential story, but it is a story with an end, and that end I have yet to reach. Let us proceed therefore in its search. Soon enough, Aparna’s Board examinations arrived and I visited her home a number of times while the exam was on to find out how she was faring. Following this, I had no further need to visit them and had begun to work as a Research Scholar in Presidency College, Calcutta. But God had willed otherwise.

Soon after the Board results were published, I received a call from Amiya-babu. I wasn’t prepared for this, but I went there to find out what he wanted. I was told that Aparna had done rather well in the exams and, most importantly, it was in the English language that she had scored best!! I simply could not believe my ears, for till the last day that I had taught her, I had been scolding her for being poor in English. I stared at her parents in dumbfounded silence. As far as I could remember, my own score in English for my Board exam had been worse. I managed to keep my emotions in check, however, and inquired why I had been summoned.

“You have to keep on teaching her” was the command I heard. And I responded with a “But …”, which they all ignored quite totally. “Look,” Amiya-babu told me in a no nonsense tone this time, “it is clear that you have taught her well, or else her results cannot be explained.” I tried to “but” back, but I but-ted in vain. “You start soon,” the father ordered and disappeared behind the curtain to his meowing retreat. There was no one else in the room, not even my student. So, I silently stared back at the skull for a while and came back home wondering whether it was the skull that could explain the miracle of Aparna’s performance. Perhaps it had its magical powers.

I remained in semi-incognito condition for a few days till Sovan-babu intervened once again. They had assumed, it appeared, that I had agreed and wanted to know when I could show up. There was a second question this time though. What should my wages be? She had risen to a higher class now and obviously required a better paid teacher. So, how much does the teacher wish to be paid? I saw a way out now. Without batting an eyelid, I said Rs. 41, i.e. a rupee more than what I was being paid till then. The news was dutifully conveyed and I learnt that the family was deeply engaged in a discussion concerning the demand. What did a one rupee rise mean? What, in other words, was one equal to? Whatever they concluded, I received the summons once more to begin and I too responded, if only to find out how they had solved the mystery of the numerical magnitude of ‘one’.

I began to teach and at the end of the first month Amiya-babu walked into the room wearing a face that looked more serious than anything even remotely close to his meows. He was carrying currency notes in his hand and he handed them over to me with a half audible noise. Something like a “umph” I think. Naturally, I did not count the money in the presence of my student and simply slipped the notes inside my shirt pocket. On my way back home that evening, I did count of course, and found that my wages had increased by Rs. 10. Made sense, since 1 + 0 equals 1 as far as I knew. By this time, I was so much at home with Amiya-babu’s family that I couldn’t care less. I carried on therefore till Aparna finished her Higher Secondary exam. She performed well this time too and I strongly believe till this day that she owed her success either to herself or to that magic skull.

And then she entered college to study English Honours with Mathematics as a minor subject. I asked her why she had combined Mathematics with English. She didn’t know. I asked her why she hadn’t consulted me. She didn’t know.

Amiya-babu called me back in the meantime and asked me to continue. I told him in no uncertain terms that this was an absurd proposition. I was a student of Economics. How could I teach an English Honours student? But the family was unconvinced and I had to oblige once again. I had begun to feel pretty stupid by now of course and informed them with all the strength at my command that I was available only on condition that they wouldn’t pay me a dime. They worried for a while, but ultimately agreed. They were convinced about my miracle value, though the skull obviously knew better.

I am pretty close to the end of this inane story now. While Aparna was following her English Honours course, I got a fellowship from the US and had to leave. Prior to my departure, I went to Amiya-babu once and asked him to read my horoscope for me. Sovan-babu had told me that Amiya-babu was trained in that area. He did not oblige me till I was very close to departing for foreign shores. And what he told me stunned me to say the least. “I looked at your horoscope. It’s good, but don’t get married. A married life will not bring you happiness.” Well, I didn’t follow his advice and after having spent 46 years of marital bliss, I am not sure anymore if he knew how to read horoscopes.

That was the last time he spoke to me. Yet an epilogue remains. Several years later, perhaps 20 years or so, I came across Sovan-babu once again. I was back from the US then and teaching at the Indian Statistical Institute. After exchanging pleasantries, I asked him about Aparna. Amiya-babu and his wife had passed away I learnt and Aparna was working in the State Bank of India. Sovan-babu even told me about the branch where she was posted. Only I did not pursue the matter any further.

We had seen the end of each other. She had her family and her children. So had I a wife and a son. We had our separate lives to lead and I wasn’t sure if our ways could cross anymore. Even so, as I write this piece now, I cannot help asking myself what Aparna is doing these days. She should have retired from service, that pretty little girl I used to know and scold. She is a grandmother possibly. Sovan-babu, alas, cannot throw much light on the matter either, having succumbed to mortality.

I also think that in this game of life, my student has won hands down. She had not only scored higher in the English language examination, beating her own teacher. But if she is a grandmother now she has still more to boast about than her teacher.

Her teacher. The one who is sighing in winter.

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