Teachers of yesteryear

A few days ago, Aziebu Shaiza sent me a WhatsApp message about the passing on of one of our teachers. Mrs Sulekha Sen had died in Kolkata. It was such a pull from the past, and a sad reminder that we were steadily losing parts of our childhood in these farewells. Mrs Sen was our Geography teacher at Baptist High which, back in the day was called Baptist English School or BES for short. A tall, sari-clad woman, she was a familiar sight on the school campus. Mrs Sen was well liked among her students because she was such a kindly figure. It probably stemmed from her genuine love of children and her love of teaching. She was different from the usual stick-carrying, grim-faced teachers who wouldn’t hesitate at landing their sticks on your calves. The word I am looking for is indulgent; she would smile indulgently at her students and win by affection what others tried to extract by fear of punishment.  

Mrs Sen spent the best of her years in Kohima with her family. For a period of time, they rented a house from my grandfather, and her young daughter Suchitra and my younger sisters became playmates. In our family photos from the sixties, you might come across an unidentified, chubby, smiling little girl. That would be Suchitra Sen, daughter of Mr and Mrs Sen. I always wonder what has become of that playful little girl. She would quite possibly be a matron with children of her own by now.  

Mrs Sen’s classes were usually serious and academically inclined. Her gentle approach discouraged frivolity and boisterousness among the students. One afternoon she was dictating notes that the students were writing down fastidiously when she tried to conclude by emphatically stating, ‘fullstop.’ But on that day, by an amusing slip of the tongue, she shouted out ‘Football!’ Now if you have ever been in any of Mrs Sen’s classes, you will know she was never one for cracking jokes in class. Teaching was a serious business and making students laugh was a distraction she assiduously avoided. Imagine her chagrin at this slip which had the class erupting in uncontrollable laughter. All the more amusing to the students because Mrs Sen was a person you would not easily associate with levity. But she was a good sport and allowed for a good seven or eight minutes of mirth before taking control of the class again. But that story was passed on in house after house of her students and kept them quite entertained for a period of time.  

Mrs Sen and Mrs H.M.Rai were contemporaries. Everyone addressed Mrs H.M.Rai as Teacher Maya. It will be difficult to find teachers today that measure up to Mrs H.M Rai’s devotion to duty. For it was not just the hours in the school and the additional duties of paper corrections, exam preparations for Board exams and all the minutiae that goes into a teacher’s life, but the personal attention she would pay to troubled students, trying to bring good solutions to their multiple problems.  

Teacher Maya was the principal of the school, an unenviable job to govern about a thousand students or near about that. While other teachers could sit back and enjoy the holidays and weekends, for Teacher Maya the school followed her home. Even on Saturdays the stream of visitors made up of parents and guardians would use up her hours at home. Her daughters remember making tea from morning until evening as their mother tried to sort out all the problems brought by her various visitors. They would announce their arrival early in the morning with the typical greeting, ‘Vorzieho’ which has no appropriate translation in English. A basic translation is, ‘We are coming to you.’ It sounds deferential and polite and culturally correct, but a more accurate translation of the hidden nuances in this greeting would be ‘We are coming to your house although you did not invite us, and now you cannot refuse to host us.’ The visitors would sit with the ever patient teacher until they saw some evidence of light at the end of their tunnel.  

Mrs Rai’s children are all doing extremely well in their professions. One is a doctor and the youngest is in the care sector. The second youngest works with renewable energy in Nepal. The teacher at school continued to be a teacher at home, and her children are a testimony to the dedication with which she lived her life. Both Teacher Maya and Teacher Sen are no more with us. We who were taught by these teachers know first-hand that the teaching profession can be a noble profession when the sincerity that they modelled is brought to it. I feel extremely fortunate to have been their student and the nostalgia that Teachers’ Day brings with it seems an appropriate season to share these memories with you, dear reader!