My Mother, My Teacher
My Mother, My Teacher
As the wife of the Head of a Mining Project in Jharkhand, she could have led a cozy life. She could have planned her garden, visited her friends for mah-jong and tea, and reveled in being badi memsahib. Instead, the former primary school teacher realized that the children of the project did not have access to a pre-primacy school. Children enrolled directly in grade one in the local Kendriya Vidyalaya and struggled to make the transition. She convinced her husband about the need to start a nursery school, got a flat allotted for the purpose, and recruited teachers from among the wives of the officers.
When the nursery school opened for admissions, one of the workers from the mines was at the head of the queue. “Is this school only for children of officers, or can my daughter enroll too?”, he demanded. She took one look at the neatly turned out child with double plaits. “This school is for the children of all the employees working in the Mines”, she replied.
On the day the nursery school started, there were many faces pressed against the windows. All the workers were curious to know how that girl would be treated. They were shocked to see badi memsahib comforting her exactly the same way as she did the other children. Over the week, all the other workers enrolled their children in the nursery school.
Those adivasi children had an innate intelligence that was unlocked because very early in their life, a teacher showed them they were exceptional. Each of them went on to perform well academically, took advantage of reservations, and entered engineering and medical colleges.
“Bade saab has to go, but why can’t badi memsahib stay”, the wives of the workers wept when they were transferred and had to move out of the project. But over the next few years, she kept receiving information about “her” students and took as much pride in their success as she did in the success of the child she birthed.
Today, we talk about access to education and opportunities; forty years back, she showed how it worked in practice.
That lady is my mother.
A person who is equally comfortable in any environment. She could converse with the Governor of a State with the same ease with which she speaks to a vegetable vendor. Her friends tell me stories of how at a party she asked the bartender to fix a crème de menthe in the exact shade of the saree she was wearing. Yet the same lady would happily sit cross-legged in a tiny kitchen and learn how to make a new dish from someone.
A lady who, at 40, enrolled to become a Special Educator and saw nothing ironic in learning from people many years her junior. Someone who, even in her late 70s, continues to volunteer with an organization that works with children with learning disabilities.
I could go on and on with stories about her. But one will describe exactly who she is as a person. Nearing her 80th birthday, and locked down alone at home because of COVID, her recurring complaint is, “I feel so useless. I am not able to do anything.” At her age, most people are living off the investment they made in their younger years; but for her ‘being productive’ is important. She constantly wants to be helping someone; whether it is making a monthly visit to a person who is housebound due to illness, or accompanying her friends to the hospital for their check-ups, or just giving practical advice on how to cope with various issues.
She thinks she taught me how to study, and she credits my academic brilliance to her teaching. Yes, she did. But what she doesn’t realize is that teaching me academics is the least of the things she taught me.
She taught me how important it is to be a productive member of society.
She taught me to stand up for what is right.
She taught me to listen to others, but to draw my own conclusions.
She taught me to treat everyone with the same respect as I would want from them.
She taught me to trust others and to not hold it against them if they betrayed that trust.
She taught me to disagree, but not to allow the disagreement to affect a relationship.
Most importantly, she taught me not to take myself too seriously. As a teenager who wanted to confirm, I would cringe when she did all those things that embarrassed me. Today I realize how right she was when she said, “why should I care what other people think”.
My Mother. My Teacher.