Today is Teacher’s day, a day dedicated to unsung heroes who architect every generation. It is a good chance for me to reminisce about one of my favourite teachers, who had a great impact on me. His name was Mr.Shanmuganathan, our higher secondary school English master. No doubt his was among the tougher roles in his trade, to engage our fickle-minded attention that was already encumbered with board exam pressures and pubescent hormonal surges.
I still remember the sight of him on the first day of his class- a muscular build with big burly fingers, disheveled hair coerced unconvincingly to a style by those burly fingers. With such an intimidating stature, all our thought was about not to get inside the swinging radius of those massive arms. In the very first class, he proclaimed “Your textbook has a great selection”. “Just a gimmick”, I thought, “Why waste time stoking false expectations and get on with it. Tell us which verses to memorize”. But if I had any doubts, it only took an hour of the lecture to dispel.
Of course it helped that the first poem of the syllabus was “All the world’s a stage” (or did he choose to start with that one? I can’t remember for sure). The stage was set for his teaching. I was amazed at the attention he gave to even a small phrase such as “bearded like the pard”. He paused at every phrase, dwelt over the words, the syllables, the pauses- like a diamond merchant savoring the cuts on his stones. He explained the poet’s imagination with same incredulity as if he was reading it for the first time. I have never seen a leopard or the guy Shakespeare was describing, but I bet I could give the exact measurement of that beard, down to a millimeter. The poem no longer felt like a wrestling match with terse lyrics, instead it was a beautiful duet with a soul that mirrored our own. The brevity of words, the discordant milieu and the escapist reveries were like a liberal dose of exotic spices to flavor our numbing present.
And this experience was not limited to bard’s words alone. Throughout the year, he breathed life in to the words of many great poets (At this point of time, I was convinced that the selection of poems were great indeed!). The fire in the eyes of Blake’s Tiger, the treble in the oar-wielding hands of Wordsworth and many more came to life with lucid clarity and chose to stay with us for the rest of our lives. I felt like I was transposed to a literature course in college. But the pièce de résistance was the lecture on Keat’s ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’. He savored every line of that romantic verse and shared with us with the same zeal. An hour long lecture, would barely inch past a single stanza. How many sleepless nights I spent pondering the sweet irony of that lover so close, yet so far. The vivid image of that Grecian Urn is burnt deep in to my memory, far stronger than any real experience I ever had.
Teaching language is a tricky business. Just like how you cannot describe the word ‘describe’ without using that word or any of its synonyms, teaching literature is an exercise in untangling circular dependencies. He sidestepped those challenges beautifully, with stories and descriptions that spoke to you, transporting you to the milieu, without making you feel like you are transcribing from a dictionary. A poets skill is not his choice of vocabulary, the length of his meter or mastery of grammar. It is the soul of the poet that permeates between those rigid cage-work. The essence of his teaching was to experience this soul, to tap in to the collective conscience of mankind, that had transcended cultural and temporal chasms. And with his guidance, we swayed to the movements of these poets soul, far separated from us both in space and time, like a puppet drawn to the pull of strings.
‘Mata, Pita, Guru, Deiyvam’ is often misquoted as a descending order of reverence, that we are ordained to practice. I believe that it is not the case. I believe it refers to the extent to which each of those entities resides in us. The mother gives us the flesh, the father gives us the soul. Likewise, a teacher imparts a part of him/her on to us. Like the sand that grows into a pearl, the knowledge imparted by a teacher lives within us, forming the core of our character and shaping our every living moment. I am no longer in contact with Shanmuganathan sir, but every time I open a book or come across a piece of literature, I interact with him, share my experience and joy. In that manner, he is always there with me.
P.S: All good sections of this prose are attributable to my English teacher, any spelling mistake or grammar mistake can be attributed to the insolent student.