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Chinnamma teacher was a terror to the motley crowd of 10 – 12 year olds of middle school. She taught Malayalam, the language spoken by those of God’s Own Country, Kerala which lies down south of India. If you had seen the thin, stoop shouldered woman with salt and pepper hair clad in her simple cotton sari you would have been wont to wonder what it was that was so terrifying about her. If you had tried telling that to the crowd of school girls who took her classes in St. Joseph’s school, Alapuzha, back in the 70s, you would have probably got varying reactions, enough to stump you. Looks of incredulity, pity at your lack of grasp of affairs, and probably hoots of laughter from the more daring ones at your total ignorance. Now, let me see, if I were there in that motley crowd you tried talking to, would I have been incredulous, pitying or hooting?? Hmm…

My father was posted to Alapuzha as DSO (District Supply Officer) and we were soon settled in a rented house in the sleepy coastal town of Kerala. Venice of the East is what Alappuzha is known as. The Government school close by refused to take my sis and me into 4th and 6th grades. They stuck to the then (questionable) policy of giving admission to those students arriving from outside the state only to the same class as the one they passed out of in their previous school. Father decided to try his luck elsewhere and landed at St. Joseph’s Convent. The nuns, impressed by our respective report cards from our old school saw it fit to give us admissions to the grades we were entitled to join. Their only stipulation was that we take extra care and catch up with the rest of the students in Malayalam as till then we had been studying Telugu as our second language.

Do all those who sit back and criticize the children who cannot speak their mother tongue properly have anything to say of the hardships of said children whose parents are in transferable jobs in a country like India, and move from place to place, sometimes at the whims and fancies of the higher ups, studying the different ‘mother tongues’ of the people of different states, for each of whom their mother tongue is THE best and has to be studied at all costs!?? But I digress.

We children were fluent in speaking the Malayalam language, recognized the alphabets and could read and write small simple words as well. My parents promised the Principal that we would keep up with the rest of the class. On that assurance my sis and I were given admission  to the 4th and 6th grades as we rightly deserved.

The school had already been open a few weeks when my sis and I joined. My first day in a new school and new class went off peacefully. The children were welcoming, helpful and tried to make me feel at home. It was a no-Malayalam day and hence I didn’t get to see Chinnamma Teacher.

The second day of school dawned bright and clear. The first hour, allotted to Math went off smoothly. Being a new girl in class has its special place. Every teacher who walks into class and sees a new face wants to know who you are, the name of your previous school, why you have moved et al. At ten years of age one feels important and thrilled to be singled out by the teachers and having to answer a few of their questions and also be smiled at in welcome.

After the Math teacher left, in walked a thin middle-aged lady with gray hair, draped in a pastel colored sari. The lines on her face were harsh. No laughter lines there to smooth her features. Very austere look. To crown it she had a permanent mocking look on her face that made you feel quite small indeed.

As soon as she dropped the books she carried on the table, she asked the class if they had done their five pages of cursive writing work she had given as homework. She must have noticed a few hesitant faces or else being a teacher she must know instinctively there would be at least a few who hadn’t done their homework. She asked those girls who had not done their work to stand up. I had not and yet I did not stand up. After all I was a new student and the other teachers had not expected me to have done the homework they had given before my arrival to the school and their class. As if on cue, she immediately turned to me and in harsh tones demanded,

Home work cheytho??” (Have you done your homework??)

Illa” (No) I answered.

My classmates stepped in to help me unasked, chorusing,

Puthiya kuttiyaa teacher” (New student, Teacher)

She turned on them sneering.

Jnaan chodicho??” (Did I ask you??)

The class went silent.

“Puthiya kuttiyanengil??” (So what, if a new student?)

Since I had joined the previous day, she continued, it had been my duty to have found out what the next day’s timetable and what the home work to be done was, then to have done it and promptly presented it in class. She never asked me my name or that of my previous school. There had been no smile of welcome or the usual ‘best of luck’ or ‘do well’. Instead, she ordered me to join the other children who hadn’t done their homework and had been asked to stand in a row in front of her table. We were asked to extend our hands. She gave us each two of the juiciest with her long cane.

That was Day One, with Chinnamma teacher.

She had never a happy thing to say to her class of 10-11 year olds. Her witticisms were all sarcastic, mocking and aimed to strike where it hurts. She being a devout Christian was partial to children of her own faith. The others were just not good enough for her. We, the no-good pagans were her targets more often. Most of what she said about why we were not good enough went right above our collective 10/11-year old heads. We just knew that she implied we were somehow inferior because we were of a different faith, if not in the eyes of the world, at least in the eyes of Chinnamma Teacher.

She herself was a spinster and came to school with her little nephew and niece in tow. I sometimes saw her with them during lunch hour, taking them to the washroom wiping their faces, generally taking care of them. Somehow, I could not connect her with a caring nature and it all looked odd and out of place. For me the worst part of school life was that she came by the same school bus as I did. So no playing the fool or careless happy laughter even after school in the school bus too for any of Chinnamma teacher’s students! Not only would she tick you off right then and there, but would even shame you in the class the next day. So it was more silence and suffocatio, after school hours too. Unfortunately, the place she had to get down came right after mine. So there was not even a small respite.

In middle school Malayalam was Chinnamma teacher’s monopoly, there being no other Malayalam teacher around. I had to be her student for one more year of 7th grade. The best thing about the first day of 8th grade was that strange feeling of elation and freedom we girls had. Oh yeah, we knew soon enough the reason behind it. There would be no Chinnamma teacher taking Malayalam class for us. But there still was that journey home in the school bus. Sigh. One more year of that and mercifully father was transferred out of Alapuzha and I bid the school and Chinnamma teacher goodbye heaving a sigh of relief.

P.S. By the way, my sis and I never gave a cause for our respective Malayalam teachers in school to ever say that we did not know Malayalam as well as those other students who had been studying it from the time they started school.

©Shail Mohan 2009 

Reposted from shail-mohan blogs @sulekha.com