While returning back from her funeral, I felt very sad and grief stricken. She was not only my school teacher but also an excellent human being that I knew in decades. I wondered if the death is ultimate reality in this universe then why people do so much clamoring about life all the time. I had seen her in her prime time, I had seen her in the old age and now seen her lifeless body having been turned into ashes only moments ago.
She had died at the age of eighty-three with a host of diseases towards the fag end of life. She was living alone for the last twenty years or so engaging a full time maid servant to look after her daily chorus including food, medicines, washing and other miscellaneous needs, and was not particularly well since last about two months. My own association with her goes back to more than four decades and during the last one year, I had endeavored to make her last leg of life to the extent feasible easy and comfortable by all possible means.
Later in the evening, back at home I remained totally shaken with the grief and pain felt for her. I was wondering if this is the ultimate nemesis of a body and persona which a woman or man possesses and is so proud of it at a particular phase in life, then why everyone has so much cravings for the external beauty, style and mannerism. Many of us remain so often madly in love with the physical body of certain shape, contour, color and attributes which are so temporary, senile and prone to decay and death. In the process of living and loving a body so fragile, mortal and freak, we often remain ignorant of the beauty of soul which is ageless, immortal and pure.
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The tragic event also brought in the nostalgic memories of my schooling days like a flashback of a cinema reel. As an adolescent boy of fourteen years, for my age I was physically lean and thin and temperamentally shy and hesitant in nature. On the other hand, I was exceptionally good not only at studies always standing first in my class but also in other curricular activities like sports and games, music, social and cultural activities in the school. For these reasons, the most the teachers were quite cordial and generous with me.
She was my class teacher and English teacher. Those days, she must have been in her late thirties. Her name was Sharmistha Banerjee and like her name, she had a beautiful and charming personality. It’s difficult to explain my teenage feelings about her but it is a fact that I was totally overwhelmed and infatuated by her presence in that age. It is a well-known fact that for most of the young students, their teacher appears to them as a role model or idol at that age. If I put it straight, I must confess that at that adolescent age I had a sort of crush on her, and I idolized, really loved and respected her.
As I was among one of the best students of the school, she too had a special liking for me. She had made me monitor of the class, which provided me frequent opportunity to interact with her on various issues beyond the usual English lecture class. I still remember, on many occasions she would nominate or recommend my candidature in various school committees, sport teams and even for merit scholarship.
Those days perhaps, I was too young to comprehend all this but too many stories or rumours circulated about her from time to time. She was not only extremely beautiful but also a competent and accomplished teacher, and for these reasons she was quite popular and the most talked about person equally among the teachers, students and other staff of the school. In a way, she was a subject of interest, curiosity and mystique at the same time. Her fascinating beauty, style and mannerism attracted everyone in the school and outside though for different reasons in different groups which, as I think today, was not unusual for the small city folks.
Generally, in a small city people take interest and know too much warranted and unwarranted about others’ life. So even at that young age I knew that she was born and brought up in a large family of lower income group. Among six siblings comprising of five sisters and one youngest brother, she was the eldest sister. Her father was in clerical job in the local municipal office and with his meager income those days it was difficult for him to sustain such a large family. Too many children were perhaps because of the usual cravings of the most Indian parents to have at least one son who they think will look after in their old age and is necessary to perform their last rites too.
Realizing the difficulties of the family, apparently as soon as she was grown enough, she took the mantle of main bread earner for the family besides supporting and sustaining her younger siblings for their education, clothing and other miscellaneous needs. After graduation and having done a diploma in education, she got the job of a teacher in the government high school in the same city. Later she got enrolled herself for post-graduation in English through correspondence course and obtained her masters’ degree in English. After joining the school she assumed the stellar role of the main bread earner for the family and continued so till her younger siblings completed their education and got settled in their life one by one. There were rumours sorts but one can’t say with certainty if it was parents’ indifference and vested interests due to her financial support or her own resolve but she didn’t marry throughout her life.
I remember when in high school board examination, I secured first division and first position among almost 200 students of the school, she was one who really felt so exhilarated. I still remember on hearing the news, she had so warmly hugged me telling that she was really proud that her favourite student has passed the prestigious examination with honours. On this occasion, she had presented me a pen which remained with me as a valued possession for many years. In another two years, I passed out the higher secondary examination with good marks and shifted to Lucknow for higher studies. My parents decided to put me in a hostel to avoid inconvenience of daily commuting and I stayed there till my post-graduation and till successfully completing competitive examination to join the coveted Indian Civil Service.
I remember those days her name was many a time linked with men in her own profession and outside but most of such stories eventually turned out to be farce or rumour. People used to gossip about her fling with men but at least in one such story there was some substance. I remember a young man in good attire used to occasionally come to meet her in the school and each such visit was followed by a lot of cooked up gossip among the teachers and mischievous students. As I had deep infatuation and respect for her, I had started liking this young gentleman too. I remember on one or two occasions I had serious arguments and skirmishes with fellow students over their slanderous remarks about the relationship of the teacher with the gentleman.
Much later I came to know that the gentleman hailed from a good family and was posted as assistant sales tax officer in the city. Both of them had a strong bonding and liking for each other but unfortunately the bond didn’t last long to fructify in a tenable relationship. Perhaps several factors were responsible for the failed relationship, one of the reasons being both belonged to different castes. Perhaps he was younger in age compared to her by few years but possibly the main hurdle was continued dependence of the family on her income and consequently parents’ reluctance or indifference to accept their relationship. Apparently for the larger interests of her parents and younger siblings, she sacrificed her own love and material comforts to remain spinster for life.
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While staying in the hostel for higher studies, I remember to have visited her on two or three occasions. On the last occasion when I met her she had been promoted as vice-principal of the school. Later after a couple of years, I heard from other sources that she had become principal in a higher secondary school and shifted to Allahabad. Kind of infatuation and attachment in the teenage I had with her which grew to a deeper respect and regard as I matured, I always felt happy and contented whenever I heard any good news from any source about her in later life.
Though destiny didn’t allow her to have own but she was very fond of children. Had she ever married in life, she would have proved a wonderful mother without any doubt. As the luck would have it, God fulfilled her wish in altogether a strange manner. As I had heard it much later, somebody abandoned a newly born girl child wrapped in meager clothes in a plastic basket outside the boundary wall of her school in the month of late November. As the child started crying, some passerby noticed it and the news spread like a wildfire. Soon a crowd gathered and the gossip started taking rounds. Someone observed that possibly a poor woman has abandoned her child, some other said that being a female child perhaps somebody wanted to get rid of her, others were far more critical citing the child as someone’s sin and illegitimate offspring abandoned to avoid social stigma and infamy.
As the incident occurred just outside the boundary wall of the school, she being principal also visited the site and police too was informed in the meantime. While the fate of the girl child was being debated and formalities being done to hand over the child to the nearest orphanage, perhaps on an impulse she volunteered to take custody of the child. Thus the legal formalities were completed and the girl child was adopted by her. She brought up and nurtured her like own daughter ensuring that the child gets best of the education and grooming in life. Madhurima (the name given to the child by her) turned out to be a decent and worthy daughter who in turn loved and cared her like own mother. After marriage, Madhurima had migrated to Canada, kept in regular touch with her and she made sure that at the time of her mother’s last days, she was on her bed side. She was also one who performed her last rites too.
Way back, her own family including four sisters and only brother for whom she had sacrificed and given up all her desires and dreams, had left her one by one to live life on own terms. Ironically, they were vehemently against her decision of adopting Madhurima on the pretext of her descent, cast and supposedly mean blood besides the stigma of being an illegitimate child. So in the later life, they stayed away from her refusing any social bonding or relation with her. Notwithstanding all hurdles and protests, she stood firm of her resolve to protect and promote her adopted child in all possible ways.
In life she had seen too many ups and downs. She had experienced how people have unwarranted habit of poking their noses in others professional and personal lives. She had seen affection and antagonism of the very people for whom she had sacrificed her own dreams and prospects of life at a time. Then she had also experienced how competence and hard work can lead a person on the ladder of success in life. All this has made her too philosophical yet strong in life. Instead of socializing and indulging with people, she had cultivated many hobbies in her solitary life to keep her busy and senile.
Music and reading were her best pastime hobbies. Being a Bengali herself, she had particular interest in Rabindra Sangeet which at times kept her engaged for hours together. Then she had a huge collection of books on a variety of subjects like ancient history, philosophy, western literature including Shakespeare besides fiction of all sorts. This was Madhurima who told me sometime back that her mother was so attached and possessive about her books that she will not allow someone even access to her mini library at home unless she was convinced about the persons genuine interests in books.
As a rule, she used to spend about ten percent of her earnings for the charitable causes such as donation to orphanage, cost of medicine and clothes for sickly and poor, helping poor children with their books, school fee etc. This practice she continued till the end of her life even from her pensions after she retired as a Member of the Provincial Education Board.
After completing my education and successfully competing in the civil services examination, for most of the time I remained posted outside my own state. I used to visit my home town once or twice in a year to visit parents or on some social occasion in the family for a short while, which considerably restricted my link and interaction with old acquaintances, friends and contacts there. I didn’t know whereabouts of my high school teacher but I always fondly remembered her as she forever remained a source of affection and inspiration for me. After so many eventful years of government service, I was posted to the holy city of Prayag aka Allahabad a little over a year back.
It was just a sheer chance that while sharing reminiscences of the past, a common acquaintance told me that after retirement she lives in the same city. I was overjoyed with nostalgic thoughts and memories with this unexpected good news and extracted all possible information from him about her personal and professional life and current address. Waiting for the weekend holidays to visit her house, most of the time I kept wondering about her past association, beauty, grace, mannerism, her affectionate gestures, her personal life, and so on so forth. I thought I will give her surprise so I didn’t give her prior intimation about my being in Allahabad and my intent to visit her.
I gave a soft push on the door bell and patiently watched for a response. After a pause of a minute or so the door was opened by a young woman perhaps in early thirties. She enquired about my name and purpose of the visit which I patiently told her. She asked me to wait outside and disappeared inside in a swift move. Waiting outside looked like ages to me as I was getting increasingly impatient to meet her. After a long pause, the door was opened again by the same woman who signaled me to follow her. Contrary to my expectations of possibly meeting her in the drawing room, she ushered me in a connected bed room.
There, lying on the bed was my erstwhile idol teacher, beauty queen and talk of the town of yester years. She must have been around the age of about eighty two now. There was no trace left of her erstwhile fairy beauty and angelic aura and she appeared more like a wrinkled mass of disfigured body with waning flesh on a skeletal frame. The maid servant informed me that she is sick with a host of diseases with old age problems and cannot sit in erect posture for long or walk without support.
I touched her feet and briefly gave my introduction and purpose of the visit. With some stress on her waning memory, she was finally able to recognize her favourite adolescent and shy student now turned a mature and successful man by worldly norms. She was overwhelmed and so was I for several moments. Later I stayed with her for a couple of hours to offer her solace out of my reverence and regard. This meeting was also a beginning of the second innings of an affectionate relationship of the erstwhile obedient student and loving teacher in a sort of role reversal which this time lasted for only about a year.