Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What She Taught Me

She taught us Shelly, Byron, Milton and Keats at college; and the passion with which she recited the verses and described their meanings at length, would often leave me breathless. Her eyes would shine behind her glasses and her gaunt face would turn pink while reciting Shelley’s ‘I Arise From Dreams Of Thee’.
Our mouths agape we used to watch her sway on her feet while the words just poured through her lips.
O, lift me from the grass, I die, I faint, I fall…’
She would get into a kind of frenzy describing love, passion, sadness and the intensity of every emotion that all those poets tried to depict in their creations.
Outwardly, she looked as ascetic as a dry twig. She had the thin ruler type body, sallow complexion, thinning hair that was cut close to her scalp giving her a boyish look, and she wore black-rimmed spectacles with lenses so thick that her eyes almost disappeared behind them. But during the English literature classes she would transform into a goddess of love and passion.
On the first day of our class, she had just entered the classroom briskly, nodded her head briefly at us and without asking for or giving any introduction, had turned to the blackboard.
On the blackboard, with the white chalk stick, she wrote an entire list of things that we were NOT supposed to do in her class. The list forbade us of wearing noisy jewelry that would distract her while she taught, preening or playing with our hair during lectures, looking outside the windows while she was explaining things, and doodling in our notebooks.
She did not allow us any note writing during her lectures.
‘Just listen, absorb and write the summaries on your own.’ She emphasized.

‘Poetry is not taught’ she said. ‘It is conceived, nurtured, carried inside and given birth to, like a baby. You all will have to go through the labour pains while understanding the nuances of reading and writing poetry. Remember, nothing creative is born without pain’.

We heard many stories about her. One of them was about her separation from her husband who was a very famous poet and songwriter of those days. There were plenty of gossips regarding her eccentricities, her difficult moods, her live in relationship with a man twenty years younger than her, and her nonconformist views.
The 80s were the times when many Muslim women were tentatively stepping out from the sanctuary of their homes, taking up careers, and walking out of their husband’s homes, if he did not fit in with their plan of things. Though her lifestyle and choices still raised lot of speculations. Coming from a conservative and sheltered background, I was quite fascinated with her strong views about marriage, divorce, love and open relationships that she often discussed during the lectures. Somewhere deep inside me I too had something struggling to break free, and at times, I felt, as if she is reaching out to my innermost thoughts, talking to me above all the other heads.

One evening I was sitting alone at the college cafeteria waiting for my tea, when she came and sat at my table. It’s not everyday that your English lecturer comes and sits at your table voluntarily. The hierarchy between student and teachers was quite strong those days. Naturally I was a bit nervous and self conscious in her presence. After the formal greetings and few odd comments about the weather, we fell into silence.
Our tea-tray arrived and I offered to make her tea. She refused with a wordless wave of hand, and pulled her tray to her side.
'So you are about to get married?’ She asked suddenly, while measuring out sugar in her tea.
The question was sudden. Without any preamble, and it was shot across more like an accusation. I nodded dumbly, perhaps guiltily. 
I recalled how critical we were of her weird talks and avant-garde life style. We used to call her an absentminded oddball, but it was in retrospect that I realized she was so much more perceptive than most of us who never find the courage to rebel against the rules of society and continue to live life more for an audience, rather than ourselves.
She kept staring at her cup and then she spoke. ‘You know I have often seen you having your tea alone. I see a streak of an independent spirit in you. A spark straining to come out. By the way, do you love the man? Why did  you agree to get married? You are still at college!' 
She showered me with questions.
I told her quietly that I am giving in to my parent’s wishes. And no, I do not love the man.
Her eyebrows rose to her hairline and she rolled her eyes. But she said nothing.
We drank our tea in silence. Then she spoke again.
‘Your creativity will be killed forever if you carry on with this horribly unsuitable marriage. I can see your future. Would you like spending your life with someone like that? And for that matter, pandering to some unknowable man's inexhaustible ego?’
 I was silent. She did not wait for my response and I noticed that it was not expected from me too.
‘If you are not ready to receive what is given or shall we say enforced upon you right now, just say no, or run! Ultimately you will either ruin yourself, or run away. Depends on how much guts you have. Because, *bibi, whenever we allow our true spirit to get smothered, it leaves us with loads of emptiness later on. So, bibi, act now. Know what you need. And know well!’
She drained her cup and getting up in one smooth gesture, walked out. Leaving me with even more doubts and worries than I cared to admit.
In retrospect, I realized that she was talking more with herself. She was, perhaps, reliving her own experiences, something she must have got out of with great difficulties.
She had spoken prophesied words. She was also letting me know that it requires great courage and grit to live life on our own terms and not be afraid to protest, if something is being violated in our life, especially, our freedom of choice...

*Bibi is a formal but endearing term used in most Muslim families to address a young girl.

© Nazia Mallick

Image: Google