The Heart of the Matter
“Hey, guess what?” said Devraj to Shanthi as he locked the bike and went inside.
Shanthi looked up from straining the tea into mugs with an expression that said, “Now, what?”
“The HOD’s asked me to take the evening classes as well. Raghu’s left. He’s got that manager’s post at the Mysore Bank.”
“Good for him. But why you? Why not Shrinath?”
“It’s only for this term, Shanthi. They’ll advertise in the summer. And we can do with some extra money, can’t we? Appa will be retiring and….’ He took the mug from her and took a slow scalding sip.
“But you’ll hardly have time to enjoy your tea. You’ll have to rush back. Classes are from six, aren’t they?”
“Six to eight. And I don’t think I’ll come home. Waste of petrol. I’ll have something in the canteen and spend time in the staff room. There’ll be so much of correction to do anyway. Here, I got some fresh chips.”
Shanthi pouted. She’ll have to cope with long, lonely evenings, cooking and cleaning on her own.
But she could see her husband was excited and she could understand that. The HOD had depended on him in a crisis and he would want to prove himself. She too was a teacher, after all.
Devraj taught English at a local college. He enjoyed teaching undergraduates, some eager to learn, some eager to make mischief, but all full of infectious energy, out to have fun. And their “Good Morning, Sir” or “Devraj Sir, May I…?” was music to his ears. He had been teaching for four years now and the respect and adulation from the students were still new to him.
When Devraj entered the evening class the first day, he was in for a shock. No chirpy young faces waited in eager anticipation to greet him. The “Good Evening, Sir” from disinterested students shuffling their feet in a half-hearted attempt to stand was an apology to courtesy. And most of them were as old as he, some looked older. Some of them stared at him stonily and he knew from experience that this was how students perfected the art of switching off. Had he taken on more than he could handle?
“So, you were to do Gift of the Magi today, weren’t you?” he said, by way of a warm up.
“Bullshit of a story,” said Shiva. Everyone perked up, even the teacher.
Was this the way students talked in Raghu’s class?
“Since when did you start coming prepared to class, man?” Viswanath tried to lighten the mood but Shiva was not amused, obviously.
“I read it on the bus, yaar.”
Devraj felt it was time to step in.
“Could you explain that comment, please?”
“Saar, just look at this: On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. She has a coat and a hat. Who says she’s poor? We don’t have a pair of decent sandals, let alone shoes.”
Devraj dragged his eyes from Shiva’s feet. Quickly.
“That’s not the point, Shivu,” Jayanth drawled from behind.
“Will you please stand up? The others can hear you better. Thank you.”
Devaraj was thinking on his feet, ‘Wow, here’s a class of adults living the story. Interesting! But we’ll have to get down to brass-tacks: Sketch the character: – 15 marks. Write short notes on any two of the following: – 5 marks each.’
“I mean, it isn’t about the jacket and hat, no, Saar? I think it’s about the old brown bit…” Jayanth’s voice trailed away.
“You’re right. Did you note another line that comes way before this? It’s something similar. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard.” Devraj looked up from the text, expectantly.
“Yeah, grey and brown have to do with her mood, I think. Drab. She’s sad because she’s poor and she can’t buy her husband a gift.” A front-bencher volunteered.
“Arre, how can you say she’s poor, yaar? A woman with hatu-coatu. Why don’t we read stories about our kind of poverty and how we deal with it? People don’t even have enough to eat and this woman…” Shiva shot back.
Perhaps he had a story smothered in the recesses of his mind, restless to write itself out…
“I know! I’d be horrified if my wife cut her hair to buy me a gift for Deepavali,” said Viswanath.” Everyone burst out laughing at Viswanath’s comment but Devraj smiled nervously. He was too scared to imagine the situation. Thankfully, the bell rang before he could restore order.
“Very interesting discussion, guys, but we’ll have to look for topics for short answers in the next class. We have to work on two short notes and one essay type on the non-detail text. The pre-finals are next month, remember?”
“Blast the exams!” Devraj heard Shiva muttering under his breath.
“So, how was it?” Shanthi was eager but Devraj was exhausted.
“I don’t know, Shanthi. It’s very different from the day college. How was your day?”
“Oh, great as usual! I like teaching the tenth. They’re all gearing up for the farewells. That Nirmala’s too smart. ‘What’s Active and Passive, Ma’am,’ says Sita and Nirmala butts in, ‘Actives are leaders and Passives are followers, like you and me.’ How the class roared! I was scared HM would send one of the crabbies to check.” Grateful for Shanthi’s incessant chatter as she gave the rice on the stove one last stir and covered the pot, Devraj pulled out steel plates and tumblers from the shelf.
The next few classes were a near disaster. Some 10 students at least took turns to bunk regularly. The others dutifully covered up for them.
‘Viswanath has to work overtime, Saar. He told me to tell you. End of the financial year and all that.’
‘Raghava’s gone to Tumkur to see a girl.’ Snorts and giggles. ‘We’ll soon have a wedding feast, Saar. Chiroti and all that. The girl’s family’s very rich, he said.’
“Let’s get on with the lesson, guys. Did you write down the answers for the questions I gave you on Astrologer’s Day?”
“Smart guy, Saar! I like him.”
But Jayanth was the type to like anyone.
“How he saved himself! By the skin of his teeth, no Saar?”
Wow, did Shiva know that idiom?
“No, no, man. By the glow of the matchstick. Very clever story.”
Unusual for Jackson to comment at all.
They were going off at a tangent, of course. That was their proven strategy to while away their time. But some others did not do even that, they just put their heads on the desk and slept.
“Why do you come to class if you’re that tired?”
“For attendance, Saar,” someone replied, helpfully.
Why couldn’t they be like the day college students, for goodness’ sake?
Devraj was at his wits’ end. They needed some talking to. He did not know if it would work but he had to try.
“Come on, guys,” he said, getting straight to the point, “Why do you come here if you don’t want to study? Why waste hard-earned money to pay fees? Why waste time? Why don’t you take one of those correspondence courses if it’s just a degree you want?”
“Saar, you must be joking. Even with you prodding us day after day after day, we don’t do our homework, don’t study for tests. Do you really think we’ll study on our own?”
Jayanth was too polite to laugh but, boy, the teacher did need a crash course on using his imagination.
Farook untangled his long legs and straightened his bulky self slowly. He looked intimidating.
“It’s all very easy for you to talk, Saarr,” he said deliberately, as if he were speaking to a child, “You’re already a lecturer; you’ve got your M Phil. You’re doing your Ph D. Someday, you’ll become a Professor. Your career’s made. What have you got to worry about? We have to graduate to get better jobs, maybe get a promotion or a just measly raise. We’ve come here after a long day at work. My child is teething. I couldn’t sleep a wink last night…’
“My wife works the night shift,” said Narasimha.
Devraj did not know Narasimha was married.
“I wake up early and get something ready for her before I leave for work. I want her to eat before she catches up on sleep.”
“We’re checking stocks. I’ve been coming here straight from work for the last few days.” Balraj did look tired; his bulging sheep’s eyes were half-closed, expressionless. He could barely stand.
Devraj heard them out.
“So you think it’s been easy for me?” he asked gently. “My father’s a peon at the Taluk Office. He’s to retire soon. My mother works from early in the morning to late in the evening as a cook in three houses. Do you think it was easy for them to bring us up? To educate us? My sister and I? To buy us clothes … books … slippers, whatever? To pay for picnics and camps and even give us money to buy things we can do without, at the drive to raise money for the Poor Students’ Fund? I was tempted to take up a job after graduation but it was my father who made me do my Masters. When I was in college, I used to work as a shop assistant after class.”
“Saar! What, Saar? How could you? Weren’t you embarrassed? I mean, what if some of your classmates came to the store?” Shiva looked concerned. The others too stared at him.
Devraj had got their attention at last but the nitty-gritty of getting them ready for the exams had to wait. Something far more important was happening right then; something new was surfacing, holding them together. That something had to be firmed up first.
“I know what you mean,” said Devraj, looking Shiva in the eye. “Yes, some of my classmates did come to the store. In fact, many of them came once they got to know I was working there. My boss was very happy. We made good sales. But, tell me, why should I be ashamed? I wasn’t doing anything disgraceful, was I? With the money I earned I was able to help my parents. I was able to make college life a little better for my sister and myself. I even bought a pair of sandals for her and shoes for myself. Remember, you cribbing about not having shoes or sandals when poor Della thought she was poor in her old brown jacket and her old brown hat? I was able to buy both.”
Everyone laughed. They sat up straight and wide-eyed. Their teacher had something more to say and they were eager to know what it was.
The togetherness was palpable. Devraj could feel it.
“Listen, guys. I know it isn’t easy. But you must make the best of this chance to better your prospects. People like you and me have to walk that extra mile to reach our dreams. We’re tired, yes, but we have to slog. All that work has to be done here and now, in this very classroom. And we’re going to do it together, all of us. Did you get that?”
“YES, SAAR!” they shouted in unison. The bell rang.
“Guess what, Shanthi!” Devraj could hardly lock the bike and dart into the kitchen.
“Did you get a raise or something?”
Shanthi tossed some curry leaves into the seasoning and looked up.
“Better still. I’ve crossed a huge hurdle! I’ve passed an exam!” He loved the question on her face. “Come, make some tea. I’ll tell you all about it.”
“Arre, it’s time for dinner, Dev.”
“I know, I know. But dinner can wait. I’ve got the best news ever.”
“Oh, it can’t be better than mine.”
Devraj stared at her.
“Mine can wait,” he said softly as he hugged her.
Susheela Punitha translates Kannada Literature into English and has won the Sahitya Akademi Award for Translators (English) 2015. She writes for children too. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.