“Sometimes, your student becomes your teacher,” the old man said slowly. He often shared many interesting stories about teachers and students. I waited patiently for him to continue.
“Uncle, how are you? Why are you not eating anything?” Hearing a soft voice at his bedside, Teacher opened his eyes. ‘It’s Oken from class 6. Teacher’s favourite student. Smart in studies and games alike, with an equally pleasing behaviour.’ Teacher gently smiled at him.
‘It was 1983 or so. It was a boys’ residential school in a little town in the foothills of the Patkoi ranges in the eastern Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh. From May to October, during the monsoon, it is oppressingly hot and humid. Day and night alike. By afternoon, the whole place buzzes with mosquitoes. Malaria is rampant. It just drains your energy, resistance power and appetite, and the will to survive. Few escape from the terrible cerebral malaria. The lone remedy those days was the bitter quinine and complete rest, which is not possible for most.’
“Uncle, why don’t you eat something? How else will you get well? We are waiting for your stories.” The boy’s loving words echoed again. “Don’t feel like, my dear,” Teacher said. Oken always lovingly called him, ‘Uncle’.
“What’d you like to eat? Biscuits? Bananas?” Teacher did not reply.
“I’ll come tomorrow.” The boy took leave after some time.
Every day, the teacher lay looking out the open door into the school campus. The birds twittered, insects hummed outside, but hardly a leaf stirred. ‘How long is this to last, with no appetite and thorough loneliness?’ Teacher wondered.
The next day, during the morning interval Oken walked in. “Uncle, my father’s come.” Behind him was a man in shorts and an Arunachali tribal coat. Oken was carrying a packet of cream biscuits.
Teacher’s eyes glowed. A gentle smile appeared on his face. Yes, he knew Oken’s father. He’d even visited their village home a year ago. They exchanged pleasantries, talked a bit. Teacher appreciated his son’s work and conduct at school.
“Let me leave now. Would like to catch the noon bus to Assam, so I can be there by evening,” said the father. He’d have to travel the whole of next day to reach home by evening. ‘What a lot of trouble this father has to take, to see his son, for just an hour?’
Teacher’s eyes fell on the boy and the cream biscuit packet in his hand. “Let me see off Father,” said the lad.
Teacher lay thinking. ‘How many more days like this? Will anybody be coming to see me? If so, I could have something different to eat… this rice gruel is sickening.’
“Uncle!” Teacher was startled. Oken was standing next to his cot with the unopened biscuit packet in his hand.
“Uncle, take this,” the boy stretched out the packet.
Teacher felt as if he received an electric shock. ‘How eagerly must the father have brought that special biscuit packet all the way from Assam! How gladly must have the son received it! At least a few of his hostel mates have seen it, and must be waiting for a bite from it! That very packet, this boy was now offering him!’
“Uncle, don’t you like cream biscuits? You’re not eating anything! Please eat this,” the boy’s words were gentle, but firm.
‘Should I receive it? Yes or No? Can I accept it? Thoughts are running riot…’
“Please take, Uncle,” the boy’s assuring voice rang again.
‘His throat seemed to go dry. Eyes went blank…’
With trembling hands, Teacher accepted the packet. A contented smile spread over the boy’s face.
“I’ll come later, Uncle,” Oken went out of the room.
“Even after 3 decades, whenever I remember this incident, I feel ashamed, and an ardent respect for my student engulfs me.” Teacher looked at me.
“Who was the true teacher? The boy or me?” He muttered as if to no one.
“But one thing gives me great consolation and serene joy…” Teacher continued, wiping his eyes. “My boy’s sacrifice did not go in vain. Today he’s a very popular and respected doctor in the society. Extending a warm affection not just to his family, but to all those who come to him seeking freedom from misery and pain.”
The author is an educational activist with over 3 decades of close interactions with Arunachali youth. A Trustee of Vivekananda Trust, Mysore, he is currently the Coordinator, VT-AWIC Youth Library Network, Lohit, Arunachal Pradesh. He can be reached at [email protected].