Lessons in gravity and grace

Neerja Singh

It has been 40 years but her memory still pushes my spine up ramrod straight. Convents were the rage those days among parents aspiring to the best education for their children. The schools stood for discipline, values and rigorous academics. Sr Vijaya, in many ways personified all of this. She was my class teacher in the Xth at St Francis Convent High School, Jhansi. Sister Vijaya also taught us physics.

In the India of the 1970s, parents and teachers wielded unquestioned authority. They were presumed to know and do what was best for the children. And Sr Vijaya was quite typical of the teachers in 1978, authoritative, distant and awe inspiring. Severe in demeanour, there was something just and fair lurking around her spotless habit, however. The fear that she inspired in her students was tempered with a tinge of compassion. One could never be sure with her but she did seem capable of giving the erring student a hearing, at the least. I was scared of her! By the modern standards of teacher and taught dynamics, that would seem a sacrilege but back then, parents threw their weight behind the teachers. A teacher was always right!

The entire class with Sister Vijaya.
A whole lot was also considered as given, at the convent. Homework had to be done, no questions asked. The notebook was expected to be neat and tidy. There was a close monitoring of our uniforms, the nuns themselves were crisp and clean. The school corridors sang with the muted sound of silence, nary a sound other than the occasional note from the piano in the music class. It was a hushed world. Not a hair turned, nor a breath whispered while Sister taught. I recall her standing in the centre of our classroom at her table, she rarely ever sat. There is a faint memory of her sitting in the laboratory. For the rest, she moved around light and spritely, her only ornaments being her vision glasses and the rosary. She would fill up the blackboard with her elegant, curvy calligraphy, a familiar sight in convents those days. I recall our physics book as being something of a tome. It is possible that Sr Vijaya asked us to use a reference book. She was like that, setting the bar high.

It was not that I did not have great teachers before or after Sr Vijaya. It is the timing that made her critical to my evolution as a person. Fourteen to fifteen is a tender and impressionable age. Your moral compass and emotional gauge are calibrating and the reference points make all the difference. Sr Vijaya was that lodestone for me. Although she never came out and said as much, I had a sense that she liked me, that she had expectations of me, that she saw something special in me. That unsaid communication I received from her stood me in good stead, later in life. Throughout my college and adult life and well into my mid-years, Sr Vijaya’s ethics directed my course. I would hear people remark on what they perceived as my inherent and serious convictions. Someone once said with a hint of exasperation, “You are too serious!” That almost sacred sense of doing my best by the life I was given probably came from Sr Vijaya. I doubt Sister ever thought of anything in terms of a shade of gray. It was all either black or white. She infected me with her strong notions of right and wrong, there was no room for any ambiguity there. In time, I did learn the relative nature of that truth but it was a strong foundation to build upon.

Now, was it the convent culture or Sr Vijaya in particular, I couldn’t be sure. After all this time, it is the emotional memory that remains far more than the specifics. I remember the aftermath of Neetu Singh’s movies like “Khel Khel Mein” and “Rafoochakkar”. She wore flares and bangs held up by two tiny, bow shaped clips. Well, I aped the style and had my lustrous long hair snipped into similar bangs on either side of the forehead. A collection of multi-colored plastic grips was put together even though fashion was frowned upon in the convent. It was an exciting time. There were two glamorous school mates who set the trend in the convent. Ritu Nanda came from Babina in the Army coach and wore her gorgeous brown hair in ringlets. She also sported a ring bearing a large stone that received a coat of the same polish that she applied on her long nails. It was considered very “forward” for a school student at the time. Catherine Kingham was the other classmate I looked up to for style statements. She was fond of metallic bangles and wrist watches. On the strap, to my delight, there would be a sticker of Elvis Presley covered by a lacy handkerchief, safely out of sight of the Sisters. Those were the days.

I had come into Sr Vijaya’s class with a big head that harboured some pretty exotic notions. I believed that only girls fell for boys and never the other way around. Ritu Nanda and Catherine Kingham were paragons of feminine beauty in my eyes. I did not consider myself attractive. In fact I was conscious of my ample fundament and faintly pimpled skin. We had a brother institution close by. Local lore had it that a crypt under our Blessed Virgin Mary’s statue in the garden, led to a tunnel, that came out right into the courtyard of Christ the King School. I did flirt with the idea of running this past Sr Vijaya but mercifully did not dare do so.

It was as giddy a time as it could have been in the life of a charming little cantonment. There were the usual stories of the May Queen Ball, weekly movie day at the Sarvatra, the Taalbhet and Babina school bus recaps by virtue of having Ritu Nanda as one of the passengers. And there were the four of us: Sadhana Atri, Hutokshi Nadirshaw, Catherine Kingham and yours truly a la Amar, Akbar, Anthony and Arjan!! We carried egg patties in our tiffin, ate chocolate fudge at the gym and whispered nonsense about Sister Denise being pretty and Brother Dominic being handsome. We also made time to throw the javelin, attend music lessons in a huge, wooden floored hall with sister on the piano and march playfully during recess to the refrain of, “we must, we must, we must increase our bust!”

Cut to Jhansi, the seat of the legendary firebrand queen Laxmibai, India’s enduring symbol of resistance to the British rule. It was in this major, rail and road junction on the banks of river Betwa that our three-ton Military School Bus, complete with the Danda Man, traced a daily rattle route, carrying a miscellaneous pack of army kids to and from school. If you struck lucky, you would get to squeeze on to the wooden, makeshift benches. The rest of us hung on to the sides, we clutched someone’s shirt or looped low from the handles dangling down the tarpaulin roof.

The author’s friend Sadhana with Sister Vijaya
It was noisy and sweaty and uneven, the school trip. There was no cell phone, no Facebook, and no twitter. Back in those days, if you fancied someone you just picked up the bicycle and ran after them! It was that time of crushes and confusion, of nervousness and embarrassment and excitement, all at the same time. Without having to come within 150 m of a person, you could discover what it felt like to be liked. We often wrote names in our notebooks and applied the “Love, Like, Hate, Adore” formula. Underneath the furtive flutter, there was the ever present fear of being found out by Sr Vijaya.

My best friend today, Sadhana Atri, is from Sr Vijaya’s class. She visited Sister as recently as a month ago. Sr Vijaya wears a neck brace today but fortunately enough, her memory is sharp about our batch. It seems she was happy to hear about me. I have had impulsive ideas of hopping into a car and landing up at Sr Vijaya’s door. How would it feel to be in the space I was with her when I was at one of my most vulnerable age? From a time of mere potential, we would be meeting at a juncture of lives lived well.

More and more today, the world speaks of the real possibility of schools becoming redundant as early as in the next 20 years. Sure, a smart phone or a surgically inserted chip will substitute beautifully for the content transaction that takes place in the classroom. But what will stand in for Sr Vijaya? What will be the modern technology’s synonym for a teacher whose influence reached across and survived decades?

Thank you Sr Vijaya for your steadfast example. I would not have flourished so had it not been for the gifts of your gravity and grace.

The author is a former teacher, journalist and media professional. She is also a published author and speaker. She can be reached at neersingh02@hotmail.com.