When Teacher Plus approached me for a contribution for the September issue on ‘teachers recalling important life lessons learnt from their teachers’, I readily jumped at the offer! What a platform I thought, to express my gratitude towards my teachers, a realization that has only evolved and grown stronger with time. It feels as though these teachers were tailor-made to reach me at the various stages of my life that I met them.
I vividly recall the teacher who entered our biology class, young and tiny looking, a student of B.Pharm herself. She seemed just one of us! I was in class 12 then. Honestly, from her appearance I was speculating about her teaching and class management capabilities. But I admit, very soon her teaching prowess combined with her realistic motivation and practical life lessons bowled me over, transforming her into my first role model of a teacher, Preeti Deshpande! The colourful and self-explanatory diagrams she drew on the blackboard made her teaching so effective that I never felt the need to open my books again except for revision before exam. She was charismatic in several ways; she was transparent and ever enthusiastic. She would often wind up her class singing for us! Pal pal dil ke paas was my personal favourite. She wore a typical long, black bindi on her forehead and I still remember how I would rush back home to try it out on myself and enact her in front of the mirror! She was the one who instilled in me a love for biology and guided me further to pursue B.Sc. She was more of a friend and I was sad that our association was short-lived as she moved to another city and we lost touch. Little did she know that I was out in the science community pursuing a Ph.D. It was God’s plan to have us meet again just before my Ph.D. defence, for which I could invite her and the only memory I have of her are her tearful eyes. Her joy knew no bounds! She considers me her equal and says that I should call her by her name, a privilege I often flaunt among my batchmates. But deep down for me, she still is my very dear ‘Preeti ma’am’!
While Preeti ma’am ignited my desire to teach, it was Dr. Sunita Jadhav who shaped the path that I took to get there. I met Sunita ma’am as my zoology teacher when I enrolled for B.Sc. at S.P. College, Pune in 2003. My close interaction with her began when she chose me as one of the three participants to present a talk at a science competition. We were informed about this at short notice and ma’am took every trouble to prepare us for our big day. She helped me scan photographs and painstakingly prepared the basic layout of my PowerPoint presentation which she handed over to me on a CD at a bus stop, just one evening prior to the event. I was nervous, not for myself, but for the fear of not letting her down.
Whenever I gave her an anxious look, she reciprocated with her ever radiant smile and unwavering confidence saying, “Don’t worry, you are the best and everything will be the best!” And indeed, I won the best presentation award! This worked like a mantra and gave me a tremendous boost of positive energy. Even today I continue to chant it whenever I feel demoralized or when I am in charge to uplift someone. Simplicity is her charm and I adore her because she commands respect out of love and not by being dictatorial. She was instrumental in my journey from M.Sc. through Ph.D. and still continues to be a part of my life. To her I am the ‘bestest’ student and to me, she remains my ‘bestest’ teacher!
The next person who shaped the peak of my career in infinite ways is my Ph.D. mentor, Prof. Bimalendu Nath whom I fondly call ‘Bimalda’. I first met him as an M.Sc. student at the Department of Zoology, SP Pune University in 2006. I was his Masters dissertation student too and after completing M.Sc., I joined his lab for a Ph.D. It’s been a long journey and we still work together as collaborators. In fact, very soon, in 2019 we will be celebrating a decade of our exciting and successful association! I am indebted to him for introducing me to the joys of scientific explorations. I always had an inclination towards literature and therefore I was apprehensive about my abilities for a Ph.D. in science (and so was he)!
However, over the years, Bimalda’s immense insights and conscientious and rigorous training have sharpened the scientific temper in me. Without an iota of doubt, I can say that joining his lab has been the best academic decision I have made. He has been an exemplary mentor, stimulating me to dream and win accolades with the potential he recognized in me since my M.Sc. days. His conversations are not always easy to follow; he is way ahead of his time. His mentorship and guidance spanning a broad range from designing experiments, writing research proposals, publishing and delivering talks has been invaluable.
Bimalda is a humble person with an ultimate personal satisfaction of being a teacher. It might seem trivial, but simple words from him like ‘you’ve done it!’, ‘excellent!’, ‘great, you can do better!’ have worked wonders for me. A completely self-taught teacher, his innovative pedagogical teaching methods, full of analogies and ingenious storytelling sessions, have always captivated me and his lectures are topics for discussion at our dinner table! Students flock to him and it seems that he has all the time in the world to ask about our well-being and to listen to our joys and sorrows. He believes that at the end of the day, no one will remember how amazing his lectures were, what he wore, how he walked or how he spoke. He will be remembered for how he made people feel about themselves with his kindness, magnanimity and warmth. His philosophy stunned me and my respect for him grew a thousand-fold. Being a wonderful teacher inside the classroom is perfect, but to students, showing that you care means the world to them.
I feel as though Bimalda personifies and integrates the following quote in day-to-day dealings with his students, ‘Until you let me be an I, the way you are an I, you can never come into my silence and know me’ from the movie, ‘Children of a Lesser God’. With his 26 long years of teaching, he has managed to gather hundreds of student-fans apart from being a recipient of the much coveted ‘JOAG Award for Teachers’.
Bimalda has always been a fountain of inspiration to me. I remember of my failure to win a travel grant award for a visit abroad to deliver a conference talk. I even contemplated whether I was worth the airfare my parents would bear for me. Bimalda emboldened me with his invigorating words and channelized me to march forward against all odds. He said, “Bharat Ratna Satyajit Ray repeatedly failed to raise money for his first film. Undisturbed, he courageously continued to shoot the film for which he sold all his possessions and mortgaged his wife’s jewellery.
A ray of hope was seen after 18 long months when his work was praised and the West Bengal government approved a loan. That’s how Ray completed his first film, ‘Pather Panchali’ which subsequently went on to win 11 international prizes.” He is a visionary. He literally coaxed me to present the conference talk and since then there has been no looking back. Today, I feel much more confident about my work with a dozen scientific publications in journals of national and international repute and several awards and scholarships to my credit. He once jokingly said, “Leena, think global and don’t just restrict yourself to 411028”. That’s my residence postal code! On another occasion when I was left shattered with ill treatment from a colleague, Bimalda, with his fortifying words left an indelible mark on me. He said, “No matter what, learn not to take anyone’s unjust attitude. Being a girl, it might be even worse for you but you must tackle obstacles and become stronger. Fight back with dignity and walk like a queen.” I doubt that Bimalda is aware of the lasting influence his words have had on me. I will always cherish the purity of faith he showed in me, even when, at times, I failed to prove my mettle. In times of crisis, he has even burnt the proverbial midnight oil with me. Thank you, Bimalda, for your patience, understanding, meticulous supervision and for your friendship.
It has been a long haul through postgraduate education, and at times it seemed as if my journey was futile but my mummy, papa and late grandma’s reassurance worked like magic in reviving my drooping spirits. They were my first teachers and although they had limited formal education, the informal schooling they provided has enrichened me as a person and I thank them for their inspiring lead in my life!
I always thought these recollections would die with me. But I feel privileged that I could pen them down, as if all this was meant to be written some day!
The author is a DBT-BioCARe scientist working at the Department of Zoology, SP Pune University (formerly the University of Pune). Apart from research, she finds joy in writing articles on pedagogy and science popularization and delivering talks to young students. She is passionate about being an informal educator to anyone who approaches her. She can be reached at [email protected].