Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Mr. Madan would make Sri Aurobindo's complex philosophy so simple!

It was in class IX that I knew failure formally for the first time. That year, my school not only decided that, on the basis of my academics, I did not deserve to be promoted but also expelled me from the school for a year. Not formally expelled, but my father was called and told that the school would be happy to provide me a Transfer Certificate. I was not shown the door by the school for anything complicated - it was just that I had violated school discipline. That was true.
Most of my class VIII and class IX, I hardly attended school. During school hours three days a week, I would walk down the Qutub Minar about three km away and act as an unofficial "tourist guide". Two days a week, I would be in class in a futile effort to keep track of what was going on. School was incredibly boring but I had modest success as a guide. But somehow I passed class VIII.
After learning the ropes for about three months in class VIII, I launched out on my own. I had observed that most people preferred the unofficial guides to the official ones who would wait for a large enough group to gather, demand larger tips and would still be boring. The unofficial ones like me would be more flexible both in the size of the groups and the size of the tips. Blessed with a glib tongue, a love for history and a fertile imagination, I did well.
Imagination is important in a guide as since the basic historical facts are essentially dry, lots of fanciful embellishment is required to make the tour palatable to the tourist. As regards Qutub Minar, I knew all the official history as well as a lot of the unofficial one that an off beat historian P.N. Oak had written about. On an average, I made about Rs. 20 a day which paid for a good lunch in a shack outside the Qutub and my bus fare home (60 paisa that time). Some times, I would come back to the school, clamber over the wall and take the school bus back. I had hidden a change of clothes in a dry drain outside the school wall.
After the expulsion, my father was at his wit's end. He took me around to a couple of schools which didn't work out and then he decided to put me in a Bengali medium school. Regional language schools were then as now generally considered down market but I guess that my father was left with little options. Most schools were curious to know the reasons of my wanting to shift schools and the fact that in had failed in class IX did not help.
The final snub came when the Bengali medium school conducted an entrance test which I flunked and the principal called my father in and told him that they might be running a Bengali medium school but even they had some standards. Left with no alternative, my father decided to go back to my old school and plead for another chance. It was then that I met Mr. Madan.
Mr. Madan wasn't the principal. He use to sit in an office labeled "Registrar". I didn't know who a registrar was. The word sounded like register and those who maintained registers were clerks and so I thought that Mr. Madan must be a clerk - even if a clerk with a room to himself. I didn't know why my father was wasting time with a clerk when he ought to be meeting the principal. My father and he spent a lot of time together and then I was called into Mr. Madan's office where he told me that I was being taken in and being given a second chance.
Shortly thereafter, the existing principal left and Mr. Madan became principal. Among his jobs as Principal was to lead the school assembly. Many incumbents would go through the motions but not Mr. Madan. He effortlessly and beatifically would look forward to this time and would take the mike to talk to students about the life and teachings of Sri Aurobindo. He would make Aurobindo's complex philosophy so simple!
He would talk about Aurobindo's conversion in the Alipur Jail in Kolkata - where he saw God in every prison bar, warden and fellow prisoner and later in the court room in the faces of the judge, the prosecution and his counsel, C.R. Das; how after his acquittal, he gave up revolutionary politics or any kind of politics and devoted himself to yoga and how his book "Savitri" is only the second epic in English after Milton's Paradise Lost. Sometimes he would invite outside speakers and they would speak long and some classes would get cancelled.
Mr. Madan taught us English Literature. He taught Shakespeare. He taught Shelly. He taught Thomas Grey. And most importantly through all this he taught us life. When he taught us Thomas Grey's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard..." he taught us to dream big dreams even if they did not always happen and would end like dreams buried in Grey's country churchyard. When he taught Merchant of Venice, he did not just teach Antonio, Portia and Shylock, he also taught compassion, mercy, justice and their relative place in life. He made us memorize Portia"s famous speech "The quality of mercy is not strained" to emphasize that though justice was important, mercy and compassion overrode every thing. He did not just preach that. He lived that. He picked up a student who had been expelled and took him and back and never let him feel that he had done a favor. In English literature, I always seemed to get the highest marks. Was it because I loved the subject and the way it was taught or I really deserved them, I never knew.
Mr. Madan never used grand words and I never heard him say that he was "called" but it was in his life that I first understood the word "vocation". He was not a teacher because he was paid to teach. He was a teacher because he had a vocation to teach. He did not teach a subject, he taught people and they bloomed and blossomed in his care and nurture. Though he taught only one subject and that was not Physics, or Chemistry or some thing like that, he put a spark in his English lessons that their ripples carried far and away. Mr. Madan taught us a book by James Hilton called Goodbye Mr. Chips. Those who have read the book will know what it is about. There are films with a similar theme like To Sir With Love and even a Hindi film called Sir.
I haven't seen the films. I have read the book though. But I can't read the book too many times without the tears brimming. For I have my own Mr. Chips. Mr. Madan - my one time principal and forever my teacher.
I wonder where he is today.
Shantanu Dutta is a doctor by training and a development professional by vocation. His blogs mostly deal with change, complexity and conversion. Most of of what he writes is guided by the axiom WWJD - How would Jesus understand, interpret and write about the situation.

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