Once upon a time when I was going for my engineering entrance tuition, I met the most infuriating person I have ever known. He was a teacher who taught Physics. Notebooks out and pens in hand, we sat on a rainy day anticipating his first lesson. Rumor had it that he took spectacular classes; so the room was packed and there was pin drop silence. Ten minutes… we were still waiting. Half an hour… the silence was getting punctured by small talk. One hour later, we were deep in discussion about the emerging Bollywood star, Shah Rukh Khan. We hardly noticed the man walking in to the room with nothing except a marker pen in his hand. Wearing a mundu (similar to but not as formal as a dhoti) and khadi (I suspect) shirt, he came right to the front of the room and started writing on the board. As he spoke, his voice was very low. We never heard the first words of that much-awaited class; we were too busy talking.
During the first several days of the class, we learned nothing. Instead of propounding the unfathomable theorems of Physics, he dedicated them to insulting us in whatever way he could. If the decibels had been high (or low? I forget the Physics), we could have forgotten his words, a few of the very brave could have lashed out, and cowards like me could have condemned him in private discussions. But he never yelled, there was no drama. His quite words had a power and viciousness of their own, which made us feel really like worms. He targeted all our weak points; we who came from the best schools in the district were told that what we had been taught till then had been rubbish. He made fun of the way we used to sit expectantly with our notebooks open and pens out so that we might memorize the so-called lessons and vomit them on exam sheets. He said that the kids working in the automobile workshop below knew more Physics than all of us put together. (The class held some of the best scorers in board exams in the state, and we all had our fair share of distinctions and excellent marks.)
Soon, many of the students started leaving the room in the middle of his talks; most of them came back only to collect their deposit money, which I learned later was paid back to the last penny. One evening, after a truly despondent session (one can hardly call it ‘class’) we came out, our hearts as stormy and rain clad as the monsoon skies outside. Someone was standing outside the room waiting to see sir; the young man had an unmistakable air that proclaimed him an old student. “Arun (fictitious name)! Ente sakhave (my dearest comrade), how long it has been since our last meeting.” The voice was loud, the tone warm and joyful, and the speaker our sir. He came out and hugged his old student. As I turned back on the excited couple and started walking towards the bus stop, I could hear the classroom come to life with jokes and laughter behind me.
I am not sure of the exact date when the break in the clouds finally came. Anyway, by that time our class strength had diminished to one half, and all our pride and confidence had been diminished to nothing. One fine day, as he started on another of his prolonged root canal sessions, a girl stood up and said, “with all due respect sir, I had enough. Do teach us some Physics.” The shaking words were met by total silence in the room. She looked as though she would burst into tears. For a moment, our sir looked back at her impassively. Then, a slow smile broke out on his dark face. He got up from his chair, stretched himself and said the enigmatic words, “Finally… now I can breathe. The chaff has been winnowed off.” He started with Newton’s laws of motion. Of that class it is enough to say that even after so many years, most of us still remember it (word for word). I particularly remember his description of inertia, of how a body requires external force (in some cases, extreme force I guess) to shake it out of its inherent tendency to ‘continue in its state of rest or of uniform motion’.
Yesterday, when I watched Robin Williams teach his students the meaning of free thinking in the ‘Dead poets society*’ I remembered my sir. On comparison, I think my sir communicated the idea more effectively when he asked us “The apple fell on Newton’s head, not yours. He told the world about gravity and you believe him. Why?”
*Dead poets society: Movie starring Robin Williams as a teacher who gets kicked out of a prestigious institution for his ‘unorthodox’ ways of teaching. The words by Walt Whitman quoted at the start of the article is mentioned by the veteran actor in the movie. Although I don’t know the other actors, I felt the character Neil Perry (he commits suicide later in the movie) is unforgettable.