MR. M CONTINUED
He didn’t give up even after my failed attempt to kill him, something he insisted on mentioning each time he introduced me to someone.
“Meet Amit, the little devil who tried to kill me.”
He derived immense delight from the discomfiture he caused me. I am yet to see another old man, a man who could barely take five steps without losing his balance, so full of childlike mischief.
After he would finish chortling, he would elaborate, and rather theatrically, to my utter mortification.
In brief, this is what had happened. One day he had asked me to fix the plug of a table lamp. I thought it would be easy and did not care – or dare – to tell him that I hadn’t done it before. He gave me his toolbox and sauntered off.
I pulled off the wires and then did what I thought I had seen electricians do. I bit off some of the rubber like a pro, twirled the strands, pushed them back, wound them, and tightened the screw. I stood back admiring my work when Mr Morrison sauntered back in.
“That was quick! You can get yourself a side job as an electrician.” He then proceeded to plug in the lamp.
Now, I am sure it was the poor circuitry in his old house or something like that, but it wasn’t me. The plug crackled and then melted, and the light bulb blew up.
Lady came galloping in and started barking furiously at the lamp and me. She wasn’t sure which one was the real cause of trouble. Mrs Morrison rushed in from the other room along with her students. All my escape routes were blocked.
Christmas in a Suit
Christmas was another time when I ended up making a memorable fool of myself. Each year, Mrs and Mr Morrison would invite all their students over to wine-soaked plum cake and red wine that she made herself. This was an extraordinary experience for most of us, for never before had we had either.
Mrs Morrison had many students, including my brother. Mr Morrison had only one. He was a tad too zealous and tough, difficult to suffer for long.
To impress and to assimilate, I went a step further one year, a step too far.
A cousin from Australia had handed me down his sky-blue three-piece suit. It was two sizes too big for me, but I decided it was just what I needed for the Christmas party at the Morrisons’.
I had a tough time holding on to my pants and not letting the sleeves swallow my arms. I likely looked like a scarecrow in a baggy suit, but neither of them said anything.
Lady, though, wasn’t as kind. Every now and then, she would spring from her corner like a jack-in-the-box and start barking at me. I guess all of us knew why but we preferred to let it slide. I never wore that suit again, or any other suit for that matter. I had been scarred for life.
Lady, a winsome black Labrador, had been mostly kind to me, though I had kept a distance since I was at that time quite unfamiliar with canines of foreign origin. Also, Lady had a rather formidable bark. I had suffered a serious casualty once.
While the elocution practice happened inside, all my writing lessons happened on the expansive orange-tiled verandah. I would sit on the green bench and write and rewrite. It typically took nine versions before Mr Morrison was satisfied.
So, there I was one evening poring over Mr Morrison’s numerous red comments, some of which I did not comprehend at first. For instance, I kept frowning at the red circle around ‘headlights’. I was sure the usage and spelling were both correct.
Deeply lost in this mystery, I was unaware that Lady had come and curled up under the bench. I knew only when there was a loud spurt of guttural bark. It was like sudden gunfire.
Startled, I lost my equilibrium, my pen slipped from my fingers, and the nib broke. That was my only fountain pen, and a Japanese Pilot at that.
Mr Morrison emerged, calmed Lady down, and asked me if I had finished my rewriting. I told him I was stuck at one place.
“What’s so wrong with ‘headlights’, sir?”
“Can you read out the entire sentence?”
I did, and confidently. “The newspaper headlights this morning were mostly about trivial local matters.”
I looked at him with a sense of redemption – the teacher isn’t always right – and he looked at me with total puzzlement. And then he broke into his signature belly-juggling bellow. He used to get rouged when he laughed with abandon.
I suppose I was used to such ridicule, so I let him expend his unbridled merriment. He explained that it was newspaper ‘headlines’ and not ‘headlights’. I wasn’t convinced. I knew my English needed polish but it wasn’t that tattered either.
The first thing I did when I reached home was look for the dictionary. Those days most middle-class homes had a hardbound Oxford or Cambridge dictionary which quickly started separating from the spine from overuse. I looked up ‘headlines’ and ‘headlights’ and my self-esteem teetered.
I knew where to go to restore myself – the same person who had demolished me in the first place.
For reasons that were unclear to me then, I would keep going back to Mr Morrison. Perhaps I saw behind that apparent insensitivity and toughness what I thought were his real feelings for me: fondness for my ingenuousness and respect for my doggedness.
The Elocution Competition
In his own way, Mr Morrison gave me the biggest gift any teacher ever gave me: he made me believe in myself, respect myself.
We journeyed along, he and I, like this, past all my comical foibles and flaws, and he started to feel I was getting sculpted. He was chiseling away at a rough block, giving it shape.
Only when he was satisfied, which took eleven tenacious months of me cycling almost every day 5 km to and 5 km back, had he made that pronouncement: the elocution competition.
I remember three things about that evening. The school hall was full of nattily dressed men and women; my main competition said to me in the green room, ‘I am scared, you have been trained by Mr Morrison’; and how everyone had melted away when I had begun reciting my piece.
I saw only Mr Morrison, all I cared was to make him proud.
I do not remember what happened when it was announced that I had won the Gold Medal. I do remember clutching it hard on the way back in the school bus, eager to cycle to his place first thing in the morning. He had not been able to come to the competition. My school was far, the roads were strewn with potholes, and a rickshaw ride would have been excruciating.
He suffered from frequent bouts of vertigo because of chronic vestibular imbalance in his ear. The dizziness was only a source of amusement and inconvenience to him, nothing more, but it inhibited travel outside his home.
He had already seen it in the papers when I reached. I touched his feet and said a thank-you which was more devotion than pride.
All he said was: “I knew you would, you little devil. Now promise me something. When you grow up, go teach others. With all your heart.”
I am not sure I promised him that, I might just have nodded absent-mindedly. Little did I know that some day that’s all that I would be doing, and with all my heart. Sometimes too much of it – and why not.
I could not attend Mr Morrison’s funeral, I did not have the money to travel from Delhi then.
I could not carry him on my shoulders, but that would not stop him, would it?
Every time I teach, he sits on my right shoulder like an imp and remarks on my performance. He has sat there each time, no exception, ever since I won that medal in 1985, ceaselessly commenting and chuckling and poking fun at me.
If there’s a misstep, he tells me loud and clear. It irks me at times, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Mr Morrison, you little devil!