He wouldn’t give up, and neither would I.
“Let’s try again tomorrow, you little devil,” he would say with a chuckle.
“I will, sir.”
I would cycle back home, talking to myself: “Try harder, try harder.” I knew I had a long way to go before I could write or speak good English.
I am not sure why I was so desperate. Perhaps because that was the only way I could impress people the way my cousins from Australia and America did. Perhaps that was the only way I could get noticed.
Mr Morrison was a portly old Anglo-Indian tutor who was in great demand in my small hometown. He did individual sessions, admitting only the most dogged, and for a token fee of sixty rupees a month.
He would go about his sprawling colonial house in shuffling steps, often with a hand on my shoulder. Except on Christmas, he was always in loose cotton pajamas and shirt. Lady, his black Labrador, followed him everywhere. She fetched the paper from the gate every morning.
I would cycle to his house every day after school.
The first hour would be on the verandah. He would make me write a composition and then turn it red with corrections. He used a fountain pen with red ink. Then we would go into the living room where he would make me stand in a corner and practice speaking. He would sit in a cane chair in the far corner.
Silence loomed in that large room, broken only by the tick-tock of the huge wooden wall clock. Apart from that, only my voice. It was unsettling.
He had made me memorize an excerpt from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. It was a difficult, fast-paced piece, with many twists and turns.
He was unrelenting. I had to get every word, every sentence, every paragraph right.
“Can you say that again? I need to hear every consonant. And louder please. You know I can’t hear too well.”
I would take a deep breath, shut my eyes, and enunciate with all my might words like ‘wild’, ‘rattle’, ‘swept’, ‘dashed’, ‘jolt’.
“Jol? What’s jol?”
“Jolt, sir. J-o-l-t.”
“Oh really, it has a ‘t’ in the end? Thought you’d invented a new word.” Then his signature chuckle which could make me shrink.
“Jolt-a”, I would say again, with a lot more emphasis on the ‘t’.
“Aah yes, I can hear it now. Excellent! Now, can you also make me feel it, feel that jolt-a?”
I would try, and try again. I would fail. I would be out of breath. Couldn’t he have given me an easier piece? How about something from My Family and Other Animals which he had once lent to me? Or from Sixty Steps to Précis?
“Let’s try again tomorrow.”
It could get exasperating. I once wanted to tell him that he could keep all his correct, clipped English to himself. I didn’t want it. I didn’t care.
But I did. Deep down I knew I did. I cared too much, and this snickering doddering old man who walked in shuffling steps was my only hope.
I did once stop going. It must have been about three months into my classes with him. I was exhausted. He expected too much! My parents asked me why I was not going. I told them that he was busy.
Each time I heard the trill of that big black phone, I would squirm. Was he going to call and ask?
He didn’t. He let me be.
I found myself at his door a week later.
I rang the bell, staring at the thick two-panel green wooden door. I heard his shuffle, and then the clanging of that heavy iron latch.
He gave a disarming grin. I found myself smiling back. He looked delighted to see me.
We sat on the green wooden bench in the verandah. I was fumbling for a credible excuse but he didn’t ask for one. I knew that he knew.
He got to work right away. First, another composition, then the voice drill.
For some reason, I was much better this time. I was precise and confident. He sat in the far corner in the cane chair, quietly watching and listening. He didn’t stop me once.
“What have you been up to, son? This was great!”
“Oh …” I fumbled. “thank you, sir, thank you.” I was overwhelmed.
“You are going to participate in the annual elocution contest this year,” he pronounced immediately.
What! I had not seen this coming. “No, sir! I can’t.”
The annual elocution contest was a big occasion in our small town, attended by more than a thousand people, some of them distinguished. The students who participated were very good. They had to pass through the quarter-finals and semi-finals to be able to get on that stage. They spoke so well, so confidently and clearly! The gold-medalist would be mentioned in the local newspaper the next day.
I wouldn’t even get past the quarter-finals.
“I can’t, sir. Please …” I was begging him to save me from the humiliation.
He didn’t say a word. I am not sure he paid me any attention. That moment, he seemed lost in his world.
“Let’s practice this a few more times. I want some more emotion in that jolt. When the carriage comes to a halt, you need to be the Marquis sitting in that carriage. A moment later, you have to be that poor man whose child was killed. And then you have to be that vendor of wine, Defarge, who consoled the poor man.”
I heard him intently, as still as a schoolboy in front of the headmaster.
“Make that coin ring on the floor. Let’s feel the jolt, hear that ring. Let’s see them all, see everyone – the street corner, the carriage, the Marquis, the poor people. That child. The wailing father. The vendor of wine. The woman gazing back at the Marquis. …”
He was in some happy world of his own. I was not even sure he was talking to me anymore. He looked young and restless, as if it was he raring to recite at the elocution competition himself.
After a minute or so, a minute that never went away, he looked at me with a strange new sparkle in his eyes. “Ok, it’s getting dark. You vamoose now.”
“Sir, what does vamoose mean?”
He broke into a full-throated guffaw, barely able to balance himself, his paunch jiggling merrily. He clutched my shoulder to keep his balance.
“It’s informal, don’t use it. It means, get lost now.” He slapped me on the back and ushered me out of the gate.
I looked back before taking the turn. He was still standing there in his pajamas, shirt, and a woolen gown, gleaming.
I cycled home in a frenzied daze. I saw everything, I became everyone. My head was bursting with images and emotions.
There, that street corner, yes that street corner! The throng of poor people! I am one of them, watching that ferocious carriage. I am the impatient Marquis who is irked at having to pause because a child has come under my carriage. How annoying!
I am the inconsolable father, I howl like an animal. I feel numbing pain in my throat. I am the women gazing back at the callous Marquis. I am Defarge who throws back the coin into the carriage.
I was there. I was onlooker, I was participant, I was Charles Dickens.
There was a nip in the air, winter was lurking. When I arrived home, I was drenched in sweat.