Wednesday, December 24, 2008

To Chitra ma’am … with love, Smriti

My dear students,

During the joyful rejoicing of Christmas and the peace of the New Year 2009, may we find the moments and the caring to remember -- think of, speak to, write to -- the teachers who made us what we are.

Smriti Mudgal glows with love and affection for a teacher, who showed "faith" in her at a time when her parents "doubted" if she'd be able "to make a place for herself" in this competitive world.


By Smriti Mudgal

I was three years old when I went to Sardar Patel Vidyalaya (SPV), Lodhi Estate, New Delhi, for my school admission with my father. I don’t remember much of the interview, except that the teacher asked me to tell a story. I couldn’t remember one. So I rolled my eyes and saw a picture of two monkeys, smiling at me. So I made up a story, right away.

“Once upon a time, there were two monkeys, who lived on the same tree. The monkeys used to fight a lot over the fruits of the tree. One day, while they were fighting, one monkey almost fell off a branch. He tried saving himself by holding on to the other monkey's leg. Now, both thought, if one falls, so does the other one. So a better idea would be for the monkey on the tree to pull the one who was falling. That's what they did. And decided, then and there, that they would never fight with each other.”

The teacher looked at my father and said, “She's creative. But more than that, she believes in survival of self and others. For her sensitivity, we would love to take her in.” (This bit, my father told me after I grew up.)

So I was in this lovely school, where you don’t have to push your chair, get up and drone in that monotonous tone, “Goooood … Mooorning … Ma'aaaam”. Instead you raise your hand and just wave it vigorously, if you wish, or else just smile at your teacher. Many considered this waving of the hand as funny, snobbish or pseudo …

To each his own. I loved it.

I was a pretty lost kid, while in school. After my admission, I can’t remember any incidents. But it seems to me, I suddenly woke out of my deep slumber in Class 6, when this horrible teacher accused me of being ... vain. She thought I was dumb and way too conscious of my looks. I don’t think I was vain then. (Later on, I did become somewhat aware of my looks.) But, because of her unfair accusations, I became withdrawn.

I was out of place because the school had a lot of kids from families of bureaucrats, artists, journalists, the intelligentsia. My father was a product manager for a lighting company and I was not comfortable about it.

Every time he went to drop me to school (if I missed my school bus) on his scooter, I would keep asking him to drop me on the street and not drop me till the gate. I even hated my boring tiffin, which would have a simple poori jam roll, whereas the other kids would bring peanut butter sandwiches.

I was so uncomfortable in my skin till I went to Class 8 and met this really tiny woman called, “Chitra Srinivas.”

Chitra was our home-room teacher. “Home-room teacher” means she was “my class teacher”. Apart from the subject she taught us, that is, History, she also had 20 minutes everyday extra with us during our home-room period. During these 20 minutes, we children could chat; finish our home-work; talk to the home-room teacher, about anything under the sun; or sometimes even doze off in class. But I would do nothing, except wait for those 20 minutes to get over.

Chitra noticed that, but did not disturb me. Except once, when she walked up to me.

Chitra: “Smriti, is there a problem?”
Smriti: “Sorry!”

Chitra: “Why are you so quiet? Do you have any friends?”
Smriti: “I am fine. I am ok.”

Chitra: “Smriti, you can tell me if there is anything?”
Smriti: “No, there isn’t.”

Chitra: “I just want you to know, you are a fine girl. I know you don’t like history and geography, but that’s alright. And trust me, you will do fine, without them too.”

I looked around myself at the children, who were fond of her. My memories of her are few and far between.


She had a unique way of checking exam papers. She would mark the papers and sometimes even wrote funny comments alongside. Once, we got four days to prepare for the History paper. One of the students managed to get only 4/25 … So Chitra wrote against the marks, “That’s one mark for each day’s preparation … "Sorry, couldn’t give more” or “You can’t be serious! Did you hide a comic inside your history book?” She was equally generous, “I could give you 25/25, for this one answer only.”

Also, she could appreciate other skills in her students, even if they didn’t show any interest in her subject – History. She realised over a period of time that I couldn’t retain History in my head, but that I had a way with words, poems.

So she asked me to write a poem, which I did. She asked me to recite it in class. I had pasted the lyrics on a tune, which was yet another song from our street theatre class. The moment I started singing, a boy pointed out that the tune was not original.

Chitra gave that boy a piece of her mind, “Did Smriti ever say the tune is hers? She's written the lyrics, hear her out”. The boy did; Chitra did; the whole class did. And after the song was over, everyone was clapping, and I was red in my cheeks.

Chitra was our home-room teacher till Class 10. When we were passing out, she sang a song for us, “Aa chal ke tujhe, main le ke chaloon, ek aise gagan ke tale, jahan gam bhi na ho, aansoon bhi na ho, bas pyaar hi pyaar pale.”

I did not speak to her after that.


Two years ago, I went to the SPV school reunion. She was there, chatting with all the ex-students. She remembered everyone’s name. I was unsure whether she would remember me. I walked up to her, already blushing, “Hi Chitra ma’am, do you remember me, I am …”

“Of course, I remember you, Smriti,” Chitra ma’am said, “Look at you, how pretty you look in this golden saree. My God, what a wonderful job you’re doing on TV. You remember, I always told you, you’ll do well for yourself. But you were such a low-confidence person. Look at you now! God, how much you talk … I am so thrilled to see you, Smriti!”

I smiled. And for the first time, in that elitist school, I found my place in her heart.

Around six months ago, I received a mail informing us that Chitra had expired. I kept thinking, why this piece of sad news disturbed me so much. Perhaps, because Chitra showed faith in me at a time when my parents also doubted if I’d be able to make a place for myself in this competitive world.

I guess I did her proud in my own little way. I guess she rests in a place, “Jahan gam bhi na ho, aansoon bhi na ho, bas pyaar hi pyaar pale.”


Smriti Mudgal, a 2003 alumnus of the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication (SIMC), Pune, anchors the Hindi channel CNBC-Awaaz from Mumbai.

You may see other tributes, like this one by Smriti, to Chitra ma’am in a “Facebook” group called “R.I.P Chitra ma’am …”. The only thing is, you have to be a member of “Facebook” and join the group, which is worthwhile, if only because you get a great chance to read about why students are always grateful to certain teachers.

Tell us about a teacher you recall with love and affection, here on this blog or elsewhere. But do send us the link.

This is another gift to you, my dear students, from … Santa Claus.

Warm regards,
- Joe.
Pune, 24 December 2008.


Gopinath's "Artickles" said...

Such a touching story, a rare one in the blogosphere, Smriti. Congratulations to the blog for the award from IHM!

Ambaree said...

Thanks Gopinath. I am so glad you liked the post. Chitra was the loveliest teacher we had in school. Like I mentioned I never spoke to her while in school except at the re-union. I would have never known I was so fond of her unless Mr. Pinto who is yet another wonderful teacher would have prodded me to write about her:)

vagabound said...

Hi, just came across this post randomly. I was one of the students of Chitra mam in the eighties. I was one of the rare boys who chose "humanities" because I wanted to pursue Civil Services as my career. Chitra Mam was instrumental in creating my love for history. I still remember when I won the student executive elections she came up to me and told me about the responsibilities attached to the General Secretary post. There are so many small incidents which are flooding my head now. I came to know that she is no more through this post of yours. It just reminded me that teachers are such an integral part of our lives. Thanks for reminding me that. Shivajee Chandrabhushan.