I was about eight or ten years old when I first sat in my dad’s corporate law lecture. I remember riding with him on his grey LML Vespa. He had picked me up from school, and had asked me if I would like to accompany him for his lecture. Of course, I wanted to go. So, still in my school uniform and ribboned braids, I had grabbed the front seat in the horseshoe shaped classroom. From there, I had a unique view of both the sermon giver, my father and the takers, his students. I didn’t know much about anything then, but to my young impressionable mind, my dad seemed nothing short of a superhero. He stood in front of the class on the wooden podium, talking intently to a full class of no less than forty kids, all of who appeared to me as though they were as much in awe as I was. After the lecture ended, I remember playing alone in the empty classroom and enacting him. For me, his little girl, teaching was extemporaneous – it was like giving a performance, it was a soliloquy, a monologues play, it was all about being the wisest and the bravest.
Over the years, though, watching my dad and mom labor through their teaching jobs, I understood the finer nuances of what being a professor meant. My parents, teachers in their professional lives, kept up the cape in their personal lives too. To them, living meant learning, and it meant learning irrespective of where it came from. My childhood was interspersed with frustrating, edgy, pushy moments where Ma pushed us away from our comfort zones, with the intent of making us street wise, and instilling what she called in Hindi, vivek, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong; and the ability to understand that life may not always fit into those two options. For her, it was important that we develop the freedom and openness of the mind and heart to embrace the gray, and to embrace the tepid and lukewarm moments of life with as much joy as the moments of great adventures and accomplishments.
They made a great team too, mom and dad.
With Dad, the learning was more practical – learn by seeing. In a lifetime dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, my father enthused in his profession a passion that had fired him right from his childhood. I remember him talking about his work with a glow on his face, and a twinkle in his eye. Each day, when he would return from his morning set of classes, he would be humming a tune. Yes, life did wear him down and yes he did have his weary set of days, but the music never completely escaped from his professional life, and in fact, his love for his work fragranced his personal life too. In a mechanism explained well by physics, he was propelled by Newton’s first law of motion – an object in motion remains in motion unless an external force is applied. I think in papa’s case, his passion begot more passion and hence he remained in a perpetual state of self-powering system, where life’s frictions never could overpower him. I loved being his companion to bookstores, book fairs and libraries, not understanding what was happening, but happy to clutch his books, papers, pens and the plethora of notepads and diaries he had. There were always people who would run into him at these places. “Arey Jain sahib, aaj kal kya likh rahe hai aap?” (What are you writing these days, Jain sahib?) Conversations would ensue and before long, I would have to resort to other ways of keeping myself entertained. I would sit there and dream about being able to read fat books like dad does, or I would look at his notes and try to understand the words and what they meant.
Papa’s work was larger than life. His work life extended beyond the normal 9-5 work days. In fact, sometimes I thought he didn’t have his work and personal life clearly defined. I remember waiting on him sometimes to finally be able to go to a movie, or the endless times mother would call on him to join us for meals. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t the disturbing kind of work interference, he wasn’t the unavailable father. He had, probably in an unplanned manner, introduced his work in all our lives. Legal jargon never scared me thus. I would see contractual terms, and mercantile law concepts and laws and the different sections, subsections, acts and paraphrases, over morning tea, or afternoon snack, dinner parties and get-togethers. I had grown fond of his world. I would attend his lectures, sometimes be party to his work meetings and would be the one counting all the flowers he and mom received on Teacher’s Day every September. The more they got, the more proud I felt. When he would grade answer papers, it would be like a flurry of activity at home, every single time. Papers, papers and papers. There would be one stack he needed to grade for each day and sometimes the grading would go much into the night, while he sat on the table, with his glasses on, clutching the red pen, gulping cups of warm tea and listening to R D Burman and Kishore Kumar in the background. This activity and many more clockwork requirements of being a professor intrigued us, and for years we saw him going through the various ebb and flow of the teaching life, marveled at how much energy his work gave him. I remember as a young adult wanting to be his squire, trying to learn all the tools and software to be able to assist him. I can say this for my brother and my sister as well, that dad’s work taught each of us something new. For my sister, his career later became hers, in essence she became his torchbearer. For my little brother, dad’s work life is a legacy he wants to protect, cherish and preserve. And for me, his love for his work became a reason why I strive to love what I do, and do what I love. For him, work wasn’t a chore, it had to be a drive. I wish I find it too. I wouldn’t have it any other way, because he never did, not one single day.
Then there were the practical issues of living that needed to be addressed that dad and mom made sure we learnt. Sometimes, in our quiet desperation, my siblings and I, would often discuss how Mom and Da it seemed were preparing us for doomsday. So banking to plumbing, nothing was off the radar.
Ma, was more of the dreamer. You could tell she read Gulzar and Amrita Pritam, and Ramdhari Singh Dinkar. Sometimes I wondered if her only fear in life was that of not being able to live the mundane. As if in preparation to that, she was always building facets of her life. Each day, every day. If I have to recall, I think Ma was learning something new every year of her life, and she still does. In a lifetime of teaching, I think she embodies within her the learner and the doer. Yoga, reiki, naturopathy, photography, dancing, public speaking, plumbing, screen printing, soft toy making, embroidery, jams and jelly preservation, electric wiring, meditation, driving, gardening, poetry recitation, Ayurveda, plot-harvesting, and community building — the list is long and un-themed. Perhaps, the only theme was the attempt to understand and live life a little better each time. So she would dabble in the arts, in the mechanics of life, in culinary pursuits and spatial designing, and each time a new mother would emerge. Growing up, I saw this multitude of interests as the lack of focus. As a grown-up woman myself, I now find her multitude of interests, the harbinger of life. Something I wish I could deepen in my own core.
In a lot of ways, I thought my mom was a quintessential teacher, just like she was a thorough dreamer. She didn’t hand hold, she didn’t tease nor did she use force. She was experimental. She made us understand, she spoke to us like we were equals. She respected us, thus in turn, got an automatic respect from us. In her poetic world was an unexpected practical and worldly wise demeanor that probably came from her voracious reading of excellent writers like Kanhiyalal Mishr Prabhakar, Premchand and Tolstoy. She learnt from protagonists, from heroines, from villains and the in-betweens. She learnt from women, men, lovers, artists, and the fakirs. She read of death and old age, of life and lifelessness, of sickness and health, and of self and the other. It was no surprise then that these influences reflected in her writing. Till today, she never writes halfheartedly, it’s never a thing of effort for her. In her almost spiritual like pursuit of writing, I saw the art grow with her, like a creeper growing with the oak, in a mutually enriching relationship. Her life becoming an embodiment of poetry, of lyric.
I have to confess that adult life and moving away from parents hasn’t been as beautiful as living with them was. I am not even sure I learnt all the life skills they were imparting so lovingly. A month ago, at a hike with a friend, I almost drowned in the lake. Not the kind of situation my dad was preparing me for, after all dad took me and my sister to swimming classes every summer.
“So that you don’t drown,” he would say.
Well, I almost did, daddy.
With life’s various disappointments setting sail each day towards my life harbors, I miss that safe haven called home. It’s not that I feel unprepared, for they did prepare me for this feeling of unhappiness and failure, so omnipresent with grown up life. What I miss most is the taste and smell of a breathing, living life that my parents always kept safe, day after day, even in the drudgery and monotony of daily living. My father, in his work and my mother in her beautiful way of seeing the world, always kept that one singular most important thing close to them – jijivisha, the yearning for life.
I yearn, for a lesson, once again. Its time, dear teachers.