Remembering Chitra ma’am

SWARA BHASKAR

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THIS is not an obituary.

It was an SMS that announced itself with a beep in the afternoon on 29 March 2008. It read simply – Chitra ma’am died today. An SMS doing the rounds on the SPV (Sardar Patel Vidyalaya) alumni circuit. I sat back and read the SMS again and again, and then dutifully forwarded it to the numbers of all the other SPV alumni listed on my cellphone. Funnily, it was tragic news that was perfectly believable, and I remembered her tiny frame. I remembered, with a tinge of guilt, how we’d joke as Chitra ma’am shrank back nervously when tall boys would venture within half a meter radius of her, scared that they would stamp on her feet, or how we gleefully photographed her trying to climb an elephant during a class trip to the Bandhavgarh tiger reserve, her foot not reaching the first step of the ladder… how it never occurred to our enthusiastic, overconfident, smart-assed 16 year old selves that she was so small, so frail and so vulnerable.

Later that day I learnt that she had fractured a ligament for which she was put on a heavy dose of painkillers. The resultant acidity caused a stomach ailment for which she had to be operated, after which she died. Her biopsy revealed a cancer that had remained undetected. It was bizarre, sadly absurd that a ligament tear should turn so vicious. And I remembered one of her statements from history class, as we grappled with that chaotic period of early modern Indian history after the death of Aurangzeb, one hot July afternoon – ‘Don’t look for meaning, look for connections,’ she had said.

Strangely it was the event of her death that brought to light for a group of her students many connections – bits of tangled up memory strings from school life, unresolved knots of dramatic moments from adolescent years, webs of nostalgia – painful questions confronting usually self-assured teenagers. And at the centre of all this haunted memory castle loomed that tiny figure who held the common thread of our school life – Chitra Srinivas, History Teacher and Class Teacher of 11A at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, Lodi Estate, New Delhi (‘…with 30 years teaching experience!’)

It started with an obituary I wrote a day after her death and emailed to six friends, all of whom had spent class 11 and 12 studying history from Chitra ma’am and the same two years as her ‘homeroom’ or the class she was in charge of, the class teacher of. At first there were only a few responses to the obituary – all positive, one urging that it should be published, another adding a few forgotten anecdotes about Chitra ma’am, until I found one morning in my inbox a seven page deconstruction of my obituary.

It was authored by one of the same group of seven who is etched in the annals of the oral history tradition of SPV for his notorious pranks – a clever, witty, Derridean piece of writing that raised some uncomfortable issues from our shared personal history. For the next six days this group of seven exchanged over 25 emails across Delhi, Bombay, Kathmandu and Atlanta in the USA – debating, arguing, thinking aloud, confessing, meditating on Chitra ma’am – the individual, the teacher, the institution, the social system.

And we found ourselves inadvertently discussing issues around teacher-student relationship, schooling in urban India, pedagogic practices, the line between pedagogy and parenting, schooling and ideological state apparatus, the classroom as a site for the reproduction of a particular morality, the school as a womb for the birth of productive, responsible citizens, education as a medium of disciplining and thus shaping a certain ‘type’ of student citizen.

And so, this is not an obituary.

 

This essay attempts to explore some of the questions that the news of Chitra ma’am’s passing away forced us to ask and share with each other – questions and answers that are deeply personal, conflict-ridden, partly unresolved and perhaps problematic. I have taken the liberty of compiling them.

Small, frail, sari-clad, over-stuffed with loose sheets-notebook clutching, Chitra Srinivas would burst into a noisy, chaotic classroom and announce, ‘I have no time, there’s so much syllabus to finish!’ Those who learnt history from her for four years, from 9th to 12th standard, and were her ‘homeroom’ students for two years in 11th and 12th at Delhi’s Sardar Patel Vidyalaya (SPV), probably recall this sense of urgency that characterized everything Chitra ma’am did.

And she did so much. So much more than teach history, though perhaps she will be immortalized in the memory of generations of those blessed to be her students during her three decade teaching career as the person who taught them that history was not the past, but very much the present. And though she won the Central Board of Secondary Education Teacher Award 2006, what is perhaps more telling of her prowess as a teacher-educator is the fact that she got members of SPV’s traditionally and proudly notorious cricket team interested in modern Indian and contemporary world history. These strapping goondas actually read up and produced ‘projects’ on the same subjects as part of ‘holiday homework’, and some even went on to do a B.A. in history honours for graduation.

 

As a teacher of history, she was innovative and courageous – innovative in the means she employed to bring across the weight and full relevance of a particular point she was explaining to her often restless students. We learnt about the ancient system of varnashrama dharma as she divided the class into four groups of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, and had us improvise dramatised skits with the brief – interact according to the caste hierarchy prescribed by the varnashrama dharma. She fought the stereotypical belief that history is boring by personalizing it. And so we were introduced to the Mughal Emperor Humayun with the story of his ‘accident-ridden’ life. And since then, this second Mughal emperor has remained for me a character from a medieval pantomime, who in the words of Chitra ma’am ‘tumbled in and out of life.’

A courageous teacher, she was always pushing the boundaries and stretching the limits of the framework that the CBSE syllabus and NCERT textbooks prescribed. She insisted that we do our own thinking and had us do numerous ‘projects’ – small secondary research assignments and presentations, very particular that no student be able to cut slack. She always encouraged creativity, giving us extra marks if we included an ancient Aztec recipe in our project on ‘The Aztec Civilization’ or brought photographs and brooches with Zionist symbols from our father’s diplomatic trip to Israel to supplement our presentation on the ‘Historical Roots of Israel-Palestine Conflict’.

Every year, two days before the summer vacation, she would hand out a list of books – a reading list she spent much time compiling, taking care that the mostly fiction books included would help her students make connections, and personalize the chapters they were reading in class.

 

History class it turned out had less to do with the past and everything to do with the present. She moved far beyond the prescribed textbooks, scattering her lectures with anecdotes and gossip about world leaders, constant references to current politics and society, and trips to monuments, galleries and museums. We didn’t even realize that we were questioning so much we considered ‘natural’ as she, without saying it in so many words, taught us to recognize stereotypes, cautioned us about the constructed nature of history, and the politics of the ‘writing’ of history. So much so that in class 11 and 12 we were discussing the constructed nature of nation states and hegemonic views of the national movement, only partly realizing that we were ‘learning to be critical.’

‘Read the newspaper, you must read the newspaper,’ was her constant plea to us, and then, suspecting that we didn’t in fact read the newspaper, she had the headlines and minor summary read in class daily by rotation. And so, many classes were spent discussing the news published in the papers that day, leaving Hitler’s ‘blitzkrieg’ untouched on page 118, until she woke up with a start to that cursed reality called the timetable as the bell for the next period rang, and we plotted gleefully on how to seduce her into a ‘class discussion’ on some contemporary issue the next day as well.

The period bell was Chitra ma’ams arch enemy, never in all her years of teaching allowing her to finish the syllabus just as she wanted, include all that she wanted to impart and point out all the connections. Year after year, we began marathon extra classes in end January, while she reassured us that last year she had four chapters left at this point, while this year there were only three and a half. And perhaps none of us appreciated enough the enormous investment she made to teaching us something more substantial than ‘notes’ vomited out year after year for students to learn by rote and reproduce verbatim in the Board exam. And to her credit 50 per cent of the class scored over 70 per cent in history in the exams that year, with numerous students scoring over 80 per cent as well. But then in her own words, ‘Marks are not everything.’

 

A staunch secularist, she repeatedly denounced efforts by the Hindu Right to poison history and distort it to fit their contemporary political programmes. And yet she maintained and imparted an outlook of openness in academic inquiry and allowed in her classes students sympathetic to the Hindu Right full freedom of expression and engaged with them as equals without judging them personally for their political opinion. It was precisely this non-judgemental, rational, reasonable engagement, wrote one of our group in his response to the obituary, that had him shift in intellectual and political opinion away from the Hindu Right – ‘a gift from Chitra ma’am,’ he said.

The spirit of enquiry, the ability to ask questions was for her the basis of any education. And to ensure that we kept questioning and learning creatively, in her capacity as home-room teacher she started a class library and a daily session of interest sharing, where by rotation each student prepared and shared information on a topic of interest for five minutes. Imagine her horror and bewilderment when the more creative of us began sharing information on ‘farting, the types of farts found around world, burping, cultural variations in burping, reading character by burp interpretation...!’

 

It was in her role as homeroom teacher where Chitra ma’am faced her great challenges as ‘teacher’ and we perhaps showed other uses of the ‘confidence’, ‘enthusiasm’, ‘intelligence’ and ‘creativity’ that she so praised in history class. And so we struggled, Chitra ma’am and us, together, with each other, sometimes against each other. As homeroom teacher (or HRT in SPV lingo) she was no less than an anxious parent, scared about how the enthusiastic, overconfident bunch of 12thees would cope with all that the adult world would throw in their faces, as she envisioned threats of all kinds in an unsheltered world outside the safe bounds of SPV.

If principles of pedagogy draw a line indicating where teachers must stop being concerned, else they step into parent territory, we always felt that Chitra ma’am hadn’t seen it. She was fearful and ambitious for us, almost like a parent. And while it was touching to see someone with a personal stake in our doing well and succeeding, the intensity of her fear bewildered us. We wondered why she was so panicky for us, and speculated whether it had something to do with her being childless.

 

Delhi University, where most of us were headed, presented to her and so she presented it to us, grave dangers, all kinds of misleading temptations – drugs, alcohol, ragging, gender-based harassment, emotional upheavals, career issues. And so she spent many homerooms trying hard to ‘talk’ about these adolescent issues to (often) a group of unresponsive, arrogant and over smart youngsters, smirking at her fears and imitating her anxieties at the water tap, thinking that they knew it all because they were after all 17 and already dating.

The sum of all these talks was her effort to communicate to us that we must learn to stand up for what is right, despite any form of social or peer pressure. And again and again it seems, she encountered that which she could not fathom – that ambiguous, still forming morality of (mostly) upper middle class adolescents in metropolitan India, who were being influenced by perhaps the most number of phenomena in the history of adolescent influencing.

And so she responded with great discomfort and harsher moral judgement as she encountered our ‘ambiguous adolescent behaviour’ – as she caught some of us cheating in exams, proof of others smoking and drinking alchohol, found boys and girls in the same room at 3:30 am during a class trip to a tiger sanctuary. Once she found the biology lab assistant locked up in the lab next to our classroom, the keys to the lock untraceable. Another time there was detergent powder in every schoolbag in the class, there was evidence of ‘match fixing’ paralleling events in the international cricket world, at our very own sports week, comments about the ‘black bra’ of a student on the wall of the boys bathroom and complaints about one of her favourite girl students, discovered on the terrace in the lap of the notorious school cricket team captain.

 

These signs confirmed her fears that we would succumb to the temptations and threats of the ‘real’ world and every time a complaint came she began a massive effort at making us more moral creatures. We had marathon four to six hour collective class discussions, debates and confessions that often left the class divided and fragmented; individual counselling that left us feeling indignant and stubborn; and more traditional forms of punishment like suspension, public apology, stripping of rank and presentation to the principal for a serious and more humiliating ‘taking to task’ – all of which only made us more rebellious.

In our inter-student group discussions, we often wondered why she couldn’t ‘mind her own business’, ranted at the very quality we admired in her as a history teacher – not sticking to the prescribed framework – and accused her of panchayati or playing politics. We analyzed her character, and wondered who she really was, what really was her true character? We did for her exactly what she did for us – judge the actions. Sometimes we termed her a stodgy conservative, at other time as being power hungry.

On occasion we read her efforts as destroying student unity, while at other times we accused her of favouritism, and then when our unit test marks arrived, grudgingly admitted that she had high academic integrity and whatever her personal biases, the marking was fair and just. We struggled like this, teacher and students, as every minor occurrence in 12-A became the biggest moral crisis of human existence… two years no less than the crusades. For every punishment we got, we held Chitra ma’am and her manipulations responsible.

And so we passed out of school, our contentions with Chitra ma’am unresolved. And though we bent to touch her feet at the diya ceremony, many of us had closed the doors of our minds and hearts (much like the bio lab with the poor assistant locked inside and the key untraceable) shrugging off her blessings and good wishes.1

And then came the SMS with the simple announcement – Chitra ma’am died today.

And we revisited the time spent being Chitra ma’ams students, and again we fought, debated and analyzed. And again at the centre of all this was that tiny figure.

 

Again we struggled and wondered what she really was, and then realized with surprise how fresh that adolescent hurt was. We all remembered a different Chitra ma’am; sometimes each one of us remembered many Chitra ma’ams. There was something of her in us that we hadn’t been able to erase despite our best efforts, despite many years of facing and succumbing to temptation in the adult world. What it was is an answer perhaps none of us has. But we recalled how when one of us got married, she was invited and expected, and her absence noted. How when another got promoted, it came into that cluttered lawyer’s mind to go and show off to his school teacher, almost like he’d topped the history unit test. How others fantasized of going to school as chief guest to one of the functions and seeing Chitra ma’ams proud face in the audience.

 

Was it her death that enabled us to see her in a way we had never managed when she lived, even after we passed out of school? There was a way, till that day, in which we weren’t able to see Chitra ma’am as being separate from us. Her subjectivity or who she was is something we will never know. All of us only saw her as how she was to us, what she did to us. Perhaps, one must return to school to know the teacher in a different way, as a person who had her own problems, her own history. Maybe the engagement that we had with Chitra ma’am, in a school set-up didn’t allow for that.2

But isn’t it telling that as her students her own life was a total blank, a complete silence for us, barring the few anecdotes she shared in class. We didn’t even know her age; it was a favourite guessing game in school, until some newspaper announced in an obituary that she died at the age of 57, and I made a quick calculation even as I read that she was 49 years old when we were her students.3

 

Perhaps the other thing none of us realized was that she was after all a teacher employed by the school, answerable to school authorities for the actions of her homeroom students. And while we allowed ourselves the context of being students, we didn’t give her enough of a context of being a teacher in a system which thinks of education, schooling and discipline in a certain way. And if she was conservative, prudish and moralistic, as she often was, her own personal history/experience/world view/ideological influences and (yes!) context, made her that – just like ours made us. As students in a hierarchical relationship with her, in a disciplinary format, feeling the power she exerted on us as teacher every day, fearing her – these are admissions we couldn’t possibly have made. But now that her death has finally released us of that subaltern position, we can perhaps fathom how her playing the role of the custodian for ‘good’ allowed us to be ‘bad’ without guilt or remorse. It is an unpleasant role for a person to play, and indeed many worse have played that role!4

The story of our relationship with Chitra ma’am is both a story of the relationship of particular students with an individual teacher, and a story of the kinds of conflict a particular system of schooling, a particular vision of education, and a particular notion of morality/discipline generates. But daily life is so wonderfully complex that we as students continued to evade disciplinary efforts with that irreverence which was our only weapon in school, proving – as suspensions were used to hatch more plots for ‘safer’ pranks and cement ‘dangerous’ friendships, as new locations were found to romance, newer techniques found to bunk classes and evade arrest – proving that the school and Chitra ma’am could not, despite their best efforts, ever control the meanings that we interpreted of their actions. That each disciplinary move by the school was for us, only yet another moment of playing with the school.5

 

And since Chitra ma’am too lived this daily reality of being human, she too resisted any one reading. So, the students she disliked and had fallen out with, continued to score well in tests and exams she corrected; she termed her most ‘dangerous’ student rebel a ‘heart-winner’, even as she suspended him from attending classes; and she called aside the very girl she had taken to the principal for romancing during school hours to ask if all was well with the cricketer boyfriend and why she was looking so tearful.

To try and untie the knots in our memory strings, to clear away webs in our nostalgia castles, to make perfect meaning of that always unresolved past is perhaps impossible, and perhaps unnecessary.

And so, perhaps it is best to rely on the words of one with ‘30 years teaching experience’ – ‘don’t look for meaning, look for connections.’

Goodbye Chitra ma’am. Had we seen the connections earlier we would have returned to give you more reason to complain, punish and be proud, after that long gone diya ceremony.

 

* I would like to thank Moyukh Chatterjee, Ashis Roy, Prashant Jha, Uday Khare, Sambuddha Dutt, and Neetu Sarin for sharing their thoughts and experiences with me. This essay attempts to compile, structure and include a bit of all our experiences.

 

Footnotes:

1. The diya ceremony was an annual event that marked a final, official farewell/ valediction to the 12th class students. It was hosted by the principal and class and subject teachers of that particular batch of 12thees. Amongst students it was looked forward to with great excitement for girls bought and donned their first saris, and boys appeared in formal three piece suits and sherwanis for the event. Parents were invited for a formal tea in the principal’s garden and we looked forward to Balan’s (canteen owner) vadas for free. Apart from speeches, and songs that the teachers sang for us, a unique feature of the diya ceremony was that beautiful, moving symbolic gesture at the end of the ceremony when the principal handed each student a diya which we placed along a massive outline of India drawn with flowers, pledging to use our education in a constructive manner as responsible student citizens of India. Chitra ma’am must have participated in scores of such diya ceremonies.

2. These were some of the thoughts of Ashis Roy as he responded to an obituary about Chitra ma’am I wrote and circulated a few days after she passed away.

3. An observation made by Moyukh Chatterjee in a discussion about this essay.

4. An observation made by Uday Khare in his response to the above mentioned obituary.

5. An observation only Moyukh Chatterjee (player) would make.

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