Miss. Tapashi came into my life when I was in class 4. My mother teaching in the same school as I was learning, was the eternal bane of my life. Until I met Miss. Tapashi that is.
To my utter horror, she became my mother’s fast friend. Together they saw to it that most of my lovely sunny days at school were quite gloomy.
If my mom missed the episode where I was sent out of class for not completing my geography charts, Miss. Tapashi would chose the wretched moment to walk past my class.
I had two choices when I moved on to grade 6- Hindi or French. My mother handled Hindi all the way from 6th to 12th. Six years of Hindi and my mother… I chose French. And with that I unwittingly chose 6 years of Miss. Tapashi, torn answer sheets, red color liberally splashed on my books…
It is said, isn’t it that a teacher’s child is always hated by the children? Thankfully in my case it wasn’t so. My mother was a holy terror in school. Miss. Tapashi was a holier terror then!
My classmates oozed sympathy. Once Miss. Tapashi came up with this wretched rule that any kind of conversation in class should only be in French. You couldn’t have found a quieter class. How on earth were you to make sentences of words like monkeys, cows, cats, dogs, ties, socks, cars, fishes, the market…the only words we seemed to ever know.
To most of Miss. Tapashi’s questions, we would answer , “Oui”.
Sometimes she meant something like, “Have you not completed the homework”.
Notebook with painfully constructed sentences, I would stretch out at her and in all innocence say, “Oui”.Yes, I haven't completed the homework.
We became cleverer at spotting the traps. Any sentence that had even a faint tint of “Non” or “ne” we would answer the same. Oh-we got into innumerable scrapes, but like all survivors we survived too.
It was one of those wretched days when I felt rebellious against the whole world. I fought with my friends, immediately made up, was sent out of class, was called back in… it was that kind of a day.
We had this huge French prayer to memorize. All of us would religiously chant it-we were then too young to make a decision on to be religious or not.
Miss. Tapashi was a little late to class. I brought a long stick of chalk and began drawing on my brown desk. That was something forbidden. Chalks were meant only for teachers except when you had to write something on the board, but then it took all the fun out of touching those cool fingers of chalk- doing math and all wrong at that in front of the whole class tends to take away any kind of joy.
When Miss. Tapashi bustled in, my friend warned me, “You better put it back”
I promptly stuck my tongue out at her. But there was a small pang of fear in my mind. Today was the day I was rebellious- but even I drew my line when it came to Miss. Tapashi.
Recklessness is contagious. My friend told me, “I bet you can’t throw the chalk from here to the desk”
“I bet I can. And it wont break too”
Now both of us knew that was next to impossible. But it was my reckless, rebellious spree and when on sprees like this, I make sure I make the biggest mess ever possible.
“Dites vos priers” Say your prayers.
I should have read an omen in that. A sign at least.
50 pairs of eyes closed in habit. Two opened after ‘Seigneur’. Lord.
I aimed carefully and threw the chalk. Right at Miss. Tapashi’s thick glasses. My friend and I frantically joined the others loudly at ‘donnez-nous la patience’, give us the patience. We both changed the words to best fit the situation. “Give Miss. Tapashi the patience”.
Prayer was in vain. My first instance at realizing that. For someone who told us, we should close our eyes while praying, Miss. Tapashi broke the protocol. She had her eyes open and to her horror she’d seen a white missile like object that flew straight at her eyes.
“Qui a jeté la craie?”, she asked quietly.
To the rest of the girls, she might have very well have asked, “How many of you washed your ears”. That good was our French even after months of learning.
A usual silence filled the class. For the very simple reason that only 3 of us understood what the question was.
Miss. Tapashi was known for many things. Her beautiful Bengal cotton sarees, her staunch loyalty to her friend my mother and her temper. A story of how she shook a girl who was caught bullying one of the girls from lower classes was almost a legend.
“Who threw the chalk”, she asked in English. She’d realized by then why our class was one of the quietest she’d handled in her many teaching years.
A collective gasp went off from the class. I gasped too. Not out of pretence. But the sheer temerity of the act shocked me. All of a sudden my rebellious streak left me. I wished I was part of the background. A piece of furniture maybe. Something non living instead of this living, eating, heart beating creature that I was.
I was sitting and feeling miserable for myself and almost deciding to get over with it and ‘fess, come what may, when I heard my (ex) friend say, “She did”, pointing at me.
Another gasp went up. I stood up. My legs shook. I looked scornfully at my (ex)friend hoping that she felt like a worm in a cabbage.
Then belligerently at Miss. Tapashi, “Oui. J'ai jeté la craie”
My classmates were on a breathless and sighing spree I guess. I heard another loud gasp- it could only be for the fact that I spoke in French, right or not was irrelevant.
I was the first girl to ever construct an answer to Miss. Tapashi’s question.
Miss. Tapashi asked me, her voice unnervingly quiet and even, “Would you have confessed if she hadn’t pointed you out?”
I realized that a ‘yes’ would have made me the heroine that I never would be. I heard myself say, “I don’t know”.
That was the right answer to any question in the question paper. Technically speaking I knew the right answer here. Then what on earth made me give a lame answer like, “I don’t know”, I know not till today.
Miss. Tapashi’s face showed a plethora of changing emotions. To all of our astonishment and my relief, she laughed.
She came over to my desk and peering down at me said, “I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d answered yes. I wouldn’t have believed you either if you’d answered no. I know those moments of indecision. And am glad you told me what you felt honestly.”
Walking back to the front of the class she also said, “But I do know, you would have stood up and confessed. That much I do know”
Something in me changed that day. I realized I actually liked Miss. Tapashi.
I realized I had bad aim.
I realized too that not all people close their eyes while praying.
I looked at my friend who was laboriously writing, her tongue out with the effort. I even forgave her in a fit of magnanimity- after all you cant help be friends in times of adversity. But I guess it was partly because she had an even more complex sentence to write out than I did. I had a lot of time to think all this while I sat writing “Je ne jetterai pas la craie” 500 times outside the classroom along with my friend.