IT WAS a small gesture. But for the shy 10-year-old still new to the class — he had joined the school just months before — it meant a lot. They had a math test a few days earlier. That afternoon, the teacher, a tall Tamil lady with a ready smile and a large red dot on her forehead, brought in the corrected papers.
“Who,” she asked the class, “do you think got the highest marks in the test?” Several guesses from the kids. Was it AC, admired already for his aptitude for science and math, later to become a pathbreaking biologist who has never lost a certain wide-eyed curiosity about the world? No. All right, perhaps DP, the always diligent bright spark, today a renowned Hindustani classical singer known also for a fascinating TED talk? No. Was it RM, good at everything he touched, went on to become the first non-American president of the Harvard Law Review, a couple of years before Obama held the same post? Not him.
Was it DD, envied in class for both her athleticism and good grades, now a respected art educator who is working on a book on women artists? Nope. Perhaps RA, always sharp and funny, but still to show any sign of turning into the eclectic chef and successful restaurateur he is these days? No again.
A few more guesses, a few more ‘No’s, the teacher’s smile widening with each one. Through it all, the shy 10-year-old sat in his last row near the door, silent. No guesses from him, but not just because he still felt new to this class. No, it was this simple: he knew he had done well in the test, and he owed that to her. And today, right now, somehow, he knew as soon as she asked her question: the teacher meant him.
Which, it turns out, she did. All of a sudden, she interrupted the guesses, pointed to the back and announced his name to the startled class. She called him to the blackboard. She handed him his paper. He looked down at it. “He got 96 out of 100,” she told the class, and that turned out to be easily the best marks of the day. The other kids actually applauded. He stood there looking at them, shy but proud. Grateful for this little recognition from her and them, but grateful already, and always after that, for making numbers fascinating. That was her lifelong gift to him.
He remembers that incident, even these many years later, as the moment he started feeling like he belonged in this group of kids.
She taught in the school only that one year, but she had a lasting impact on him. Through college and later visits to Mumbai, he’d make it a point to call on her in her spare government flat on Pedder Road. She was always welcoming, always that large-hearted smile, always cheery and curious about his life. Thirty years later, he wrote a book, then another one. She came to the launch events, sitting in the audience with that same smile, and wasn’t that a certain pride in her face? When his third book appeared some years later, he tried to call to invite her to a discussion, but the number she had given him no longer worked.
Vasanta Subramanian died in February this year. She must have legions of students who remember her with respect and affection. Me, I know one of them well: for that long-ago day with the math papers, it was my name that she announced in class. A small thing, maybe, but not for me in my seat in the last row. I remember.
So when I saw the obituary notice that morning, I could not stop my sudden tears. Of course, I was sad. But I still have her gift.
Dilip D’souza is 51. He is a writer based in Mumbai