The staff room for high-school teachers at the prestigious SB Secondary School in Chennai had a long, wide wooden table in the center of the room and assigned slots and chairs for every teacher. Typically the space given to each teacher was insignificant so, they tended to be cluttered with mark sheets, text books, ink pens with red stains left on the table and tea cups that were yet to be picked by the attendant. But there was one slot that was always clean, dusted and organized. In that slot lay a pen stand, a couple of text books and three photo frames – one photo was that of the teacher’s deceased parents; the second was that of the teacher with her mentor Mr. Rajan, who had offered solace and guidance in her younger days following the untimely death of her parents in a train accident when she was only 12. In fact, Mr. Rajan continued to be an important presence in her life. And, the third photo frame contained a photo of her family - her husband Sundar and her two kids, the 25-year old Banu and the 21-year old Sanjay. That part of the table belonged to Lakshmi, the Math teacher for 9th and 11th grade. A neat parting in the middle and a single plait defined her unfussy hairstyle and her starched cotton saris were always in simple, earthy colors.
It was 3:00 pm on a muggy Friday afternoon in July. The ceiling fans in the staff room were running in full blast but were scarcely sufficient for an irate parent of a 9th grade student named Siva. Siva and his mother entered the staff room asking to see Lakshmi. Siva had scored 14/25 in a bi-weekly test. SB School gave certificates of merit to students who scored 60% or above in all tests and exams during the year and Siva, at the beginning of the school year, by scoring less than 60%, had lost his chance to get the certificate for the current academic year. Siva’s mother was pointed to Lakshmi, who was picking up her belongings and getting ready to leave for the day.
Siva’s mother asked, “Mrs. Lakshmi Sundar?”
“Yes, good afternoon.”
“I am Siva’s mother. Could I talk to you for a few minutes?”
Putting down her bag, Lakshmi said, “Yes, can we go next door to the class room?”
Upon entering the empty classroom (since classes ended at 2:45 pm), Lakshmi requested Siva’s mother to sit down and she sat in the bench facing Siva and his mother.
Lakshmi asked, “Yes Ma’am, what would you like to talk about?”
“You gave Siva only 14/25 on his test. He was telling me that the test was very tough and that for a few questions, you did not give him enough marks for getting some of the steps correct. As a result, he won’t be able to get his merit card this year. Could you please consider looking at his test again?”
“Ma’am, let me please clarify two things: One is that I gave the same test to everyone and I have the same rules for how I score the questions for everyone. So, the level of difficulty and the criteria for getting points on the test are the same for everyone. There are students who did quite well on the test too. Secondly, at the beginning of the school year in June, I told all students that in the weeks when we don’t have the tests, I will give optional homework problems and if students score at least 90% in those homework exercises that I would give them one bonus point for the assignment the following week. Siva did not even submit the homework last week. Do you still feel I need to do something?”
Siva’s mother, putting her right hand on her forehead said, “You are very rigid, Mrs. Lakshmi. I don’t know what to say.” Looking at Siva, his mother continued, “Siva, I don’t know what to do.”
In a completely unruffled tone, Lakshmi put her arm over Siva’s shoulder and said to his mother, “Ma’am, he is a good kid. He just has to have a better work ethic. Merit cards are not as important as learning the material properly. I sincerely feel that doing the homeworks consistently will help him maximize his potential. And, Siva, you know that, correct? You don’t need me to tell you!”
Siva, looking down at the floor to avoid eye contact, replied, “But Ma’am, I am very upset.”
Lakshmi continued, “Don’t be. Just work harder. And, you are more than welcome to attend my Sunday afternoon classes in my house. “
Siva’s mother, with the slight hint of a smirk, replied, “You want me to pay more fees?”
Before Lakshmi could respond, Siva clarified, “Amma, Lakshmi Ma’am doesn’t charge anything for these extra classes. It is just for our class’ students who want extra time and attention.”
Siva’s mother responded, “Mrs. Lakshmi, I will talk to my husband about it. I still feel you are being very inflexible.”
Lakshmi smiled and said, “To be equitable to everyone is more important to me, Ma’am. Siva, do this week’s homework without fail, okay?”
He nodded and excused himself along with his mother. Lakshmi walked back to her desk, picked up her bag, her stainless steel lunchbox and turned her cell phone on. (She would typically turn it off the moment she entered the school’s premises in the morning.)
As Lakshmi was waiting at the bus stop, she received a call from Mr. Rajan.
“Good evening, Lakshmi.”
“Good evening, Uncle. I wanted to call you myself. As I mentioned on Monday, I will come to your house with Sanjay by 5:30 pm so that he can get your blessings before leaving.” Sanjay had gotten admission to pursue his graduate studies in Computer Science at UC Berkeley in California and was flying out that night to San Francisco via Malaysia.
“Yes, yes…I am eagerly awaiting the two of you. I am at the sweet stall here. Please remind me – what does Sanjay like more - Basundhi or Rasamalai?”
“Uncle, why do you impose all this on yourself?”
Mr. Rajan, in a playful tone, continued, “Lakshmi, what did I ask you? Answer my question, teacher.”
“Okay, okay. Rasamalai is his favorite. We will see you at 5:30.”
As Lakshmi entered her house, she saw Sanjay, wearing a casual t-shirt and jeans, pacing the hallway, talking to his friend on the phone. Wearing a yellow kurthi, sporting long hair put in place by a barrette, Banu was in her room (that she shared with Sanjay), taking an official call. On Banu’s table was the “Rising Star” award that she had received at her workplace. Banu worked in Mumbai as a financial analyst. She had started working in Chennai after her graduation but her quick rise in the ranks was accompanied by an offer to move to Mumbai earlier in the year. Lakshmi was the one that had insisted that Banu take up this opportunity even though Sundar had vehemently opposed to this. Banu was visiting them in Chennai this weekend since Sanjay was leaving to the US.
As he was ready to hang up the phone, Sanjay said to his friend, “Dey sure da, I will be there at Bessie (Besant Nagar Beach) in an hour. We have to see Raman Sir.”
Sporting a quizzical look, Lakshmi asked Sanjay, “Sanjay, what’s going on?”
“Amma, Bala just called. He said that our 12th standard compski (Computer Science) teacher, Raman Sir, who had moved to Coimbatore, is in town this weekend. He had heard that a bunch of us are flying out tonight so he offered to meet up at the coffee shop near Bessie. I will be back by 7:30 pm, Ma. You remember Raman Sir, he…”
Gesturing to Sanjay to stop talking, Lakshmi said- politely but firmly- “Sanjay, remember what you told me last week when I mentioned to you that we must go see Rajan Uncle before you leave. We need to see him at 5:30 as promised.”
Rolling his eyes, Sanjay groaned, “Amma, he is your teacher…your mentor. Why do you keep insisting that I come see him before I leave? I mean, I respect the man. But, why can’t I just talk to him on the phone and get his blessings?”
Sitting down on the sofa and asking Sanjay to sit next to her, Lakshmi continued, “Sanjay, listen kanna. Your final semester ended in May. For the past two months, I have been asking you to come with me to visit Rajan Uncle. Forget about what he means to me. He has been so nice to you ever since you were little. Just calling him on the phone doesn’t have the same thoughtfulness of gesture that visiting him in person does. I mean, even today, he called me from a sweet shop to ask what your favorite sweet was. He’s 75 and he went out in the sweltering heat to get you something that you like. Plus, last week, you committed to me that you will come with me. You assured me that 5:30 pm today is pucca. And now for you to say all this is not fair.”
Raising his voice several levels, Sanjay retorted, “Amma, just like how he guided you, Raman Sir was who got me really interested in CS (Computer Science). Remember I got 99 in the 12th standard board exam. It was really because of how much I liked his teaching…I really have to go visit him.”
“Only at the time that you gave me? That’s not fair at all.”
“What is so unfair?? He’s just here for this weekend and I am leaving tonight. This was a last minute thingie. Why can’t you relax your rules, I don’t understand?” (At this time Banu walked into the living room after hearing Sanjay’s booming voice in her room. She had a 5-minute break in her call.)
Lakshmi, getting a tad agitated, asked, “Rules? You look at honoring a commitment as a rule? That’s fine, Sanjay. You don’t have to understand me. Go ahead, meet your Raman Sir.”
Putting on his sneakers (without socks) in a hurry, he barked, “You treat me like I am 12. I am 21 for heaven’s sake.”
Banu, ever the soft spoken girl, calmly said, “Amma, it’s okay. Why don’t you let him see his teacher and friends? He is leaving tonight, after all. Rajan Thatha will understand if Sanjay just calls him.”
A miffed Lakshmi said, “Banu, you have always been Daddy’s girl and so, you won’t support me here. Sanjay, I tell you, you won’t understand me. That’s totally fine. I will go visit the person who, as you rightfully said, is my mentor and my teacher. I told him that I will visit his house at 5:30 and I will be there at 5:30. I will see the two of you later in the evening.”
Banu had to resume her call. So, she went back to her room. An angry Sanjay zoomed away on his Pulsar bike while an upset Lakshmi took the bus to Mr. Rajan’s place.
Sundar worked in the marketing department of an automobile firm and owing to his work, traveled on an average 10 days in a month and even when in town, worked long hours and compromised on his sleep as a result. An aggressive, focused go-getter, Sundar was a very affectionate family man but who spent less time with the family than he or the family desired.
That night that Sanjay was due to fly out, Sundar, for once, returned from work early…only to hear Banu tell him about the big argument and that neither mother nor son was home!
A lot of awkward silences and pauses dominated the conversations after Lakshmi and Sanjay returned home to get ready for the airport. Sanjay did have a brief conversation with Mr. Rajan over the phone as the latter duly blessed him and gently ribbed him for over “having to search for a leak-proof box to pack the rasamalais!”
At the airport, Banu and Sanjay were having a private conversation over a cup of tea as Sundar took Lakshmi aside to check on her.
Sundar asked, “Laks, are you feeling alright?”
Lakshmi responded, “Yes, I am fine. I just feel bad that the day he is leaving, Sanjay and I had this kind of a conversation. Paavam (poor fellow), he must be feeling so upset with me. Sundar, do you think he will ever understand me?”
“He’s a kid, Laks. Of course, he will understand you. It is important for you to feel good about yourself. He will be fine. Let’s go there (pointing in the direction of Banu and Sanjay). We don’t want him to be late.”
As they walked over, they heard Banu say to Sanjay, “Do call, okay?”
Sanjay shrugged his shoulders, smiled and said, “Problem is you guys will never wait for me to call!”
It was time for Sanjay to check in. Sanjay wanted to bid his goodbye to the family before getting together with two of his friends who were traveling with him.
Banu hugged him and said, “Sanjay, jokes apart, do call!”
Sundar put his arm on Sanjay’ shoulder and said, “Work hard but do get some proper sleep, unlike me!”
And finally, Lakshmi kissed Sanjay on his forehead and said, “Best of luck, kanna. “
Sanjay winked and said, “By the way, Raman Sir conveys his sincere thanks to you for your flexibility!”
Sundar patted Sanjay on his back and said, “Odha paduve rascal! (I am going to kick you!”)
The three of them bid goodbye to Sanjay and headed back home, feeling heavy for different reasons.
The feeling of vacuum left by someone who has just left town typically hits the most the moment you notice something that is so associated with them. It hit Lakshmi the hardest when she noticed Sundar’s favorite sneakers on the floor next to the sofa. He had a habit of removing them and leaving them in the living room and was always admonished promptly by Lakshmi for not leaving them in the shoe rack.
With her voice breaking a little, Lakshmi said to Sundar and Banu that she was going to get some sleep. Banu went to her room while Sundar told them that he had some work to finish and headed upstairs to his office room.
Lakshmi was fidgeting around in bed for a while, unable to sleep, unable to register what was on the book (titled “The Power of Habit”) that she was reading and checking her phone every five minutes to see if Sanjay would call.
She then got a text message – “Amma, are you still awake? Can we talk?”
She immediately walked over to Banu’s room.
It was Banu who had sent her the text message.
Banu had changed into her nightwear and was in bed, wearing her black rimmed glasses and reading, Frontline. Lakshmi knocked on her door and asked, “Banu, can I come in?”
“Yes, Ma. Come in.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I am totally fine. Can I talk to you for a few minutes?”
“Sure,” replied Lakshmi, sitting in the chair next to Banu’s bed.
Banu got up, leaned on her pillow and said to Lakshmi, “Come sit next to me.”
As Lakshmi smiled and sat next to Banu, the latter held Lakshmi’s hand and said, “Amma, I know you must be missing Sanjay. And, more importantly, you are feeling bad about what happened in the evening. Before that, there’s something that I have been wanting to share with you ever since I moved to Mumbai.”
Looking a little concerned, Lakshmi asked, “Is everything okay, Banu?”
“As okay as it has ever been. I will tell you something. And, I think you must know this especially since you called me ‘Daddy’s girl’ today.”
“Oh, I just said that in a fit of pique, Banu. Don’t read too much into it.”
“No, Ma. It’s not like I was upset that you said that. Clearly I have not made you feel like I support you. Amma, up until this January, when I was working here in Chennai, I must admit that there have been times when I felt like how Sanjay did today. That you were sometimes being too set in your ways and having us do things that you had firm convictions about. It’s just that unlike Sanjay, I wouldn’t argue with you about them. My being a ‘daddy’s girl’ when I was here is not entirely inaccurate. I mean, I am still very attached to Appa. In the days before I left to Mumbai in January, I just found it enormously touching that Appa didn’t want me to go there. I just thought it was so sweet and protective of him to say that. And you kept saying that I must not have any fear of living in another city and that I must boldly take up challenges and opportunities that come my way. So I do admit, I used to find Appa to be so much more…what do I say…endearing, may be. But after I moved there, I realized two or three things, Ma.”
Lakshmi smiled and said, “I am all ears. Tell me, Banu.”
“The first weekend that I was there…and, keep this to yourself, okay? I had really bad stomach pain. I mean, my roommates were very friendly and supportive. But that night that I was in bed all alone writhing in pain, I thought of you, Ma. You know why? More than the feeling that I didn’t have you there, it was the realization that you had grown up without having your Mother’s shoulders to cry on when you were in pain. I mean, not once have you talked in a self-pitying tone to me or Sanjay about the fact that you lost your parents when you were young. Not once. We just knew the facts but not what you went through. The moment I realized that, despite my own pain that night, I wanted to come and hug you. Now that I am here…”
She hugged Lakshmi and said, “I really missed you, Ma.”
As Lakshmi struggled to not tear up, Banu continued, “Amma, the other thing that I realized was that so much of what you have inculcated in Sanjay and me was helping me so much at work. I hate to sound pompous but the truth is that I am well-liked at work. People like my work ethic and commitment and I realized when I was up there that I really owe that to you. There were things at work that I was doing subconsciously…things like never missing deadlines and quality checking my reports thoroughly…things which people at work make out to be a big deal. But the discipline that stemmed out of the routines that you created for us when we were growing up, were what made me do all that.”
“That’s so sweet of you, Banu. I really don’t know what to say. If you don’t mind my asking, are these things that you have shared with Appa or Sanjay?”
Banu grinned and said, “I have not. I wanted to tell you all this before I said anything to Appa. And, Amma, Sanjay is at an age where his world is getting bigger and he’s stepping into new territory. He’s so smart, so driven and so intent on living life king size that he is not going to comprehend all this now. I mean, I tried talking to him about how once he moves to the US that if he is feeling vulnerable thinking about any of us, that he must accept that and be open about it.”
“And, what did he say?”
“You really want to know?”
“Yes, tell me!”
“He said, ‘I just got done with 4 years of boring lectures in college and have several more to go. Can you give me a break?!’”
They laughed together as Lakshmi said, “So typical of that little brat!”
“Amma, jokes apart, please realize that that little brat will always be your little brat, only a little different, as he makes new friends over there and discovers himself fully.”
“But Banu, do you think that he will resent me? The reason I ask this is because I feel that at school, I know that I mean well and do what I think is best for my students. Many of my students like me, others don’t. But every year in June, at the start of the school year, it’s like a reset button. I get a new set of students, new challenges and what not. So, honestly, while I carry over the fond memories of the students that leave me, I never carry forward any of the negativity that some students or their parents may have harbored. But with the two of you, you are my life, Banu. I feel almost selfish in hoping that you will not resent me for my so called rules and yet you will love me. You know the reason why I have never spoken to you about my parents much. It’s because in Appa and the two of you, I feel complete and feel blessed with the perfect family that I didn’t have between the time my parents passed away and the time you and Sanjay were born. I mean, my grandparents took very good care of me and Rajan Uncle was a tremendous source of strength…but you know.”
“I understand, Ma. But, as I told you, this is not something that you can tell Sanjay now and have him understand all this fully. His epiphany has to come from within. Just like the epiphany of a girl who, before this conversation, used to be rather uncharitably dubbed as Daddy’s girl!”
Lakshmi sheepishly grinned and said, “Okay, okay. It’s getting late. You go to sleep. I have to go to school a half-day tomorrow. Let’s go eat lunch at Eden if you are okay, just the two of us.”
Lakshmi sheepishly grinned and said, “Okay, okay. It’s getting late. You go to sleep. I have to go to school a half-day tomorrow. Let’s go eat lunch at Eden if you are okay, just the two of us.”
“Sure, I’d love to.”
Lakshmi said, “Thank you so much, Banu” and gently patted her on her cheek.
As Lakshmi got up, Banu held her arm again and asked her to lean forward. She looked her in the eye and said to Lakshmi, “Amma, I understand you…Sanjay will, over time. Trust me. Go sleep well.” And, she kissed Lakshmi on her forehead.