Out of all the stories I had told you so far, this is a very different story. This is not a student to whom I gave some special guidance. Instead it was a young child, a twelve year old, who made me realize the greatest truth of life.
It was the time when I had just joined the school in Pune as a temporary teacher. As it is the fate of every temporary teacher, I was not allotted any permanent class or subject. Every month I would be tossed, my classes shuffled, per the will of the Principal. Though I was given maths and science for the first two months, the third month, I was asked to teach Social Sciences for the 8th grade, for one month. I was stunned. I wondered how the Principal knew about my Achilles’s heel. I tried to convince myself that I could do it. But when just two days were left for me to start the new class, all my courage melted away. I was never good at history or geography even in my school days. With my shaky foundations, how could I teach a class ?
Hesitatingly, I approached the Principal. He looked at me with a look of half irritation, that I was wasting his precious time , half annoyance that a temporary teacher could dare to do so, and after halfheartedly listening to me, very casually brushed off my request as if I was a fly on his nose. He said in a authoritative voice which meant , look I am the boss here, “Madam you are only a temporary teacher ( he put a lot of pressure on this word) , meant to fill in any vacancy that arises. This is the only vacancy we have got just now. I cannot do anything to help you ( Take it or quit the job ). If you do need any help please meet Mrs. Kopikar, who is at present teaching this class and in whose medical leave period, you have to work.”
With my heart drumming inside, fear in anticipation of Mrs Kopikar’s reaction, I met Mrs. Kopikar in the staff room. Miracles do happen. She was a wonderful person, and listening to my fear, she smiled warmly which itself boosted my courage . She said that . she was taking leave for her opearation and as it was well planned. She had already completed all the needed portion for the month in advance. She added “Laxmi there is no need for you to teach anything. I have prepared a set of questions on different topics and had written them all here in this note-book. When you go to my class all you have to do is to feel comfortable and act as if you are taking a test. You have to just write these questions on the board. Then the students will start answering them on a special note book which I have already told them to bring. At the end of the period, the students will submit the notebook to you and all you have to do is to collect them and keep them in my shelf in the staff room till the next period. You may have to handle about seven to eight classes in my absence. Hopefully, this way you will not have any problems” I thanked the her profusely for her foresight and took the question paper note book.
Next day, when I went to the new class I was surprised to find a quiet class, waiting ready with new notebooks, ready to write the test. I wrote the questions on the board and the students started writing the answers. I was so thankful, to the senior teacher for planning everything so perfect. I just walked around the class, seeing that everyone was writing. To my surprise the children finished the questions, in just twenty minutes and started keeping their note books on the table. One of them stood up and asked me “Madam since I had finished my test, can I do my science home work?’ I said “ Ok children, those of you who had finished the test, can do any other school work, without disturbing the class” Most of the class started doing some other work, but the class was quiet.
As I was just lazily looking at the fresh faces of the class, I saw two boys very similar looking, and were sitting next to each other. Curiosity bursting in my head, I went near them and asked “You two are brothers?” The boy sitting on edge of the bus immediately burst out into a loud uncontrollable peals of laughter. Soon the class also started giggling. I was a bit irritated and said sternly to the boy, who was laughing “Stop laughing. What makes you laugh so much? I just asked a normal question.”
He got up and stood covering his mouth, but was still struggling to suppress his laughter. His whole body was shivering with his laughter. I stared at him. His fair face, including his ears were turning blood red in colour with his happy giggles. He had a round baby like face, and had deep dimples on both his cheeks. His lovely pair of very large dark eyes had a permanent mischievous glint in them. In fact he was looking like the Krishna incarnation we had seen in Ravi Varma’s photo. I had never seen a boy looking so adorable!
As I stood there looking at him and even I started smiling. Finally, the boy sitting next to him got up and said, “ No Madam we are not brothers or twins. Actually we are not even related. But many people mistake us for brothers. That is why Thyagu is laughing so much. My name is Balasubramaniam and his name is Thyagarajan.” There’s nothing more contagious than the laughter of young children. I suppressed my smile and trying to look very strict said , “ Ok sit down both of you” and walked back.
God’s creations are sometime surprisingly unbelievable. Two totally unconnected boys looking so similar! Another student from the first bench got up and said, “ Madam. Whenever any new teacher comes, they always mistake them for twins. That is why Thyagu was laughing” As the bell rang I collected the note books and left the class.
After three days I went to the same class again. Same routine. Questions on the board and the students started answering. My glance wandered to Thyagarajan. The moment he saw me his face burst into a laughter, and he hurriedly hid his face inside his notebook. I could see his shoulder shuddering with his laughter. Somehow that face with that innocent laughter really touched my heart. I actually started looking forward to the sheer pleasure of his peal of innocent laughter.
One boy approached me and asked me hesitantly, “ Madam I have a difficulty in one maths problem. Will you please solve this for me?” All the school children knew that I was a maths teacher and hence I was not surprised. I took his note-book and started solving it. By this time, another boy approached me and I started solving it for the boy. As I was solving , I heard a soft whispered conversation from Thyagu. Because I was teacher or because I was born that way, I don’t know exactly till now, but I have extremely sharp ears and can hear the mildest whispers clearly.
I stopped solving and looking up said, “ Thyagarajan stand up” He was startled hearing my strong voice. For once his laughing stopped and he stood up and said, “ Yes Madam”. I demanded sternly,”What you were saying to Balu just now?” Now the whole class became dead silent,the boy who approached me hurriedly went back, and everyone looked at Thyagu. I repeated my question. Thyagu stammered and said, “ Nothing, Madam I was……just talking to Balu” I said firmly,“ No Thyagu, tell me exactly what you said just now to Balu?”. Thyagu was now very nervous. He said , “ Madam I said that you were solving maths problems only for those boys”. I still continued my line of questions and said, “ No that is not what you said Thyagu“
I told him, “Thyagu, you just now said that I am partial to those boys and am solving the problems only for them. I am a social studies teacher and is supposed to conduct only test for you. But if someone ask me some doubts, it is my duty to solve that. Is that right? If you too got some doubt in maths you can bring it to me, and I will definitely solve it. Did I say no to you? I am a teacher and I won’t be partial to anyone” Thyagu was shocked that I had heard every word he talked. Thyagu stood very crestfallen…his face wiped clean of that permanent giggle and said “ I am very sorry madam. I will not do this again”
I told him, “Thyagu, You have got a whole life in front of you. A long way to go. Learn good manners and they are very necessary in your life” He said, “ Yes Madam” and sat down. The rest of the class, Thyagu sat very quietly , looking very ashamed and remorseful for his words. He left with his head low. I felt a bit guilty that probably a bit harsh on him. Bell rang and I left the class still feeling unhappy abou the way I had reacted . I thought the next class I will talk to him, and tell him that he was always so good, that I felt these manners were important..and that I did not mean to hurt him.
It so happened that three festivals fell on the week end and the school was closed for five days. On the Monday when the school opened, as I was walking to the school ..even before I entered the school I could sense that there was an ominous air ..something was wrong. I could see from the road itself, that all the class children were going towards the ground which was very unusual.( Only classes up to seventh use to go to the ground for prayer and the remaining class students use to stand in their own class for prayer). As I stepped in the lobby of the school, a black board stood with writing “ Prayer meeting for Thyagarajan of 8th B division in the ground. All are requested to assemble in the ground”. My stomach started feeling queer. With my mouth dry, I rushed to the platform of the ground, where all the teachers had already assemble. There was complete silence.None of the kids were talking..while some openly wept.
The Principal started his address. He said, “ My friends and my children. We are here to pay our respects to the most brave child of our school, Thyagarajan of 8th B division.” or something like that… because on that day, I was so shocked that I hardly heard anything that the Principal talked. After the principal’s address and a three minutes silence, the schools was closed. Most of the children went home weeping. I learnt the facts from other teachers afterwards.
Thyagu and Balu had gone to Thyagu’s aunt’s house, in a nearby village to enjoy the five day break. On the fateful day, both of them went to play at a nearby pond in the evening. The monsoon had just set in and the pond was overflowing. Balu was a good swimmer while Thyagu did not know any swimming. Balu had jumped into the pond and was swimming, while Thyagu sat watching him, chit chatting, cracking jokes as usual sitting on the steps. After half an hour, suddenly Balu started screaming “Thyagu help me, help me I am drowning” A fallen branch inside the pond had caught Ballu’s leg and started pulling him down. Frightened, Thyagu shouted “ Help, someone please help” There were villager on the field but were at some distance. They heard Thyagu and started coming, running towards the pond to help. But Thyagu found his friend already sinking, and he could not wait for help. Without a moment’s hesitation, at his dear friend’s plight, he jumped into the pond and went under the water and pulled Balu’s leg out free. By the time, the help reached the pond. Men jumped into the pond and rescued both Balu and Thyagu. Balu was saved. But Thyagu, who did not know any swimming, going down the water for so long was too much for him and he could not be revived.
Till today I have not come out of my guilt. When I was lecturing him about good manners in his life, his death was already at his doorstep. Who was I, to teach him good manners, when he was such a brave boy who sacrificed his life without battering an eye lid? He knew he would definitely die if he jumps in the water and still he did it. Compared to that great selfless courage where do I stand? Above all, his last day in the school– I am guilty of taking away that bubbly uncontrollable laughter from his face.
The great lessons I learnt from Thyagu- Life is not about how long you live but is how you live it. Keep laughing because we don’t know what tomorrow would bring for us. Dear teachers and parents, don’t take away the laugh of a child..even for a single day.. caught up in your duty to raise him right.
Its almost 40 years since that day, Thyagu I still miss your laughter everyday. (Only in this story not only the incident but the names of the children are the real ones. This is the only way I could salute that young bubbly boy)