Reminiscing on the many practical experiences gained throughout a lifetime and the continued process of learning that is sustained by such impromptu lessons of life
As one grows older, lessons become increasingly more difficult to learn. One reason is that in our younger days our minds are like wet towels that absorb lessons and experiences until they are squeezed dry. Now we are like leaking tumblers, which can hold no water and are destined to be empty.
Teachers' Day came and went by like every year a few days back. This is one day we remember those larger than life men and women who put the fear of God in us and yet whose attention and praise we all crave for more than anybody else's. Looking back, I can think of others too — like friends, relatives and even complete strangers and unlikely characters that have at different times taught us some important lessons outside the classroom.
Sometime in 1979, I was travelling with the school football team and our boisterous group had just alighted at Guwahati railway station. It had been a long and arduous bus cum train journey from Agartala and hungry and impatient, we crowded around the lone snack stall at the platform. I spotted a young woman waiting patiently for her turn and in a misplaced show of adolescent chivalry pushed aside my teammates and announced, "Let the lady be served first!" She turned around, gave me a sharp look and exploded into a verbal bomb and before I could recover from this assault, disappeared into the platform crowd. Numbed and shocked, I was speechless, and just then, a tall Sikh gentleman who had witnessed the episode while eating his dosa came up to me, bent down and whispered into my ears, "Young man, never call a young girl a lady."
Military school is not for the faint-hearted and when I was shipped to Chail Military School at a tender young age during my middle school years, there were lessons aplenty to be learnt — mostly in the parade ground involving front rolling in full uniform and running around the world's highest cricket ground with a backpack, a few kilos more than my body weight. As cadets, we did not have much interaction with the outside world and the appearance of a litter of puppies in the backyard of Ujjain hostel was greeted with much fanfare and enthusiasm. Between classes and parades, our weary bones looked forward to seeing them frolicking around. But the school authorities did not take kindly to this invasion of the military estate by four civilians and soon the dreaded order was out to solve the problem. It was left to Saligram, the hostel caretaker, to carry out the orders and as we watched in horror, one by one the puppies and their mother were lured into eating poisoned food and their bodies stiffened as they swayed like drunks before falling never to rise again. But there was one little member of the litter who refused to come anywhere near the food despite all the cajoling and cursing of Saligram. Every time the caretaker almost had him within grasp, the little fellow would turn around and run away. We watched from our hostel windows cheering silently for the brave puppy and urging him not to trust the caretaker and run far away. In the months to come as we marched, ran and front rolled our way to the parade ground every morning, we would see a young dog on the snow-covered patches of the slopes above the road watching us and we knew it was the survivor. Soon enough, he became a regular visitor to our mess area. For us, he was a real soldier who had taught us how to survive with sheer instinct and courage in the face of overwhelming enemy fire!
Some years back I received a letter from an older cousin in which she wrote about the difficult times she had been through both mentally and physically. During our growing up years, we had been very close and I had looked up to her not just as an older cousin but also as a true friend, philosopher and guide. It was a phase of life when we would exchange long letters and unburden our hearts with stories of disappointments and hope in our lives. It was a relationship many of us have experienced growing up as adolescents where there are trust, companionship and understanding between two persons without the burden of obligations and expectations. But just like baby birds discover a much larger sky once they leave their nests, we also lose sight of each other as the years go by. I read her letter with more than a tinge of regret. I had not responded to her previous letters despite making mental notes to do so. For years we had shared so much — talked about infatuations, informed each other of little heartbreaks that we would laugh over later, never forgot to wish each other on our birthdays and the Raakhi always arrived on time. But soon other events like marriage, children and jobs became more important than replying to letters one had little time to read and even less time to reply to. Her letters too became infrequent and I assumed that just as I had become preoccupied with the responsibilities and obligations of adult life, so had my cousin. The increasing intervals between the letters became a distance too far to be travelled.
Then out of the blue one day, the letter came. Each line spoke of a trauma that had taken time to heal. But this letter was not to unburden the heart like old times. It was simply to tell me that she had survived the crisis, her life was now back on track and she was happy. She wished I too was doing well, happy and hopefully had not changed much!
In a world where relationships have become increasingly short, cryptic and incomprehensible like WhatsApp messages and tweets, it took a handwritten letter from the past to teach me the importance of keeping in touch with those who care for you and those you should care for.
Views expressed are personal