It was sometime in 1998. I was in the fifth grade. I was a good student, but not as good as my elder sister who was in the same school. Now for those of you have elder siblings, that too perfect kinds, you know what it is like. Didi (sister) was academically brilliant and extremely talented. She was a dancer, painter and good at sports too. I was intelligent but naughty and lazy and didn’t study to the best of my potential. (Didi is 7 years olders than me, so by the time I got to her age I did become serious about studies).
There was a Hindi debate competition coming up for which students were auditioning. There would be an inter-school competition followed by statewide finals. It was a very prestigious event. Nobody had ever won the finals from our school but this time the principal was determined to produce a winner. Didi had been selected to represent from our school. Eloquent as she was, she had won many story – telling and extempore competitions and was the obvious choice. She was the first person to get nominated. She suggested that I participate as well, as I was 10 and it was high time, I improve in extracurriculars.
The topic for the debate was “Saaksharta hi swatantrata ki Janani hai” meaning “Literacy is the road towards freedom”. I felt smart as I raised my hand and explained the meaning of this, as half of the class did not know. But writing on it was a different game. Didi suggested that I prepare against the motion as it was the lesser conventional choice. There was so much of emphasis on education that it was difficult to imagine that anybody would refute the argument, which would make my piece more interesting. Didi wrote my speech (I am a writer now, that time I was just a 10-year-old kid) and I memorized it.
Even though I was not a writer, I was still a drama queen. So, I could emote well and my diction was good. I got selected from my class. However, the final selection from the school was at the discretion of Mrs. Walia, a senior Hindi teacher.
Everybody knew Mrs. Walia, even people from other schools. She was a legend! Her Hindi was impeccable. She was the kind whose colloquial conversation also sounded like reading a novel of Premchand. She was strict with students, and groomed them much beyond their Hindi skills. She had an opinion on their uniform, their hair, hygiene and personality and would never hesitate to communicate it, that too with brutal honesty. I had heard horror stories about her from Didi and her friends who had her as a class-teacher.
Few years back, I had received a call on our home land line number for Didi.
“Kya main Saumya se baat kar sakti hoon (“Can I speak to Saumya?)”, said a female voice.
“Haan hain (Yeah, she is)” “Aap kaun (Who is this)”, I had asked.
“Jee hain (Yes she is)”, she corrected my language and refused to identify herself.
Embarrassed at the correction, I had run to call out to my sister. It was Mrs. Walia.
I had decided then that if Mrs. Walia would ever become my class-teacher, I would change my school. Who corrects random strangers on the phone, that too when you are the caller? When I discovered that Mrs. Walia was taking the final auditions, I got terrified.
I started out my speech a little nervous but then continued well. There were several other contestants. Mrs. Walia did not comment on how I had fared. I thought I had done well. Didi who was also watching said I was pretty good.
By evening I was told that one other girl and I were shortlisted and we must speak once again in front of Mrs. Walia, who would then decide which one of us would go ahead.
This time it was just me and her in the empty classroom. A room with just one person is supposed to be less scary than a room full of people where I had already given my speech. But somehow this was more frightening. Her face was so serious with no hint of smile. Her big red bindi, the square glasses, and her starched cotton saris, was a sight I would never forget.
I went in the center of the room and stood with my arms on the sides in attention position. I had clenched a handkerchief in one of my fists.
“That is a sign of nervousness,” she said sternly.
“Sorry?” I mumbled.
“Remove the handkerchief. And stand straight. Your posture is not proper.”
I complied. She already hates me, and I have not even opened my mouth yet, I thought. I asked permission to drink water and dropped some on my shirt. She shook her head disapprovingly. I was avoiding eye contact with her. I initially spoke while staring at one spot in the distance during the entire speech. But Didi had taught me how to look at a make-believe audience because staring at one place was apparently not okay for a speech, and staring at real people might distract me. Towards the last paragraph I blanked out for a moment, and stared at the ceiling but then I recovered within a few seconds and completed. I stood there like a deer caught in headlights.
Mrs. Walia did not say a word of praise or criticism. She just said that I have been selected but I need a lot of grooming.
Later Mrs. Walia would tell Didi that the girl she selected was very good. Didi added that the girl is very hard-working and had practiced a lot at home. Mrs. Walia did not know that we were sisters. When Didi made the revelation, she said how it would be the first time that two sisters would be representing the school in the junior and senior category. She was probably the second most excited person after my parents.
The next few days getting trained by Mrs. Walia were excruciating for me, with after school practice sessions.
While it came naturally to Didi, I had to learn to build my craft. Mrs. Walia was a perfectionist and she guided me on pronunciation, emphasis on syllables I did not know existed, voice modulations, hand movements, and facial expressions. She would also ask me if I had any clue what I was talking about, because there was no point if I did not believe in it. It was different experience; and the first time I had put in so much effort on anything.
I performed very well in the inter school completion in our city and won the contest. Didi also won. There were teachers and parents present at the event and all came to congratulate me. People were especially impressed with me because at that age I had spoken with much conviction and poise. My parents were proud and beaming and gave the credit to Mrs. Walia.
Mrs. Walia was also happy and proud but she was not the kind who would express affection.
“I want to see you win the State level.” She had said. “Nobody from our school has ever won that.”
That would be such a big one! I was quite content with my city level award and didn’t think I could win anything further. But Mrs. Walia never gave up one me. She ensured that I practise every day. She never complimented me but other teachers had been telling me that she was very impressed with my improvement and dedication. Being liked by Mrs. Walia was a bigger achievement than winning the award, and I would blush every time I heard that I had become her favourite.
Two days before the contest, I was having cold feet. This competition was so huge that it was happening at a place which was as big as a cinema hall.I was scared. I went to Mrs. Walia. I told her I wanted to quit. I was afraid I forget the speech and put her and the entire school down. I would not be able to speak in front of so many people. I had shared the same thought with Didi and my parents who had told me that I should just remain confident and that I was good and an opportunity of this sort should not be missed.
But Mrs. Walia said nothing like that. She said that if I want to quit I could but then I would never know what would happen. She said I have nothing to lose if I go for the competition, because even if I lose the contest, I would gain an experience. Whether I stumble or forget or mumble or blabber all that is an experience and experiences matter in life.
I don’t know if it was because I understood the depth of what she said at that age, or I thought that I had got the license to forget from Mrs. Walia. But whatever she said worked on me and I decided to go for the competition, well prepared.
The State level competition was very tough. There were very good speakers from different schools and cities. The
hall was huge and crowded. I was looking for Mrs. Walia but she was not there. It was very strange. Didi called on her home phone but nobody picked up. Other teachers also had no clue where she was. Was she staying at home to pray for me?
I spoke well and my parents said that they were hopeful although there was one tall guy who gave me tough competition. The senior category awards was announced first and Didi had not won. That was very unlike her, but then there were very good speakers and participation was important, said my parents. They finally reached the announcement of winners in my category. I thought of the pluses and minuses if they announced my name. Plus – I will win! Minus – I would have to walk all the way to the stage and what If I fall?
I won. There was a huge applause. The trophy was beautiful. Didi was happier than she would have been had she won. I again searched to find Mrs. Walia, maybe she had come late. But she was not there. I couldn’t wait to show her the trophy the next day. She would be so happy!!
The next day, I went to school like a celebrity. I was carrying chocolates to distribute among the class and sweets for Mrs Walia. My name was announced in the morning assembly and I flaunted my trophy as the entire school cheered for me. Now that my part was over, I started feeling restless and I wanted the assembly to get over soon. But it seemed there were some more important announcements.
“I regret to inform you that yesterday morning, Mrs. Walia’s son (her only child) met with an accident and died on the spot. He was 28 years old and had just been blessed with a baby boy a month back. Mrs. Walia rushed for Bangalore along with her husband. We pray to the Almighty to grant peace to the departed soul and strength to the family.”
I never saw Mrs. Walia again. She had left the city and nobody heard from her ever again. For months to come, I would have dreams about her, in which I would say thank you.
Something I never got to tell her personally.