Indramani Sir was tall and gaunt with not a drop of fat on his body. He walked with fast and long strides and had a booming, clear voice. . He was married but had no children. He was our family tutor who taught me and my 7 siblings till each of us crossed Class 7 and moved out of our village school.
I remember when he got me started. I was about 4 years old. He made me sit on his lap, put a round piece of limestone kind of material in my hand and made me draw three circles on his forearm. Brahma, Vishnu, Maheshwar…he made me say. He never taught me the alphabet sequentially. No ‘ a’ ‘aa’ ‘i’ ‘ee’ for me. He showed me our house and asked me, “What is that? ‘ “ Ghara”, I replied. He showed me how to write ‘ gha’ and ‘ra’ . “And what is this?, he asked me, showing me a tree. ‘ Gachha’, I replied. ‘ Ga’ and ‘Chha’ , he showed me how to write. Eventually he made me write a whole lot of things…stories, essays, answers to questions. We had no pens. We would pare off a small bamboo stick, creating a sharp tip. That would be the pen. An ink tablet dissolved in water would give us ink. My father would get reams of discarded government forms, dull pink in colour. We would fold and bind them to ‘rough khata’ and we didn’t have to be stingy with paper.
He taught us to think from first principles and never used much of formulae while teaching maths. One man has two hands, how many hands do ten men have? Twenty. One man takes twenty days to finish a job, how many days will it take ten men to do the same job? Two. Just because there are more men now, you do not multiply. Think. Think. Think what is really happening there. The done thing those days was to memorize tables up to 25, twenty-five ones are twenty-five, twenty-five twos are fifty. He made us stop at ten. If you know tables up to ten, the rest you can multiply out.
He came home on festivals, even though they were supposed to be no-studying holidays. My mom would serve him pitha and tea. Then he would say, ‘Come with me’. He would take me to a ‘ Krishi Pradarshini’ and ask me write an essay on it the next day. Once we saw a house on fire on our way to some such event. Write an essay on ‘ Ghara Podi’ he would say. While teaching geography, he would set questions like: ‘The kids in Punjab have never seen a paddy plant. Give a geographical reason for this.’ We would answer how Punjab had a low rainfall and therefore wheat was the main crop grown there.
He would organize debates in school – ‘ Nari Shiksha – For and Against”. My didi would be for and I would be against. In the longer holidays, he would write a paala, a drama in poetic form, and make my didi perform it as a full-fledged ‘daaskathia’ performance. ‘ Kartabirya Samhara / Ganeshanka Ekadanta; , “ Babrubahan’..and more. He would devise ‘ Ajaa-Naati Prahasana’ ( comedic sketches with a grandfather and grandson’ to convey messages on health issues, civic sense, etc. I would take part in little skits on tales brave boys of Odisha like Dharmapada and Baji Rauta.
He organized something called ‘ sapta’ ( corrupted from saptaha meaning a week, I think) where Bhagavat was read every evening for a week and was discussed. Discussed. That is the thing to note, discussed, not just recited blindly. I remember a line that was discussed over a whole evening. ‘ Mana tohara nija guru. Udhaba kete tu pacharu.’ ‘ Your mind is your own guru. Uddhav, how many times will I tell you?’
He was not a boring, dry academic. There are so many colourful stories and interpretations I have heard from him while he was talking to adults, assuming we children were out of the earshot. He was talking about a poetry slam being held between Kalidas and Bhavabhuti. The first lime is given and the poet has to provide the second line to compete the couplet. The first line ( in Sanskrit of course) was, ‘ A woman’s lips are not sufficiently red and attractive ..” Bhavabhuti offered, “A woman’s lips are not sufficiently red and attractive …unless she has partaken tambula ( paan) with the choicest spices ’. It was Kalidas’s turn now, and this is what he proposed, “A woman’s lips are not sufficiently red and attractive …unless she has indulged in a no holds-barred bout of lusty love-making ( madanotsav).’ No prize for guessing who won the slam!
Another time he was telling about why Chandrasena, Radha’s husband was born impotent. According to him, Hanuman, seeing the devoted wifely behavior of Sita said t himself, “ How nice it would be to have a wife like this , who would cook lovely meals an serve them to me hot!” Rama heard this and granted him his wish and Hanuman was born as Chandrasena ,and Sita as Radha.
It is his stories that has given me the mental bandwidth to appreciate the kind of stuff that MF Hussain was dong I his paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses.
I remember him telling the life story of Kalidasa. (I am afraid I only remember the gist, and not much of the original Sanskrit lines he quoted) Kamla was the princess of Ujjain, known for her scholarship and proficiency in the arts. Her father was tired of looking for a suitable groom for her, as everyone selected by her father failed her tests. Totally frustrated, he said, go find the stupidest man in my kingdom, I am going to marry her of with him. The courtiers found Kalidas sitting on the end of a branch trying to cut its base with an ax. They had found their man. But Kamla won’t spare him her version of JEE. She flashed him a finger. ‘You are going to gouge my eye, I will gouge both your eyes’ Kalidas said to himself and showed her two fingers. She smiled, lifted her hand and showed him her palm. ‘You are making fun of me and threatening to slap me? I will give you a hard punch’, he muttered under his breath and showed her his fist. ‘I will accept him’, she said. The courtiers were all flabbergasted. ‘Why? How? How did he satisfy you?’ Princess Kamla replied, “This is all beyond you. But I will try and explain. God is one I told him. ‘But he is manifest in two forms, saakara and nirakaara’, he replied. A man is a slave if five senses, I postulated. ‘But they can be controlled by one’s one strong mind’, he countered. You won’t follow. Now go ahead and make the wedding arrangements.” On the wedding night, in bed, Kalidas heard a camel braying outside and said ( in Sanskrit of course), “ There is outside braying a camel and it hurted my ear. Kamla retorted, “I do not know about the camel braying but your bad grammar certainly is hurting MY ears!” Then she asked how a scholar like him could speak such faulty Sanskrit. He was flummoxed. Me, a Sanskrit scholar? And he told her how the courtiers had dragged him from top of a tree. She asked him to go out of her chamber immediately. Kalidas took it upon himself to become the learned man and poet she thought him to be. He studied under many teachers and at last prayed to Devi Saraswati , asking her to grant him the gift of poetry. It was granted to him, but with a rider: He would be obsessed with whores and whores would be his weakness. Why? Because he started his stuti from her breasts instead of starting with her feet. ‘Yaa Kundendu-Tussaara-Haara-Dhavalaa Yaa Shubhra-Vastra-avrtaa’ , he sang, meaning , ‘ whose moonlike breasts are covered with garland of flowers as white as snow and who is adorned with a pure white saree.” Then he narrated numerous encounters that Kalidas had with many whores on different occasions.
As I write this down I am amazed at how vividly I remember these stories after so many years! He taught me how to think, how to let your imagination soar and how not to accept a single shred of received wisdom without subjecting it to the scrutiny of your own reasoning, without testing it against the learning of your own experience.
I also developed my healthy disrespect for authority from him
It was a couple of days after Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death. Shastriji was a big hero in every village those days. I was his big fan, devouring every bit on him I could get in a y newspaper. A big shoksabha ( condolence meeting) was being organized by the local congress bigwig, supported by the area reporter of Samaaja, the leading Odia daily. School children from many villages were herded to the meeting to swell the numbers. It was a sweltering hot day and we all sat under the open sky, suffering speeches after speeches from political minions of all denominations. Suddenly I see Indramani Sir get up on stage, go to the podium and grab the stand mike. ‘You politicians are going on making speeches. What have you called these kids for? Faku (my nickname at home and in my village), come here on stage.’ I obeyed him.’ Now speak what you think of Shastriji’. It is true. And I spoke. All the stories about Shastriji I had read. How he used to swim across a river to attend school. How seeing the eyes of a pigeon being selected for slaughter turned him a vegetarian. How his wife Lalita was a big support for him, and so on. I finished my speech, rather predictably, with ‘Jai Jawan , Jai Kisan’. But hundreds of school children repeating the slogan gustily after me made it magical and electrified the gathering.
I think of him almost every day. I owe so much to him and often think what I could do for him. Of course he died in the 1980’s and is no more. I did give him some money for publishing the ‘ kavya’ he was writing and another time, for the Shiva temple he was building in the village. But I wish I could do more. And the best I can think of is try and keep alive , in me and in the people that cross my life, the spirit of enquiry and questioning that he planted in me, the thirst for knowing and the desire to make things colorful by one’s own imagining.
- Manjhi – The Mountain Man
- Villlage Vignettes (Part 2) – Seasons in the Sun