Call it shallow, but the first thing that comes to mind when I think of her is coffee. Coffee, unabashedly hot, brewed in a jiffy by the ever-ready Shiulidi. Coffee, served in glossy solid-colour mugs that left no confusion about their appearance; so you could say ‘I want red!’, or ‘Gimme lime-green!’ without fear of tripping up on patterns. They came in multiple sizes, those mugs and we started out by switching between them. But ever since Rukmini said ‘Shiulidi, aaj amader jonno gaamla gaamla coffee banao’, we’ve been given the largest possible size. A choice which never roused complaints. Extra caffeine, extra energy.
Well, energy was a bonus rather than a necessity. Because our attention was always kept in rein. By the shelf at our side- spines of tenderly wrapped, intensely desirable books lined up to create art. By heaps of answer-scripts all around; gold mines each one, containing ridiculous gaffs by the Other School. Not like we tore them apart. If there’s one thing she’s taught me, it’s an instinctive jerk away from the road to uppity-ness.
And there was more to classes with her, so much more. Stuff that ran deeper than coffee and stirred emotions warmer than humility.
I remember the first time I met her, she asked me if I liked Dickens. I was hmm-ing and errr-ing when she interrupted with ‘See, if at this stage you don’t like Dickens…’
You shouldn’t be studying Elective English I anticipated, cringing.
‘… It’s perfectly understandable. How would you, if you’ve had classics stuffed down your throat when you were young and unprepared?’
And it was love ever since.
I remember the first Class. On Poetry. Then suspicious and uncool. Modern-abstract aantlami or decadently sugarloaded swill. Nevermind that half-my life was spent in laughing hysterically at Roald Dahl’s grizzly rhymes. Nevermind that when I was taught ‘My Last Duchess’ in class 10, I rushed home and read it out to Ma. I didn't even notice the response since I was going ‘ohmygod, OHMYGOD’ inside my head at the sheer subtle power trapped in each line.
What made me think I didn’t like poetry? Whatever it was, She dispelled it in a matter of minutes.
With her, I first realized the music of language. Heard the light trip-trap or the slow, scraping crawl of words across a page.
I learnt to respond to the writer and his work, to be teased and drawn into guessing games, to challenge them right back, to flit between sentences, pause at a break and look around in leisure.
And Rukmini was always there. Rukmini who?
‘One of your classmates will be joining us from next week. But I’ve forgotten her name.’
‘Sriparna? Supurna? Debadrita?..... Priyanka? Anumita? But there’s no one left!’
‘Na na... arre oi meyeta, kokrano chul.’
‘OHHHH. Must be Rukmini.’
‘Yes, that’s the one. She’ll be coming here too.’
Rukmini, the only girl of my class I forgot to name while ticking off the students who could join us.
Rukmini and me. And She. We were all 3 together on the balcony, going into rhapsodies at a thunderstorm while Ode to a Nightingale waited patiently inside. I can still recall that scene.
The ferns- shuddering masses of darkness. A plastic bag whipped violently from ledge to pole. The swimming pool a glittering lake of chaos. Lamposts reflected in puddles- psychedelic strips of light. Gold never looked as haunting...
The aerial view showed a lot of things at curious angles. And each time there was lightning, amidst the constant flurry of rainspray, the whole landscape looked all the more surreal.
If that day was about silently soaking it in, the greater part was about talking our traps off. Between us, I wonder what topic of conversation was actually left alone. They spanned from Jim Morrison to Narayan Modi, homosexuality to the abysmal condition of the ISC. How trivial we were at times, Rukmini and me, how Intense and Indignant at others. Come to think of it, she was never indulgent. She always made us feel worthy of her respect. HER respect. Which wrenched the maturity out of us.
I can’t even begin to describe how grateful I am to her. I do like myself for who I am now. If I met me, I’d think I was really cool. But I know I have a shitload of flaws and some are positively despicable. Minus her influence, I would be one-tenth of what I am even now. And that’s a scary thought.