Saturday, September 4, 2010

This Teacher’s Day: To Paul, With Love

Teacher’s Day is usually just another day in the life of a teacher. Often, it comes and goes (unnoticed!), especially for an anonymous teacher like me. But this time round, I have decided that it is not going to be a tepid, run-of-the-mill affair.  
This time, I don’t want to listen to all the platitudes and sermons that everyone (who is not a teacher and doesn’t understand what teaching is all about) loves to dole out to our tribe from the pulpit, telling us to do this, that and the other. This time, I don’t even want to listen to the homilies that our fraternity members (certainly, the more articulate ones) tend to give us on how we alone can save the nation when everyone else is hell-bent upon destroying it, becoming ‘surreal’ in our effort to approximate to their ideal.
This time, I don’t want to listen to the cherub-faced, government school-children, who, in all their innocence and coerced reverence, sing hosannas to their teachers (most of whom are rarely ever found in the class-rooms or schools except when such tiresome annual rituals are performed). This time, I don’t want to spend my time reading accounts of all those who have finally made it (somehow!) to the enviable list of the national awardees among us. This time, I don’t want to do any of those things that I have routinely done over the years, without much profit.
This time, I would like to celebrate Teacher’s Day by remembering one of my former teachers, who belongs to a rare tribe, now fast becoming an extinct species in our country, at least. A teacher gets all kinds of students and often doesn’t know where they might land up, either because of or in spite of his/her training. But over the years, I have come to realize that (while all others may acknowledge this) no student understands the contribution of his/her teacher better than the one who chooses to follow in his/her footsteps. To put it differently, only the student who chooses to become a teacher ultimately understands how and in what different ways his teachers have contributed to his personal growth, moral, intellectual, even spiritual.  
Until I came into M.A. (English) and through it, developed life-long association with this remarkably awesome teacher, I did not even know how and in what invisible ways a good teacher could have possibly impacted his student’s life. Today, after thirty years, when I sometimes catch myself in the act of using language with the kind of ‘sensitivity’ he taught us, or using gestures in the way in which he sometimes used them or act as an interlocutor, trying to teach a lesson or two in peaceful co-existence to a group of agitated, warring students, my thoughts invariably return to Dr. Paul L. Love. 
Yes, that is his name. Rarely ever do we come across men who become living embodiments of their name, but Dr. Love was a happy exception to this norm. True to his name, he was and continues to be a fountainhead of ‘love,’ a quality, I discovered much later, must be a sine qua non for any teacher, regardless of the grade or the age-group s/he teaches. Dr. Love had chosen to teach thousands of miles away from home (otherwise a citizen of US, he had chosen to teach in the backwaters of Punjab, at Baring Union Christian College, located in a small town of Batala). He could have easily opted for a much better location or an institution, only if he had so desired. I’m emphasizing this because I know that often our government teachers (in schools as well as colleges) simply baulk at the idea of being posted in a village or a remote area. Dr. Love came to India in 1960s, when the Indian Home Ministry had not as yet put an embargo on the missionaries to come and work in the minority institutions scattered across the country.
Yes, he was a ‘missionary’ and continues to be one. But his missionary zeal was not necessarily born out of his affiliation with the Church to which he belonged, but was a durable quality of his mind and being, something that is so rare among the teachers today. The first piece of information we received, on entering the college, was that our department had acquired new furniture. As we went around, we were quite impressed with the brand new tables and chairs and other pieces of furniture that adorned the department. Much later we were to learn that it had all been bought by Paul Love, that too, out of his pocket. Agreed, his salary in the late 1970s (when I went to do M.A. there) was Rs. 20, 000/- (approx.) as he was paid in US dollars, convertible in Indian currency. Yet, it required some selflessness and a great deal of thoughtfulness to shell out money from one’s pocket, just because a teacher wanted his students to study in the right ambience.
Paul Love’s munificence for his students only began there; and perhaps, ended nowhere. Every year, before the start of the new session, he would make a special trip to Amritsar (as Batala had no decent bookstore, then) and bring back 40 sets of text books for M.A. I. & II. Every year, BUC would admit 20 students to its M.A. programme and so, on an average, it meant buying 40 sets, all in Penguin editions. Even in those days of socialism, each Penguin edition cost no less than Rs. 70/- and on an average, a bunch of 20 to 25 text books were prescribed, each year. Quick calculations would tell you that Paul Love spent almost one hundred thousand on our text-books alone, again from his pocket, which he passed on to each one of us, as a gift of his love, all at a heavily subsidized rate of Rs. 150/- In our days of commercialization, this may sound like a fairy tale, too distant and too unreal, but Paul gave us no lectures on why to read text books and why not to read ‘guides.’ Without much fuss, he went about making this unforgettable magnanimous gesture, creating in his students a culture that was as ‘different’ as he was.
It was our first year in Batala. Having studied under a typical Indian system, we had grown up to believe that a good teacher is one who teaches ‘everything’ that he either knows or must know on the subject. Let’s accept that our system does create a hopeless dependency-syndrome in most of us, making regular ‘crammers’ and ‘rote-learners’ out of us. For the first time perhaps, it was Paul Love who awakened in most of us the need and desire to question, to know and interrogate. You just couldn’t go to his class without having read the allotted portion of the text, and if you did, he could spot you from a hundred mile. And when you agonized over his question, trying to dodge, speculate or approximate, he would break into his characteristic smile and say, “Well, my dear, I think, you are quite close to it. Just try hard enough, and you’ll almost be there.” None of his students ever heard him say, “You don’t even know this,” the regular snub some of the best among the teachers use, often unwittingly, snuffing out the very seeds of curiosity in their pupils.
With him, learning was always an adventure, an exploration of new worlds and new horizons. In fact, while he would be teaching, we never ever felt we were being ‘taught;’ it was as though we were either cracking a riddle, puzzling over the mysteries of life, language or literature or travelling into the far-off, distant lands of imagination. He opened up meanings we could not imagine and he led us through the intricate labyrinths of life and literature, with the ease of a gentle guide, who has been there and seen or known it all. He used to teach us Chaucer. Before the first term exam, he had repeatedly warned us that we must not ever use such worn-out, archaic expressions as “Chaucer was the father of English poetry.” But inflexible and resistant to change as we always were, practically everyone in the class started his/her answer with, what else, but that very expression. When our scripts were returned, on the top of each script, in red-pen, there was the same remark, “It seems you know the entire genealogy of English poetry, Please tell me, who was the ‘grand’ and the ‘great grandfather’ of English poetry.” There couldn’t have been a more painstaking and a gentler way of driving a point home. Needless to say, every time I teach Chaucer to a new class, I start off by narrating this anecdote.
Paul was and still is so gentle that he can’t even hurt a fly, let alone full grown human beings. A bunch of die-hard imps that we were, we always put his patience and gentle manners to a severe test. When it came to breaking the rules inside the class or outside, some of us really had a way with it. But in my two-year long stay at Baring, not even once did I or any of my batch-mates ever see Paul lose his temper. Being a strict-disciplinarian and moderate in temper, he always showed remarkable poise and equanimity. Human enough to feel irritated or even angry, he would never give himself over to an open display of his feelings. All of us have a memory of a red-faced Paul, sitting in his room, hacking away at the keys of his Remington typewriter, all in an effort to burn out his bottled up rage. He had a way of imploding, not exploding; and not even once did he make any of his students’ a victim of his bad temper. One may wonder, if people with such remarkable self-control do exist in our age of instant-explosion and instant-gratification. An arch of his eyebrow, or a puckered forehead, or a refusal to speak to the one he was angry with was enough to send us all into tizzy, speculating, “Paul ko gussa kyon aya hai?” Such was the impact of his quiet authority he never asserted or ever felt the need to assert.  
At BUC, it was compulsory for every M.A. student to attend library period in the afternoons. Every afternoon at 3 o’clock (Sundays & Saturdays included), we had to report in the library, as Paul would be waiting there, his characteristic enigmatic smile in place. And if anyone broke the rule, he would walk across all the way to the hostel, knock at your door, drag you out of your afternoon siesta, and walk back to the library, with you sulking close behind. If someone was found sleeping behind the fa├žade of his carrel, Paul would sneak up to him, and his hand resting on the edge of the carrel, drool away in his unfailing sugary tone, “Oh, my dear, I think, you could do with a cup of coffee. That sure will help you stay awake.” Thereafter, even the habitual snoozers, forgetting their snooze, would start peeling their eyes, pretending to peck a word or two of Shakespeare or Keats.
Yes, Paul ruled over the minds and hearts of his students, but not with authority, simply authority of love. He gave himself so generously that sometimes we wondered, was it right on his part to give so much of himself away? Thirty years later, each time, I enter my class, Paul walks in with me. Thirty years later, each time, I meet my friends or batch-mates, all our conversations not only begin and end with Paul, but are also punctuated with references to him. Thirty years later, I have finally been able to gather strength to bow down to my legendary teacher, a living legend, and pay a small tribute to his courage and conviction to love and create minds that would spread his message of no, not just touching lives, but transforming them unalterably.
Paul, your slowly receding figure, as you pedalled away to your adopted home daily, not very far from the department, is etched neatly in my mind. Your sincerity haunts me; your simplicity gnaws at my heart; and your generosity of spirit still overawes me.
Sometimes, I think, Paul, only if we had more such teachers as you, this world would certainly not be as bereft of LOVE as it often appears, today.  

Prof. Rana Nayar is Chairperson, Department of English & Cultural Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh. E-mail:

PS: Most of us only draw salary, some of us teach, some others (a microscopic minority) go far beyond their calling and change lives. Dr. Paul L Love is one such teacher, who has silently touched and transformed so many lives that it is perhaps difficult to keep count. He didn't believe in self-empowerment, but empowerment of his students. He worked and continues to work selflessly, without the expectation of any reward or gratitude. He molded individuals and built healthy institutions/institutional practices. Today, how many teachers can claim this about themselves? He will continue to live inside the hearts and minds of all his students, as long as they live. What we all owe to this man is perhaps beyond the ken of words...May his tribe, if it exists somewhere, flourish! ...RANA NAYAR