Tuesday was really special. I had a chance to perform at Mithibai college’s LitCon festival. The alma mater makes everything a magical experience. Even though the building has changed beyond recognition, it has echoes of my adolescent self, climbing out of windows, sneaking vada-paos into chemistry labs, reading books hidden inside journals during class. I had a complete college experience, from landmark conversations with strangers to friendships with the kind of people that I’d never have known otherwise, an experience that only enriches you.
I never did anything of note in the six years. But when I was in my second year, groaning and hating every bit of it, something happened. In typical teenage carelessness, I had neglected to thoroughly research my choices. B.Sc. in Mumbai university required students to pick a combination of three subjects in first year, two from those in second year and then one from that in third year (which would be the major). The only science subject I could tolerate was mathematics and that was available in only two combinations. Both combinations had physics, a subject that I loathed even more than I liked mathematics. These two combinations were PCM (Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics) and PMS (Physics, Mathematics, Statistics). I didn’t feel like applying my brain enough to understanding why Mathematics and Statistics were different so I picked PCM. It wasn’t till the start of second year that I discovered I couldn’t drop Physics, as I had intended. Apparently the only second year combinations available to me were PM and PC. If I had taken PMS, I could have opted for MS but my harebrained choice had pushed me into having Physics for one extra year.
I coasted through the entire year, feeling bleak and utterly defeated. Physics laboratory really was the worst because I couldn’t bunk it the way I could bunk class. And my poor work was even more glaringly obvious there than in the crowded classroom. I found refuge in my rough journal.
The rough journal was a college given volume, bigger than the typical school notebook and smaller than registers. It was hardbound and made of thick, good quality paper. The icing on the cake was that every page was ruled on one side and plain on the other. Even in those days, I had an eye for good stationery. It enticed me so much, I’d spend the dreaded laboratory hours doodling and falling back into a habit I had thought I’d drummed out of my system since it was deemed useless for my future — writing. I wrote about what I felt, I unentangled the things I saw around me that I had nobody to talk to about and I poured the alternate life I could only dream of, into words in that rough journal.
At the end of every lab session, we were supposed to take our books to the teacher and have her sign off on our work. I’d finish my writing just in time to hear the bell go, frantically copy someone else’s readings and get it signed by the teacher.
One day a lady stopped me in the corridor. I knew her only as an English teacher. I had never been in her class but she was friends with my Physics teacher and I had seen her visit the laboratory several times.
“Did you know there is a college magazine?” she began without preamble. And then she asked me if I’d like to write for it.
I gaped. No one had ever asked me that before. I was a science student, after all. My brain was supposed to be filled with formulae and equations, not stories and words. And there was a sizable Literature fraternity for such activities. Why would anyone even care about what I wrote?
“Can you show me something you’ve written?” she asked, her eyes keenly searching mine.
I gulped guiltily, thinking of the nonsense I spent my laboratory time on, instead of the experiments I was supposed to be doing. Then I told her, I’d bring her something to see.
The next day, I carried my poetry book. This was a journal I had been maintaining since I was 7 and first toyed around with words on paper. I’d painstakingly copy whatever ‘poem’ I had written during recess or whenever, in my best handwriting into it. It was covered with a shiny red sheet of wrapping paper with silver stars on it. Once, I had thought it was marvelous and wanted to use it only for this book. When I became a teenager, it started to look pathetic and silly so I put it away and stopped writing. I hadn’t touched the book in years.
“Can I go through it and give it back to you at the end of the day?” she asked.
I paused, a part of me reluctant to even show her that poor little book. But then, I decided, it was time to let it die out. Writing got me into trouble, gave me all kinds of dreams that made reality seem unbearable. I really ought to be studying and concentrating on my lab work. It was time to let that red register go.
“Take it,” I told her, “You can keep it.”
She looked very, very surprised as she took the book.
“I’ll give it back to you on the weekend,” she promised.
I didn’t think any more of it. The whole incident seemed so surreal.
But on Monday, she came looking for me. I was surprised that she even knew my classroom. Remember the science stream had over a dozen subjects and each classroom had at least 70 students. And that was just the science degree students, not counting the other streams and the junior college kids. But in that buzzing, bustling crowd of a college, she found me.
“I spent all weekend reading it,” she said, “It was lovely. I could see the journey of a little girl growing up to be a young woman. And I got this for you.”
And she gave me a book. It was Antonie St.Exupery’s ‘The Little Prince’ and it was inscribed, “Hold fast to dreams, for when dreams die, life like a broken winged bird, cannot fly”.
I still remember the scene as clearly as if it happened just a day ago and not 17 years in my past. This teacher who didn’t know me, had never taught me, standing there in a cream coloured saree and curly hair all around her face. She was holding out my red register of poems but she was holding it between both her hands with a kind of respect, a gesture I had never seen anyone accord to something I had written. Many, many years later, Manisha Lakhe would tell me,
“Treat your notebooks with respect and regard. They are the tools of your trade.”
And I would think back to this moment, to this teacher who showed me how I should treat my writing.
One of my poems was published in the college magazine that year, a non-rhyming list piece titled ‘Unanswered Questions’. The next year another poem ran with my name too.
Four years later, as a postgraduate student in another college, I would help revive a dead college magazine, be a member of its editorial committee, propose and run a new column. And a year after I finished my education, I would set up a blog that went on to change my career, my identity and my life. But it all started with one red register covered in childish handwriting. And one teacher who believed in a dream that I didn’t even know I had. She was my first publisher, the first person to call me a writer.
All these years later, I had a chance to share that story on stage. There were dozens of students in the auditorium, smarter, more aware and mature than I remember myself being. And in the midst of all of them, was the head of the department, Mrs.Suma Narayana, the lady who first asked me if I’d like to write.