As students of Modern School in the small town of Gandhidham in Kutch district of Gujarat, we would laugh uproariously and impertinently in the face of one of our history teachers. Schooled in Gujarati medium, she would pronounce unique as “Ani-Q" besides generally mangling English pronunciation. In our immature little heads, her language errors were a grave crime. If we knew the correct pronunciation of unique as kids, how come she didn’t? How could the principal allow such incompetence? It never struck us, certainly not me, whether she was bringing something else to the table in the teacher-student relationship. What about the gentle kindness she brought into the class with her easy demeanour, her ever readiness to forgive us despite our rude comments. I missed all that until many years later when it came back to me in retrospect.

What I had clung to unfortunately was disregard for the harsh, stony manner of another teacher who taught us in primary school. Her communication with students rested on the word “punishment". She would make us kneel down on pebbles with our arms raised; cane our knuckles and all this with an angry, unrelenting face. Never a mistake she made though, this teacher, in her English language.

Last week before Teachers’ Day, which falls on 5 September, these memories enveloped me because of a sentence uttered by human resource development (HRD) minister Smriti Irani during a banal television fight. She said the proposed re-coinage of Teachers’ Day to Shikshak Diwas or anything else didn’t matter as long as all people, young or old, found a way to thank and respect their gurus. I am no fan of Irani’s smug body language and her failed attempts at proving herself as an erudite holder of educational degrees. Yet her comments provoked in me an urge to locate and call up my former school teachers and “thank" them. I have never been shy of expressing my feelings but through adult years, I had never really got around to thanking my teachers.

I did exactly that on Teachers’ Day. I hunted down phone numbers through friends and Facebook and wished some of my school teachers. Finding words for my confused and “too late" feelings, I tried to specifically articulate how they had individually made a difference to my school life. When they said they read my articles and were proud of me, tears stung my eyes.

Narendra Modi’s big guru act on Teachers’ Day through his widely televised chat with school children has been flogged from all sides, both as rehearsed and as exemplary. Whatever its political motivations, the fact is that it attracted attention towards the significance of a day many of us adults may have confined to the cold storage of our memories.

The day after Teachers’ Day, I went to watch Mary Kom, the film on the life of India’s gritty female boxer. The invaluable contribution of her “coach sir" to her boxing success is clear for anyone interested in the story. In the film, when she tells her coach that her parents gave her birth and a name but he made her Mary Kom, that she could come back without him but could never win without him, she expressed steely-soft emotions all of us who have had the luxury of having a teacher, a mentor, a guru or a guide may want to reflect over from time to time.

What have our teachers really meant to us? Did they link studying with learning? Did they explain life’s existentialist dilemmas going from academic to real? Did a mentor in college or later in a job make a crucial difference to our world view? Have we even been lucky enough to find a mentor? The privilege of being taught, being corrected and guided is one that not everyone in life has regardless of whether they went to school or not. Between Mahabharata’s mythological Arjuna, blessed by Guru Dronacharya’s extreme attention, and the unfortunate tribal boy, Eklavya, who ripped off his right to studentship and his right thumb because of his teacher, stand many shades of the teacher and the taught. Where do we belong?

There can be no single answer to this rumination. But once answered, it may reveal something significant about us. These days when my yoga teacher says that the absence of any questions on my part about her yogic teachings leaves her wondering if I am even engaged enough, I request her not to interrupt the flow of teaching as a unidirectional activity. I want to make the most of being taught. It’s truly therapeutic.

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