I cannot write the standard obituary. The obituary is expected to hold back grief in sedate, decorous ways, remember the departed person’s best qualities with quiet dignity, and forgive her less admirable aspects gracefully. When I try to write an obituary, I usually trip over my own grief and the terrible ache that the memories of the deceased one’s physical presence produce — the turn of the head, the peculiar contortion of lips forming a smile, the wave of a hand.(I cannot write obits for people I don’t feel for). To get away from that, I quickly turn to the personality, and here I find myself mired, completely unable to separate neatly those qualities that drew my admiration and those which I hated and hurt me. Far from sounding dignified, the obituary ends up structured quite like intensely physical mourning, only that it will be composed in words.
That’s why I took so long to write this little note remembering B Hridayakumari, who passed away a few days back. She is well-known in Kerala as a respected teacher of long experience, a literary critic, an unwavering Gandhian, and public intellectual with strong views on education and its purposes. She was my teacher in the 1980s at Government Women’s College, Thiruvananthapuram — the principal of the college where I was a trouble-maker of a student. Right from the very first day we met, we knew we had huge differences,about almost everything. I disagreed with her views on student politics, on exams, on reading appropriate to students, on literature, on the codes of dressing and physical conduct appropriate to lady students. I constantly expected to be questioned about my tendency to bunk classes and sneak away to the University Library or the Centre for Development Studies library, and about my love for climbing the trees on campus, and my insistence on walking around in public with boys from the University College, something unthinkable in those times for most girls from ‘respectable families’. But I think that we both realized quite early on that we were equally stubborn women, quite determined to hold our respective grounds if challenged. In many tense moments which I remember vividly, we did not talk. She and I would hold each other’s gaze, silently assess the other’s concern, gauge the depth of conviction, and the strength of moral courage — and then let go, convinced that the other’s position was deeply held, and not merely a passing whim. We differed, but we never hurt each other. If at all, we strengthened each other. Many years after I left college, I went to meet her with a book I had published from my doctoral thesis. She browsed it delightedly, savoured the many texts from the 1940s — her days of heady youth, she said — that I had quoted, and then raised her eyes to me. We held each other’s gaze in the old way. Then, with a candidness rare, oh so rare, in our present world, she told me, ‘I always knew you were spunky, but I felt you were not on the right path. I never thought you would do so much.” And then she smiled. B Hridayakumari’s smile was a phenomenon you can never forget. Her chiseled face was always filled with a stern beauty, but when she smiled, and she smiled slowly, it was like seeing golden fingers of sunlight move gently over the lonely, dignified, beautiful Himalayan peaks that you see in Nepal.
I, who was just old enough to be her daughter, was her equal(her daughter was indeed my classmate), was never treated like a ‘student’. Indeed, we were rarely college principal and student; for most of the time, we were two women. And though we had drastically different views just about everything in society, she never tried to force anything on me. She never dismissed me even when my actions had consequences she could not approve of at all. Of course, my choices in life she probably did not approve of. I wasn’t going to be one of the students she could cite with pride. But she never tried to force me into paths she considered right.She knew that my college attendance was nearly zero, but never disbelieved my reasons for not attending lectures. She was always convinced about my love for books and learning, and above all, she believed (and long afterwards, she actually told me this) that my insatiable love for literature would ultimately redeem me.
In our hopeless present we do not have many teachers who see future citizens in young people and offer them the respect that the citizen deserves. We have instead, crude managers of ‘raw materials’ — which need to be tormented and crushed completely, packaged into ‘humanpower’ and sold in the global marketplace. If we are serious about paying tributes to B Hridayakumari, we must fight tirelessly against this inhuman ‘education’; we must fight for respect between teachers and students that make the former accept the latter for what they are.
But I also realized that however different two people may seem, there may be unexpected points of convergence. One such serendipitous moment I can never forget. I have a great love for the tiny herbs and weeds that thrive in Kerala; as a child (and as an adult too) I have spent hours tending them or simply gazing at the wild glory of eternal springing-up that they embody. And I don’t know why I do it; the interest isn’t scientific.
One day — it was November, I remember, when darkness fell earlier than usual. I had stayed back inside a near-empty college campus, letting my eyes run over, for no real reason, the wild plants that grew near the walls of the old buildings. Her voice, never shrill, sounded behind me: ‘Not yet time to leave?’ I jumped to face her, and not knowing what to say, I pointed to the plant I had been examining.
‘Nagamulla,'(Serpent-Jasmine) she said. ‘No,’ I countered, ‘Orukaalnjondi‘ (Lame-in-one-leg).
We looked at each other in the eye. Then her slow smile began to bloom and she asked, ‘You read poetry, don’t you? Tennyson?’
I knew what she was hinting at. Flower in the crannied wall, I began,
She took it up from me:
I pluck you out of the crannies
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand…
What you are, root and all, and all in all, I should know what God and man is, I completed.
And then I tried to dissent, as usual. ‘No, I don’t need to know their names to love them. I don’t want to know what God or man is through them.’ Her smile deepened. I knew there was something we loved, together, in silence. We loved the plants that were cast out of ‘respectability’, condemned as ‘useless weeds’, and we loved them just because they were themselves. We did not need to know their names or their uses.
This is where I really hurt in my grief that I experience in her passing: too many horrid little selves have entered the teaching profession, tiny minds, ungenerous and insecure, who would not think twice before squashing to emotional death any young student who looks ‘different’. When B Hridayakumari was ill, I could not go to see her because I was caught up, trying to help my sixteen-year-old daughter who was being broken and crushed first by by the callousness of her school authorities, especially a sixty-six-year-old teacher who has been trying her utmost to destroy a child who is merely her grandchild’s age, and then from the even-more shocking insensitivity of counselors of an NGO entrusted with helping children in distress in Thiruvananthapuram, who thought it nothing to breach confidentiality and thereby, her trust in them. Young people, now infantilized as ‘teenagers’, have nowhere to turn. Treated with suspicion by school authorities and the sari-clad taliban who pass off as teachers, and with even more heartlessness by patriarchs who occupy the position of counselors — is it any surprise that they now harm themselves relentlessly? And when I was a little above her age ( we were in college usually when we were barely sixteen, while the pre-degree system was still on), I was being treated like a woman — and thereby encouraged to grow into one — by my own college principal. It was also different from the backslapping friendship one sometimes finds between students and teachers one finds these days. While these are warm relationships, to be cherished for sure, they sometimes hide relationships of power, which may turn out to be shockingly patriarchal and even feudal (that’s perhaps a necessary risk one must take in building such friendships between teachers and students — and even if we are disillusioned in the end, we will emerge richer of understanding for sure). But B Hridayakumari was not even offering me tough love — it was respect, pure, unadorned, unadulterated. And believe me, that is all one wants when one is at the threshold of youth.
I still have the Nagamulla/Orukaalnjondi in my wild garden and whenever I tend it, Hridayakumari, I will remember you and our common love, most tenderly.