To most of my male contemporaries in India, the word teacher will bring male associations. In the Odisha of the 1970s and 1980s, even half of the teachers in girls’ schools were male. The lady teacher was something uncommon. Particularly in rural areas, it was rare.
Against this background, when Miss Mary came on transfer to join our village primary school, it was quite a sensation. She created a record short of firsts in the five sleepy villages that the school catered to. For the first few days, she travelled the distance of eight kilometers from the nearest town to my village, alone. Nobody of those villages must have heard of a lady travelling such long distance, unaccompanied by any male relative. Yes, eight kilometers is a long distance when half of it you have to cover on foot. She was the first lady teacher of the school and later on she became the first non-Hindu resident of our village.
I must have been six or seven years old then. So, my memories are vague. Some of the incidents described are reconstructed from what I heard later on. Of course I remember a few incidents like her making me stand on her table and tell me to touch the ceiling with a long stick and accompanying me home and telling my mother, “Your boy is so sweet, and when are you making me your daughter-in-law?”
Being a Christian and a single lady, it was tough finding residence in any of the villages nearby. Barring one village, which was a ‘Brahmins only’ village, the others had people from all castes. Even in our village, where people from different castes shared a common wall, some elders opposed the idea of her taking up residence. But a few open minded people including my father were successful in convincing the village elders to accept her and treat her like any other human being.
Still the initial resistance continued and she became the focus of all sorts of village gossip. She regularly came to see my mother after school, sometime accompanying me from school to my house and stop by to talk to my mother.
We lost touch with her, when we moved to the nearby town after three or four months. After three or four months she herself got transferred. I came to know that on the day of her departure the whole village was in tears. During her short stay she had endeared the same village that had once refused her accommodation.
I doubt that I would ever meet her, or even come to know of her whereabouts. But she lingers in my memory as a vague fragrance, long after the flower is gone. Also I do not remember what academic things did she teach me. But whenever I think of Miss Mary, two other words come to my mind – love and courage.
(In response to Indispire edition #134 )