I still remember that last year in Cuttack, and every detail of that school. Its yellow-white walls, the red-gravelled foreground where rickshaws and cars gathered every morning and later in the afternoon, the looming sal trees that ringed the school grounds, and the building itself, made like a slight curve, so that it overlooked the busy Cantonment Road on one side, and the quieter, greener Tulsipur side on the other.
It was a building with long hallways that ran – even now, I think, for miles – and smaller ones that led to small, quieter rooms, where I loved getting lost in. And I always remember Mr. Dalvi* walking down those hallways, his short hair waving around his ears with every step, a faraway look in his eyes. I called him a Greek God then, making my two best friends giggle.
The Mills & Boons books I read secretly those days described their ‘heroes’ this way. Good girls never read such books, but I wasn’t one – as my parents were always reminding me. I was inclined to be a bit of a tomboy. I was neither pretty, nor had I ever shown signs of being topper material. And yet, I felt certain Mr. Dalvi would have little problem with my choice of reading.
He taught us English and we had two classes with him in the tenth grade, on Wednesday and Friday afternoons. Soon, I began preparing in advance for his classes, looking the dictionary up for difficult words – I remember ‘lugubrious’ and ‘perspicacious’ for instance – so I could be the first and perhaps the only student to raise her hand to respond when he asked. I took trouble over the short answers that the comprehension exercises required, and Mr. Dalvi corrected our notebooks in the men’s staff room in one distant corner of that rambling, half-rectangular building. And I read other books too; books by Ayn Rand, Sidney Sheldon and P.G. Wodehouse.
At that all-girls school, Mr. Dalvi was one of a handful of male teachers. Mr. Mohanty*, who had always been old, taught geography. The maths teacher, Mr. Sen*, was downright evil for he set us graduate level questions and smiled in unfeigned delight when most of us scored in single digits in school exams. Mr. Rao*, the bear-sized physics teacher, turned up on his scooter from the college he taught and left soon after class. The chemistry teacher, Mr. Subbarao*, who had had his fair share of crushes earlier was by now all paternal and humourless with his exam-related advice.
But Mr. Dalvi was young. His eyes crinkled when he smiled, and he was thin as a reed (or a matchstick as we described him then). He wore white or blue shirts, and terribly unfashionable flared pants. In my eyes, this only made him vulnerable – it meant he was indifferent to fashion; that he thought, especially when that distant, faraway gaze came over him, of higher things like books, literature and real love.
I felt delight and desperation when on some pretext or another, I ventured to the men’s staff room when only Mr. Dalvi was there. I had doubts to clear, I’d nonchalantly tell my classmates during a free period, and it was during one such time, for an hour or so, that Mr. Dalvi asked me things like the books I read, what I liked doing and why was I so very nervous around him.
No one had quite spoken to me that way before.
He was married, and his wife taught a junior class in the same school. That didn’t quite bother me. That year, his wife got pregnant – she was always getting pregnant, I’d heard that too – and delivered a stillborn. I knew he grieved, for he stared out of the window, looking more distant than he ever had before. I felt sad for him and longed to say comforting words, but couldn’t quite think up anything. All I knew then was that this, what I felt, was real love. This feeling of a great sympathy for him and wanting to cheer him up was much beyond the stuff described in the last pages of any Mills & Boons book. It was far nobler too.
Some of my friends were kind and indulged me. They would remind me that it was only a few months before we left school, and I’d never see him again. ‘I will survive,’ I loftily said. Love lay in the heart and was eternal, I believed.
What devastated me, however, was not the fact he propositioned me that last day. It was something he’d had to repeat twice, and he’d smiled as the blood drained from my face. That evening at home, I’d even tried to make sense of it all. Maybe he did think I was special in some way. There were, after all, two long conversations I’d had with him – alone in the men’s staff room – not too long ago.
It was something I learnt after we had left school, when a friend, over the telephone, told me of his ‘favourites’. A girl who was a year or two junior, another who had been a classmate of mine, and then, someone else known to be smart and witty. All of them, I realised, feeling my heart crack into several hundred pieces, prettier and far cleverer than I could ever be. More special clearly than I’d ever imagined myself to be. Some months later, we learnt of the scandal in our old school, when his ‘love letter’ to one of his ‘favourites’ was found. Mr. Dalvi was asked to resign.
Decades later, I sometimes find myself googling him. He had propositioned minors – even me – but somehow, I can’t quite think badly of him. A photo shows him older, bespectacled, and much wider around the waist. He’s still wearing a white shirt. What I remember most now is the bubble of happiness I felt during those initial days, how the sky seemed bluer than before, the shade around the sal trees appeared far gentler. The joy that then rose high in my heart, making me feel one with the clouds, was unlike anything I’d ever known, nor would I ever know it again.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Anuradha Kumar is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA programme in writing. Her most recent book is Emperor Chandragupta.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty