To Sir, With Love

Literature is not writing; it is life — my English professor taught me through the summer and winter, just around the dawn, in that one-room coop where his wife would be busy making tea and getting their children ready for school while he stayed in his bed on the floor against the wall.

At the end of a stinking narrow lane where he lived, my rubber slippers squished and plopped walking through the swamp. I would wash my feet under the running tap near the entrance of the squalid ghetto where many refugees including part of my extended family and my teacher had rented single rooms after the mass expulsion of Pandits from Kashmir in 1990.

A couple of soldiers who lived on the ground floor were early risers — bathing and washing in the open and awkwardly waiting for their turn to use the common toilet covered with a drape. My aunt and uncle with their two young girls lived in the adjacent room. Professor lived there along with his family, in one of the rooms, for several years before he built his own modest house in the city.

I first went to him for English lessons during my high school. He had been recommended by one of my uncles who lived next door in the ghetto. A few years later when I graduated from college and switched from sciences to English literature in the university, I went to him with my novels and classical readings again.

In this Dickensian world that we had arrived into, from Kashmir, he insisted, literature was happening. It was happening in the noise of the burning stove, the groggy whimper of his son, and the stuffiness of his room in the winters when he would offer the edges of his warm quilt to his shivery students. We were to rejoice the question marks, sing the apostrophes clearly and live in the ellipsis, he would often say. That he really lived its commas, celebrated its hyphens and marveled at its allegories, he demonstrated through the early morning classes everyday.

Life was to be read loud and felt deep. Literature was a love story that never ended — one were to live it ‘till death us do part’.

“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” he would roar in his baritone voice and ask me to read the following lines and then drift into his little story about his love affair with Elizabeth Taylor after he watched one of her movies in Srinagar. He spoke of her luscious lips as if he had kissed them passionately and the tresses on her forehead as if he had rolled them with his fingers. There was literature in his memory of Kashmir. There was literature in the intoxicating valley he had grown up and lived in.

Was she Helen of Troy?

At some point, we got to the legendary deal between Dr. Faustus and the devil. I looked at him in awe as he enacted both the characters with equal intensity. We read out the epilogue of the play. In that one moment, he had imparted the most important lesson of life and literature together. Through those two years, we lived Chaucer and Bacon; Whitman and Eliot; Dostoevsky and Wilde several times. In between, he would keep going back to Renaissance and the civilization.

Years passed. I had begun to understand how life and literature were interchangeable. But I didn’t get a chance to get in touch with him, to tell him how much literature had happened, how much life had been written and how much was yet to be felt.

On Wednesday morning, I woke up and stumbled on a blurred picture of my professor in the dystopian world of Facebook that was filled with the violent murder of a Pakistani Sufi singer, usual abuse on one of my posts and anguished writings about the Orlando massacre. The man in the picture looked like my English teacher — his academic beard, which he stroked often while crossing his arms and the gentle smile, he wore reminiscing about literature. Our common friend on Facebook had announced his unexpected death after a prolonged illness.

I thought of calling his daughter who was a friend and batch mate. I thought of his wife and son. I thought of finding out their phone numbers but then it would not be the literature that he always saw in life.

Like his life, his death was to be felt like literature. I looked back all day. I saw him sitting there before me, peeking through his reading glasses at the book and a life in refuge. I heard him reading out emphatically from one of our favorite plays: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

On Teacher’s Day, I had once stolen some roses for him from the small garden of our obnoxious loudmouthed landlady. The literature of his smile and the twinkle in his eyes were priceless and worth the theft. I stole the same roses again for him today.

In memory of Professor P L Trisal.

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