She always carries this old tie-n-dye red yellow cotton thaila and walks with that peculiar ramrod-straight-backed gait of hers that I can recognise her from yards away. That is when I break with my ambling and break into a jog to reach her.
"Good Evening, Ma'am!" my standard greeting never shifts to the more informal "Hello!" or even the casual "Evening!" She always smiles, her eyes turning into narrow slits before she replies in that clipped, deep voice I have grown up listening to. "Good Evening, Karishma. It's nice to see you again."
I help her carry her veggies sometimes, but mostly she refuses my offer, casting a pitying glance at my decidedly heavy-looking college bag, that tends to drag my shoulders down. "You really carry all those heavy books to college every day? My God, this generation really studies hard." She says something like that almost every time she notices my bag.
So often we walk back to Pestom Sagar together, I tell her about how I miss the warmth and closeness of school, she tells me about how our junior batches arent as sincere as we were. We both wonder if nostalgia adds dollops of rosiness to our memories of those times. And then we laugh. People here stare at anyone who laughs out loud on the road. We ignore them.
She was telling me today about her son's weird taste in music. "It's these bands. Men scream these pessimistic lyrics into the mic. There is no melody. Only noise. How does that even classify as music?" I laugh when I realise her son is into death metal. "I have to keep up with these trends and all. Otherwise, I wont have anything to say that will be interesting to him. You'll have to teach me about these rockstars, Karishma." We laugh again.
She tells me he's at the London School of Economics now. I smile appreciatively. I am truly impressed. I remember him as the plump pimply boy who walked with his mom to school and who cud barely talk to girls at fifteen without blushing violently. I've only met him a couple times after school but he has transformed into this confident charming young guy who talks about George Orwell and Mithun Chakraborty with the same measure of admiration and awe, well atleast he did in the last conversation I had with him.
But it is his mother I really admire. This woman is my eighth standard science teacher. She's also one of the most intelligent, articulate, liberal women I know. So different from all the other teachers in my school. My school is one of those non-convent, Government-run, English medium schools where Sanskrit is preferred to Hindi and they start every morning with a Saraswati prayer. She never seemed to fit in there. The other teachers wud eat lunch in the teachers' common room and I'd see her seated on the bench in our school grounds eating lunch alone a lot of times. I always thought it was unfair but later she told me she enjoyed eating alone.
Of course, this being that kind of a typical overtly middle-class Central Bombay suburb, everyone knew everyone else's history and no one really approved of hers. I didnt understand at first. But I realised it probably had something to do with the fact that she was the only person I knew who was divorced and raised a child alone.
My friends and I also fondly remember her as the woman who cud say the word "vagina" out loud without looking distinctly uncomfortable like all the other teachers did when they made those silly sex-ed classes compulsory. She was also the one who abolished the dreaded first science period when all of us just wanted to spend the first half an hour discussing the news, or a particular song, or something new we learned in another subject. She is the reason why I began to enjoy science so much in the first place, the one who introduced me to Richard Feynman in tenth standard and Ray Charles on another of these walks home. She is also the one who comforted our fears the morning after 9/11 happened. She was probably the only teacher who treated us as equal human beings and recognised that we needed somebody we cud trust, ask questions of and seek support from, outside our homes.
Everyone always has that one teacher. For me, it is she. And while I cannot write anything that will explain with any measure of eloquence or insight how wonderful I think she is, or how much I owe to her, the least I can do is acknowledge it here.
Today she tells me that she is leaving Pestom Sagar, moving in with her sister who lives in Colaba. I realise that this is pretty much the end of our enjoyable walks. She says she thinks I was one of her best students and that I cud call her whenever I wanted and that her son had started up a facebook account for her. I smile at that last bit.
But I'm still a little sad. Why is she moving away, I ask her. She says her sister's husband passed away a few months ago and that her son was grown up and gone abroad. She was alone and her sister was alone also. She was moving away so she wud have some company. We walk on.
When we reach the gate of her building, she wishes me luck with my exams. I tell her that I shall miss her. And before I can turn away, it bursts out of me.
"Ma'am, was everything worth it?" I am shocked that I have said this to her. I dont finish my thought but she understands what I am asking.
I wonder if I've made her angry or upset. But she merely shakes her head. "Remember, that the most important thing is to always to be true to yourself. Some day, Karishma, you will know the answer of that question for yourself. And until then, nothing anyone says will be enough of an answer for you."
She smiles, and gives me a hug. I walk to my building, making a mental note of the fact that one of these days I have to call her and tell her that she is a rockstar. :)