A 5.5 out of 10 isn’t very good, you’d reckon. It was a routine homework I had submitted. But when I got back my notebook, it carried a score of 5.5/10 with the remark: “Very good.” It was signed R Kumar.
This, I learnt later, was the highest score one could get from Mrs Renu Kumar, our English teacher at Guru Nanak Public School, Chandigarh. In Class 10, that was the ultimate achievement. But more than that, it was her comment in the margins of the paper that egged us on to do better.
Class 10 was the first time she taught me, though over the years, she came to treat me like her son. The association had begun years ago, when she was in charge of the Hari Singh Nalwa house. It was a comic routine that I performed on the stage, where I messed up big time. A month later, she brought me into a fancy-dress competition and helped me out. By the time I was in Class 8, I was a stage regular.
She asked me to participate in an English poetry recitation competition. Though I did not win a prize, she was by my side, telling me that I had done well. I had to wait for some time before winning became a habit. Her encouraging words would have their effect as soon I was on stage reading the news, hoisting the school flag, participating in a debate, or performing a qawwali. She was always there to guide me.
Once when I congratulated her on the brilliant performance of her son in the board examinations, her reply, “Thank you, son,” touched me. The words rang in my ears for long.
We had reached the year-end, and it was time for our farewell function. We bought a table lamp as a parting gift for her. We made her sit on the principal’s chair and clicked a photograph, which was much sought-after.
A few months later, we learnt that she had left the school, as her husband, who was in the army, had moved to Jammu. There was a tinge of regret, as we had not said formal goodbyes after leaving school. With Mrs Kumar gone, the urge to revisit our alma mater was no more there.
A few years on, we came to know she was to visit Chandigarh. We went to meet her and found her as vivacious as ever. I thanked her for transforming a shy average schoolboy into a school prefect.
Later, I came into journalism and got busy making a living. A decade or so later, one of our friends traced her to Delhi, clicked a photograph and sent it to us. Last year, a WhatsApp group of schoolmates revived old memories. Most of us wanted to visit her in Delhi, but that was not to be.
Recently, a message in my WhatsApp account caught my eye. It was a newspaper clipping posted by a friend announcing her death. That she had touched so many lives was evident from the outpouring of emotions in the group.
As I write this tribute, one thought crosses my mind: What if I had met her during these years and were she to evaluate me again, would she still give me a 5.5?