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Not fishing for compliments

punjab Updated: Oct 05, 2013 10:20 IST
Harish Dhillon
Harish Dhillon
Hindustan Times
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The phone rang and I looked at my watch - it was 6am. I willed the phone to be silent and it did stop ringing. But then it started up again with an insistence that would not be denied. "I hope I didn't wake you sir?"

"You did, but now that I am awake tell me."

"I was your student 23 years ago. I don't know if you will remember me. My name is Dhiraj Chowdhury."

"Oh Fish!"

How could I forget! He was a Government of India scholar and seemed totally lost without a good command over English. Then he joined my afternoon class.

The cardinal rule of this class was that there was no formal instruction, the children were free to talk or complain about anything under the sun - their teachers, their prefects, the food, anything. But they had to do it in English.

The very first day in class he put up his hand and said: "Sir, no fis."

"Fish," I corrected and we spent the next 20 minutes getting the pronunciation right and of course, as it always happened in Sanawar, he was 'Fish' forever afterwards. Now here he was, after 23 years, at the other end of the impersonal phone line.

"I've been so excited since I got your number yesterday, I wanted to ring you up immediately. Then I wanted to be sure that I used the right words and so I wrote my little speech and rehearsed it. But now when I am speaking to you I am back in your class, saying whatever comes to my mind."

"And how are you, where are you and what are you doing with yourself?"

There was a pause and I thought I was going to hear another tale of pain and failure.

"I rang up not to talk about me, I rang up to talk about you and how much you mean to me. I have done well in life and at every rung of success that I have climbed, I have remembered you with gratitude and affection for everything that you did for me. I know that without you, I would never have made anything of my life and I am glad that I've got this opportunity to tell you how great a difference you have made, not only to my life, but to the lives of so many others."

This was threatening to get out of hand and I knew it required urgent and firm intervention.

"Well, I don't know about anything else but I can definitely take credit for having taught you to say 'fish' instead of 'fiss'." We both laughed and after some more small talk and the usual promise of staying in touch, said our goodbyes.

I sat looking at the phone in my hand. This had happened so often - old students calling across vast stretches of time and place to tell me that they still remembered me and what I had done for them.. As always, I knew that this time too, this was not a tribute to me or to anything that I had done for Dhiraj. It was a tribute to a fine institution and to a wonderful time when decency was still at a premium and had not yet become an outmoded word. Since these children did not know how to express their gratitude to these two intangibles: the school and that wonderful period of time, they zeroed in on their favourite teachers and thanked them instead.