Vantage point

Friday, October 13, 2006

Chitale Master by P. L. "Pu La" Deshpande

While talking about PuLa with non-marathi folks, many people compare him to Wodehouse. With all due respects to Wodehouse, I think it's unfair to PuLa. PuLa had an ability to make the language dance to his tunes, much like Wodehouse. But he had so much more. Wodehouse's world was idyllic, formulaic, and an escape from reality. PuLa's unique gift was an ability to derive humour out of real day-to-day situations. And he also had the ability to touch that sensitive cord buried deep inside your heart that makes your eyes well up with emotion. And he often did that in the same piece of prose. While explaining this talent of his to a friend, I compared his work to the movies Anand and Life Is Beautiful. Movies which made us laugh and made us cry.

I later realise that even that comparison was flawed. A cheerful man dying of cancer, a cheerful man and his son in a concentration camp....these are ideas filled with the potential for pathos. PuLa never had to write about anything that extreme. Even the tears he brought to your eyes came, not out of some grand tragedy, but out of recollections of similar intensely personal moments in our own lives.

An excellent illustration are his character sketches. And Chitale Master is one such character sketch. It was the first thing by PuLa I read, and it is from his book 'Vyakti Aani Valli'(loosely translated 'Persons and Characters'), which won him the Sahitya Akadami Puraskar. Written half a century ago, it is set in an even older time. Konkan sometime in the 30s. Yet the theme of a favourite teacher is so universally identifiable, that everyone loves this character sketch in an intensely personal way.

The usual disclaimer - many jokes might be lost in translation. A few additions and alterations will be made. But I hope to retain the refreshing core of this superlative piece of literature.

In those days, once a kid in our village was admitted to kindergarten, his parents didn't take any interest in his studies until he passed or failed his HSC. The universal belief held by each parent was "The brat is under Chitale Master's charge now. He'll turn out OK."

Holding his dhoti in his left hand. Wearing a jacket which raised strong suspicions of having been blue in colour in the distant history. Head playing host to a black Nehru cap which faithfully pointed to the North East. A few strands of hair, only survivors against the unstoppable forces of baldness, sticking out of the cap. A moustache suspiciously similar to Lala Lajpat Rai's. In the remarkable event that they hadn't been forgotten in the school the previous day, sandals on the feet. Since the left hand was busy holding the end of the dhoti, the right one was left to handle the entire load of books. The right hand so hardwired to hold its position, that if there were no books to carry, it would still be next to the shoulder, empty, and holding up an index finger.

This is how you would describe Chitale Master on any day out of the past 30 years that he has been trampling the long distance between his house and the school. He taught me. He taught my uncles. And now he is teaching my nephews.

A few years back, folks in the village felicitated me after I returned from a visit to England. After the ceremony, Chitale Master walked up to me, patted my back proudly and said, "Purshya, Purshya, you've made the school proud. Tell me, did you go and see how Westminster Bridge looks at daybreak? Remember Wordsworth's poem? 'Earth has not anything to show more fair; Dull would he be of soul who could pass by; A sight so touching in its.....?"

"Majesty", I said.

"That's right"

Old habits die hard. This habit of Chitale Master's was still alive and kicking. He would often make students say the last word in a line. My mind wandered back to his English period.

"Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care:
Fashioned so slenderly,
Young, and so....?"

"FAIR", the whole class would yell in chorus. Starting with English in Class 1, right through high school, Chitale Master taught us many subjects. His area of expertise was English. But with the welcome exception of "Art" and "Drill", he would teach any subject. Two entities he never saw eye to eye with were the school bell and the time table. In those days, our school could not afford the luxury of hiring a separate teacher for each subject. 8-10 teachers managed to run the whole school.

Of course now, the school has swelled up, not unlike a river swelling up during monsoons. A huge building, each class with 8 divisions, two different shifts, two thousand kids, all these things make me realise how much the world has changed. Nowadays there are kids who don't know the names of their teachers... in my day, the teachers would know each and every student in the school by name.

Chitale Master would take additional free sessions at home, specifically for kids who were above average, and those who were lagging behind.

"Young Ashok is displaying unsatisfactory progress in Mathematics, and we would advise you to enroll him in some special tuitions".... notes of this kind from teachers to parents which are a norm today, were unheard of in those days.

If a child failed an exam, the teachers would take it as a blot on their own reputation. And a cane was as integral to the school's existence as chalk and blackboard. Chitale Master however never used the cane even once in his entire career.

His tongue itself was so acidic, the sting from it was enough to keep kids in check. If rarely he got really angry, then he would press the culprit's shoulder very hard with this thumb. And it hurt!

The vocabulary Chitale Master used in class was in a class of its own. Since English period was first, we would be sitting in the class with Nelson's textbook out on our desk. And Chitale Master would astound us by marching in like a soldier with a world map on his shoulders instead of a rifle. We all would start whispering among ourselves, trying to figure out this development. Right then Damu, the school peon who is as ancient as the bell he has the monopoly to wallop, would walk in with a huge world globe. Since he would carry the whole world in his hands, Chitale Master referred to him as 'Hercules'.

After the attendance had been taken, Chitale Master would address a sincere sort of a kid on the front bench and ask "Hmm...where did we stop in the last period?"

"Sir, it's English period!"

"Ack! Then when is the Geography period?"


"Alright, then let's hold a memorial for Nelson in the third period. Now take out your Geography textbooks."

This exercise of taking out the textbooks was utterly futile. Chitale Master never taught anything by the book. Be it Geography, History, English or Maths, the only appropriate answer to the question "Which period is it?" was "Chitale Master's".

Which subject to pursue in the class was a decision taken after reaching a consensus post a lot of deliberations. And then Chitale Master would come into his element. All his life, Chitale Master taught many subjects. But there are some things he could never quite manage to do. For instance, drawing a map of India.

With a chalk in his hand he would be labouring over the blackboard for about ten minutes. And after all this trouble, a pitiful outline bearing at best a passing resemblence to the Indian map would materialise.

Eyeing his creation critically, he would joke, "Tell me children, is it just me or is India becoming more and more like South America these days?". The rolled up map which he would march in with was rarely if ever unrolled. After his attempts to draw the map successfully failed, he would say,

"Pandu, be a good boy and draw the map of your motherland"

Then Pandu Gharat, who was the budding artist of our class, would erase the board and draw a perfect map of India.

"Wow, splendid. God has really blessed your fingers." he would say effusively, "Anyway, now tell me Pandu Anna, where do the monsoon winds come from?"

Pandu Anna clean bowled!

Speaking of winds, I remember this one time when he was teaching us about land winds and sea winds.

"Hmm..Goda Akka, tell me, which direction is the wind blowing in right now?"

Teachers who refer to the girls in their class as "Miss Joshi", "Miss Sathe" etc had not even been conceived then. In fact when Mr. Deshmukh, who came to teach wearing a suit, a tie, and referred to girls as "Miss" first turned up in our school, we were all wondering where this child-sired-by-a-Brit had come from. All teachers in those days were the dhoti-types, who referred to the boys as "Bandya, Baalya, Yeshya, Purshya" and the girls as "Ay kusmey, chhabey, shantey, kamley".

Chitale Master however had this quirk of referring to the dumb kids in extremely respectful terms. Goda Gulawni was the encyclopedia entry for "dumb". Fair skinned, light eyes, built on the lines of a flour sack, dumb Goda attended school with great difficulty until 4th or 5th standard. Finally her father managed to find her a groom. Girls in India were married off very early in those days.

In her wedding, chitale Master said to to the groom, "She's my student, mind you. Great girl. Will make an ideal wife and run a family very well. But don't send her grocery shopping. Or else she'll buy 6 mangoes costing 12-annas-a-dozen for 14 annas. Am I right Goda Akka?"

Imagine that, he said this right at the wedding in front of everyone!

While leaving, Goda first touched her father's feet, and then touched Chitale Master's. I could see that he kept his emotions in check with great effort. As Goda crossed the threshold, he discreetly wiped his eyes. Balu Paranjape and I were the only ones who noticed it.

"Look look, Master is crying", Balue said out loud with the tact of a crazed dictator.

"Heh, they jump around in your front yard like sparrows for a few years, and then fly away with a flutter, don't they?", Master said to Goda's father.

This very Goda, whose wedding he cried in, was the butt of so many of his jokes in class, that if it were to happen today, parents would have sent the Principal a "note" complaining about it. But parents in our day? Nah, they were of a different bent of mind. In fact if a father came to know that his child had been caned by the teacher in school, he would ensure an encore at home.

Back to the time in the class,

"Godakka, which direction is the wind blowing in?". Goda silently stayed put on the desk, like a resolute flour sack in a grocer's store room.

"Damn you, move that ass and get up at the very least"

Telling an adolescent girl to move her ass might be inappropriate is a thought that never crossed either Chitale Master's mind or the students' minds.

Goda got up, pouted her lips, and did her best impersonation of a statue in summertime.

"OK, now tell me, which direction is the wind blowing in?"

Goda still silent. Then Chitale Master got exasperated and said,

"Goda Akka, use your head a bit. Look at the pallu of your sari. Which direction is it fluttering in? Is it fluttering towards the sea or away from it? Ramu, you tell us."

Then Ramu Gogate got up and confidently commanded Goda, "Hey Goda, stand up properly."

"Why are you asking her to do that, Ramu?" Chitale Master asked

"How else will I see her pallu properly?" Ramu said innocently.

"You idiot, why the hell do you need to see her pallu?"

"How else will I know if the wind is blowing towards the sea or land?"

"You dumbass, are you going to make Goda to stand in front of you during the exam?" Master thundered. "Idiot, it is daytime. During daytime, is it sea winds which blow or land winds?"

Then the entire class had to repeat after him a dozen times "The winds during the daytime are..". And after that, we also had to repeat "You dont need Goda's pallu to tell which direction the wind is blowing in."

Mugging up, commiting things to memory, were concepts that Chitale Master firmly believed in. But even this memorising was done in a way that was fun. His whole period would be fun. We would never realise when the hour was up. Often the teacher for the next period would be standing at the door, annoyed and waiting for Master to leave.

Chitale Master was very absent-minded. Forgeting his sandals in the classroom was a regular occurence. Then one of the students would take them to him in the next class. Master of course would not let go of the opportunity to make a wisecrack,

"Bharat took care of Ram's sandals for 14 years, and you brats can't keep them with you for even an hour?"

In 12th, a few students would he handpicked by Chitale Master to attend special coaching sessions at his house. These free sessions would happen early in the morning. His wife would give us something special for breakfast. He taught these sessions in a very different way from his classes. Even today I remember those sessions fondly. In those classes, I learnt Raghuvansh, I learnt the poetry of Tennyson and Wordsworth. In the batches before us, quite a few of his specially coached students had won the Jagannath Shankarsheth Scholarship. No one in our batch managed it. So after our results came out, were were a bit embarassed as we went to meet him.

"Aunty" he said... Chitale Master's wife was called Aunty not just by the kids, but by him too. "Aunty, the children are here. Bring out those sweet coconut dumplings."

Then he said to me, "You must join Elphinstone College, alright? I had told your father this. Don't go to some shady college. If you decide on going to Pune, then Fergusson.I warn you. And in Bombay, which college?"


"Spell it!"

Aunty came out with the dumplings and said "They're sprouting moustaches and you're still giving them spelling tests?"

"So where are you going? Mumbai or Pune?"

"I don't know. Wherever father decides", I said.

And it is at this point that the path of Chitale Master diverged from mine. Staying in touch regularly was not possible. But almost every day I still apply what I learnt from him. For instance, his strict rule of "Only 8 words in a line". He would threaten us,

"If I see even a single line with 9 words, I will draw a lovely egg on your answer paper", and he even came good on this threat a few times.

One evening, I was sitting in my house in Bombay when the doorbell rang. I opened the door to see Chitale Master standing there. Still the same. The same coat, the same north-easterly cap, and the same right hand near the shoulder.

"Chitale Master? How great to see you!"

"Your Bombay is quite a place, Purshya" he said as he walked in.

"Why? What happened" I asked as my wife took his bag from him.

"I'll tell you what happened....hey, careful with that bag. It has mangoes. Don't bang it somewhere like a clumsy oaf."

My wife used to be his student as well, so he does not need to mince words with either of us.

"So tell me, what wrong did Bombay inflict on you?"

"I knew the place you used to live at earlier. This part, Worli, is relatively new to me. Had come here a few years back for a Boy Scouts Jamboree. It was almost like a jungle then. And look at it now. I couldn't find your building for a long time. Now you... you are Lokmanya Tilak's father."


"I mean you are famous. So I thought everyone would know where you lived. Shame on you, even the paanwaala downstairs doesn't know. I told him you are a writer, into theatre, had recently been abroad. And do you know what he said to me?"

"What did he say?"

"He said, sir, nowadays even street sweepers go abroad. He's right actually. You are a big name for us. Why would others know you that well? But you should do something. Give the paanwaala free tickets for your play. At least he'll tell people the directions to your house respectfully."

"Anyway, when did you arrive?"

"Have been in Bombay for ten days. Living with Janu Panshe. Was he in your class? No no, he was in the batch of 38. Dumb son of a bitch. Couldn't tell the difference between Bajirao and Abdali if his life depended on it."

"So what brings you to Bombay?"

"Begging for donations, what else? We're building an open air theatre for the school.."

"What are you building?" I wasn't sure I'd heard him correctly.

"Open air theatre. Why are you looking so surprised? You're a theatre guy yourself. The government is paying for half the expenses. We have to gather the other half. You know last year, our school won the district play competition."

"Our school?"

"Yes, our school. We performed "Bebandshahi". Jilgya Pavshekar's son did a superb job as Sambhaji. The audience was applauding for nearly ten minutes."

All this was new and surprising for me.

"And you let people do all this? Remember, when I had suggested that we perform a play for our school gathering, you kicked me out of the class?"

"Purshya, come on. Times have changed. In fact our special early morning sessions have stopped. The school itself starts at 7 am. There's a shift in the morning and a shift in the afternoon. It's become a factory, I tell you. 52 teachers in the school, but sun and moon."

"Sun and moon?"

"It means they're in the same sky, but when one rises, the other sets."

"Ok ok. Anyway, stay for dinner."

"No no, can't do that. Dinner's at Nuru Kazi's place. Ismail Kazi's son. Smart guy. Batch of 40. He's in the Education Ministry now. He's the one who arranged for this open air theatre grant. Helps us out a lot. Really smart guy. Has an amazing command over English. He was telling me something funny the other day. A new officer joined his department. His file was sent to Nuru. In the file, he noticed, every line had 8 words. So Nuru called up the guy and said "Joglekar?". He said "Yes sir?". Nuru said "Are you Chitale Master's student?". That Jogalekar almost hit the roof in amazement. "How did you guess, sir?". So Nuru said, "In one place in your file, you rubbed out the ninth word and wrote it in the next line"."

"So you're going to Kazi's place for dinner?"

"Yes, I have warned him - if you feed me meat, then I'll go to your Education Minister and tell him you were caught cheating on your geography exam in 3rd."

"So what will you have? Tea? Coffee?"

"Whatever your better half gives me. Speaking of better halves, Aunty speaks of you often."

"Is she doing fine?"

"Developed cataract."

"Oh. Sorry to hear that."

Something has been bothering me for a while. Finally I said,

"Master, what is all this about building a theatre in the school?"

"What's the matter with you? You're from the same line, and yet you're bring so weird about it. I tell you, if you had seen our "Bebandshahi", you would have patted my back."

"Your back?"

"Well I directed it, didn't I?"

This was surprising news. "You were the director?" I asked with my mouth agape.

"Yes, did you think you're the only director in the world? Got all the kids to mug up the lines properly. Not just their own lines, but everyone's. The entire cast knew the entire play by heart. We'd meet at 5 a.m. for rehearsel every day. These kids are such brats, I'll tell you. Usually they turn up for school at 7 a.m. as if they are sleepwalking zombies. But when it comes to acting, everyone from Sambhaji to Aurangzeb was on time, fresh as a daisy at 5 a.m."

"But why did you make everyone memorize the whole play?" I asked when I managed to get a word in.

"Why not? If some kid fell ill at the last minute, it would ruin the whole play. By the way, we inaugurated the play by breaking a coconut at an auspicious muhurat. I don't believe in this astrological nonsense, but strangely, these kids, quarter my age, insisted on it. I don't get these kids of today, Purshya. No one wears a cap these days. They may not have a pen in their pockets, but they'll have a comb for sure. Each one has a different hairstyle. Modern in so many ways. And yet, they'll look for muhurats, wear rings and lockets given by various babas and swamis. This is really puzzling, really puzzling. You know, after this second world war and independence, the world seems to have turned upside down. Nothing makes sense."

"For how many days are you in Bombay"

"Leaving in two days"

"Then come for dinner tomorrow"


"But will you be able to find the house again?"

"That's a good point. Actually I should not have trouble locating houses in Bombay. After all I am a Wilson alumnus. In those days Wilson was more affordable than Elphinstone. McKenzie was the Principal. Dedicated man. It was the dedication of men like him that inspired me to take up teaching. I did try to work in the Collector's Office for a few days. But they found a copy of Tilak's 'Kesri' in my pocket and kicked me out. I went to meet McKenzie before I left Bombay. He asked me what I planned to do next. Told him I wanted to become a teacher. He felt so proud. Ah those days. In those days our college would look majestic on the Chowpatty. Now it's just shrunk into insignificance between bigger buildings. The waves of the Arabian Sea are the same as before. Other than that everything has....?"

"Changed" my wife and I completed his sentence together.

"I'll come to pick you up. Where will you be?" I asked.

"In the evening I will be with... oh yes, from your batch, Mukund Patankar."

"Oh, Hindu Colony?"

"Yes. He's also doing very well. Owns a car! He took me to see a lot of places in it when I visited last year. Come to think of it, I do own about 5-6 cars in Mumbai... hehehe"

Chitale Master's childlike laughter was still intact.

The next evening I went to Mukund's place.

"Is Chitale Master there?" I asked him

"Yes, he's in the other room. Telling Baby a story." Baby was Mukund's 6 year old daughter who had been bed-ridden for a year since she developed polio. I entered the room and saw Chitale Master in full flow. It was a story about some Prince. Both Master and Baby were completely engrossed in the story, oblivious to everything else. In the story, when the Prince's airplane took off, Master spread his arms and ran around the room to act it out.

Mukund and I looked at each other. There were tears in Mukund's eyes.

"Every day that he's been here, he comes in the evening to tell Baby a story." Mukund said to me.

Chitale Master's story was about to end.

"....and so the Prince and the Princess lived happily ever.....?"

"After", Baby, Mukund and I said at the same time.

Master and I got into the taxi.

"Wait I'll be back" I said to him

"What happened?" he asked.

"Nothing, providing an old service. Noticed that your feet are bare. You've forgotten your sandals again."

"Oh, let it be. I'll be coming here again tomorrow anyway."

"No no, I'll get them"

I ran upstairs. Spotting Master's sandals from the rack in Mukund's house was not very difficult.

They were the ones with the most worn out soles.