Friday mornings were the best. Miss Elizabeth announced the topic for the weekly composition. The class groaned at the prospect of writing a creative piece for a very discerning teacher who took the task of creative writing very seriously. Every word used had to be accounted for. Every thought had to be relevant. Every metaphor had to belong there. To a class that was bred on an unhealthy diet of sentimental paperbacks, where long-winded descriptions of exotic locales and long-drawn inane conversations held sway, Miss Elizabeth’s expectations of crisp narratives seemed highly impossible to achieve. ‘Half the problems in the world are a result of people who cannot express themselves succinctly enough.’ She would declare after we took turns reading the highlights of the morning’s newspaper in the last five minutes of every class.
She carried our books home in a huge jute bag and called it her homework. We imagined her sitting at her desk, listening to ABBA on the record player while she pored over our work. Our corrected notebooks would wait on her table every Friday morning, after the mandatory Moral Science period, to be carried into class, like expectations on Judgement day. The monitors trooped into the hallowed staffroom, where the aroma of freshly brewed coffee jostled with French perfume, assailing the nostrils, creating this aura of sophistication. The monitors carried the books, with a self-important air, to the classroom.
We sat in our seats, as quiet as mice, while Miss Elizabeth sashayed into class, a vision of a heady mix of glamour and efficiency, her perfume trailing after her. She was an Anglo- Indian and dressed in pretty frocks and skirts with frilly tops. She was extremely graceful and the only person I knew, those days, who applied lipstick of the fruitiest, glossiest and most delectable shades. She had an amazing collection of footwear. To most of us, one pair of worn out sandals was a luxury and Miss Elizabeth wore fabulous heels, even stilettos, in every colour of the rainbow! Lipstick and footwear apart, we were all in awe of her because she spoke English beautifully. There was a lilt in her voice and she would infuse magic into the most mundane words. That was while she brought Wordsworth or Shelley to life. Her voice changed when she returned our corrected books, it was then charged with sarcasm and bitter gall. Praise was rare and not very effusive. None of the new-fangled notions of child psychology for her.
The walk from our desk to her table was torturous. She openly remarked about our work, never mincing words. Depending on her feedback, we would either strut to our desks or slouching, slink away. Our notebooks were open wounds bleeding profusely, with red slashes mutilating our words. We cringed at the remarks etched in the notebooks, each word dipped in acid. We would hastily close our books, avoiding the curious glances of the others.
Where, oh where could we hide our books, safe, at home, from the prying eyes of parents? We shuddered to imagine the reaction of our starry-eyed parents when they discovered what the stately Miss Elizabeth thought of their child’s progress in English. After all, they had scraped and bowed to get admission into one of the best ‘Convent’ schools in the town and if this was the progress of their wards in English, they would let them know what they exactly thought, in a few choice words, punctuated by a few slaps thrown in for good measure.
Mathematics and Science were important but well, English was ENGLISH!
After English, on Friday, we rushed to the field for games after which I walked home, with the new topic tracing delectable patterns in my mind. As soon as I could, I would sit, chewing on my pen pondering on how to begin, ignoring my mother’s strident calls to make myself useful.
The topics Miss Elizabeth thought of, were varied and even bordered on the whimsical. In fact the first topic she ever gave my class was ‘The First Kiss of Monsoon’ and we were convulsed in helpless giggles as the topic hardly made sense to us and the word ‘kiss’ evoked other images. My father had, in a misguided moment, bought me a book of essays, and I read them eagerly. I wrote about monsoon all around the world, the effect of winds, coriolis force, planetary motion and so on. I was surprised when I received two marks out of ten and a few choice comments on my lack of imagination. My cheeks burned in confusion. What was I expected to write?
As if in answer to my unasked question, Miss Elizabeth read out the composition of one of the literary geniuses of the class-a quiet unassuming girl who had her nose buried in a book all the time. It was all about grey skies, blustering winds, stinging sheets of rain and tantalizing petrichor. And then it all made sense to me. Miss Elizabeth wanted colour, passion, imagination and excitement in our writing, and I was ready to give it to her.
I read Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Dumas, Wilde, Maugham, Hemingway and whatever I could get my hands on.
Miss Elizabeth soon found my writing stimulating. She read my compositions out loud to the class in her magical voice and my stories took on another life of their own. My heroes were more valiant and my heroines were ravishing. The plot line was larger than life and my writing was embellished with jewels of literary devices and spiced with mystique. I even began to contemplate a career in writing. My parents, naturally, were worried as I was drifting away from Math and Science and focusing only on English. My marks in all subjects, save English, began to dwindle and I brushed aside any objections that were voiced. In fact the first book, I would always reach out for, was English.
And then one fateful Friday Miss Elizabeth announced, ‘Girls, you shall attempt to write a detective story for me this weekend.’
Everybody around me sat shrouded in dismay. Please! Not another impossible task. Only I beamed with undisguised glee.
That evening I wrote a convoluted story of murder and mayhem. It had atmosphere, suspense and thrills like no other work I had ever written. A beautiful girl had her head bashed in by a maniac and her fiancé found her brains splattered over the floor like spaghetti. Twenty pages later, I revealed the murderer to be the fiancé himself. By the time I was done with it, it was a whodunit to end all whodunits. I had concocted such a tale that I fancied myself as India’s answer to Agatha Christie.
I read and reread my work several times and submitted my book to Miss Elizabeth on Monday morning. My friends read the story, before submission, and enviously exclaimed at the sheer drama I had spun. I felt pride swell in my heart.
The days crawled. I could not wait for Friday.
On Friday, Miss Elizabeth sent the books to us with instructions they be distributed, ahead of her class. We were very surprised at this sudden departure from tradition. I leapt up and pounced on my book before anybody could even move. Hurriedly I flipped through the pages and searched for my marks and more importantly, the remarks. I was surprised to see Miss Elizabeth’s signature scrawled at the end of my story, but, that was all.
Miss Elizabeth walked into the classroom on her incredibly high stilettos, but, that day, I did not notice them. I kept looking at her inscrutable face, trying to assess her mood, wondering when the right time to talk to her would be. She read out a couple of compositions but did not ask me for mine. The work she read out loud was not as good as mine. I wondered why she did not look my way or meet my eye. I did not have a nice feeling about this. Unease settled in my mind like fog, obliterating everything.
Miss Elizabeth announced the topic for the next composition-
After an endless wait, the bell rang. I walked up to Miss Elizabeth as soon as the students left for the break. A couple of my classmates looked at me curiously but I averted my eyes.
‘How much did you give me for my composition?’
There was a long pause. Miss Elizabeth pulled herself erect and said in her clear, ringing tone, ‘Child, I did not give you marks because the story is not your own.’
I felt the wind knocked out of me. I shook my head wordlessly. My mouth went dry. My knees shook and I held on to the table.
She continued ruthlessly, ‘A fourteen year old could not have written this. The plot is too advanced and intricate. I expected something original from you. How could you have done this?’
I opened my mouth to tell her that it was my own work but when she saw my grief stricken face she said, ‘Maybe you are a voracious reader and all these elements have crept in of their own accord…’, but I knew she did not believe me, she would never trust me. Her voice trailed off as she stood up to leave the classroom, not quite meeting my eyes. I stood there staring at her back as her skirt swished about her ankles and her footsteps echoed down the corridor.
My fall from grace was complete and irrevocable. I felt nothing. This was probably how the dead feel. Nothing. I could not even cry. Outside, the world went on as before. The sun shone as bright as ever. Girls gadded about in the corridors, between classes, lessons were taught relentlessly. Math, Science, History and geography saw me impassive, immobile. Lunch was left uneaten. I fed it to the cats that sunned themselves outside the dining area. I spent the last hour of school wandering in the garden, avoiding all company. The others avoided me too, for who loves misery? What was that saying- Laugh and the whole world laughs with you; Cry, and you…Oh, who cares!
I hid in the washroom till everybody went home. Then I trudged home. How dare the world go on, as if nothing had happened? What hurt more was the destruction of a dream. The abortion of an illusion.
The teacher I had worshipped, put on a pedestal, had feet of clay.
Did she ever stop to think any different? I don’t know. I was past caring.
The girl who returned home that evening was a different person.
Topic of that week? Confessions. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I never poured my heart out in writing anymore.
It was nipped in the bud.