Days with Mukhtar

A wisp of a man with a quicksilver temperament, he transfixed you with his gimlet gaze. Nursing a boundless passion for discourse, all he needed was an attentive ear. During morning assemblies, he would sometimes catch me unawares by tugging away at my languid arm drooping loosely in the summer heat, and whisk me away from the phalanx. He would then hold forth on practically everything under the sun, but for the most part, his talks centered around the school system, politics, and life. A tinge of biblichor and tea aroma always wreathed his person and this heightened the philosophical import of his talk. It vaguely surprised me then as to why he chose me as his audience, for though I was a good student in my own right, there were more fervent politics geeks and street-smart guys around with a better handle on life’s vexed questions. I virtually stood at the diametric end of his mental constitution: A romantic idler with a Don Quixote’s impractical leanings. He seemed to strongly suggest a hard-nosed realist with no yen for fanciful notions. I suppose he admired the fact that I was always game for listening to him. But he could get testy at times and would sail into anyone who offended his refined tastes.His teaching had an offbeat ring to it and this didn’t always stand him in good stead though he had his secret band of followers. He was a practitioner of inclusive learning with a keen understanding of the student’s psychology. And he would lambast the forty odd-minute lecture with the teacher indulging in a soliloquy of sorts at the blackboard, reading quietly to himself, and writing it down for the students to reproduce in their notebooks. Nor would he spare the student for his excessive reliance upon the class lectures alone. He imbued the student with a contagion of indiscriminate reading and passionate quest. Indeed, this wouldn’t have fructified if he had not been an avid reader and questioner himself.

He lived far, far away from the school and had therefore tenanted there during his service. A place hard by the school was where he was staying. I once visited him there before the school hours, having arrived earlier than usual,and saw him reclining in his bed with a fattish book propped up against his knees. He looked over his glasses, as was his custom, and ushered me in. I gathered he was reading some Alexander Pope volume and had beside him a tall collection of literature. It was a quaint setting: A frail man drinking intently from the fount of classics under the lambent light of a grey room tucked away from sight and sound. Later, upon my requesting him, he would lend me “Twelfth Night”, which I would read like my other school books. But it takes life to unfold slowly to understand nuanced writing. Of course, he would have known this then, but he was too respectful of a student’s sensibilities.

Because he had cultivated an unorthodox style right from the word go,he sometimes fell out with his peers. But he couldn’t have cared less for he was a maverick and abhorred clichéd customs. I often wondered whence came that flint and piquancy. Later as he would open up, I came to know that he had had a chequered life prior to his entering into education.He had “seen it all” and weathered many a storm in his life. So, steeled by the vagaries of life, he had developed a tough streak in him. Which makes it plain that he would, if circumstances warranted it, stand up to the higher authority and not even bat an eyelid. Of course, this is not to say that he foisted his point on others; He would benignantly relinquish his stance if he thought others’ perspectives made more sense. He despised authority and privileged the commonplace. He was an academic foot soldier, the elusive McGuffin of that monolith. And more than anything else, he endeared himself to his students. There was not a dull moment in his class because he was no stickler for dry academic facts. He taught English mostly and because writing is happily intertwined with life itself, he had a fun time blending the two into a potent cocktail for us to savour. I think he knew it was more important to prepare students for life than for exams. Needless to say,his results were always excellent.

Many years ago I got to lay my hands on Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie” and while I was reading that book, I couldn’t help remembering this great teacher of mine. The book is about a teacher-philosopher and his protégé, who meet every Tuesday of the week to discuss life’s vexed questions. The teacher is battling a terminal illness,and while awaiting death,he passes on the fount of his wisdom to his protégé.Even now,when I read the book sometimes,I keep thinking about Mukhtar Sir and marvelling wistfully how he was always seeing the bigger picture and shepherding his students through a forest they would have missed for the trees without him.

The title to this brief piece is inspired by Mitch Albom’s book Tuesdays With Morrie. The writer is a Civil Engineer