Her name was Mrs.DeMonte. She was my teacher in school.
Mrs.DeMonte was a stern teacher. I was of an impressionable age and it troubled me immensely that nothing I did elicited the simplest of smiles from her. I wonder what subject she taught me. That is still a blur. But an apparition of her stern self stays fresh in the mind. To this day.
One day, she announced with a flourish, that there was going to be an ‘elocution’ competition. ‘Here’, I must have told myself, ‘is the chance to impress her’. For I remember rushing home and declaring that I must prepare and all that. Memory fails me if it was a ploy to avoid maths homework or it was genuine excitement about the competition and the small window it presented to impress the lady.
The times then were different. There wasn’t any internet. My parents, like most parents then, thankfully were disinterested in my homework in a very interested sort of a way. If you know what I mean! But my dad, the genial man he was, was as interested in this project, for some reason. I wasn’t sure why, but I couldn’t care less.
The topic was “My Role Model”.
“So, who is your role model”, he asked. Looking up occasionally from a magazine that used to get published then, called “Gentleman”. Now, I hadn’t bargained for this. I thought they would write down a page that I could memorise and go ‘vomit it’ (as was the parlance and accepted procedure) to the silly judges under the watchful tutelage of Mrs.DeMonte. That was the plan.
If life taught me early lessons of mounting a tiger and just being unable to get off it, for fear of it devouring the rider and his audacity, it started with this. My dad would have nothing of the ‘mugging up’ or the ‘vomiting out’ business. Even more, he abhorred those phrases. It was clear, for this exercise, I had to go with him and his laborious questions that popped out in monosyllables.
“Gandhi”. I remember telling him. Afterall Gandhi was an old man. It was drummed into our head that ‘he got freedom for us’ etc. But then, I didn’t have any further answers to my dad’s grand question of ‘Why else’. So was the case with every other ‘role model’ I suggested.
In sometime after my options were exhausted, “Do you know of a man called Nelson Mandela”, he asked. Of course, I didn’t. A silent groan escaped me as I loathed the idea of having to figure out all about a man who I didn’t know at all. Forget connecting. But most important of all, I didn’t know how Mrs.DeMonte would react.
In about half an hour, he assembled a set of books and clippings of Nelson Mandela. He added some of his handwritten notes with handwriting that you would argue was more typeset printing. Along came a blue dictionary with frayed edges. “Read all of this, look up words you don’t understand and tell me the story. You will do well, don’t worry”. He said, and then quietly left the place, in the most matter-of-fact manner there ever was. He wasn’t the helicopter parent that hovers atop the modern day kid.
I dreaded it all. But the story of one man, who fought a Government, and was in jail for several years gripped me steadily. I read and reread all the clippings he left with me. Of course, I had to look up the dictionary ever so many times and often had to run back to him, not knowing what the dictionary was telling me.
In a few days, the speech was ready.
To save you more drama, the speech was done, and I cant remember if I won a prize. (To be read as ‘No-prizes-were-won. Not-even-consolation-prize”). It didn’t matter, for Mrs.DeMonte was clearly unimpressed. Or so I thought. “Next” she said, asking the next kid to go on stage, when I was done. Not a word of “Well done” or even the omnipresent meaningless “good” that got spouted when there was nothing else to say.
But that was besides the point. I was hooked to Nelson Mandela. He was my role model. A hero of sorts. We talked about him at length at home. That too was besides the point. The point really was, I was hooked to reading. Exploring. Imagining and discussing these with dad. My admiration for people and what they accomplished started going up infinitely. Naturally, in a few years, there were several people who came into my world.
My ‘role models’ kept shifting. Moving with elan from one person to another with a sophistication of a serial killer par excellence. Not that the earlier person would be dismissed from the memory or consigned to a place of lesser importance. It was just that someone else came on to occupy the place of the prima donna. Gary Kasparov. Lee Iacocca. M.K.Gandhi. Ronald Reagan. R.K.Narayan. Shashi Tharoor ( At that time, he used to write a column in the Gentleman whilst being a diplomat at the UN). Rakesh Sharma. And so on.
Several years later, the day Mandela was released from prison, we saw those live pictures on TV. Me and dad. “He looks very different from the times we did the preparation for the competition, appa” I said. “He has changed. So have you”, he said. That was a telling statement. I wonder why, but I took it as a compliment and let matters rest.
At that precise moment, I realised, that through all the fickle changes to my ‘Role Models’ my dad had kept me company. Helping me reflect. Arguing with nothing but a point here or point there. An arched brow while swallowing the delicacies that mom made.
Over the years, I have myself listened to several people speak of their role models. Every story has been gripping. Generally, there are two categories to this. The first category consists of those in the public space. A celebrity. An outstanding sportsman. A politician. Statesman and the like. Generally, well written about and more than well known. The other category of role models is this deeply personal space. Like dad. He was my role model. People who you love. A grandmother. An uncle. A mother. Etc. Known in the context of immediacy and love of the family. Or friendship.
A few years ago while hearing the story of a cowherd in a remote village, as he narrated his life story tending to his cows, I had tears flowing down my face. It was his story that he narrated after considerable prodding. A story that he told without emotion and with no other more an ask other than filling time and limitless curiosity of a traveler and his camera. A story of how he pledged every single belonging save his cows to get his daughters educated.
As much as his story left an indelible impact, the premise of relishing heroes that donned ordinariness as their grand robes seemed to lead me somewhere. Ever since then the primacy of people who have been featured and are famous has ceded ground to ‘ordinary’ people and their stories.
I learnt from many and whoever I learnt from, automatically qualified to become a sort of a reference point for something in life. Giving me new found energy to wade further on in my own life.
Like this man who I met, one early morning, as he whipped out delectable glasses of filter kaapi at a roadside eatery. Making much of whatever came by from his kaapi joint.
Or this man, his co-worker, who made magic with his fingers and while making vadas that both tasted incredible and also had such perfect shape, that I bet the folks that showcase their ware on Masterchef can build a temple or two in honour of. They posed for these pictures with joy, not for a minute wanting to do their faces up or questioning ‘Why’. In their sparkling eyes, steadfast smiles, inviting demeanour amidst surroundings that you could mildly call ‘less than proper’, they taught me a thing or two of staying happy, doing their vocations well and rocking it even if no one noticed.
If that is not Role Model material, I wonder what is. In the tumultuousness of the ‘ordinary’, many people and their stories plod on, living their lives. In the quest of the spectacular, we miss the grand in the simple. I invoke this contrast in order to dispel it. The indescribable ordinariness that gets dismissively called ‘daily life’, holds extraordinary tales. Tales that other role model chronicles that come to the mainstream must hold a candle to.
May we have the eyes and ears to see and hear these well. May our hearts be grand enough to propel us to share these stories. When the good folks at Blogadda triggered thoughts on ‘My Role Model’ I wondered who really my role model was. It troubled me that I couldn’t come up with one name in a jiffy. Of course, there was dad whose deep searching questions made it impossible to believe what was in the surface was all that there is to life. He played a big part. But several others have shaped it and continue to do so. Till date. By just living they live their own lives well.
I began writing to see if writing could clarify what was on my mind. This is where its brought me. With abandon I publish it here. Am sure this is not what they had in mind when they announced the contest. But contests and victories are, besides the point. A brusque wonderful lady, by the name Mrs.DeMonte taught me that well.