Sometimes, characters are like earworms, or should I say, mindworms. They grow in your imagination, until you think of them the whole day and know every little detail about them. That is exactly what happened to me when I read Shoefiend’s story on Usha Aggarwal Miss.
So, Ladies and Gentlemen, here is Usha’s story, or at least, my version of it:
Usha Aggarwal had always been thin and slender. With her pony tail and bony face, she looked years younger than she was. When she rode the bus to college, her fellow passengers would invariably ask her which grade she was in. She would then be thrilled to be mistaken for a schoolgirl.
But when Usha became a teacher, she started to wish she could look just a little older. The ponytail made way to a clip that pinned back her hair, the salwars were replaced by starched cotton saris. Yet even the stiff saris could not disguise the stick-like figure underneath the folds. Usha started off teaching math to the older students. But in her very first week, she was heckled so much that she burst into tears. She was transferred to teach the younger students, but even they saw in Usha a bubbly college girl, not the imposing adult figure she desperately wanted to be. The students loved her, but to them Usha was like an elder sister, to be obeyed sometimes but usually, to be completely ignored. Some days, the class would be so noisy the Principal would come in to check on her. Usha would stand by, mute, helpless and ashamed.
Eventually, Usha’s helplessness and frustration turned into anger. The students did not notice it, but as the school year rolled on with weekly tests and mid-term exams, Usha gradually changed. The next year’s class saw a teacher quick to anger and sarcastic remarks, quick to see imaginary insults, and slow to realize when a student did not understand the lesson. Usha was still new enough to be blind to the flaws in her teaching style. But she was no longer considerate of mistakes by her students. She demanded complete obedience from her students, she wanted their respect.
Word spreads fast in a school’s corridors. Reputations are made and destroyed during the lunch hour, during the school bus ride home and wherever two students meet. Within a few days of the new school year, Usha was named Scarecrow Miss, or sometimes just “Crow”, her bony face and bird-like figure making the epithet particularly apt. Usha was now an object of fear and ridicule.
Usha’s students now stuttered in class when she asked them questions. Their hands shook, their eyes bored the floor. But when she turned towards the board, the class sniggered and made faces at her. Usha now had a facile control over her class. The Principal no longer came to impose order. Yet the more her students feared her, the angrier Usha became. She was searching for respect, she was yearning for love, but she knew she no longer had their love; she never had their respect.
Usha always walked into class early, and occasionally she would find the teacher of the previous session still in the room. She would then lean against a pillar and watch her students surround the other teacher. She would listen to their eager voices and watch their shining eyes. She would sense the rage start in her, as she wondered why these joys were withheld from her. She would wish she could somehow turn back the clock. She would wonder if it was too late already.
It was late one evening, long after the students had gone home. The corridors no longer echoed with their voices, the classrooms were dark and desolate. Usha sat in the warm, brightly lit staff room, nursing a cup of tea. She was listening to another teacher describing how one of his past students had come to visit him. “I had taught him twenty five years ago, and he still remembers me”, the teacher said, his eyes glistening with pride and unshed tears.
Usha listened and wondered whether, years later, her students would still remember her. When they look back with eyes lined with age and experience, would they see that she had, in the end, meant well?
She would not know the answer for many years. When she did, it would certainly be too late to change.