by Nivedita Salam
I was nine and my brother eight when he entered our lives. Tall, fair, guffawing, paan-chewing old man. I cannot remember my first impression of him but I do remember that within a week of tutoring us, Oja Birendrajit had won our hearts, and has stayed there forever. Looking back, I think he resembled Abraham Lincoln physically, old, tall, lanky and slightly frail, but showered us with so much love and affection that he soon became the grandfather we never had and left on us an indelible mark we’d never be able to erase.
Engaging in private tutors for children young and old was very common in those days and perhaps is till today. We had a Hindi tutor who came home every Sunday and it was through him that we met Oja Biren. My parents promptly engaged him for our daily tuitions. His job was very simple – go through our lessons with us (preferably be at least 1 chapter ahead of the class) and ensure our homework due for the next morning was done and checked. And so in the winter of that year, Oja came home every evening, at twilight, entering our gate with the slightest ring of his bicycle bell, torch on the other hand, and bringing with him the unmistakable smell of paan that would linger around our study table long after he was gone.
“Nivedatta”, he spoke with a distinct British accent, always twisting my name in that way, “what are your dreams?” (He’d always converse with us in English and often asked us such questions.) My nine year old, convent-going, heavily-missionary-influenced self once stated grandly, “Oja I want to grow up and become Mother Teresa.”
“Ha ha ha,” he guffawed, “that’s a nice thought, Mother Teresa..,” he repeated, “Ha ha ha.. but you’re the only daughter! Your parents won’t be very happy with that,” he said. He’d also cough a lot in between the guffaws. I did not understand why he said that but I remember being most disappointed at how Oja responded to my noblest dreams of working for the poor and downtrodden, taking them out of the shackles of poverty and suffering. I mean who wouldn’t want to be Mother Teresa, I thought. “You should become a doctor,” he counseled. “Become a doctor,” he told my brother too, “and cure people.” Neither of us had such aspirations. Mine meanwhile changed from Mother Teresa to an IAS officer and that made him happier.
Oja would tell us tales of the British in Manipur, about William Pettigrew who started the Pettigrew School (I think Oja was a teacher in this school at some point in his life.), about his younger days when he played hockey for India in the Olympics (yes, that’s what he told us) and several others that enchanted us every day. Every day he also brought us little treats – different types of boroi fruits, small red borois, bigger green borois, ripe ones, unripe ones, sometimes mixed with over-ripe almost rotten ones, fried pakoras of potatoes, onion rings, fried mangan (peas) and other fruits always wrapped in a small piece of newspaper. He would take them out of his pocket like a magician, much to the delight of two pairs of wide expectant eyes (sometimes three, depending on whether or not our 4yr old kid brother was loitering around us) and lay them on the study table for us to savor while he enraptured us with his stories of the brave, stories of warriors, stories of patriots and stories of sporting exploits. He often read out to us poems by Tennyson and Wordsworth from our English books made to sound as though the brook flowed past our house, gurgling down the leirak.
We had had several daily tutors before him and after, and those are stories for another day, but Oja Biren was different. He was special. He wasn’t bound by school text books and mundane everyday lessons as much as he wanted us to open our minds on go with him on a journey to the fascinating world that lay beyond the few chapters enclosed in our course books. He knew how to draw us close to him, he knew how to build trust, he knew how to engage us and he knew how to fire our imaginations. He fired in me the hunger to reach beyond text books and discover more, read more stories. He fired in my brother a lasting passion for sports. Oja once gifted him his own expensive imported Yonex badminton racket, an adult professional version, with tight strings that made our old wooden, ever slightly loose-stringed children’s ones pale in comparison. Every now and them, he also got us crisp, stiff, lightweight shuttle-corks. The bold black YY on the racket made us such proud owners, and the “Made in Japan” tag made it an object of intense envy in the neighborhood. No kid in the entire leirak had a Yonex, graphite rimmed, lightweight adult badminton racket! And so a few months went by and Oja became a dear friend to us.
At the end of each session, we walked with him till the culvert outside our gate, past our neighbors’ houses loathe to end the chat and stories continuing from our study table. One day in one such walk at night he told us he had fallen from his bicycle the previous night near that culvert and I was terribly worried for him.
As our love and affection for him grew so did his coughing fits. My mother also complained that he spent more time telling us stories than making us do our homework in that limited hour of tuitions. She was worried we’d fall behind in class and our homework wouldn’t get done! And when his coughing did not stop, my parents started to get more than a little anxious.
One Sunday, my parents and my Hindi tutor were in a discussion that sounded like a grave adult thing. Soon, Oja Biren stopped coming. My brother and I were taken to the hospital, where doctors took our x-rays, and nurses poked us and took some blood. We couldn’t understand what was happening around us. And we missed Oja Biren. To us, he simply vanished without a word. Something had happened -something serious. I could sense it.
That something turned out to be Tuberculosis. The day my parents found out that Oja was afflicted with the then deadly disease, he was politely asked to discontinue. I was silently very upset with my parents, and very hurt that we were being tested for TB too after I understood what was going on. To my mind, there was no graver act of betrayal to Oja than to test us for TB! My nine year old self resented my parents’ worried caring parental actions. Thankfully my protective parents knew better and much to their relief, we were found to be safe. No virus had been passed on to us. But I somehow had a premonition that Oja’s going to die and I cried.
A month or so had passed and we got busy with school and our lives. We had also gotten a new tutor, a pleasant middle-aged stocky man who made us do our homework. Once a month or so, my mother took me to the All India Radio station for the Sunday morning children’s program. I would recite a poem or read out a story. There were many kids in the studio room and you’d see some musically gifted ones with tablas and harmomiums who were always given preference over the poets. Our lifeless listless pieces of papers were no match for the glistening, gleaming tablas and harmoniums. So, we had to fight to sit close to Eche (didi) Kamala, the anchor. Eche Kamala was older than my mother but all the kids addressed her as Eche. Her gaze would sweep the large studio room and she’d ask for the next performance and the next and the next. I was painfully shy in those days and once I gave up my chance much to my mother’s horror and disappointment later. I had sat quietly, almost stubbornly, slowly crumbling & crushing the paper with my carefully chosen and neatly copied poem from “The Golden Treasury” to a tight ball in my palm.
Then came a Sunday – I remember that Sunday as if it were yesterday. That Sunday, I was brave. That Sunday, I wasn’t going to let my chance pass me by and I was going to fight for it if it did not come to me. My mother who knew Eche Kamala also gave her a hand signal pointing to me from across the studio room that clearly said I am her daughter. So that day, Eche Kamala called out for me, introduced me on air and I went to the microphone and said,
“Today I am going to recite The Brook by Alfred Lord Tennyson,’ and boldly went on, on live radio,
“I come from haunts of coot and hern,
I make a sudden sally,
And sparkle out among the fern,
To bicker down a valley….
I chatter over stony ways,
In little sharps and trebles,
I bubble into eddying bays,
I babble on the pebbles….
… I join the brimming river
For men may come and men may go
But I will go on forever.”
“Thank you” I said as I ended the poem.
I was triumphant! I had done it! My mother was happy and we returned home. Soon after, the phone rang.
I ran to answer it. “Hello?” I said breathlessly. “Nivedatta?” the voice though feeble was unmistakable, and only one person in the whole world twisted my name as such. “OJA,” I cried out.. “I heard you on the radio,” he said. “You were excellent,” he went on. Tears welled up in my eyes and I was too choked to say anything. “So are you studying hard to become a doctor?” he asked. “Tell your brother too to do so…” by which time I think I gave the phone to my brother. I went to another room and cried alone.
Time went by and about a year had passed. It was April – the Manipuri New Year celebrations. It’s a day of great excitement especially for children who get to wear new clothes, buy toys, and climb the Cheirao Ching (Cheirao hill). There’s a small hillock called Chinga close to my place, as the crow flies. For those in the vicinity, Chinga is what they climb for cheiraoba (New Year). That year, my brothers and I went to Chinga full of excitement and gay. From the top of the hill, we surveyed the land below, trying to spot our house at a distance, giggling and nudging each other, correcting each other. Along the path uphill were lines and lines of toy stalls that would delight any Manipuri kid in the mid eighties. Colorful plastic animals and birds, plastic guns, plastic dolls, cloth-made Manipuri dolls in various attires and many more that some of us picked up on our way. Filled with excitement and pleasure after successfully spotting our house and with our booty, I suddenly remembered that Oja Biren lived very closeby – at the foot of this very Chinga hill. Luckily for us, the people we went with knew him very well and so we went to surprise Oja.
My chest was already closing in tight as we reached his house. I should have been happy to see him again, but I missed him so much and the thought of losing him suddenly made me sad. He saw us approaching, recognized us and I clearly remember him saying, “I have been expecting you.” Perhaps he really was waiting for us all those months? I now wonder.
The warm smile that greeted us still lingers in my memory. He was the same – tall, fair, gaunt, and slightly frailer looking. His was a very modest house, Oja’s. We, my brothers and I and all the others we went with sat on a rickety old bench that appeared to have come off an abandoned bus, the coir stuffing coming off at the edges, underneath his tin roof. I remember some bright pink bougainvilleas hanging from the roof. There was a plain wooden study table opposite the bench and he sat on the chair next to it. He didn’t hide his happiness at seeing us and hollered to his wife behind the door to bring us some tea.
Seeing Oja after all these months had me all teary eyed and I avoided looking at him directly. I just could not. I turned around and spotted a boroi tree a foot behind me. Memories of the boroi fruits he brought us came rushing to me and I couldn’t stop the torrent of tears flowing down my cheeks and quickly dabbed it with a hanky. I don’t know if anyone saw me cry but I didn’t want them to. Everyone chatted for some time and Oja brought out a hockey stick. “This is the Olympic hockey stick,” he said proudly and gave it to my brother. It was a white one and had many markings. My brother was elated! I on the other hand was too grief stricken to join in the conversation. At the end, I just cried uncontrollably. “Oja,” I went weeping to him. He hugged me, understood my grief and said not to worry. He plucked some boroi fruits that he gave us in a piece of newspaper. We had the tea and soon left his place. I turned back, to take one last look and saw him wave at us, smiling.
And that was the last time we saw Oja Biren. He died a few months later and took a small part of us with him. My parents went for his shraadh. Perhaps they thought we were too young to go so we didn’t. To this day, more than two decades later, no other tutor has replaced him in our hearts. And to this day, when I think of him I cry – my first loss of a loved one. And till today when tutors have come and tutors have gone, he has lived on forever…
Our beloved Oja RK Birendrajit who changed our lives. That tall, fair, lanky, guffawing & paan chewing Abraham Lincoln lookalike tutor of ours.