I was 3, or maybe 4 years of age. One evening, father asked me to hold his finger and we walked some distance to a house with a latticed wooden gate. There were flowers and crotons in the front yard. We sat on a couple of chairs. Soon, a lady in a white sari came in- smiling. I liked her instantly. She looked and smelt good. Father talked to her for a minute or two and told me “This is your Mary teacher”.
Mary teacher called me over, held my hand and spoke in Tamil. I answered her questions and asked her one or two in return. A cup of coffee for father, a toffee or two for me and we left that house.
Soon, I found myself among a host of children. All of us were about the same age, if not the same size. There were chairs just right for our bums, little buckets with ropes to fetch water from a pool that was two feet deep, slides and swings that never hurt- and lots of biscuits and milk when it was time to eat. Many a “Miss” would be at hand to help, and a maid or two when someone made a mess. Once or twice, I had my ears boxed. Maybe there were occasions when I made someone cry. All in all, it was great fun. Mary teacher would walk in sometimes, silently amid us- always with a smile on her face.
Every morning, Sanyasi the rickshawallah would ring his bell and holler “Bijoy”. I was ready and ran to the rickshaw, to be lifted and put inside with others going to the same place- of fun and biscuits. It was called the Montessori School, maybe the first in Orissa. After a few months, the summer was severe. I had prickly heat and summer boils all over me. The fun was no attraction, nor the biscuits. It was only the pain and itch that mattered. Sanyasi rang his bell and shouted “Bijoy”. I was all dressed up, but could not bear the boils in my back. I said I won’t go to school. Father heard, and asked me if I really meant it. I said “yes”, though I meant I couldn’t go only that day. That was finito. No more Montessori for Bijoy. For the next few years, I was tutored at home till I joined a private school in class 7 at age 9- the youngest in class.
My friend Dr. Swamy tells me he still has a photo of our class, with each of us in what today looks like fancy dress- of monks in white.
Much later, I learnt about Maria Montessori. She was born in 1870 and died in 1952- a year or two before I joined one of the thousands of schools named after her the world over. She understood children and revolutionized teaching methods for the very young. In the year she died, she was nominated third time for a Nobel Prize, which always eluded her.
I used to see Mary teacher off and on while at school and college. We never spoke to each other, though she would often look at me with the same smile. Maybe she remembered my face. I had even been friendly with her nephew Anthony who was a couple of years junior to me. Some of her nieces were known to my sisters. The Francis house remained as it was- with the spherical domes on the pillars that held the gate, and the little garden in front. As I kept watching Mary teacher walk back from the High School where she taught tailoring while I was in college, I saw that she used a lot of face powder. She must have been in her 40s by that time. Was she afraid that the natural glow of her dark-brown complexion was fading? I didn’t ask. We never talked. There was always a teacher of Craft who walked back astride his bicycle with her. He too was a pleasant man. People gossiped, as people do. I heard, but had only contempt for them. She was always my Mary teacher- and still remains so.
A few months ago, I was told by my brother that he met Anthony some 10 years ago at Calcutta- working in a hotel, and the same jovial soul. The last time I went to Berhampur, I looked for the house on my way from the railway station. There was nothing I could recognize- only shops and more shops. I don’t know what happened to Mary teacher, but for me she is Maria Montessori. She was a spinster, but understood children.