“O Captain! My Captain!”

I understood that some decades ago someone had mistaken you for Jesse James — of Lucky Luke fame – as expressed through last week social media.

Of course we of the 1960s young generation knew better.  In those days high school students were more docile and less unruly – they rarely made comments about their teacher, except, at worst, to give them some innocent funny nicknames (like Illico), just to brighten their school days and the class atmosphere. Did you have one? Not to my knowledge, may be because we had found no valid reason to ‘tarnish’ someone we had come to like very well. We knew that most of our teachers were BA or BSc degree holders but here, coming into the secret, was someone with an MA in English: that should have been reason enough to increase our respect and appreciation. And the best was the news leaked to us – “He is married to a college mate from the West Indies.”

In those days teachers were well dressed, wearing tie and suits; you were always sartorially meticulous. Some of us might have wondered why such a lean man like you went about with such a thick leather satchel; you must agree you were not tall — though perhaps taller than many of us students were in our teens. You always had that sheen in your eyes that denoted some positive, active thinking behind the frontal bone. Sometimes you had attempted to interest us in your humourous, undertoned remarks – but how many of us adolescents could decipher these puns? May be you were soliloquizing.

Shakespeare, or ‘Sakess-peer’…

Surely by 1963 or 64 you had awakened our interest — because we clearly remember that Shakespeare play ‘Twelfth Night’; for the first time we came across those characters Olivia, Sir Toby, Viola and other Malvolio. Many of us had to read their parts in class as you tried your level best to drive that text into our thick skull, so as to convince us that there was something called ‘English Literature’ in our curriculum. Your attempt to turn us into apprentice actors for 45 minutes should have been a very frustrating experience, I suppose. How could you succeed doing that to poor fellows who had started high school life by talking of Sakess-peer?

We were lucky to have you again the following year for the English language classes. What we still remember well was not the language itself but the few extraneous thoughts or opinions of yours (why does the mind remember permanently the non-exam topics more than the exams one?). Just as years later we would appreciate that anatomy professor’s lecture — because half of it was spent on non-anatomical topics and jokes. The Vietnam War was at its peak; everyday brought in its lot of American and Vietnamese deaths. But you expressed the view that if ever we had a third world war, it would not be of Vietnamese origin but rather from the Middle East and its Palestinian problem. Were we too young, or naïve, to have appreciated your concern? However, the most important lesson imparted was this: to be happy we must endeavour not to spend our life comparing or contrasting ourselves with others. Maybe the academic rat race at high school was too palpable for your liking — and you were already warning us against unbridled individualism. Or your experience as a grownup was already telling.

For many of us it was the time of social changes in Mauritius. And your opinion that toilets would have to be built in the residence proper had already hinted to us that here was someone who had travelled abroad, bringing new ideas to the country. Not many of us readily agreed to your concept because we still had our doubts about how to keep the house odourless. Little did we realize that Mac Alpine and his sewage works were part of that plan!

As we moved on to SC and HSC, life took a more serious turn, and by the time we left in early ‘68 our paths had long diverged. You had already left to polish your career and join the diplomatic mission in preparation for serious posts to occupy, and which you did with honour, while we school leavers were racking our brains as to what the future had in store for us.

Years later we would get some news of your posting in Washington, of your eminence among the African diplomats. Maybe on some rare occasions Santos, your nephew, kept me posted. By the late 90s as new ambassadors were posted in the USA, I might have wondered what had become of you; now that the student days were long gone and the ‘fun’ of high school and professional school were things of the past, we adults had our family life to think of and other bigger fish to fry.

Then one good day I was happy to see you in the supermarket in Phoenix; always well dressed and as thin as before. Wonder why nature has been kinder to you than to me as far as bodily fat distribution is concerned! We would meet many times, mostly at the book section of those supermarkets, when we would be taking quick stock of the latest scientific concepts in ‘Science et Vie’. You would try to draw me into philosophical talk, but as I am a slow thinker, and always conscious that I am dealing with someone good at that game I might have fumbled a bit and hesitated to get drawn into serious deep concepts.

Funnily we rarely talked of health issues. And of the political views, I heard little — I could not expect more from someone who had learned for the past decades to weigh his words hundreds of times before talking. But now and then you did let slip some funny, confidential but innocent incidents that you had heard of or been witness to .You were back home — sweet home; yet in one encounter I definitely got the feeling that you had a suspicion of a yearning for the cosmopolitan western life, contrasting our small Mauritius with big brother. I smiled internally — but definitely restrained myself of quoting your 1960’s advice about comparing and contrasting; one does not embarrass one’s guru.

Last Meeting

Some years back I read that all of us could play a mental game: we could trace a connection to someone else in the world by interposing a minimum of 6 people or contacts in between. I thought of Mahatma Gandhi, and realized that I had a friend in Thanjavur, India, who knew someone who knew the grandson of that great man — and who definitely knew his grandfather. As to Indira Gandhi — I just have a friend — who met her on her visit to our island in 1971. And we can extend it to her father Jawaharlal Nehru. Yet at high school in 1964 we heard in very hushed voice that you had met that great patriot when in Delhi. Will Hillary Clinton be the next president of USA? But as we had also heard that you were a good friend of Bill, then we do not have to look far to satisfy that rule of 6. May be we could extrapolate that game to many great men in Africa and other parts of the world — like Nelson Mandela and Mao — because we’ll always rely on you to play a possible intermediate in our formula. Thank you for linking us, even when you won’t be around, Mr Chitmansing Jesseramsing. It would always be another way to remember you.

In the 60s, with a daily 25 cents stipend it would have been impossible to think of buying gifts for teachers. On our very last meeting in Trianon, I did something that I missed doing 50 years ago: I opened my wallet, fished out a small black and white photo of mine (which I had purposely kept there — for our following meeting in the supermarket) and gave it to you. At the back of it was written “To my teacher Mr Jesseramsing” 1964. Which you accepted willingly. Surely that should tell how special you were in the hearts of many of your young students.

Subodh N., classmate and colleague, could not come to your last farewell; he requested that I signed for him in the condolence book at the funeral parlour. I never saw that book, but in my heart of hearts I had already thought of writing: “O Captain! My Captain!”

May your soul rest in peace, Teacher.

* Published in print edition on 29 July 2016

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