Lessons of Life from the Gurus
There was a full moon on Tuesday 19-Jul-2016. Nothing special about a full moon as it occurs routinely every month, except this one marked the very special festival of Guru Purnima.
Guru Purnima is celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Buddhists to pay their respect and gratitude to their spiritual and academic teachers. It is always held on the day of the full moon in the month of June-July. On this day, Hindus offer a puja to their spiritual Guru and their academic teacher. Buddhists traditionally offer their thanks to the Buddha; and Jains offer their prayer to Guru Gawtam Swami. It is perhaps worth noting that the concept of Guru does not exist in other cultures.
The traditional concept of Guru transcended all mercantilist aspect that is prevalent in modern teacher/student relationship. The Guru imparted knowledge unreservedly for free, and the pupil received it avidly and gratefully — without any financial arrangement. Today this relationship is no more. We hear of teachers holding back part of the syllabus in class, so that the student is compelled to take private tuition with him after class. Thus the student can and often does hire and fire his Guru at will, if he is not satisfied that he is getting value for money!
In these circumstances it would be a lucky individual who comes across a Guru in the traditional sense. I have been lucky.
After 6 years (Below-Standard 5) of passing through the hands of teachers of varying dedication, I joined the classe labourse (equivalent to today’s CPE with a possible scholarship to the Royal College) with Mrs Faustin, a young mother from Port Louis. Until I met Mrs F, teachers were people to be feared because all of them used the rotin bazar to chastise pupils for the most minor misdemeanour or for just getting their homework wrong. No such thing with Mrs F. If she caught a pupil misbehave like talking in class, she would just ask him to stand on his chair for the rest of the period. From personal experience, I know that the resulting embarrassment was enough punishment. On the other hand, if anyone got their homework wrong, she would painstakingly help them out with it.
Mrs F taught us with total dedication. We had never heard of private tuition at primary level in those days but, had she wished, she could easily have coerced us all into it particularly in view of the much-prized scholarship. But no, instead she just worked hard to ensure the brighter ones amongst us covered the syllabus in less than the allocated time in order to free herself to provide special coaching to the weaker pupils for one or two periods a week. Just to make sure that the rest of us did not remain idle or get up to any mischief during those periods, she used to buy books — mostly fairy tales — with her own money that we were happy to read under the shade of the huge coqueluche tree that was to be found just opposite the classroom. Thus she was able to keep a watchful eye on the pupils inside the classroom as well as those outside.
It was utter joy to be under the stewardship of this lady. For the first time in our short lives, we were sorry when the last day of the end-of-year term arrived and had to say good-bye to the ever-smiling Mrs F. For the first time we wanted to return to the school, but it was time to move on. Some of us would go on to work in the ti bane on the neighbouring sugar estate, yet others would find an apprenticeship to a trade. Only a lucky few ones, whose parents could afford the fees, would join the new local secondary school. For the rich, there was the option of the better established ones in town.
On that last day of school, everyone without fail gave Mrs F a parting gift — something we had never done before! And she received each, even the humblest ones, with a glint in her eyes and a pleasing word of appreciation.
At University, Gareth (no formal Mr in the UK) was assigned my tutor-councilor. With his fresh face he looked so young that, when I met him the first time, I wondered if he was apt for the job. But with his steady hand, this young man guided me through the transition from secondary level where we had relied heavily on teachers for knowledge to seeking it for myself.
Not that he was not there to goad and encourage. All these decades later, I still remember his comments on the first essay I wrote. After the usual remarks on the technical contents he had added: “If all your essays are going to be of this standard, I am going to enjoy reading them.” You can imagine the profound effect this comment had on a fresher with a very basic knowledge of English that was and probably still is taught in our schools. We were told to get the grammar and the syntax right, keep to the words limit and we would be alright with the examiners. Above all avoid being too creative!
Unlike most tutors, many were the evenings that GG would spend with his charges in the college bar where the beer was cheaper than the local pub. I suppose it was easier for him being a bachelor. If something bothered us after a lecture, he always seemed to have a friend who could elucidate matters for us. Once he even brought a design engineer from British Leyland to explain the meaning of “i’’ to our bunch of non-mathematicians. Of course it made perfect sense then, but I don’t know if I could explain it with any conviction to anyone after nearly five decades.
The Honours degree that I achieved at the end was the result of some very tight teaching from all my lecturers and the departmental professor, but is hallmarked by the dedication and guiding hand of Gareth. To him I owe much.
But the teacher whom I consider to be my real Guru is Mr Lepois, our Maths/French teacher at secondary school. At the time he was a young man in his early twenties, with the handsome features of a Greek God. Soft spoken and of a mild character, he was one of those generous people who give just for the pleasure of giving, taking pride in a job well done. Always taking life with a sense of humour, I can never remember him getting cross with anyone ever.
For our SC exams, my late friend Priaduth and myself asked him if he would coach us through private tuition. This he agreed to do on Saturday evenings, the only evening he was free from any commitments. Unlike the large “garage classrooms” of today, his was truly a private tuition on a one-to-one or one-to-two basis, like in our case. When we asked him about fees, he feigned a fake annoyance. No he did not charge anything; and we were never to mention it again!
But Mr L did not only teach us Maths and French. Many an evening after we had finished tuition, he asked us to stay on to listen to European classical music which the MBC used to broadcast regularly in those days. Quite honestly, we Bhojpuri speakers preferred our Bollywood and other Indian music. But with time, after Mr L had explained the intricacies of symphony music, we began to appreciate it a little. Beethoven, Mozart et al were my first step to appreciating every type of music — from Chinese solos to South American flutes, from Irish reels to Greek laikas. Why I even began to appreciate opera and when the chance presented itself in Europe, I enjoyed watching classical ballet whenever possible. Pucinni’s La Bohème and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake are favourites.
Other times he talked about the great classical painters like Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Monet and loads of others we had never heard of. He owned an illustrated book of many of their paintings. I particularly remember Rubens’ The Three Graces — three voluptuous nude virgins representing radiance, joy and flowering. Indeed many of Rubens women were nude and large, thus giving rise to the expression Rubenesque to describe ample-sized ladies. And later, much later in life when I was on attachment in Paris, I was able to regale on many of these classical paintings that hang in the Louvre. And a visit to Giverny was a like a pilgrimage to the home of Monet, one of the original Impressionist painters.
When exam time arrived, Mr L assured both of us that we would get through. Adding, “after you get the results, you would naturally want to celebrate with your friends. But before doing that, do take some time to visit those friends who would have failed. “Venu le moment de gloire, on oublie le trou d’où on est sorti!”or something close to that, he used to say.
Maths, French, Music, Art, Philosophy, Kindness… and Humility! Marie Joseph Jean Jacques Desire Pierre Lepois was a Guru in the classical sense. He taught his students with utter dedication. But above all he imbued them with the will to learn, and filled them with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
Sometimes when I have a free moment, I think of Mrs Faustin, Gareth and Mr Lepois and wonder if they still make them like these three. They who gave for the pleasure of giving, they who imparted knowledge freely, they to whom I am eternally grateful. They were true Gurus for, apart from the academic subjects, they taught me lessons of life that have helped shape the person that I am!