29 May 2020 – She was about to leave after her interview, had already reached the door, when the Vice-Principal came in and announced that the Junior School Drawing teacher had left. Hearing that, the Principal called her back. “Let me see your CV once again”, she said. Flipping over the first few pages, the Principal’s eyes rested on the ‘Extra-curricular activities’ in the CV, among which was listed drawing and painting. “Can you draw something for me… something child-friendly”? she asked. The applicant sat down and promptly drew a scene that every child in India is first taught at school, or else attempts herself – a village hut surrounded by (coconut) trees, with the sun rising in the horizon. She was offered the job of drawing teacher there and then!

The applicant was my friend, Mome Matilal; the school, South Point; the year, 1998. Nobody who wants a school-teaching career in Kolkata can ignore an offer from South Point. Mome, too, didn’t – but she accepted it rather reluctantly. After all, teaching drawing to kids was not what she had aimed at or prepared herself for, academically. She wanted to teach English Literature in High School: having studied the subject at St. Xavier’s College and Jadavpur University, and done her B.Ed at Sri Sikshayatan (with practice teaching at Modern High and Calcutta Girls), that was a natural choice. Also, she was already attuned to high-school teaching, in a way, having given private tuitions to several batches at home ever since her college years.

The Principal could sense her reluctance. She advised Mome to take up the job, assuring her that she can always apply for an English Literature teaching position when a vacancy came up. Meanwhile, she will have gained experience in the school, which would work in her favor. Besides, fresh B.Eds were usually not preferred for high school teaching at South Point.

Mome thus started off as a Drawing teacher at South Point, not wanting to wait to earn her living – she knew too many had who waited for years, even after having all their degrees in place. In fact, one of the main reasons that she opted for school teaching instead of an academic career in college/university was that, in the latter, one had to wait a lot more before starting a career, the wait dependent on how the pace of one’s research went.

 

*****

This turned out to be the defining decision of Mome’s life – one that worked in her favor. Six months into the job, Mome was appointed as the Class Teacher of one of the sections of Class II in South Point. She continued teaching in Junior school for the next few years. In 2009, there was a role change: she became the Superintending Teacher of Class III – with the overall responsibility of a 1000 students and about 30 teachers reporting to her.

By then, she was already married with a four-year old child – Mithai – who, incidentally, just gave her boards, in March 2020, from Mahadevi Birla World Academy. Mithai has been used to a working mother all her life, and has been, Mome tells me, the most co-operative and accommodating child that one can dream of. Mome has never had any problems with her – academic, developmental, or social. Even – and this is a rare one – when it comes to gadgets. “She understands/handles gadgets well, but gadgets don’t rule her life” – I can’t recall any other mother I know who has told me that about her child!

As I understand, in trying to balance her personal and professional lives, Mithai has been the least of Mome’s problems. The workplace, however, was a different matter. I’d asked her (last year) what she felt when she looked back at her career of over two decades at South Point. “SP has been there with me longer than I have been with my husband”, she’d said, with her trademark giggly laughter. Then, in a more sober tone, she’d added: “Working at SP, however, has never been a cakewalk, since no two years have been the same – in terms of books, curriculum, student quality, methods of assessment, and so on. The first 10 years that I have worked as a teacher has given me practical experience, the ability to tackle difficult situations maintaining my cool, identify the quality of students, their abilities and disabilities, the need for counselling and how to interact with parents who are in constant denial of their children’s problems. But both the quality of students and their parents have gradually declined over the years with an erosion of values, intolerance and dishonesty, greed and consumerism. It is at times quite frightening.”

In 2018, I had invited Mome to share her experience in school education – both as a teacher and administrator – with my undergrad students. I was then heading a fledgling Department in a fledgling University, Sister Nivedita University in New Town: like all private institutions, the demand for ‘events’ at SNU was very high – both to energize our respective Departments, and crucially, to gain visibility through them by posting about them on social media. I initially decided on a list of speakers in different professions, all with an English Literature background, who could illuminate my students on their career possibilities and ignite their interests in their own chosen professions. Mome came and won the hearts of my students right away – with her presence, her practical/grounded presentation, and above all, with her humor. Discussing some of the challenges she had in handling her students’ parents, she had them in splits. Her storytelling skills and her ability to engage with them left an impression: they took her number, eagerly posed for photos with her, and would later rate her session as among the ones they’d enjoyed the most. Not once in that one hour, they’d told me, did they feel they were doing an extra class on a Friday afternoon

 

*****

When I was at SNU, I was a year into my new innings (of living/teaching) in Kolkata – after a decade in Amsterdam. While I did visit Kolkata every year in that decade, I could meet up with very few friends during our short trips. I had also lost touch with some. Mome was one of them. In fact, I’d lost touch with her several years before I relocated to Amsterdam in 2007. The reconnection happened in 2016, through Facebook – what else? When we first met after my return, at Quest, in late 2017, we were seeing each other after 15 years! A lot had happened in our lives in the intervening time, losing our mothers (she in 2013 & me in 2016) being the most traumatic experience of all. Professionally, we had followed very different trajectories after our MA in English Literature; our personal lives, too, didn’t have much in common, one of the chief differences being, her daughter was already in High School while mine was still in Kindergarten. Six months later, the two met – at my daughter’s Birthday party, where some of my other friends had also come with their kids – and despite being seven years apart, they hit off instantly. Much like their mothers in 1992.

All my friendships were born of some shared experience – sharing the same school/college/university/workplace, etc. That’s how friendships are made, anyway – through regular interaction in a common space. With Mome, I’d shared that experience for only two weeks – for the fortnight that I was a student of English Honours at St. Xavier’s College, before I transferred myself to Presidency. I was only too happy to leave: Presi had always been a dream; and the two weeks at Xavier’s had made it very clear to me that, after 14 years of convent education, I couldn’t take “discipline” – of the missionary kind – anymore. Presi was truly liberating. But I missed Mome, even as I made new friends in my chosen institution.

A few months into Presi, I received a letter from Mome – I still remember her neat handwriting on the blue inland, giving me news of her life, wanting to know mine, wishing to meet. I was thrilled! It was delightful to know that she remembered me, and missed me, too. We fixed a date at Presi – we met at the portico and then went over to Coffee House, catching up over fish cutlet and cold coffee with ice-cream. The next date was at Xavier’s. We kept up this dating schedule for the next 5 years – as we continued to study at different Universities (she at JU, me at CU). Apart from College Street & Park Street, Esplanade was a favorite haunt of ours; so were our homes. It didn’t take us long to introduce each other to our families: Mome was an only child, daughter of a well-known ‘Statesman’ journalist, living in a joint family in an old heritage house in Bowbazar. I became very fond of her mother and grandmother, and she of my mother and elder sister. All we had to do was hop on to ‘S16’ if we wanted to visit each other’s homes: Bowbazar to Kankurgachi was a mere 20-minute ride; and we unfailingly did that on our Birthdays, in March and May, respectively.

Things changed somewhat, once we started our careers, roughly around the same time, and especially after my marriage in 1999. Balancing full-time college teaching and doctoral research with long-distance marriage left me little time for the kind of socializing with friends that I was used to in my maiden years, though I did keep in touch with most of them. Mome included. But after a while, we lost touch….

 

*****

Renewing contact with Mome – and with some other friends – has been one of the chief delights of my second innings in Kolkata. It enabled me to both tune back to my former self and reformulate old relationships. I must say in this respect that it’s our children who have given a new dimension to our friendships, not only as we share our experience of motherhood and being working mothers, but also as we get to meet mostly on each other’s kids’ Birthdays. While many exclusive dates (sans children) don’t work out, we make sure that the Birthdays do, even if at a later time. Thus, it is, that our kids, too, have become friends, though they don’t meet often.

A lot of my friends never left the city – choosing to work here and/or marry here, the latter entailing a change of address within the city. But even those who work here have changed jobs – moving from one company, or one institution, to another. Only Mome has not done that: she has served in the same institution, at the same address, for close to 23 years now. She has grown with it and contributed to it with her devoted hard work, identifying with it in a way that few of us in our generation can with any employer, and enjoying in turn a job stability that has almost vanished even from educational institutions. It is an old way of life that she has taken in her stride and made her own. I want her to continue prospering in it for the rest of her tenure.