While I sat in the tiny, dimly lit concrete room of my Hindi teacher in North India, struggling to grasp the possessive form for nouns, my errant mind zig zagged away from the lesson.
Though his room was bare, I was distracted by its simplicity and the unanswered questions that his life and habitat posed. His narrow bed was evidence that he was probably unmarried; unusual for man his age which I guessed to be over sixty-five. He didn’t have the pious way so many Indian widowers are prone to either. He seemed like a bachelor.
His impatience was evident as he kept hammering away at me the rules for possessive nouns, as if it was the simplest thing in the world. The rules just floated out of my brain like dried leaves falling from a tree to the earth. My inability to create the simple phrases he asked of me was mortifying. Why am I torturing myself, trying to learn this impossible language, I asked myself?
I left his room discouraged. What’s wrong with me? Am I too old to learn? I’ve always prized learning. If one cannot learn what one desires to learn, what’s left? The usual joy I derive from learning was absent. I dreaded having to return there the following day and toyed with the possibility of cancelling the lesson.
The old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” kept repeating itself over and over in my mind. I didn’t want to give up so easily just because it was difficult.
I sat quietly by the Ganges with my lesson book and studied it intently. I made up sentences employing all the irregularities that had been troubling me. I confronted the work that I needed to do.
On the way up the hill to my teacher’s room, I recalled passing him the day before in the street, camera bag looped over his shoulder. It occurred to me that I had seen him on the bridge , canvasing the Indian tourists for souvenir photographs. An entrepreneur, trying to make an honest living, I thought as my admiration and curiosity grew.
I arrived at his room, door ajar, a few minutes early. A young man, crippled and deformed about nineteen years old sat awkwardly on the floor. At first I thought it odd that he sat on the bare, cold floor and not on the sofa where I usually sit. Then I took in his thin, twisted stick like legs that poked out from his narrow hips like broken spokes on a bicycle wheel. He was studying English. The young man touched my teacher’s feet lightly and crawled to the door to leave. I could feel the prick of tears forming: sadness for the plight of the eager young man and awe for the magnanimity of my teacher.
My teacher was dressed in a fresh, cream colored traditional kurta and matching slacks that seemed to transform his appearance from the previous days when he had been clad in a well worn, dingy, gray-blue polyester shirt and plain dark trousers. The light color brightened and enhanced his features and the traditional cut lent him an air of elegance. He sat calmly in his chair and began my lesson.
We left the troubling possessive for the time being and moved on to imperative verbs. I understood that it was essential that I pay strict attention to his explanation of the rules from the very beginning and not day dream. I called upon all my powers of concentration and focused on every word he said. To my relief, and no doubt his, I formed nearly every sentence that he asked of me correctly. At the end of the lesson, he smiled and extended his hand. He grasped mine firmly. “Congratulations.” He said.
Carefully, I made my way down the few broken and crooked steps to the street, certain that I’d return the next day to learn the lesson this man had to teach me.