Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Short Story: Important Questions

By seven in the evening, Kamala Teacher was exhausted. But there was no possibility of a respite for another two hours. As the students streamed out of the drawing room, Kamala Teacher rushed into the kitchen where a glass of buttermilk was waiting for her. Her youngest daughter was busy making dinner.

‘We’ve run out of curd,’ Kamala Teacher’s daughter informed her.

‘Dinner without curd.’ Kamala Teacher was prone to be brief when she was exhausted. Also, she was a maths teacher and teachers of mathematics have a natural inclination to avoid verbosity and unnecessary extravagance.

‘We don’t have even a drop left – not even for the milk.’

‘Why didn’t you set aside a few drops before having it all for lunch?’

‘I forgot.’

‘You silly girl! Go and borrow two spoonfuls from Murali’s mother.’ Kamala Teacher had a knack of keeping track of her accounts with each of her neighbours. Murali’s mother had borrowed two onions from Kamala Teacher a month ago and so far she was yet to borrow anything back from Murali’s mother. Two spoonfuls of curd would be set off against one of the onions, which meant she was still entitled to borrow something more from Murali’s mother.

Soon the last batch of the evening trickled in. Exhausted boys and sleepy girls some of whom had attended tuition classes elsewhere for other subjects came into the drawing room and squatted on the floor in a semicircle. The few pieces of furniture that were in the room had been permanently pushed to a corner. The last time the furniture had been put in their proper places was three years ago – for Kamala Teacher’s second daughter’s wedding.

Kamala Teacher’s husband was an insurance agent. Which was just a nice way of saying that he did not have regular employment. It had not always been like that. Kamala Teacher’s husband used to be a state government employee. It had been a comfortable job at the district collectorate, one which allowed him to look forward to a life-long pension after retirement at the age of fifty-eight. While her husband was in government service, Kamala Teacher had only contempt for teachers who offered private tuition. ‘I could never bring myself to work after school hours. And even if I did that, I would never do the things which some of my colleagues do,’ Kamala Teacher had declared vehemently many, many years ago when she got back to work after her first maternity leave. The allusion was mainly to Latha Teacher, the science teacher, who offered private tuition on a very large scale.

But times change and so do needs and values. Kamala Teacher’s husband decided to quit his very secure government job and start a business. It was a wholly unjustified risk in Kamala Teacher’s point of view, especially because they had, at that time, two daughters to take care of. Not only did Kamala Teacher’s husband quit his job, but he also insisted that they have a third child in the vain hope that it would turn out to be a boy. Both gambles failed to pay off. Kamala Teacher delivered a third girl child. A year later, the cement dealership which Kamala Teacher’s husband started ran up so much loss that they were forced to sell their house (which had less than one-third of its mortgage left to be paid off) and move to a rented house. Since Kamala Teacher’s husband did not have the stomach to try a new venture, he became an insurance agent. And Kamala Teacher started to offer private tuitions to her students.

At first Kamala Teacher was too embarrassed to market her services aggressively. ‘A few students asked me if I can offer private tuition classes and I have agreed. If any of you want to join, please meet me after class.’ Kamala Teacher made the announcement in all her classes and left it at that. Despite her reticence, many students from the sixth, seventh and eight standards immediately signed up. Kamala Teacher’s drawing room could accommodate twenty students at a time and she soon found herself teaching two batches of students on weekdays, three batches on Saturdays and two on Sundays. Each student paid twenty five rupees a month. Initially Kamala Teacher found it unbelievably tiring, but soon got used to it. She had little choice since her husband was having spectacularly little success in selling insurance.

However, Kamala Teacher was in for a shock. After a few months when the second term exams got over, almost four fifths of her students who had enrolled for her private classes, dropped out. Kamala Teacher was despondent, but she had an inkling as to the reason for her sudden unpopularity. Nevertheless, she took aside one of her loyal students and asked him why many of his classmates had deserted her so suddenly.

‘You see teacher, many of them who joined your classes, well, they hoped that you would give them a list of important questions to study before the second term exams we had last month.’ Kamala Teacher sighed. So it had come to that! She had nursed a forlorn hope that unlike Latha Teacher, she would have students attend her classes solely on the basis of the quality of her teaching! If only she were teaching tenth or twelfth standard students rather than middle school students. Tenth and twelfth standard students had board exams where the questions were set by anonymous teachers. Tuition teachers for tenth and twelfth standard students did not have to or rather could not be expected to provide them with a list of important questions! A good teacher (and Kamala Teacher had no doubts that she was good) would have students flock to her for the sheer quality of her teaching.

It took Kamala Teacher two months to reach a decision, but finally she made up her mind (assisted mainly by the fact that her second daughter fell ill and ran up obscenely high medical bills) a couple of weeks before the final term exams fell due. But no, she would not give a list such as the one provided by Latha Teacher. Her list would be longer with some important questions and many unimportant ones, all jumbled up. No, her pupils could not expect to learn just the important questions by rote and get near full marks in the maths paper. But they would do reasonably well in the maths exam if they only learnt the questions in the list she disclosed in her private tuition classes. Soon word spread that Kamala Teacher’s tuition classes were not such a bad investment. A couple of weeks before each end-of-term exam, Kamala Teacher would read out a list of around thirty questions, of which six would find a place in the question paper which usually had ten or sometimes eleven questions. The number of students who attended Kamala Teacher’s classes went up. However, her classes where nowhere as popular as Latha Teacher’s classes. Which was not surprising since Latha Teacher’s list of important questions had just twenty questions and eighty percent of the question paper was drawn from that list! It was routine for six or seven students from Latha Teacher’s classes to get over ninety percent marks in their science exam.

Kamala Teacher’s second daughter was in her eighth standard when Kamala Teacher started offering private tuition. This put Kamala Teacher’s daughter in a tight spot since many of her classmates assumed that Kamala Teacher was passing on the entire question paper to her daughter. They reasoned that if Kamala Teacher could give her tuition students a list of important questions, her daughter was bound to get the entire question paper. Kamala Teacher was much more affected by the insinuations than her daughter was. The fact that Kamala Teacher’s second daughter was really good at maths and got top scores did not help matters. When Kamala Teacher’s eldest daughter (as bright as her younger sister) passed through Kamala Teacher’s classes, nobody had even dared to cast aspersions on Kamala Teacher or her daughter. There was nothing to be done, except to grin and put up with it.

After Kamala Teacher’s eldest daughter went to college, Kamala Teacher’s list of important questions was shortened to twenty, but even then not more than six of those questions could be found in the question paper. Enrolment went up accordingly, though it never became as high as that for Latha Teacher’s classes. Four years later, when Kamala Teacher’s eldest daughter was ready to be married off (her second daughter had started college by then), seven questions from the list started to find a place in the question paper. After that Kamala Teacher refused to improve the quality of her list. Even when Kamala Teacher and her husband started to make plans to get their second daughter married, Kamala Teacher stood firm. At times, Kamala Teacher was sorely tempted to follow Latha Teacher’s footsteps and plant eight or nine questions from the question paper in her list. Surely there was no harm being done to anyone. The students who did not attend her classes were no worse off (other than on a comparative basis) and Kamala Teacher did have a duty to do all she could for her daughters. But Kamala Teacher held fast. There was a limit to the compromises she could make.

Soon it was time for Kamala Teacher’s third daughter, six years younger than her direct sibling, to be her student. Fortunately for Kamala Teacher, the girl was not academically inclined and her grades were such that no one ever had reason to believe that she had secret knowledge of the maths question paper.

Time flew by and soon retirement loomed in the horizon. Kamala Teacher once again keenly wished she were teaching tenth or twelfth standard students rather than students who took exams prepared by her and whose papers she valued. A tuition teacher who taught high school or higher secondary school students taking board exams could continue to teach even after retirement, whilst Kamala Teacher and Latha Teacher (who was two years younger than Kamala Teacher) would not be able to attract many students after their retirement. Kamala Teacher’s third daughter was twenty years old and they just did not have even half the money they needed to marry her off. They still lived in a rented house and Kamala Teacher’s husband could count on his fingers the number of insurance policies he sold each year.

Kamala Teacher considered her options as she started her final year before retirement. There weren’t many. She would have to continue with her tuition classes. Since she would be unable to provide her students with important questions just before their exams or show some leniency while valuing the papers of her tuition students, she was unlikely to get too many students from her own school. She would have to start teaching all subjects and not just mathematics. And she would have to look out for students from other schools to keep up numbers. There would be students who couldn’t stand their teachers and wanted someone else to teach them, students whose teachers did not give private tuition and hopefully some students who really liked her and wanted to learn from her, despite the changes in her circumstances.

‘What are you complaining about?’ the Tamil Sir asked her. ‘A maths teacher can teach all subjects, but we language teachers can only teach our own subjects.’ Which was true. She could teach physics, chemistry and biology in addition to maths. And also history and geography and Tamil. Heck, anyone could teach history. The King planted some trees. He fought a long war. He conquered his enemies. He abolished taxes. It was not so difficult. It was all there in the book. But there was no way a Tamil or English teacher could teach Mathematics. Thank God she was a maths teacher, the queen of all sciences, the king of all subjects!

It was at that time that Jayanth’s father enrolled his son for Kamala Teacher’s tuition classes. Jayanth’s father was the richest businessman in town and Jayanth, a puny boy in the eight standard with mischievous eyes partly covered with his very long hair, was his only son. Until a year ago Jayanth had been a normal boy with slightly above average grades. His mother spent an hour or two every evening helping him with his homework and if anyone had suggested that Jayanth be sent for private tuition, his parents would have laughed. That is until Jayanth’s mother caught her husband, pants down, with their domestic help. A quick divorce had ensued. Jayanth’s father hired the best lawyer in the district and made sure he got custody of Jayanth. His ex-wife could see her son only once a month. After his parents separated, Jayanth stopped studying. Threats, bribes and promises failed to work. In desperation Jayanth’s father had enrolled him in Kamala Teacher’s tuition classes. ‘Do something, anything,’ his father begged Kamala Teacher. ‘But please, please make sure that he passes his final exams and goes to the next class.’

Which was not going to be easy, Kamala Teacher realised as Jayanth sat in her tuition class and stared at his toes instead of paying attention to what she was saying. He had got miserable marks in his first term exam. Whilst other students excitedly wrote down the important questions Kamala Teacher dictated, Jayanth had drawn sketches of other children sitting around him. Kamala Teacher caned him a few times, with zero effect. Jayanth had given her a defiant stare and walked back to his spot on the floor of the drawing room. Unlike other teachers, especially Latha Teacher, Kamala Teacher was not a believer in corporal punishment. She used the cane and the ruler sparingly and had never slapped a student across the face in her entire career. When the second term exam approached, Kamala Teacher abandoned all hopes of getting Jayanth to do her bidding through the use of force and gave him a handwritten copy of the important questions she had dictated in her tuition class. Jayanth got twenty marks out of one hundred in that exam. Jayanth’s father came to her wringing his hands in despair. ‘What’s do we do now? he asked Kamala Teacher, easily transferring his burden to her.

If there was one thing that Kamala Teacher had never done, it was to pass a student who definitely deserved to fail, even if that student took her private tuition classes. No, she did not mind giving a couple of grace marks to one of her tuition students who scored thirty two or thirty three marks out of one hundred. But she had little hope that Jayanth would score thirty two or thirty three marks out of hundred and make it possible for her to push him past the thirty-five mark cut-off. And she was darned if she was to break that rule now. She knew that Latha Teacher and a few teachers did pass students who would not pass if their papers were valued by someone else. Did Jayanth’s father expect her to do that? What a stupid thing to do, sleeping with his domestic help! If only he hadn’t been so stupid, he wouldn’t be running from one teacher to another for help.

‘How’s he doing in other subjects?’

‘Not too bad. The science teacher tells me that he will definitely pass in science. , English, Tamil, and social studies are not too difficult. He has a strong foundation, you know. It is only maths that I am worried about.’

‘I’ll do my best. But I can’t make any promises,’ she told Jayanth’s father.

‘I am not sure how you feel about this, but if you can make my son pass his maths exam, I’ll pay you twenty thousand rupees,’ he told Kamala Teacher with a straight face.

Kamala Teacher was tempted to scream at him. How dare he try to bribe her? Was she yet another minister or bureaucrat to be bought for a price? But Kamala Teacher thought of her third daughter who would pass out of college in a couple of years’ time and would have to be married off. Twenty thousand rupees was not a small amount. Not something to be sneezed away. And it was not as if her actions had so far been pure and innocent. Granted she was not as bad as Latha Teacher or some of the other teachers. But she could not call herself a saint, could she? No, she was not going to slip any further. Jayanth would get a list of important questions like anybody else and he would have to learn them if he wanted to pass.

A few weeks after the third term began, Kamala Teacher realised that Jayanth showed little change. The problem was not that he was not intelligent or smart, but that he had no particular desire to pass. He did not pay any attention in class or later in the evening during his private tuition. When forced to work on a problem, he would give it a few moments’ attention and try to solve it half-heartedly. Rare was the occasion when he managed to solve a problem. Kamala Teacher was tempted to write off the twenty thousand rupee reward. Surely, if she got her daughter married using money earned through fraudulent means, God’s would punish her? Worse still God’s wrath might fall on her daughter. Of course not! She was not being evil. Jayanth deserved to pass more than most other students in his class.

As soon as Kamala Teacher prepared the question paper and sent it to the administrative office, she decided to give Jayanth the list of important questions. ‘There are twenty problems in this list. Make sure you learn a problem a day and you will be alright,’ she told him after giving him a handwritten list. Jayanth took the list and put it in his bag. A week later, Kamala Teacher called him aside after tuition class and asked him, ‘have you been solving the problems in that list?

‘No teacher, I have not,’ Jayanth replied, giving her a rare smile.

Kamala Teacher gave Jayanth a very stern look and said, ‘if you don’t start working on those problems, I shall beat the living daylights out of you.’

Jayanth stared back at her and then calmly walked away.

When Jayanth’s father came to see her a few days later, she told him, ‘I will need to give Jayanth separate tuition classes on Sundays. There’s no other way!’

‘Why not Kamala Teacher? I’ll send him to you on Sundays,’ Jayanth’s father said. There were just four Sundays left before the exams began. As a general rule, Kamala Teacher did not work on Sunday mornings, but she did not seem to have any choice.

When Jayanth turned up at her house on Sunday at eleven in the morning, Kamala Teacher had a different list of important questions for him. The questions were the same as the ones in the previous list, but they were in a different order. Jayanth looked surprised when she asked him to ignore the list she had given him earlier and to work with the new list. ‘You will have to do at least five problems each Sunday if we are to finish this list before the exams,’ she grimly told him. ‘Let’s start with the first one.’ Do you know the answer to this one?’

‘No, I don’t.’

‘Never mind.’ Kamala Teacher explained to Jayanth how a duet of complex algebraic equations could be solved, playing one against the other. ‘Did you understand what I just told you?’

‘I don’t think so.’

Kamala Teacher picked up a ruler and hit Jayanth hard on his upper right arm. ‘I’m going to explain this once more. If you can’t solve the problem after that, I will use a cane.’

After Kamala Teacher finished her explanation, she asked Jayanth, ‘do you think you can now solve this problem on your own?


‘Stand up. Come here.’ Jayanth dutifully obeyed. Kamala Teacher opened a drawer, took out a pencil thin cane, grit her teeth and hit Jayanth on his calf muscle twice. When she hit him for the second time, Jayanth winced and tears came to his eyes.

‘Now listen to me once more.’

Kamala Teacher went over the solution to that problem yet again and said, ‘Now I want you to do this problem. You will not leave this house till you’ve solved five problems today. Knock on the door when you have solved this one.’ She went inside to supervise her daughter who was preparing lunch. Her husband and daughter stared at her. They had never heard the cane being used so liberally by Kamala Teacher, but Kamala Teacher ignored them. Thirty minutes later she went to the drawing room to see how much progress Jayanth had made. He had done half the problem and then lost his way. He sat there on the floor, his notebook in front of him and the occasional tear falling from his eyes.

Kamala Teacher sat down next to Jayanth and said, ‘we all have personal difficulties. But that does not mean we can neglect our duties. You are a student. You must work hard and pass the exams. You used to be a good student and there is no reason why you cannot pass this exam.’

Kamala Teacher had expected that a mellowed Jayanth would now do her bidding. Instead in a fit of rage, he threw the notebook across the floor. Kamala Teacher stood up, took out the cane once again and said ‘come here Jayanth.’ This time she was particularly brutal. After four painful cuts which caused her own arm to ache, she told Jayanth, ‘I’m going to explain this to you once more.’ After she finished explaining, she said, ‘now solve the problem and knock on the door when you are done.’

‘Don’t you have classes from two?’ Jayanth asked her with a smile. It was already one.

Kamala Teacher was exhausted. ‘Yes I do. Tell you what. Please solve this problem and you can go home!’


‘Yes, I promise. Have you understood what I told you so far?’

‘Yes, I think so.’

Ten minutes after Kamala Teacher went into the house, Jayanth knocked on the door. He had solved the problem. ‘Can I leave now?’ he asked.

‘Yes you can. But please remember that you must learn nine problems next Sunday if we are to finish all twenty problems before the exams. So, it will help if you can learn a bit on your own before next Sunday.’

Jayanth shrugged non-committedly and went off home on his bicycle. The next Sunday, they managed to cover two problems before Kamala Teacher got tired and sent Jayanth home.

‘At this rate you will never learn all twenty problems,’ Kamala Teacher told Jayanth, her voice cracking with fatigue and stress.

‘I don’t care.’

The third Sunday Jayanth was much more obstinate and they covered just one problem, despite the fact that Kamala Teacher used the cane liberally. Finally, on the fourth and last Sunday, Jayanth showed some interest in learning and they managed to cover three problems without Kamala Teacher having to use the cane at all. Jayanth’s eyes continued to flash defiance, his body language that of a martyr.

‘Who are you trying to punish?’ Kamala Teacher asked him as she saw him off.

Jayanth was silent.

‘Your father?’


‘You fool. You are punishing yourself. If you have learnt just seven out of twenty problems, you may not pass.’

‘I don’t care.’

Kamala Teacher did not speak to Jayanth after that even though she saw him in her class for the next two days. The exams began on a Wednesday and the Mathematics exam was scheduled to be held on Friday. Kamala Teacher was one of the invigilators at the exam hall. On Wednesday and Thursday, Jayanth left the exam hall at least an hour before time ran out. However for the maths exam, he sat back and wrote and wrote till the bell rang. At times he would look at Kamala Teacher with surprise and then bend down to his task.

Kamala Teacher felt guilty for an instant. No, she told herself, there was no reason for her to feel so. She had not shown him any favour other than what all her tuition students received. The modified list she had given him was exactly the same as what she dictated to her other tuition students a few weeks later, with one minor difference. The first seven questions in the list she had given Jayanth had found a place in the question paper, while the list she had dictated to her other students had important and unimportant questions all jumbled up. But that was just a coincidence, wasn’t it? She had all along intended to make Jayanth cover the entire list, hadn’t she?

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