The power of Gurus

The power of Gurus

Better grades in tests earned me a modicum of respect from my classmates.

Come September, I pay homage on Teachers’ Day to my silent mentors over seven decades.  They are my guru figures, though what I learnt from them was not channelled through schools and lessons, but intangible values, perceptions and attitudes that they left me to work out for myself in the vicissitudes of my own life.

Such personal mentors, not necessarily institutional,  abide in the mind like one’s own inner voice, sometimes sharing a joy, sometimes as a solacing spirit when one is stricken by despair and undeserved adversity.

Even at primary school, I discovered that there is a compensatory principle that can offset failure by offering alternative routes to success and esteem. I was poor at games, but longed to be among the fleetest at races and to ascend the top step when the winners were called.  When two teams were selected by the captains at hockey or football, I was the last to be chosen. Crestfallen, I compensated by spending more time with books. Better grades in tests earned me a modicum of respect from my otherwise scornful classmates who kept alluding to my farcical end in the lime and spoon race.   

A chance birthday present in my teens changed my outlook radically.  It was a book, leather-bound and gilt-edged, an anthology of English poems, edited by Francis Palgrave, called ‘The Golden Treasury.’ It is still in print after 160 years.

It acquainted me with Shakespeare, Keats, Byron and Wordsworth.  At college, I took up tennis hoping to find sporting talent, but I was repeatedly challenged, trounced and sent to the beginners’ court, my feeble serves and volleys provoking all-round sniggers. 

I consoled myself by dipping into Palgrave to enliven my flagging spirits.  Here it was that I came upon ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan’ by S T Coleridge and his haunting ‘Ancient Mariner’.  Palgrave was of no help in seeking a job or keeping it, but imparted two lessons which have saved me from the sapping malady called depression.  One is that you can find compensation for failure and disappointment. The other is that there is a redemptive power in language which can offset personal adversity.

Coleridge, writer-friend of Wordsworth, is my admired Kere Kavi (Lake Poet). He wrote an ‘Ode to Dejection’ (1802), an intimate poem-letter describing his own struggle to overcome creative sterility when he had fallen desperately in love with Sara Hutchison, the sister of the girl whom Wordsworth  would marry.
 Depression is a recurrent condition needing clinical treatment and endless domestic care.  Coleridge found a poetic antidote in nature’s gift: ‘My shaping spirit of Imagination.’ Nature could give him Joy, but the poet discovers that its beauties, like a wondrous sunset, are outward forms which cannot win “the passion and the life, whose fountains are within”.  He must cure himself.

The other guru figure I summon up is my first primary school teacher. She unconsciously awakened in my growing mind an emotional prompting of compassion that I now respect as truly educative and precious, like reasoning power or a legible handwriting and a friendly disposition in company, an innate sense of right and wrong, a sense of moderation and other conventional virtues that we are bidden to acquire but fail to do so because of overweening selfishness.