Voices in the backyard

Voices in the backyard


Voices in the backyard

Who or what is a good teacher? It has been truly said that what you hear, you often forget, what you see, you remember, but what you experience, you learn. However, it seems to me that more compelling than all of them are the voices in one’s own backyard. Belonging to those closest to you, they leave you with flashes of illumination, gifts of discovery.

My father was a great lover of animals and longed to have a pet. No one in the large family that he was part of, welcomed the idea. He was strictly told not to bring in animals of any kind. He found though what he thought was a way out of this situation. He secretly installed a caged parrot in his room. Three days later, it lay dead, leaving him completely distraught. When his mother came to know of it, she was livid. “They are creatures of the sky,” she scolded him. “How did you have the heart to imprison it? Promise me that you will never again cage another creature.” Not only did he make that promise but also perceived the wisdom in what she had told him. He saw to it that none of us, his children, ever denied a creature the freedom to which it was born.

As a child, I lived in a large two-storied house. It had a sheltered terrace in which I spent many happy hours playing and reading. There was one drawback though. The road it bordered led both ways to cemeteries; to the left lay the Hindu crematorium and to the right, a Muslim graveyard. A nameless dread possessed me whenever I saw a funeral procession approach. These were invariably accompanied by mournful chants. No sooner did I see one than I would clatter down the staircase and cling to my mother. Within the folds of her sari, my fears melted. Then one day she remarked, “Don’t you realise that the dead cannot harm others? It is the living who do that.” Her words came as a startling revelation giving me a perspective I had never thought existed. What is more, its profundity grew as I grew older.

A teacher taught my daughter a wholly unspoken lesson. A bright student, learning came easily to her. Not only did she consistently score well, but was also diligent. One morning she discovered to her utter dismay that she had forgotten to do her homework. It had never happened before! Panic seized her.

The class began and soon it was her turn to read the answers. She stood up in a tremble and looked at the teacher. When their eyes met, the teacher knew that she had not done her work. “Have you done your homework?” she asked. “Yes,” came the answer. An eternity seemed to pass. Then with her eyes still fixed on her, the teacher said, “Sit down. Next please.” My daughter knew that she knew, but had chosen not to insist because she had been humiliated enough and had obviously learnt her lesson. And that went on to be much more than just doing her homework, for today she too teaches and makes it a point, as she puts it, “to show caring while correcting”.

Serendipitous discoveries of this nature are not as rare as one may suppose. They happen in everyone’s life. What is more, the lives of the great and the famous bear testimony to the fact that they often act as a powerful guiding force. Mahatma Gandhi’s Experiments with Truth contain quite a few examples. In one of them, he tells us that, anxious to have his mother end her rigorous fast, he imitated the call of the cuckoo, which acted for her as a signal. His mother was aware of what he had done. Unable to contain her sorrow, she slapped him and wondered aloud at what she had done to have a liar for a son. Because of her grief, Gandhi promised never to utter another falsehood. Thus it was that Truth became the cornerstone of his philosophy as well as his way of life.