Wednesday, 23 June 2010

For Oorra, for Sa, and for Ek Oangkaar

A few months ago, I learnt that one of my teachers left her physical body.
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Guru Raam Das, Rakho Sharanaee.
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Her actual name I did not know then, and I do not know now. We, her students, called her Phenji, and she was known to everyone as Aunty Nikki. To me her actual name does not matter. I have always thought of her as Phenji, and that is enough for me.
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It will be a rare family in Setapak or Gombak that does not know Phenji; most of us and our neighbours studied under Phenji’s guidance. If in search of a Punjabi, Kirtan or Paath teacher, you needed look no further.
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As a teacher, she was firm, gave tonnes of homework which she checked with a stern red pen, loved giving surprise spelling bees, obsessed about neat handwriting, insisted on clear pronunciation, made us practice to perfection, and expected nothing less than best behaviour in class.
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I learnt under her continuously from when I was around 6-9 years old, and then intermittently between 10-12.
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As a child, I remember looking forward to class; not because I was excited about learning, but more because of the other kids I would get to meet and hopefully play with after class (if only Mataji would come a little later to pick me up!).
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As a child, I remember being slightly intimidated by Phenji; I liked her no-nonsense approach, but I also feared her slightly, and I knew she meant business. I guess she reminded me a lot of my Mataji, and even at that age, I knew that she was good. So I listened, I practiced, and I learnt. As did many others under her care. We didn’t have much of a choice. You see, Phenji insisted that we learnt.
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As a child, I remember first the car journeys to class when we lived further away, and later on the bicycle rides my brother and I made through the old Malay settlement to get to her home using the quickest possible route. I remember standing outside her gate to make sure the dog was tied up before we went in. I remember eating pakoriya in her kitchen while we waited for class to start.
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As a child, I remember that she held my hand when I wrote my first ‘Oorra’, and then I went on to write my name. She held my hand as she placed my forefinger on ‘Sa’, and then ‘Re’, and then I went on to sing a shabad. She held my hand as we moved our fingers across the first page of the Panjh Granthi, and then I went on to read the last.
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I remember being told off as often as being praised, I remember patience, and above all I remember that she never gave up on any of us; no matter how slowly we caught on. ...
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And then our family moved. We lived further away, and by this time I had learnt the basics so Mataji took over the Paath classes at home. Our contact with Phenji more or less ended, aside from the occasional meets at Gurdwara. ...
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Now that I look back, I don’t think I met her more than a handful of times between my last class and when I heard the news. This is not to say that our paths did not cross, just that I did not make the effort to go up to her. She became just another person I saw now and then.
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As an adult, it pains me to think that I never appreciated her while she was still with us. My only real contact with her was during class, which started with Vaheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Vaheguru Ji Ki Fateh, and ended the same way. And she didn’t expect more. All she asked was for us to be on time, pay attention, and learn. ...
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As an adult, it pains me to think that after all my years of learning with her, I never went up to her, as an adult, and said Thank You. For my first lesson, right to my last. I owe so much to this wonderful lady, and I never said it. I don’t have any pictures of her in our photo albums. I never visited her in her last days; mainly because I didn’t know that she was unwell, but I cannot help thinking, also because I never took the trouble to find out about how my teacher would be doing, all those years after. ...
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As an adult, it pains me to think how much of what I am and I know today, I owe to that ‘Oorra’, that ‘Sa’, and that ‘Ek Oangkaar’. In so many ways, she is my Mian Mir; she laid the foundation that I am built on. ...
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We have many teachers throughout our lives; but it is only a few that leave us with jewels so precious that we cannot repay them; only hold their teachings in gratitude, our heads bowed.
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As I sit here now, trying to say everything I wish I had said many moons ago, I hope she knows that she is loved, and revered, and missed. I pray that my young cousins have teachers like her, that my nephews and nieces have teachers like her, that my own children one day will have teachers like her. ...
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You know what the beauty of it is? Phenji is not alone. There are so many more like her out there, we call them our ‘Punjabi school teachers’, teaching our children how to read, write, speak, sing. Unsung Heroes. Gentle women and gentle men, to whom we have entrusted the task of giving our Sikh children the tools that may help them on their way to discovering their identity. ...
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I hope, that you do not wait as long as I have waited to show your thanks. How I wish I could give her one last hug, and just say it. ...
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Instead here I am, attempting to now sing to my Unsung Hero. She is no longer here to correct me as I go off-key, but I hope she has been listening nonetheless. ...
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From all your children, Phenji, thank you. For Oorra, for Sa, and for Ek Oangkaar.

7 comments:

Susheel said...

tears in my eyes after reading this post. Thank you!! It sure brought back many memories of going for punjabi classes in tat khalsa, all I remember was penji and never knew her name. I think she is still around and hopefully when I get my butt there in December will try to look up for this penji and that is it not too late. I know she lives in Air Panas.

Harkiren Kaur said...

I hope you find her :)

It's sad, I never thought of Phenji much before but since her passing I think of her all the time. We took all that time for granted - and yet it was so precious.

Rabin said...

Harkiren such a beautiful story, it touches me in a way of my own. i had a penji which i studied under and till today i meet her around in functions and the gurdwara but i have never approached her to thank her, again just the occasional fateh and hi/bye. thanks a lot for writing such a enlightening story which inspired me to go up to my PENJI and thank her.

Satnam,

Orange Uncle.

Harkiren Kaur said...

My dear Orange Uncle :) Please do! As kids we always complain about Punjabi class, but now that we look back aren't you glad we sat through them? :)

अशोक लव said...

This is the best tribute to a teacher,one of my student (1984 batch )forwarded this. I am really touched.
This is our culture , we respect our teachers , we are thankful to them . Proud of you Harkiren Kaur.

Manjeet said...

Dear Harkiren, thank you for this wonderful words that inspire and hopefully awaken a greater awareness of appreciation.
Your Phenji / aunty Niki .... Is my mother . You helped to add another facet of her memory n another smile! Your brother and Father did a wonderful tribute at her Bhog and I know she would be smiling yet again with your beautiful words .
I guess it's about Appreciating life 'Now' n loving all of it.

You write so beautifully n with such 'Grace' , your loving care shines through naturally. Love, hugs &
God bless : )
Manjeet

Harkiren Kaur said...

Phenji Manjit, thank you for your comment.

Aunty Nikki was such a big part of my life as a child, I am sorry I missed it all when I started to grow up. I guess this was just my way of showing her that she is no way forgotten, and her lessons live on :)

H