Mr.Ramnathan at the age of 75 was on the terrace of his house in a suburb of Mumbai.

That was an evening of summer. The sun had just set. The twilight was making the entire atmosphere pleasantly golden. He looked above in the sky. A lot of stars were glittering. A few were bright enough to catch attention but many were twinkling with their might to get noticed.

“What are you looking at Sir?” Satyavrata, a young boy, his student, broke the thinking chain.

“Oh, Satyavrata! I was looking at the stars. They are of varying luminosity. But all are trying to shine as brightly as they can.” Ramnathan said.

“Have all the members gathered?”                                                              

"Yes Sir. They are in the classroom."

“Am I late today? Let us go.” Ramnathan started climbing down the stairs. Satyavrata followed.

In the so-called classroom, 7-8 students had occupied the chairs.

Ramnathan pulled his chair near the whiteboard.

“Sorry boys, I am a bit late. But I was lost in thoughts observing the beautiful evening sky and looking at the innumerable stars.

Anyway, what is the topic of discussion today?”

“Hope and reality”, one student.

“But Sir, we would like to know the thoughts you were lost in. Today, we would like to listen to your thought process. Could you share it with us?” said another student.

"Oh. Nothing much. Looking at the number of stars, I remembered our UBUNTU group’s overnight trips to nearby places to watch meteor showers and stargazing.”

“Sir, today we want to hear about your UBUNTU group.”

“Forget about it. If I start talking about my UBUNTU group, it will be very difficult for you to stop me. “

“No Sir. Please tell us about your UBUNTU group.”

“Children, you are not aware of what trouble you are inviting.”

“Okay then. Let me start.

After winding up my professional activities and entering the new phase of life of retirement, I found teaching and sharing my knowledge with the younger generation, an easy way of engaging myself in somewhat serious activity. There were several young members in the vicinity who were seeking some senior person as their friend advisor. I initiated my activity by helping some Engineering students by clarifying some doubts in technical subjects. A few students needed help in English as the medium of their post-S.S.C. education was English whereas they had studied in vernacular language till then. They had difficulty understanding every subject. They could not speak even a single sentence in English. But they were keen to achieve something high.

I decided to help them make their dreams come true. I planned to help Engineering students by translating the technical subjects into the vernacular language.

Well begun is half done. And it started. I was meeting youngsters from the nearby area. Every 3-4 months I was getting a new group of 4-5 students  We named the group "UBUNTU"

They all were at different stages of youth, from different backgrounds with financial conditions varying within a narrow bandwidth of the lower middle class. All of them had dreams in their eyes, aspirations to win over the entire world.  Their parents were struggling to provide education to their wards with the hope that one day their progeny would have enough strength to face this world to be successful.

But the fire in their heart was of varying degrees. Some of them came with the idea that by just attending the class they would be mastering the language and hence would ride the success immediately. They were not ready to put in the necessary efforts. Whereas there were many with a burning desire and ready to take on all kinds of challenges.

Meanwhile, the semester results were out for Engineering Diploma students. Most of the boys managed to get through but Yesh had failed in 3 subjects. I decided to pull Yesh out of this problem.

I started to have separate sessions on the weekends. I explained the technical subjects to him in vernacular. Intelligent that he was, he picked up and performed sufficiently well and cleared the next semester along with the pending subjects. Yesh further continued his studies to get a Bachelor of Engineering.

Once, I saw Pravin lingering behind when all the other students had left for their homes after the class.

“Yes Pravin, do you have any difficulty?”

“Not a difficulty in the exact sense. I want your guidance."

“Okay. Tell me.”

“Sir, I am in love with one girl. I would like to marry her. But she is not from my cast. I am afraid,  my father is not going to agree to this.”

“What year are you studying Pravin?”

"I am in my second year."

“How many years still more to get your final degree?”

“Two more years after I pass out my second year.”

“Frankly, this is not your age to select your life partner. You have not seen the world as yet. Also, you need to concentrate on your studies. This is your main task on hand. First, complete this assignment. Then you can think of choosing a life partner. Certainly not now.”

“But Sir, I am in love with this girl.”

“Dear Pravin, you are at a stage when every other girl you will find lovable. But that does not mean you should select her as a life partner. Take my word. Control your feelings and concentrate only on your studies.”

I saw he was disappointed.

“Go home. Think over my suggestion and then come back to me.”

"Okay, Sir. Thank you so much." Pravin left with his head down lost in thoughts.

I was delighted that Pravin thought of me as his confidant and looked for my guidance. I was happy to have such a relationship.

And one day, Suresh, my student, brought another boy, Deepak, to the class.  He appeared sharp but I found him a little different from other boys. When asked about his qualification, he took out his S.S.C. marksheet. I saw his marks in all subjects were bordering fifty percent except mathematics where he had scored 90 percent. I was stunned. When the class was over, I called Suresh. “I have found Deepak a little strange when he was talking. Is there any problem with him?”

“Sir, he has been diagnosed as “autistic”. He is normal otherwise. But when it comes to speaking, he gets confused. He has proved himself as a wizard of mathematics. Any mathematical problem he solves with utmost ease. But he has difficulty explaining methods. He fares very poorly in describing procedures. And in maths, he has never scored less than 90 percent during the last 3-4 years. Do you think he will pose a problem for you? His father was against putting him in this class. But I asked Deepak about the class of English speaking, and he was excited. He was eager to join. I told his father about Deepak’s keen interest. He said if the teacher finds him unsuitable, not to continue with the class. Do you find him bothering you, Sir?”

“No. No. I have not found him troublesome as yet. If I notice anything disturbing others, I will let you know. Till then he can continue.” I hurriedly explained.

With the new bond developed with the teenagers, Deepak’s background offered an extra challenge. I decided to take some additional effort on him.

Periodically, I used to have tests to assess the students’ progress. The student getting the highest marks was rewarded with a bar of chocolate or a small souvenir. Even an outstanding performance in the class period would be appreciated with a bar of chocolate. The prizes used to be divided among all students inculcating the idea of sharing. Deepak never had any opportunity to receive a prize. But I was happy that he appreciated the winners wholeheartedly. One day, I called Deepak and asked him to see me after the class. When everyone left, I found Deepak with Suresh waiting for me. I called Deepak close to me. He looked at Suresh and told him to come with him. I noticed that Deepak was a bit scared to talk to me alone. I said, “Deepak, I want to talk to you alone. Let Suresh wait outside the class.” Suresh turned towards the door. I saw Deepak was tense.

I said,” OK. Suresh, you also wait. Deepak, I saw your mark sheets. You have done exceedingly well in mathematics throughout. Do you like maths so much?”

Deepak’s face brightened up. He nodded.

“Derivatives, integration. My god! Honestly. I am scared of mathematics. I am basically an Engineer but still, mathematics has always given me goosebumps. And you are excellent at that. Great. Anyway, I want to tell you Deepak, I found you a little tense when I was teaching. Dear friend, there is nothing to be afraid of. Everyone coming here is seeking some help to speak English. Some are quick to pick up, some are slow. That should not matter at all. I am quite used to slow learners. If you feel you have not understood something, it is my fault, not yours. Raise your hand and I will explain it to you again. If you find it awkward to stand up in the class and ask about your difficulty, you can meet me after the class. I am available to clarify your doubts. Do you know Rajendra? He waits for me after the class to clarify his difficulty, many a time. Don’t ever feel that you are troubling me.

“And Deepak, don’t ever forget your mastery of mathematics. Where most students are weak, you are visibly strong. So do not get bogged down by your weakness. We will work together, you and I. And I am sure you will get over the apprehension of speaking. Don’t worry at all. You may make a mistake. We will correct it. You make the same mistake again. We will correct it again. Till you get comfortable, we will repeat the session. If it is hindering the class, we will work after the class hours. Ok?

Do you find me frightful?”

Deepak nodded negatively.

“Then next time onwards don’t make Suresh wait for you whenever you want to talk to me after the class. Ok? We are friends. As Suresh is my good friend, you also can be my good friend. Alright? See you then tomorrow.”

I picked up my books and started going out of the classroom.

Deepak also turned and started leaving the room. He found Suresh already at the door.

Slowly our interaction increased. We had many meetings after the class.

With their excellent response to basic English, we started discussions on various themes, very soon. Triggering their imagination created such a wonderful atmosphere that I used to wait for these sessions just as much as they got hooked on this exercise. Rarely anyone remained absent for the session unless some assignment in the college prevented them from doing so. They used to stretch their imagination to put forth their point of view. For their grammatical mistakes, I was correcting them in a manner that did not dishearten them. The result was amazing. Started with three sentences each on their turn, reached full five minutes of talk with a minimum of errors. To think of topics to make them tax their brains was a big challenge for me. I was posing more and more difficult topics and to my surprise, each one of the students had his own line of thinking and a 4-5 minutes speech with confidence was the easy outcome.   The subjects were given to them extempore and the thoughts that were revealed were electrifying. The friendly atmosphere in the class was enjoyed by each one of them. The discussions on various topics such as religion, social norms, movies, sports, world affairs, etc. with emphasis on astronomy, that being my passion, constituted the agenda of our meetings..

Deepak was catching up with other students.

After a couple of weeks, in the class, I was discussing perfect tense. I threw a question to the class, “Any doubt? Is everyone clear?”

After silence for some time, an unexpected hand was raised. That was Deepak. He got up. "But sir, what is the difference between present perfect and past perfect?" I was wonderstruck. Thrilled at the same time. "Deepak, very good difficulty. The difference is the reference. Present perfect is referring to the event in the present tense and past perfect is referring the event that happened earlier. Look, if I say …. “ I continued explaining the further details. I was posing questions during the discussion and Deepak was answering them. It took some time but the concept got clear not only to Deepak but the whole class was satisfied as well.

When the class was over, I found Deepak mingling with students other than Suresh and discussing the matter. I was elated to see this picture.

And slowly Deepak was a good friend of most of the students in the class.

A few days later, I called Suresh and told him, " Suresh, Deepak is performing very well. I suggest you discuss some concepts of physics with Deepak. And give me feedback. Ok?"

“Sure Sir.”

After a couple of days, Suresh shared his experience. Suresh said, “ Sir, Deepak explained the concept of surface tension to me so beautifully, that all my doubts are cleared. Sir, Deepak has changed.”

Hearing this news, I was delighted. Slowly Deepak was coming out of his shell. His friend’s circle was increasing. He was getting popular amongst the youngsters. His authority in mathematics made him the most sought-after.

There were many an occasion when I had to make them understand the reality of life.

“Boys, you are at a tender age, which is described by the famous poet, Charles Kingsley in his poem “When all the world is young, lad” as

When all the trees are green

And every goose a swan

And every lass a queen,

So be careful. You should come out of the dream world and must look at reality. Must pass out your graduation first."

Once I could not believe that a cultured, sweet boy, Dilip would succumb to the adolescent pitfall. He was caught red-handed along with a neighboring girl inside the house with windows and doors shut.

That alerted me of the dangerous period of adolescence. Fortunately, my favorite Dilip was saved from the undesired aftermath.

Occasionally, I used to discuss astronomy in the class to kill the monotony. The size of the universe used to catch the attention of most of the students. The mysteries of the black holes, comets, the number of galaxies, etc. clubbed with the General Theory of Relativity were triggering their curiosity. The grand display of falling meteors during meteor showers was the topic of discussion amongst the students. I used to arrange yearly overnight trips to some nearby places where the light pollution was absolutely minimal. Star-gazing and counting the meteors sighted during the meteor showers became a matter of great interest. Some students, including Deepak, were regulars in such events.  

To evoke their creativity, organizing talent, and provide an opportunity for speaking in groups, I planned two national festival celebrations every year. 15th August and 26th January celebrations became popular amongst my students, current as well as past. The entertaining and brain-teasing games such as scrambled words, scrambled sentences, etc. were organized to increase team spirit. The emphasis was on speaking English and enforcing pride in the country.

On these occasions, the best-performing student was felicitated. It was appreciated by all of them although the awards were not of any significant monetary value. And once Deepak was the recipient of The Best Performance award.

Very soon Deepak appeared for the final year of B.Sc. Mathematics.

I was anxious to know the results. Meanwhile, he had become a very good friend of mine. In fact, he had become a part of our extended family.

And the University results were declared. Deepak stood second in the college. His overall performance had improved considerably. This was authentic proof of changes taking place in Deepak.

That day Deepak’s parents came with a packet of sweets to my house.

"Sir, you have done a miracle. A boy who was getting sidetracked as a hopeless case of Autism Spectrum Disorder, you have brought him onto the right track. Sir, we are obliged. We are indebted."      

The final Engineering exams got over.   But the campus interviews and aptitude tests by various companies did not allow the students to relax. Group discussions, extempore speeches, and mock interviews were being conducted under my guidance and each student was sharpening his weapons to conquer the battles. Deepak too participated in mock interviews. Crusading on the road to achieve something big, he registered himself for Doctorate in mathematics.

Gradually, the UBUNTU group started changing its complexion.

One evening Dilip and Vishal  told me that they got admission for M.S. in University of Texas, U.S. They would leave in a month.”

A week later, Akshay Pawar  told me of his shifting to Chennai for a good post in a top-ranking company.  Pravin also received an offer from Dubai and he announced that he would join next month.

Soon Yesh, Shivam, Vikas, Abhijeet followed the suit.

They all were on the path of progress.

And to culminate my pleasure, one evening Deepak came to my house with a great news. He showed me an offer letter from ISRO at Sriharikotta near Chennai. Appreciating his Doctorate in mathematics and his interest in Cosmology, he was offered the position of Senior Scientist in research laboratory.

The fledgling young ones had taken to flights of great heights.

The good news of my students excelling in their careers, brought with it the perturbing feeling that they all would be leaving Mumbai very soon.”

Mr.Ramnathan wiped his eyes with handkerchief.

The class dispersed heavy hearted.

September 18, 2022 17:29

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