Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Poem’s Worth

“Poetry won’t feed you! Study hard and get some education. Only that will see you through life” my father scowled at me. I was not of money earning age yet. I might have been about twelve at the time. Still, my father’s remark was justified as I think now, looking back across all these years, notwithstanding the fact that I had proved him wrong, just once.

I was in sixth grade then and my teacher had given me an assignment to write a poem on Chacha Nehru, the first prime minister of India who was said to love children. I had no firsthand experience of his love, of course, and did not know what to write. 14th November, Nehru’s birthday which is also celebrated as children’s day, was round the corner and so were my midterm exams. Sometime earlier that year, my teacher had caught me scribbling something in my notebook that was not even remotely related to whatever was going on in the class.

She was a strict teacher even by the standards prevailing in those days. She confiscated my notebook, made me stand up and dealt seven blows on my upturned palm with the stout wooden ruler. To this day, I have not discovered the logic behind the number of blows, but she religiously stuck to the code. Three for being late, five for being absent, seven for serious crimes like not doing your homework or writing poetry in classroom.

However, I was least bothered with my smarting palm on that particular day. I will never see my notebook again, I thought. What a great loss for the posterity! Along with the notebook, the world had lost about a dozen poems scribbled in it during that term. What fine poems they were! Six of them had been about my dog and the rest were on various subjects like sky, moon and sun. But the one that worried me most was about the girl in my class sitting on third bench on the right side of our classroom. Will the teacher read that poem and make the right connection? How many blows of the wooden ruler are reserved for such heinous crime? I wondered.

The next day, I was called into the staff room. “So you write poems don’t you?” I detected a hint of scorn in her voice. “Sorry Maa’m. Won’t do it again” I replied with a trembling voice. She laughed heartily “that’s okay lad. I want you to write a poem on Chacha Nehru. You will read it at the children’s day function in the school. Just don’t do it in the class. Understood?” Then she handed me my notebook.

That had been the reason for my father’s flair up of anger. For the past three days I had been doing nothing but trying to churn out a poem on a man I knew nothing about except that he wore a rose on his coat. I was never too good at studies and father was worried about my upcoming exams. With a lowly government job and a large family to feed, he was right too. Only education would make something of us six siblings, he often told us.

So I told father of my predicament. That night he gifted me a small book on Nehru. I read the book and finished the poem. I was embarrassed to read my poem at the function but my teacher and the fear of her wooden ruler saw me through the performance. I will never write poetry again, I committed to myself, if it means standing before two thousand schoolmates and reciting what I had written.

A year passed and I almost forgot about the incident. Once again the Children’s day loomed large on horizon. Once again I was called to staffroom and as I stood trembling before the teacher, she told me that this year there was a poetry contest on All India Radio. The subject, to my dismay, was of course Chacha Nehru. No! Not again! I won’t write another Nehru poem! I was about to exclaim when the teacher told me that she had already sent my last year’s poem for the contest and that it had been selected!

So I was going to recite the poem on radio. Millions will be listening to me! I was numb with fear. But my father was overjoyed. In that week, he made me recite the poem zillion times, showing me when to pause and so on. Finally I did it without any hassles. There were just a couple of people in the studio when they recorded my poem and the event passed without major hiccups.

Life returned to normal very quickly for the radio star poet. I was busy with the midterm exam of my seventh grade when the money order came. A whole fifty rupees! I didn’t know All India Radio paid such handsomely for a half-heartedly churned out poem on Chacha Nehru. That night I showed the money to my father and told him triumphantly, “poetry pays!”

Many ages later, my poetry collection was to be published. Father was very ill. I wanted to postpone the event but he insisted that I should go ahead with the already arranged program, even though he would not be able to attend it. He watched the video of the publishing function later that day, lying on his bed. Three days later my father passed away.

Rajendra Pradhan
17th June the Fathers’ Day

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