Monday, August 29, 2016

Those Parent-Teacher Meetings: The Fear, the Misery and a Few Good Days

Last week, I got to know that my three and a half-year-old nephew had a parent-teacher conference at his school. While I had been thrilled to see him finally get admitted in a school earlier this year and was fascinated to see him recite poetry and counting lessons he learned there, but this bit of information took me back to those days in school when I used to be absolutely fearful of these parent-teacher meetings. It made me relive the fear, the misery, and the few good days connected to these meetings.

You might think what could be the big fuss over such meetings. They were simple interactions after all. But my family took an avid interest in my studies back in the day and was extremely critical of my performances. These parent-teacher meetings gave them an opportunity to lecture me further on how to improve myself and hence I would always be apprehensive of them.

I would rarely be this happy during a parent-teacher meeting

Blessed with the sharp memory I have, I even somehow remember the very first parent-teacher meeting from my school. I was in my junior section then and the conference was arranged in the main assembly hall on the ground floor. More than a meeting, it was like a party as all students were given colored hats to wear and our study materials of the year were neatly arranged on separate tables. I was quietly munching on a packet of chips that was given to all of us when my mother entered and was greeted by my class teacher. My mother wasn’t comfortable in English and my class teacher, a Bengali lady, wasn’t comfortable in Hindi. So what followed was a series of “Bhobesh is a khub bhalo chele (Bhavesh is a very good  kid),” by my animated class teacher and my mother’s repeated smiling nods. I remember my mother telling everyone back home about this and even years later she would often tease me, whenever I would be angry, with a “Bhobesh is a khub bhalo chele,” comment.

The parent-teacher meetings after that through the primary section were fairly good. I was a decent student – I would almost always be within the top five of the class – and most teachers were fond of me. And incidentally, all my class teachers throughout the primary section were also extremely fond of my mother. She had made a great rapport with all of them. In fact, during these meetings, the other subject teachers too would come to meet especially my mother and share a few good laughs with her. My good marks and decent behaviour meant that I would usually be praised in the parent-teacher meetings back then.

The best memory I have from this phase from those parent-teacher meetings was in the 5th standard. I had stood 5th in the class and my class teacher, Nivedita Ma’am, a very simple and benign woman who was very fond of me, was delighted to meet my mother. I remember them chatting enthusiastically– one in broken Hindi and one in broken Bengali – even after all the other parents had left. That day I went back home with my mother on a bus and she fondly kept ruffling my hair while I looked out of the window.

Things changed once I entered the secondary section. The teachers were stricter and meaner and the lessons became tougher. I got wings to fly and studies took a backseat. Poor marks followed and thereafter the parent-teacher meetings became a complete nightmare.

In the half-yearly of the 6th standard, I flunked in as many as five subjects. During the parent-teacher meeting, after seeing my mother’s eyes widen in shock as she went through my report card and what the teacher kept telling her about my poor performance, I broke down in shame in front of both of them. This was the first time in my academic career I had performed so poorly and she had understandably gotten a terrible shock. I couldn’t get over the distress in her eyes and the tongue-lashing she gave me that night. It really took me a long time to get over that ignominy.

Standard 7 was fairly okay as regards to my studies and the parent-teacher meet. For the first time, my father had come to attend the meeting and hence I was quite relaxed despite a mediocre performance. Unlike my mother, my father was quite lenient towards my studies and would hardly ever scold me because of it. I remember him asking just one question to my class teacher, Shubhati Ma’am: “How is he as a student?”. Thankfully, she said, “He is quite fine but can do better.” What was even better was that at night my father, on being prodded about the meeting by my mother and elder brother, just said that the teacher praised me and said I had potential. Both of them, hence, did not get the opportunity to apprehend me and things went smoothly that year.

Standard 8 was perhaps the best year of my secondary years as I passed all the subjects decently and stood 8th in the class in the finals. The teacher had no complaints with me during the parent-teacher meeting and it remains the last of the better ones I had as after a long time, my mother was happy with my performance. I remember taking my mother to a newly opened plush supermarket near our school after the meeting – an activity which I had never done with her prior to that – and having a lot of snacks with her there on that memorable afternoon.

The very next year, though, turned out to be one of my worst ones. I found it difficult to cope with the standard of studies in Class 9 and performed miserably in the half-yearly; failing in five subjects again. To make matters worse, my mother asked my elder brother to attend the parent-teacher meeting this time. This news gave me sleepless nights as I and my brother never got along during those days and far from shielding me, he had the habit of annoying me to death by constantly making a fuss about my studies and always complaining to my mother about how poor I was.

On the day of the meet, my brother, expectedly, on meeting the teacher showered her with a barrage of questions regarding me. “Does he disturb you in class?” “Is he able to concentrate?” “Who does he sit with?” “How do you think he can improve?” were some of his many unrelenting questions. After returning home, he ensured that my mother got the full dose of what happened during the meet laced with his added toppings and I was hence chastised relentlessly throughout that week. I was so broken and burnt after that incident that it took me quite some time to recoup.

That, thankfully, remained my last parent-teacher meeting experience as there were none the next year due to our 10th board exams and these conferences were discontinued from higher secondary onwards.

Today, when I look back I don’t think I ever over-reacted in my fear of these parent-teacher meetings. I was an average student, stuffed in a joint family where other children were usually better than me and hence was always expected to match up. I couldn’t do so  for varied reasons and would generally feel shame and embarrassment on facing the teacher and my mother with my report card on the meeting days. The others in my class were let off easily as their parents hardly ever bothered about their studies and hence could never relate to my anxiety towards these meetings.

Yesterday, I deliberately asked an old school friend if he had any particular memory of any of the parent-teacher meetings we had in an attempt to try and understand how others viewed them. He said that he didn’t even remember having those meetings or who came to attend them from his family. This actually gladdened me. Because regardless of the mixed memories, I still feel very fortunate that I connected at this level to those parent-teacher meetings that I am being able to relieve them here today.

Our life is made of a whole ocean of myriad moments and memories. To just wade through this ocean without looking back at some of the more inconsequential memories as well, is to me, squandering away a chance to connect some beautiful dots of our lives. Those parent-teacher meetings may not always have been pleasant but they surely hold a place in my colourful life and refuse to fade away. And although I don’t really look back at them fondly always, I certainly do wish that every now and again someone would just tease me with a “Bhobesh is a khub bhalo chele,” comment when I get angry today.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Meet Santosh Pandey : A School Dropout Second-Hand Bookseller Turned Published Novelist

Having recently been bitten by the mythology-fiction genre, I am always on the lookout for books in that category these days. About a couple of months back, I was searching for something decent on the story of Ravana, a character that really intrigues me. I then came across a book titled “Karmaayan, Untold Secrets of Ravana”. While the blurb was interesting what really caught my attention was the small summary written about the author.

Santosh Pandey comes from very humble backgrounds in the Jaunpur district of Uttar Pradesh, is a school dropout and runs a second-hand bookshop in Ville Parle, Mumbai.  What is keeping him in the news these days is “Karmaayan”, the book he has authored. Santosh’s tale is inspiring and shows us that no matter how many obstacles surface in our lives, we always have the option to rise above them and shine brightly.

The cover of 'Karmaayan'

I got the opportunity to speak to Santosh from his second-hand bookstore where he is also busy selling his own book these days. Over the course of the interview, I realized that this was a really earnest and simple man who has just entered a world which he may find too cruel. I hope he manages to survive its oddities and makes a real name for himself. As for the interview, I must say I was left inspired by the end of it. I hope you are, too. Take a look.

Excerpts from the interview

Q. How has the response to your book been thus far?

Santosh Pandey: By God’s grace, the response has been very good so far. I was given about 700 copies initially by my publishers to sell in my shop. And within a week, the entire lot was sold out. I have now ordered a fresh stock.

Santosh with a delighted customer after purchasing his book at his shop

The feedback from the customers, too, has been very encouraging. Many said that although they knew that I had written this story, they didn’t expect it to be so well narrated and presented. I feel truly overwhelmed and now am hoping to get some more honest feedback from others.

Q. Selling your own books in your bookshop. How surreal must that be?  

Santosh Pandey: What can I say! That is a feeling I will never be able to express. I feel moved beyond words and that I am getting this opportunity in life. I feel that all my hard work that I put in while writing relentlessly late into the nights is slowly paying off. I am also thankful to good people like you who are supporting and motivating me. People like you are able to spot a lotus in the mud. Not everyone does that. I feel blessed. Especially because I am a class 7 school dropout.

Q. Can you elaborate a bit on this part?

Santosh Pandey: I come from a very poor background; from a small village named Amani Pandeypur (Uttar Pradesh). Life was the toughest when I was in the 7th standard. I had not been able to pay my school fees for months and my mother was very distressed. We didn’t have proper food to eat and I did not know where life would take me.

One day, one of my cousins, who lives in Mumbai, came to meet my mother. He asked her if she can send me with him to Mumbai as some young men were needed for work there. My mother was initially against the idea. But I wasn’t. I knew that nothing will happen if I keep sitting here. Hence I requested my mother to send me to Mumbai. She was angry at me first and began crying. But I insisted and made her understand that with time I will get experienced there and also manage to provide for the family while even getting money for the education of my younger brother. She finally agreed and I came to Mumbai to work.

Q. So what happened then?

Santosh Pandey:  When I came to the city, I was made to work in a wholesale book business. Things were okay but the money I got after one year of work was just Rs.500. It was a setback but I had no option then. Years passed and I was married too. However, my mother had taken a loan of about 5000 rupees for my marriage. I then decided to start my own second-hand bookselling business. By God’s grace, it worked well and I managed to establish myself decently because of it. I paid off my mother’s debts and even ensured that my brother finished his studies. He is now an engineer and is in a reputed job.

Santosh Pandey at his bookshop

I did face a lot of difficulties while in this business; especially because of the surge in e-books and with e-commerce websites like Flipkart and Amazon offering huge discounts. Many from my village asked me to return when times were tough. But I did not. This book business gave me a new life. It helped me when I was going through the toughest phase of my life. And today, it has helped establish my identity. In my village, people look up to me because of what I managed to achieve and I feel proud of that.

Q. Where did the idea for writing a book come from?

Santosh Pandey: When I was going through that tough phase, I came across Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s famous book ‘Madhushala’. One stanza from the book changed the way I looked at life:

मदिरालय जाने को घर से चलता है पीनेवला,
'किस पथ से जाऊँ?' असमंजस में है वह भोलाभाला,
अलग-अलग पथ बतलाते सब पर मैं यह बतलाता हूँ -
'राह पकड़ तू एक चला चल, पा जाएगा मधुशाला।

This made me believe that I had to do something related to books only in my life. That I was meant to be with books. Then I began writing some stuff here and there and eventually ‘Karmaayan’ happened.

Q. Tell us about the process of completing ‘Karmaayan’.

Santosh Pandey: When I was in the book-selling business, there was a phase when my life wasn’t moving ahead. I was stressed and went back home. There I began reading the Ramayana in search of some answers. The book inspired me to get back on my feet and fight my circumstances. I returned to Mumbai and resumed my life.

Then, in 2011, I got the idea of writing the tale of Ravana based on my experience with reading the Ramayana. Within six months I completed the book. But the problem was that it was in Hindi. For a wider audience, I wanted an English translation. The noted translators were asking me to pay up over 2 lakh for the translation, which I obviously didn’t have.

I then shared my dilemma with one of my regular customers Vinod Cherian (a marketing professional in Mumbai).  He had an interest in writing and I asked him if he could translate the book for me. In return, I said I would give his name in the book as a ‘co-author’. After contemplating for a while he agreed. And within the next one and a half years we worked tirelessly after finishing our respective works, late into the nights, to complete the book which now is thankfully published.

Q. So why did you choose the story of Ravana for your first book?

Santosh Pandey: I have read various renditions of the Ramayana. In all of those, Ravana has not been portrayed as an all-out evil person. Every author has mentioned that he was a supremely learned Brahmin who somehow faltered in his ways. I was interested in this character as what we had got so far was just a glimpse of his story. I wanted to delve and explore more about this intriguing character. Why did such a learned person become evil? Surely he too had some goodness in him. How did a boy who once had nothing to eat went on to become the ruler of Lanka? I then took some references and also used my imagination to narrate the tale of this fascinating character.

Q. How did your family react before and after your book was published?

Santosh Pandey: Well, my mother firstly is immensely proud of me. I know under what circumstances she has brought me up. And she really loves me a lot. She was very happy just knowing that I was writing a book. When she came to know that it has been published, she was thoroughly pleased. She is now satisfied that even though I did not complete my education, I have at least managed to write a book which many educated people, too, are not able to achieve.

As for my wife, there is an interesting story there. She is uneducated and had no idea what exactly was I doing with the process of the writing of my book. Often late at night, I would come upon an idea for the story and go outside the room to pen it down. This continued for many nights and my wife then began having suspicions. She thought that I was having an affair and hence was going out at night to see this other woman (laughs).

She later realized her mistake and apologized to me profusely. She is very happy now that I have managed to publish the book.

Q. So what next after ‘Karmaayan’?

Santosh Pandey: I have actually written two more books - both sequels to Karmaayan. The second one is titled ‘Untold Secrets of Lanka’. Depending on the feedback I receive for the first book, it will be decided whether or not the remaining ones will see the light of the day. Hopefully, things will go well and I will be able to present the complete trilogy to the readers.

Q.  You have now even inspired me in a lot of ways. I wish you all the success for your book and hope that you keep inspiring and entertaining many others like me.

Santosh Pandey: These words of yours are my greatest wealth, my greatest achievement. I can’t believe that I, being a class 7 dropout student, am being able to inspire people like you. These words are motivating me to work even harder and keep writing more. I hope that I never stop and keep entertaining people through my writings.

You can buy Santosh's book 'Karmaayan' here: