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These days, calling someone Rajnikant is a way to either say he’s capable of doing superhuman things or, likelier, having a good laugh at his expense. Back when I was in middle school though, things weren’t like that.
Mr. Mukherjee lived alone in a one-bedroom house in the school’s staff quarters. He had a hairline that had ceased to exist on the top shelf of his head, coupled with thick salt- and-pepper moustache that complemented their cousins on top. Big, trademark Bengali expressive eyes and a thick nose somehow game him a passing resemblance to the movie superstar Rajinikanth. For successive batches of students though, that passing resemblance was enough to carry on with the nickname-behind-the-back. He was middle-aged and old-school in his methods. Not for him the cajoling and joking with students to put them at ease. He had a job to do — teaching English to students. Period!
So we arrived in the sixth standard, fresh from having crossed the Olympic-level hurdles of primary school, and with the slightest spurt in hormonal growth. Mr. Mukherjee’s name was terror incarnate. He was the kind who made students pee in their pants in the night, maybe even day. Senior students told us with a chuckle how he revelled in punishing those who did not complete their homework.
English wasn’t a favourite for most students when it came to grammar. The narrow lanes between Past Continuous and Past Perfect Continuous were meant to be analysed with the most powerful microscope so as to eliminate any trace of doubt in the minds of the researchers, who at 11/12 years of age, didn’t know anything more than what transpired the week before in Shaktimaan. Still, research was research and Mr. Mukherjee made sure we all did that.
Nightmares became a reality when one fine day, he asked each one of us to memorise/write the answers to a few things from a particular chapter and present them the next day. My memory is far from eidetic so I can’t actually recall what it was, not that it matters a great deal. In the evening, I made sure the homework was finished as I had no desire to be at the receiving end of Rajnikant’s cane stick.
Next day at school, students were discussing what they had done about the task and how they thought things would pan out. Sir had his class right after the lunch hour, at 1 pm. He started asking straightaway how many of us had completed the homework. Then he asked us the questions, one-by-one. Those of us who failed to answer were asked to stand on their benches. As he brought the stick down on the calves of the student sitting behind me, I couldn’t bring myself to look back, lest he bless me with a couple too. In the recess, I saw that the guy’s calves had turned blue. It was horrific to be honest. But the fact that beat-and-teach has always been the norm in India, we didn’t think it was out of place.
Now Mukherjee sir might have been strict at school, but he used to donate wholehearteadly to the annual Saraswati Puja celebrations by the local students (Saraswati is the Goddess of knowledge in Hinduism). Two-three years on from that cane incident, when the group went to collect chandaa (donation) from him, he refused. Turned out, he had a sister who had long been suffering from cancer. He tried everything in his power to get her treated but it proved useless ultimately. Rajnikant had lost his faith with that. He didn’t have superhero powers. He was just like us, after all.