So this is a postcard that I have been putting off for a while now because something in me didn’t want to write it. Recently my professor, Mr. Edgar Noronha passed away. He taught English language and literature in the eight, ninth and tenth grade at Marble Arch School. He also taught math, but we weren’t one of the lucky students who got to be in that class.
His classes are undoubtedly among the best I’ve ever sat in, in my life. There are professors who ramble on, there are professors who try playful methods of teaching, there are others who teach in various ways and then there are THOSE for whom movies like ‘To Sir, With Love‘, ‘Mona Lisa Smile‘ and ‘Dead Poets’ Society‘ are made.
English Language and Literature were my favorite subjects in school but he made me a million others fall in love with them. I fell in love with poetry, ‘The Eve of Waterloo‘, ‘Macavity, the Mystery Cat‘, with short stories such as ‘The Lady, or The Tiger?‘ and ‘Happiness‘ by Guy De Maupassant, with Shakespeare and his Julius Caesar, which is till date the best book I have ever read. He would walk around class explaining the meaning and references of lines, the various interpretations of them, the perspectives all of it with this distinct flair – and we would scribble notes over those lines. Going over those lines and those notes, and remembering all that he spoke about was something I never stopped enjoying over the years.
Each time he spoke with dramatic voice modulation, big fascinating words, the occasional jokes and playful jabs too, flawless immaculate English and those pauses for a sharp intake of breath, I wanted more than ever to be a writer. He told stories like he was revealing a great mystery to us. He recited and explained verses like he was about to declare our enlightenment. And he finished every class like the last note of a final encore. The death of a person generally makes you see them in some sort of golden aura; but I’m not exaggerating a bit. Every once in a while, he would stop at a truly legendary written line and say “This line you will take with you to your grave!” One of them being ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.‘ from Julius Caesar.
He taught us to describe, to dramatize, to play with words, to be poetic. I remember this once in class when he was speaking about how the poets in earlier times would describe the sunrise and how we get up these days, see a beautiful sunrise and go ‘Oh shit! What a sunrise!‘ “That’s not poetry!” he had said cupping his fist with one sharp move, as all of us burst out laughing.
Whatever I used to write, mainly poems in those days, I used to take them to him and then silently cherish the time I got with him in his cabin to discuss my writing, away from other lectures. I used to envy other who took their writings to him or had conversations with him. Whenever he said that it was a good poem, the day was a good one. I remember one particular poem I had written about ‘The Moonless Night‘, because I stubbornly didn’t want to write about the moon like everyone else. I had asked him whether there were any mistakes or anything I needed to change about the poem. “There are, but the imperfections add to the beauty of the poem.” He had told me. The imperfections add to the beauty – how many things do we say that about, in life. I understood the meaning of it for the first time in his office and then I waltzed with my notebook back to class. Had my poem known I was looking at it with that much admiration that day because of what Noronha Sir said about it, it would have blushed a deep crimson.
I’m now going to cut to the time when, inspired by the way he spoke, I had started looking up big words and their meanings in the dictionary. This caught his attention when I started using them recklessly in my essays and other compositions. That’s when he told me that I had got the meaning correct and the usage wrong. This led to me asking him too many doubts related to such words in one class. Finally, he got upset and said “Yes Puja, one poem you write, you think you’re Wordsworth?” ‘These growing feathers plucked from Caesar’s wing, Will make him fly an ordinary pitch‘ that’s the line that plays in my head every time I replay this scene in my mind. Back then, there were no subtitles to the cut his remark had caused or the hurt, humiliation and that crestfallen thing that his words had caused.
Just like, when I replay the scene in my mind of where I had found out that he passed away or the scene of his funeral, it’s automatically followed by the ‘Dead Poets’ Society‘ scene where everyone stands on their desk and says ‘O Captain! My Captain!‘ Incidentally, he was the one who taught us the original Walt Whitman poem.
My wounds hadn’t been licked enough by my petulant heart just yet, after that class, when he accused me of dishonesty in my project. I was so heartbroken, I was crying so hard that I tried to speak in my defense but I wasn’t convincing enough. ‘Blatantly copying‘ he had said and my ears perked up at the new word – blatant. “Go now,” he had said “Your poems and whatever you write means nothing to me anymore.” I was cut by the same sharp intakes of breath and the same distinct flair. Those were words I never found it in myself to fully forgive him for, until I heard that he had passed away.
I went and met him just once or twice after school and it was never like those times in his cabin when we discussed my writing. The truth is, he is one of the major reasons I am a writer today. More than those words, it was his teachings, the love he cultivated in me for literature, that flair that stayed with me. He has been and always will be one of the greatest inspirations in my life. This is something I wish I could go back and tell him.
‘Don’t strew me with roses after I’m dead.
…When Death claims the light of my brow
No flowers of life will cheer me: instead
You may give me my roses now!‘
That’s a quote by Thomas F. Healy and taught to us by Mr. Edgar Noronha. I recollected it recently when Gen. D told me a much more informal Hindi wisdom-handed-down-from-generations version of it. Strangely, I’ve always remembered it as that thing told to us by Noronha Sir. I had to actually go online to find out that there was a man by the name of Thomas F. Healy, who originally said it. Now, remembering who taught it to me feels ironic, for some reason.
I wonder if his ghost is sitting somewhere reading this and everything else that his students write about him and critiquing it. I keep wishing I could meet and have one last, long, unending conversation with his ghost. I would pick that in a breath over the indelible sight of that man, who was full of the greatness of life, literature and stories, lying cold, inanimate and irretrievable in his coffin.
Ghosts, life after death, souls, horror stories – an evergreen topic of conversation in all the groups of people I’ve met so far. And there’s only one ghost story that I relate in each of these conversations, sometimes over and over again in the same group; because that story never gets old. That was one of the stories that he had told us. I will tell you the story in another post, probably the next one. For now, it’s enough for you and me to know that the person I am and the life I lead, he has an unbelievably big part to play in it. And that one of my worst regrets will be never restoring our bond.
Tell your people, World, to take it seriously every time someone says that value people while they’re there because once they’re gone, there’s nothing you can do about it. The feeling of not being able to do anything is a terrible one; and I speak from fresh experience when I say that you don’t want to go through it.
Thank you for everything, Noronha Sir! I really wish I had been brave enough to say that to you in person.
On that note…