Linda M. Rhinehart Neas
and Urmilla Khanna

Linda M. Rhinehart Neas

Photo collage enhanced with Gimp

Tribute to My Teachers
By Urmilla Khanna
Inspiration piece

My teacher Joanne has treated me to a great celebratory lunch at an Italian restaurant in Fairfax. My class of 2014 is over. In this class—which we had dubbed as the Master’s Class—five of us met with Joanne once a month, and, under her guidance, critiqued each other’s full length manuscripts. I learned a lot. Now, entering into 2015, I feel alone. There is no one to critique my writing, no one to nudge me to write and no one to give me directionality. I am without a guru, without a teacher.

I ask Joanne if she will take me on as a student in a future class. I wish to write another long manuscript, another book.

“You are now an author, a writer. You can do it on your own,” she replies.

She means well. She is trying to instill confidence into my ever fickle fingers, sever that delicate umbilical cord. I however feel like a chick whose mother has deserted her. I need to muster courage to leave the comforts of my nest, find food, combat predators.

I try to answer the fundamental question: Who is a guru, a teacher. And as I try to untangle that dilemma, I pay tribute to Joanne and to some of the teachers of my past.

Once, my husband Kris and I took a trip to visit his family in Amritsar, India. When we got off the rickshaw, my father-in-law was sitting on the front porch, relaxed and comfortable in his well-worn brown leather chair. A man dressed in a white dhoti, cotton shirt and a turban sat on the floor next to him. His face was rid with wrinkles. He was smoking a bidhi. He was Kris’s teacher from grade school.

Kris got off the rickshaw hastily and proceeded to greet his guru-ji with a namaste, and touched his feet. “What a pleasant surprise,” he whispered in my ear, introducing the old man to me. Out of respect, I did the same. I bowed to him, said namaste and graciously touched his feet. He blessed Kris for his becoming an accomplished scientist in America and marrying an educated girl.

This humble man sitting on the floor next to my father-in-law could have been my guru-ji in the village, Durg. I was three years old when I was introduced to my first guru-ji. He had had an education up to fourth grade and was therefore a qualified teacher. As I sat under the shade of a peepal tree, he taught me my alphabets and multiplication tables—the stepping stones to my education.

Later when I went to an English school, St. Joseph’s Convent, I met Sister Rose. She was round faced, slim, a little dark complexioned and really human. When the bell rang at 3:30 to announce the end of the day’s classes, I accompanied her as she walked out of the classroom and down the long corridor. I felt a sense of calm just walking beside her and playing with the soft black tassels that hung from the cords around her waist. We did not talk during these walks. When we reached the end of the corridor, she turned the corner and took the stairs to her living quarters. I was sad at the thought that I would not get to see her until the next day. I said good-bye to her as if I was bidding farewell to a beloved boyfriend. I had not had any encounter with boys and knew nothing about that kind of love at the time. But it just felt that way. I let my thoughts wander as I walked away silently and proceeded to the massive iron gates of the school where I waited for my bus. I imagined her changing into something else and going for supper and wondered what that something else might be. I wondered what kind of a bed she had, what night clothes she wore and what might be the décor inside her room.

When I was thirteen, I got sick with typhoid. When the fever did not subside for ten days, my mother began to give up hope. She thought I was going to die. As a last resort she admitted me into the local government hospital. She had found out about the availability of the magical drug penicillin. They were giving crystalline penicillin injections as an experimental treatment for almost all serious infections.

Half life of crystalline penicillin is three hours and procaine penicillin which is much less painful and has a much longer half life was still in the making. I learnt later in my medical studies that the bacteria that cause typhoid are not susceptible to penicillin. For the want of other alternatives, I was subjected to these injections every three hours. I was to get them for ten days which added up to eighty injections.

The excruciating sting in my butt lasted exactly one and half hours after the injection. I let my tears soak my pillow in order to numb the pain. Then I cried one and a half hours in anticipation of the pain that the next injection would bring. I cried in my sleep and had dried salty powder around my eyes when the nurse woke me up to give me my shot.

The news of my hospitalization reached my school. Sister Rose came to visit me. Generally the nuns were not allowed to leave the convent. This must have been an exception. Perhaps Mother Superior had a calling to send me The Word so I could go to Jesus when I died. Or was it Sister Rose’s love for me? I will never know.

My bed was situated in the veranda on the second floor—Mother chose that location because it was open and airy. There was a constant warm breeze that brought the smell of pakorras and samosas being fried in the stalls below along with the melodious chants of their vendors. A bed in the dark and dingy ward was not appealing to Mother. I would be sandwiched between the twenty or twenty-four beds arranged in rows dormitory style and would breathe the stagnant infected air. I counted my blessings.

When Sister Rose arrived she greeted me by taking my hand in hers. Her touch was reassuring. As she released her grip I found that she had placed a tiny little medallion in my hand. “Have faith,” she whispered. She stroked my arm and talked about the classes I was missing. She did not ask me to pray with her. When she left I caressed the little oval medallion and placed it under my pillow. It made my pain bearable. I had to get well so I could go back to school and be with Sister Rose again.

Looking at it from the eyes of my 13 year old self, I knew even then that the little aluminum oval was not going to convert me to Christianity. In fact I did not think seriously about religion in those days. I was a Hindu at home and a Christian at school, and that was that. I liked it then because it was given to me by Sister Rose. Today it is a tribute to my teachers.


Note: All of the art, writing and music on this site belongs to the person who created it.  Copying or republishing anything you see here without express and written permission from the author or artist is strictly prohibited.