By Tanvi Khemani Sep. 04, 2021
Literature teachers are heavily romanticised in cinema, and for good reason. It takes a poetic perspective on life to escape the specificities of science and mathematics. Literature teachers help us find ourselves through stories and poetry when we’re growing up, and that’s what makes them so special.
Every school has one of those–a teacher so old, so wonderful, that a kind of mythical folklore springs up around them. Everyone wants to be in their class, anyone who isn’t feels cheated, and every year their lucky students discover that the hype around them is real. For me, that teacher was Ma’am Chattopadhyay, an elderly Bengali lady who taught English literature in my high school in Calcutta. Everyone called her ‘Chatto’. She wore simple cotton sarees, big bindis and rolled her greying hair into a bun. She had been around longer than anyone could remember–several of my classmates’ mums and aunts had also been taught by Ma’am Chatto!
Literature teachers have been romanticised in popular culture as eccentric but deeply empathetic guides for their students–think Robin Williams’ beloved Mr John Keating in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society. And with good reason, too. In the confusing and chaotic high school years, a passionate literature teacher can provide an oasis of comfort for overworked, overwhelmed and overanxious adolescents. Like Mr Keating, they remind their students that there is life beyond marks, exams and college applications. They help us find ourselves in the stories of others and we come into our own in the worlds we explore in literature class. Ma’am Chatto was the OG Mr Keating. Decades before the film was made, Chatto was teaching impressionable teens about the power of stories and showing us how, to paraphrase Mr Keating, words and ideas have changed the world.
Though Bengali, Ma’am Chatto would conduct class like a snooty 18th century British aristocrat lording over his estate. We had to follow a very specific and admittedly peculiar decorum in her class. We got brownie points for alliterating while speaking and an extra mark for spelling it correctly in tests. We had to refrain from using abbreviations, referring to ‘SparkNotes’ when writing our assignments, and above all, slouching. This was the law according to Ma’am Chattopadhyay. And we followed it. Her ridiculous energy and stern attitude made us sit straighter, think harder and critique smarter. When she’d snap her fingers and say, “We will now stop daydreaming about Bold Sir Lancelot and focus instead on Tennyson’s description of the countryside in The Lady of Shalott”, nineteen girls would actually wake from their reveries and belatedly try to recall said description of the countryside.
She gave us juicy details about their lives to show us that these celebrated literary figures were actually quite like us; flawed, quirky and remarkably human.
My favourite were Chatto’s poetry classes. Our ICSE syllabus featured works at least a century old and written by dead white men, but Ma’am Chatto always brought their words to life. Perched precariously on the edge of her desk, she’d sit ramrod-straight, one hand clutching the book and the other tracing elaborate circles à la Porphyria. She wouldn’t just read the poems aloud; she’d recite them and perform them. That’s how we learned about the nuances of rhyme, rhythm and meter – from hearing Ma’am Chatto recite poetry. Years later,
while watching Dead Poets Society for the first time, I had goosebumps during the scene in which Mr Keating explains the importance of poetry to his disinterested students. He says, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.” These may well have been Chatto’s words.
Ma’am Chatto didn’t know this, but I’d always dreamed of being a writer. The problem was, as a teenager, I put my literary idols on pedestals. The stories and poems I read in books seemed perfect and my half-baked first drafts paled in comparison. Most times, I didn’t even try working on them. Chatto was the first person to tell me about famous writers’ struggles, self-doubt and failures. She gave us juicy details about their lives to show us that these celebrated literary figures were actually quite like us; flawed, quirky and remarkably human. I came to see them as mortals who had lived lives filled with love, pain, wonder, longing, loneliness and hope, and who created beautiful art out of these emotions and experiences. I learned that to write, one must first experience life. I was a shy, introverted bookworm who preferred reading over talking to people. Believe it or not, my literature teacher helped me realise the importance of putting the book down and actually paying attention to life unfolding around me. Without this, I may well have never become a writer.
One of our early classes was devoted to dissecting ‘Asterix and Obelix’, which she believed was as literary as anything in our syllabus.
Chatto did more than just lecture us about Romantic poetry in the afternoons. She made literature accessible and relevant to a generation that was swiftly getting addicted to BlackBerry messenger, online multiplayer games and social media. She’d effortlessly draw parallels between the East and West, the Classic and the Modern, serving up the world’s greatest writing and best ideas to us in a delectable mix. One of our early classes was devoted to dissecting ‘Asterix and Obelix’, which she believed was as literary as anything in our syllabus. She encouraged lively debates in class: Who was the better detective, Poirot or Feluda? Did the Sonam Kapoor-starrer Aisha do justice to Austen’s brilliance? Did Shakespeare really write all the works attributed to him?
Chatto taught us how to think for ourselves– she was our only school teacher who beamed with joy when we disagreed with her interpretation of a line or a verse. In Dead Poets Society, Mr Keating tells his students “When you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks, consider what you think.” Over two years with Chatto, I learned to develop my own perspective on art and on life. It’s been over a decade since I was in Chatto’s class, but every year on Teacher’s Day, every time I read a new piece of poetry or an old favourite, every time I see Robin Williams’ smiling face in a still from Dead Poets Society, I fondly think of her.