The Malayalee who taught Kannada to a Gujarati

MANISHA MODHA-PATEL writes from Ahmedabad: It was in the year 1980 that I first met her.

I was 12 years old.

Our family had just moved from Bombay to Mysore. Besides the lovely weather, the new place offered new friends, a new house, and a new school with new classmates and new teachers.

Moving to a new place always has its moments, apart from the difficulties of finding your way and melding in. The language barrier makes it even more so.

In namma Mysooru, Kannada posed countless troubles to me: from the emotional trauma of not being able to converse with many of my classmates to the physical pain of manoeuvering the finger to write it.

Enter Miss Ponnamma George.

My class-teacher at Nirmala School who introduced me to the nuances of the new language; my writing coach who taught me the way to hold the pencil to etch its letters on paper; the language guide who taught me how to make sense of the what I heard and how to start speaking it myself.

The fact that my parents, who were as new to the City as I, were of little or no help in managing this new language, compelled me to put in extra time in learning it all on my own.

It  meant the agony of an extra one hour of class every day after school. The charge? Ten rupees—yes, Rs 10—per month!

It meant the agony of watching all your classmates happily go home and play, while you sat at the desk learning the alphabet by rote, writing the same new words and new sentences countless number of times.

Homework and more homework.

If, over time, Kannada became something I could handle, it was entirely because or Miss Ponnamma.

The ever-smiling lady had the patience and sensitivity to make the extra class delightful. She taught to me to converse in Kannada and didn’t laugh when I did and tripped. Over time, Kannada seemed easier and my equation with her grew stronger.

It was Miss Ponnamma who explained to me that kencha or kenchi was not a foul-word but an adjective meaning fair, although it sounded like one when the K-word was yelled at us while we were having lunch. It was Miss Ponnamma who explained who a halli guggu or a goobe or an emmay was.

It was Miss Ponnamma who revealed to me that besi bele hulli anna and puliyogere were not words belonging to some botanical species but rice dishes; that mosuru anna was curd- rice and not to be pronounced as Mysore anna. That illa kan’e and illa kanó were equivalent to “No, yaar” in English.

It wasn’t quite high literature, but it was useful for a young girl finding her feet.

What endeared me to Miss Ponnamma was her infinite patience with me. It was reassuring to hear her say “paravagilla” (ït’s OK) whenever I made a mistake, and it was often enough, believe me.

When she announced me to be the monitor of the class, I was shocked but realised that Miss Ponnamma did like me a wee bit more. Was I now one among us (nammavaru?), not an “outsider” (bere-avaru)? If it wasn’t for this little action by Miss Ponnamma, I would never have been the person I was in school!

Doing all the little tasks for her, getting her bag from the teachers’ room to those charts we prepared for the school exhibitions, to just being around her whenever she needed me. School was definitely the place to be in. And once a student is made monitor,  life becomes somehow easier. (Ask all monitors.)

I remember her inviting me and a classmate Preeti Attavar to her marriaju when we were in our seventh standard.  This made me feel even more special. The whole class collected money to buy a gift (including a purple lipstick from Mohan Bhandar!), and Preeti and I went to Saint Bartholomew Church to hand them over.

I knew that my presence would mean a lot to her. It certainly did to me.  A glimpse of a Christian wedding and my first one at that. She looked lovely in a white saree. And I had thought all Christian brides wore those lovely gowns that made them look like a fairy. She indeed was one for me!

Life, was easy in 7th standard, courtesy Miss Ponamma, and the subsequent years were even better. After going to the high school, meeting her sometime, just made my day.

A chance conversation with another classmate two years ago revealed she was still teaching in the same school after 30 years and was in charge of the school alumni. I made a phone call and told her that I was her student and would she remember me?

“This is Manisha,” I said.

“Manisha Modha?” came the prompt response from the other end of the line. “What is Preeti doing? They don’t make students like you any more.”

To which I just have to say, this Teacher’s Day: “They don’t make teachers like you any more, Miss Ponnamma!”

Today, when I want my school-going children to meet at least one Miss Ponamma in life, so that they have good memories of school in later years, a small voice in me tells me, partly out of nostalgia, partly out of experience, “Miss Ponnamma, nimma taraha teachers innu mundhe baralla.”

Thank you, m’am.


Which teacher/s do you most remember most from which school? Name them—and ‘fame’ them.


Also read: Once upon a time, shortly after the lunch break

Once upon a time, when the gari didn’t put mari

Once upon a time, in Ramakrishna Vidyashala

Once upon a time, in Maharani’s college. (Yes!)

From Guruswamypalya, a lesson for all shishyas