She taught us Shelly, Byron and Keats at college; and the passion with which she recited the verses and described their meanings at length, would often leave me breathless.
Her eyes would shine behind her thick lenses and her gaunt face would turn pink with animation. She would forget her surroundings and get into a kind of frenzy describing love, passion, and the intensity of true emotions.
Outwardly, she looked as ascetic as a dry twig; nothing like the image I had of a lecturer of English literature. She had thin ruler type body, sallow complexion, thinning hair that was cut close to her scalp giving her a boyish look, and she wore black rimmed spectacles with lenses so thick that her eyes almost disappeared behind them.
On the first day of her class, she had just entered the classroom briskly, nodded her head briefly at us and without asking for any kind of introduction had turned to the blackboard.
On the blackboard, she wrote an entire list of things that we were not supposed to do in her class. One of them was warnings about wearing noisy jewellery that would distract her while she taught, preening during lectures, looking outside windows, doodling in notebooks etc. She allowed no note writing during her lectures. Just listen, absorb and write the summaries on your own.
Poetry is not taught, she said. It is conceived, nurtured, carried and given birth to, like a baby, and you all will have to go through the labour pains while understanding the nuances of reading and writing poetry. Nothing creative is born without pain. She told us.
We heard many stories about her later. One of them was about her separation from her husband who was a very famous poet and songwriter of those days. There were plenty of gossips regarding her eccentricities, her difficult moods, her live in relationship with a twenty years younger man, and her nonconformist views.
The 80s were the times when many Muslim women were tentatively stepping out from homes, taking up careers, and leaving their husbands if they did not fit in with their plan of things, but still she raised lot of speculations. Coming from a sheltered background, I was quite fascinated with her strong views about marriage, divorce, love and open relationships, that she often diverted to, during her lectures.
One evening while I was drinking tea at the college cafeteria alone, she came and sat at my table. After greeting her, I felt myself at complete loss about what to talk about, so I maintained a decorous silence and concentrated on my tea.
So you got married. She asked suddenly, while stirring her tea. Sorry? ..I was amazed, not expecting the question.
She kept staring at her cup and then she spoke. You know I have often seen you having your tea alone. I see a streak of independent spirit in you. A spark straining to come out. By the way, did you love the man? Why did you get married while still at college?
She showered me with questions.
Well, I was not the only one who was married while still at college, there were few more who were finishing the semesters after marriage, but the fact that she was asking these questions from me, puzzled me. I told her quietly that I had never even met the man before marriage, and that I just gave in to my parent’s wishes. Her eyebrows rose to her hairline but she said nothing.
We drank our tea in silence. Then she spoke again.
You know, your creativity will be killed forever if you carry on with this marriage. I can see your future. Would you spend your life wiping snotty noses, changing diapers and pandering to a man’s inexhaustible ego? You will either ruin yourself, or run away. Depends on how much guts you have. I see something in you…that is being smothered.
If you don’t act now, it will leave you with loads of heaviness later on. You must create emptiness first, and then only try to fill it.
She drained her cup and getting up in one smooth gesture, walked out. Leaving me with an open mouth.
Later, much later, when I was on my own again, I recalled all her words and realised that she had spoken prophesied words. It requires strength and grit to create that emptiness in one’s life.
However, life does rush back, when you are left with a void.
We were so critical of her weird talks calling her an oddball, but she was so much more sensible than all those who never find the courage to rebel against the straight jacketed rules.