It was a small gesture, but for a shy 10 year-old student still new to the class -- he had joined the school only a few months before -- it meant a lot. They had done a math test a few days before. The teacher, a tall Tamil lady always ready with a smile, brought in the corrected papers.
"Who do you think," she asked the class, "got the highest marks in the test?"
Several guesses from the kids. Was it this chap, known even then as good at science and math? No. All right, perhaps this young lady, the diligent bright spark? No. Was it this guy, good at everything he touched? No. Was it her, already known for both her athleticism and her good grades? Not her. Or this fellow (click on "Promoters"), always sharp and funny? No.
A few more guesses, a few more "Nos". Through it all, the shy 10 year-old sat in his last row, silent. He knew he had done well in the test, and today he knew, somehow, that the teacher meant him when she asked her question.
Which, it turns out, she did. Suddenly, she announced his name to the startled class, called him to the front of the room and handed him his paper: 96/100, easily the best. The kids actually applauded. He stood there, shy but proud. Grateful for this little recognition, but grateful already, and always after that, for making numbers fascinating.
He remembers that as the moment he started feeling like he belonged in this group of kids.
She taught in the school only that year, but she had a lasting impact on him. Through college and other visits to Bombay, he'd make it a point to call on her in her spare government flat. She was always welcoming, cheery and curious about his life. Years later, he wrote a book, and another one. She came to the launch events, sitting in the audience with that same gentle smile. For his third book, he tried to call to invite her -- but the number she had given him no longer worked.
Vasanta Subramanian died two days ago. She must have had legions of students who remember her with respect and affection. Me, I know one of them well: for that day with the math papers, it was my name that she announced. A small thing, maybe, but I remember. And so when I saw the obit in the Times of India this morning, I couldn't help the sudden tears in my eyes.