King Amarashakti of Mahilaropya had three stupid sons into whom even the best teachers could not drive any sense. Despite his repeated attempts at educating them, the king failed to find the right teacher. One day he confided his worries at a gathering of scholars and Vishnusarman — one among the learned men — stood up to try his luck.

The great scholar led the three dullard princes to a secluded spot in the palace and began, “On the banks of the river Godavari was a Shalmali tree in which birds from many a direction came to roost”. He continued his narration. Story followed story. Frame stories led to insert stories, tales rose out of tales, voices created other voices. Fable and romance, folktale and farce, tale of adventure and misadventure, comedy and satire — name any other genre and what a range of characters! From the mouse to the lion, the monkey to the crocodile, the lumbering tortoise to birds of prey. There were humans too — kings, merchants, adulterous wives, hypocritical monks, gods and ghouls. Everybody made fleeting appearances.

It took six months before the teacher came to the end of his narration. The result was fruitful. The princes had their education and The Panchatantra became the best example of how wit can even move the heavens.

Vishnusarman was a real teacher. He knew for certain that mere preaching is not teaching and that learning stems from the curiosity created by stories. His novel way of imparting education proved 100 per cent successful. Once and for all, he established how a set of rightly chosen stories could play an effective role in educating people.

A real teacher knows the art of luring his students in with a story and keeping them engaged. He teaches students while entertaining them. And students take a lot of interest in learning when they linger under the spell of a master storyteller.

From time immemorial children have been fascinated by stories and therefore some gifted men have told them. Storytelling has accompanied the growth of humanity from the darkest ages, and its chief function in every age was, as it is today, to illuminate experience by emotional reconstruction. It was through the practice of storytelling that our ancestors kept alive much of their experience. 

For example, our two great epics were told not without any purpose. The Ramayana teaches us how we should live and The Mahabharata teaches us how we should not live. Aren’t Valmiki and Vyasa great teachers? Jijabai metamorphosed her son Shivaji into the grand rebel by telling stories of valour and of the unconquered. She was certainly a great teacher.

Grandmothers, mothers and teachers everywhere tell stories to children when they have grown enough to listen. But Sage Narada narrated the best spiritual stories to a pregnant woman so that the baby in her womb could listen to them. Prahalada — born as the son of Hiranya Kashipu, the king of the Daityas or demons — turned out to be a very religious child. Should the son of a demon be another demon? By putting his heart and soul to the work, Sage Narada proved that a good teacher could transform even the inborn character of a person. The story of Prahalada proves that storytelling has been, through the ages, not only a lighthearted diversion but also serious business.

If these storytellers are not the best teachers, then where is teaching to be found? And is it not our duty to remember them especially when we celebrate Teachers’ Day tomorrow? On this occasion, let me go down memory lane to recount the best teacher I had in my life. She was a student of my father, who was a good tutor and a hard task master. She told me that once he rapped her on the head so violently that she was unable to use a comb for months.

“Did you misbehave?” I asked her.

“No!” She said. “No one can be inattentive when he teaches. If perchance one was, your father would kill one with his look.” She then added with a laugh, “I was punished for merely confusing tomato with potato!”

She taught me the alphabet, both Tamil and English, before I was sent to the village thinnai school. Her method of teaching was so appealing that I can clearly recollect her ways. She gave much importance to curves in the alphabet. “The curves…the curves,” she would instruct, “take care of them. And they will take care of your handwriting.”

She would take me to the backyard of the house, scoop a few handfuls of sand and flatten the mound to the size of a slate. She would then inscribe a letter beautifully and artistically on it, hold my forefinger in her hand and guide it along the curves of the letter. I was instructed to continue practising for an hour or so every day. A little later, I was asked to place pebbles along the curves of the letter till I became quite conversant with them by writing meticulously in the air. 

She spared all her leisure for me. Quite often she played the elephant, and I was the mahout. She took me to the open terrace of the house and taught me kite-flying, which she herself loved. And at night, she suffocated me with informative, instructive, enlightening and enthralling stories — stories she had read and stories, she had listened to as a child and retained in her memory, perhaps for me.

In those days she housed thousands of riddles in her head and astonished me with them. And when I felt sleepy, she put me on her lap and lulled me with her melodious lullabies.

She was so attached to me, for she had no other child to play with. It was she who made me love good food. I ate like a prince. At night she took me to the terrace and introduced me to the grand old dame in the moon, unwithered by age, cooking dosai there. I have lost count when it comes to the stories and legends she told me about the granny and other strange beings.

When I began attending the thinnai school, she carried me on her hip and instructed the schoolmaster to give his whole attention to me. But the old man with his thick glasses never noticed me escaping into the paddy-field and then into the woods. I came back to school just a few seconds before the stroke of the closing bell.

The first few weeks went on like this, for I had nothing to learn in school. The old man was teaching only the alphabet, whereas I was able to spell out three-letter words, like “cat”, “mat”, and “rat”, and four letter words, like “book”, “food”, and “love”. Hence, the thinnai schoolmaster was below my standard and I cared a straw for his teaching. I listened to the songs the workers sang in the fields to break the monotony, and tried to imitate their tunes in my own way. And above all I lent my ears to the warbling of birds.

One day I was caught. It was not the teacher who caught me, but the best teacher I had in my life. “What are you doing here, when your friends are learning in school?” she asked me, face red with anger. I had no answer. I only blinked. At that age I knew no strategy. She grabbed me by my arm, dragged me to the teacher and yelled at him: “Why is this boy away from the class?”

The school master shivered. One of his faithful students came to his rescue. Just a couple of days before, I had punched his nose for stealing from my satchel the eggs I had stolen from a crow&’s nest. He stood up and said, “He runs away like this every day. The moment our master turns to the blackboard to write, he disappears from the class.” With a whimper he added, “Please tell him not to punch my nose again.”

That evening she came to the school as usual to carry me home. But she didn’t speak to me. She was grim. That night she didn’t tell me stories, though she silently fed me a sumptuous supper. She kept quiet and did not answer any of the questions I asked. She punished me by her silence. I wept. Still in silence unbroken, she wiped my tears with the loose end of her sari. “Hereafter I’ll attend school regularly, though I learn nothing there. Please speak to me,” I cringed before her.

My first, best teacher didn’t budge. She was everything to me and her silence hurt a lot. It was my habit to get up from bed only when she shook me out of sleep. When my eyelids parted, my eyes saw only the smiling woman. But unfortunately on the morning that followed the silent night, I woke up to see the fair woman with the usual smile missing. “From today I won’t run away from school…believe me,” I said.

But there was no smile, not even a single syllable of approval. She started preparing me for school. She carried me on her hip and my satchel on her shoulder. I was looking at her all the time, craving for a smile, if not a word. But her cheek muscles didn’t move and her lips didn’t part.

She left me in the classroom and looked daggers at the old schoolmaster. No sooner did she leave than he began to vent his feelings to me. She took me home for lunch and carried me back to school. I was upset for I found no smile on her face. I had never seen her with such a gloomy face, for she had been with me ever since I was born. It was time for the home-going bell to ring. I saw her coming towards the school. The first swing of the bell made me rush towards her. She sat me on her hip. But there was neither a smile nor a word from her.

“I didn’t move out of school. I’ll never again run away from the class,” I broke the silence.

She looked at me. She smiled. Her lips parted. I heard “good boy”. I hugged her neck. She kissed me on my forehead. Silence gave rise to peace.   After that great lesson, I never absented myself from any class. I was present, at least physically. How could I ever afford to lose the smile and the words of my mother?