The Do that I Do that I Do so, well?

My café au lait which is too foamy for its own good sits hissing by the side while I silently waste my time on Twitter to find out what’s more important than Djokovic winning the Australian Open. People are sharing their blogs, inspirational quotes and there are other bits and bobs on there which on a better day I would have cared to click on. Not today. Today I am feeling admonished by my coffee: with every shush and hiss I can hear it tell me that I haven’t felt the need to “create” today. I knew this day would come, that ‘one day’ which can, depending on context and point-of-view, mean realisation of a dream or a nightmare.

So I open my WordPress Editor, switch on a playlist of one of my favourite contemporary Indian (pop and film) music composers; mildly surprised by how much his recent music is sounding like Christian rock, and here I am. The coffee is being drunk and heavy silence is being shut down by my long-lasting Logitech speakers. Today has not been a great day, so far. The scansion of my poem ‘A common love‘ failed and what I first “felt” I was writing in blank verse turned out to be in blah verse. Scansion? Blank verse?

Scansion: breaking down of poetic verses into stressed/unstressed syllables then grouping the syllables into a ‘foot’ (trochee, iambs etc) and then checking if there is a regular pattern to how the feet appear in each line which gives us the meter. The whole thing adds to how one perceives/hears a poem and can either exemplify a poem or destroy it based on the prowess of the poet. Scansion is of course based on interpretation and how one hears the syllables.

Blank verse: (preferably) non-rhyming, iambic pentameter, has emotive foot substitutions, with mid-line caesuras for added effect and interesting enjambments. It is probably the most sophisticated form of English metrical poetry.

This was my first formal attempt at writing anything in blank verse and I am not presumptuous enough to think that I would succeed; that in a few hours I could go from an amateur poet to writing like that Shakespeare chap or that Milton fellow. No, of course not. The other voice in my head is chuckling as I type this…because I “felt” I could do it. I stuck to the right syllable count and there are some interesting mid-line caesuras and enjambments (or so I believe). But I don’t have the iambic pentameter down. Will I ever? I. NEED. TO. have it down in less than 48 hours as that’s when my assignment is due.

Did I tell you that I am scientist? I have had an almost purely technical higher education. The last time I studied ‘art’ in any seriousness was NEVER. English was considered a fluff subject and social sciences a necessary evil. These seemingly innocuous subjects could pull down one’s GPA. The glorious GPA. In India we called it the total percentage – an oxymoron for a generation of, well, morons. Eat facts; Purge facts. The assimilation and digestion of these facts was encouraged just far enough to answer the “application-based” questions in the annual nation-wide central board examinations. I was inculcated into this band of buffoonery early and it’s not like I had a choice. No one ever has a choice in these matters.

When I prod my earliest memories of being in an “educational” institute in India I invariably come up with the scene of the annual parent-teacher meeting that was scheduled for the day when the final examination results was announced. I mean literally announced. We would enter our classrooms to find a list of names chalked out on the main board along with their respective total percentages. These were ‘The top 10 lists’ that went viral before such things were ever conceptualised. I say chalked out because for scores of children not seeing their names up on the board made the classroom feel like the scene of a murder investigation: their dreams and hopes had been killed off by the notorious evil of intense competition that they were somehow complicit in and their futures now being reevaluated and investigated in detail by persons of higher authority. Oh, the trepidation. Have you ever seen a six year-old have insomnia and indigestion because of stress? Please visit India in April and you’ll see millions of them.

In one of those evil annual meetings, when I was about 8 years old, in a prestigious school in Delhi an English teacher changed my life. Yes, we start learning early in India. I was distraught that I had placed 2nd or 3rd in the class and had missed out on the first place because of one percentage point or less. My teacher who smiled and handed my report card to my mother (who was very happy and proud of her child) looked at me with concern. She congratulated me on my rank and told me that I had done exceptionally well. She told me she was very happy with me and that I was an obedient child and very intelligent. The whole while I was looking at her wondering where I had lost marks that has costed me the rank. I wanted to see the other report cards. I am not good with praise so I was happy to have some critical points to mull over in my eight year old brain. She could sense, I think, that I wasn’t reassured by her generous compliments. Then she said something that pulled me out of my abysmal state with such force that I have over the years abstained from venturing into that dark cave of self-criticism and if I ever happened to find myself suddenly in that chasm then I would have the torch of her words to guide myself out:

She said, “Sampoorna. Always compete only with yourself.

Back then the biggest mystery of all to me was: How had she known what I was thinking? It’s obvious now that she was a good teacher who knew just what to say to make sure her student didn’t end up killing herself over that chalk outline. Perhaps what she didn’t know was that with those words she changed my approach to my education. (This time without the quotes.) I will never forget her, those words and that moment.

I have always loved science and have made a career out of a passion. But I have loved English and the social sciences too and it was probably because of my fourth-grade teacher’s wise words. I did well enough the latter subjects to keep my GPA high but did not go into them so deeply that it excluded me from the current generational agenda: Only Engineers and Doctors Allowed! That rant deserves its own post. However I competed with myself to know more about everything. I no longer looked for a blackboard, even a metaphorical one. I haven’t done so in a very long time. In the process I ended up having an illicit love affair with questions such as, “What is humanity?” and thinking thoughts way beyond my curriculum and career path such as , “Without language we would never have realised that we all have the same questions.” I can go as far as to say that my teacher’s wisdom has led me to be the mixed by-product of societal expectation that I am: neither an engineer nor a doctor but somehow both. This blog is also an extension of that self-competitive state which I would now rephrase as self-discovery. I am learning as much about myself as you are about me.

And now, how come a scientist ended up caring about scansion, blank verse, poetry? Because competing with oneself means learning constantly and creating something everyday. I am no longer planning and doing experiments but that doesn’t mean I don’t have an original thought to put to paper. And that brings me to my dismal day which somehow this post has redeemed. The itch to scratch out verses is returning. The evening is still youngish and I need to retry writing blank verses. I seem to suck at it but heck, who’s keeping scores?

Today's Daily prompt helped give direction to my thoughts: Teacher's Pet

20 thoughts on “The Do that I Do that I Do so, well?

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  1. I could totally relate with that.I m from your neighbourhood too and my English teacher changed my life in a similar manner…
    I cant wait to meet her in a few days at my reunion and show her how she made me lean towards my destiny willingly(I want to be a writer and I m glad she refined me to appreciate art).
    Thank you for sharing this!It was a delight reading your intuitive thoughts

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, you’re right. We don’t have to accept that but sadly we’re indoctrinated early; before we know what’s acceptable! We still suffer from the old ideologies of what is considered international education in India – an heirloom of the British Raj.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You describe exactly why I chose a liberal arts school for university although I knew I would major in zoology and take the same science courses as the future doctors. I want to be the best version of myself in all areas, music and language as well as science. I am quite competitive with myself lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are lucky to have had the option to attend a school that allowed you to develop a holistic personality. In India we are branded and we need to set our brand early. We need to work on it for a decade (at least) consistently. We forget that we ever had a talent or a need for creating. But that’s changing now. I am seeing many of my friends looking to enrol their kids in liberal kindergarten and primary schools (yes, that’s how early competition begins). 🙂 We hope for a better next generation.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved this post Sam, you got your mojo back!
    I can’t imagine such a competitive environment for such young children. And what great advice! I’m not sure I would have known what to do with it at 8, but obviously you did and took it to heart. Well done! We could all remember that advice right now.
    BTW scansion and blank verse? Wha-at?! Kudos to you for learning and applying these!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Desley. My mojo is coming back. I am squeezing out time for lengthy posts. I just had to write an essay-type post today. My poetic mind had jammed up.
      It’s funny how the prompt today matched what I had been feeling recently – of giving up on the ‘rat race’ and doing what I need to do to feel good on the inside; feel content with my life versus what is socially acceptable/respectable/obligated. This advice rings true even now – two decades after I got it. It really is a treasure I am happy to share.
      PS: YES! I am learning formal poetry from Stanford. That’s what I am doing with most of my time right now. All part of the self-discovery plan.


  4. What a wonderful teacher you had! What I remember from the infamous parent-teacher meetings was my father always telling me the teacher said I was not living up to my potential. That always rubbed me wrong. I had no idea what my potential was; my interpretation was simply ‘not good enough.’ Probably explains why I never liked school.
    Teachers don’t realize how much weight their words carry to a young child.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She was one of the rare exceptions. As I usually did well at school I didn’t get any actual criticism from my teachers. However I did hear their criticism of some of my brilliant friends who were very capable in their own ways but didn’t do well in physics, math, chemistry and such. Exactly – “not living up to potential” – such poisonous words! So passive aggressive.
      I agree with you. Many teachers don’t realise their effect on a child. I am who I am because of my good and bad teachers. The bad ones have made me more confident on retrospect but during their reign I can’t say I felt good.


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