Once upon a time, it was perfectly legal and decent and even upper class to say that one was going for “private.” If one wasn’t aware of the high ambitions behind that colloquial, one might have made fallacious deductions of shady happenings. For it was actually shorthand for “private tuition.” How the adjective came to be attached to “tuition,” for all purposes a public act, must be left to speculation.

I’ve wanted to be various things at different points in my life bus driver, mason, ice cream man, patient (never doctor), cricket umpire, and so on but I can’t remember ever wanting to become a “tuition teacher.” This is the thing about private tutors no one sets out to become one, as one does a doctor or engineer or even an academic, but one becomes a tuition teacher, circumstantially, without one’s active pursuit of the same. Allied with that characteristic, what might have also prevented my imagining myself as a private tutor is the fact that the person who did house visits during my childhood was usually a male figure. What kind of person was he, and what were the eligibility criteria required to become a private tutor?

It is slightly amusing to have to think of the “qualifications” of a tuition teacher it is a bit like having to enumerate the eligibility criteria of a lover. For this is the thing about becoming a tuition teacher one didn’t have to pass examinations, certainly not what are called “competitive examinations” in India. I say “lover” analogically even as I smile at the impress of its literal side. Romance between teacher and student wasn’t uncommon. It was perhaps natural the setting, a room, often the young girl’s; two young people, the younger one keen to test her knowledge of love acquired from cinema and literature and school gossip; the lack of distractions and entertainment in small places.

The first of these “qualifications,” I’d say, has to do with the inevitable fact of being a failure. By this I do not at all mean his inefficiency as a private tutor, but a backstory of failure. For most of them were displaced people, displaced by history, displaced by circumstances and also their lack of energetic ambition. They had displaced themselves from conveyor belts they hadn’t fulfilled the promise of the beginning of their youth, of intelligence being rewarded economically. Something inexplicable, and therefore sad, had happened to them and it had chosen to manifest not as scar or wound but in their destiny. Many of them had been “first boys” like sprinters who begin well but cannot breast the tape first, or like child actors who are unable to keep their promise as adults, they’d stopped by the wayside and never completed the journey meant for them. And yet, even as failures, they hadn’t lost their shine it wasn’t the sweat that gave shine to their faces but our eyes, our eyes that had stopped them from ageing toward where others had reached.

The great characteristic of a private tutor’s life seemed to be its bagginess that it was the opposite of an office. It was this air of informality, one that was naturally at an angle to the idea of professional success, that the tuition teacher brought in with his bearing. An avuncular figure, he was welcomed into the family as if he were a distant relative. The salary-giving ritual at the end of the month or the beginning, depending on the family and its household patterns of paying its staff always seemed slightly tragicomic: a makeshift envelope, as ad hoc as the teacher who’d been found to teach the particular subject, notes folded at the last minute, as if it were a tip more than a salary. The informal nature of the payment again the opposite of checks and signed salary statements also resulted in deferred payments: some wouldn’t be paid for months, and such was the tuition teacher’s status that it would make him hesitant to remind his employers of their possible absentmindedness. And absentmindedness it’d always be referred to as “I think you’ve forgotten . . .” would be the shy flame of those conversations for anything stronger would be construed as accusation.

And that wouldn’t be tolerated, for how could good middle-class people, salaried employees of government and quasi-government institutions, cheat people of their income? Having almost naturalised the low and arbitrary nature of salaries in the unorganised sector, the Bengali middle class internalised the salary given to the private tutor as a sophisticated version of philanthropy, so any claim made on it seemed slightly illegitimate. Also, there was no contract, no promised annual increment. It was the last of the spaces that had managed to resist professionalisation.

I’m thinking of the tuition teachers of my childhood in my hometown. I grew up in the eighties, insulated from the influences of the world. Everyone’s ambition was pretty straightforward it was to get out of this island living, to meet the world, to collide with it like a Brownian particle if need be, to feed off the energy of what lay outside our small-town Bengali life. The ticket to that was, of course, good marks; and good marks would come only if one went to the best tuition teachers. This was the sad irony that while these private tutors hadn’t really been able to generate the escape velocity to re-form their lives, they had, over time, created a near-clinical parallel system, a “formula,” that sent their best students out into the world the way scientists sent missiles and satellites into outer space. The conversations that followed a successful student’s meeting with the ageing and frustrated private tutor were often tragicomic. The successful student was a pigeon who was carrying news of places and cultures that the tuition teacher had only read and taught about cities in America, airports of the first world, machines that could do almost anything…

The private tutor would ask naive questions about these things he’d read about in general knowledge books the former student would confirm or deny. The private tutor’s knowledge bank would grow he’d repeat his old student’s words to his current students. It was a sad story, the story of the soil that remains even as it allows a perch for animals to take flight from it. In middle-class homes hung moral: one could choose to be the student who’d managed to escape, or one could be the private tutor who’d had to stay back. I remember my brother asking my father about Brojobabu, one of his tuition teachers: “If he knows all the answers to the Joint Entrance Examination, why isn’t he a doctor or engineer himself? Why is he still here?”

In that innocent question is another characteristic of this nature of failure that one had learned, but learned too late.

There were two famous Satya Babus in Siliguri from the 1970s to the last years of the century. Both were English teachers. One taught 52 Sumana Roy English in one of the town’s most well-known schools Siliguri Boys’ High School and the other was a professor at the University of North Bengal.

One of them lived in our neighbourhood. Theirs was a joint family. I knew them only because our cricket ball would sometimes cross the boundary wall to enter their garden. The English teacher’s mother sat on their veranda all day. There was not a single black hair on her head that made her slightly scary to us, or it might have been her refusal to smile. When one of us went up to her to request to enter the garden for a minute, she shook her head.

“Do you know whose mother I am? My son is an English teacher,” she’d say.

In front of her was a gaggle of shoes and sandals. They belonged to the English teacher’s tuition students. I felt deprived that I didn’t know what studying in a room like that felt like. Bappa, my friend, went for English lessons there. He studied in a Bengali-medium school and had begun learning English a few years after us. I often asked him about what seemed to me a magical chamber I couldn’t quite understand why Bappa’s mother had to scold him and chase him out to the tutor’s house. Bappa’s English didn’t improve, but his ability to imagine, to fantasise, and then to pass off his fantasies as truths certainly did. Satya Sir as Bappa called him could make the letters of the alphabet speak. There were giant metal letters of the alphabet in the room A, B, C, all of them. Satya Sir blew a giant huff of air through one of these letters every morning, and the letter began to speak: “A” shook from that gust of Satya Sir breath; it said, “A A A A A A . . .”

I was angry with the little English I had acquired in English class, that my English did not have the fun of the English taught to students in Bengali-medium schools. Satya Sir seemed like a magician it was perhaps also because we never saw him, or even if we had, we didn’t know it was him, like we didn’t know daffodils.

One winter morning Bappa informed us that they had spent the entire duration of his tuition hour in the dark. It was because electricity had frozen, and Satya Sir had used the warmth of his hands to heat up the wire, but there had been no results. Angry with this failure, not his but electricity’s, Satya Sir began reciting all the English words for light. And then, suddenly, after more than half an hour of those “light words,” the incandescent lamp came to life. I asked Bappa for some of those words, hoping to recreate the magic in our house during a power cut. I had no right to those words, he said; I did not pay for Satya Sir’s tuitions, after all.

I came to think of Bappa’s visits to Satya Sir’s tuition as excursions, short holidays from home and school, not different from a picnic. The number of sandals accumulated near the gate students were required to take them off before going into the tuition room abetted my imagination. It seemed no less than a cinema hall, its multitude. One Saturday morning Bappa emerged from it with pride on his face and in his gait. He was, in any case, a show-off being slightly older than the rest of us had naturalized this behaviour. The reason was his new learning. He’d learned the English word for the eye allergy that had come to be called “Joy Bangla” and now felt superior to all of us. What was the word? we asked him urgently.

“Conjunction,” he said, taking the cricket bat from my brother, as if the gift that he’d given us had earned him a chance to bat first. For the next few days, we said the word aloud, as if it was another word for abracadabra, until my father, surprised by our enthusiasm for English grammar, corrected us. It wasn’t really Satya Sir’s fault that his students would mistake conjunctivitis for conjunction.

Excerpted with permission from Provincials: Postcards from the Peripheries, Sumana Roy, Aleph Book Company.