Up The Down Staircase
Author: Bel Kaufman
Genre: Epistolary novel
Tags: Realistic. Humourous. Unconventional.
My cousin – a school teacher – never stops raving about this book. So I finally got my hands on it. And no wonder teachers love it, because no book explains the life of a teacher with all its trials and triumphs as well as this one.
Set in a school in the New York area in the 1960s, Up The Down Staircase rings true even today. The book unfolds in different voices, in the form of dialogues between people; notes between teachers, from the trash, or the suggestion box; letters between characters; scribbles on papers and so on. This lends authenticity, landing the reader smack into the life of a teacher, with all its challenges and rewards. It also makes for an interesting read, as you experience school life from various points of view. We see the growing pains and difficult lives of certain students, the insecurities and pettiness of some of the staff, and the dedicated teachers who truly love their profession. There are plenty of little stories sprouting around the main theme. Even fifty years later and continents away, one can relate to and enjoy Up The Down Staircase.
The last few months have been particularly adrenaline-pumping. I finally learnt to drive. Forget bungee-jumping, driving is the best way to keep all senses on high alert. I went to a driving school for a few weeks. Then I took our own Maruti 800 for a spin. All went well till I tried to park it back in its stable. I drove into a wall. Although it was slow, and the faithful steed was unhurt, it is slightly traumatic to be responsible for such things. So, I took a few extra driving classes from one of the instructors of the driving school. To protect his identity (since he is not supposed to take extra classes independently) we will call him Mr G.
Mr. G is a saint among the driving teachers of the world. Teaching is truly an art, and he has mastered it. Ironically, when he drives the car himself, he is quite rash. But when he teaches, he calms the nerves and unruffles ruffled feathers. Nothing fazes him, and his patience knows no limits. Golden words he frequently repeats while driving are:
"Aaram se jaao. Sabko jaane do." When you're learning driving, you need to hear this every five minutes.
"Brake frequently, accelerate occasionally." Opposite of most of the population. It's completely fine to fall back in traffic and let everyone overtake. They're in such a crashing hurry, yet they will be next to you again at the next signal.
"Left lane mein raho." Let all the honking Audis and screeching Sumos whiz past unhindered. Of course sometimes, the left lane is very perilous. There will be numerous cyclists and two-wheelers flitting about like annoying mosquitos, there will be massive vehicles coming full-speed on the wrong side of the road. And they will glare at you as if you are wrong.
"Clutch ko pyaar se chodna." Now if you've never driven a Maruti 800, you have no idea how sensitive a clutch can be. It's a temperamental damsel. Leave it too quickly, and it will just ditch you completely, make the engine die, and leave you frantically re-starting your car while the world honks madly. Don't press it hard enough, and the gear-box won't co-operate.
"Foot on break." This is a real pearl. Twice, I accidentally touched the accelerator instead of the brake. It's enough to add a few grey hairs on your head. As well as scare the crap out of others.
"Always watch the signal, not the traffic." In Pune, it's so common for people to break a red signal that if you stop, you're treated like an idiot.
"Night-driving main bahut careful rehana." After sunset, people go mad on the road. They are more rash, more aggressive, more death-defying. Add to this badly lit roads, and vehicles without proper lights, and you have a lethal cocktail. But Darwin was right, we humans adapt and evolve very fast. After five minutes of night-driving my bat vision instantly developed into cat vision.
"Driving main foresight chahiye." Schumacher could not have put it better himself. You have to anticipate that the crazy bus-driver is going to cut you sharply, the trucker is going to brake suddenly, the rickshaw guy is going overtake from the left and then turn right, the clueless pedestrian is going to saunter across the road, the Swift is going to try to race you, the SUV is going to bulldoze you, and everyone is going to give you that utterly scornful look of 'pathetic learner!'
"Tension nahin lene ka." Best advice in the world when you're sweating buckets, struggling to get into first gear after braking suddenly to avoid killing that old lady crossing, while a rickshawalla yells at you in Marathi.
The New Yorker