When I think about my very first memory of Mrs Tafti, it always makes me smile. I was the sullen, perpetually frowning new kid in school with that awkward “mushroom” cut that had mushroomed all across middle class India in the 90s. Mine was particularly pointy and misshapen, as if mum had changed her mind mid-way between my regular “boy” cut and instructed the disinterested stylist to make her daughter more “girly” with that horror. I had to look the part, now that I was going to a respectable girl’s school instead of the co-ed stable where my friends and I rolled around in the mud like out-of-control puppies. It took me a while to adjust to a school where I wore plaid pinafore dresses as uniform and was expected to keep my white shirt starchy and clean for the whole day. Imagine the horror! I was probably the unhappiest six-year-old at my fancy new school.

As committed as I was to being miserable, so my parents would be guilted into sending me back to my stable, it was impossible to stay that way around Mrs Tafti, our warm, teddy bear-like music teacher with the nicest smile I’ve seen on a person who is not Madhuri Dixit. There are teachers whose foreheads inadvertently furrow when a group of 30 boisterous kids in varying stages of a sugar high topple into class after lunch break, and those whose faces light up at such a sight. Mrs Tafti was the latter. I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t beaming at us like she was having the time of her life, even when we were being tiny jerks.

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But back to that first beautiful memory. It was my first singing audition. If you knew me, your eyes would be round as saucers, and you’d cover your ears in fright at the thought of me auditioning for a singing role. To say I don’t have a musical bone in my body would be a wild exaggeration. I don’t have a musical cell. Not even a musical atom. I’m the most tone-deaf, off-key person I know, and hearing me sing would be a punishment I wouldn’t subject even my cheating ex to. I say this with the self-awareness of a 30-something woman. At six, I had no concept of being so tragically awful at something.

Mrs Tafti had this rule, whenever there was a part to be assigned, everyone had to audition for it. It didn’t matter whether you sang a few lines, a verse, or a whole song, but sing you must. If you couldn’t think of a song you wanted to sing yourself, she’d make you repeat after her. She was that committed to making us all croon (or caw, in my case).

So that’s my first proper memory of her — standing in front of her large, impressive piano in my school’s sunlit music room, LOUDLY butchering a song. Mrs Tafti would sing one line in her lilting voice, I’d shriek out the next. Rinse. Repeat. Even the piano was no match for my dexterous vocal cords. But Mrs Tafti didn’t flinch. Not once. At the end my, erm, performance, she gave me one of her big smiles, thanked me, and sent me back to my seat. If I could go back in time, I’d make my parents donate a sofa to the music room. Mrs Tafti deserved to retire to the fainting couch after what I’d just put her through. I didn’t get the part, in case you were wondering.

I’ve often wondered why this memory stands out in my sea of oddball childhood memories. It’s not like I found my calling that day in Mrs Tafti’s music room. Not too long after that day, my parents very kindly informed me that Grandpa K had banned me from singing at family dos, unless it was bhajans, and even those were to be sung at significantly lower decibel levels, and that perhaps it was time to try my hand at more silent forms of art.

But that’s kind of what also makes the memory all the more striking. It’s easy to cherish and make heroes out of teachers who thrust us on the path to future success and glory. But it’s not often that we remember, or go back to say “thank you” to the ones who teach us those little things called patience and humility, kindness and inclusivity. Growing up, there was this phrase that was often repeated in my home — “jeene ka saleekha”. It means learning how to live with grace. Mrs Tafti taught me — and the thousands of students whose lives she touched — that. And the sad part is, she probably doesn’t even know.

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My Mrs Tafti stories are fractured. I did move on to more silent forms of art, and developed a thorough disinterest in music, so I don’t really remember the actual material we were studying (Sorry, Mrs T). What I do remember, though, is her unfailing kindness. I remember how she never once refused when I asked to borrow the music room to work on my various art projects, not even when I repeatedly flouted her only rule of, “No using my piano as an easel!” I remember how she often popped in to make sure I hadn’t skipped lunch while working on them. I remember how she guarded my paintings like they were her own spawn’s. And I remember how every person around her seemed to come away smiling. I saw how fiercely loyal and protective of her the school’s support staff was, and I saw how even the sternest teacher in school (Looking at you, Ms M) seemed to thaw around her.

Years later, Mrs Tafti’s daughter would become my closest friend. Their home became the setting for some of my happiest teenage memories. It was a lot like Mrs Tafti — joyful and overflowing. All available surfaces were crammed with photographs and the useless presents teachers find themselves buried under, every teacher’s day. Mrs Tafti had a story for every child behind each trinket. And they were all precious. Little stacks of letters, notes, and cards were tucked away in random corners. I often wondered how so many people could have so much to say to one person! But just being around that kind of love, acceptance and positivity made me a better person, I think.

When I talk to friends from school, we all agree that Mrs Tafti’s was the one class none of us ever wanted to skip. It didn’t matter how good or bad we were at music, the music room was our sanctuary, our safe space, much before safe spaces became woke and part of our vocabulary. The music room is where we found the will to endure the terror-inducing double algebra classes with the dragon lady and her wooden ruler!

I didn’t know this until recently, but Mrs Tafti’s circle of compassion was far more expansive than I — and most people around her — had known. She’s spent the last 30 years bringing music and just, simply, joy to kids from my own alma mater, about 25 years at a school for children with special needs, and almost 20 years at a playschool, and all this is in addition to her own special initiatives, the Kiddies Music Klub for young kids, and the Singing Senoritas, a singing group for senior citizens. So many of my memories of Mrs Tafti revolve around her many productions — all the plays, songs, and scripts she wrote for anyone who would ask. And the list of people doing the asking never seemed to shrink. I don’t know of a time when she turned away anyone, no matter how unreasonable their ask. That’s generations of children, and literally thousands of people from all walks of life that she’s touched with her music.

Mrs Tafti, I found out while writing this piece, has done her musical training from The Trinity College of Music, London and supplemented that degree with a teacher’s training course in special education, all because a child close to her was physically and mentally challenged, and she wanted to bring some light and independence in his life and the lives of others like him. I live in a world where photographic evidence of even one hour of volunteering or “charity” of some kind is plastered all over social media with detailed precision. And here was this woman, one of my closest friend’s mum, who has spent the better part of the last 40 years bringing music and joy into more people’s lives than it is possible to count, and never feeling the need to talk about it. I don’t know if karma is a person, but if she is, she better be taking copious happy notes. Since I started writing this piece, I’ve had dozens of letters and emails arrive in my inbox. Colleagues going as far back as the 70s, students she taught 10, 20, 30 years ago, principals who still remember her as the most joyful person they’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing… All piping up to sing praises of the woman who likes to describe herself as “just a music teacher.”

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It’s Guru Purnima today. Like I said, it’s easy to lionise the teachers who are a part of the defining moments of our lives. But we often forget to thank the ones who quietly, unassumingly, whisper that elusive, graceful “jeene ka saleekha” into us. The world’s radically changed over the last few months. If there was ever a time to be thankful for kindness and thankful to the people who teach us kindness, it is now. So I want my NOT-just-a-music-teacher to know this: Mrs Tafti, educators like you come along once in a lifetime, and only if the students are very lucky. Without teachers like you, we wouldn’t have wildly optimistic children standing in front of classrooms singing at the top of their lungs, and gleeful beyond belief about their imagined achievements. And what a sad little world that would be.

Sonali Kokra is a journalist and media consultant from Mumbai. She writes on feminism, gender rights, sexuality, relationships, and lifestyle and has published a coffee table book on Shah Rukh Khan. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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