My Teacher


I  am Merin Mathew, doing my Masters in Social Work, 2nd year in the field of Medical and Psychiatry From Karve Institute of Social Service, Pune. My fieldwork is in Chaitanya Mental Health Centre, a rehabilitation center for the mentally ill patients. I was trying to learn and get acquainted with the work. I really did not know what is was doing and was thoroughly disillusioned. 


I used to attend the Psychiatrist’s consultation, observe counselling and participate in the morning session of patients. Attending the morning session my attention was drawn towards a man who said the morning prayers with a lot of passion and involvement. He was a very pleasant looking man. His hair was jumbled, he had heavy stubble on his face, and it was accompanied by a wide smile.  A short man, who could be called fat and had a slight hunch back.  After the morning session he came to me and told me his name.  I could very evidently say he was the first person who made me feel welcome at the agency. 


After the first meeting we kept exchanging pleasantries.  Those were the days when I was growing an ugly looking beard. He came and asked “Sir, why don’t you shave?’‘ I used to smile and pass.  His smile was something I got used to and I mechanically kept smiling at him.  One day when I had finished my tea, this middle-aged man stopped me and asked me” Sir, do you know my name?” I was caught unaware. I wish I could tell him I don’t know.  I remember him telling me, but I was not sure.  I was feeling very sorry and with a lot of reluctance and a low voice that was hardly audible, I asked ”Are you Vivek?” After saying I imagined him saying on now, you don’t know me.  I thought you would remember I smiled everyday thinking you know my name.  But you don’t.  All this I viewed in a split second of his reaction.  He said ”You are absolutely right”.  His smile became more radiant.  And was that smile rewarding for me? Oh! Of the highest order.  There are times when we surprise ourselves and this time I surprised myself.  I gifted a smile to a person.  Let me ask nothing more.  


After this day I made a special effort to say hi to him.  Asking his well-being.


On another field workday I went and attended the morning meeting.  The prayer today lacked the passion and had a certain detachment.  The person saying the prayer was same, the prayer was same, but the state of mind was different.  The radiant smile was replaced by an unpleasant frown.  The man who was most participatory in the session was most pre-occupied with his own thoughts.  The Counsellor conducting the session also noticed the evident change.  The Counsellor asked him what was bothering him, Vivek did not respond.  Then he abruptly said ‘I do not believe in God’.  The Counselor’s effort to motivate him was a failure.  This deeply disturbed me and I decided to intervene. I called Mr. Vivek for counselling.  The session started with a lot of reluctance and silence.  Then I broke the silence asking ”Vivekji, how are you feeling?”  He answered with a frown ”What is wrong with me, I am fine”.  His defenses were in place and his message was clear, don’t intrude into my life. After a little silence he told me ‘I have lost my appetite for life’.  After sometime he said ‘I want  


to die’. 





The man who was so positive, so pleasant, was such a man of smiles, is suicidal.  What went wrong?  ”My life is meaningless.  Nobody cares for me” .  He had flight of ideas.  He told me ”Sir you have double standards” .  I was shocked when he said that, my natural reaction was ‘why?’ pleasant.  ”Sir, you only say we should be clean, should be But look at yourself.  You don’t shave, you look so unpleasant , if this is not double standards then what is it ?”  I couldn’t help laughing but at the same time I was humbled.  He taught me the importance of congruence in speech and action.  Did I learn?  I am doubtful.  On this light note, we continued.  He said that ” All my education has gone waste”.  He had some traumatic memories of E.C.T.  He spoke of his hatred for food.  He had a lot of negativity in him that he could not channelise.  So he kept silent looking at the ceiling as if looking for answer from the ceiling.  Then I said ‘Vivekji, I understand”.  He very skeptically answered ‘What you understand?”.  This taught me how lightly we use words. Did I understand his emotions, his helplessness, his feelings, his fear?  Hardly.  Then I told him ”May be I don’t understand Vivekji, but you understand.  I think you like to write, why, don’t you write your feelings?”  He said ”You cant make it compulsory?  ”I wont do anything that is compulsory”. I assured him that it is not compulsory.  He said ”I will try, but I can’t promise”.  The counseling ended. The outcome was uncertain.  Did what I say make an effect?  Did I make a difference?  Time will tell.  I tried. My intentions were earnest. 


After this I spoke to his counsellor who briefed me about his illness.  Vivek is a schizophrenic for last 20 years and his chance of recovery was very poor.  The counsellor told me that he was very close to his mother and his mother is dead and Vivek does not know.  This disturbed me even more.  Knowing this, I went and spoke to him. but i could not tell him about his mother. Seeing me he said “I am very sad, n i dont want to live.  Sir, but whatever you said, I will try”. I will try.  Am I ready to try?  I just spoke to him about his interests and he spoke in length about literature.  He really looked different and spoke as an authority.  I was so happy seeing his revived spirits.  Sometimes we don’t need to try too much.  Just listen. Thats all we got to do. 


Next  field work when I met him He smiled at me but it was not the same smile that I was used to.  He came to me and said ”Good morning Sir, I am trying”.  That’s all he said and went.  


After sometime he spoke to me about Marathi literature, its high points, the importance of mother tongue and how its losing its importance.  I was ignorant about it and listened to him like a child.  I was impressed about his conviction.  I wished I had atleast quarter of conviction that he had.  What a pleasant site.  After all this, he said ”Sir, my mother is dead”.  I was shocked that he knew all this and spoke this way.  I was speechless. ” I was told by the Doctor.  I am sad but I dint cry. I loved her a lot. She understood me. I will come out of my feelings of worthlessness. I will try.  I am going to write.  I want to write.  My mother wanted me to write.  Sir, you want me to write.  But I will write because I want to.” What a lesson to learn.  “I will do it because I want to do it.”  What a resiliency.  In a matter of 3 days this man changed so much, He still had little negativity.  But he was trying to come out.  How important it is for us to keep trying.  


Vivek was upset the next time when I visited him.  He said” Sir, what bad words these patients speak.  Language is so beautiful, why do they destroy it, with so much of filth?”  He was disturbed. 


After sometime he came and told me” Sir, I am not going to let these things affect me.  I am going to write an article on ‘Film and Industry’ from a commerce perspective.  I want to write”.  After this he told something that moved me the most.  He said ”There is a creation in all of us that compels us to rise above the destruction of our negativity”.  I was dumb struck.  How true from a man who was battling with his emotions.  I was fortunate to learn this from him.  I started getting a new perspective for my field work and my life. 


We kept meeting and I kept learning.  He wrote his article and showed it to me. It does not matter how it was.  He conceived an idea and he did it.  He was determined to do it.  He kept saying ‘I will try’.  He tried.  That is the most important thing. 


He kept telling me how he made himself happy. He spoke of his experiments with diet and how happy he was. He said he wanted to write short stories for children. He said” Telling the right story to the child prepares the child for the story called ‘Life.’ He said at times ”I feel bad but I have a lot of things to feel good about. I choose to be happy”.  I felt ashamed of myself.  I have so many things to be happy about but I choose to complain.  Everything is about choices. 



‘In this life we have more pain than pleasure.  Pain is pleasurable’.  This is what he said.  It made so much of sense. Then he smilingly asked ‘Sir, hope I am not boring you?’  We both laughed together.  ‘I am very happy talking to you.  Because of you I started writing and made, myself happy.  Thank you’.  This is what he told me.  He could tell me this so easily.  He taught me so much but I could not tell him. Why?  I still need to learn from him.  My teacher.


Next day he again spoke to me about his experiments with diets.  He told me ”Sir, it is a great feeling to be married.  What a feeling when my child would call me ‘Papa’.  Why dint I marry?  But it’s OK. I am happy.  I still can marry with a widow or someone.  But chances are remote.  I was in love with a girl in my eighth standard.  She was very intelligent. She looked very cute in her frock.  I respected her but she never knew about my feelings.  Wish I could tell her. If I would tell her, I would be happy and may be I would not have had schizophrenia.  But it’s OK.  If I had a physical illness I would take treatment, so I took treatment during my productive years of my life.  Its OK.  It was for my good. Still nothing is lost.  I can still do a lot of things.  I am just 51.  I have more to do”.  What an attitude ?  He told me ‘Sir, my eyes can be taken, my hands can be taken, but nobody can take away my attitude’.  I was awestruck.  Was I counselling or was I learning ? 


I told him to write and he made himself worth writing about. I am still learning from a man who does not know he is teaching me? Sometimes God helps you to give without you realising how much you are about to get.    


P.S. A note out of My Daily Reports of Field Work when i was doing M.S.W.

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church



Life of Manoranjan

It was time for the bi yearly cleaning of the compound of the Mar Thoma Church Community Centre in Guwahati. I called one of my friends who helped me by sending someone for the task. So today morning at 8 we had two men who had come to do the needful. I took them around the compound which thanks to the rains were in a very shabby condition. I knew the task in front of them was an arduous one. Out of them, one was more of the talkative kinds and the other the silent one. I handed them the equipment necessary for them and left to do my work.

After sometime I returned to meet them with some tea and banana. During this time I needed to break the ice. I asked their name. The one who was more of the talkative kinds, his name is Manoranjan Rabha. And the other one said he is Sameer Ali. Sameer Ali did not know Hindi at all and I do not understand Assamese. So I could only converse with Manoranjan. I asked him about his education. I sometimes really feel this is a very wrong question. The more I have asked this question the more it has embarrassed the people that have been subject to this question. Manoranjan replied with great enthusiasm. “Mai 12th tak padaa hu (I have studied till standard 12).” This was a big surprise. I could not ask more questions as they resumed their work. But somehow the standard 12 remained with me. There were many questions that were bursting out. After lunchtime I joined them in their work. This helped me to converse with Manoranjan as I wanted to just ask him questions in very natural settings of a conversation rather than a series of interrogation. So I told him where I was born and brought up and what I do. He was very fascinated to know that I am a priest. Then I started my set of questions. Manoranjan is from the district Tangla in Assam. He belongs to the Rabha tribe. He has 5 siblings of which he is the 3rd in ordinal position. Then I asked him “Tell me something about your school.” He replied “I studied in a Government School that was 80 kms from my home.” That distance shocked me. As an urban bred spoilt brat I felt dragging myself to a school bus for a distance of 4 kms was a big deal. For my parents I going to school by cycle was an adventure of Himalayan proportions. He said “Mai roj cycle chalake school jaata tha(I used to cycle everyday to school.)” If this was not enough he had to plough the field for 2 hours before going to school. “By the time I reached 11th standard the financial burden at my house started to get very acute. My father wanted me to stop the studies and earn but I loved to study. By the time I reached 12th standard I had to do a lot of extra work in the village to sustain myself. I started becoming irregular to school. Cycling everyday 80 kms, working in the field and doing manual labour left me with no time to study. And then I failed in 12th standard which gave my father enough reason to tell me to stop my studies.” The smile and sparkle on Manoranjan’s face is unmistakable. But then he said with some melancholy “Fatherji mai bahut padna chahtaa thaa lekin kya karu ghar ka haalat bahut kharaab thaa. (I wanted to study a lot but the poverty at home prevented me from doing so).” After a pause he said “Mujhe aaj bhi mauka mila to mai padungaa. (If I get an opportunity I will study.)” I did not know what to say. Felt it was too early to give my opinion or my judgment on that. With all the financial security that I have it is easy for me to wag my tongue by serving platitudes “Of course you should study further.” In between this time, Sameer and Manoranjan cleared up the weeds that had taken the proportion of a jungle. My contribution was a token plucking of some grass here and there, all an excuse to engage in the conversation. They went ahead to clear it and I went back to my room. By now I was completely overwhelmed and reflecting on our conversation. I shared his story thus far with my parents who are now visiting us, and my wife. They too were concerned about it. I knew I needed to know more. I just did not want this to be a case of curiosity. It had to be something more.

The work of Sameer and Manoranjan was impeccable. There were a lot of scorpions and loads of mosquitoes that they had to brave in clearing the rubbish in our compound. The task that started at 8 in the morning ended at around 6.30 in the evening. After washing up they came and had tea and biscuits with us. Manoranjan saw some of my books and said “Mujhe book padna bahut acchaa lagta hai. (I love to read books). Now we had something in common. “There are days when I have not had anything to eat. But that is fine. But there has been no day where I have not read books. I can live without food but I need to read books.” This actually stunned me. This man of 5 feet 2 inches tall was surprising me at every turn of events. Honestly as humans we search for common love and when you find it, the relation graduates from mere acquaintance. The common love for books propelled our relation. I got curious and asked him, “When do you read?” He replied “I come home at 8:30 in the evening.” Then before my uncle (Father’s brother with whom he shares the room) comes I cook. We have food together. My uncle sleeps and I keep reading till I sleep. At 3:30 every morning I  have to wake up to fill water. After filling the cans for an hour I again get time to read till I have to make something for the morning. Some or the other way I read and every month I spend a lot of money buying books and magazines” My respect for this young man started to sky rocket. After having tea I told Manoranjan that I will drop him home. He was not ready for that but I insisted. He lives very close to my parsonage. It is called Uzan Bazaar which is very close to the banks of the Brahmaputra River. When we reached there I was expecting it to be a concrete room. One more naivety of mine was exposed. It was a bamboo thatched hut with tin roof. When he opened the door there was hardly any space in. The hut was of 12 foot by 12 foot dimensions. There was a small bulb hanging down the roof with innumerable wires .There was also bed and stove at very close quarters. I had by now become brave with stupid questions “Fan nahi hai (There is no fan)?” For me I cannot imagine sitting or sleeping without fan. He smiled and showed me a book that he uses to fan himself. Then there was something strange as to the walls there were papers stuck with beautiful handwriting. Pointing at it I asked him without any words what it is. He said “I love to write. I write small poems in my Rabha dialect and also in Assamese.” There is another thing that we had in common. I have no illusions about my writing skills but I too know that I love writing. The aspect of writing opened new dimensions in our relations. But there is more to come. He then said “I love writing short stories. I have written some in Assamese and some in my own tongue. I love telling stories. Mujhe bahut khushi milti hai (I get great happiness).” He also told me that he writes mostly early in the mornings as thoughts are fresh and there is no disturbance. I had called him the next day to my parsonage for some work. But before leaving I went to a shop nearby and bought a book where he could write his poems and stories. He refused to take it. I said “It is a gift of a friend who loves people who write. Who knows one day you may become a great writer.”

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church



Photo of the poem written by Manoranjan