That Private Tuition

After the introduction of the 9-year schooling system, generations of past school kids will still remember that much-hated screening that the old CPE had imposed on them. Some of us were somehow initiated into an archaic form of that latter system at an early age, and became part of that educational tragedy, though, sixty years ago, competition was less vicious.

In 1957 my dad sprung on me that most unpalatable, depressing news that I had to go to Mr Lutchmun, a primary school teacher, for private tuition! That triggered a stressful tradition that would keep the poor boy on the edge after class for more than a decade.

The mystery is why should we remember some particular events of bygone years, which somehow have left their footprints on our memory?

Boys of the Fourth Standard, most playful and carefree, were ganging up with buddies of the vicinity to learn the art of playing football on street junctions. One yearned for freedom to run and play ‘canette’, ‘lastic’, ‘cerf volant’, or to look for a good guava tree for a wooden fork to fashion a catapult and indulge in mischief.

But my bad luck was that Mr Lutchmun lived not far away from the side road to our house in Beau Bassin; what was the use of pursing the lips or shedding tears against Dad’s order?

Chez Monsieur Lutchmun

So to accomplish that painful duty I would, on certain days, cross Commerson Street, with an accursed mood, meandering in between some of the neighbours’ thatched houses to finally land ‘Chez Monsieur Lutchmun’.

I don’t remember being given arithmetical work, so most probably my old man had insisted that my English and French had to be monitored and polished. At that time students would do well to mind their language; so it was French all the way. But soon I became more mesmerized by Mr Lutchmun’s beautiful ‘vetiver’-thatched house, with its ‘ravinal’ walls and concrete, “evershined”, reddish floor than by my studies. It was always spotlessly clean; so also was the teacher, immaculately dressed in long- sleeved shirts with cuff links and well-ironed woolen trousers. His wavy hair, well ‘brillantined’ and combed, topped his elongated face with its a slightly aquiline nose; his voice was soft, but slightly high pitched and accompanied by a docile smile on his lips.

Mr Lutchmun’s mother was as special; she wore blouse and skirt, different from all the aged ladies I knew – who used mostly oriental apparel. Always cute and well-dressed, the middle aged woman was kindness itself. Surely like mother like son. Which somehow hinted that, unlike other teachers, he could be lenient and would not scold me if my homework were below par.

Crossing Mr Lutchmun’s verandah and room I would go straight to his ‘bureau’. I was the only student, a one-to-one teaching/learning strategy; looking back I would realize that it was a most embarrassing arrangement for us youngsters – the possibility of day dreaming, of ditching behind a classmate while he would be put on the grill was null. But the upshot of it was the pleasure for being seated in a real chair at a real ‘bureau’; and being entertained by all those bits and pieces that the teacher had accumulated on his table, all of which would make the day of a mischievous ‘brise fer’ child.

There was a large framed paper pad lying on the table, a pen holder with all sorts of coloured pencils in it; paper clips and pins in a small tray, and a bizarre, small half circular wooden contraption with a handle attached to it. That, I would learn, was a blotting pad. Of course, there were some dull old books.

Every week my half-finished home work would be scrutinized, corrected and commented upon; advice to improve would be given… ad nauseam.

The Discovery

Yet what had marked my memory most at those tuitions were not the languages but some extraneous matter. We students of that era had either pencil or pen to write. And pen meant really the hard, tapering and slender wooden rod with a metallic nib attached to it, which demanded repeated dips into an ink pot, flooded with sediments. But at Mr Lutchmun’s place I came face to face with a real pen — a “fountain”! I was amazed as he went into the ritual of manipulating that jewel, so different from mine.

It was a Burnham with a washer clip on the port, beautifully coloured and shaped with a slender side metallic lever ; he would dip it in his ink pot, lift and depress that lever repeatedly. This, it seemed, filled an internal reservoir, which Mr Lutchmun would sometimes reveal after unscrewing the bottom barrel. I was spellbound, and looked forward to be entertained to that ritual every time I came for tuition. May be he found enough excuse to while away some minutes, to give himself some respite from that mule-headed fellow seated by his side, little realizing that the latter was in fact having the fun of his life. And if you think that that was the highlight of my ‘tuition’ you would be far off the mark.

Yes, we students also had our roundish, plain, dull looking, sometime leaky inkpots that had so often smeared our books and exercise books in our satchel, much to the irritation and frustration of both parents and teachers. But lo! Mr Lutchmun’s inkpot was superb. It was almost oval shaped and bigger, with a different personality of its own, sort of mocking at our roundish, insignificant smaller one. And the wonder of wonders — the colour of that ink was something never seen by our young eyes; it was that paler famous Tunis blue, softer, less pungent and acrid. Still what had stirred my memory the most, was that unforgettable particular fragrance of that ink; it was a totally new surprise to my olfactory sense, a characteristic smell never to be forgotten.

My eyes popped out every time Mr Lutchmun opened his pot, doing my best to inspire a whiff full of the permeating fragrance. This weekly ceremony was worth all the trouble of making that 75 metre-trip from home. Had Mr Lutchmun been absent for long the kid’s restless, fidgety fingers and hands would have surely been tempted to fly to that inkpot, to unscrew the cap and steal a closer smell of that magical fluid. The chance never presented itself… unfortunately.

That was Mr Parker’s contribution to the world: labelled with a ‘portmanteau’ word, combining quick and ink.

Mr Lutchmun’s tuitions would have remained just a blur at the periphery of my memory had it not been for Quink; somehow I had discovered that there were new horizons to be unravelled far from home. Did I learn a lot from Mr Lutchmun’s teachings and precepts – difficult to say – but he definitely introduced Quink to my vocabulary and enlivened both my visual and olfactory world; that made my day, in the 1950s. I cannot say the same for the auditory experience, in the form of his advice imparted to me.

Decades later I would try to relive and revive that experience by buying Quink for my own pen; but it was too late. The era of ball point pens had caught up with us, especially as I always had some compunction to use ink, for it would expose my handwriting at its worst. Generations of teachers had wasted their breath reprimanding me for that my handwriting; I fear I had never risen to their expectation. I had happily switched to ball point pens forever.

And Mr Lutchmun, courtesy Mr Parker, would never know that his attempt to impress his student by his oval inkpot – with its low lying centre of gravity, with its isopropyl alcohol to speed up absorption of the ink and quick drying rather than evaporation (as in our poorer version, which needed blotting paper), of dissolving sediment with SOLV-X additive and preventing clogging — had been far beyond his expectations; he could not have had dreamt of a better, fervent sniffer than me.

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