I might have been in the fourth or fifth standard at the time. We were home from boarding school for the winter vacations. Mother, as she often did, took us sisters to work with her, to the residential teachers training college in Alipore, Calcutta. We girls would sit in the staff room for a while where mother had a desk cubicle for herself, entertaining ourselves with magazines and stuff lying around, and a teacher or two who would be at her own desk-cubicle. Then before our boredom had crossed endurance, we would be rescued by some student or a group 4 staff (as they were referred to) who would take us out for a stroll around the campus. If we were lucky to bump into Kaloo-da the in-charge of the large supplies room, he would generously give us a basketball, volleyball and badminton rackets with shuttles to play in the sprawling, lush fields.
At times we would peep into the principal’s office where a number of administrative staff would be busy typing on manual typewriter sets, or peering into thick files behind huge piles in front. They would fondly talk to us, offer us biscuits, but warn us if mother who occupied the inner principal’s cabin, had visitors or was talking to students who were free to come and meet her anytime, or if summoned by her. Mother would, if we had made it as far as her getting a glimpse of us, signal to us to go outside and play. She was always formal with us at her office, or in campus, even though students, other teachers and staff were very warm and friendly. Some would keep aside toffees and chocolates for our visits, pull our cheeks even, walk us with hands around our shoulders and even do up our ponytails. They would be thoroughly entertained by our curiosity and awe at what was mundane work to them.
On one such visit, there was a ladies’ hockey match in progress where we were seated in the pavilion at a distance from mother – who was seated along with a few teachers and students. A group of boys riding bicycles came into view and soon were circling the field. They looked at the ladies at play amusedly, peering enthusiastically at the lean athletic legs under rather short divided skirts. As they circled in slow motion, the 6-7 boys made comments and grinned as if they were in a public park. They commented and laughed loudly behind the ladies who were waiting as substitutes, also wearing shorts, in readiness to get onto the field. The lecturer-coach looked at the boys menacingly, but turned back to concentrate on the game. It was at the exact moment of commencement of the break in the game that mother waived to the by now panting ladies, 22 in all, who were walking towards the pavilion in any case. A few promptly broke into a jog to find out why they were summoned.
As I watched curiously in awe, mother said to them in the crisply commanding tone that I recognised well from my visits to her workplace: “Go get those boys here, along with their bicycles.”
The ladies did not even wait a moment, as about 7-8 of them jogged over to the boys – still merrily watching them lustily now. The ladies forcefully gripped a bicycle each, and then compelled the rider to get off by sheer strength of voice and personality – after all they were future teachers in the making. Then each bicycle was walked around the field by a lady, its rider following meekly – pleading apologies, to where mother stood with a dare me if you can, menacing look in her eyes.
“Put these bicycles away in the games store room” she commanded, and then looking at the boys she calmly added, “Collect your bicycles from the police station, where they will be delivered by tomorrow. They have been confiscated for trespassing private property.”
“Maám sorry, we are very sorry…really very sorry” one or two boys pleaded, while others stood quietly with heads hanging low.
“Ladies, go on take the cycles away now!” mother commanded, turning to those still clutching the handles of one each, without a word more to the boys who by now had lost all steam and looked shaken.”
As their cycles were taken away, the boys left the ground shamefacedly in view of a crowd now, even as my sister and I looked on in awe. One of the students who was a dear friend my now, and had been seated beside us, patted us on the head and smiled comfortingly.
“Your mother is very strict, but the kindest teacher and Principal I’ve ever known yet” she said to us. “She will not hand over the cycles to the police. She only wanted to teach us girls to be tough, also these neighbourhood boys a lesson, as they keep disturbing our evening games. Your mother organises funds for the poor students who cannot buy books and gear, also helps so many of the staff with children’s education.”
It is with these lifelong learning, this being just a glimpse, that I had grown up with, that I had stepped into my work life. There is nothing more ingrained than learning through experience, that too since a child. Those who worked with me, in my varied work assignments, would be able to identify with my work ethics and values, not any formal degrees, from my style of leadership and management.
PS: This snippet went into my short story collection titled ‘Existences’ as an add-on, along with a few more…alternating between the 16 longer stories that I originally wrote for this manuscript in 2010.
The photos…My first leadership stint starting in 1997, aged 26. Then my mother – with her determined look, the next is with her students around 1967/68 in Delhi University and the final one is Ma around 1959/60 – demonstrating how physical agility and discipline comes from mental discipline.