It is striking how well drilled Indian students are in learning and knowing about the lives of the towering figures of Indian History. Gandhi, Ambedkar (the Dalit author of the constitution), Roy, Nehru, the list goes on and on. I was surprised yesterday in the Hostel with a conversation I had with a very bright student who has just returned. I had put up a display of images of the Solar System, rockets, astronauts, observatories and satellites, with a special focus on Indian hardware. One of the three space observatories left is the Chandra X Ray Satellite. NASA named this satellite after a great Indian physicist Chandraseka and it allows us to collect data from deep space. I was trying to explain this to a gaggle of students who were pressing around, and one older girl knew all about him. I was surprised and very impressed. Knowledge of these great figures serves to instill national pride and shared identity, a unifying factor to combat communal violence. However as one of the Jesuits said to me, the education system, still heavily based on rote learning is not geared to encouraging a similar creativity and ingenuity in the majority of students. Widespread corruption in the examination system is also preventing good practice and good schools to be identified and copied, especially in areas far from the metropolis.
My favourite among these Indian giants is the poet and educationalist, and author of the National Anthem, Rabindrath Tagore (right). He is known in India as ‘gurudeb’ – the great teacher. I remember discovering his poetry at university and at once being mesmerised by its beauty and mysticism. Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 after Yeats did a lot to get translations of his work published and promoted on a visit to London. He was knighted in 1915 but repudiated the honour four years later after a terrible massacre by British troops. Like Ghandi his thoughts on Christ have always fascinated me, although remaining a Hindu he admired Christ greatly. However he did not admire Christians whom he identified with the British Imperial power he was working to overthrow. In a letter to E J Thompson he said ‘Do you know I have often felt that if we were not Hindus…I should like my people to be Christians? Indeed, it is a great pity that Europeans have come to us as imperialists rather than as Christians and so have deprived our people of their true contact with the religion of Jesus Christ…What a mental torture it is to know that men are capable of loving each other and adding to one another’s joy, and yet would not!”
I am currently reading a biography of his – so imagine my delight when I found out that he was sent to a Jesuit school - St Xavier’s in Kolkota. It would be nice to say he loved school, this was by no means the case. He hated formal education and being a ‘mere pupil’. In fact he was sent to St Xaviers as a last desperate attempt by his mother after other institutions had failed. At least it had some impact on him, in a previous school ‘the presidency college’ he only lasted one day! When his mother died he gave up school for good at the age of 13. Ironically he became one of Indias greatest educationalists setting up his own school in Santiniketan. In his memoirs, however I have discovered one reminiscence which I find beautiful ….
One precious memory of St. Xavier’s I still hold fresh and pure—the memory of its teachers……. This is the memory of Father DePeneranda. He had very little to do with us—if I remember right he had only for a while taken the place of one of the masters of our class. He was a Spaniard and seemed to have an impediment in speaking English. It was perhaps for this reason that the boys paid but little heed to what he was saying. It seemed to me that this inattentiveness of his pupils hurt him, but he bore it meekly day after day. I know not why, but my heart went out to him in sympathy. His features were not handsome, but his countenance had for me a strange attraction. Whenever I looked on him his spirit seemed to be in prayer, a deep peace to pervade him within and without.We had half-an-hour for writing our copybooks; that was a time when, pen in hand, I used to become absent-minded and my thoughts wandered hither and thither. One day Father DePeneranda was in charge of this class. He was pacing up and down behind our benches. He must have noticed more than once that my pen was not moving. All of a sudden he stopped behind my seat. Bending over me he gently laid his hand on my shoulder and tenderly inquired: “Are you not well, Tagore?” It was only a simple question, but one I have never been able to forget. I cannot speak for the other boys but I felt in him the presence of a great soul, and even to-day the recollection of it seems to give me a passport into the silent seclusion of the temple of God.
Teachers often do not realise the impact they are having for good or ill, and what we think is success or failure might turn out different in the grand scheme of things!