By Savitri Narayanan
The school ground came alive in a flurry of colours as if many butterflies were let loose in a large garden! In honour of Teachers’ Day celebrations, the children of the village school had permission to attend school not in uniform but in casual clothes. It wasn’t a regular working day, either. After the morning assembly, sweets would be distributed and then everyone would go home.
Usually, the primary section’s morning assembly was in the eastern ground but today the whole school had gathered in the main ground. Some parents and villagers too had walked over to join in.
As usual, the prayers were followed by the pledge and the national anthem. Then the school captain talked about Dr S Radhakrishnan, a teacher who rose to be the President of India, in whose honour the day was marked.
Then the HM addressed the school.
“Today we’re honoured to have a special guest with us, my dear children,” he said. “She’s an ex-student of our school. I invite Urmila madam to tell you a little more about our guest!”
Urmila madam promptly stepped forward and read out the introduction, “After clearing the qualifying exams, Madam Jameela Aslam Shaikh opted for the civil service. As a diplomat, she has served in various posts in India and abroad. I request Madam to share some of her experiences here!”
The guest accepted the mike and turned to the children with a knowing smile.
“You don’t really want to listen to any speech now, right?” she said. “It’s much more fun to receive the sweets, go back home and play! Speeches are often boring!”
With these opening remarks in a light vein, she had the children on her side! The air turned informal and relaxed.
As the children exchanged smiles, Jameela madam continued, “Many years ago, I too stood there like you, in the school assembly! We too dreaded lengthy speeches from grownups!”
As she talked, Jameela’s mind moved back down the years.
“I was the youngest of four, we grew up poor,” she said. “There was enough food to eat but nothing more, no luxuries at all! Many of your teachers and parents will remember my abbajan, Aslam Shaikh, the fisherman. He would spend many hours beside the river, fishing. Early in the mornings, with the fish basket on his head, he would go from door to door to deliver the catch to his regular customers. Then, he sat under that tamarind tree across the road till all the fish was sold. Those days there were no supermarkets, most people did not own fridges, but abbajaan made sure they got fresh river fish!”
Some of the teachers and the villagers nodded in agreement. Fisherman Aslam was a familiar figure in the village.
“There were times when money was scarce but we somehow managed. I was a keen student, wanted to study further, be successful and earn lots of money! In Class VIII, with a few others, I too had enrolled for the merit scholarship exam. Abbajan tried hard but we didn’t have enough to pay the registration fees! I’ll always be thankful to Dwivedi Sir, the HM at that time, who came to my rescue. He paid the fees and told me, “‘Child, you’ve the potential, you’re focused and hardworking too! God willing, your dreams will come true!’”
“Abbajan is no more. I’ve moved away but we owe a lot to this school!” Jameela turned back and bowed to the HM and the teachers. The gratitude and humility in her tone touched many hearts.
“Thanks to the blessings of those like Dwivedi Sir and the support from my teachers, I did all my studies thanks to the merit scholarships! As part of my career in Indian Foreign Service, I have travelled and lived in other countries. Interestingly, the basic values are the same everywhere! Helping your neighbours, caring and sharing, offering food and hospitality to guests, handholding during difficult times – all these are basic human qualities not only here in India but all over the world! It was in this school and in this village that I learnt what it means to be a true Indian, a true human! There was so much harmony here!”
A senior student put up his hands to ask a question.
“Madam, there’s so much news about fights and arguments about religion; what do you think of it?”
“I’m glad you raised this question, which shows you’re thinking rationally!” replied Jameela joyfully. “We Indians have inherited an ancient civilisation. Right from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean, people lived here peacefully. Their lifestyles, food habits, languages, crops, professions, etc., were different, yet they lived in harmony!” she said. “But of late there’s a trend to misguide and divide people in the name of religion.”
“But the religions are, different, isn’t it, madam?” asked another student.
“No, they aren’t!” said Jameela. “God is one whom we call by different names!”
Then she gestured towards the red flower blooming near the fence and asked, “What’s that flower called?”
“Gudhal!” came the answer in unison.
“That one there in pink colour?”
“That’s also gudhal!”
“In English it’s called a shoe flower or hibiscus; what’s it called in your mother tongue?”
One by one came responses like chemparutthi, yashwanti, mandara and so on.
“Same flower, different names!” said Jameela. “Imagine us getting into an argument about it! Similarly, one God, different names! Isn’t it foolish to fight over things like that? Indian constitution is based on unity in diversity; we accept and respect diversity!”
The children looked at her in thoughtful silence. Jameela concluded her talk, “Today the way the social media highlights and spreads the differences, we often forget the basics, you see! I trust you children to grow up with good values and continue our tradition of unity in diversity!”
(The author is a retired educationist at present in Goa. A mother and a grandmother, loves, reading, writing and travelling.)