For Shirin Darasha,school was a democratic republic of talent
Some lives are celebrations; there is a measure of fulfilment in writing about the departed person. Shirin Darasha,who retired some years ago after a long stint as principal of Mumbais J.B. Petit High School for Girls,passed away recently. Thinking about Darashas life,one harks back to S. Radhakrishnans comment that life is like a game of bridge; you have no control over the cards you are dealt with but you can certainly make a difference with how you play the hand. Darasha played a splendid hand indeed. She inherited a good institution and transformed it into a great one. She was able to do this because she was stubborn in her convictions,which she held on to with a courage and persistence rarely found in any field in our fractious country.
Think of her positions. To begin with,Darasha decided the school would remain an all-girls institution. This ensured that girls developed confidence and versatility in their early years. She was equally emphatic that once they left Class X,they should go into a co-ed world,entering it with strength and poise.
Second,Darashas different school would not judge itself,or allow others to judge it,merely on the basis of examination results percentage of passes,highest marks secured,etc.
Third,the school would not fall into the trap of many other Indian institutions,which become successful merely by admitting very bright students,not adding much value to their lives and taking credit for their achievements as the students pass out. A democratic republic of talent demands that we recognise diversity in intelligence and performance and respect the human spirit. Hence her insistence on embracing a polychromatic student base. This approach fit with her view that examination performance was not a measure of brightness.
Fourth,Darashas trenchant feminism she was determined to combat the lazy opinion that girls could not fare well in mathematics. She had no desire to force students to take up mathematics. She wanted choices to be made freely and sensibly,with no stigma in the air. But those who voluntarily chose to take mathematics got that special bit of encouragement from her to keep at it and disprove the cynics.
Fifth,her warm empathy for children. Darasha had one overwhelmingly important maxim: childhood is not to be lost or wasted. She spent hours not only with students,but with the puzzled and incredulous parents of children,convincing them not to take examinations and homework too seriously. The joys of childhood took precedence.
Sixth,the importance of the performing arts in general,and of drama in particular,was inscribed in her philosophy of pedagogy. Drama instilled confidence; it instilled sympathy as each actor was forced to look at the world through the lenses of different characters; it instilled an understanding of the nature of teamwork. Quarrels and jealousies are real monsters that we deal with: their accumulated tensions are precipitated on the evening of the dress rehearsal. But on the day of the final production,when it all clicks,when the proud parents turn up backstage to congratulate their girls,there is a moment of epiphany. Darasha wrote many of the plays that she directed with so much elan and gusto. All the plays had a humanist enlightenment weltanschauung,and who can blame her if there was a subtle feminist slant to them?
Finally,Darashas relationship with her hundreds of students,and over the years,with thousands of alumni was not about statistics. Each student was an individual to be remembered,cherished,nurtured and praised as a unique persona. Lets not forget the admonishments they received and these were many individually directed at the student with the intention of helping her focus on self-improvement.
Darasha represented that unique community which has given so much to the public life and quality institutions of modern India: the Parsis. Her sensitive intelligence,her palpable patriotism (never narrow or loud),her determination to pursue quality and excellence all these traits in some measure derived from her Parsi identity and inheritance. We are told that Parsis are dwindling. One hopes they will not entirely disappear. The loss to India may be more catastrophic than we can conceive of. Darasha was personally a Buddhist believer,combining two great minority traditions that are so important for our country. Her beloved J.B. Petit School,one hopes and devoutly wishes,will continue to retain its unique identity. When classy institutions around us are so few and fragile,it is important that we keep them nurtured and protected.
On a personal note,I can never forget Shirin Darashas face as we discussed our daughter Sanjeevani. There was something in the twinkle in her eyes that kept saying: parents are all very well but where would you be without us teachers? Dont you dare try to take credit for her doings the credit belongs to her alone we have all only helped or hindered let me tell you something,the ambience of this beloved school of mine deserves some of the credit for the blossoming of these confident young women.
The writer is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur,email@example.com
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