On the death of a favourite teacher, the importance of being earnest

We were lucky to have met Mr Negi. I still don't know his full name.

 |  6-minute read |   21-04-2017
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No one in our Class of 1976 @ BVB Delhi knew his full name. He joined us on a cold winter morning, in 1972, just after the l971 War with Pakistan had ended. I was 11 going on 12 (I'm still 13 going on 14 now, if you count my leap year birthday way).

I vividly remember the first day, the first class he spent with us because we were all seated in the Bhavan's most important hall, called the Mehta hall. It was reserved for VIP functions.

Occasionally, our school the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan's Mehta Vidyalaya, Delhi, on Curzon Road, was visited by luminaries like KPS Menon senior, then ambassador to China (after serving as one to then Soviet Union) or some governor whose name we had no connect with.

Those days, governors were old people - very important - is all we knew! Until our own teacher Indira Hathi's father became the governor of Haryana and helped extend our school boundaries, manifold. 

So, in January of 1972, in walked a cultured looking fellow. Bit unsure but deep. He introduced himself as our new geography teacher. Many of us in the 6th grade didn't know we had an old one too, or WHAT geography even was. 

He drew a map of India in a jiffy on the blackboard. Yes, those days there were blackboards. And chalk. The only laptop we knew was our doting mother's lap, on top of which we sat, as a most comfortable spot. 

Negi had something motherly about him even if was then all of 25! He opened a book. We thought, oh no! Now he will teach us details of this map or how to draw one. But it was a little book, on Swami Vivekananda! He read a few lines from it. Then he asked if anyone knew who Vivekananda was? A few hands must have gone up.

He asked me, so how do you know of him? I said, every Sunday our mother takes us to Ramakrishna Mission to spend some time. Mother didn't know that my friend Pradeep Mehra, fondly called "chuhiya", lived nearby and while mother got busy mouthing mantras of the evening aarti, I ran off to meet my schoolmate, outside the school. It was like a major achievement those days to venture out of routine. 

Negi sir was gentle. He once helped us save a squirrel that had fallen off the big cotton tree. Vinod Chaudhry and Nirmal ran about in the lunch break. I suspect they had a hand (or stone) in what brought the baby squirrel down in the first place.

Negi took it to the first aid room and put some colourful lotion on it and it revived and ran away to safety. Vinod later ran away from India altogether and settled in Norway, and now lives in the better part of the US, called Canada. 

teacher_042117080648.jpgTeachers and society leaders like Negiji help cultivate a whole generation of students who can be potential nation builders. We must respect our teachers.

That was Negiji. Kind, evolved, considerate. Biraj Bose, now a media expert, then a tall, lanky big-spectacled girl, whom we fondly called Big Ethel, recalls how she had called out loudly and disrespectfully "Negi boy ain't coming anytime soon" when, much to her horror, she heard a voice behind say, "but Biraj dear, I'm here!" 

Another time Pankaj Saxena, fondly called Sexy! (Like IndiGo airline's code is 6E and they pronounce it as sex-ee), later to head Discovery Channel's National GEOGRAPHIC! programming for India, shared: "Once in a shoot outside Nashik we had no compass, no GPS, no nothing and I remembered Negi saab saying NORTH STAR boy, look for the North Star." 

Navin Sharma, US-returned types (we had lots of MEA kids as their hostel was bang opposite the school on then Curzon Road, now Kasturba Gandhi Marg) who had joined us from the Damascus posting of his father's, was asked by Negi where Damascus was on the map. And Navin spoke in some affected American drawl and got away!

He did this more with non-English type teachers, especially one Mishraji, freshly minted in bhaiyaland, who taught us economics: "No any money, so no any jobs. No any jobs, so no any market. No any markets, so no any economy!"

Amartya Sen might lose his dentures espousing such theories and Manmohan Singh - well, he has no voice to lose anyway! - was then governor of RBI. Another old man in an important post, we thought!

Negiji was the quintessential teacher, a genuine article. He made us love geography. I would've taken it up even in college but for the fact that it was taught only at some la la college called Kirori Mal. Far cry from Stephen's where I got admitted in a jiffy because I had a little higher marks in history.

Stephen's was so snooty in 1976; when they learnt that another topper from BVB Delhi, another diplomatic trash posted back in India pretending to be a foreigner, Supriya something, was from BVB, they asked, but what's BVB? Do you think they would've known who Mehta was! Or what vidyalaya meant?

Our society is so layered that within one km we don't know which is what. Like I was told long ago: it's not what you know but WHOM!

We were lucky to have met Mr Negi. I still don't know his full name. He was from the mountains up there, for us Delhiwalas. His eyes were "chinky" Nepal? Chinese? His features were not. Had he come from a privileged background he could've easily become a Rajesh Khanna. He had the same twinkle in his eyes, the same romanticism. 

He taught us not merely geography but how to navigate through life. He inculcated in us a desire to learn. He made us love the arts. He attended most shows at Kamani, as he lived next door as vice-principal and later, the principal. He remained humble despite all positions thrust on him, well earned by merit. 

Shyam Banerji, fondly called Bong, says: "Negi sir connected me to Chinmaya mission and I left scripting for stupid films and ads for meaningful work." 

Such a man, a true guru, left us last week forever. I learnt from Delhi that the BVB cannot even give space to host Mr Negi's memorial function! It shows poor manners.

When out of work, retired IAS lobbies take over institutions of real learning, and the first lesson they ought to learn is to be humble. Because at the entrance to this august building is a board proclaiming: Vidya dadati vinayam (knowledge gives humility). Or ought to. Except if you are an IAS officer! (And can't be taught anything new). 

Teachers and society leaders like Negiji help cultivate a whole generation of students who can be potential nation-builders. We must respect our teachers. My next book is on guru shishya parampara. To be launched at, where else, BVB Bombay! Delhi may have no dil but maximum city is for all. 

Also read: A tribute to my grandmother who taught me to stand tall


Ashish Mohan Khokar Ashish Mohan Khokar

The writer is a reputed culture critic, dance historian and publishes AttenDance.

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