When that voice boomed through the school, even at the noisiest of times, everybody listened. By her desk in her small cabin — not for her the large and plush corporate-style offices; this one could barely seat three visitors — there was always her handheld mike and she would swivel around and thunder her will.
People obeyed. But this was never out of fear, because this wasn’t a military establishment or a prison nor was it like one. This was a school and the students could be particularly boisterous. She ran the school with complete focus, a determination that was often bewildering for its resilience, and yet, behind that apparently strong hand was, more often than not, the lightest of hands.
Shirin Darasha wasn’t just a teacher or even just a principal. She was the teacher and the principal, completely sui generis, non pareil, like no other. From Bombay International where she was a teacher she came to JB Petit as the principal. Her appointment to that post was a gigantic leap of faith, an especially enlightened call well ahead of its time. She transformed that school in ways that people did not think possible, often battling alone and against formidable odds, and turned it into something very special, very unique.
She did not teach me; it is a privilege I always missed. But she taught both my daughters and for that my gratitude is beyond words. I do not remember a day when either Aditi or Shyamali were ever unhappy in school, or didn’t want to go to school. Or if there were such days none of us remember them, for they are eclipsed by all the other days. It wasn’t just a single generation either: at least two, perhaps three, generations of students passed through her school.
This is the stuff of legend: transforming lives. Not just one, but the lives of an entire school, and across generations. A school for girls — she would have hated that, so all right, young ladies — JB Petit must have come with an enormous amount of baggage. Cultural differences, the entrenched societal attitudes to women, their role in society, the common perception of women somehow being second to men. For Shirin, this was just about as repellent as you could get. Women, she often argued, were not just equal to men; in many ways they were better. Perhaps it was her training at the East-West Center in Hawaii but very likely more her own mind that guided her hand. The result was astounding. You can still tell a JB Petit student from a crowd. That’s the woman who isn’t cowed. That’s the one who isn’t afraid to learn, to ask. That’s the one who has confidence in herself and the courage of her convictions. That’s the one who, if she sets out to change the world, will.
It wasn’t just students. Her teachers were as much her students as the children and there were, I believe, many innovations in teacher-training she introduced that weren’t even attempted elsewhere. Again, the transformations were astounding: as one teacher said, “she opened new worlds for us. She showed us what we could do with the kids but more importantly what we could get from the kids. She opened doors and walked us through them into a world we had never imagined.”
And then there were the parents, many of them never students in the school. She altered their lives, too, through the children they entrusted to her care. We did things that no parents in other schools did: those nerve-wracking journals and projects of hers, for one, enterprises that involved entire families, regardless of background and education, getting down and getting their hands dirty finding material on stuff as far removed from our worlds as you could get. One day it would be China and the Imperial Dynasties. Another time, perhaps Darfur and Sudan, Bangladesh, Biafra, the Holocaust. The girls revelled in their knowledge and pitied us our ignorance. What choice did we have except to try and keep up, to try and learn as well?
Walking into JB as a parent was sometimes intimidating. This was an explosive kind of place, from the fearsome Appu and, later, the imperturbable Patil, at the gate to the riot of stuff that seemed to leap off almost every wall, the periodic overloud clang of the bell, and often the deafening cacophony of the children. If it was quiet, we knew it would not last long. There was far too much energy here, too much joy, too much noise just waiting to be made. There was freedom here, of a kind you didn’t often find elsewhere, and many of us came to understand that it was this freedom that made the school special for everyone, for our children and for us as parents.
That freedom showed through in different ways. The work the children did, the way they argued, the way they fought for what they believed was right. No JB parent could get away with the simple because-I-say-so. We tried, and our failures were spectacular.
This freedom shone in JB Petit’s annual festival of plays which, for many years, followed a trajectory that set it apart. There used to be huge shows at Patkar Hall, magnificent productions with commercial-grade stage sets, the highest level of performances and production values that would put any commercial play to shame. Pearl Padamsee — another delightful character in the history of JB Petit — and Shirin would bounce around, shouting, cajoling, berating, applauding. Everything was done by the teachers and the students with just a little help from the outside. We went to them all, every year, and always wondered how does she do it? How does she get these full-throated, uninhibited, razor sharp performances from these kids, performances that might compete with the best anywhere in the city?
It was a simple thing: she led, and everyone followed. Of course there were misunderstandings and hiccups, and she had her blind spots (sports being one), but it is, I think, impossible to find a teacher or a parent or a student who passed through that school who does not have memories of pride.
I knew her differently. She was a close friend of our family — a matter of perennial concern to our daughters, not that Shirin ever let that get in her way — and my sister, also from the school, and I have many memories of the times we spent with her. In the mid and late 1970s, we had a house in Lonavla, at the time when Lonavla was still a hill station and not mostly the slum on a slope that it is today, and Shirin often came with us for the weekend. We’d jam ourselves into a Fiat, six or seven of us — don’t ask how we managed to fit everyone plus luggage in the boot plus stuff on the roof rack and still make it there — and swerve through insane traffic for three or four hours. Once there, she’d sit in a deck chair on the broad terrace, basking in winter sunlight, or, during the rains, sit inside and watch the fingers of mist crawl through the house and the waves of rain further out. We teased her quite mercilessly, I think, and my memories of those days are only of her loud laughter, and that of my parents.
Her other great love was New York and there was a time when she’d try and make what we called her annual pilgrimage. She had close friends there, to whom she was utterly devoted and it never occurred to her that she might want to go elsewhere. By itself, with its plays and streets and lights and energy, New York was enough. Very likely she saw a resonance in it, in those days, something that reflected her own thinking and attitudes.
The one thing we did, however, very quickly learn was that it was always a slightly unnerving business to go to a movie with her. Especially one with Robert Redford (her friend Larry from New York was his spitting image) or Paul Newman in it; worse yet if it had both. She’d squeal and cry out in delight every time they were on screen. And she wasn’t going to bother being quiet about it either. And if the movie didn’t have either of these gentlemen and she didn’t like it, she made that known too, with equally unbridled enthusiasm.
The last few years were unkind. We were unkind. The parting from JB Petit wasn’t as it should have been, never mind the reasons. For her, it was the loss of an only child. She’d found faith a few years earlier in Buddhism, and it was perhaps that that kept her going; that, and as she got the hang of it, the Internet and email. But while a faith might provide sustenance of a kind, technology is an always a poor, sad companion, usually only a persistent reminder of loss. Her health deteriorated and the last year or so was particularly grim.
I do not know how to value a life like hers. I am sorry for many things: for not seeing her more often than I did, for not pushing her enough after she left the school to try other things. The regrets are many and the sorrows are profound, and the sense is worsened with the realization, perhaps too late in coming, of what we gained, and of what she gave, without measure, without asking. She used to speak of values. She instilled them in our children who were her children, in teachers, in parents. These are immeasurable, immutable: excellence and the need to constantly strive for it. To have, always, an encompassing world view. The importance of empathy, kindness, understanding, justice and compassion. To see beauty where others cannot. And intelligence: an intelligence of a very different kind — an intelligence about the self, a spiritual intelligence, the intelligence of tolerance and understanding, a cultural intelligence and above all, an intelligence about what it means to be a woman in an increasingly confused world. Yes, as parents we made mistakes with our children and there will be a time later to right those matters. But sending them to JB was not among our mistakes. It was the best thing we ever did and if we could we’d repeat it.
It is too late to say goodbye, farewell, adieu. But this much is necessary. Wherever you are, Shirin, thank you. Thank you for your friendship, for the many happy memories of peace and laughter and joy in my childhood and later, and for what you did for our children and for us.
The ultimate lesson. One person. Countless transformations.
The power of one.
In Memoriam: Shirin F Darasha. d. 2 May 2012
The Power Of One
When that voice boomed through the school, even at the noisiest of times, everybody listened. By her desk in her small cabin -- not for her the large and plush corporate-style offices; this one could barely seat three visitors -- there was always her handheld mike and she would swivel around and thunder her will.