Saturday, October 04, 2008

Getting her sums right

(A series on childhood memories)

Shoba Koshy, postmaster-general, Kochi, remembers an elderly maths teacher who imparted a love for the subject and the wars India fought against China and Pakistan

By Shevlin Sebastian

“When my grandmother died nobody could locate her jewellery,” says Shoba Koshy, postmaster general, Kochi, and central region. “The family wondered what had happened to it. Did somebody steal it?”

It remained a mystery for years. One day, when Shoba was 12 years old, the family was invited by the head of the Mar Thoma Church to celebrate the silver jubilee of a social service centre near Neyyattinkara, Thiruvananthapuram.

During the function the priest said, “Years ago I made a promise to somebody never to tell a secret, but I must reveal a part of it today.”

He said the centre would not have been established but for the donation of a woman who had handed over her entire collection of jewellery to the church just before she died. She had said, “Use this to promote education and to give people a second chance in life.”

The priest never mentioned the name but the family understood. “We were startled and relieved to know what had happened to the jewellery,” she says.

Shoba grew up in Thiruvananthapuram, the daughter of an engineer. When she was three years old she was given a tutor, Ram Iyer (name changed), a former principal of Model School.

“After his retirement Sir did not have any occupation to keep him busy,” she says. “Since he was my dad’s colleague’s father, he agreed to teach me Maths.”

And Ram was a wizard at it. He taught her the relationship between figures, and the two of them played games with numbers. “I grew to love maths,” she says.

Ram had a reward system. Every day if Shoba got all her sums right he would tell her a story from the Mahabharatha, the Ramayana or the Puranas. “I remember all the stories,” she says. “This helped me to have a deeper understanding of Indian culture.”

However, at the Holy Angels’ school she was steeped in Western culture. From the age of three she was taking part in Western dances and plays. “The nuns would turn my hair into ringlets,” she says.

At that time Indian dances and Malayalam plays were unheard of at Holy Angels’. Nevertheless, when she was in Class seven Shoba started learning Indian dance at home. When the school announced a youth festival she decided to present a Kerala folk dance.

“I still remember the look of horror on the faces of the nuns when I came in a fisherwoman’s outfit,” she says. “They kept following me and saying, ‘We can’t believe it is you.’”

Eventually Shoba won the first prize. Later on, of course, the festival evolved, till it became a showcase for Indian plays and dances.

When Shoba was growing up, one of the big events was the Indo-Chinese war of 1962. “All of India was convulsed in tension and excitement,” she says. Since there was no TV in those days, newspapers reports were followed avidly.

In the Holy Angels’ school there was a fund-raiser, for the war, where children were encouraged to contribute money as well as a small quantity of gold. “All of us students begged our parents for some gold,” she says. “And quite a few obliged.”

During the 1965 war against Pakistan the nation took the slogan, ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to heart.

“The Prime Minister said that since there was a rice shortage all Indians should avoid eating it for one day,” says Shoba. “Today people will say, ‘What the hell?’ but in those days we took it seriously.”

So in Kerala the idea arose on how to make wheat a part of the diet on the day of abstinence. “Godambu dosa came into being at that time,” she says. “We also learnt to eat chappatis.”

One night, a helicopter was sighted in the sky above Thiruvananthapuram. “It may not have been an enemy plane, but I remember the excitement with which we looked at it,” she says.

During less exciting times, Shoba would accompany her father, a former University-level sportsman, to watch Santosh Trophy football matches. “I remember seeing Chuni Goswami in action for Bengal,” she says. “He was very good.”

At basketball games she enjoyed the dazzling dribbling of Ghulam Abbas Moontasir, one of the greatest players India has produced. “He was not a tall man but he easily dominated the game,” she says.

Her parents also had a dominating influence on Shoba. “My mother, a go-getting person, was full of enterprise and creative ideas,” she says, in her office on Banerji Road.

One day her father told Shoba, “There are two things you can never take back. One is age and the other is what you speak. Don’t say anything that might hurt people. That was his motto but I have to admit it is very difficult to put this into daily practice.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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