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Mentors and Gin Genies

by Dakshina Gammanpila

Undoubtedly 2020 has been the strangest of years for so many of us and it looks as though the end of the year shows no let up. One of the most privileged and, due to Covid, difficult tasks has been that of a parent albeit to two wonderful, curious and spirited teens as they negotiate the challenges of online school. Back in May, I wrote about the experience of being a parent in, what was then, the early stages of lockdown and observed and learned from my children, their flexibility and resilience. The editorial board comprising students of 17 and 18 and a superb faculty member reached out recently for me to do a follow-up and again I looked at this largely from a parental perspective, but also from the student view. Recent events have forced me to inhabit the role of student once more.

Another most difficult task in this time of Corona, was heading up a Delhi organisation and announcing over social media (of which I remain a sceptic) the loss of valued and respected members and their loved ones. The one I felt most keenly was that of Bapsi Nariman, an incredible, intelligent, generous hearted-women who exuded joie de
vivre. Bapsi’s husband is the author and internationally renowned jurist Fali Nariman and her son is Supreme Court Justice Rohinton Nariman. I have a soft spot for Fali Nariman not only because he is a fellow barrister but because when we have met he has been utterly charming and loving to his formidable wife and he happens to share his birthday, January 10th, with my late father.

Bapsi I simply adored. She assisted me in my year long ‘Presidency’ encouraging me and giving me advice with a smile, a knowing wink, or the odd “clever girl” which I did not find in the least patronising, on the contrary, coming from her it meant something. Bapsi would pat the neighbouring seat and beckon and I would sit next to her whenever
I could as she whispered confidences. There was an understanding, a shared secret or joke that transcended the generations.Announcing that she had passed away in June, not in person as I might have done pre-Covid and being unable to pay one’s respects felt alien. She was a mentor to me and I miss her terribly.

That feeling, the all-consuming wave of loss washed over me again yesterday when I heard that my favourite school teacher had also died. She too had lived a long and full life, was loved by family and friends and was an absolute one-off. Somehow that fact amplifies the loss, which will be felt by so many. She taught me throughout my
teenage years and was responsible for encouraging my love of literature, language and performing arts. I went to an All Girls school and often some of the best roles were male and invariably she gave them to me. I asked her about that; whether it was because I looked different (all the other students were white), she assured me absolutely not it was because she believed I could do it. I loved that encouragement, and it did mean that invariably I had the best lines (sadly then plays invariably had stronger male roles). It was useful as I went on to be in a  male-dominated professional world in the courts.

She also fostered a desire to stand up for what I believe in and not following the crowd.I recall one lesson when she was reprimanding a fellow classmate for a minor crime or misdemeanour,and I stood up to say that it was wrong. Her comment to me was that I didn’t have to fight everyone’s corner but that it was a brave thing to do, especially authority figures and in public. I did not think so at the time but it may have sown the seeds for me to become an advocate and an activist. I had found my voice and she had helped me do so, by simply giving me the opportunity to use it. That is the magic of a really good teacher, engendering ‘a culture of support and growth’.

But what I truly loved about her was that she was unapologetically herself: forthright, funny and shamelessly partisan. She told stories about the poet Ted Hughes with whom she had been at Cambridge. I think there was one about him accidentally breaking an item of her furniture.  She was more than a teacher and a mentor; she was a friend and we stayed in contact after I left school.She had a crush on my Dad (again something that she joked about openly) and came to my wedding telling my husband that she truly believed I should have married one of her sons! I took my children along with my parents to meet her a few years ago, the year before my dad died and we spent a great afternoon together shared a bottle of wine (my children loved the fact that Mummy was having a drink with her teacher). She told them that she thought that I would be running a theatre company in Europe not being a silly lawyer married to a diplomat. Her honesty was refreshing and always. Always made me laugh. Wonderful ‘Gin Jeanie’ as I dubbed her. We came away with gifts of plants that are still growing in my parents’ garden.Women such as she was, are life’s touchstones. I have relished and sought out the wisdom and sheer fun of being with older people, particularly strong women with a great sense of humour. An essential tool and weapon in life.

So when I heard the news on a cold November day I had to try and digest it. I went for a walk to blow away the cobwebs, kick up some fallen leaves and think about her. The grey blustery afternoon matched my mood. In the leaffall I spied beauty in the foliage that lay spent on the ground. The leaves, once so much part of the tree, had done
their job, drawn in light and provided nutrition and air filtered out the toxins and allowed us to breathe. Peeping through the fallen leaves piercing the brown, red, orange and yellow was the young green of life of new grass.

This afternoon I tuned into a webinar at my children’s school and saw a quote from Henry Adams ‘A teacher affects eternity and one can never tell where their influence stops’ (the original quote used the word ‘he’). I was reminded of the incredible teachers that have not only influenced my life but are doing so now for my children in the most challenging, disruptive and uncertain of times. Of course, teaching involves passing on knowledge and content, skills and strategies; but ultimately it is about nurturing and nourishing enabling us to grow and thrive, to find and reach our potential, even in the most difficult of circumstances. This week’s photograph was one I took a few days ago, a moment of quiet contemplation of Nature’s glory. Perhaps in the midst of all this madness take time to think about
someone who has imparted life lessons to you.

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