Goodbye To A Gracious President

Two American Presidents have appealed to my political consciousness: President John Kennedy in the early 1960s; and Barrack Obama half a century later. If one has lived a little beyond
20 Jan 2017 12:36
Goodbye To A  Gracious President

Two American Presidents have appealed to my political consciousness: President John Kennedy in the early 1960s; and Barrack Obama half a century later.

If one has lived a little beyond the biblical threescore and ten years, there are reasons for great gratitude.

I spent my undergraduate days in Delhi in the shadow of Pundit Nehru; my early teaching career was touched by Nehru’s words: he was a political writer par excellence and India’s first prime minister for over seventeen years; and John Kennedy, whose speeches inspired a generation, though he was unable to complete even one term in the White House.

I was never more affected than when President John F Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November, 1963.

I’d just begun teaching in Doon school in Dehradun, India’s most famous ‘public’ school and  students came from the rich and famous families of India, including two of Indira Gandhi’s sons, both tragically killed, one in a plane crash; the other politically murdered. Mrs Gandhi’s death remains a terrible warning: Who guards your bodyguards?

But the two people I think of often are two writers that the Doon School shaped in some form: they are Vikram Seth, author of A Suitable Boy, and the other is Amitav Ghosh.

Seth is known for writing one of the longest novels in 20th Century literature; but more importantly, if any Indian writer ever gets the second Nobel Prize for Literature, it’s likely to be Ghosh–he has written half a dozen most remarkable novels on the Indian diaspora, set in the vicinity of the Indian subcontinent. The last Indian to get the Literary Nobel was Rabindranath Tagore in 1913.

On that morning of assassination, 22 November, 1963, I was rushing to my class before breakfast–Doon was a residential school and the classes began before breakfast. I was teaching English to a group of youngsters who had read more English books than I had; or so it seemed to me. And my joining the Doon School was an accidental meeting with the headmaster of the school at a party in New Delhi.

For some reason, Mr J A K Martyn, originally from Eton or was it Harrow or both? invited me to come and teach there for a year at least.  He might have thought I might bring a bit of the South Pacific colour and the spirit of rugby to the school !I was getting married and I was ad as a teacher, just beginning my career.

When I joined the school, a couple of months later, he gave me two books to read: Goodbye Mr Chips and A Teacher’s Story by Guy Boas. I found them fascinating and have been reading the stories written by teachers ever since. Among them Up The Down Staircase, To Sir With Love, The Blackboard Jungle – they are inspiring stories which should be read by students in any teacher training college.

Sadly I’ve not come across a book of that nature by a teacher in Fiji and we’ve had so many outstanding teachers: a couple of them taught me too.

But like most of our politicians, they didn’t write their narratives which could have illuminated our teaching lives and we could have understood them better for their gifts to us. Some became pundits in their retirements.

But there’s still time for some of us. It’s never too late to tell your story–and once the tale is told, it acquires the miasma of a small classic: someone, somewhere will read it and perhaps even derive inspiration; in moments of despair, a ray of hope shining on the blackboard of life.

But, alas, now we use computers more than blackboards, although I’m not sure if the content and colour of what we teach has changed significantly for the better.



So that wintry morning in Doon school, as the mist from Mussourie hill station was descending on the city below and filling up the Doon valley, I saw a lady  running towards me as I was about to enter my ivy-covered classroom.

She was followed by Vikram Seth, a smallish boy in his early teens. The news they brought was devastating: President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

I abandoned my class: and walked towards my cottage on the school campus.  A group of senior students had already gathered on the balcony of my home.

We sat down and had tea. No-one spoke much.

There was a sadness that hung over our heads like a veil of tears. And as the sun shone, we began going towards the dining hall to have our breakfast.

Tea and toast are important in any tragedy.

Why a man, whom we had hardly known, should affect us so deeply? This is the great appeal of a good political leader–Kennedy had touched the hearts and minds of many in remote corners of the world– a voice and a vision of a new world order after the near miss of the Cuban missile crisis.  With him there was hope brightening the new horizons of the young.

Later the many amoral sides of the young president were revealed by smaller men but it didn’t matter to me. I continued reading the many books on Kennedy.

It was only eight years ago that once again I felt a new hope was generated by the extraordinary election of Barrack Obama to the presidency of the richest and most powerful nation  on earth. To some, this nation is most dangerous; to others the most generous.

A few days ago I listened to Obama’s farewell speech in Chicago, the city where his meteoric rise to power had its origins.

He spoke for almost an hour–supporters cheering him and making him feel emotional and, at times, ecstatic.

Despite his oratorical flourishes, and enduring optimism, there was in that speech a melancholy wisdom of a man who was elevated to the highest office in the land by its millions of White, Black, Brown, Yellow  citizens. But now was riding into the sunset, fully aware of the limitations of power and good intentions.

It was a sadness for which there were many causes: the most important was the impending idea that a very different man, with a different sensibility and understanding of the world, will take over as the President of the United(Divided) States of America.

A few months ago it was inconceivable: tomorrow it will be a reality as daily as your newspaper.

And the general feeling is one of uncertainty and dread. The rise of populist demagogues is the fatal danger to every democracy and when it happens in the US, the world must shudder.

It’s not that Donald Trump has triumphed; nor that he’s likely to be a bull in the china shop, nor an unbearable bear hacking in the Siberian snow; or a beast slouching to be born in the desert sands of Arabia.

It’s really the kind and quality of minds that surround him and will advise him in the darkest moments of crises: whether it’s about Russia or China or  Arabia; or the deepening racial divide within the USA, or on matters of climate change or the gap between the rich and the poor and the treatment of, refugees, minorities and migrants  by so many quite nasty characters in power.

Terror begins in the heart of a homeland: Terrorism is a foreign country.

In this gloom I went back to Barrack Obama’s book Dreams From My Father. It’s in that notable narrative that you get some idea of the quality of mind and the depth of thinking of a young and  energetic, and sensitively intelligent man.

One lasting consolation is that Obama and his dignified wife, Michelle, are still young: together they can create independent institutions where the young of every shade can search for answers to urgent human and planetary issues like world peace, human rights, protecting the planet from climactic disasters, refugees, employment, poverty, and believing in democracy–for democracy is   fragile as the human spirit and equally as strong.

Neither Mahatma Gandhi, nor Martin Luther King was ever elected to Parliament; yet they continue to give hope and solace to innumerable millions. Some leaders are more effective outside the office than in it.


So what do we do as teachers?

Before Kennedy, the book which first took me on my American journey was poet Carl Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln  – still America’s most admired President. In my final year in Delhi University , our college had three Houses: Tolstoy, Gandhi and Lincoln: they were not only from three different civilisations but  we were in the midst of three noblest souls of humanity with all their flaws  and frailties of our shared humanity.

But they were visionaries, too. And they wrote their thoughts themselves, as if the inward journey of words and thoughts, illuminated all our lives, no matter where we lived and dreamed.

It’s at Doon school, on a return trip a few years ago with Jyoti, a friend gave me a copy of the school magazine. In it were quoted these lines which I think has deep significance.

It’s what Abe Lincoln wrote to the headmaster of his son’s school:

My son will have to learn, to know all that all men are not just, all men are not true. But teach him also that for every scoundrel there is a hero; that for every selfish politician, there’s a dedicated leader…teach him that for every enemy there’s a friend.

Teach him to learn to lose… let him learn early that bullies are easiest to lick…teach him , if you can, the wonder of books, but also give him time to ponder the eternal mystery of birds in the sky, bees in the sun, and flowers on a green hillside.

Teach him to have faith in his ideas and have the courage to reexamine his ideas in the light of new knowledge.

Teach him to be gentle with gentle people, and tough with the tough.

Teach him to laugh when he’s sad and that there’s no shame in tears … teach him to close his ears to the howling mob and put no price tag on his heart and soul.

Teach him to be brave and have sublime faith in himself, because then he will have sublime faith in humankind.


Feedback:  jyotip@fijisun.com.fj


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