Monday, August 28, 2006

A Coup D’etat in School by a Teacher Extraordinaire

The following article appeared in the online publication South Asia Post, July 31, 2006

Master Ashni Kumar, photographed 1957-58
    Master Ashni Kumar
   photographed 1957-58
IT was exactly the eve of the beginning of the summer vacation in my school way back on July 15th 1958.  I had been studying for three months in the ‘do-or-die’, 10th Grade - the final class of the MGMN (Mahatma Gandhi Memorial National) High School in a tiny town of the Southern Punjab. The School was to remain closed for two months - a period long enough to confuse the minds of young students for the vague psychological time-span. All the enormous instructions about the tons of home - tasks during the 'big' vacation had been loudly and clearly indicated - verbally and also on the black boards by the teachers of various subjects. The newly appointed and youthful Sardar Karnail Singh, B.Sc. B.T, teacher of mathematics and science underlined that those who studied regularly during the vacation would have nothing to fear about the final examination. The stern looking, the senior tough  task master of English and social studies, Ashni Kumar had prescribed the certain number of essays and letters to be written and ‘memorized’ and  ‘solving’ the entire set of the ten-year old papers of the University! The students had spread the ‘story’ that this stick-thin teacher had a weight of only 39 kg at the age of 39!  The old students used to proclaim that for the weight of his vast knowledge, he could be compared to the weight of the whole universe! But in terms of his physical frame, he might just be equal to the weight of the uniform of a Russian soldier!!

Then, as per the practice adopted for a few previous years, Ashni Kumar summoned us - the three top adjudged students of the B-section - and told us that we would be taught by him for a special one hour session for the first one month of the vacation - of course, free of any fee, as it used to be in those good old days!

So, came the 15th July and we three students reached the school in time at the indicated 0930 hours. Master Ashni Kumar - already there, coming out of the office room- directed us to fetch four chairs and a smaller table under a Neem tree in the courtyard of the school.  He joined us soon. Looking at our school bags full of books, he gave us an angry and  dirty look, saying, “You fools, did I ask you to bring all these text books during this period of holidays…  now study these books only at home!”

We started wondering what could be in store for us. The teacher soon spread out the newspaper, ‘The Tribune’, on the table. We had certainly not come prepared for all this!  I had, of course, started ‘glancing through’ The Tribune in my 7th class, mainly to read about the cricket matches. The visit of the New Zealand team in 1955-56 had been of particular interest: A.G. Kirpal Singh, of the then Madras State Team, had scored a century in his maiden test appearance at Hyderabad; the opening wicket partnership of 413 runs between Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy in the 5th Test still remains a world record! How strange and mysterious a co-incidence that I was watching the first India-New Zealand Test in Wellington, Dec.12-16,  2002 i.e. 46 years later,  in the company of the great Kiwi all rounder, John Reid who was the vice-captain of the team in `55-56’!!

Coming back to the day of 15th July, 1958 in the school, the teacher asked me to read aloud the big banner headline on the first page of the Tribune which boldly proclaimed, “Coup d’etat in Iraq, King Faisel killed, Prime Minister Noori also assassinated”. The first word posed a big and serious problem – wrongly printed! Mis-spelt!!? I was simply speechless. I could feel that the teacher had also a sort of inexplicable curiosity on his face - he still insisted that I should read the headline aloud. I did obey and started reading, pronouncing ‘Coup d’etat’ with full emphasis on  letter ‘p’ sounding like, ‘koop de etatte’ in Iraq.…’  There was a small smile on the lips of the teacher and he said, "it is not your fault… it is strange… you got a word to read which is not of English but of the French language…". He started explaining patiently, “in this French word,   letter ‘p’ is not pronounced and 'd' and 't' are pronounced softly – indicating the two equivalent letters in Hindi”.   We tried to lip-imitate what the teacher pronounced a couple of time more for us. Then the teacher went on to explain the meaning of the word, “sudden violent overthrow of a Government; in Hindi, it could be ‘Hinsatamak Achanak Raj Parivartan’… ‘Hakoomat Ki khoon-Bhari Tabdeeli, etc.’ Further on, we had no difficulty in reading - and half understanding - the remaining part of the news report. We read, “The Crown Prince   also killed and his dead body hung high at the main gate of the Al-Zahoor Palace… the body of Prime Minister Noor-es-Said dragged in the streets of Baghdad... The new leader of Iraq is Brig. Abdul Karim Kassem” - The last one appeared an impressive name for my early – teen mind!

The above introduction to the French word, Coup D’etat has indeed ever since been etched in the deepest recesses of my mind.  During my career as a diplomat, I had to attend the 14th July; Reception in the Embassy of Iraq on several occasions, in several capitals - the incident at school would always flash before my eyes! I was also witness to the ‘illuminations’ in the sky in the Saudi capital, Riyadh when the Patriot missiles intercepted the Scud missiles fired during the war in Kuwait.

The  ancient land  of the Mesopotamia, with capital Baghdad as the seat of the mightiest and the wisest of the Empires, not to speak of the fairest fairies i.e. the Hoors,  seems to have its modern destiny written in blood and tears! The cycle of mindless violence seems without an end since the coup of July 14, 1958. To Saddam Hussein, born on April 28, 1937, now facing trial for horrible crimes against his own people, goes the dubious distinction in Iraq’s history - no single man has caused as much destruction to Iraq as he has done through his reign of terror and violence; three bloody wars in which hundreds and thousands of Iraqis have died and continue to die; millions are homeless in their own country and other countries of the world. In terms of its oil resources and fertile lands, Iraq has all the potentials to be a prosperous and developed country - let us pray for her people!

As for my school teacher, Ashni Kumar, he remained my ‘Unique Guru’ as long as he was alive – and he lived an active intellectual life till his last in the ripe old age: he had predicted his own long life explaining that he had got disciplined himself to all the physical ailments since early childhood! We had a long and lively exchange of views through letters on all the topics under the sun - more of all this in the columns of South Asia Post around the Teachers’ Day in September.

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