Friday, July 01, 2016

My Lessons of History in School

I consider myself singularly lucky and blessed that the lessons in history - and poetry- started for me much earlier in life than for most people. I was myself, however, innocently unaware about all this at that time.

To begin with, take the case of the date of my birth. It was determined as 15th November, 1943 - perhaps, a year less - at the time of my admission, in October 1949, in the District Board (soon changed to be ‘Government') Primary School of the neighboring village, located in what was still called the Angrezi Ilaqa (British Territory). It was a school with one kutcha (made of mud) room; a small court yard which had low (less than three feet high) mud wall around it; two teachers and four classes. The school had about forty students from the surrounding villages.

The name of the village is Sohian, near the old town of Malaudh, about 30 Km from Ludhiana. I do recollect that the senior teacher Pandit Lachhman Dass Ji had asked my father whether he had thought for me a plan of higher education or putting me in some job soon after my matriculation. My father had replied, in a very polite but deeply determined voice, that he would like me to go for the highest possible education.

I was to come to know 55 years later - a few years after my own retirement at age of 60 - that this popular but strict disciplinarian teacher who had commanded deep respect among generations of students had served in the same school for his entire teaching career!

It was in this school, I had heard the couplets of the first folk poem by a senior student, Jagga Singh, praising Mahatma Gandhi to be clever enough to ‘outwit' the foxy white rulers!

The white Kothi (mini-palace) with high walls and surrounded by the thick lines of tall trees of a Sardar (petty chief, feudal lord) called Kaka Ji of Sohian was visible from the school. It was, however, more a like a mysterious fort for us, the young students- something like the complex buildings I was to see later in the horror films. I had, however, come to know that the Young Sardar-Kaka Ji has been recruited as a Poolas Kaptan (Police Superintendent) by the Government of Independent India. Later in life, my efforts to meet the then octogenarian, Sardar Narinder Singh Phulka, IPS (Retd.), could not bear fruit, in spite of the fact that one of his sons-in-laws, now retired in anonymity from the IAS, had been a friend from my college days.

The next historic turning point for me came in May 1951 when I was admitted in the third grade in the High School in Ahmedgarh, the nearby town. The family took some more time to shift there from the village. I felt quite at ease being exposed to a refreshing atmosphere of freedom, patriotism and nationalism surcharging this school named, soon after Independence, from Public High School to 'Mahatma Gandhi Memorial National (MGMN) High School'.

The eight years of the continuous studies in the school provided me with ample opportunities to look all around far beyond the lessons in the class rooms. I must thank Master Ashni Kumar, a senior teacher of English and Social Studies who had started mentoring me right from my sixth class.

The town of Ahmedgarh (named after Nawab Ahmed Ali of the tiny state of Malerkotla (1881-1947) had been founded in 1905 in the wake of the construction of the revolutionizing rail link connecting Ludhiana to the southern-eastern belt of Dhuri-Jakhal and beyond. The new look town regularly witnessed, as if it were a typical Greek city state, debates and dramas in the school which were often joined by the chaudhris (elders) of the town too.

The local wings of political parties - Congress, Socialists and Jan Sangh in particular - seemed to be vigorously competing to bring their national leaders to address the people in the Gandhi Chowk, in the miniature Connaught Place of the town, proclaimed to have been planned after Montgomery! The location of the town on the cross-borders of adjacent Riyasati (Princely) and Angrezi (British) pockets of territories had made it a favorite and strategic meeting place for freedom fighters playing grim games of hide and seek after daring protests and acts of defiance including an act of loot - at gun point - of the government funds in a train robbery between Ahmedgarh and Malerkotla!

In terms of history, I must refer to the tragically maddening times in the wake of Partition. My great grandfather Param Sant Vaid Bhushan Pramatma Nand Ji had passed away on October 19, 1947, a day after the death of Nawab Ahmad Ali of Malerkotla. I can vividly recall how the mourners at the Bhog ­- the last prayer - were cursing the kaliyuga (Evil Epoch) for the calamities befalling the nation and her noble people. I could later notice that many houses had been burnt down in my mother's village - apparently belonging to Muslims. The mosque had been quickly converted into a Gurdwara!

I was luckier as a child to be spared the trauma of witnessing the scenes of murders and violence. But what about the feelings of a ten-year-old boy who was witness to his father getting critically wounded when he fell down trying to board an over packed vehicle leaving Sialkot for India? He had been left behind as dead on the road. The boy turned out to be a brilliant student and rose to the highest professional position for an engineer in India. But how would the pain of losing a father in that cruelest way ever go away - even though in retirement, he became Director of Gandhi Museum, opposite the Raj Ghat!

I do remember that I was able to broadly read, when I was in the fifth class, the Golden History of India by Vishva Nath, M. A., B.T., and Jagan Nath Grover B.A., B.T., senior teachers of History, Arya High School, Ludhiana. It was a popular text book for high classes and belonged to my uncle appearing for matriculation.

I remember vividly how among brief sketches of the contemporary historical personalities: Winston Churchill was described as the plain and blunt speaker; Joseph Stalin was the son of a cobbler of Georgia; De Valera was a great revolutionary freedom fighter, and so on.

Among the teachers of history at school, Master Ram Kishore - in his typical Poadhi dialect of Punjabi - would become deeply emotional in praising Chanakaya, the great teacher and his gifted disciple Chandra Gupta Maurya. Then, he would blame all the current ills of the country on the lack of respect for the teachers! Kishori Lal Sahir would quote couplets of Persian and would turn the lesson into play - assigning the students roles of characters of history, e.g., showing Hemu getting wounded with an arrow in the eye by covering the eye of a student with the corner piece of his turban!

Giani Romesh, known for punishing students with Bhrind - painful pinches, would often use the idiom, Dushmanan de Dand Khatte kar Ditte (leave a sour taste in your enemy's mouth).  It was not by making them eat tamarind, but putting up a brave fight.

The most reputed teacher of history / Geography and English in our school was, however, Master Ashni Kumar, a skeleton-thin person known for his razor sharp intellect and sharp satirical remarks. I was destined to be his favorite student and remain so for more than four decades till he breathed his last at a ripe old age in 1999.

In the tranquility of the years of my retirement, I have endeavored to reinvigorate my interest in the history of the select historical personalities and places-particularly in the more intimate region of the Punjab. My childhood interest in Sirhind was strongly reinforced when, during my posting to Pakistan in 1993, I had to facilitate the visit for a pilgrimage to the city by Prof. S Mojaddid, a former President of the Interim Govt. of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal - the family claims 14 generations to have been buried there! The city with a significant strategic location has the most fascinating and absorbing history of the rise and fall of its rulers. The Ambala-Ludhiana-Sirhind section of the Delhi-Lahore railway line was opened on Oct.1, 1869.

Sirhind has turned a new page in its history with the recent establishment of excellent institutions of higher education including the Shri Guru Granth Sahib World University. A sort of personal history was made for me when, on 8th of November, 2011, the Acting Vice Chancellor, Dr Gurnek Singh, welcomed me to the University with a very special personal warmth and affection. He surprised me by telling me that he was my student in 1968 when I was a lecturer in the Govt. Rajindra College, Bhatinda. After the privilege of crisscrossing the continents representing India in distant alien lands, it is a very special soulful delight to rediscover the deeper eternal roots of friendship and love in the soils nearer home!

The learning - and teaching - of the History of India with a balanced and dispassionate approach is a great challenge. The average individual in society rightly seems to consider the past dead and gone; and the future all day dreaming! It is, therefore, all in the present and near future which is relevant for thought and action. But our battles in the present are often fought over the different versions the past and visions of the future. When I remember the school books and the teachers, so many live images flash before my mind's eye. Alexander, the great, impressed us as students as the most mesmerizing figure of the earlier era. Ashok and Akbar seemed to define the essence of India. Whatever may his later day critics say, for most of my generation Jawaharlal Nehru certainly qualifies to be called the architect of modern India.


The history is continuously in the process of being re-evaluated; the state-craft is such a gigantic entity ­- the search for the total and un-alloyed truth in the affairs of the state would remain a noble pursuit. The pursuit of power and the greed for riches would seem to know no limits - the truth for the cash loads for votes in the Parliament House gets more and more mysterious! The Right to Information has been emerging as an interesting search-light to illuminate deeply hidden dark spots in the files of current history.

Let us hope for better times ahead in terms of truthful history.

References to this article

  • This article was included in the collection "India of the Past, Preserving memories of India and Indians"