(This story was first published on 5 September, 2019. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives to mark teachers' day.)
The Punjab Public School (PPS) in Nabha, is a great institution for reasons beyond its enviable infrastructure and stellar alumni such as Indian Army General Bikram Singh, or Hero MotoCorp Managing Director Pawan Munjal, or Wharton professor Jagmohan Singh Raju.
I was a student here for five years, beginning in August 1980. Most of the school’s success must be credited to its teachers, including founding headmaster JK Kate. One such teacher who must be given his due is KMP Menon; he taught economics.
Several of Mr Menon’s students remember the way in which he reached out to them in times of desperation. They always reiterate how Mr Menon offered his help with love and grace. Even in the classroom, his approach to teaching economics was unique. I can vouch for this even though he never taught me. I had only experienced him when he came as a substitute teacher to my class.
Mr Menon’s Classroom Anecdotes
I was in class 9. “How many of you know that Nizam of Hyderabad was the world’s richest man in his time?” Mr Menon had asked the class.
What he went on to narrate has never left me since that day in 1984. “Here is one of the ways in which he became the wealthiest: The Nizam was a smoker. He loved smoking expensive cigars. However, his frugality didn’t allow him to spend on them. Can anyone guess how he still enjoyed the most expensive cigars without spending a paisa on them?”
The clueless class looked raptly at his dark and calm face who wore a thick mustache, with curly hair nestled atop his head.
“He smoked the remainders his guests left in the ashtrays!”
I retold the story to a few visitors in Bangalore on 17 June 2015, as I sat by the bed of an unwell Mr Menon. My audience included my PPS companions, Naveel “murda” Singla and Deepak “thakur” Singh, in the room of the teacher’s younger daughter Mini’s house. Mr Menon squeezed my right hand after I finished: “You still remember that,” he said in a whisper, as tears streamed down his face.
As we were leaving, Mrs Menon stopped us and gave us a message from her ailing husband: “Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!” This time, I couldn’t hold back the tears.
Mr Menon, the “Kindest Father”
Until then I had not understood how seriously ill he was. The following evening, as I had just started to sip my whiskey, the phone rang. It was Mini. Her father, Mr Menon, had passed away a few hours ago. I was in shock.
Mini also commented that after our visit the previous day, “Mom said your visit had brought a divine calm and joy on his face she had not seen in a long-time.” Both his daughters, Mini and Mickie, are still not “in a space to even have a photo of him in the house.”
Said Mini of her father: “…kindest, most intelligent…the words dislike or hate never existed for him…had the most amazing Wodehousean sense of humor…I changed forever the day my dad left me. He wouldn’t have liked it at all. But that (is) the downside of having the perfect person as your father…”
How We Earned Our Nicknames
Another teacher in this legendary league was Mr Ram Singh.
Though I can’t say how many inches over four feet he was, he towered tall, and not only for those he taught mathematics to. His “kakaji” shouts echoed through the senior Jumna House for which he was housemaster, even in the winters — his well-known ‘enemy’.
All of us in the school, especially the overwhelming majority who were boarders, were soon given nicknames by our peers, upon joining the junior school in classes fifth or sixth. My friend Rajesh “panditji” Sharma, who lives in Brampton, Canada now, was gifted his ‘middle name’ by Mr Ram Singh.
“Since I joined the school in eighth along with our Appu brothers, Rahul and Ashish, Mr Ram Singh asked me my name in the math class. When I told him, he went, “Oh, so you are panditji,” and that was that. Hardly anyone knew my real name, and that stays true till date. “A few of my neighbors here call me that because they have overheard my wife using it at times,” Panditji told me over a phone call on 4 July.
Mr Ram Singh: A Stickler For Honesty & Integrity
I was home enjoying the American Independence Day holiday that Thursday. When I checked our ICSE ’85 WhatsApp group, I saw that Panditji had posted, informing us of Mr Ram Singh’s passing,
“Here goes another pillar,” I mumbled, and heaved a deep sigh.
Though Mr Ram Singh retired ages ago, he still lived in Nabha in a rented house with his wife. His only child, Pappu (Abhijeet Singh), lives in Sydney, Australia, with his wife.
Shivraj Singh “Binnu” Brar, presently security chief of the State Bank of Patiala, after his retirement from the army, also has stories about Mr Ram Singh, who was his Jumna House housemaster.
“It was raining one day when Mr Ram Singh came into the house for a random tour when there was almost nobody in the house. He closed his umbrella and left it standing top-down against the wall of the entrance. We put it high up somewhere. When leaving, he could see it but couldn’t reach it.”
Binnu was good at many things, but academics was not one of those.
“Mr Menon was too good. Once I was trying to cheat in an exam and he was on duty in the exam hall. He came and gave me the book itself. When that didn’t end my struggles, he helped me find answers. With Mr Ram Singh it was slightly different. Once I copied Sukhwinder Singh “Sukhi” Grewal’s answers during our mathematics exam. When we got our papers back, Sukhi got 90, and I, only 45,” said Binnu, who had, at the time, indignantly gone to Mr Ram Singh with his grievance.
“If you can, right now, do even one of them correctly, I will give you 100,” Mr Ram Singh shot back.
How Two ‘Outsiders’ Stayed Back to Teach in Turbulent Punjab
“Mr Ram Singh had a special place in his heart and mind for farmers’ children. He went out of his way to help them and cajole them into doing something. I was part of the school band. Rumor has it that you had to at least fail in three subjects to qualify in the school band,” Binnu said. “Mr Ram Singh would tell some of us from the villages, ‘at least go join the school band.’”
While Mr Menon was from Ottapalam in Kerala, Mr Ram Singh hailed from Allahabad – in fact, Amitabh Bachchan’s dad taught him English when he was in college at Allahabad University. Their roots help explain why these two teachers are so revered. Punjab and the Punjabis were hapless victims of the senseless violence in the 1980s. These two “outsiders” stayed on to take care of and support us even when many Punjabis left in search of peace and security.
How can a school or its students ever repay such luminaries?
(Charanjeet Minhas is a Delaware resident and Founder and CEO of Tekstrom, Inc, a 25-year-old software company. He is also the founder and chairman of Delaware Sikh Awareness Coalition (DSAC). This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)