Mar 1, 2014

Stepping Stones

"The best way to treat obstacles is to use them as stepping-stones.
Laugh at them, tread on them, and let them lead you to something better."
― Enid Blyton, Mr Galliano's Circus

I was twelve and in Class IV at Independent Church Middle School when H.Thanglora came to open Pherzawl High School in early 1951, the first ever high school in the Manipur hills, thanks to our farsighted Chief Dolura. It was dreams come true for us, a blessed assurance that after we finished Middle School stage, we could continue our studies at least up to matriculation from the comfort of our lowly thatched roofs. In those days one had to go either to Imphal, Silchar or Aijal (now Aizawl) to continue schooling after Class VI which only very few could afford. And passing matriculation then was like conquering Mount Everest. Pherzawl did not produce even one matriculate till 1953 when its high school was recognized by the Manipur government.

But things began to change. Dawn broke with the opening of the high school. The first candidates for matriculation examination from Pherzawl High School were sent out in 1954 and within ten years, it produced 72 matriculates of which more than 20 were from Pherzawl village itself. I was one of them and within ten years after I matriculated in 1959 preceded by two frightful flops, I had not only obtained college and university degrees but also conquered the apex All India Civil Service Competitive Examinations and landed up in the national capital Delhi which became my official headquarters and residence since. The journey from Pherzawl to Delhi was a long way. It took a decade of immense struggle during which I jumped over many civilizations covering several thousand years. This was possible only through the path of education. One can bridge up several civilizations through this route. There’s no other short-cut.

My parents came to this world naked and left fully clothed but unlettered. My father died when I was only three months old. In our way of saying, he died as a believer (Ringtu niin a thi) but before he could learn the ABC which the old folks then called it ‘the white man’s magic’. I was the thirteenth child of seven brothers and six sisters, an impressive score only few could match but an inconvenient example for authorities propagating birth control. Being the youngest amongst seven brothers and brought up orphaned, my mother took every possible care that I did not experience material and emotional deprivation. She used to tell me the story of seven brothers and how the youngest excelled all his elder siblings. At the end of the story, she never failed to conclude the story with words of encouragement that I, being the youngest amongst the seven brothers, would also become the most successful. These encouraging words entrenched in my brain so deeply that her words would resonate in my hours of difficulties and hopelessness and propel me to action, especially when I failed matriculation twice in 1957-58.

Our village school
My colleagues either in Indian Revenue Service or Indian Foreign Service could never believe me whenever I told them of my school days at the rickety Independent Church Middle School with two teachers- one Class 8 passed and the other Class 2 passed. They thought I was joking and pulling their legs. I didn’t blame them in that to climb to the apex Indian civil service from my humble stepping stone as compared to theirs was to them unreal and an impossible feat. Our school building consisted of only a medium-size hall with rows of crudely hewn wooden benches and desks for Class VI-II and the lower classes had only wooden benches but not desks. In every period, our headmaster had to take 5 different classes and the rest by his assistant. We were told to memorize or learn by heart every subject except mathematics of which we had to learn the formula. The term ‘by heart or by rote’ became so popular that it soon became a household word in its localized form ‘baihat’ although this buzzword perhaps does not find a place in standard English dictionary except in the form of a phrase ‘learn by heart or by rote’.

By heart/by rote
That’s the way we built up our stepping stones. We stuffed into our virgin brain whatever material available, especially hymns and songs and most of us did not need a song book at all when singing. Whenever I learnt a new song I would not rest until I memorized the lyrics. I still remembered the day a friend taught me of Zumi’s beautiful composition Ka hmaah lui ral khaw mawi chu a awm. It was lunch time and my mother called me to join them. But I was on my way to storing the lyrics into my brain and chose to miss lunch than breaking my commitment. To-day, after more than 60 years since that day, I can still recite it as eloquent as I do the Lord’s Prayer. It’s worth missing lunch.

Those were the days, in the Middle School and the High School when we used to sing every poem in our syllabus that we could translate in our ingenuously adapted tunes and these poems are still fresh in my memory as if I got them by heart yesterday. They include Mrs. J.A.Carney’s Little drops of water (1845), John Howard Payne’s Home Sweet Home (1823), Alexander Pope’s Solitude (1700), William Wordsworth’s The Daffodils (1802), H. W. Longfellow’s Psalm of Life (1838), Sir Walter Scott’s Breathes there the man with soul so dead (1805) and others. Later, I had the opportunity of visiting some of the actual scenes which inspired them to write these lovely poems, for example Payne’s temporary residence in Paris and his home in Long Islands in New York and William Wordsworth’s home in the Lake District in England. Because of my association with these sights and sounds through poems during my impressionable years, visiting the actual sites was like returning to my old sweet home in Pherzawl. Most other poems I memorized but never sang had vanished from my memory since long. But those poems I sang and memorized sank deep into my soul and became a part of my being.

Once I got anything by heart, however difficult to comprehend the meaning of words and expressions used and its intended messages, I have always been trying to make out the meaning and its import by meditating on them when in a vacant mood. My experience in this exercise has been that I could grasp the meaning and intent of passages I had read and memorized only at the level of my knowledge and understanding. It’s just like a blurry vision of a new born child which is nearsighted and is gradually developing its visual abilities and seeing things clearer as the child grows up. This to me is a process of realization of the meaning of life and truth from stage to stage like Paul described the importance of the gospel in revealing the righteousness of God from faith to faith (Ro. 1:17). It has to do more with mental and spiritual development than with physical growth. A streak of lightning that blinded Paul’s physical eyes had opened his inner eyes and he could later be able to see again in his physical eyes too after something like scales fell from his eyes.

Our mind’s eyes are covered by many layers of scale of ignorance and the purpose of education is to remove these layers of scale one by one so that a person can see his or her innate abilities, draw them out and utilize them for the physical and spiritual survival of humanity which is the ultimate aim of life. Therefore, removal of every layer of scale from the mind’s eyes is an important stepping stone to move further on to the next stage of life’s journey of realization. Those who read the Proverbs carefully will know its central theme- factors that lead to knowledge, understanding and wisdom which are all hinged on the fear of the Lord. Some people may think that by saying all these, I am philosophizing about the matter but I am not. I am just trying to explain it in my own way.

In search of English
Before I proceed further, let me briefly relate an important incident which changed the course of my life. We had in our village a government Lower Primary school in Manipuri (Meitei) medium and the teacher was my brother-in-law, the husband of my fifth sister. My brothers first sent me to study there thinking that knowing Manipuri would be an asset for my future career. Much earlier, my elder brother Vanhnuoithang who died in 1937, two years before I was born studied in Government Middle School at Thanlon and got a merit scholarship for topping at the Lower Primary examination in Manipur and perhaps my brothers pinned hopes on me that I could repeat the same feat. But learning Manipuri was not my cup of tea for reasons I do not understand till to-day. My spirit rebelled and I could not apply my mind. Our teacher would unfailingly punish all pupils who could not recite the homework assigned to them by making them stand on the bench. I was always one of them. I was never punished at home and every punishment in the school made my mind more rebellious. I found it demeaning and unhelpful.

One night, I had a dream. I was sitting in the class and our teacher asked me to recite my homework which I could not do. The teacher hit me with his cane stick and told me to stand on the desk. All my school mates jeered and mocked at me. Unable to bear my anger and frustration, I stormed out of the school.
Those days, I used to sleep with my elder brother Kamzabiek. That night, I jumped out of bed carrying my bedcover. I walked towards the main door, passed the fireplace and saw two or three young men sitting and chatting with my sister Zawlsiemzo, opened the front door and stopped at the porch holding the outermost ridge-pole. Realising that I was sleepwalking, my brother came after me and held me to stop. He asked me, “Where are you going?” and I replied, “I am going out in search of English” (Saptrong zongin ka fe ding a nih). It was then that I became conscious and knew that I was sleepwalking.

Sleepwalking is known as somnambulism or noctambulism in technical term and is caused by a number of factors. The next day, my brothers stopped sending me to the government L.P. School and admitted me to the Independent Church Middle-English School where I jumped my class three times within six months and topped the class all the way. Had my family continued to put me in the Manipuri medium school, I would have left schooling at very young age and become a farmer. Right choice at the right time is an important stepping stone as it can change the course of human history from doom to success, and darkness to light. As far as I can recall, that was the last sleepwalking I had. Thank God, I managed to walk out of my schooling nightmares!

Pherzawl-Delhi: The twin shall meet
Pherzawl during our days was a medium-size village with only about 80 houses. Perched on top of a small mountain range running from north to south and sandwiched by two small rivers- Tuizang in the east and Tuibum in the west, the village was not connected to motor roads or any facilities like post office, electricity, water supply, health centers, and any infrastructural facilities under the sun. It’s a world by itself, our small world. Delhi was too far away for our concern and we were too tiny for their concern. We knew only two names- Gandhi & Nehru. The rest did not matter to us. Only few could sing Indian national anthem, those who attended government schools. The village folks didn’t bother whether we have a national or anti-national anthem. I learned our anthem only after I joined the high school. If you accosted village folks and asked them to sing our national anthem to-day, you might draw a blank. Instead, they might prefer to sing my composition ‘Kan tlangram mawi’ which to them is more relevant to their day to day existence.

The first national anthem I ever learned and sang was the Lushai Version of the British anthem God Save the King (Kan Sap lal duhber a) which everyone knew it by heart and I can still recite every word of it. We were born under their colony and it was our bounden duty to pay obeisance to the British Crown. Later, after some years, my colleague and friend at Pherzawl High School, Lal Thanzaua Pudaite and I not only had to lead in singing Jana Gana Mana after hoisting the national flag in different foreign stations where we represented India but also had to read out our President’s message to the nation on Republic Day and Independence Day occasions. Sometimes it sounds unreal to think that a man like me from Pherzawl would hold a distinctive position of being the first Indian Foreign Service officer from Manipur! By God’s grace, my mother’s dreams were fulfilled during her life’s time. Next to God, she was my biggest stepping stone and sustainer.

Lesson from failures
As I mentioned earlier, I flopped twice at the matriculation examination because of mathematics. It was a traumatic and self-demeaning experience, something I would not like to repeat even in dreams. Forty four years later, when I was Consul-General of India in Milan (Italy) I wrote an article ‘Ka chhiarkawp buan’ describing how I overcame the hurdle by resorting to ‘baihat’ all the ten-year solved questions on arithmetic. If I ever learned any profitable lesson from my experience, it was this two-year frightful flops. I took a vow at that time that I would never fail again in exams. That was one of the most important stepping stones of my life.

Introspectively analyzed, the two traumatic years were a blessing in disguise and very important stepping stone on which I built my future career. During the two-year drought, I searched deeply within myself to find out who I was and for what purpose did I come into this world. To fill up the solitary hours, I started composing songs, learned tonic solfa to the core and wrote my first novel. Failure, if taken in the right spirit, can be a big stepping stone to success.

One man I greatly admired was Abraham Lincoln. I read every book on him that I could get. He inspired me beyond words. He failed very many times in his life but never got frustrated. Instead he fought with more determination and devotion and ultimately became the President of America. From a log cabin to the White House was a long and difficult journey. But he made it fantastically. Reading the biographies and autobiographies of successful people and emulating their examples is another stepping stone to success.

Teaching grammar
One thing I could not be able to understand even till to-day was teaching English grammar to students who did not have even a basic knowledge of the language. Some so-called experts even had the temerity to advice that the best way to learn English was from the book of grammar. To me, this was putting the cart before the horse. Grammar is a study of rules for forming words and combining them into sentences. Unless one has a workable knowledge of vocabulary, it is pointless to teach grammar. You cannot teach a man how to construct a house unless he has collected enough material for it. I have seen people who talk eloquently of grammatical rules but cannot speak even one sentence correctly. Every word carries a specific meaning. Depending on what you want to convey, you arrange words so that they define each other to make a meaning intended for. This is called ‘Modifiers’ in grammatical term. A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes or restricts the meaning of a word. A misplaced modifier can play havoc as it distorts the meaning intended.

The best way to learn a language is to begin with simple and good writings. My children are lucky in that they were all brought up in international schools and read only standard books and magazines. The result is that though they may not write or speak good or perfect English, they don’t speak or write incorrect English because they are accustomed to speaking and writing correct English. Children brought up in a good convent school will automatically speak or write English correctly. Our generation and at least three successive generations following us have serious problem in speaking and writing English correctly because of our poor basic educational background and excessive emphasis on obtaining a degree minus knowledge and education. We are a bunch of superficial degree holders, empty vessels and self-glorified walking shadows. I must confess that I started my basic education after I joined the foreign service by reading and studying my children’s books in order to fill up my knowledge gaps so that I could catch them up and move along with them. What we called ‘generation gap’ is not determined by age difference alone; fundamentally, it is a knowledge gap.

After all, what really is education? To me, education is what survives, shapes and molds a person after what has been learnt has been forgotten. To king Solomon, the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge (Prov.1:7). Knowledge leads to understanding, understanding leads to wisdom, and wisdom leads to God. The surest, safest and most lasting stepping stone is the fear of the LORD.

(Delhi, March 1, 2014 Saturday)


1 comment :

mangbuhril said...

good post, enjoy reading those experiences, people like you are rare, reminds me of my own father who is brought up in those backgrounds and schools way back in the 50s.