I have a nebulous memory of my first school, Mount Carmel, in Bhagalpur, Bihar. But I distinctly remember the rickety school bus, as it swayed in rhythmic tandem from left to right, and the impeccable discipline maintained during class hours. The school bell that announced breaks or closure was literally music to our ears - the narrow hallways would suddenly be thronged by children, an irrepressible bunch of manic energy, layered with innate innocence. The most anticipated day was the penultimate day of the summer holidays, where we anxiously and impatiently awaited our turn in a serpentine queue to receive our cup of vanilla ice cream. I don't recollect her name, but the Sister who was our class teacher had a benevolent disposition towards me, as I was a fairly sickly child, susceptible to the cold virus every time the temperature changed by a degree. Then my father got transferred to a city then called a pensioner's paradise, Pune, which is today more renowned for multi-crore real estate speculative fantasies.
At Bishop's School in Pune, I initially felt like an outcast. It was truly an urban, cosmopolitan institution and had a diverse assembly of boys. The Bihari surname Jha provoked both curiosity and amusement. It was far too short and far too quirky. My surname gave me instant popularity though. Miss Fonseca was my favourite teacher and, I must confess, my first crush. She taught us music. I ensured that I stood in the front row and sang louder than others to demonstrate my enthusiasm. It was also the most intelligent ploy to capture her elusive attention. Of course, a dashing, dapper suitor soon emerged in the form of a Geography teacher who swept Miss Fonseca off her stilettos, leaving me nursing my fragile broken heart. We celebrated all religious festivals, and were never made aware of such a thing as a different god. Frankly, all we knew was that we were in an upmarket school because it was called a "convent", where philanthropy was not just a vacuous term.
"History is being gingerly distorted, but with clinical precision. Majoritarianism is becoming mainstream as it is mistakenly assumed that the elections of 2014 have given it political legitimacy."
The highlight of the morning assembly was the choir, when we all sang in chorus the chosen song of the day. The one that brought out the best in me was "All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the lord god made them all." We had the option to choose from either Sanskrit or Marathi as an optional third language. We grew up in school learning the one thing that became the dominating impulse of our lives, the freedom to be and let be. There were no religious proscriptions whatsoever.
When I landed up at Xavier School of Management (XLRI) in Jamshedpur for my post-grad, it seemed the nostalgia of the halcyon days of school had returned. Father McGrath taught us what Mark McCormack made millions on when he wrote What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School; just communicate well, listen attentively and that you get along by getting along with people. Business schools nowadays have become mass-manufacturing factories of CEOs who may be academically proficient but not necessarily impregnated with ethics, leadership or interpersonal skills. But at Xavier's, we were spending considerable time acquiring some soft skills, often derided by those who were scoring A+ in Quantitative Techniques and Financial Ratios. I especially remember the Personal Growth Lab led by a Father. We initially thought it was humbug, all psychological mumbo-jumbo. Deeply felt emotions being shared without any inhibitions with all and sundry in a closed room was a novel experiment. Years later, I find that this is one of the most popular formats for self-discovery, for which large corporations spend billions of dollars on their employees and their work engagement.
"When a 72-year-old nun was gang-raped in West Bengal, I thought we had plunged into a repugnant morass... It is India's moment of shame. And no amount of FDI, infrastructure growth, 4G broadband, schmoozing with the exclusive G20 club or Davos champagne evenings will neutralise the damage done."
The attacks on churches have of late gathered a disturbing frequency. The cacophony of religious diatribes seems to be remorselessly consuming our delicate secular fabric. These spasmodic outbursts are not mere happenstance; there is a disconcerting pattern to them. When a veteran top cop Julio Ribeiro states that he feels like a stranger in his own country, then we need to worry. "Ghar Wapsi" is assuming hellish proportions as a means of addressing a supposed historical grievance, propagated with religious fanaticism by bigoted groups. History is being gingerly distorted, but with clinical precision. Majoritarianism is becoming mainstream as it is mistakenly assumed that the elections of 2014 have given it political legitimacy. That's why Mother Teresa, revered worldwide for her work for the leprosy-affected, is now being accused of being driven primarily for the goal of religious conversion. The whole debate has been usurped by allegations of proselytisation. It is as if India's Christians, 2.3% of the population, are being blamed for a social chasm. The gruesome attack that destroyed the once-happy home of Graham Staines in Odisha in 1999 is a grisly reminder of how religious hatred and rumour-mongering combine to poison communal lumberjacks.
When a 72-year-old nun was gang-raped in West Bengal, I thought we had plunged into a repugnant morass, sinking into a quicksand from where there was no escape, but just the gradual obliteration of being. It is India's moment of shame. And no amount of FDI, infrastructure growth, 4G broadband, schmoozing with the exclusive G20 club or Davos champagne evenings will neutralise the damage done.
I believe Miss Fonseca must now be around 72 years old too. A grandmother, perhaps recollecting her life as she plays with her grandchildren in the November-December of her life. Stories of the times she taught us all music and songs and made us sing. That some among us now spew venom seems a twisted incongruity. But then there are also many among us who will fight to preserve the goodness we learnt. We move on with sanguine hope that no matter how difficult things might appear, we should not become cynical. "All things bright and beautiful..."