Between a Gosh and a Goodbye

Nithya cherian mathai

Nitya Matthai. There is a musical tone to those four syllables with the last one drifting away to nestle somewhere near the foothills of the Blue Mountains.

I didn’t know Nitya in school. Not unusual. He was a boy and I was a girl and in our times’ boys and girls were discouraged from mingling. Add to that the fact that Nitya was not in my section – therefore our paths rarely crossed. But the funny thing is that I was always aware of Nitya. He walked alone. He never loitered. He was always going somewhere. His hair neat, forehead in a frown, eyes squinted away from us.

Nithya Mathai

The only time he looked at me was to bid me a hurried farewell and hand me back my autograph book, as we left school. Twenty-five years later I got to know from the other classmates that Nitya was a teacher in school and another fourteen years later I read of his retirement and all the eulogies that were being posted by his past students and other older OLs who had met Nitya or worked with him. Had the shy quiet boy shed his protective mantle to metamorphose into this towering personality? No. Because when I met Nitya at Founders this year after forty years all I got was a warm shy smile and “Gosh”.

After completing his post graduation in Economics, Nitya went back to school. As he puts it there were only three things he wanted to be – a priest or a social worker or a teacher. Priesthood he felt would limit him to one religion and he did not want that. Social work, he felt he was not ready for. So teaching was the way forward. In 1982 he met Woody and was given a position in the Lawrence School, Lovedale faculty.

The school was home for many of us but probably more so for Nitya. Except for the 5-year gap that he spent in Mumbai pursuing his higher studies – the rest of his life has been all about LSL. It wasn’t easy being a teacher at the age of 25. There were ups and downs admits Nitya and brushes away the topic by saying that he doesn’t want to talk about negativity. “This generation of children are very different. One has to deal with them differently,” is the gentle reprimand I get when I try to push for some details on any rowdy elements he might have encountered.

I wish some of our teachers would have shared Nitya’s philosophy and realisation that every generation is different and has their own versions of angst and expression. Maybe the fact that when he was a student he wrote poetry and had discovered the secret to communing with the universe, helped. According to one of our classmates, Nitya was not into sports but he was sensitive, intellectually inclined and went to Church every Sunday morning impeccably groomed. I have proof of that in my 40-year-old autograph book – not many/any of my classmates were quoting Minnie Louise Haskins or even knew of her existence at that age.

What was extremely heartening was to read all the eulogies that his students over the years, poured out on the Facebook page upon his retirement. A lot of them were deep philosophical insights into this gentle soul who was their teacher. Maybe it is a generation thing – maybe it is Nitya, but when we had to write good things about teachers past we just wrote ‘good things’. We didn’t get into the deeper meanings of life like these children have done. To quote an example:

“NCM … Taught me many values I find difficult to engine even today, but he made wish I could see the magic in everything around him. My fondest memory of him was him stooping down to have a chat with a tree we were pelting with a stone to demonstrate it’s sentience while we laughed at him. A few days ago I did the same with my son! Thank you NCM, and thanks for letting me hide on the library roof on a day I did not want the world to see me … Hopefully get a chance to say this to him in person, but if I don’t whoever does get the.opportunity, do let him know please.”

And another one:

“Nitya Mathai was a contradiction even in his own time, especially in his own time. He was living history ( a descendant of a period we hadn’t seen), taught history & civics and continued to propound Democracy, in all its riddled glory. He believed in giving us the freedom to make a choice and thus, make the right one and be the better person. For some, that translated to a weak psyche, someone without the strength to stand up to the slights, physical & verbal, that were frequently slung his way by adolescents without the maturity to look deeper for the life lesson. And for some, his very self- effacing manner was a perplexing conundrum- why wouldn’t he retaliate? We would have respected him more if the punishment was swift. (The burden of choice is difficult indeed.)

And to some finally came the wisdom of tolerance, the grace to see beyond one’s own suffering to what might be best for the future and to some, eventually, the strength to make the right decision despite the odds of any resolution.

In an age where we were usually told what to do and expected to follow without question, he was an anomaly. An adult that gave us a choice, at a time when we were discovering ourselves, and he bore the brunt of our learning. We saw that we could hurt- he gave us that power. And we saw that we could triumph- he gave us that choice. And somewhere in between, we learned that each one of us is responsible for the decisions we made- to cause pain or satisfy through honest accomplishment.

He was human in a way we didn’t always appreciate in the brashness of youth. His humility was deemed a weakness in a macho-oriented world. And his democratic ideals a lesson in failure and pathway to taking advantage.

And because of that, we learned, much later, how very difficult it is to walk that narrow road and to respect differences. It is still a reason we do not dismiss the thoughtful among us, in a society that favors the bold and opinionated.”

Apart from teaching Nitya also became the school archivist. He says it was Mr Bhatnagar’s idea – but it was something that was right up Nitya’s street. His meticulous nature helped him gather information and photographs and all sorts of details that have today been used to write the history of LSL. At the book reading function, last Founders where this book was launched Nitya was busily flitting in and out – handing over a paper that he had prepared, an excited smile hidden behind his glasses, but never staying long enough for us to congratulate him on this achievement. He wouldn’t even join us in the class squad for the parade and I must confess I was a little hurt – but looking at it from Nitya’s point of view – I guess he didn’t belong to the Class of ’77. He belonged to Lawrence School, Lovedale.

But we got our revenge on Nitya. At the OL AGM when asked about the Class of ’77’s achievement, Dinesh Madappa proudly stood up and said, “we are Nitya Matthai’s classmates”.

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