Eulogy for Ms. Darasha: the best kind of teacher, the best kind of woman

On Wednesday 2nd May, 2012, Shirin Darasha, the principal of J.B. Petit High School for Girls for over thirty years, passed away. Across Facebook, Twitter and mobile phones, JB girls old and young stop to think about the woman who shaped our thinking and identity in some obvious and some dimly perceived ways.

Ms. Darasha was an intimidating woman. She had a way of making you conscious of errant curls and drooping sashes. You found yourself standing taller, straighter, with a fervent desire to do the right thing. We aspired for her regard. Winning it was a heady rush of confidence.

The lessons we learned in JB were not typical. In Class VII we learned about stereotypes and ethnocentric statements. The following year we made advertising “pitch books” on harmful stereotypes of women in advertisements and matrimonials. It ended with English class poetry celebrating the beauty of dark skin. My sister’s science text books came from Kenya, not the United States. Why not learn with pictures of black children doing science experiments, Ms. Darasha asked. It was only in university that i read Cornell West, Eli Wiesel, Edward Said and others who have shown the criticality of reflecting minority identity in everyday imagery to fight the isms of the world: racism, sexism, imperialism, casteism.

The values of J.B. Petit are not Ms. Darasha’s alone. But she had the genius of bringing together people who believed in questioning the status quo in an education system where blind obedience is often the norm. Gandhi’s birthday? No reason for a holiday – the Mahatma would have preferred to be remembered with hard work. Head Girl and Student Government President? Elected by the school, complete with campaigns, posters and speeches. Every 10th standard girl wore a Prefect badge because by then “you better be a leader”. Teachers performed for students on Teachers Day, dressed up in our uniforms, mimicked our behavior on stage as we laughed uproariously in the audience. Drives to raise money for the sick child of a nursery school teacher, the dead father of a peon and after the Ayodhya riots, “I want you to feel angry and translate that anger into raising money for victims”. We raised our own funds for our school play. And yet, J.B. remains one of the few schools in Bombay that does not take donations for school admissions.

My favorite memory of Ms. Darasha is a composite one: her booming voice on the school intercom, her bright ikkat print sari flashing in the sunlight of her whitewashed office. Her doors were always open and before you enter, you stop to admire the artwork. A black and white portrait of Nuriyev frozen in motion. A saying by Mahatma Gandhi, “humanity is my religion”. A photograph of a black boy and a white boy arm in arm,”The blind are also colour blind”. A red sticker on the door with the “ali” of Diwali and the “ram” of “Ramzan” highlighted. A yellowing “Bombay Meri Jaan” sticker and below it all, a smiling fat cat that says, “I’m so special no one wants my job!”

In her office, you start to elocute for the hundredth time the speech she is helping you prepare for a debate competition. The door opens and a tiny girl from nursery school tiptoes into the offices and climbs into Ms. Darasha’s lap, her pink tiffin box dropping puffed rice on the floor, her minuscule frame lost in Ms. Darasha’s vast embrace.

“Ms. Darasha, Ms. Darasha!” she whispers, “They are killing a caterpillar.”

“I see,” says Ms. Darasha gravely. “Do you want them to kill the caterpillar?”

“No-o-o.” breathes the girl, contemplating Ms. Darasha’s face with owl eyes.

“Well,” says Ms. Darasha, depositing her back on the floor with a pat. “Then you must go and stop them from killing the caterpillar.”

The unsung victories of Ms. Darasha’s time at J.B. Petit are not its lawyers, writers, scientists, activists and businesswomen. It is the women we don’t read about, acts of courage hidden by the four walls of home. As girls we were taught to find our voice and fight for the caterpillar if we cared enough for it. As women, I hope that has translated into standing up for ourselves and each other when it is required. Most of all, I think Ms. Darasha’s hope for us was to recognize that the real truth of feminism was not just in women’s rights but in recognizing the universality of humanity across all divides.JB

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20 thoughts on “Eulogy for Ms. Darasha: the best kind of teacher, the best kind of woman

  1. Antara, you have captured her spirit beautifully! There are SO many things about Ms. Darasha that I respect and admire, that I wouldn’t be able to put them all down. But I guess it all comes down to the perfect ‘simplicity’ of her mindfullness over a caterpillar! Thank you for writing this, and for sharing it.

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  2. Dear Antara
    Ms Darasha must be smiling. For me her greatness lies in her humaneness -her large heart and vast embracing mind

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  3. Antara this was a perfect depiction of what Ms Darasha stood for and how it affected every living soul that passed her way…

    I love how you managed to recall the details of her art work in her office! Even today I recall the ‘stereotypes and ethnocentric’ projects..
    I remember our unique “dress as we like Friday’s” and how my friends from Cathedral school from across the street were almost jealous, or how my father would stay up nights covering my books in bright yellow, pink or red instead of the usual brown paper in other schools, and how my massive big purple umbrella was decorated in golden frills as “chatri devta”…. The list is endless and the memories robust!
    Thank you for your words..
    – in celebration of her spirit

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  4. Antara, she couldn’t be remembered better… I recollect this one time, just 2-3 months after joining college when I was in school for Teacher’s Day, I walked into her cabin and said, “Happy Teacher’s Day, ma’aam…erm….Miss”

    She smiled & said, “wah wah, from Miss to Ma’am” I see my girls have grown up 🙂 🙂

    Little did she know about how *much* of her she’s left inside so many little girls, that we’ve grown from being.

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  5. Beautiful and straight from the heart. That’s how she always wanted us to speak.

    There are so many things that we’ve forgotten through the years, like the paintings outside her office. Your post encapsulated all of that and more. Although, wat we’ll always remember and what will live on with us is the spirit she imbibed in us.

    In which ever part of the world you meet a JBite, you will find that she has made something of herself. That’s the greatest gift Ms. D gave us, the confidence to be who we want to be and stand up for that ‘caterpillar’. 🙂

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  6. Lovely Antara , I was in JB Petit from the 6th to the 9th grade and remember Ms Darasha Well … may her soul rest in peace – there was so much that we learnt in JB Petit and wont be forgotton … its nice that students remember their school days and their teachers . brings back alot of good memories… God Bless Ms Darasha always .

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  7. Unreal Antara..so beautiful and so true! You couldn’t have depicted the essence of a J B girl better than this! I’m sure she’s so proud of what you’ve written for her, and is blessing you wherever she is!

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  8. There have been a lot of comments about Ms. Darasha’s passing on facebook and other forums, as well as here, on your blog. All of them beautiful and moving. And all of them have been from women. Perhaps one from a man will do no harm. My interaction with her was fleeting, I was in the afternoon section when they experimented with allowing boys till the 4th standard. And to have such a lasting impression since being a kid, speaks volumes.

    But mostly I thank her for having such a profound impact on my sister Gitanjali. Ms. Darasha was dear to our entire family, and I salute her.

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  9. Very captivating Antara, each & every word holds by her. Her spirit of a true leader has moulded every JBite. As the Irish blessing goes May god always hold her in the palm of his hand…….

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  10. thank you everyone for the kind comments. it feels cathartic to read your thoughts and memories. i hope she knew what a huge impact she had on so many lives.

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  11. Hi Antara, I’m reading bits of your post out to my husband in the hope of making him understand how unique and wonderful our school was. There was so much I’d forgotten — thank you for helping me remember.

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  12. Thank you for this beautifully written post. It captures the spirit of everything Mrs. Darasha stands for…and always will. She’s not just a person, but a way of thinking an an attitude that every JBite wears proudly. I do hope she knows how eternally grateful we all are to her.

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  13. Beautiful and heartfelt, dearest Antara. What memorable times we had in that school, and she is etched into each and every one of those moments. We love you Ms. Darasha.

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  14. beautifully written and felt! i completely connect with ‘save the caterpillar’. i shouldn’t have waited so long to go back to meet her… one of the few people who left an indelible mark on me and always pushed me to be the best i can be.

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  15. Wow Antara, beautifully written and so heartfelt. Brought tears to my eyes. I guess words are never enough to fully express the impact this brilliant marvellous woman had on each and every JB student and their families too. I will never forget her voice on the speaker system whenever we used to play throwball under her office window asking us to tone it down a bit. On a personal note my family and I will forever be indebted to her for her support and assurance she provided for my safety and security as a child in school during unforseen family crisis.

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