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.