By Karma T. Ngodup
Every morning, walking down the narrow street,
Merging into the wide stretch of path along the mall road,
Through the forest, around the winding road down to Happy Valley,
And finally, stopping in a classroom filled with refugee children,
Was a lean man, tall and sinewy, and students gazed at him with awe.
They called him, when they dared to speak, Sir N.C.
Imagine doing this for more than four decades, whether in sun, rain, shower or storm, even wading through rising waters in the unforgiving monsoons, braving a distance of around twenty kilometers. Yet, he simply claimed to have “taken the road less travelled, and that has made all the difference” as in the poem by Robert Frost.
Throughout the years of refugees, when we were in our most deplorable state, when we were still struggling to reconcile ourselves to the new country, there were both great Indian and Tibetan teachers who stood by us and helped us through our moments of uncertainty. These people can be anyone – a friend, a teacher but in him, we have found both in one person.
Sir N.C. did an interview with the Tibetan Bulletin in 2009, recalling his start as a teacher. It is worth recounting some of what he said, how a man can be so humble:
“It was the month of March, the year I don’t remember, probably around 1965, when I received an appointment letter to work as a Primary Teacher in the then Tibetan Refugee School now known as Central School for Tibetans, Mussoorie. I was happy and excited, yet afraid as I was joining directly from a Hindi medium school. I was asking myself this question; “how can a non-native English teacher teach a non-native student?”. There was nothing otherness in it than to follow the footsteps of my brother H.C. Tripathi who was one of the first Indian teachers at the school.
Then he continued, Mr. Taring, a great thinker and visionary of the time, met personally with me over a table tennis game to ease out and gave me motivating advice about changing the lives of the children rather than passing information which remained core to my teaching throughout. His advice took precedence over all the shortcomings. That a teacher has to be a learner first so I studied three hours every day before I went to school. Students’ enthusiasm and their values have changed my life. These values have become an integral part of my lifestyle.”
He talked about these values in his most recent article, “What’s in a Name?” quoted from Shakespeare’s famous play Romeo Juliet where a name is considered a mere convention, a formality. Citing the example of a rose, he goes on to assert that by calling it by any other name; it will remain as fragrant and sweet smelling as ever. The same is the case with a man and an institution. The value system in which they have been raised will remain unchanged even if you change the name of the school from CST Mussoorie to Sambhota School.
Sir N.C. was true to his word. He was an example to us, each and every day. He lived a life of simplicity and focus. He was single, vegetarian and unattached to material wealth or possessions. His home was a spare like the name, Trim cottage, devoid of any modern amenities, with his treasured photo with the H.H. the Dalai Lama’s framed over the entrance. For which, he said, “I was so humbled when one of my old students Lobsang Jinpa, the secretary at the private office, arranged an audience with His Holiness, which I consider as my lifetime achievement”. And he holds dear to this photo above all the awards he received.
He made learning a language fun. Our classroom was filled with laughter, as well as filled with anecdotes from many classic English literatures. He held up as an example the great English writer Charles Dickens, and told that as a child, Dickens would read anything: roadside boards, or scraps of newspaper in the gutter on his way to school. We students tried to do the same, memorizing the stray roadside board left over from the time of the British that was on the narrow path to the library market. It read, “Equestrians, led horses and pack animals must be kept to the hillside of the road, all other traffic to the outside”, not knowing that later it was found to have the historical importance of Skinner’s horses, and the creation of Polo ground at the Charleville estates for the National Academy. In the years to come, reading has always been an integral part of my intellectual exercises, as it would be for many of his students.
Long after we graduated, many of us former students would visit him. He’d share stories from the good old days and would cherish those memories. We were reminded of his fondness for games and sports. He was instrumental in bringing a Tibetan school team to the famed Jackie soccer tournament at Mussoorie. Even while he was at school, he’d linger afterward, and try to defeat all comers at table tennis. Then he’d pick up a few momos for his dog on the way home.
In 1998, he went to the Central School Teachers’ conference at Jalandhar. Afterward, he went to Dharamshala, and promptly got himself lost. Somehow an old student crossed paths with him in Lower Dharamshala, and insisted on taking him directly to the Department of Education. There, another former student, Ms. Nangsa, was then the secretary. In no time, it seemed, a grand reception had been organized for him at Gangchen Kyishong, attended by so many men and women he had once taught. They had grown to become teachers, administrators, secretaries, and ministers. I was there. We found him to be the same Sir N.C. as ever: fountain pen in his front shirt pocket, pointy shoes remarkably well-shined, and black nylon socks. To our shock, he recalled just about everyone’s nickname, and a funny story about each of us. His was as ascetic as ever, too. He eschewed the huge luncheon we had offered, instead taking just some tea and samosa from a roadside shop.
Many teachers who are great in the classroom become headmasters and principals, but not him. It was not for lack of offers, either. Instead, he wanted to do what he did best, which was to influence the lives of his students through daily interaction. He loved to quote from Hamlet’s famous monologue, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Whether it would be more prestigious or remunerative to become an administrator or educational official was irrelevant to him. He would rather make his daily trek to be with students like us and remain close to his home. Indeed, he did not just talk the talk, he walked the walk all these years
I visited him several times since his retirement where either he was continuing to teach as a volunteer at the Tibetan Homes Foundation, or else, visiting Tibetan schools around where he was invited by his students who have now become school administrators. Regarding his students, he wrote:
Above all I consider myself very fortunate in having worked in a school where the students are so loving, respectful, kind, and cooperative, and they are indeed my strength as they keep visiting me, bringing cheer to my life. My students are everywhere, and even two Tibetan nurses who happened to be Sir NC’s students, took care of my sister when she was hospitalized at Dehradun. Am I not fortunate?
Maybe that’s what Lobsang Wangyal, one of his students summed up as “Sir NC was sophisticated in his simplicity. His humility and his kindness, down-to-earth demeanor inspired all his students. Furthermore, he had taken care of a Tibetan Buddhist monk for many years”.
A few years ago, Tseten Ngodup visited Sir N.C. and managed to persuade him to accede to a video. He came back with a magnificent clip that affirmed the legacy of this teacher who still encourages his students to read, while reading a verse by Shantideva from “Ancient Wisdom and Modern World” by H.H. the Dalai Lama.
“May I become at all times, both now and forever: A protector for those without protection; A guide for those who have lost their way; A ship for those with oceans to cross; A bridge for those with rivers to cross; A sanctuary for those in danger; A lamp for those without light; A place of refuge for those who lack shelter; And a servant to all in need.”
Then, earlier this year, I contacted him to see how he was faring during the pandemic. There was a soupcon of sorrow in his voice because he was aging and vulnerable, as well as from the recent death of a sister who had been living with him. Still, he rallied as he always did, and expressed particular affection for Dhondup, a retired THF teacher who had become a de facto technical liaison who put Sir N.C. in touch with his students the world over.
It was through Dhondup that I was recently able to contact Sir N.C.’s younger brother Minto, the retired colonel who was a great soccer player at Wynberg Allen. He explained to us about the failing health of Sir NC, and doctors have advised palliative care and eventually passing away at his home. When I wrote to him words of condolence and shared the impact his brother had on so many Tibetans, he responded right away.
We have been receiving so many messages from many of his students, in India and abroad. Thank you so much for your support. It is because of his students like you all that even HH The Dalai Lama is praying for NC. We are blessed to have people like you in our lives. We are convinced that NC’s lifetime award is to have students like you who are with us and continue to hold him in high esteem. Please keep us in your prayers. Minto.
That esteem is why Jigme Ugyan, one of his students all the way back in 1971, wrote a compelling obituary: “Sir had lived a full purposeful life and earned true love and respect from thousands of students and colleagues. And above all when the news of his illness spread, his colleagues and students prayed for his early recovery. Ex-students in Canada and Mussoorie Tibetan school held special prayer services, ex-students in Europe were ready to contribute money and some in the USA actually collected money and wanted to offer for his medical treatments. When his family thanked and refused the good gesture, they offered it to HHDL and for prayer services at Dharamsala. When the news about his passing away spreads, I think many words of tribute and condolences will pour in from all corners. And the greatest thing is: HHDL was informed of his demise and His Holiness prayed for him. What more does one want in life?
Those final days were touching. So many former students and colleagues visited him. Dhondup, Passang Gokye, and Sir Katyal were there on the next day of the Gandhi Jayanti to bid farewell to our dear Sir N.C. while he was making his last journey in an ambulance, at the age little short of eighty, in perfect peace, through the narrow street, down the winding road, along the Ganges, to his final destination at Haridwar. Fare thee well, Sir!
“No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.” — Terry Pratchett.
(Views expressed are his own)
The author is an alumnus of Central School for Tibetans, Mussoorie, worked at the Tibetan Children’s Village. He is a member of the Tibetan National Sports Association, and currently works at the University of Chicago.
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