By Rajendra Shende, Chairman TERRE Policy Centre, Former Director UNEP
Hanmantrao Subhedar Shinde was my inspiration and my dearest teacher (Guru) during my education in primary school. That was in a dry and dusty town called Vaduj in Khatav Taluka. He passed away a year and a half back on 30th January 2019.
Khatav Taluka is in the rain-shadow area with the scanty monsoon. But my teacher, Shinde Guruji, as we used to call him, showered his mentorship on me like a heavy rain as if from the cloud burst. That too in Jilha Parishad School (local government School under District Administration). The school-building was roofed by locally made bricks of semi-circular shape.
The backside of the school was the habitat of nomads who had herds of sheep. Occasionally they chased the local dirty pigs for the dinner when they would get fed up with mutton. Our classes had such primitive background. Shinde Guruji would say, “It is easy for me to teach you how humans evolved. Just see how pigs are hunted from windows. And how the nomads live with herds. For Shinde Guruji, the world was a classroom.
At the time when India had forgotten the ‘Ashram’ tradition, he invited the select few bright students of his class, after school hours, to study at his tiny house. We would go to his house with our school bags and our own lanterns as there was no electricity at that time. Each of us was asked to sit on the floor by keeping a distance so that we do not look over the shoulder of another student and copy! Hence each one needed a lantern of our own. ‘Each of you should have your own light, not borrowed light’ he would say.
He taught us till late in the night before we slept. We would get up early morning to solve the tough sums in mathematics. We slept at his house to save time. In the ‘mathematical morning,’ we would go back home, with lanterns in our hands, to prepare to go to school. How to solve the sum that he gave us as the exercise was always in the mind. I learned that many of the solutions to difficult problems come while walking along the life-journey.
I all learned the basics of science in the light of lanterns lit by kerosene, but I never informed or made public it to get sympathy. I could understand the nuances of the subject only under the dim light. He even took us under the petromax streetlight for the collective study. But we enjoyed that exercise and never felt like publicizing the poor conditions as to how ‘sacrifice and difficult times’ we had gone through. I felt that the hidden knowledge can only be learned and explored on the roads where we walk and under the dim street light! Humans learned most of the wisdom while crossing the continents and staying in the caves. The drawings in the rocks of the dark caves made thousands of years back is the testimony.
We walked to his house everyday evening barefooted, but he told us that ‘It is the only way to keep our feet to the ground’. We were happily engaged in building our careers through such basic studies. And so, called ‘poverty’ through which we were going through, I now recall with great fondness.
History was his favorite subject. Even while teaching mathematics he would first teach us the history of mathematics. I owe my ability to question and find answers myself to his unique teaching style. His stout, tall, handsome, dhoti-clad, Nehru-capped image would remain with me till the end. And the man under that capped image was just the one without whom I would not have climbed the ladder from Vaduj to Rahimatpur to Mumbai to Powai to Delhi to Paris and reaching up to United Nations. From the lantern-lit house of Shinde Guruji to floodlight lit conference halls of United Nations. He always was proud of that unusual journey. He would recall that very often.
When I was informed about his passing away, I just got into my car and drove to Jakhangaon, his village. I had just landed from China . There he was lying in the eternal silence. Under the massive tree next to his house. Surrounded by the crowd of his relatives and friends. His wife told me that he remembered me just day before. I missed my beat. But the God gave me opportunity to see him after he was assigned in my history book.
One day he had told me in whispers, “You were the first-grader in the class because of your hard work, but for me, for me, you were my second-best student.” I looked at him quizzically. “The favorite in the class was Baban Godse.” Baban’s father was unemployed, illiterate, poor. “Baban always competed with you in studies and sometimes first sometimes just next to you in the grades. But he was my favorite” said Shinde guruji in his close talk with me. I could guess that he wanted to say that for a long time, and he seemed relieved after he said that . I was not surprised. I knew that right from my school days. Baban was my smarter classmate. Both of us used to go to the house of Shinde Guruji in the night for studies. He had better control on his voice and giving oral responses and was always close to me in the school-grades , many times overtaking me. Shinde Guruji always liked those who spring on their own. He thought that my mother being teacher, I had basic advantage over Baban. Baban right from beginning was running the race of ‘handicaps. Baban is no more now. But he left one feeling in me, one should always have a competitor. That helps one to excel.
Couple of years back he had expressed that he wanted to see his students together at his house. That was not to be.
A teacher who cared for the poor and bright students, that was Shinde Guruji. He taught us the lessons in social equality by practicing it. No wonder that story of Ekalavya was his favorite lesson.