I still remember that chill morning, early March, 1963.
It was opening day, St Edmund’s School, Shillong. Along with about two hundred other assembled students, I stood shivering in front of the flag staff on the sloping lawn at the main entrance of the school – in those days it was a magnificent, rambling old wooden building on a pine-forested hill. I was just under seven, nervous about entering class 2, about facing a new teacher…and most of all, about attracting the attention of that ruggedly built, auburn-haired, fierce-eyebrowed man in white robes who stood beneath the tricolour and glared at us all.
He was our Principal, the Rev. Brother R B Oman.
Gruffly, he asked us to stand at attention and observe three minute’s silence, in solidarity for those Indian soldiers who had died during the conflict with China in November 1962. He bowed his head: I stood silent in the thin drizzle, not aware of anything beyond my own physical discomfort and anxiety. And then the silence was broken: from the far left of the assembly where the senior boys stood, there rose a murmur and chuckle, quickly stifled. Br Oman glanced up sharply. ‘Silence’, he said softly, but with such intensity that the word sounded like a gunshot over the gentle hiss of the rain.
The minutes passed, an eternity, and then Br Oman looked up. He spoke for a while, then: on the meaning of solidarity, of valour, of duty and sacrifice, of patriotism, of the significance of the uniform to the soldier and to the student, on the transience of victory and defeat.
I could barely comprehend his words, then, simple though they were: yet their power shook me, lifted my spirits as great music can move and inspire even the most uninitiated.
It was again from Br. Oman that I had an early insight into the ephemeral nature, even foolish vanity, of ‘identity’. It must have been 1964: a bunch of us were loitering in the corridors during the lunch break when he came swishing and clomping down the corridor toward us. He acknowledged our chorused ‘Good afternoon, sir’ with a slight smile and nod, and then asked us what we had learned in class that morning.
One of my friends eagerly piped up: “Sir, we learned history.”
“Oh? And what did you learn in history?”
“Sir, we learned that Vasco da Gama discovered India in 1497.” Indeed that’s what we had learned…our history was being taught verbatim from a textbook titled The March of Time, written and published in Britain.
Br. Oman looked solemn. “Well, well…and where were the Indians before Vasco da Gama discovered India in 1497?”
We gaped at him.
“Now, make sure you ask your teacher that question,” he added, with a twinkle in his eye and a wolfish smile. Naturally, we did as he asked us with immense glee, much to our teacher’s discomfiture.
Over fifty years have passed since I last met Br Oman, but I’ve recalled him fondly from time to time over the years; more frequently in recent years, as the nation, indeed the world, is being destroyed by selfishness and greed; as humans are being torn asunder, body and mind, by monstrous rabble-rousers who preach war, who teach their followers to pillage and maim and slay in the name of prophets and gods and ideologies and imagined identities.
Br. Oman died on 17th February 2019, in Goa. He was 96.
The twinkle in his eye, his wolfish smile, his infinite humaneness, endure; they lighten the spirit in these troubled times.