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45 years on, an inspiration returns to her inspiration
- The fairy godmother, The La Martiniere girl

Shabnam Ramaswamy, who started life afresh from the streets to become the force behind Jagriti Public School and Stree Shakti womenís co-operative in Katna village of Murshidabad, returned to her alma mater, La Martiniere for Girls, on Friday morning for the first time in 45 years.

The 60-year-old fairy godmother to hundreds of women and children took a walk down her La Martiniere memory laneÖ

Whenever Iíd go over the AJC Bose flyover Iíd point at my school and show my driver or some staff member travelling with me in the car: ďSee, thatís my school!Ē After I went out of school in 1969 and all these years of struggle, I had never set foot in my school.

As I was addressing students of the school, I was thinking I would have loved my father to be alive today. In those days, picking me from a village, bringing me to the city and admitting me to this school, what a chance it was for me.

I went through all the stereotypes of marriage and conventions but it was the school that really made me what I am in terms of my lateral thinking, turning of views, never to give up against all odds. These are things in the books you read but the teachers put it across in a manner that really changed the way I think.

One book that I loved reading during my school days was Tom Sawyer. He was such a big influence on me. Him painting the wall, the mundane routine of doing that job when everyone else was having fun. At 22 (Shabnam was married off at 16) when Iíd see other girls around me having fun and I would think, like Tom Iím going to make everybody come and paint my wall too while I sit on the stool with all my treasures. And today it seems like itís really happened!

Look at the background I came from. My mother was illiterate, so was my grandmother. My father was in the army. So it was really the school that taught me how to handle life and the education gave me the ability to juxtapose both worlds, not to hate that or look down on it but do something about it. In fact, today Iíll be visiting one such teacherís house who has baked a cake and waiting for me. Iím just looking forward to meeting her after all these years.

College I did because I desperately needed the graduate degree but itís the school that made me. Looking at the school after all these years, no matter how much the buildings have changed and new ones have come up, these pillars will remain. The pillars are like pillars of strength for me. Today, with pride I can say that I come from here.

(From top) Shabnam Ramaswamy returns to the lawns of her alma mater, La Martiniere for Girls, on Friday; interacts with students; and becomes a Ďstudentí in one of the classrooms after 45 years. Pictures by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya

My favourite corner was always the field because I loved sports. I used to throw javelin, discus and do high jumps, long jumps. I used to participate in inter-school sporting events. I wasnít a hugely academic person.

When I was starting Jagriti (Shabnamís CBSE-affiliated English-medium co-educational public school for the poor) my reference point was this school. The discipline, the curriculum and the philosophy is modelled on all that I learnt from my own school ó La Martiniere.

As told to Mohua Das