Adventure of knowledge - Personality

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By Rajlakshmi Bhattacharyya profiles a dynamic educationist and an outstanding Girl Guide
  • Published 23.10.03

Evelyn Norah Shullai

Evelyn Norah Shullai lives life to the hilt. There is nothing surprising about that, except that she is 86 years young and still enjoys teaching, partying and embellishing herself with the finest clothes and jewellery. Though arthritis and gout have slowed down her gait, Shullai’s dauntless spirit has given her vibrant persona an evergreen quality.

A pioneer of the Girl Guides Movement in India, Shullai — popularly known as Rani — has the rare distinction of being the second Padmashree awardee in Meghalaya. She is also the proud recipient of the Silver Star from the President, in addition to the Silver Elephant for outstanding contribution to the Girl Guides movement. As a dedicated social worker, Shullai won the Meghalaya state award in 1992. But then, the former Inspector of Schools has always been a silent worker, never seeking rewards but job satisfaction.

There are two aspects to this compassionate octogenarian. She is as much a known figure in the Girl Guides movement as she is as an avant garde educationist. Both have co-existed in her chequered career like the two sides of the same coin. Her involvement with Girl Guides began at the Welsh Mission Girls’ High School (now called Presbyterian Secondary School) in Shillong, and continued right upto Scottish Church College in Calcutta, where she passed her graduation and BT to embark on a teaching career.

“While at college, I was an active ranger (senior girl guide), engaged in social service. For six years, we adopted a village near Sreerampore, teaching villagers all about hygiene and enabling them to dig wells,” recalls Shullai. And even later, when she came back to Shillong and worked as the headmistress of the Assamese M.E. School, Shullai became the commissioner for the Guides and Scouts movement in the state.

By the time she retired at age 55, Shullai was not only appointed as the honorary state secretary of Meghalaya, Bharat Scouts and Guides, but she even took an Indian contingent to the international camp in Sydney in 1980. It was around this time that she attended a seminar-cum-workshop of the Red Cross Society as chairman of the Meghalaya branch of the Indian Red Cross Society. Four years later, she represented India at the International Conference of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in New York, earning accolades for being the perfect ambassador for her country.

“As I travelled to different states in the US, I was looked after by the various Girl Guide families without having to even spend a penny,” she remembers. Shullai confesses that her love for people has been an offshoot of the Girl Guide movement. Needless to say, it has shaped her exuberant personality and joie de vivre as well.

Even more challenging was her role as a teacher when she would travel 33 miles on foot to reach her school at Jowai in the Jaintia Hills, soon after the holidays. As Shullai recalls, “In those day, there was hardly any motorable road. I had no choice but to walk up and down the slopes.” Her stint at the Jowai Government School was memorable for more than one reason. It was here that she met and fell in love with her late husband H. Pariat, a fellow teacher. But even before her daughter Judith was born, Shullai was widowed.

Not one to get bogged down by self-pity, she applied and got selected as the head teacher at the American Ludlow Jute Mill School at Chaingail, 28 miles from Calcutta. But her parents’ death brought her back to Shillong, where she opened a montessori school in the Assamese M.E. School campus. Simultaneously, she became M.E. School’s headmistress and even raised it to high school status.

But her career’s biggest turning point came when she was appointed the first assistant Inspector of Schools for hill areas of composite Assam and later as Inspector of Schools in Shillong for a decade. In between, the Assam government had sent her to do her M Ed from the Central Institute in Delhi. “Most of my journeys as an Inspector of Schools were confined to the rural areas of Garo, Jaintia, Mikir and North Cachar Hills. And all along, I either walked or boarded rickety old buses,” reminisces Shullai, who once got a marriage proposal from an official from the soil conservation department right in the middle of the jungle.

Though she would come back home often at one in the morning “looking like a monkey”, Shullai knew that she was doing her best for improving the education system. When she retired, village students likened Shullai’s absence to a feeling of being orphaned. Most of her predecessors would visit the schools like VIPs but Shullai would go to work with the teachers and students as their friend and guide.

Post-retirement, Shullai’s daughter suggested that she open a school in her name. And that’s how the Shullai Progressive School — which now has 600 students — came into being. While her two grand daughters handle most of the administrative duties, Shullai still takes English composition and grammar classes from 9am to 12.30 pm daily. “My grandchildren felt that I was exerting myself but I told them that I am still going strong,” says Shullai, reclining on a cane chair, her walking stick resting by her side.

Her students at the school are mostly children of manual labourers. That explains why monthly fees have never exceeded Rs 160. While in class, Shullai blends discipline with kindness, and all the while, she is a friend and mother to her pupils. Fingers aglitter with bejewelled rings, Shullai does not believe in sparing the rod and spoiling the child. “But corporeal punishment should be limited to a few occasions or else the child would grow indifferent,” she avers. Harbouring a strong dislike for passive listeners, Shullai encourages her students to interact and ask questions. As her days go by keeping them busy, Shullai feels that one cannot grow old among children. “I become one with them,” she muses.

Shullai laments the lack of politeness and eternal values such as punctuality and honesty among generation next. “But even as yesteryear’s children were shy and reserved, the present generation does not hesitate to speak out in class. They are also overburdened with heavy school bags. The system is such that they need a tutor to do their homework while their own knowledge gets limited,” she sighs.

When not teaching students at the Progressive School, Shullai enjoys wine-making, cooking and catching up with friends. At one time she used to do a lot of knitting and gardening. And even now, she makes it a point to be all dressed up with make-up and go partying with friends.

In a life where she has upheld the belief that whatever we do is assigned by God, Shullai has tried to be sincere in her efforts. Having brought up two boys without expecting any returns, Shullai believes in the adage that “don’t expect the water to go up, it always comes down”. Following a diet of boiled food and one glass of brandy everyday, Shullai attributes her longevity to a disciplined regimen. She has no regrets: “I sleep the sleep of the dead”, and insists that when she leaves this world, it should be without any speeches: “If people don’t know me while I am alive, why should they hear my praises when I am dead?” And even as Shullai spends her twilight years with grace and dignity, it is with the satisfaction that she has done her bit for a crying humanity.