In June 1965, I was a seventh-standard student of King George’s School, Belgaum (now Military School, Belagavi). Straight from a village in Haryana, with little knowledge of English, here I was just about 13 years old among children from all walks of life. Initially, I was lost and cried often, feeling out of place. But, soon, I was on my feet and rubbing shoulders with children from privileged backgrounds. All this, thanks to our visionary Principal, R.S. Mani. Seeing my shyness and poor English, he called me to his office. Handing me a copy of Reader’s Digest with an essay on Gandhiji, he said, “Ripu, next week you will narrate that essay in the Assembly.” “Nothing is impossible,” he added.
I took it as a challenge and decided to memorize the whole essay. Shivering, I stood in front of the assembly and rattled out the essay like a parrot. Loud clapping ensued. Here began the story of how a teacher can mold and build a student. Principal Mani asked me to read newspapers daily and make notes of important events. I took a dictionary and sat with an English daily. In one hour, I could finish no more than half a page, but I did not lose heart. The output kept increasing every day. My vocabulary kept on expanding, so did the general awareness.
Mr. Mani put me on the declamation team. By the time I was in the 10th standard, I was the best debater of the school. I still remember how we defeated a Pune school in an interschool debate which was presided over by none other than Nani Palkhiwala. “Why don’t you start writing when you can speak so well,” Mr. Mani asked. And there I was in the school magazine editorial team. He reposed faith in me as a moral guide and put me in charge of the small children in Pratap House. It enriched me spiritually as I had to lead young minds on the righteous path. No wonder, even today at 66, when I get on my bicycle, I remember him and pedal on to do my bit for the underprivileged.
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