Monday, Sep 26, 2022
75 Years Of India's Independence

We The People: Dianabai, A Pioneer In Her Field

I have been wanting to pay tribute to ‘Dianabai’, for a long time now, trying to gather as much material as I could about her school.

Diana Ezekiel, Principal and founder of the school.
Diana Ezekiel, Principal and founder of the school.

My paternal grandmother, Mrs Diana Ezekiel (Talkar), 1898-1974, was a visionary and pioneer in the field of Education in Bombay in the ’60s when she founded and ran a school for children from impoverished backgrounds. She was fondly known as ‘Dianabai’ in the community. All her grandchildren called her ‘Aai’, which in Marathi means mother. I lived with her from the age of ten to a year or two before I got married. When I was born, her home was my first home. I was taken there directly from the hospital as a baby. My parents later moved to a rented place of their own, as her home became increasingly crowded. A framed picture which hangs on the wall of my home, with my grandmother surrounded by all her grandchildren, is a wonderful reminder of her constant love and support for all of us. One of my cousins had custom-made T-shirts with this picture embossed on them for a cousins’ reunion almost four years ago. As we walked around Portland, Oregon, proudly wearing our T-shirts, we received many admiring and curious glances from passersby. We were so blessed to have a matriarch like her. She was a mother hen, shielding us, her chicks, under her loving wings. She loved each one of us equally and unconditionally.

I have been wanting to pay tribute to ‘Dianabai’, for a long time now, trying to gather as much material as I could about her school. Most of my article has been recreated from my memory of visits to her school with her, and my observations of how she carried out the work she loved.

She was a calm and extraordinarily kind and compassionate being. In her quiet and unassuming manner, she gave her time, care, and the little money she had to those less fortunate than herself. She went beyond the call of duty to counsel anyone in need of comfort. I remember how sometimes a crying woman would come to the house as late as eleven at the night. She would open the door and the first thing she would ask me to do was to make a cup of tea for the woman. It seemed late to me, but the lateness of the hour did not bother her. Time would expand to make room for others. She would talk to the distressed woman in her characteristically soft and soothing voice. The woman would leave the home comforted.

Recently I made contact through one of the groups I belong to, with a woman whose mother-in-law was a close friend of my grandmother. Her name was Yamunabai Hirlekar, an eminent personality in the field of Primary Education. I remember the name clearly, and I believe I might even have met her. I was trying to learn more about the relationship between the two educationists and wrote to my virtual friend for more information. This is what she wrote back, and I am quoting her exact words in her message to me:

Yamunatai Hirlekar, an eminent educationist was my mother-in-law’s close friend. My mother-in-law was Mrs Leelabai Paranjape. They used to meet frequently as members of a small group called ‘Chintan Mandal’. They used to discuss philosophy, politics, and literature at the Chintan Mandal sessions. I too used to tag along with my mother-in-law, Leelatai. That’s where I met your Grandma, Dianabai Ezekiel. Yamutai and Dianabai were particularly good friends, and they had a lot of respect for each other. Dianabai ably ran a school and worked tirelessly for her students; she was held in high esteem. In fact, I was quite awe-struck when I met her for the first time. I have seen them together at the Chintan Mandal meetings. I remember your Grandma as a very warm, affable lady with a smiling face. All these wonderful ladies are no more but their memories remain. I will glean some more information about Dianabai through some common friends and revert. Yours is a worthy project, a tribute to a dedicated teacher. Prof Ezekiel carried the baton through like his Mother and so did you!

My grandmother founded and ran her own school for disadvantaged children in an impoverished area of Bombay (now Mumbai), singlehandedly, in an area called Dongri. A dedicated teacher and visionary, she started the school with three children, renting space in a Hindu temple, after their service was done, each day, from Monday to Friday. That took real courage and passion. Later, as more students were keen to enrol, she rented a few rooms on the top floor of a nearby building. I think it was called the Ghulam Ali building, though I can’t be certain of that. What I do remember is that the building seemed incredibly old. I also recall her telling me about her dream of adding more classes each year, till matriculation. Her dream was to ultimately run a full-fledged school.

My grandmother named her school Vijay Vidyalaya. Vijay means victory, and Vidyalaya means the home of knowledge. Loosely translated, that would symbolize, a place where knowledge and education have victory over illiteracy and lack of Knowledge to deal with so many of life’s challenges. This would include learning to read, write and gain numerical literacy, to be able to have an awareness of what is happening in the world around, as well as gain skills and independence. I have a cousin named Vijay (her eldest daughter’s son) and I think she had mentioned naming the school after him.

Before starting school, she was a teacher in a Municipal School. My aunt, who was also a teacher at a Municipal school, was persuaded by my grandmother to join her when the school moved to a larger space. My aunt was made of the same mettle as my grandmother, kind and loving to anyone she met, and a dedicated teacher herself. My grandmother never talked about her education to me, but I could sense her love for teaching, even as a very young girl. More importantly, she had great empathy for the poor and the needy, not just in terms of educating them, but ministering to their personal needs. I discovered a couple of years ago, from a cousin who was visiting India that she was trained by Maria Montessori, who had spent eight years in India. That interesting conversation came up when I was telling one of my cousins that I loved my new job at a Montessori school. The children were wonderful, and the Montessori system of education aligned well with my philosophy of education since it was child-centred.

‘Now, what really makes a teacher is love for the human child, for it is love that transforms the social duty of the educator into the higher consciousness of a mission.

I must have been about ten or eleven years old when I accompanied her on her mission. I can still visualize her sitting in front of the children on a low stool in the temple, with the three children on the floor in front of her. She was always simply but immaculately dressed in a saree and had an aura of serenity about her. My later memories were in the classrooms in the large building, which to me felt quite dark since there was not much light coming in. On the ground floor of the building was a small shop, and she and my aunt bought me a small packet of wafers (potato chips), simply because I loved chips. Then we made the slow climb up the large dark wooden staircase, holding the bannisters, to the top floor (some residents lived on the lower floors, as I recall). The classrooms were filled with bright-eyed children who greeted grandmother and aunt with a respectful namaste. The wooden desks were old and probably donated by some organization. There was no government assistance at the time, so everything ran on donations.

At one point, my grandmother started a sewing class for women, many of whom were mothers of the children in the school. The teacher was a man we called Kasookar Master. I remember him very well. He had a deep voice, wore glasses, neatly dressed in a white shirt and black trousers. I remember my grandmother talking to him in Marathi, asking him to remain patient with the slow learners as he was keen to accomplish things at a faster pace. For each one of her teachers, it was always the same request from her… to teach with kindness and patience and plenty of understanding of children and adults as human beings. What an outstanding example of humanity and an inspiring role model for me to look up to. I would later choose teaching as a career myself, and it was from her that I got my first lessons in teaching.

As there was no space in the building, the school office was in my grandmother’s home. A large room was partitioned off, with the bedrooms on one side, and the office on the other. Pigeons made their nests in the rafters as the ceiling was very high, making it possible for them to fly in through the open windows. Office work was carried out to the cooing sounds of these birds as a kind of backdrop! My grandmother’s brother, Ben Jhirad, Ben Uncle to me, was the administrative officer, and his assistant was Sushilabai Navalkar. I would see them poring over piles of papers, as everything had to be done by hand. They had no typewriters (and personal computers were a thing of the future). Sushilabai brought her lunch from home, as did my uncle, and I sometimes ate lunch with them in the kitchen. Sushilabai was a kind and genial individual, and soon became part of the family. Ben Uncle was so much like my grandmother, soft-spoken, with the same grey-green eyes and kindly disposition. The school was registered under the name of Adarsh Education Society. A telephone with a deep-sounding ring was obtained for work purposes. We were only allowed to receive calls after office hours and make calls only in emergencies.

After my grandmother passed away in 1974, my aunt, Hannahbai Moses, bravely soldiered on, running the school singlehandedly for a few years, until she could no longer shoulder the responsibility by herself. The school was closed, and the office was shut down. How I wish I had somehow carried on the wonderful work my grandmother had begun. It is one of my regrets, but I know that life has its twists and turns. My aunt made Aliyah to Israel at the age of sixty, and I got married. All my life I taught English Literature and Language in International schools in India, and later, English, French and Spanish in private schools in Canada. In the Montessori school, I felt that life had come full circle. My grandmother and I were connected not only by the bonds of flesh and blood, but also by a passion for teaching, and the love for the children entrusted to us to educate and form lasting relationships with. Education is more than teaching children to read and write. It is to understand each child’s life journey and give meaning and fullness to it, with lessons from one’s own. It is to inspire the students with discovering what brings them joy and fulfilment, which helps them make the world a better place for future generations.

For her funeral, one image I will never forget is the sight of forty buses with people silently filing into them. The buses had to be arranged for those wishing to pay their final tribute to my grandmother. They were parked on our street and in the adjoining lanes, as there was not enough room on the street where she lived. The community had come to pay their respects to a woman who was not just a true philanthropist, but a real friend to the people of Dongri and beyond. I am proud to call myself her granddaughter.

Thank you, Aai.

My grandfather’s book titled ‘History and Culture of the Bene-Israel in India’ published on October 4, 1948, had some information about my grandmother’s school. For some reason, I had overlooked that small section and was delighted when I came across the specific facts about the school. Here is what he wrote:

Vijay Vidyalaya: Started by Mrs. Diana M. Ezekiel S.T.C on the 2nd November 1941, in Silver Mansion, new Chinch Bunder Road, Bombay. It started with three children on the roll and only the Nursery Department, the Primary Department in June 1942. The Sewing and Cutting Out Classes for women were started in August 1942. This was called the industrial Department. The Fancy Work Classes were started in June 1947 and included knitting, Crochet, Embroidery, Paper and Wax Flower making and Bead making.

The total strength of the school is --- Nursery department (50), Primary department (100), Sewing classes (40) Fancy work (10).