Thursday, December 29, 2016

Dear father, you will be remembered forever

It's a month since my father passed away. I am still coming to terms with his absence. This, in spite of the fact that he was very realistic and practical about what he could and he could not do.

During the last few months he had virtually signed off from all activities, and even spoke about his departure; going as far as telling us that he might not survive October.

Probably, thanks to the strong value systems he practised, and the strength of his mind and intellect, he was up and about, albeit with support, till the very last day. He passed away in sleep around 3.30 am, on November 29.

36 years of teaching

My father, N. Balakrishnan Nair -- or NBN as he was fondly referred to in Sainik School, Kazhakootam, Thiruvananthapuram, where he taught for 28 years -- was born in North Parur, Ernakulam, on October 22, 1929.

He did his primary and secondary school education in North Parur, and completed his Intermediate and B.Sc. from University College, Thiruvananthapuram from 1943 to 1947.

He worked as lab chemist in FACT Aluva, Ernakulam, from 1947 to 49; and did MSc in Chemistry from Sagar, Madhya Pradesh, from 1949 to 1951. From 1951 to 59, he worked as a lecturer in Chemistry in NSSH College, Changanessery, Kottayam. From 1959 to 1962, he worked as a junior scientist in Ministry of Scientific Research and Cultural Affairs in Delhi and Chenganoor, Alappuzha.

His stint in Sainik School was the longest: from Feb 14, 1962 to April 14, 1990. Post retirement, from 1990 to 1996, he worked part time as a volunteer in two orphanages near North Parur teaching children craft work.

A role model, father figure

For my father, students were the first priority. He used to say that it is the duty of teachers to be as helpful to students as possible. Because of his sincerity, commitment, and patience, he was a favourite of his students.

In Sainik School, which is a boarding school, where children join at the age of 11 and leave at the age of 18, he was a guide, mentor, and a father figure. Children always felt comfortable to approach him, confide in him and seek solutions to their issues. They looked up to him as a role model.

The Chemistry laboratory

He loved being in the Chemistry laboratory. Thanks to him, children right from the age of 11, when they were in sixth standard, got laboratory hour during the Chemistry classes. Each student had his own table, with all equipment and solutions for himself. Father used to say no student should have to borrow even a match stick from another student. From learning how to light a Bunsen Burner oneself at the age 11 to doing complicated salt analyses at the age of 18: children did them all themselves. Probably in no other school, students get to work in a chemistry laboratory for seven long years at a stretch during their schooling.

He was extremely humble, and always remained in the background. When students expressed gratitude for the help he had rendered, he used to say, good students make good teachers; all the credit should go to the students and not to him.

Alumni association

My father was instrumental in forming the Old Boys Association in Sainik School way back in 1969, when alumni associations and meetups were not much heard of. He wrote letters to former students, buying postal material from his own salary.

Every letter or greeting card sent by students was replied to without fail. He kept a notebook, a despatch register of sorts, in which he entered the name, address and date on which letters were received, and the date on which he replied to them.

His letters are considered a priceless gem, for the thoughts he articulated, and the way he presented them. Many of his students have preserved his reply to their wedding invitations.

Father used to say that a school should never forget its students, and he painstakingly built the OBA, as the alumni group was called. Today it's a very strong and well-networked association of all past students, and contributing in multiple ways to help out other alumni as well as the alma mater. There are innumerable anecdotes on how ex-students have reached out to fellow alumni in times of need.

The very latest is this: a few days ago there was mail in our email group, about a alumnus losing his baggage during a flight, and that he wasn’t getting proper answer from the airlines. Within a few hours of posting the email, another alumnus, a pilot, who saw the mail, worked his contacts, and replied saying the baggage has been found, and that it’s being sent to him. There are so many anecdotes like this.

Lessons in life

Very organised and disciplined in his daily routine, father helped inculcate good value systems in students. We thank him not just for the lessons in Chemistry, but for lessons in life as well. One of his principles was that we must always be ready to make small sacrifices so that we can achieve a larger good, and move forward in life. And he made a number of sacrifices, big and small in his life.

Another of his principles was never to judge people, and he never proclaimed his opinions about anything. He believed in giving every individual her freedom of thought and action, and was he was critical of people, mainly politicians, who insisted what languages children should learn or what dress they should wear, or what food they should eat.

He was very reticent, guarded in speaking out, probably because he himself was very sensitive about what others spoke about him. One must be very careful and think through before expressing our views about something, he used to say.

Busy and active life

He truly believed in the old saying: "Idle mind is a devil's workshop", and made sure that he kept himself occupied always.

He believed that there are four aspects to our being: physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual; and it is important for us to pay attention to each of them equally, and keep them strong.

He exercised regularly. He never went to the gym, or went for walk in a park. He practised yoga (mainly breathing and stretching exercises) at home.

Importance of diet

He maintained a very strict diet discipline. He avoided sugar, salt and oil, especially after retirement. His food was mainly made up of an assortment of boiled rice and cut vegetables like bitter gourd and beans.

My father was an admirer of Linus Pauling, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954 for peace in 1962. The scientist had advocated the power of Vitamin C to increase our immunity and also protect us from diseases. Quite naturally, my father regularly had vitamin and mineral supplements, to make up for the possible shortfall in the normal food.

He read a lot, and was very knowledgeable. One reason students liked his chemistry classes was because, in addition to equations, compounds and chemical reactions, he used to narrate interesting anecdotes related to historical events and personalities.

He was a member of the British Library in Thiruvananthapuram, and he got me also enrolled as a member soon after my 10th standard. Once in a month we used to go the library. This landmark institution in the Kerala capital was shut down in 2008. (British Library, Thiruvananthapuram, to close down, Hope for British Library, Thiruvananthapuram)

Father believed in the need to have engaging hobbies. Solving word and number puzzles like Sudoku was one of them. He learnt Russian, and spent some half an hour reading Russian books. He read some religious text; and kept himself emotionally strong by being realistic and practical about everything that happened around him.

Hobbies should also be something that involves physical work. He played the violin. He knew bookbinding and introduced it as a hobby for the school students. He also made boxes out of discarded paper containers of toothpaste, cereals etc. He gave these boxes to his former students and their family members when they visited them. They are treasured as priceless souvenirs.

After retirement, the time for these activities increased. He devoted some time in the kitchen as well, especially after my mother became too old and weak to cook food and wash vessels. For him, the kitchen came closest to what a laboratory was.

The downslide

The extent and intensity of his activities reduced over a period of time, but he carried on doing most of these till around October-end. The turning point came on October 10 when he lost balance and was about to fall when he bent down to put the violin back in the box. I was around and held him. From then on, he gradually lost confidence, and began to feel weaker and weaker.

But even a day before he passed away, he mustered enough strength to get up and walk up to the dining table to have lunch and dinner on Nov 28. As usual, after dinner, we went up to bathroom, brushed his teeth, and went to bed.

For about a month, his breathing had become a bit laboured, and one could hear him inhale and exhale, often through his mouth. I would ask him if he had any discomfort, and he would say, no nothing. And, in a sense, that sound had become a reassurance of his presence.

Around 3.30 that night, I didn’t hear that familiar breathing sound. I, for moment, thought he might have turned over to one side. But I didn’t want to take a risk, and decided to check on him. There was no response. Life went out of him; very quietly, peacefully.

Dear father, you will be remembered forever. May your soul rest in peace.