Mr RC Singhal passed away on 6 Aug 11.
He died in the saddle, as the Principal of Cambrian Hall, a premier private school in Dehra Dun, after an illustrious teaching career that spanned 64 years. He was a mentor to many illustrious persons, as also very ordinary mortals like me, in our most impressionable age from 10-16. Before Cambrian Hall, Mr Singhal was a teacher, house master and Vice Principal of RIMC between 1947-84.
In England they philosophically say, ‘The King is dead, long live the King’.
In this hour of mortal tragedy, I cannot find words to describe the loss, the words to write an appropriate eulogy about this incredibly awesome man.
.I met RCS Sir last, few months ago, 45 years after leaving RIMC . My classmates of 62-66 (Mamu Mamgain, Surdy Jasbir, Tinda Arvind, Tota TJ, and I, all of us by now senior citizens ourselves), we went to his house to pay our respect at 1900 hrs on 11th Mar this year. He was at the door to receive us, impeccably turned out in his characteristic tweed coat and tie. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine him just as he was on the day I first met him in 1962. He did not look a day older, he was as ram rod straight and awesome as he was when I first met him. My elder brother and I had arrived at RIMC in a ‘Tanga’, and near the Commandant’s office stopped to ask directions from a smart gentleman who was walking along briskly in the same direction. ‘Oh.... I will show you where to go’, he had said and got into the Tanga along with us and took us to the awesome senior ante room. While my brother and he chatted, banter between two people of the same age, I surreptitiously observed the gentleman whom I subsequently got to learn from, and to love, as Mr Chips, RCS Sir, Pratap’s section master. I was then put into Ranjit and did not see much of him, at least till much later, till I was appearing for ISC and NDA, more or less at the same time. That is what I thought, or what I recollected as I went to see him at his house in Mar 45 yrs later.
In the fraction of the second that we took contemplating whether to touch his feet, as we wanted to do, RCS stuck out his hand and shook our’s, one by one. ‘Thank you for coming to see me’, he said in a melodiously clear and affectionate voice. When my turn came to shake his hands, I found that his hands were frail but his grip was firm and determined. I also noticed that he patted me on my shoulder twice, something he had never done before, something which he did not do with others along with me that night.
While RCS Sir chatted with my peer group one by one, I stood aside chatting with his two sons and DIL, rather shy and reluctant to face the frail old man. My peer group that night were illustrious boys in school, very accomplished men afterwards, RCS had reasons to be proud of them. I was unsure whether he would remember me, or whether he would be happy to see me. After all, I was one of his worst pupils, a problem child. After about 45 mts of chatting with others, he gestured to me. ‘Come and sit next to me’, he said patting the sofa. I went and sat at the edge of the sofa, I am sure he noticed my hesitation and discomfort.
‘Sir, my name is Kartha, UG Kartha’, I said hesitatingly. ‘I doubt whether you will remember me’. I spoke loudly, assuming that he may have some problem hearing.
‘Did you have a problem jumping off the 7 mtr board in NDA ?’, he asked looking into my eye. His eyes were twinkling, the corner of his lips were twitching with merriment.
‘No, Sir, I had no problem, I jumped often from 10 mtr, afterwards even qualified as a paratrooper’, I said absentmindedly, wondering whether the old man had gone senile. Suddenly my mind jumped out of my head, about 50 yrs backwards. Memory came flooding back. Havildar Major Limbu lining us up on the 3 mtr board in the indoor swimming pool in our first term in RIMC. We were to jump into the pool and swim one length to pass the physical. One by one, everyone ahead of me jumped, and swam. Then came my turn, I stood there immobile, my legs weighing like a bag of cement. I did not know how to swim. I never told anyone, no one had asked me either. Limbu Sahib got impatient and let fly a long burst with his whistle, ‘Jump Karo Cadet’, he shouted. In the closed environment of the indoor pool, the long burst of whistle reverberated and echoed with menacing overtone. I was so frightened that I jumped, not into the pool but to the side. I fell half in the water and half outside on the edge, my face hit the pool edge and my nose and upper lip started to bleed copiously. I started to cry. I don’t know what RCS was doing there. He gathered me up in his arms and ran with me held to his chest to the MI Room next door. While waiting for Matron to prepare her sewing needle, to stitch up my lip and nose, RCS asked me very kindly, ‘How old are you ?’
‘I am 11 yrs old Sir’, I said, sitting up and drawing myself away from him.
‘When do you think it is a good age to stop crying, and to be a good soldier ?’ he asked with his characteristic straight face, I could see his lips twitching in a suppressed smile. ‘The matron is going to stitch you up, it is going to be quite painful, would you rather cry now or afterwards ?’, he asked with much compassion, like a father.
‘I will not cry Sir’, I told him with new found determination of a 11 yrs old. Afterwards, I have not cried, at least not for silly things like pain or injury.
‘I haven’t cried much afterwards Sir’, I said to him very seriously that night, 50 yrs later, with all the seriousness of a 61 yrs old man. I wanted him to be proud of me, as much as a son desires that his father is proud of him. I was all of 11 yrs, all over again.
‘You write well’, RCS told me nodding his head. ‘But you still use big words and make spelling mistakes’. He was smiling now, his eyes wrinkled in good humour. My mind somersaulted again, 48 years backwards this time. I was in the quarantine with Measles, all by myself in the building next to the MI Room. RCS had come by, and saw me there. ‘How are you?’, he had enquired.
‘I am bored Sir, I wish everyone had caught Measles’, I said to him quite seriously. I did not have wit or wisdom then.
‘Ummmm’, he said with a straight face, ‘I cannot help you there’, he said. ‘But I will come by in the evening again’.
That evening he brought me Enid Blyton’s ‘Five On A Trip’, which set me off on a career of reading. I now read everything that I can lay my hands on, with as much aggression and zest as soldiering. Writing was only a progression, though I confess that I have yet to master the English language. He came by every evening that I was in hospital, and encouraged me to start writing short stories as ‘time pass’.
‘How is your health ?’, I asked with genuine concern, back being a 61 yr old.
‘Oh, I am OK, as good as it can get’, he replied waiving off my concern. ‘Do you still like puzzles ?’, he asked. ‘My god, this man remembers each day of my childhood, as if it was yesterday’, I mumbled under my breath. I could remember him sitting in his Spartan office, the corner of the teachers room, with ledgers and note books piled up end to end. He would call me often to counsel me. My homework usually consisted of doodles or ink blotches and holes in the paper where I had broken off the nib of my pen (the dip dip type pens those days). I did that on purpose sometimes to avoid doing home work. ‘I see that you don’t like to do home work, is that it ?’, he once asked me, in very gentle tones.
‘Oh, I don’t like anyone marking my mistakes in Red Ink, that is why I don’t do home work’, I told him with the irrefutable logic of a 12 yr old. He sat there silently for a while. ‘Try to do things for yourself, do it in such a way that you feel proud of what you have done, satisfy yourself and don’t worry about others, whether they like what you have done’, he said afterwards, with empathy and affection. In all my adult life, whenever I have had to shovel shit of any kind, I have tried to make a ‘Taj Mahal’ with it, and I have never forgotten what he said to me that day. I do things now, everything, to satisfy myself and have had trouble only because I am my own biggest critic. No one writes red ink remarks in my note books, not any more, I write it myself.
I was very bad in mathematics. Once he called me to his office and gave me a simple puzzle and told me to sit there and solve it, ‘I challenge you to solve it’, he said, rather seriously. I solved it within a few minutes and gave it back to him.
‘Hmmmmm’, he mused. ‘You are intelligent enough to solve puzzles, but you need someone to throw a challenge at you each time, only then you would want to use logic and your brain’. He was silent for some time, looking at me. ‘Mathematics is a science of logic, do you think you can challenge yourself to try and solve it like a puzzle ?’, he advised. Afterwards, whatever I did was a challenge, a mountain that I had to climb motivating myself to do it, and I have never forgotten RCS’s advice.
‘I don’t want to study’, I told him another time, when he had advised all my peer group to appear for external ISC exam.
‘I just want to join NDA and become an officer in AF, so that I don’t have to study’. I was rather convinced that was how things were going to be. He just smiled, with unfathomable patience, ‘OK, do this for me, would you ?. Can you show me whether you are capable of doing it ?’, he asked.
I went along like a meek puppy, I did the ISC, did it well too, at that time thinking that I was doing it for him. Afterwards, learning and studying became a never ending routine and in the AF there was no respite, every day I had to learn something new, there were never ending examinations. In retrospect, there was none that I wanted to please more, he was my surrogate father. He was a surrogate father to everyone in my peer group.
Sitting with him in Mar this year, the years shrunk, I was like a child all over again, basking in the unrequited love, affection and pride that RCS bestowed on me. In so many ways he has given me so much. His valuable time, attention, patience, advice, wisdom, and above all encouragement, more than any of the others in my peer group who were better and hence did not require all of it. I required all of it and more, he knew that I was a maverick. The last thing he said to me that night is something very cheerful, wisdom that comes with age and exposure.
‘Once your father wrote to me’, he said conversationally. ‘He wanted to know why you did not excel in RIMC’.
‘What did you tell him ?’, I asked with insatiable curiosity.
‘I told him that some seeds take longer to grow into a tree’, he paused. ‘When the sapling is good, with the right amount of water, sunlight, manure and a bit of encouragement, they will all grow into tall flowering trees’. He then smiled enigmatically.
‘Sir, I think what I am today is all because of your effort’, I said with all the sincerity that I could muster.
“No, No”, he shook his head with mock gravity, ‘You did all the growing and running, all by yourself, I was just a sign board in your life’.
Ramesh Chandra Singhal, my surrogate father Sir, I wish you bon voyage on your eternal journey. I salute thee in farewell. In death you are closer to me than the distances that you have chosen to go. You shall live on, till the last of us who love you, and owe you, fall in our own mortality.
God bless your soul.