A principled stand

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE FIRST WORLD WAR folk song ran, “Old soldiers never die/ They simply fade away.” For old teachers you can say, they never die; they do not even fade away. They live on and on through the generations of students they teach with such living care and devotion. That is what thousands and thousands of women old and young who have studied in the St. Joseph’s College between 1957 and 1982 – at least 20,000 of them – would say about Sister Mary Emily.

When I went to interview her last week, I found her looking not a day older than what she used to be in 1957 when she came to Karachi as the vice-principal of the St. Joseph’s College. What is more, I found her as mentally agile and sharp as ever. Her stunning photographic memory which enabled her to recall the name of of each and every student in college, has not lost its edge. The ravages of time were betrayed only by the slight limp she has developed due to arthritis in her knee. “It was really bad in 1991 when my trouble started. But I have managed to control it after reading a book on how attitudes matter in arthritis and a positive approach helps,” Sister Emily remarks when I enquire about her health.

Otherwise there is nothing in Sister Mary Emily that has changed – the fresh white habit included – though she reminds me twice that she is now 78-years-old. For the last 13 years she has been the guiding force at the Marie Therese Institute which was set up in 1985 by the congregation in the St.Joseph’s Convent premises to hold short courses for students in English language, computers, cooking, art and sewing and embroidery. She takes pride in the Institute as she takes me round showing me the work the students are doing.

Happy with what she had achieved in life – the spiritual satisfaction of being a nun and the sense of fulfillment she gets from teaching – Sister Emily feels as involved in the teaching profession today as she was 41 years ago when I first met her. “It is like restoring vision to a person with a cataract. You bring him out of the region of darkness to the kingdom of light,” Is how she describes in scriptural language the role a good teacher plays.

A double M.A. from Calcutta University in Economics and English, Sister Mary Emily began teaching in 1947 when she joined the convent. She went to a convent school run by the Apostolic Carmel, a religious order in Mangalore, her birthplace in southern India. Sister Emily studied for her B.A. in St. Agnes’ College, Mangalore which was affiliated to the Madras University. She proudly describes her alma mater as one of the best in India in those times. “Madras University had a higher standard than Bombay and the others,” she observes. By the time she got round to doing her M.A. in Economics she had become a nun and was sent to Calcutta to teach in St. Theresa’s High School.

On the move constantly, in response to the call of duty, Sister Emily would go wherever she was needed. That is how she came to Karachi, where the St .Joseph’s College a growing institution, was headed by an Irish nun, Sister Mary Bernadette. Karachi was not altogether strange to her. She had lived a few months in this port city in 1947. But college offered new challenges and new opportunities to her as an educationist. A year later she made a quick trip to Calcutta to appear for her MA exam, her second Masters, this time in English.

That was the last milestone in Sister Emily’s formal education. But self-education has continued to this day. She is fascinated by the changes which are constantly taking place in society and in the world. She uses the term “movement” to describe the process of change. A very expressive term, it strikes me. “I’ve kept abreast of movements all the time,” she says. For that she loves to read newspapers and magazines.

“I like to read articles which are analytical. And I admire people who are courageous and say NO,” she adds. She describes it as the “movement of dissent.”

I find that quite uncharacteristic of an educationist in our society – the kind we are generally accustomed to. But then I remember Sister Emily when I was a student. Yes, she ruled over college with a firm hand of a disciplinarian. But she would also encourage us to express our opinions about things. That is how she is even today. As we talk she is reminded that it is time for her Advanced English class. She has already planned an assignment for the students. “Write an essay describing your feelings when your teacher does not come to take her class.” Knowing Sister Emily, I can be certain that she must have received quite a few pieces giving an honest expression of views!

For her, discussions and debates have been the lifeline of education. And education has been the mission of her life. She has found that she could combine her roles as a nun and an educationist perfectly to make her life a rewarding experience. “Whatever I do is an active worship of God. For me teaching is worship. If I find a student disappointing I do not react by rejecting her. I see the student as a person wanting to acquire knowledge and myself as a person who can give it her,” she explains.

In 1961 she was appointed the principal of St.Joseph’s College and continued in that post till 1982. What is wrong with the education sector, I ask her. “I think too many sweeping changes are introduced just for the sake of change. If there has to be a change it must be a healthy one and for the better,” she states emphatically. Instead, the system is changed just because a new government comes into office and it has to discredit its predecessor by rejecting all its doings. The heart of the problem, according to her, is that we do not have the right education minister. “Everyone is not cut out to hold this portfolio. Maybe people like Anita Ghulam Ali, who has her soul in education and understands the problem, should be made education minister,” she suggests.

Her advice to the education authorities: “Allow principals to do their job. Don’t interfere and don’t burden them with unnecessary paperwork.” She remembers she had to cope with so much correspondence from the government that it left her with little time for any other work. Some of it made little sense. For instance she would get a pro forma which ran thus: How many students enrolled? “Obviously the answer would be the same,” she remarks. Waste of paper. Waste of time. She now feels.

The traces of bitterness of the heyday of nationalization linger on. “Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto made a muddle of education,” she says. She goes on to add, “His daughter followed in her father’s footstep with a deep sense of loyalty.” One can understand her feelings. The college, the leading institution for higher education for women in Karachi, continues to be in the possession of the government. The building belongs to the mission for which it gets a princely rent of Rs.22,500 per annum.

But she nurses no personal grudges. On the contrary she feels she was rather well treated by the University and the Education Department. Today the main problem a college principal faces is the pressure for admission which is exerted on her from the authorities. She is sent a list of hundreds of names and asked to admit those girls whether they qualify or not. If she fails to meet the demands from the higher-ups she is humiliated. Sister Emily was spared that pressure considerably. “They respected me, knowing it was our college they had taken over,” she remarks. Even Professor Ghulam Mustafa Shah, who was the Education Minister, would react sharply if asked to get admission for a student in St Joseph’s. “Muafee do Muafee do (excuse me),”He would plead recalls Sister Emily. “Yeh Sister usool kay khilaf koi baat naheen karay gee, (This nun will not act against principles),” he would say and clinch the matter.

When she retired, after getting a two-year extension, the students and teachers protested vociferously because they did not want to let her go. But Sister Emily never approved of the protest then and even now she feels that the students should not have politicized the issue. She, on her own part, moved on to some academic work – writing a commemorative volume on the archbishop of Karachi whose silver jubilee was being observed in 1982. Then over to Lahore for a few months for some religious assignment, a two-year stint as the head of the St.Joseph’s School in Karachi in 1983 – 84 while the principal was away for a course and then to the Marie Therese Institute in 1985.

I ask her how she feels about religion in our society which does not have too good a record as far as treatment of minorities is concerned. Sister Emily is cautious and guarded in her reply. “I have a deep respect for all religions,” she insists. “I strongly feel that we must respect the religious beliefs of others and never scoff at them. We should not challenge the beliefs and teachings of others. The trouble we have had on the blasphemy law is due to ignorance. This can be the case with any religion. See what has happened to the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. When people are educated and taught tolerance they will learn to live together,” Sister Emily says.

No, nobody now approaches her for advice on educational matters. Many would want to, but she has no time. She is busy at the Institute from 7:30 in the morning till 3:30. Then her routine is pretty set – and that explains the secret of her good health and active life. One hour supervising the gardens in the convent with two maalis under her. One hour of prayers. One hour of television – news and cartoons (Cartoon Network is a must if you want to relax and rest your nerves, another secret of health and longevity!)

When Sister Emily looks back at the years gone by, she finds them satisfying professionally and spiritually. She has always taught young people the dignity of labour and respect for work and what belongs to others. She felt she could communicate with her students. “Young people are always willing to listen provided they know you are truly interested in them,” she says. She had the weekly assembly which many of the students didn’t quite enjoy then. “I get letters from all over the world saying how much they now appreciate the assembly and all that she would tell them then,” Sister Emily says.

More importantly, those who have become teachers come to her and tell how they try to emulate her. That is why she never fades.

Source: Dawn : 4 June 1998