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'I tried to demystify space for them'
M D Riti in Bangalore | January 17, 2003 22:19 IST
"Nirmaladidi's incredible ability to explain basics of science will forever remain a vivid and precious memory of my life," said astronaut Kalpana Chawla, about Nirmala Namboothiripad, her science teacher from school.
On her second space mission, Chawla is carrying a white silk banner as part of a worldwide campaign to honour teachers.
The five feet-by-three feet cloth shows a teacher's outstretched hand blessing a girl bowing before her.
Chawla had last year announced that she would like to carry such a banner in honour of teachers like Nirmaladidi, who taught her at the Tagore Bal Niketan in Karnal (Haryana), and who inspired students to learn.
Chawla's announcement set off a hunt for Nirmala Namboothiripad, who had moved out of Karnal long ago. The teacher, who Chawla credits with having motivated her to become what she is today, was finally tracked down to Bangalore, where she had moved with her parents in the eighties.
For over 16 years, Nampoothiripad has been teaching at the St Paul's School in Bangalore.
She was quite astonished when the present head of the Tagore Bal Niketan contacted her and told her about Chawla's plan.
"I do not remember individual students from the Bal Niketan," says Namboothiripad, now approaching 50, and who worked in that school for about five years when Vimala Raheja was its head.
"But I am glad that she (Kalpana Chawla) is using science in a positive way, like I always told the children to do. I congratulate Kalpana and her entire team and wish them all the best in their space mission."
Nirmala Namboothiripad stayed in Karnal as her father, a central government employee, was posted there for several years. Her family liked Karnal so much that they wanted to settle down there forever, but finally could not do so.
"We did keep in touch with friends there and I got frequent updates on how Bal Niketan was faring," she says. "But I never kept in touch with any student."
In fact, she was a student even while she was teaching. She completed a master's degree in mathematics even as she taught in Bal Niketan.
What did she say, all those years ago, to her eager young students that motivated one to literally become a star?
"Karnal was a very small town in those days and nobody thought it very important to go to school," Namboothiripad reflects. "So it was very important to motivate those children to educate themselves and achieve something in life. Unlike in the cities, where teachers are mostly called Madam or Miss, these girls used to call us didi or behenji."
"I used to repeatedly tell them that they should not waste their education as the general attitude of those students was -- eventually we have to get married and take care of the household."
"I emphasised that it was very important that every single one of them try to achieve something truly great in life. Since science was the subject I taught, I told my students that they could achieve a lot through mathematics and science. I never even imagined then that a girl sitting in my class would take my words so seriously!"
"I must confess I simply do not remember Kalpana Chawla," Namboothiripad admits. "Maybe if someone showed me a photograph of her as a child, it might strike some chord in my memory."
"It must have been a struggle for her," she continues. "Achieving something beyond just getting into the family way always comes after a struggle. I know it from my own experience. (Nampoothiripad has dedicated her life to the cause of good education and is unmarried by choice.) I always told my students that they had to be prepared to sacrifice a lot to become achievers and that they might often have to fight the world to do so."
Is science education in mainstream Indian schools so poor that a teacher who attempted to teach something beyond what is written in the text books left such an indelible impression on a student's mind?
"We have a mass education system. Teachers and schools mostly tell students to do well in their examinations and get good marks," regrets Nampoothiripad.
"Every class will always have at least two or three students who ask questions that are completely out of the syllabus. Usually, teachers just brush them aside because they are so blinkered."
On the other hand, she tries to demonstrate the relevance of science in our day-to-day life.
"Space, for those children in Karnal, was something very mysterious and so far removed from the mundaneness of their existence...," she says.
"I tried my best to demystify it for them. But I never once imagined that one my students would some day actually reach out for the stars�.!"