“Aren’t you a Stephanian?,” asked Dr. Karan Singh, the then Union Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation as we were exiting from the sprawling Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium, Hyderabad on January 10, 1968. The first day’s proceedings of the 71st Plenary Session of the undivided Indian National Congress was just over.
Tricolour fluttering from the bonnet of his white Ambassador car, and an endearing crimson smile pervading on his royal face, Karan Singh craned his neck out of the rear window and addressed the young reporter standing by me. Mammen Mathew, 24, was surprised and said “Yes sir, thank you,” After shaking his hand with the youngster, Karan Singh sped away. Mammen’s 26-year old colleague stood there with awe and wonder.
“How did he know?” asked the bemused Mammen to himself. “Were you not an alumni of St Stephen’s ? May be he recognized you from your photo in the college magazine,’’ I told him as we hurried to our upstairs room overlooking the stadium which had been spruced up for the historic session where S. Nijalingappa was elevated the new Congress President and K. Kamaraj demitted office after three consecutive terms he was thrust upon in Bhubanshwar, Durgapuur and Jaipur. We had the surprise of the day when the Hindustan Times of Delhi carried an exclusive pic of Nijalingappa going up the steps of the specially erected podium in the maidan and Kamaraj climbing down.
Mammen and myself were cub reporters from Malayala Manorama in Kottayam and for both of us Hyderabad where history was written and unwritten was a big break. During and after the sessions we made it to the historic Char Minar, Salar Jung Museum and Golconda Fort not to miss the Nizams’ palace at the Banjara Hills, one of the costliest places on earth, estimated to be worth over $20 b. in 2011.
It took me a almost four decades to decode and demystify what Stephanian meant. My, real tryst with St Stephen’s began when I read about Rev. Valson Thampu, its 12th principal caught in the whirlwind of turmoil, some for him and some against. “It’s all politics. Some ignorant small men are trying to destroy a great nstitution,’’ thundered Dr. Thampu in his rebuttal in a book ‘On A Stormy Course: In the Hot Seat at St. Stephen's’ (Hachette India, 2017) and quit after 45 years of association with it as student, teacher and principal.
Before bidding farewell, he selected John Varghese, head of the English department as his successor- the second Malayalee to be elevated to the post in a span of 138 years. Dr. John is an alumni of Loyola and Madras Christian College, Chennai and taught in Ras al Khaima and Hyderabad before joining St Stephen’s.
Dr. Valson’s trials and tribulations have great parallel to the times of its first Indian principal Sushil Kumar Rudra (1907 -19230) who befriended Mahatma Gandhi risking the ill feeling of the college founders. Rudra played host to Gandhiji on many occasions whenever the latter chose to visit Delhi during 1915 to 1923. Rev. CF Andrews, who became close friend of Gandhi, was a teacher in the college from 1904. He was in fact instrumental in bringing Gandhi back to India from South Africa.
Gandhiji wrote about Rudra: “There was a kind of spiritual bond between him and his pupils. Though he was a Christian, he had room in his bosom for Hinduism and Islam which he regarded with great veneration. Fearing that his intimacy with me might compromise his allegiance to his English authorities I offered to seek shelter elsewhere. His reply was characteristic.’ My religion is deeper than people may imagine. Some of my opinions are vital parts of my being. You cannot leave me”.
JNU social systems professor Susan Visvanathan in her book ‘Friendship, Interiority and Mysticism’(Orient Longman, 2007) says that the presence of four stalwarts--CF Andrews, SK Rudra, Gandhi and Tagore, marked a golden chapter in the history of St Stephen’s. Tagore while staying in St Stephens completed the English translation of his Gitanjali that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.
St Stephens, now one of the top four colleges in the country, has a long array of alumni that outshines any other institution in India, ranging from presidents, prime ministers, literary luminaries, artists and whatnot. Pakistan President Zia ul Haq was a Stephenian. Many of the world’s top academics and CEOs of transnational corporations were groomed there.
Rev. Thampu, after retiring from St Stephens in 2016, chose to return to his native state along with his wife Dr. Grace and settle in Trivandrum. But as a torchbearer of progressive ideals and corrective force, he finds himself busier than what he was in the national capital. His latest is a YouTube channel talkshow titled Beyond Religion, a voice of reason in public sphere. And yet he found time to bless the wedding of two of his dear students of St Stephen’s, Blesson and Sweta, at the Contour Convention Centre on the AC road, Changanassery, an outback of Kerala’s granary, the Kuttanad. There is a special reason, began Dr.Valson in his mesmeric voice:
“When Blesson appeared for interview for admission, I asked him what he wanted to become. “President of India,” shot came the reply. That was how he became the apple of my heart….By uniting you in wedlock God has touched open the divine essence in you to go and catch men instead of fish and liberate humanity from aloneness,” he said.
Blesson, winning the Chevening scholarship, earned his Masters in International Relations and Diplomacy from London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies and in Multinational Enterprises and Law from the London School of Economics. After working for the Ministry of Rural Development in Delhi for over an year he joined Bangalore-based organization Project Defy and toured Rwanda, Kenya and Congo as its Director of Africa operations. Sweta is doing her PhD in Physics at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
Three other Malayali alumni of St Stephen’s are close to my mind. One, Shweta Anne Mathai, daughter of Dr Khalil Issac Mathai and Rear Admiral Dr. Sheila Mathai, graduated from the Harvard Business School last year to becomc consultant to the New York based management firm Mckinsey and Company in Washington. Anne Thomas, daughter of academics in Kottayam Dr. AM Thomas and Dr. Teresa Thomas, joined the Chicago-based financial services behemoth Northern Trust in Bangalore and married Rakesh of similar interests at the retreat Backwater Ripples Kumarakom last year. The third is Vinitha Ajit, daughter of Ajit Abraham, a media person in Kottayam, who did her Masters in Development Economics at SOAS, London to join the management team of NR Management Consultants India, Delhi, doing her maiden project in the deserts of Rajasthan.
Blesson’s parents, Joy Mathew and Meena, are teachers settled in Kidwai Nagar, Kanpur for long and Sweta’s parents John George and Susan are living in Kailsh Towers in Saketh, South Delhi. John is a Central government official and Susan teaches Chemistry at the Jesus and Mary Convent. Blesson’s parents belong to Keezhvaipur in Pathanamthitta district and Sweta’s hail from Kundara in Kollam district. These urban villages are as close as 70 km. However, the new generation children hardly ever know their parental roots that run deep in Kerala. They were born and brought up in New Delhi and Kanpur separated by 475 km and linked by vibrant Malayali diaspora numbering a few hundred thousands.
The wedding was glittering affair with guests arriving from India, US, UK and Africa. Project Defy’s Chief Executive Officer Abhijith Sinha and his Simbabwean wife Answer Nzuma were conspicuous. Abhijith confided to me that he met Answer while attending an year’s social empowerment course at Kanthari, an international training institute for social change at Veli a suburb of Thiruvananthapuram overlooking the Veli Lake. Kanthari founded by Norwegian Paul Kronenberg and Sabriye Tenberken in 2005 has a reach in 45 countries and is accredited to the Government of India. Bangalore-based Project Defy, on the other hand, is expanding to Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Zambia with its self learning spaces called Nooks.
I bumped into another interesting guest. Mohammed Ebrahim Kutty, 65, a close family friend of Sweta’s, lives in an apartment just across the road in Saketh in South Delhi. A post graduate, he retired as director of a central government department but chose to return to his village near Anchal in Kollam distirct and enjoy the remains of the day as a farmer. He bought 10 cents of land with a two storey building. His wife Kafila could not attend the wedding as she was waiting for the truck from New Delhi stuffed with used household articles like crockery, cutlery, fridge, tv, etc to arrive.
Kafila also is a unique person. Eldest of eight girl children, she earned her BA and BEd to get a teacher’s job in a government school in Delhi. While on the job, she obtained her Masters in English as well as Political Science and started research for PhD. “I paid mehr but refused to take any dowery from Kafila’s parents. But we put up our mite to educate all the girls and marry them off to educated spouses.” Kutty told me. They have two sons. The eldest is medical doctor with an MBA working for the military as a Major. A gold medallist for his MD, he is married to another Major doctor in the army. Both are now posted in Srinagar. The other son is a BTech in working in Dubai.
While Kutty intends to begin with farming on leased land close to his new home, Kafila plans to do social work, to begin with educational counseling and guidance for the children of the deprived in her village.
What a glorious sunset for an evergreen couple!