Gopi B Malkani, The Lady With The Lamp

Date: 23- 12- 19

She took over the Junior School from Mrs Kate, who had been looking after it after Mr Cherian’s departure in the interim period. Miss Malkani played a pivotal role in moulding the young minds of children of the Junior School and her pupils vouch for her dedication and zeal even to this day.

A Tribute

By Lila Kak-Bhan

It is May 2009 and Swine flu is flooding the newspapers as I write this article. Many boys I teach are down with flu like symptoms. What, you must be thinking, has flu in the U.S. got to do with Miss Malkani? Well actually it has a lot to do with her as far as I am concerned! The precautions that one needs to take to avoid catching it have, in fact, got everything to do with her.

When the epidemic struck us here, instructions were posted everywhere to wash one’s hands frequently and to clean door handles and computer key boards and mice regularly.  For me these instructions were old hat. Miss Malkani had an obsession  for cleanliness and all of us who were fortunate to come within her orbit learned to wash our hands several times a day as she did, clean our eating utensils with our napkins and chew our food twenty four times before swallowing it! All her teachings provided a sound basis for healthy habits and because of her, I routinely cleaned the phones in my dormitory, keyboards, door handles and  any other objects that were used by many people. It was Miss Malkani’s training that made it so easy for me to do all the “right” things as precautionary measures against the flu. Miss Malkani’s wisdom permeates to so many facets of life, from daily chores to classroom teaching.

Before I got to know Miss Malkani really well I had already developed a great admiration for her. Every night, before she slept, which was never before midnight, I would spot her, lantern in hand, going from dorm to dorm making sure each child was covered and comfortably asleep. A Florence Nightingale in the middle of the Punjab. This is one of my earliest images of Miss Gopi Malkani, the amazing pioneer headmistress of The Punjab Public School, Nabha.
Gopi  Malkani was born in 1920 in the area of Sind which is now Pakistan. After Partition her family moved to India and soon after she went to England for a year where she observed and picked up many innovative teaching techniques.

She joined The Punjab Public School as the Headmistress of the Junior Section in the early ’60’s and was there till July 1975 when she left and joined Mr Kate in Daly College, Indore, once again, as the Headmistress of the Junior School. She sadly found out that she had cancer in 1976 for which she was operated upon. She continued to work almost to her dying day. She finally succumbed to the disease in September 1982, in Bombay in her brother’s house. She has left behind the admiration, gratitude and great affection from all those who came in touch with her.

My first encounter with Miss Malkani was in the winter of 1963. I was fresh out of college, having just graduated and also done my teachers’ training from St. Bede’s College, Simla.  My father and I were first led to Mr.Kate’s office from whence he took us for me to be interviewed in the Junior School. My earliest memory of that first encounter was of a pair of very large eyes looking at me with curiosity. Not many words passed between us, but a mutual bond was established which developed into a very deep and special relationship of a mentor, philosopher and valued friend.  Because of Miss Malkani’s shyness and quiet exterior, some people missed out on knowing the soft, humorous and extremely kind and sensitive person that Gopi Malkani was. The students were another case. They all fully understood her because of her total dedication and devotion to each and every one of them.

Miss Malkani was a master at teaching English as a second language. Hundreds of boys have passed through her caring hands. They arrived from far flung corners of the Punjab, not knowing a word of English, and mastered the subject within two years under her masterful tutelage. They will all remember the series,   “Look, Listen and Learn”, whose pages contained funny anecdotes and amazing information all woven together to produce exciting and excellent exercises to teach them English. She immersed the students and everyone in the Junior Section, in English so that speaking the language gradually became second nature to them. Her whole life was dedicated to education.  She was always thinking of the students and how to motivate them. She even devised “punishments” that contributed to this goal. So one would see a group of little boys, relaxing on a summer’s afternoon, sitting outside her door, legs outstretched, reading books they had chosen from the library. They had not completed their homework and this was one of the consequences. I often used to wonder if they rather enjoyed their punishment!  Alternatively, they might be found reading to her or trailing behind her as she went on her evening rounds chatting to them incessantly about all the landmarks they passed by or permitting them to participate in the conversations she had with the people en route. Unwittingly she was employing the contemporary ‘direct method’ of teaching, thereby  enhancing the children’s speaking and comprehension skills.

Miss Malkani’s entire life revolved around her students from the moment she woke up at the crack of dawn to her last round of the dorms at midnight. These boys actually understood her better than anyone else. They were never intimidated by her sometimes stern demeanor for they knew the tender heart that lay under it. It was a moving sight to see Miss Malkani’s large eyes soften and often fill with tears when she was moved or amused by what a child said to her. So many of her students be they  army generals, eminent doctors, engineers , business men , or whatever careers they chose, still remember her  methods for innumerable things. One that comes to mind is her insistence that they should wash their socks and underwear every day as they showered and the socks should be squeezed to get the excess water out before hanging up to dry and never wrung. She explained that the elasticity would last a lot longer! She was equally particular that the children turned their mattresses each day before they made their beds so that they were aired on each side. Simple things that left an indelible impression!

Another prominent characteristic of Gopi was her desire to avoid the limelight. Her philosophy was to work, “like the artist unseen and unheard”.  She did this to her dying day; worked round the clock, but avoided all recognition or praise. She considered her high standards normal and was surprised if anyone thought otherwise. Whenever there was an occasion where Miss Malkani was asked to be centre stage she invariably managed to get someone else to do it! When she spoke it was always a powerful and well- considered comment or idea. She spoke little, always preferring to lead by example.

Ms. Malkani’s personal and professional life was basically rolled into one. Her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Malkani lived with her after they all had to move from Sind, now in Pakistan, to India. She also looked after an aged aunt, her mother’s sister. All three of them became a familiar sight in the Junior School of P.P.S.  They added a family touch to the school and Father and Mother (as Gopi referred to them) would interact with the boys and Peace Corps and V.S.O. volunteers from the U.S. and the U.K. In fact Gopi was a home away from home for all the young volunteers. I, being in the same age group as they were, joined them every night when we would be fed lightly sweetened home set yogurt, nuts and “kakri” cucumbers, as we regaled each other with tales of our day’s experiences. It was then that a whole different side of Gopi would surface, when we discovered her humour, heard her laughter and saw her disarming and animated expressions as she listened to our stories! Every now and then she would find an appropriate moment to give us advice or recount an experience of her own from which we learnt more than any text book could teach.
I decided to ask a variety of people who knew her as her colleagues or as her students of what  came to their minds when they thought of Miss Malkani. Interestingly, all of them corroborated what I have said, in their different ways :
“Purity, spotless, dedicated, sincere, hard working, an astute reader of children and very good at coming up with ways to change the child without hurting his feelings or using physical punishment.”
“Miss Malkani was quiet, stern but very kind . She had a great presence.  I remember this particularly when she walked in to Assembly in her always spotless, white sari.”
“A tireless dedication to service. She was always there when needed.
She would save time by using roll up chalk boards, which had her meticulous handwriting  in English. All the exercises ready to go!”

To take young boys from non-English medium homes and give them a foundation in the English language to a level equivalent to those from an English medium school within two years of her teaching ( through 5th and 6th grades ) was a miraculous feat that only she could manage!

Such was Miss Malkani’s involvement that I could not imagine the Junior School without her. She was physically there through rouser, morning inspections, breakfast, classes, tea time, lunch, rest, evening tea, dinner, lights out, and  I can never forget her lantern which she would carry through the dorms in her all-white dress. Who knows when she slept and when she got the time to print on those rolled up chalk boards! I wonder what her pedometer readings might have been with all the walking she did through that entire Junior School building!

“Continuing with my memories of Miss Malkani in a lighter side”, continues this devoted student, “I remember that my younger brother ( who  joined  Junior School  along with me ) was much loved by Miss Malkani. Her love for Savi was so great that on one occasion she built him a cubicle of shelves in the enclosed verandah outside her suite of rooms. He had been so naughty that he was removed from his dorm and placed right under her watchful eye for a couple of days! I only know that he never felt that he had been dealt an unfair punishment. In fact I think he felt extra special instead!”

“ I often think of Gopi . She was totally dedicated to the students’ welfare and learning, strict, but kind and fair. She made the Junior School a very safe environment to be in, away from home. She looked serious most of the time but then her face would light up with a brilliant smile. I’ll always remember her gliding along the corridors in her white sari, with her lantern at night, to check on every dormitory. How comforting that must have been to anyone still awake!” reminisces one of the V.S.O.s

Another V.S.O. says,  “ I have many fond memories of Gopi but the one that always comes to mind is when she would take her lantern at about 10 p.m. and walk round the dormitories of all the houses to make sure the boys were tucked up in bed and asleep.
I recall sitting in the late evenings in her sitting room, she marking books with a small towel next to her because it was hot and she could wipe her hands on it. Often one would spot her sitting alone in her classroom apart from one small boy with whom she was deep in discussion. This was the way she gave individual attention to each of the boys by rotation, discussing their corrections and getting them to speak in English.”

Yet another fond memory of a V.S.O.  “ My memories of Gopi (initially Miss Malkani to me ) are deep and dear. Gopi looked after me when I first arrived for all the non-curricular concerns of a callow English boy. I think the first important lesson was the life giving powers of a glass or jug of ’lassi’.  She exuded calmness, care and wisdom – which were frequently accompanied by a dash of amusement or even mischief. I grew to respect her immensely. I also recall being fairly ill with a fever and a temperature which would have been off the scale of European thermometers. Gopi summoned her father who stayed with me for a long part of the night massaging my head. It seemed like his fingers were absorbing whatever troubles had invaded my head.”

Such anecdotes and memories are endless and they all share a common thread; that of a quiet, strong woman,  passionately committed to education. A stalwart through whose hands generations of young boys have been educated, loved, cared for and who are now extremely successful adults. What is more, each of us, who had the good fortune of coming in contact with Miss Malkani, has a special word of gratitude and affection for her – the  person who made such a difference to each of our lives.

Excerpt from The Chronicle:-

The first term of 1975 saw Miss G.B.Malkani leave the School and join The Daly College, Indore. For those who have had the good fortune of staying in the Junior School under the parental care and guidance of Miss Malkani, there would never be a better example of selfless service and compassionate care. She was a perfect role model for the entire school community and her nun like lifestyle evoked a strong sense of aura and respect for her from the staff and students alike.

A special assembly was organized and the students bid an emotional farewell to her in these words:

“All the generations of boys and girls who have passed through the impressive portals  of the Junior school, right from the oldest old boy to the youngest present boy, will remember you not just as a teacher and an administrator. More than that, you have been an affectionate guardian, and a sincere well-wisher. It is hard to reconcile ourselves to the thought that such a dynamic and beloved personality will not be amongst us when we return here next term”