Blog Stories - People Called Shillong
C.O. Koshy has travelled a long distance from Kerala to Meghalaya. But his longest journey transpired between the Northeastern states of Manipur, Nagaland culminating in Shillong. His extensive voyage is a travelogue and potpourri of geography, stereotypes, misconceptions, mistaken identities, luck and finally God’s will that guided him to where he is today. C.O. Koshy has officially retired from work but continues his endeavours at Lakreh Memorial School. He has extended his support and experience to the upper primary and secondary school located in Um Sohsum, Shillong. People say that life happens when you are busy making other plans. Koshy never had a plan but a very eventful life!
Vellavoor is a sleepy village in Kottayam, Kerala. The year was 1969 and Koshy had finished his pre-university exams. His first and only appointment letter came from a land two thousand miles away, a place called Manipur. Koshy recalls the day, “I was travelling by bus to my village and I picked up a conversation with the man sitting next to me. I mentioned that I had finished my exams and also had a private Hindi Bhushan (Intermediate) Degree. The man gave me a chit with an address on it and told me to apply for a job. His brother was a headmaster and they sought a Hindi teacher. I applied.” Forty-five days letter, he received an appointment letter. “I showed it to my parents. My father flatly refused and asked me if I knew where Manipur is. I had no idea but I had heard the name once in my geography textbook.” While Koshy’s father must have believed that the chapter closed with his dictum, Koshy had other plans. “A few days later, my teacher from school paid us a visit. I showed him the letter. He told my father that your son can find his way. My father agreed under one condition, that I can go if someone accompanies me.” His father’s concerns were genuine, Koshy emphasises. “I had never worn shoes in my life. I spoke no English. I understood, like if someone asked me my name in English, I knew the answer but couldn’t articulate it.”
For Koshy, his teacher’s dictum was an intervention from heaven. The rest would fall in place, or maybe not. Telegraphs were sent to friends and relatives. They waited for a letter or a message. Days passed. Koshy wondered if the position was still available. Finally, Koshy’s father was informed by a friend, that a third person’s son was going to Manipur. Koshy and an uncle left for Madras.
Madras (Chennai), Tamil Nadu
A strain of familiarity hung in the air but the city itself felt largely different from Koshy’s village. Pucca homes hoisted themselves alongside wide concrete roads. The skyline ceased to conclude with a few trees sprinkled amidst the edifices. A horse-drawn carriage dropped Koshy and his new friend, Mathew Paul outside Madras Central. “We waited for the train to arrive. When it came my friend jumped inside. Before I could register what happened, a crowd had formed outside the train compartment door. I finally made my way inside the train through the window.” Koshy and his friend were travelling by the ‘general’, otherwise known as the ‘unreserved compartment’. As the name suggests, one only needed a ticket to board ‘unreserved compartments’. The ‘reserved compartments’ allots seats and sleeper bunks to passengers. Koshy and his friend sat on the train compartment floor with their luggage. They witnessed the same loading and unloading at each station till the train dropped them off at Calcutta (Kolkata).
Calcutta (Kolkata) – Bihar – Nagaland
It had been many days away from home. Calcutta the capital city of the state of West Bengal was still more days from their destination. “At the railway station in Calcutta, I asked a stranger about Manipur. He told me we would need a passport and visa to travel to Manipur by train. Or else we could take a flight that did not entail any passport or visa. My friend and I had no money to spare. We decided to continue the journey as planned, by train.” A second train took them to Barauni, in the adjacent state of Bihar. A third train took them back into West Bengal across the Siliguri Corridor or India’s Chicken Neck into India’s Northeast onwards to Dimapur in Nagaland – a place they had only heard about in passing. Koshy continues, “We were directed to the District Commissioner’s office, waiting for a ‘passport and visa. After listening to our request, the officer handed over a paper, stamped and signed. He called it the Inner Line Permit, the ILP. We didn’t need a passport or visa, after all. He charged us five rupees.”
They arrived in Imphal, the capital of Manipur after a seven-hour bus journey from Dimapur. Twenty kilometres from Imphal, was a village known as Yainganpokpi – surely a name known to few or none from the southern part of India. Koshy recollects his first day – his first meal and first salary in the alien land. “The ‘school’ was a mud building with a thatched roof. It contained one twenty students. We spoke broken English with scattered Hindi words. We were served boiled rice and some leafy vegetables, which honestly seemed like grass. But even after months, I had not received any salary. When the students’ parents learnt about it, they were very angry. They felt proud that a ‘Madrasi’ (an umbrella term for South-Indians at the time) was teaching their children. They feared that I would leave.” The headmaster offered a novel solution. “He handed over two tins of paddy. This enraged the parents further. But one of them pounded the paddy and gave me the rice. This system continued till I met Uncle John.”
He taught in the village on weekdays and as was typical of village life, visited the nearby market on weekends. One weekend he visited Imphal, the capital of Manipur. There Koshy met a man locally known as Uncle John. “This man walked up to me and asked if I was a Malayalee and invited me over for lunch. The next Sunday I had my first proper home-cooked meal in Manipur; lai patta, dal, chutni and rice. After lunch, Uncle John offered to introduce me at the adjoining schools to seek better teaching prospects.” Koshy landed another job with Jawaharlal Nehru Model School, at Churachandpur. “They offered rupees one hundred and ninety-five a month as salary; a big leap from two tins of paddy. I accepted.” Koshy decided to continue studying while he taught. He felt that his calling was not yet fulfilled. “I wanted to study more. I asked Uncle John what he studied in college. He said, Bachelor of Arts, with History and Political Science from Churanchandpur College, under Guwahati University. I enrolled in the same course because back then Manipur didn’t have its own university. I taught in the school during the day and attended evening classes. I did my post-graduation also and was among the toppers from my batch. I felt very proud; a few years ago I could barely converse in English and now I had topped!” Koshy had graduated to teaching social studies in his current school. One day, he was privy to a rather prejudicial conversation. He says, “Most students were first generation learners. My challenge was to not only educate but also motivate them towards education. Once, many students failed maths and the headmaster justified it saying, ‘tribals are poor in maths’. I was aghast. As a teacher I could not accept that statement. I offered to teach class 5 maths and subsequently, with proper guidance and motivation, the students excelled in maths that academic year.”
Koshy’s next calling would be in a land farther and a jungle denser. “In Churachandpur, I heard about the first liberal arts college set up in Nagaland – Patkai Christian College. It was located in the middle of a thousand acres of virgin forests donated by two huge villages – Chumukedima and Sethikema - by Rev. Dr. T.A. Shishak. I applied for a teaching job but was also apprehensive if they would even reply. But they did reply. It said: ‘We have received your application. At present there is no vacancy. We will keep your application in file. If the good Lord wants you to be with us, He will bring you to us in his own time.’ That last statement, ‘if the good Lord wants…’ stayed etched in my mind.” Koshy again became busy with school and teaching. “The second telegraph from Nagaland came after two months. It read: ‘Come for interview. Be prepared to stay’.”
In 1976 Koshy was interviewed at the Patkai Christian College and was appointed a teacher. The College set-out to bring higher education amongst the Nagas and gradually, to people from different parts of the Northeast. “I was probably the only other non-Naga in the entire nearby area and amongst languages and tongues I was hearing for the first time. People often characterised Nagaland as a troubled area with a violent atmosphere and would query the wisdom of a non-local to risk his life there. This was in the context of a strong nationalist movement in Nagaland. But the truth was different. The people were eager to advance themselves; they were caring, God-fearing and fair in their relations.” In the course of time, Koshy met and fell in love with the lady he would eventually marry. “I met Eral Chrytalynn Moore when the college was interviewing teacher candidates for the college. I was on the interviewing panel and we selected her. Eventually we fell in love and sealed the deal.” Koshy pursued his education and completed his MPhil from NEHU (North-Eastern Hill University) in Shillong. “My MPhil professor told me to at NEHU? If selected I can could teach in Shillong here and do my PhD.” Shillong was also his wife’s hometown. “I headed the political science department at that time. I asked the principal, Rev. Dr. Shishak to give me an appointment letter. He was shocked and said that if going to NEHU would make me and my wife happy, he wouldn’t stop us. He offered that we pray together. I wrestled over my decision the whole night and decided against going to NEHU at that time.”
A few later Koshy decided it was time he finally leaves for Shillong with his wife. “I applied to the Army School in Shillong for the principal’s post to meet my financial requirements while I pursued PhD at NEHU. I applied for a year’s leave from Patkai which was approved. On a day I was about to take off on the sabbatical, I was conversing with Rev. Shishak when we heard gunshots. Assailants had shot the Vice-Principal in his office. We rushed him to the hospital.” Koshy and his wife were deeply troubled by the turn of events. At the same time Principal Shishak requested Koshy to step in as the Vice-Principal. “I obliged. But Eral was unhappy to see me in the chair behind which there were bullet marks. I told her that the good Lord has brought me here, this far. He will protect us. Also, I had not heard from the Army School in Shillong.” When the Vice-Principal returned to work after a year and half, Koshy expressed his desire to once again take up his PhD. As he was making arrangements to leave for Shillong, there was a knock on the door. An elderly gentleman having the bearing of an army-man greeted him and handed over a letter. Koshy had been selected and appointed as the Principal of the Army School on a year’s probation.
Koshy’s plan entailed completing his PhD and returning to Patkai College. His sabbatical was coming to an end. “After I completed my one-year term at the Army School in Shillong, the Chairman of the school requested me to continue. I contemplated. Another year at the Army School would allow me to completely turn around the school and complete my thesis at NEHU. I requested for another year’s leave from Patkai College but I was turned down. It was as if I was being led by unseen forces and bowing to the inevitable, I resigned from Patkai. In many ways, the move from being a Vice Principal of one of the leading colleges in the Northeast (now an autonomous college) to lead one of the many schools in Shillong may have been seen as a step down but I felt this was my next phase of service.” After serving Nagaland for twenty years, Shillong was a new chapter in his journey from a little known village in Kerala to the distant state of Manipur, Nagaland and now Meghalaya. “But in my second year in Army School I realised I couldn’t do justice to my PhD and my work in the school. So I continued at the school but gave up on the PhD. At sixty-three, Koshy retired from the Army School, Shillong. But his tenure with children was far from over.
While he was enjoying the first blush of post-retirement free time, a little school, the Lakhreh Memorial High School reached out to him to see if the benefit of his experience and expertise could be made available to them. Koshy believed his decision to ‘step down’ from the renowned university head been the highest leap he had ever made. “I stayed back for the little ones and it has paid off pretty well. It’s a different atmosphere and I like it. It is the right age to form a foundation, inculcate important values and make them valuable citizens of the country.” Koshy’s tryst with the Northeast has been exhaustive and extensive. “People from mainland India know very little about the Northeast. Our history and geography books have inadequate representation of the Northeast, that they are backward. They are very advanced – look at their root bridges, they are engineering marvels. The tribal people do not lack talent or intellect. What they probably lack is opportunity. I personally feel at home here, in Shillong. It is a lot like Kerala. If you visit somebody’s home they won’t let you leave till you eat something. Customs are similar; they respect their elders.
At last, Koshy had come home to Shillong.