September 18, 2014 Sujeev Shakya

Footprints of the First One Hundred Years

1.      Leadership – Leading From The Front

Mr Brooks leadership style was something I was in  awe of. He led from the front. He was there at all times getting his hands dirty. And the book confirms many of this. Be it the way he used to ensure visitors had a once in life time experience at  Homes or that Ruth Glashan’s wedding went on well. He had a vision that he had built and executed with precision. In the 30 years of time he spent at the Homes, he excelled. He excelled especially given that he had the tough task of keeping up with the benchmarks created by Dr Minto.

The book is a testimony of the way he made things happen. It is a testimony of how he created history. It is a testimony of selfless dedication he had towards the children, teachers and staff members of Dr Graham’s Homes.

I am surely going to use this book to understand and share thoughts on leadership. Leadership is about making things happen. Leadership is about leaving a legacy. Leadership is about transformation. While reading the book, many facets of leadership come alive!

What an honor Sir, to have had one’s life shaped under your awe inspiring leadership!

2.      Significance of Speeches and Speech Day

If you  ask any OGBs what they remember about Mr Brooks, without a doubt, everyone in unison say it is his oratory. Four years ago in Kolkata, I happened to make it for Mr Brook’s 80th birthday and he spoke late at night with the same elegance, elan and ease. He transported me back  thirty years to this very  hall we heard many wonderful addresses. Many have tried to emulate him.

Mr Brooks had a great affinity for speeches and Speech Day. We read about various speeches he has researched and reproduced along with talking about speech day in many parts of his book. Homes was fortunate to have many luminaries delivering speeches in this hall, be it Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajagopalachari, Vijay Laxmi Pundit, Former PM of Bhutan Jigme Thinlay….the list goes on….Remembering these speeches, we can clearly and vividly recall the grandeur of the institution and the role it played in shaping the lives of many.

I did not get to give a speech here in this hall but heard many great speeches from batchmates and schoolmates. Today I think this opportunity has come to me after 32 years of graduating from the school. Even if I have made it to half of Mr Brooks capabilities, I feel I have passed the test!

3.      Humility

The other big lesson I learnt from the book is HUMILITY, which unfortunately has been removed from many of our dictionaries. Mr. Brooks’ book talks about others, the great deed of others, the great contribution of others. Never does he talk about what he has contributed. From that perspective, surely, the book does not do justice to his contributions as he does not talk about it. He does not talk much about his family either, other than a passing mention of Mrs Brooks in one section.  We would have surely benefited Sir, knowing more about your life, the contributions of your family and how you managed the personal side of your life.  This would have been also been an inspiration to us.

In the book we do not hear of anything on his tussle with the Board, why he was kept out of the Homes and never called upon to advise or help, what were the issues with the Board of Management and people at the helm of affairs. He chose to just ignore it. He chose to not talk about it. This demonstrates his big heart and ability to stay firmly on the ground. This was another leadership lesson for me. Using Humility not only to bring peace to oneself – but also brings the element of selflessness in one’s deed.

4.      Fantastic Journal of History

I loved the way he has narrated history in his book

The other stalwart whose name should also appear in letters of gold when talking of the history of the Homes is James Purdie. His meeting with Graham is perhaps apocryphal (/əˈpɑkrəf(ə)l/) but I heard the story in Scotland from a reliable source and it is certainly worth mentioning.  While on leave in Scotland, Graham had intended to meet Mr. Purdie.  One day while walking down Princes Street in Edinburgh a gust of wind blew the bowler hat off the head of a gentleman walking in front of Dr. Graham.  The hat came to rest at his feet and so he promptly picked it up, wiped off the dust with the sleeve of his coat, and returned it to the owner.  The owner was James Purdie who naturally thanked Graham and invited him for a cup of tea.  It was at this historic meeting that Graham asked Purdie if he would be interested in working at a home for children in India.  James Purdie, (he was an inspector of prisons) accepted the invitation, and arrived on the compound with Graham four months later.  That was in 1908. Purdie retired in early 1951 —forty two years later!

The most difficult book to write is a book that narrates history.  My friend Kai Bird, a Pulitzer winning writer, shared with me how it takes about 2 decades of research to write a good memoir. This book is one where lot of effort and labor has gone into. While, Dr Minto has written Dr Graham of Kalimpong as his PhD thesis, which is more work of academic research, Mr. Brook’s book is a semi-memoir.

One can see Dr Minto had a great influence in him and some of their conversations are well documented in the book. Of their conservations, I found this one interesting.

In an interesting note posted to me just before he set sail from Bombay, Mr.Minto wrote:

“It is appropriate that the last letter I write on Indian soil should be to you. …… I want you to know I envy you because you have the most interesting job in the world”.

Mr Brooks narrates history in a readable way, it is like reading a very well written memoir. Many anecdotes, incidents and people dot the book. It is like a wonderful salad, where the identity of each of the event, person and anecdote is distinct, but then together they make a mouthwatering read.

The book also helps us understand the geo-political, socio-economic and ethno-cultural settings of the time, as his tenure saw the post Indian Independence resurgence, the Nehru-Gandhi family dominance, three wars, the Annexation of Sikkim, the Tibetan exodus, the movement for inclusion of Nepali language in Indian Constitution and then the Gorkhaland movement. He lived through the most important times of modern history of social reconstruction in Southasia, just before liberalization and reforms were unleashed.

Many students are mentioned, so are people in the teaching staff, board of management and different committees. Reading the book is like walking down the memory lane.

There are many historical events that relate to people’s lives and are narrated beautifully.  I was touched by this one in Page xx

The Second ’unscheduled’ meeting.  

This took place two years later —in 1973 —when the Prime Minister made an official visit to Darjeeling.  This included a side-trip (by helicopter) to Kalimpong.  One of the reasons for the visit I learned from officials was to check on the availability of a ’Nanny’ from our Lucia King Nursery.  It eventually transpired that Mrs. Gandhi was interested in employing one of our Nursery Nurses for her grandchildren, Prinyanka and Rahul —youngsters at that stage.

This is when some difficulty arose.  While I could testify to the qualifications and ability of the three candidates we recommend, the question of who would be most acceptable in the Prime Minister’s household was a matter left to the officials appointed to take care of this ’request’ —and no one was willing to make that decision.  Eventually the suggestion that Mr. Rajiv Gandhi (who was in the Prime Minister’s party) might be approached to interview the candidates, was warmly welcomed, and so it was that for the first and only time, I was to meet this utterly charming young gentleman. 

He summed up the ’problem’ immediately and quietly said he would be happy with whomever we chose.  Miss Fowles, the Cottage Superintendent, and I had a hurried discussion and selected Ongmu Lepch, a healthy, happy hill girl.  Little did Ongmu  realize what life had in store for her!  Her worldly possessions were packed into a tin trunk and shoulder bag and she was whisked off to the Circuit House where she was ’presented’ to Mrs. Gandhi. For someone who had spent her entire life up to that point in and around Kalimpong, one can only imagine Ongmu’s feelings as she found herself ’conveyed’ initially by helicopter to Darjeeling, and ultimately by the Prime Minister’s plane to Delhi.

Clearly Ongmu did fit into the Prime Minister’s household extremely well.  She was there during the years Mrs. Gandhi was out of power, when she returned again as Prime Minister, and when she was assassinated in 1984.

Later when Mr. Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as Prime Minister following one of the greatest mandates in India’s political history, Ongmu sent me a note which summed up concisely both the ’changed’ and ’unaltered’ conditions: 

“I am still at the Prime Minister’s house”, she wrote.

The language, flow, expressions and stories makes the book an interesting read. When Hiran sent me the manuscripts, I could not let go and finished reading it non-stop through wee hours of the morning. I am not being a book salesman here, but I feel this book needs to be read to also learn how books are to be written. I have learnt a lot on writing styles from this book.

5.      ‘Brooks Years’

Of 30 years he spent at the Homes, he was there as  a principal for more than half of that time. I was at this School from 1975 to 1982, which is  nearly half the time of his tenure as Principal. Therefore, it is so interesting to be able to relate to the events. The descriptions around sponsored walks, the many events during those days make bygone days come alive. Laying of the Foundation Stone of Betty Sheriff Building or the many VIP visits that took place during those years brings back  memories that have waned. After so many years I discovered why the Central Kitchen was created: to combat the ban on charcoal therefore requiring a central kitchen. Similarly, I learnt of how rice was imported from Nepal to keep costs low. There are so many management lessons embedded in the chapters.

He has refrained from discussing his departure. But all of us know how turbulence hit the Homes after nearly 90 years of stability. The following ten years were like the political situation in Nepal, where we have had 22 Prime Ministers in past 20 years! He writes….

As a result, this brief ten year period (1989-1999) saw the appointment of two Principals and five Headmasters and Bursars, and the retirement/ resignation of a group of senior teachers who had provided so much by way of continuity and leadership.”

What a subtle but powerful way of talking about chaos.

A few things that he emphasized so much in the book are on the decline. He writes much about the Homes Magazines, and I used to dream about  one day carrying my name or article in that magazine. The most interesting part of that magazine for me those days and later also, was the Financial Statements. It is so sad, that the tradition is gone and when I was part of the Board of Management, I tried hard to push for financial transparency by putting the Financial Statements on the Homes website, but even updating the website met with deaf years.

The other connector today would be the loss of great patrons. Mr Brooks talks about Madame Vijay Laxmi Pandit or Mr T P Hishey, whose patronage was key to ensure that the school functions well. This tradition of having strong Patrons is gone. Yes, we have to change with the times, but suggestions of having an Advisory Board to the Board of Management was never was taken seriously. Hope the Global OGB Association will try to fill in the gap of the rich patronage and guidance that the Homes requires.

6.      Tribute to OGB

Mr Brooks engaged with the OGBs during and after his tenure. The fact that this book is published by OGB Associations, spoken about by OGBs and printed in an OGB’s press demonstrates his love for the OGBs. He is revered by OGBs and he is always an inspiration for this community of thousands of people across different continents. He narrates his visits to different countries and interactions with the OGBs. He has treated OGBs as his own extended family and we hear many stories of him as the backbone to success and the revitalization of lives of many OGBs.

I echo his sentiments and sentiments of many OGBs. If Homes is to transform and be contemporary, If Homes is to change with the times,  and if Homes is excel as the institution it was  during the years of Dr Minto and Mr Brooks, OGBs will have to play a larger role.

The success of Homes makes every OGB proud, and every OGB can make Homes successful. Today, at this juncture, with so many OGBs in this room, I would like to build upon what Mr Brooks says. Many OGBS are connected with the Homes as teaching staff, administrators and most importantly as parents. We OGBs can all directly and indirectly help in the change. Homes needs to change for the better!

I would like to end by reading another paragraph from the book that sums up the book: This is from page 19

Change is inevitable and the strength of any institution is its ability to cope with the changing times and circumstances. Many who helped ’build’ the Homes were unselfish souls not even aware of their enormous influence; they live on quietly in the lives of those they ’touched’. This is also their story of perseverance and faith in the face of insurmountable difficulties; of accepting and adjusting to changed times and circumstances —and even altered objectives – without any compromise of values. 

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