Principal Ki Kursi

The crayon drawing captioned “Principal’s chair dissolved as my eyes watered. A decade and more has elapsed since then. I have led many schools across India as Principal, but the chair that changed my life is still etched in my memory.

I started off as a young teacher in a co-educational boarding school in 1984. The tagline of this school was “home away from home”. I got into the habit of addressing students as “beta” for which I was nicknamed ‘Kunwara Baap’.  My colleagues sneered at me for what they called a ‘silly habit’. My colleague, Ramesh, at his sarcastic best said, “Your birthday could have been declared as children’s day, had you been born before Nehru.” The Vice-principal warned me periodically, “Mr. Shelat if you don’t keep a distance, your students will not respect you.” I listened to all with a patient shrug and life moved on. As I transitioned from teacher to principal, my bond with students only grew stronger. Normally children are afraid of the principal. In my case this was more an exception than the rule.

On the Ides of March 1999 something happened that was going to change my life. I fell in love – again! This time it was love at first sight!

I vividly recall that innocent face, chubby cheeks, wide ears & his dimpled chin. Well I first met Shubham Rao, a 4 year old along with his parents in my office during the admission interaction. When he comfortably settled down on the red Lilliputian chair, I began with the ever so common question- “What is the colour of this chair Shubham?” Pat came the reply, “mamma he is principal, he does not know chair colour!” and giggled loudly. A deafening silence followed. Mrs. Rao went pale while Mr. Rao glared at Shubham. Fear and embarrassment was written large on their faces….but Shubham? He was completely unaware of the bomb blast. His innocent eyes lingered from one trophy to another shining in the office cupboard. Shubham’s spontaneity had me in splits. I thought to myself what a silly question to ask and laughed out loudly. A sense of relief was seen in the petrified audience. I looked into Shubham’s eyes and said “baby you are admitted.” Disbelief replaced fear as the incredulous couple hurriedly dragged Shubham out of my office after thanking me.

I had learnt my lesson that day. My style of assessing children changed forever. A principal gets limited time to interact with students & staff especially in schools with a large strength. I had devised a way to reach out to all by greeting them every morning from a vantage point near the entrance gate. Experience helped me understand the body language of children and observation told me which child was happy that day, who needed a pat or who was crying out for a conversation.

On the first day of the session, I spotted Shubham from a distance as he wound his way, in his shining morning face, willingly to school. His confident gait turned into a stagger the moment he saw me. Shubham avoided my gaze and did not respond to my overtures. His parents, who had come to drop him, looked apologetic and left after a hurried greeting. I was surprised at Shubham’s reaction but soon realised that his parents must have tutored him to behave well. After that wisecrack they may have put the fear of the Principal in him. At that very moment I wanted to reach out to Shubham, to let him know that I am not to be feared, but wisely left it for another day.

It took me some time & a lot of effort to break the ice with Shubham. Gradually his furtive glances changed to guarded smiles and his smiles transformed into chirpy “good morning sir”.

Each child who shaped my character holds a special place in my heart but Shubham was special. (Forgive my partiality). Every morning he would greet me as he walked past in his naughty boy shoes and a water bottle dangling around his delicate neck. His endearing smile and twinkling eyes made my day. I would seek him out in the class room on days when I was late to school.

At the first PTM I chanced to meet Shubham’s mother again. After exchange of pleasantries, she praised the school, Shubham’s teacher, and seemed satisfied with Shubham’s performance. I slipped in a few words of praise for Shubham who was quietly listening to our conversation with beaming pride. However he still gave me those furtive glances scared perhaps of his mother. I picked up a chocolate and extended my hand. Shubham looked at his mother. I asked, “Shubham, don’t you like chocolate? He avoided me and began to fiddle with his bottle. I got up from my chair, went up to him and asked ‘Shubham, mujhse dosti karoge, will you be my friend?’  The imp looked at his mother questioningly, who glared back at him. Awaiting his response I asked, ‘Shubham mai tumhara dost ban sakta hu, can we be friends?’   His eyes rested upon his mother while his feet shuffled. I knew at once he was making an effort to ‘behave’ in her presence. To reassure him I said, “Shubham, Mamma will not mind, don’t be afraid I am Mukesh Shelat not the principal, we can be friends!”  Seconds later he slowly pushed his little palm into mine. I clasped it warmly and we shook hands to cement our bond. Then all of a sudden Shubham bolted out of his chair, ran past me and climbed on the principal’s chair shouting loudly, “I am principal I am principal…” The shocked Mrs. Rao screamed at him and asked him to get off the chair. He repeated adamantly, “This is my chair, I am principal”. Horrified at his impudence she roughly pulled him out of the chair and would have slapped him if I had not intervened. Shubham was sobbing. I wiped his tears. After he had sipped from his bottle I placed him back on my chair and to reassure him sat on the little chair he had vacated.  “Ok Shubham you are the principal, who am I?  He thought for a while, closed his mischievous eyes, pointed his finger at me and said, “You are Shubham! You sit on the red chair” The delightful dialogue ended with an agreement that henceforth I will ‘address’ him as ‘Principal Rao’ & he would call me  ‘Shubham Shelat.’ 

A variety of emotions must have tormented an embarrassed Mrs. Rao all through our banter. She apologised profusely for his impudence. I assured her that Shubham’s courageous candour stemmed from his innocence. When I reminded her of the Telugu quotation “Bal vakku bhramh vakku” I said, “Mrs. Rao, God speaks through children. I let her go after an assurance that she would not chide Shubham anymore. Shubham bid me a cheerful “bye”. I responded with “bye principal Rao” He replied proudly “bye Shubham Shelat!” and looked at his mother as if to say, “Dare you scold me now.”

Since then it became a morning ritual -we would greet each other by the names agreed upon, which soon became the talk of the town. One day, on my rounds, I spotted him wailing loudly after a nasty fall from the swing. After first aid when he continued to cry I told him, “Rao saheb principals don’t cry, come on cheer up” He stopped crying and gave me his angelic smile.

A few weeks later his class teacher reported that, Shubham is intelligent but stubborn he does not respond to roll calls unless called “Principal Rao”. She added that his classmates too had started calling him Principal Rao. Sometimes he expected to be treated like one. He would ask his classmates to stand up when he entered the class. He was a bad example and cautiously suggested that I should not encourage him. I entreated her to handle his whims just as she humoured mine!

One day she met me during break to say that Shubham had refused to have his tiffin and insisted that he would eat in ‘his’ office. I told her to persuade him to do it the next day.

The next day ‘Rao Saheb’ was beaming as he unpacked the tiffin in ‘his’ office. As we settled down he offered me a piece of idli which I happily ate. Among the many of his favourite things Principal Rao said he loved cream biscuits the most. All through the conversation Principal Rao was on ‘his’ chair and I was on the red chair much to the shock of the peon.

The next day I bought a packet of cream biscuits for our “luncheon”! To my utter dismay Shubham was absent. I got to know he was not well. Days went by and I got busy, though I longed for that beautiful smile every morning. Two weeks later when he greeted me I was surprised to see he had lost weight. At lunch that day I could not share the cream biscuits since they were stale.

Days passed into months and by the end of the first term ‘Principal Rao’ had made several visits to ‘his’ office at odd times.  Often I would be busy but I always made it a point to listen to him. He would sit on ‘his’ chair, play with the paper weight. Sometimes he would pose with the telephone receiver or, hold your breath! -mimic me: much to the shock of the peon who by now had taken a dislike for him. I loved Shubham’s visits and when he did not turn up for a few days I would seek him out in the classroom. During our luncheons I would indulge in little pranks and become a child in his presence. His favourite activity was pretending to cry. He would stop feigning only when I said “principals don’t cry” Shubham was a great stress buster. 

Once when, I was in the midst of an important call with the chairman of the school Shubham rushed in all excited to show me his drawing. I paused and asked him to wait quietly, which he did for a few seconds, then impatiently asked me to vacate ‘his’ chair.  I called for the peon and asked him to engage Shubham till I completed the call. The Chairman at the other end was irritated at the disturbance & wanted to know the cause for the interruption. When I told him briefly about Shubham and his antics, he chided me for encouraging Shubham’s insolence. I wisely refrained from waxing eloquent on child psychology and agreed with him lamely.

By now Shubham’s impatience grew. He tried pushing me out of my chair shouting loudly, “Move out of my chair.” Like the ancient mariner’s impulsive shot I lost my temper and yelled at him. He ran out in tears. Later that evening as I felt the weight of the albatross around my neck, regret turned into remorse. I tried several times to make amends for my impetuousness but in vain. Shubham stopped coming to ‘his’ office. I longed for him and made a few attempts to reach out to him and stopped. I thought Time will heal the wound. Gradually our interaction lessened, days sprinted with athletic speed and soon the term ended. Shubham did not come to collect his report card and I avoided meeting his mother when I saw her in the corridor.

On the first day of the new session as I eagerly awaited Shubham’s arrival, pictures of the previous year flashed in my mind. I resolved to be at my charming best to woo my angel. Shubham did not come that day…..neither the next day nor the next. I was apprehensive if he had changed schools. I checked with my office if a request for TC had been received.

When the class teacher contacted Shubham’s mother she said she would meet me the next day. She came at the appointed time. My eyes were searching for ‘Rao Saheb’. When I did not see him I got up to go out of my office when she interrupted me and handed me a newspaper roll. I eagerly unwrapped it to see the drawing of a chair in bright crayons. ‘Principal ki kursi’ was scribbled on it. Mrs. Rao smiled and said that Shubham had painstakingly done it during the vacation. She said it was a gift for me. I asked her, “Where is Principal Rao?” She replied, “Sir Principal Rao is no more”.

Those heart wrenching words still resonate loudly in my ears. Dumbfounded, I was in a daze for a few days. When I recovered from the shock I called for his file. His medical records revealed that Shubham had a congenital heart ailment. 

I could not work in that school for long and soon moved on. 

Moved on? 


But the ‘principal’s chair’ follows me everywhere.   

God wraps valuable gifts in small packets.

Shubham…..the angel had come into my life for a brief period but had left lifelong memories to cherish.

When I view the crayon drawing that adorns my office wall, tears well up in my eyes.

Then as if from somewhere a tiny voice resounds…. 

“Principals don’t cry”

Author : Mukesh Shelat, Principal, Delhi Public School, Varanasi. Uttar Pradesh.