Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXIX No. 1, April 16-30, 2019
Dakshin Gangotri – India’s first camp in Antarctica.
(Describing the experiences of Dr. Thomas who was with the first Indian expedition to Antarctica.)
(Continued from last fortnight)
Describing anxious mo- ments of arrival, he says: “Our ship had reached the island. We made three attempts from different sides to enter it but failed. A lot was at stake. In the fourth try, we were able to land safely with a helicopter guiding the ship”. The first act was an emotional one – hoisting the Indian Tricolour for the first time in Antarctica. The Team leader, Dr. Zahoor Qasim, a leading Indian oceanographer, called Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, reporting arrival and she was elated to hear of the safe and successful landing of the first Indian Expedition at the Antarctic.
The expedition team lived in tents specially designed for the extreme conditions. This contrasted with the much better equipped facilities in more permanent type of quarters in the subsequent research bases – Gangotri followed by Maitri and Bharti, each a big improvement over the previous.
The three-month stay was socially stressful as the same people met each other every day. The relationship was at times under strain coming close to blows but not quite. There was no TV, phone or newspaper. In the extreme cold, shaving every day was a meaningless and painful exercise. “I have not given up the beard I started growing then” says Dr. Thomas jocularly – rightfully pleased with its enhancing effect on his personality.
The second research base Maitri, in Antarctica.
To the question on the nature of his duties as doctor-member, he says they were mainly those of a doctor for the mission members. The research part of it was minimal as there was hardly any time for it in a three-month stay. The medical duties were light as the Antarctic environment was infection free. Medical intervention was needed mostly for injuries from falls on ice and acclimatisation-related health problems.
Looking back on the three months, he says: “On the whole, we could not help looking forward to the return and when it was time, it was a great relief. On return we were taken to the Naval Hospital in Bombay but there were no extended quarantine and series of examinations and psychiatry tests as might have been the practice today”.
It was two months after return from the historic expedition that Dr. Thomas went to see his parents. There was no excitement over what normally would have been cause for much celebration. The expedition was a path-breaking event but strangely, did not receive much prominence in the press at that time, nor the deserved acclamation.
Dr. Thomas’ foray into school management appears to be as much by chance as his expedition to the Antarctic. By 1989 his father, Kit Thomas, was ageing and becoming anxious about the future of Sishya school which he had built from a green field stage to a premier educational institution in Chennai. Kit Thomas needed relief from the strain of running the school and persuaded his son to come in for a couple of days a week. His duty was to go round the school and the classes and serve as the eyes and ears of his father. Kit Thomas died in 1993, coming to the school till his last day.
In response to how he coped with a responsibility thrust upon him by his father’s demise, he says, he was persuaded to take over as Chief Trustee with active support from Mrs. Lily Thomas of A.V. Thomas Group who had been taking keen interest in the school in his father’s time. Kit Thomas, in his life time, with foresight, had asked his daughter-in-law, Omana, to acquire a degree in education. She had become Principal in 1986 and was taking care of the education side leaving rest of the affairs to Dr. Thomas. In due course, she got a master’s degree in Education to qualify herself fully for her responsibilities.
I could not resist seeking his views on the quality of education in Tamil Nadu. What makes a good school in his experience? In response he says: It is easier to provide buildings and laboratories but more difficult to get teachers with qualification and aptitude to teach children of different ages. In his school new teachers are inducted into the school’s culture and briefed on the do’s and don’ts. The most important don’t is not to discourage children from learning by asking questions. The test of a good school is whether children enjoy coming to school. This is what he wants to know from parents of newly admitted children.
Dr. Thomas is convinced that the atmosphere of freedom from daily supervision of children by parents is an important advantage of a boarding school which even the best-run day schools cannot offer. In such an atmosphere, children have the freedom to run around, explore and learn self-management. Care must be taken to curb frequent parental visits and contacts with their children from eroding this advantage of a boarding school.
Dr. Thomas dwells upon the state of government run schools. The problems, according to him, are the poor quality of teaching staff and lack of accountability. Poor teacher material in government-run schools is due to faulty recruitment and corrupt practices. When jobs are bought, talent is crowded out.
The golden rules for a well-run school that Dr. Thomas gives are drawn from his rich experience and the advantage he has had of watching a legendary educationist, that his father was in his time. Imparting of soft skills and teaching children self-confidence, that “they can”, are necessary to turn out employable graduates from schools. The present system prepares them to answer examinations by rote with poor understanding of what they are writing.
Learning by questioning and getting clarification of doubts is not encouraged- nay, it is even punished. Large classes weaken quality of pupil-teacher relationship. Lower classes need even smaller number of pupils than the higher classes since the foundation stage calls for closer attention.
As we take leave of him, he finishes the interview with his wholesome humour. He speaks of his problem with immigration authorities in countries, even today, with his passport showing Karachi, Pakistan as his place of birth. He laughs and says he gets away with it explaining that he was conceived in India but merely born in Pakistan! We leave, thinking that there is one more claimant, besides Kerala and Tamil Nadu, wanting to own him – that is, Pakistan.