An Evening with Professor Ivan Balasingh

“What do you think the discussion will be like?”

“Since he got the cancer, he doesn’t meet people at all. He doesn’t even leave his house.”

“Throat cancer, was it?”

“Yes, so he doesn’t talk much. And when he does, he is not very audible. Even if he sends us home without giving an interview, we shouldn’t be surprised”

“Does Paul Raja know the address?”

“Spoke to him. Told him we are meeting at 5”

“Yes, I spoke to Paul as well. He asked for the address”

“Have you decided what to talk to him? Do you have a set of questions you want to ask?”

Steve has planned the whole discussion in advance. About introducing the Santhosha Vidhyalaya Alumni Association (SVAA) to Professor Ivan, and telling him about the things that we’ve been able to achieve in the past five years. Steve also wants to ask Prof. Ivan about what led him to this visionary decision, and enquire about the initial days after the inception, what were the hurdles to start a school etc. Sudharson and I do not really have any questions planned between the two of us. Also since Steve is around, we guys could take it easy. So we resort to Biryani jokes about each other. I mention the time Sudharson had heard rumors of an exotic biryani from Hyderabad that was said to be a cocktail of meat – pork, and beef and chicken and mutton – and had made arrangements for a trip to the city. Once he reached the city, he was disappointed to find out nothing like that exists so far. Everyone laughs. Sudharson attempts a comeback with another story. Although Steve has an interview with Prof. Ivan in an hour’s time, he chuckles at our punch lines, and the interview doesn’t weigh in on his mind.

“We can’t predict how it will go – the interview – If he doesn’t answer our questions because of his bad health, or if he’s ticked off by something, we’ll just have to return back”

“He doesn’t owe us anything. He’s done more than enough for all of us by starting the school”

Steve, Sudharson and I were having this conversation while we were traveling to Tuticorin. We were going to meet Professor Ivan Balasingh at his home.

During the journey, we hear some stories about the Professor. About his failing health in recent times, and his reluctance to meet anyone. Since the onset of cancer, he avoids going outside. The radiation therapy burned down what was left of his salivary glands. He even avoids church on Sundays, we are told. This surprises us. (Many months later, his daughter would tell us that he avoided church or visits in general because it made him uncomfortable when people couldn’t hear him speak and he had to repeat every word several times.)

“Once there were 5 of us and only 4 chairs to sit, so one of us wouldn’t have a chair to sit on. He looked at the crowd and gestured at me to…..”  The story goes on. It’s another of those Steve-Jobs-in-the-meeting-room kind of stories. We’ve all heard similar stories about visionaries – stories about their eccentricities. How they’re obsessed with things that sometimes seem trivial to the rest of us. The climax of the story highlights Prof. Ivan’s impatience with inaction and inefficiency, and how he loses his temper at people who don’t get the message that he is communicating. And how sometimes those messages can revolve around subjective things like arranging chairs in a certain way that matches to his liking. It also points out how he can be terse sometimes. We hear about the Professor’s penchant for perfection in the seemingly mundane – the geometry of chair arrangement and seating of people etc. He does not like people who are not clean shaven, we hear. I feel my face for stubbles. Steve’s got a four-week old beard, that he is beginning to regret.

“Dude, call Paul Raja, man. Remind him that we have to be there at 5.”

“Has he reached Tuticorin?”

“Yes, yes, he is here. I saw his WhatsApp status with some recent pictures. If I want to know where the fellow is, I simply check his status. From that itself, we will know where he is”.

“I called him, but he is not picking my call. Maybe he doesn’t know I am also here”

Then Steve calls Paul and gives him the address. Paul is meeting with victims of the Sterlite shooting in Tuticorin and providing some funds to some of the victims via Goodness Foundation and its partners.

We reach Tuticorin and arrive at Prof. Ivan’s house with ten minutes to spare. It is a single house surrounded by a compound wall made of large stones cemented together. The house lies in the shade of a Neem tree, the fruits of which are left lying around. Paul calls to say he will reach the location soon, and asks us to carry on with the interview.

We remember the chair story and wonder how the Professor will react when Paul turns up late.

After looking at our watches one last time, we knock on the door. It is 4:59. A few seconds later, the door opens.

Professor Ivan reminds me of a walking version of R K Laxman’s common man – I can’t place what it is though – the hair crowding over both of his ears maybe, or probably his glasses.

We walk into the house without removing our shoes. Professor Ivan asks us to leave our shoes outside the door.  So we step out again and leave our shoes there.

There are exactly 4 wooden chairs, and a plastic one facing them all. Since we’ve been conditioned from our car-ride, we wonder if the number of chairs is predetermined.

Professor Ivan points the chair to his left and asks Sudharson to take his seat there, and Steve to the chair in the centre, and me to his right.

Sudharson is the only person the professor recognizes.

“These are members from the Santhosha Vidhyalaya Alumni Association. This is the General Secretary Steve. They want to ask you a few questions about the school”, Sudharson says in Tamil.

I introduce myself.

Steve informs the Professor that I will be going to school the following day to induct some teachers to a new kind of learning called Khan Academy that uses videos to get children to enjoy their Maths and Science.

Although over 80, the Professor is instantly interested in this topic.

We have to constantly improve, we have to use new tools to teach”, he says. That’s when I notice his eyes. His eyes, they still embody the visionary that he is. In spite of his glasses and old age and his battle with cancer, his eyes don’t lose their light.

He gets up from his plastic chair and walks past us. It is only when we see him walk that we see how frail he is. His back is hunched, and his legs constantly tease the viewer of suddenly collapsing under his body.

He opens a diary on the shelf and turns some pages in it.

Since you mentioned educating tools and material, I know someone in Bangalore who might be happy to help. His name is David Sundaresan.

He reads out the mobile number.

“If you mention my name, he will be able to provide any help related to this.”

Once the Professor is back on his chair, Steve starts the discussion. He briefs the Professor about SVAA. About how it was started five years ago. Steve talks about the annual meets that help alumni network within the community. Steve mentions the Teacher’s Retirement Fund and how we were able to give Rs. 50,000. 00 to a few retired teachers, he briefly touches upon the Sponsorship program for the students – an initiative of the school – through which alumni members are helping about one-sixth of all the children in the school, he also mentions the medical expenses of the teacher who recently had a heart condition, and how the alumni took care of the entire medical expense of the teacher. Steve also discusses the annual Christmas gift to the teaching and non-teaching staff of the school that the alumni association contributes to.

Prof. Ivan listens.

It was only after this introduction that Steve asks the Professor about how the idea of a school for missionary children came to him.

There was a missionary called Alaichamy Paul who came to me when their son was two years old. At that time, I was teaching in a college, and I used to conduct EU (Evangelical Union) camps for college students. This was the late 70s when there was a revival and missionaries were flocking to North India and other places. The missionary was going to leave to the North, so he wanted to know if I could help educate his son when he comes of school-going age. I told him I will educate the boy like my own son

The professor speaks in a soft treble. And he occasionally pauses to moisten his throat.

“At that time, I thought about other missionaries and their children. How will they educate their children?”

The Professor’s narration takes us to an EU camp at Dohnavur and his visit to the Fellowship. He recalls the vacant buildings in the Dohnavur Fellowship (since the Fellowship had stopped taking in male children, one portion of the fellowship lay vacant).

“Why don’t you start a school for missionary kids?” I asked the Dohnavur Fellowship during my visit. “They did not fancy the idea much when I first asked them. I came back to Tuticorin. But later that week, I got a call from the Fellowship. I was doing my M. Phil in Annamalai University at that time. They asked me if I would be able to start a new school. I immediately left for the Fellowship and got into a discussion with them, and then in 1982, we opened the school.”

“We were initially concerned if anyone would join the school”, the Professor continues. “So we published an advertisement in all the magazines of missionary organizations. And we waited.”

Steve is at the edge of his seat, leaning in to listen to the words of the Professor, trying to absorb each word from the Professor.

“In the first year, about twenty people joined the school. Or maybe more. Thirty, I think”, the professor says.

I recall seeing an old photograph someone had shared on one of the Facebook groups. It was a black and white picture under the school arch. And it showed a lot of children and a few teachers. I remembered the number it mentioned. Thirty-six children. So that was the number of children who joined in 1982 – thirty-six. But I do not interrupt the Professor.

“In the second year, 80 students joined our school. After that, there was no stopping. The numbers began to grow rapidly. The word spread quickly, and there was a real need for a school for missionary children.”

The answer lasts no more than a minute. The entire history of our shared roots is distilled to a single minute. The Professor does not even raise his voice much as he recounts the story.

“How did you decide to start Anand Niketan?” Steve asks.

“The people at Asha Kiran hospital reached out to me. They had heard about Santhosha Vidhyalaya, and they had a lot of land near their mission hospital. So they asked me if I could start a school there. I said, okay.

He spoke of opening schools like swatting mosquitoes.

“Why did you leave the Santhosha Educational Society board?” Steve asks.

The Professor’s eyebrows suddenly flare-up.

He probably did not expect this question out of the blue, or it probably triggered a memory. We don’t know.

“I was working at a college at that time. Right up to ‘96. So I could not be part of the board. After ’96, I moved to Orissa to be part of Anand Niketan.”

“Do you have any vision or suggestions for the Santhosha Vidhyalaya Alumni Association?”, Steve asks.

“You have to take care of the sponsorship for children who are in need. You have to help the teachers in their salary, and especially aid the retired teachers financially.”

“Did you have any idea that the school you started would one day send its students to different parts of the globe?”

“No. We just opened a school because there was a need.”

Steve pauses before the next question.

“Now with a decline in cross-cultural missionaries, do you think five or ten years down the line, the school will still be relevant? Will missionaries still part with their children to such distant places or will they educate them in towns closer to the mission field? What if children don’t join the school for admission in a few years?”

“If not missionary kids, the local kids can join. This is a good school, and people will always want to put their kids here”

In retrospect, the biggest highlight of my evening with the Founder was the unflinching clarity of that response. He’d started the school to educate children. And he knew there would always be children in need of education.

Steve then asked the final question for the evening.

“What is your message that we can take to the alumni?”

“Know God.”

There is a pause after those two words are uttered. Some of us heard it wrong. “No God?”

“That’s what I spend my time in these days,” the professor continues. “Reading His word. Knowing him.”

The Professor walks into another room and gets his diary. He opens it for us, and we see pages and pages of words. Each passage captures his daily meditations. The date of our meeting was on the page he opened for us. It summarizes the portions he’d read earlier that morning from the page on his diary. Similarly, the previous day’s date has notes under it. As he flips through the pages, we see the discipline of the man written in those pages. Neat methodical handwritten notes on the scriptural portions he’d read and meditated on each day. The Professor then told us the method he follows while reading from the Word. One Psalm and a chapter from the book of Proverbs each day. Apart from these, he also read a passage from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. Once he finishes reading the entire book, he restarts again from the beginning.

When he went back to drop his diary on his shelf, he brought a few books from his collection. He selected a few books and gave them to Steve. He also handed out a polyethene bag to carry those books. Then he handed a few books and a polyethene bag to me. To Sudharson, he said he couldn’t find the right books to give, but mentioned that he’d given books to his parents, so he could read those.

I read through the titles of the books he’s given me.

God Chaser! – by Dr. Lilian Stanley

Jolly Family – by Dr. Lilian Stanley

Little Stories for Little Hearts – Volume 3 – by Dr. Lilian Stanley

When Revival Comes – R. Stanley

It is around this time that Paul Raja who’d just gotten done with meeting the Sterlite victims arrives at the house. (He’d called Sudharson for directions about ten mins earlier, and Sudharson for want of better network had wandered into Professor Ivan’s dining room, causing a minor disruption to the interview session.)

Once Paul arrives, Sudharson introduces him to the Professor.

“Is he also a student from Santhosha Vidhyalaya?” Professor asks.

Sudharson then tells him that Paul via Goodness Foundation is sponsoring around 22 children in school.

“Good,” the Professor says.

Paul suggests we take a few photographs to remember the evening.

The Professor agrees. Since there is no one besides the Professor and the four of us, Paul suggests we take a selfie. Someone else suggests we take a regular old fashioned picture first, and then take a selfie. So Sudharson and Paul take turns to click pictures, and then Paul takes a final selfie.

Then we say our goodbyes. I add an additional “Thank you” with goodbye because my sister had looked me in the eye when she knew I would meet Professor Ivan and asked me to “Thank him for everything”. But I don’t think my two words would ever convey the gratitude that several generations of graduates from school feel for the man. Good education – given our circumstance – is a privilege bestowed on us by a man who just saw the need and acted upon his vision without batting an eyelid.

And now after our discussions with the Professor, we realize that he speaks about starting the schools in a matter-of-fact kind of way. Not claiming either credit or praise for his act. In fact, he is happier to talk about his daily bible reading discipline than he is about describing his achievements related to the schools that educated several generations of children.

Our interview and discussion are done, and we set off to eat at “Hotel Alwar Night Club”, because apparently Sudharson had heard a new rumor that a hotel in Tuticorin serves fried parota and pigeon curry. And when we arrive at the restaurant we realize that this time the rumors are true.

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