Thursday, February 04, 2016

Mr. Joe Sheth (1945-1991)

[Image courtesy the Times of India]

"Be First Class."

A whole generation of boys in South Bombay's exclusive Campion School were taught by a simple, unassuming, giant of a man. He died unexpectedly, in the prime of life, twenty five years ago today, at the age of forty five.

He taught English. His love and passion not just for the subject, but for life itself, was obvious, and contagious. Every single one of us was hooked. A whole world came alive. Shakespeare was infinitely more interesting than whatever slop the TV slung up, or the Alistair Maclean and Louis L'Amour pulp fiction that was the staple of boys our age. In a short tribute to the teachers in my life for Teachers Day on this blog a couple of years ago, I wrote:
Shakespeare came alive in his classes: Julius Caesar in 8th grade; The Merchant of Venice, in 9th.  His voice still rings in my head at Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes?" or Portia's "The quality of mercy is not strain'd." Byron, Shelley, Milton and Tennyson dripped from our tongues. (I could possibly still recite "Ozymandias" from memory!) We loved Sheth wildly, deeply.

Indeed we did. "Be first class," was Mr. Sheth's constant refrain, one that we've shared, among other tributes, all afternoon in the WhatsApp group for our batch (the class of 1988, the year we graduated from Campion, after the 10th grade). Not a few of us feel that he was our own John Keating from Dead Poets' Society. Don't just aim for First Class (grades), but be first class. He called all of us to be men of excellence, of virtue.

The day of Mr. Sheth's funeral is etched in my memory, vivid, all these year later. In 1991, I was in my first year of college. I always recall this as being in 12th grade, but memory is treacherous about some things! A number of us at St. Xavier's College took the train up to the distant suburb of Andheri and joined a packed congregation (it seemed like there were a thousand folks there!) in the fan-shaped Holy Family Church in Chakala. I recall being at the very back, and following the Mass (this was three years prior to my baptism), and mumbling the responses (in Latin! I clearly recall kneeling and saying dona eis requiem at the Agnus Dei and wondering why no one else did).
The coffin was surrounded by the distraught family, and we surged out behind it after the Mass, to the graveyard outside, as the sun set, and darkness fell.
Twenty five years later -- all of us in our early forties, in a variety of fields of work, scattered across the globe, most with families and kids about the same age as we were back then -- the impression and experience of this quiet man hasn't left us. It is not just that we have fond memories of him. We certainly do. But the root of these memories lies in the fact that in the presence of this man, in the experience of his care and love for us, something about us changed. We were transformed, and for the better. Indeed, we have all, I am confident, striven to be first class, ever since.

On this twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, what a privilege and blessing it was, to offer the Holy Sacrifice for the repose of the soul of this good and faithful servant.

Thank you, Mr. Sheth. Memory eternal! 

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