The headmaster’s memoir: A book by a master of the glib half-truth

  • Saaz Aggarwal, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 23, 2016 16:40 IST
The book is Dev Lahiri’s account of his time at Lawrence School, Lovedale. One cannot help but observe that the inaccuracy and exaggeration in the book reduces its credibility.

This is the depressing story of a brilliant man who faced many struggles. Though he writes with affection and gratitude of certain people and events, the persecution he describes at different points of his career appears to have dominated his life. His heart condition resulted in numerous dramatic collapses and hospital internments. It is also unfortunate that Dev Lahiri, a Rhodes Scholar and member of the heyday staff of Oxford University Press, has his memoirs strewn with proofreading and design disasters.

This book has 222 pages, of which 66 are devoted to the horrors he faced while trying to bring reforms to The Lawrence School, Lovedale, between 1991 and 2000. Later, at Welham Boys’ School, Dehradun, things went bad for him again. Lahiri describes his victimisation in detail, blithely naming perpetrators and valiantly trying to clear his reputation with an energetic mud-fest.

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This review is not concerned with what actually happened, but cannot help observing that the inaccuracy and exaggeration in the book reduces its credibility. Lahiri sneers at a career in marketing, mocking the enthusiastic selling of soap. However, his book exposes him as a master of the glib half-truth. A few examples follow.

This memoir is neither a work of literature nor a source of inspiration to coming generations.

He says he gave up his job as a tea planter in a few weeks because: “I just felt uncomfortable dealing with plants. I realized I needed to do something with people.” Hmm! A tea planter’s job requires sound fundamentals of agriculture, but it is in fact through the management of labour in the field and factory that the job gets done and it is actually more about people than plants.

He also claims to have been the first headmaster of Lawrence “to have actually allowed” a girl student to lead the Founders Day Parade. Not true. Rohini Gopalan, a girl student, led the parade in May 1977.

Lahiri writes, “My daughter was followed into the town, her photos taken and morphed. Matters got worse. Anonymous letters started arriving addressed to the student body, accusing me, among other things, of sleeping with the lady teachers and Indrani of sleeping with the men.” But in the 1990s, morphing photos was still only science fiction! Even if we allow that a headmaster might have inadvertently used an anachronism and his daughter had actually felt disgraced by misuse of her photo, by what standard could anonymous letters, however scurrilous, make matters worse?

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Lahiri also quotes a report which states that it was he who made Lawrence “one of the most famous schools of the country”. Well: Lawrence School, Lovedale, was founded in 1858. When I joined, in 1971, it had long been recognized as one of the best schools in India.

Every institution has its ups and downs, consequent on the people who lead and manage it. Evaluation and improvement may vary in consistency but they are continuous processes, never the work of just one person.

This memoir is neither a work of literature nor a source of inspiration to coming generations. When slotted as a ‘tell-all exposé’, it could provoke a careful reader to question whether the author (even if his intentions were blameless) had the emotional strength and stability required to implement reforms effectively.

With a Little Help from my Friends
Dev Lahiri
Rs 295
222 pages

Saaz Aggarwal is the author of Sindh — Stories from a Vanished Homeland.

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