In this age of advertising and glossy journalism when superlatives are so extravagantly and often meaninglessly used, an obituarist attempting to pay tribute to the larger than life figure of the eminent educationist Mrs Deena M. Mistri is simply at a loss for words. But if one were to judge her calibre and endearing qualities by the turnout at her funeral of her students — past and present, their parents, her colleagues and innumerable admirers, then one would not need to look for appropriate adjectives. With over 2,000 people wishing to have the last glimpse of their favourite personality, the Parsi practice of not showing the body after the completion of prayers had to be dispensed with by her two sons, Afshad and Farhad, who flew in from the US.
How many lives did she touch? How many people in distress did she help? The numbers are bound to be in thousands for her teaching career, which ran parallel to her unannounced philanthropy and acts of kindness, spanned more than six decades.
Born in 1925 (according to the entry in her passport), Deena Mistri did her Matric in 1941 and in 1945 graduated in arts with honours in English literature from D.J. College, which used to have both arts and science classes at that time. She got the degree from the prestigious Bombay University. In those days Sindh was a part of the Bombay Presidency and the educational institutions were affiliated to the University of Bombay. Much later in 1957, Mrs Mistri did her BT (a degree which was later called BEd) from the Government Teachers’ Training College in Karachi.
While she was in her late teens, she started training boys in debating and educational institutions at the BVS Parsi School, which was set up by her great-grandfather in the mid-19th century. In 1950, Behram Rustomjee, the principal of the school, asked her to substitute for one Mr Minwalla, who was the school’s English teacher, an offer she readily accepted. A year earlier, Deena Soparivala had become Deena Mistri. Her husband Minoo Mistri, an architect of repute, was a firm believer in women pursuing careers of their choice. She thus became the first female teacher in the high school, which was exclusively for boys, a fact she never failed to recall.
In 1962 she was awarded a one year Fulbright Scholarship to study for a diploma in education in the United States, on completion of which she taught briefly at two universities, one in Ohio and the other at Texas. She and some other teachers were invited to the White House to meet President John F. Kennedy.
On the way back home, Mrs Mistri stopped in London, where on an invitation by the British Council she studied the local teaching methods. This enabled her to compare the systems prevailing on both sides of the Atlantic, an experience that enriched her as a teacher.
In 1965 Mrs Mistri became the Vice Principal of BVS Parsi School and seven years later took over as the Principal, a position she held until her retirement in 2004. Of all the BVS principals Mrs Mistri held the position for the longest period. To say that she served the institution with distinction in different capacities is to state the very obvious.
On March 23, 2002 she was awarded the Pride of Performance by the Government of Pakistan in appreciation of her services in the field of education. Sadly two years later the medal was robbed in a house burglary. However, a bigger loss for her was the death of her husband of 57 years in 2006. Instead of joining her two sons, who are well settled in the US, Mrs Mistri decided to soldier on and serve the cause of education in her homeland.
When she retired from BVS, Mrs Mistri joined Westminster School and College, another fine though smaller institution, where she was the chairperson until her death. She was also a consultant to Accel School.
Mrs Nighat Razzaq, who was Mrs Mistri’s deputy at BVS and principal of Westminster, says that her mentor did not believe in formal education alone but subscribed to the view that discipline, honesty and courage had to be inculcated in the students too. She never compromised on principles. She had declared that no arms were to be brought on the premises. Once when a minister came to see her she refused to let him inside the principal’s office until his armed guard was sent out of the gate.
Every time there was a disturbance in Saddar, she stood at the gate and told the miscreants in no uncertain terms that no one was to enter the school premises. Her presence gave the children and their parents a sense of security.
She believed in the spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child concept. Many students who were caned by her have done exceedingly well in life, at home and abroad. They remember her fondly.
Farhad and Afshad say that being Mrs Mistri’s sons had one disadvantage. If any other student was caned twice, they were caned four times. Mrs Mistri gave no concessions to them. She felt that as her sons they ought to have been more disciplined.