To the One that is Irreplaceable

Maahi Shah pays a visit to Patil, the security guard at the J.B. Petit High School for girls

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Illustration by Shristi Roy

Saturday afternoon, I walked into the gates of the J B Petit High School for Girls, after a gap of five years. The city around me had changed, the street was going through a tectonic shift occasioned by the Brihanmumbai Mahanagar Palika but the man I was there to meet, Pralhad Patil hadn’t changed. When I had called him the evening before to set up the appointment, I identified myself by my name and my batch and he remembered everything. Just as he is etched in the memories of thousands of students from JB (as the school is known). With the brightest smile, in a loud and cheerful voice, he’d wish every student a good morning as they entered the school gates.

Patil was 15 years old when he left Kolhapur for Mumbai in 1990. With a precarious financial situation at home where the next meal was uncertain, clothes were a luxury and there were eight  8 people to feed, he came to this Maximum City to make ends meet. In Bombay, Patil worked at a hotel in Dadar. He got two free meals a day, and sent almost all the money he earned back to his family. 

Eager to improve his situation—he dreamed of working in an office one day—he enrolled at a night college but had to drop out because of growing financial burdens. He joined a private security firm and in 1992, became a security guard at JB. In the early days of his tenure at the gates of the school, he cleared the police entrance examination but there was another hurdle: the officials needed a bribe that was way beyond his means.

Pralhad Patil settled down at the gates.
Where he remained for thirty years.
Didn’t he ever think of moving?
“After coming here, meeting the students, their parents, the teachers, I felt good, so I stopped thinking about the ‘what next.’ Till the time JB is my home, I believe it’s unnecessary to think too much into the future,” he says with a shrug.

Freelance writer and city historian Ms Meher Marfatia, and a 'JB Mom' said, “I feel he should just grow old with JB and in perpetuity they should keep him. You know even as an old man, sitting on his chair, he should be there.”

 

“He’s a brick that fits in the right place,” Ms Benaifer Kutar, the current principal of the school said. He was the granduncle, the father figure, the friend – to everyone he knew. Ms Reva Ahuja, a parent and teacher at JB for 15 years told me how her daughter, now 26 years old, visited him a few months ago and introduced to him to her fiancé. Yet another JB parent, Ms Neepa Joshipura recalled when her daughter invited him for her Arangetram performance. “It was a bit awkward, but you know Maahi he did come and personally for me it was like having a family member.” It was incredible to hear the stories that people had to share. In little ways, he left a mark on each person.

 

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Photograph by Maahi Shah

“More than two generations of girls should have him I feel,” Ms Marfatia laughed and said.  Patil has seen it all. He was 22 years old when Ms. Kutar came in to teach a 2nd-grade class. In 2010, she became the principal of our school. He remembers Ms Friyana Pardiwala, a student then and now an English teacher at the school and how her grandmother would warn Patil every day in her Parsi Gujarati, to ensure her granddaughter didn’t go with anyone else.

 

When I reached out to her a few days ago, I was beyond delighted to hear back in what was an open letter to Patil, ‘A legacy himself.’ Ms. Friyana wrote, “As a student, Patil was the person you went to if you were in trouble- He would reprimand you just enough to teach you how to be responsible, while somehow never making you feel bad about yourself. If Patil was at the gate, all of us felt safe and thought nothing of staying back late into the evening.

When I was welcomed back to J.B. as a teacher and I entered on my first day, I felt like I had gone back in time. Patil seemed not to have aged a day since I had left school and his characteristic morning greeting and smile gave me the warm feeling of being back home. As a teacher, I got to interact with Patil a lot more and I realized what an asset he is to us. His memory, attention to detail, keen observation powers, trustworthiness and other skills could have taken him anywhere in the world, yet he chose to stay and serve the school, for which all of us are ever grateful.”

His day begins at 7 am when he reaches the school gates. And he wholeheartedly takes up the responsibility of making the students laugh as they entered the school gates. He looks into the visitors that arrive with inquiries, letters, and requests. At 7:45 sharp, as per his watch, he goes inside and rings the school bell. The unforgettable school bell. The bell we’d wish rang faster during the boring classes, slower as we raced towards writing the last answer during an exam, and the slowest on our last day of school. Throughout the day, Patil must be aware and alert, checking and rechecking that no child has wandered outside.  

 

Patil’s cell phone was often a saviour – for parents and students alike. I recalled the days when I would use his cell phone to call my mother, only to tell her that I had forgotten my compass box at home. And I wasn’t the only one. Parent, Revathi Shivakumar recalls the time her daughter had forgotten a book she had to submit, and was rest assured that when she gave it to Patil, it would reach her. 

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Photograph by Maahi Shah

Ms Reva Ahuja says, “Did you know there’s a Maahi Shah in every section, in every year from lower KG to standard 10, and the mum will just tell him give this to my daughter and it will go to the right Maahi and I used to wonder how does he do this?!” I remember borrowing 1-rupee coins from him to buy the Mango sweets we used to get in our canteen. 

 

Did he falter along the way? Of course. He recalled the time when the new batch of students had just been admitted to the lower kindergarten of the primary section of the school. The walls of the school were low, and Patil was the only security guard. Things often got challenging. One morning, one of the girls (about 6 or 7 years old) walked out of the main gates. Almost as a reflex and to prevent her from going any further, Patil held her arms and pulled her into the school building.  The next day, her parents came in and yelled at him for inappropriately touching their daughter. “Maina jab kiya, iske baare mein socha bhi nahi tha, uski ma mujhpe chillane lagi, ki meri ladki ko touch kyon kiya?” (When I held her back, I didn’t even think about this, her mother started shouting at me and accused me of touching her daughter). For 12 years, this girl did not interact with Patil. In the 10th standard, she became the head girl of the school and on the day of their farewell, she completed her speech and went out to the gates to find Patil. Crying, she hugged him tightly and apologized for her behaviour towards him. That day, he cried too.

For each girl to feel secure and safe, within the school walls and a little beyond was noteworthy. Ms Revathi Shivakumar was someone who had seen child abuse. “And when you’ve seen it, you worry about your girl kids. But with Patil, there was no such fear. We never saw him limited by his gender.” Girls, boys, men, and women have been conditioned into the gender roles defined and determined by class and other social hierarchies. And yet, at JB we witnessed something different. “He just knows his boundaries so well,” Ms Marfatia said. It was true and in the warmest manner possible. There was concern more than domination. There was safety not a threat to it. And there was affection beyond question. In a world of predatory behaviour and an engrained patriarchy, Patil showed utmost respect to each and every person he encountered. Ms Kutar remembers receiving a message from a former JB student, about how she had been stuck in the area during a protest and the only place she felt safe was, “in a huge school barricaded with a man.”

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The JB fun fair was the most happening event of the year. An evening of games was followed by a disco and dance session, hosted in our school hall, where boys and girls from all the schools in South Bombay were invited. The girls wore little black dresses and sold roses for over 500 Rupees, which the boys would pay for without giving it a second thought.  Indeed, it was an affair to remember. As for Patil, he was on guard. “He just knew who the troublemakers are. I mean he knew the history and geography of these boys,” said Ms Joshipura. No girl was ever harassed, teased, or bullied on his watch. He’s broken up fights and almost gotten beaten up. He recalls one such incident that took place in 2004. A few boys from rival schools got into a quarrel, almost leading to a physical fight. Patil calmly, yet sternly asked the ones causing trouble to leave. Patil calmly, yet sternly asked the ones causing trouble to leave. To him, it was his responsibility to ensure that no boy or girl faced any difficulty when they entered JB, “Bahar tum kuch bhi karo, school mein, mera zimmedaari hain." Times changed, but his priorities never did.

Photograph by Maahi Shah

During emergencies, things got stressful and parents were often called to the school to pick up the students because the buses weren’t available. One such day was the 26th of July, 2006. The entire city was knee-deep in water. Without informing her parents, one of the students left school with a friend to go to her house. Patil had seen the two of them leave the school gates and made note of this. Her mother frantically called Patil’s cell phone, something mothers often did, when her daughter didn’t get home that rainy afternoon. Patil calmly told her who exactly she had gone with, and requested her to call up that friend’s residence. And there she was. These are the stories that Patil remembers. Conversation was always easy with Patil. It felt comfortable, warm, and nostalgic. That afternoon, it meant a lot more.

 

 “Who are you closest to?” I asked. His answer didn’t surprise me in the least. When he came to JB, it became home and the people became family. No one played favourites, especially him. There was no discrimination. He spoke to the staff, parents, students and teachers alike. “Sab apne hain.” (They’re like family).  Even so, there have been hints of envy amongst the other staff members because Patil was at the frontline. In fact there have even been complaints to higher authorities regarding this. Over the years, maybe the others have come to accept it. He was the reassurance for parents and the safety net for students.

 

In March 2020, when the lockdown was imposed, the security guards were required to show up for duty or otherwise face a salary cut. The first few months of the lockdown were the hardest. With no public transport available, Patil would walk from his home at Walkeshwar to our school. On multiple occasions, he was also questioned by the police at the Nakabandis, but he had no choice. In May, he had to move into school to carry out his duty without traveling. For 5 months, Patil stayed at JB.

He feels grateful to have the support he does from the parents and students. Patil often seeks guidance and advice from teachers at JB and accomplished parents to help his children find their way. He remembers crying, as he saw students studying, and their command over the English language.  Education and knowledge are accessible and available to all, and it is often up to us to take it in, imbibe and implement. Patil made sure his children did. 

 

Only 17 years old when he joined, Patil was temperamental, easily angry and sometimes arrogant. But he recalls an incident that changed him. An incident that changed his mind set and outlook for a lifetime to come. He remembers distinctly, one of the students coming late to school every single day, often after the school bell. One day, her father came in and shouted at Patil, saying that his watch was wrong. Not appreciating being spoken to in this manner, he too responded aggressively. The father went and complained to our former principal Ms. Shirin Darasha, whom Patil fondly calls Darashabai. That day she called him to his office and sat him down. Her words meant the world to him. “Patil, koi bhi parents aata hain, bacha aata, hain, uske saath pyaar se baat karo. Pyaar bahut badi cheez hain. Voh log jo bol rahe hain bolne do. Galti toh maaf ki ja sakti hain.” (Patil, whoever comes to school, speak to them with love. You see, it’s the most important of all. Let people say what they want, mistakes can always be forgiven).

Photograph by 

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Photograph by Maahi Shah 

He learnt to love because of her. Nodding her head in absolute awe, Ms Kutar said, “And who would expect a watchman to love?” With glittering eyes, Patil told me how Ms. Darasha single-handedly changed JB. She reminded us to love children and of the joy of childhood. Patil understood what many of us don’t. We talk about the need and importance of the social and emotional well-being of children, Patil enforced it. He was unwavering and purposeful in his approach to making the kids happy. After Ms Darasha, Ms. Kutar (the current principal) too was adamant about creating this space of comfort. JB remains rooted in its values of kindness and love along with an illuminating education.

 

This city has a Patil at every corner. It is what makes Mumbai so special, so welcoming, so warm. “I had another Pralhad Patil kind of figure, right from the 80s,” says Ms Marfatia. The telephone operator, Yusuf, at Times of India building, would pick up a thousand calls in a day, but recognised voices in mere seconds. “So there are people like that, and very few of us are privileged to meet them on a regular basis, on an ongoing basis. They value everyone that they come across the good things to remember, they make you remember the good things that they remember about you. It’s validating both ways. It is very fortunate that we have these people, they are these little reassuring touchstones in our lives. It’s an enriching connect,” she said.

 

 In 1997, Patil was offered a permanent position at JB. “Aise dobara, meri zindagi mein toh kabhi nahi mil sakta hain.” (I won’t get this in my life ever again)

 

Patil chose JB each time, every time. In March 2016, I left but Patil stood there in the reassurance that the doors would always be open. And in the typical JB Petit fashion, he’d say “Aao jo.” (Meaning: Come again in Gujarati). On our last day, Ms. Kutar gave each of us a small note with a few verses of a poem printed on it. The poem was one of Ms. Shirin Darasha’s favorites and is called ‘What will matter’ by Michael Josephson. The note has been taped to my drawer for years now, but when I reached home that evening, I looked at it again. From a different perspective this time.

 

“What will matter is not what you bought, but what you built

What will matter is not what you got but what you gave

What will matter is not your success, but your significance

What will matter is not what you learnt, but what you taught

What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage or sacrifice,

That enriched, empowered or encouraged others to emulate your example.

 

Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident

It’s not a matter of circumstance but of choice

Choose to live a life that matters.”

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Photograph by Maahi Shah