Lately I’ve been very caught up with the idea of immortality. Not the Jack Sparrow and Fountain of Youth kind of course, but the kind that makes someone unforgettable to more than their immediate generation. And the most potent experience of this attempt to make someone immortal is when the immortal almost rises, phoenix-like before your very eyes. A book reading brought this about for me.
Shireen Isal, a Zoroastrian woman living in London wrote a book about her French language teacher, Zenobia Mistry, 20 years after the teacher passed away. The beautiful book is about the life and endeavours of Zenobia Mistri, who in the 1920s discovered a fierce passion and aptitude for the French language and took it up so seriously she went to Paris in the 1930s to study the language further and then came back to India and enriched countless lives simply by teaching them French.
Shireen had a private book reading for which Parsi Khabar was graciously invited. “So, do you know french fluently?” This very first question at the entrance of the building left me wondering if I should have come. I responded with “I don’t really like French. I prefer Spanish”. I’m sure Shireen and her wonderful husband Jean Pierre sucked in their collective breaths and smiled back. After the warm welcome by our hosts in a well appointed house, I felt further left out because the room was filling with people over the age of 60. There were maybe 3 of us, younger than that.
But then Shireen started reading from her book and I sank back in my chair, transported to Zenobia’s life and her trials and triumphs. I was eager to hear more and more because this woman, who was surely a pioneer in her field given the decade, was living a rich life doing what she loved. As the book progressed, I realized that the entire room was connected to Zenobia Mistri; either as a relative or as a student. In fact, the hosts were themselves closely related to Zenobia. When the informal discussion on the book began I realized exactly how amazing this book really was.
Are any of us blessed to have a teacher who impacted us so much that we wrote a book about her… literally. And this book was no easy feat. As Shireen stated, her husband Jean Pierre encouraged her to write the book and then she went on this fantastic fact finding journey. She didn’t know anything really. She scoured the ancient records of the French Schools where Zenobia may have gone (there was no record of where she studied), crawled across the internet, emailed everyone who may have any remote connection to Zenobia and bit by bit placed together her life’s story. There are many gaps still but it’s a good picture of how this woman, born in Karachi became an unforgettable French Tutor. Shireen admitted she had eventually resorted to badgering people for information but that worked its wonders.
But, the very best part of this evening was when all those present there started a casual reminiscing of all things Zenobia. They recounted anecdotes and discussed her legendary temper and the positive life lessons she inadvertently taught to her students. There was a bit about Zenobia flinging student’s books out of her window when angry and the animated discussion actually had me looking at an imaginary book go out the window right there. Her students all agreed that since Zenobia was intensely private it was difficult to glean much about her; one even commented that if Zenobia were here she’s hate that she was being discussed in so much detail. There was so much reminiscing laughter amongst her students, all of them recalling their young days and the mischief they played in her classes alongwith her strict adherence to learning the grammar of the language by repetition. That diverse group of people coming together due to their shared childhood experiences learning French from Zenobia Mistri, brought her alive right there in the room. And that I will stay with me for a long time.
Shireen Isal has paid the ultimate ode to her teacher by bringing her back to her beloved students and giving the world an opportunity to get to know Zenobia Mistri. Her efforts to bring the book to fruition are epic in themselves and maybe she should write another book on how she found Zenobia. That would be as compelling a book as this one is and I’d finally have my answer on how Shireen found Zenobia’s French Thesis at a German Antique Dealer.