Deena Mistri, the great-granddaughter of the founder of Bai Virbaijee Soparivala (BVS) Parsi High School, and its former principal, passed away on Thursday at the age of 85. She had taught there for 55 years.
Mistri started teaching English in 1951 and became the first woman to teach the secondary classes at the time. Her contribution to the field of education accounts for thousands of students who are now reputed names in their professions. After 21 years of dedicated service, she became the principal of the BVS in 1972, retiring 32 years later in a rousing service held in 2004.
When the principal had asked her to teach, Mistri’s father had said, “No, not in a boy’s school,” Mistri once recalled during an interview with The Citizens Archive of Pakistan. “When he insisted, saying it was only for a short time, papa agreed… I think I was always a born teacher… I would take the servants’ children and teach them the a, b, c.”
Nighat Razzaq, who worked with her from 1979 to 1998 at BVS, recalled how Mistri would treat every subordinate like her own son or daughter. In 1992, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Despite the severity of her condition, she never let anyone know how she felt and would inquire about their health instead.
“She taught so many students free of charge,” Razzaq recalled. “As teachers, we all had to teach at least three to four children of the custodial staff at the school and Mrs Mistri never differentiated in class between the son of a custodian and the son of a minister.”
When there were riots in Karachi, Mistri would keep the gate open and be standing at it because she believed education was more important than anything else, the former teacher recalled.
Deena Mistri received her BA (Hons) from Bombay University in 1945. While she was teaching at BVS, she went to the US on a Fulbright Scholarship in 1962, securing her Diploma in Education. She taught at the University of Athens, Ohio, and the University of Austin, Texas. She and the other teachers were invited to the Rose Garden at the White House, where President John F Kennedy greeted them. At home, she was awarded the Pride of Performance by General Pervez Musharraf in 2002. During her tenure, 99 per cent of her 5,500 students, who include Muttahida Qaumi Movement leader Dr Farooq Sattar and Strings band member Bilal Maqsood, received A grades.
“Mrs Mistry was a strict disciplinarian and she instilled those traits in the children as well,” said Qazi Furqan, a 2002 BVS graduate. “That does not mean that she wasn’t caring and loving. It was her habit to shake hands with small children when she used to come to the office.”
Mistri was loved and feared. “When she entered a room, the noise would just die, no fading out, just die,” said Yashaan Mavalvala, her great-nephew. “She had this cane in her office which everyone talked about; it kept everyone in line.” He used to go to her place with the others on Navroze and play the band outside till she came out. “I remember her calling me up on stage when I won some drawing competition and she pulled my cheeks and lovingly slapped me in front of everyone!”
Mehernaz Bharucha, the headmistress for the primary section, was one of the many people who counted Mistri as a mother figure. “We could just walk into her office at any time, even with personal problems.”
Nineteen-year-old Aftab Quli, who studied at BVS for eight years, told The Express Tribune how when Mistri used to arrive, the first and second graders used to run to her car to greet her.
Current principal Kermin Parakh could not praise her predecessor enough. “She was a very hard act to follow. When I joined, I told her that her shoes are too big to be filled, and she replied in Gujrati, roughly translated as ‘My darling, I’m always there for you.’ She told me that you don’t have to fit into anyone’s shoes, create shoes of your own.”
Small wonder then that they all referred to her as the Iron Lady, and not just because of the fact that even though she had been given six months to live about 20 years ago, Mistri had fought her illnesses. “We had her picture put up today,” said Parakh. “And I could not help but feel that these rooms and corridors and classes are still echoing with her stern but caring presence.”