Lady of letters
As patron of a King and humble educator of the less fortunate, Gangtok's Maaji tells of a life less ordinary
Not many people have a king as their patron. Yet, despite this unique privilege and many other lofty accomplishments, Santosh Nirash is as down to earth as they come. Perhaps it's because this doughty octogenarian was simply answering a calling without expecting recognition or reward-and was determined to set off on an adventure beyond the ordinary.
At 84, Nirash is the editor of India's oldest Hindi weekly tabloid Zamana Sadabahar published from Gangtok in Sikkim. She is also a senior educator, a vocation that took her from Delhi to Gangtok to set up a school for the then King of Sikkim before His Majesty helped her open her own school-all because she happened to answer an advertisement in the newspaper, on a whim!
Nirash's journey begins in her hometown in Pind (now Sind in Pakistan) in the North West Frontier Province as it was then called. During India's Partition from Pakistan, her family settled in Delhi, like thousands of other families. Hailing from a well-to-do family, Santosh Bali (her maiden name) graduated in sociology and felt compelled, even then, to help the less-fortunate. She used to teach children in Pind-and now in her Delhi locality-for free, and even gave them food from her family kitchen. "I have no regrets as I have always been able to do what I wanted to do. Not many people are blessed that way," says Maaji, as she is affectionately called in Gangtok.
In 1949, she married Prem Sagar Nirash, a radar specialist in the Indian Army, who was also an avid reader and writer, and the couple settled down in Delhi. While Prem sought early retirement from the Army on health grounds and pursued his academic interests, Nirash spent her time engaging in social work and teaching. "In those days, money was not important, and we did not differentiate between work and service."
Then, one day, in the early 1960s, Nirash spotted an advertisement in a newspaper, that sought an educator to work in Sikkim, which was then a kingdom and protectorate of India. The possibility of adventure and a new beginning piqued her interest, and without telling her husband, Nirash applied for the job. A few days later, her husband came to her with a telegram confirming her selection as a teacher! Still in shock, Nirash was on the horns of a dilemma but the couple mutually decided that it would be interesting to live in a new place and try out options. So they relocated to Sikkim.
Nirash helped the King of Sikkim, Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal, set up a private school called the Tathangchen School. It had classes up to VI grade and Nirash was its principal, gardener, maid and teacher too! "It was fun. The school took off really well. However, I had some differences of opinion with the King's family, so I parted ways. But my relationship with the King remained good and I kept on helping him unofficially with his school project," she remembers. A short while later, Nirash sought the King's help to set up her own school, Jampeyang School in Sikkim, and he gladly returned the favour. In the meantime, Nirash's husband was writing for Sakaal, a leading Marathi newspaper, and The Telegraph, London, as their correspondent.
As the years went by, the political climate in Sikkim transformed rapidly, and Nirash too received several offers to write political features from national and international magazines. She and her husband started taking an active interest in journalism, and after her husband's death, Nirash launched Sikkim's first and only weekly, four-page Hindi tabloid, in 1987. To this day, she remains the editor of the publication although she now takes the help of her daughter Neeta. "I chose Hindi as a medium as it is the national language, and after its merger with India, Sikkim was trying to pick up the language for official purposes," reveals Nirash.
Despite her influential contacts, she has never sought any favours for her newspaper. "It has been surviving on its own terms but I am grateful to the government for its advertisement support," says Maaji. Under her expert stewardship, Zamana Sadabahar has survived stiff competition from Hindi daily newspapers and has even extended its subscription base outside the state.
Nirash is still actively involved with social service. The school she started with so much love has, unfortunately, closed down after she handed over the reins to a local resident. Drawing from a wellspring of energy, Nirash is also associated with the Sikkim Women's Council and Manavhit Mahila Mandal Society, which offers counselling services and medicines to the local people.
What is the secret of her health and wellbeing? "Be happy and grateful to the Almighty for whatever he has given you. Remember, there are people who are less fortunate than you," she says. "I have never harboured ill feelings towards anyone during my entire life. When you do good work, it gives you back positive energy to do more. This is my core philosophy, which I have passed on to my children. This is my message to everybody."
— Soumik Dutta