Prof Dr SUSHILA MENDES is a Historian and educator, winner of State Award for Excellence for teachers 2021 and has been felicitated at the hands of the CM. A daughter of a freedom fighter she was in the students’ movement too. Prajal Sakhardande speaks to Dr Mendes on receiving the award and her plans after retirement
- Madam Sushila, congratulations on winning the State Teachers Excellence Award 2021 and being recently awarded Professorship in History. You have spent almost a lifetime teaching History. How does it feel on winning this prestigious award?
Thank you, Prajal. It is my honour to be interviewed by a magazine which strives to preserve and protect the heritage and culture of Goa and is today recognised as one of the faces of ‘Save Goa’.
After having enjoyed teaching rural students for more than 32 years, the award was a validation of the work done and the work that is expected of me in the future. Now before I take on any responsibility or assignment I have to pinch myself and remind myself that much more is expected from me as an awardee.
Teaching in Government College of Arts, Science, & Commerce, Quepem has been one of the best things that happened in my life. We are blessed with students from underprivileged backgrounds, who mostly belong to the Schedule Tribes and OBC category. Today they are holding important positions of responsibility both in the Government and the private sector. My students are like my children at home, it makes me happy when as a mother or an educationist, I have made a small difference in enriching young lives to be better individuals and also positive contributors to society at large.
- Being the daughter of Freedom Fighter Shri Luis Mendes, what were your earliest imprints of him and tell us a little bit about your maternal home. What was your upbringing like and what were your earliest influences in life?
My three elder siblings were a witness to the ups and downs faced by most children of Freedom Fighters who went against the tide of their times. My dad passed away at 57 when I was still in middle school. I do remember my dad, (now that I look back as an academician) as a philosopher who discussed with me Buddhism and the fact that Ksatriyas are a race of fighters who need to fight against injustice.
Lambert uncle (my dad’s chum in the freedom struggle) always said that my dad had ‘hangers on’, who went with him to the Court, came back to our house and my mother would serve them all food, including him. My mother would cook and send food with the Bombay dabbhawalas for Goans who worked in Bombay. With my father’s involvement in Goa’s Freedom Struggle there was never enough money in the house. She always told me that the first money that she received because of my dad was the pension as his widow. She was aghast when I decided to marry an advocate myself!
My life was more sheltered as my parents returned to Goa after liberation, (as I was born the very same year) and my father worked as Goa’s first Public prosecutor in the Court of the Judicial Commissioner, Hon. Tito Menezes. This position I was informed by Menezes was offered first to my father but as he was not in favour of defending Portuguese laws, he recommended Menezes who was his colleague in his Chamber in Bombay.
After a few years the family moved back to Bombay in the face of an impending tragedy. It was to provide better medical facilities for my sister Jahan, who succumbed to her illness and passed away at the age of 21 years after being a graduate in English literature from Dhempe College It was after this that my dad insisted that he wanted to return to Goa. I remember begging him to remain with us in Bombay as there was nobody to look after him in Goa. But he had his way and passed away a few years later.
Both my parents were very particular that the children should be well educated; my brother Jai was a Master Mariner, Babu an engineer, and Jahan was in Govt. College of Law, Mumbai. I was educated in J.B. Petit High School, one of Mumbai’s very prestigious ICSE schools. St. Xaviers, Mumbai was a learning experience in itself. So it was my family, friends and the liberal space provided in these educational institutions that were the early influencers in my life.
- You have spent a lifetime teaching a lovely inspirational subject of History. Tell us your views about the subject and of your experience teaching history?
Most people perceive history as a dry subject, and so do most students. We as teachers therefore need to devise methods to make the subject as interesting as possible. Creating an interest in the topic is the essence, thereafter; once the appetite is sufficiently whetted it is my experience that students get motivated to explore the subject. This is seen from the fact that they ask for references and write assignments using different authors and historical perspectives.
I enjoy learning history, teaching history and writing history. This love for the subject is automatically transferred to young minds and when they are convinced that they can earn their living with history, as it opens so many avenues for each one according to their talent and likes, the enthusiasm spreads. Once we had over 80 students for the Final year batch and for the first time in my life I had to request students to choose a subject in the devnagari script as many of our students have difficulty with the English language. We teachers can make the subject easy to grasp but expressing it in a foreign language becomes a double challenge, which I have never given up all these years. Now many of my students are the children of our own ex- students.
Ours was the only college in Goa which conducted Study Tours both for the students and the history faculty of Goa as well as of our college with officers of the Dept. of Archives & Archaeology for over two decades. We have, before this pandemic conducted three tours a year for the students of history as well as the generic elective non-history students from the Science & Commerce faculty. Our students once drew beautiful rangolies of petroglyphs.
As Chairperson of the Board of Studies in History (Undergraduate) Goa University we worked as a team to introduce innovative papers for the Choice Based Credit System. Now nobody can criticize, that we do not have papers on the history of Goa. The history students now have many choices both at the General and the Honours levels.
- You were a participant in the students’ movement in the 70’s. You have been hugely impacted by socialistic ideals, how was your path different from your contemporaries.
I came to Goa from St. Xavier’s College in Bombay to look after my ailing mother as at that time the Goa colleges were also affiliated to Bombay University. I represented Carmel College for many Inter-College elocution competitions. It was at one of these competitions that I spoke on the topic ‘Why students should keep out of politics’. It bagged me my first trophy and it was also the first time that I met student leaders like Desmond D’Costa, Felicio Esteves, Mohandas Loliencar, Cleofato Coutinho who spoke with the required courtesy that the occasion demanded although they held views contrarian to mine. From then began my involvement in Study Circles, participating in Street plays, writing for Udent, participating in struggles which went beyond the books of classroom learning and extended to social concerns, like helping the villagers of Thane get their ration cards, protesting for a school teachers dignity in Collem, writing for Udent after observing the ground realities, e.g. visiting the areas of Baina in Vasco and even selling Udent to far away Higher Secondary Schools in Velguem. We were influenced by the Vidyarthi Pragati Sangathana of Bombay
The student movement of that period was based on an ideology and was apolitical. The Progressive Students Union broke away from the All Goa Students Union precisely on the point that a Student’s Union should not be affiliated to any political party. There were some among us who left the movement and joined party politics and went on to become ministers. Today’s generation chooses their degrees with care and dreams of a bright future but we went on studying one degree after another so that we could continue in the student movement. The positive fall out of this was that most of us were well qualified in our respective areas and secured jobs on merit. As I look back, most of us have done well in our respective areas of work, like Desmond, Sandesh, Prashant, Cleofato, Prashanti and Jyoti to mention a few and many of us were fortunate to meet individuals‘off the mainstream’as life partners.
- Did your research on the pioneering tall leader Menezes Bragança, stem from there, was it a conscious choice that you chose Menezes Bragança and how was your experience on researching on his life for your Ph.D. and your subsequent book on him?
My first topic of choice was the ‘Role of Freedom Fighters in Goa’s Liberation Struggle’. I camped in Canacona and even visited Delhi to the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (NMML) for the field work. My mentor for this topic was Ravindra Kelekar, my father’s colleague in Sabarmati and in the Freedom Struggle. I remember the Director of NMML saying that normally they require the letter of Ph.D guide but a note of Ravindra Kelekar was worth much more! Unfortunately personal reasons and the untimely death of my guide Prof. Joseph Barros in Lisbon stalled this project for good.
After my mother passed away and my daughters reached their final years of school and were both hardworking and doing well in their academics, I decided that I could now re-register for research. My first experience taught me an important lesson that the topic one chooses should not make me swim in an ocean but rather be a topic within one’s reach to both begin and end. Research is all about learning more about little and searching for new knowledge.
Menezes Bragança’s writings were only in the Portuguese Language and most of these writings were hidden in the dust of old newspapers. Most important was that my dad and Julião Menezes were his disciples as the Gomantak Praja Mandal was formed immediately after the death of Luis Menezes Bragança. Although my father passed awayearly, it was the freedom fighters that I had interviewed that led me to this important discovery.
I was happy that the decision to publish my Ph.D. thesis into a book was taken by the Directorate of Art & Culture, represented by its then Director, Prasad Lolyekar even before I was conferred with the actual degree. It added to my happiness that Dr. Maria Couto agreed to pen the Foreword for my book. To Merle Almeida Kurein, my classmate from my Carmel College days, I am grateful for the editing of my manuscript. It took me more than a year to hone the book from my Ph.D. thesis as I had to convert it from an academic text to a book meant for public reading.
- Any social causes that you have dabbled in or are dear to you?
I was a trustee at the Manovikas English Public School. At present I am a trustee of the Silver Star Appeal which is an International NGO which works for raising awareness about diabetics. We conducted many camps in Quepem College as well as many other places in the rest of Goa. Amitabh Bachan and Keith Vaz are the patrons of this organisation.
At present I am the Convenor of the Tribal Development Committee of Quepem College. We have submitted many projects but the unavailability of students has robbed us of the joy to implement most of these skill based proposals. We are working at present on a twenty -five lakhs sponsored project in collaboration with the Tribal Welfare Dept. and the Directorate of Higher Education on, ‘Tribal Cuisine of Goa’.
I have worked as an external member on Committees against Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace in many local educational and social institutions of Goa. Have also delivered public lectures on topics of historical importance at many institutions like the Institute Menezes Bragança, Panjim, Xavier Centre of Historical Research, Porvorim, Goa Science Centre, Miramar and many colleges of Goa. I pen my perspectives on historical personalities and events in the history of Goa, in the local press. Often these articles are my perspectives on questions raised in the public sphere like the most recent was on; the political compulsions that made Pandit Nehru take 14 long years to take the decision to send the Indian army to liberate Goa.
- Was balancing between a home and a career a cakewalk or did you face any hurdles or difficulties? Tell us something about your husband Adv. Cleofato Almeida Coutinho and his influence on your life, and not to forget your daughter Sohani and Naheera?
For a working woman balancing a home and a career is never a cake walk. When the children are small, all the leave is saved as it may be required, as and when the kids fell sick. I am lucky to have my husband’s sister Sisera who has supported me when the rest of the family has been busy, like accompanying me in the important milestones of my life like submission of my Ph.D degree or even submission of my papers for Professorship. Life becomes easier for a working woman with a supportive in law at home.
I am fortunate that unlike the other girls of Assolna, Velim & Cuncolim, I did not end up getting married to a rich person but a hardworking and educated individual. Unlike Cleo, I was never an academic achiever in school or college, the furthest I reached was topping the class in History or English. It has been a long partnership of over forty decades and has therefore withstood the test of time. I must admit it is his intelligence and logical reasoning that has helped me see things in the right perspective when in doubt. His clarity of thought is much better than mine. Strong willed and independent minded professional women are not easy to handle on a day to today basis, and I’m sure that there were and will be moments when he would like to throw up his hands but cleverly substitutes it with a silent smile. It was with his and his sister’s encouragement that I could stay in Portugal and U.K for long durations to do research for my thesis.
On my return, Sohani our eldest was in Std. XII and Naheera in Std X. Our girls have never troubled us either in their academics, or with their eating habits – as is the bane of most parents. Today, as engineers they are my helpline to learn and adapt to the new technology of the day and as graduates from the Goa Institute of Management, parenting roles seem to have reversed as I often find myself consulting them on many issues, whenever I need an unbiased opinion.
- Tell us your experiences teaching Quepem students. Any lively anecdote?
The majority of our students are first generation learners and unlike most students of the urban colleges, there is already the fire in the belly to learn and be somebody in life. Most have studied in the village Marathi or Konkani medium primary schools and therefore though above average in intelligence are poor in expression in the English language. The challenge therefore lies in teaching history in English and motivating them sufficiently to secure a good grade which is so important for them to open doors to a good career.
Thirty years back one of my very hardworking student got tuberculosis while in TYBA. He had no financial or family support. I remember walking to Dr. Maxmiano (Chest Specialist) house and requesting him for help. He was completely cured and requested me to raise the toast for his wedding and is today a tall leader of his own community, a social activist, and a professional as well as an author of books on anthropology. Witnessing the growth and development of my students as community leaders is a great feeling.
Another anecdote is of a day when one of my final year students was involved in a physical fight. I managed to stop the fight and then requested him to sit in the staff room facing the wall. Here was an adult young man with a beard sitting there while lecturer’s took their lecturers and returned back. After two hours I gently chided him that students of Quepem College should never use their hands to settle scores, for this method of solving problems did not require a college education. Today he is one of the many who are still in contact with me and are to date my cheerleaders in life.
- You have come to the fag end of your teaching career and the next year you will superannuate. How do you look forward to your future, your plans for the future, research, social work etc.?
I do have plans for research – in the pipeline are two books, one on my people of Assolna, Velim and Cuncolim and the second on my late father Adv. Luis Mendes. I hope to put my LLB degree to better use (so far I have co-authored a booklet with my student in Konkani Devnagari on ‘Women and Law’) and with more time at hand I would like to start a prison mission or join a group already working for this purpose. I was one of the founder members of Bailancho Saad, but academics sadly took over a passion which I need to revive, as gender equity is a subject close to my heart. I have a strong desire to return back to society what I have gained from it especially at the post retirement stage of my life – the road map of this I need to carefully chart out in the next one year depending on my health and my family commitments.
- My last question to you Madam is what is your message to young girls and boys and especially to women on 8th March, International Women’s Day. Wishing you the best for all your future endeavours.
In the village that I come from or rather in most of the villages of Goa, there seems to be a trend for the young boys to give up education and work on the ship or in the gulf. Building a ghoranidhurig (house and a boundary wall) is still the ultimate for our young boys. Young educated girls marry boys of this mind-set and these results in unequal matches. It is important to study, to reap rich dividends and grow up in life. I am not against anybody taking up gainful employment, but am troubled when education is abandoned so early in life for easy money and the flowering of young minds get stultified.
Respecting all relationships and working hard to make them work is important for the healthy growth of the family and community. Young girls need to be work towards financial independence throughout their lives – Respect comes only to those who are educated and independent themselves, only then can they help others. Most important however is to maintain a healthy lifestyle and positive attitude towards oneself and others.
I thank, ‘Business Goa’, once again for this honour and I wish this magazine all the very best.