An inspiring figure

Shekhar Pai, fondly called Pai sir, resembled Santa Claus in his love for children.

The rich aroma of freshly brewed filter coffee assailed your nostrils as soon as you stepped through the gate. This was the South India Club in Kolkata in the seventies. The canteen was famous for its delicious idli-sambar and filter coffee. The club library, though a modest one, housed books in all the four South Indian languages and English. Members played badminton outdoors and table tennis, carom, chess and bridge indoors. The most attractive feature of the club was its children’s hobby centre. 

The children’s hobby centre was run by a Shekhar Pai who had two great loves—science and children. He combined his two loves to start his hobby centre for children. Children were encouraged to take apart gadgets to study how the parts worked, to find out why something was not working and how to repair it. He also taught them basic carpentry skills like the right way to hammer nails, how to use a saw and fret saw etc.

Shekhar Pai, who was fondly called Pai sir by the children was, in his own description, “six feet tall and six feet wide.” He had a thick white moustache and an enormous belly and resembled Santa Claus in his deep love of children and in his booming laugh. He was a teacher like no other. He never rebuked any child for not understanding or for making any mistake. While most children have nicknames for their teachers, sir had nicknames for his children. He used to affectionately call my brothers Big Goof and Small Goof. He was very patient and gave the children the best things any adult can give -- time and attention. His speciality was encouraging the children to make working scientific models from waste materials.

One day he asked one of my brothers --then about twelve years old -- to repair his record player. My brother replaced the defective parts in the player head and proudly told sir that he had repaired it. But when the player was turned on, it didn’t work. My brother was aghast that he had spoilt sir’s player. Pai sir was aware that the child was on the wrong track but he had allowed him to go ahead so that he would not forget the mistake. My brother had replaced the piezo electric pieces with plastic ones so of course they did not function. A new player head had to be bought costing over a hundred rupees (a large sum in those days) which sir paid for. Pai sir did not scold or punish him for the mistake.

Under his guidance, the elder of my brothers made a coffee machine at the age of sixteen entirely with waste material. This was entered in the All Bengal Science Exhibition that year and won the first prize. This was a glorious moment for all of us, the hobby centre and Pai sir. Sadly, Pai sir moved with his family to Hyderabad a couple of years later and the children’s hobby centre closed forever.

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