A small step, a great stride

It would be a daunting task if one has to write about Bluebell Marbaniang Wason without knowing her personally or even meeting her. She was an enigma and there is no one word to define her aura. This article is an audacious attempt to draw the contours of a larger-than-life personality based on anecdotes and memories shared by family members.

Marbaniang was the founder of the city-based Step By Step School and the fact is well-known. But what many do not know is that she left an indelible mark on those whose lives she touched. The school started in 1978 when Marbaniang and her husband, AK Wason, returned to Shillong from West Bengal. “As we now know, the school started small, in an exploratory way, with a smattering of students, before blossoming over the years into the mighty institution,” said author Nina Harkness, Marbaniang’s daughter.

Nangkyntiew Marbaniang was overwhelmed while talking about her grandmother and her dedication to the school. A humble Assam-type structure at Barik was where the school started. It was also the family home. “I remember how she worked all day in the school. It was a homely atmosphere and I became friends with many children in her class,” reminisced Nangkyntiew.

The school had, and still has, students from all strata of the society and Marbaniang, being a true teacher, was “proud of it”. Many parents came to her with the request to admit their wards in the school but Marbaniang had to decline several times considering space constraint. At the same time, she would walk an extra mile to admit special children, or children with disabilities, in the school and take them under her care. “She made sure that the special children got special care and she taught them personally,” Nangkyntiew, who was a child herself at that time, recollected.

As an educationist, Marbaniang was a visionary. She laid down guidelines which have come to define new-age pre-primary education. Nangkyntiew said her grandmother believed that toddlers should not be burdened with books and should be allowed to play and learn through various activities. “It was, and is still, mandatory for teachers at Step By Step to undergo training in teaching toddlers. Now, we have play schools. But she envisioned it in the seventies,” she said.

Not surprising as Marbaniang was “ahead of her times”.

“My mother was a strong, driven woman who knew her mind and was not afraid to speak it, not unusual these days but she was ahead of her times in that aspect. She was bold and adventurous and willing to explore new pastures. As a young woman and mother of young children, she had no idea that she would one day become a pillar of society and a leading educator,” said Harkness, who communicated with Sunday Chimes via email.

In fact, Marbaniang was the first to introduce Bharat Scouts and Guides in the state. As an educationist, she wanted a holistic development of her students and encouraged them to participate in sports and other extra-curricular activities. “My mother played golf and tennis as a young wife in the tea garden clubs. She was not really a sportswoman, although she did pass a love of sport to me. She enjoyed watching football matches and the story goes that as a young teacher she would go to football matches carrying her own little stool,” recollected Harkness.

Marbaniang not only influenced lives but changed identities too. “She renamed so many children in the town,” Nangkyntiew laughed and narrated the stories. “Anyone who would come with their wards and give weird names that she did not like, she would suggest a name to the parents. That way, you know, she renamed so many children.”

Before coming back to Shillong, Marbaniang, who grew up in Mawkhar, taught at Mount Hermon School in Darjeeling, West Bengal. It was there that she fell in love with Wason, a Punjabi army man, and married him. “Our family has fond memories of Darjeeling and my brother Brij and I were both born in the Planter’s Nursing Home there. She was a teacher in Mount Hermon when she met and fell in love with a dashing young planter, Ash Wason. She left Mount Hermon to join him as his wife in the tea gardens but returned in later years to facilitate the education of her three young children. I was sent to boarding school at the age of four, so eager was she that I be adequately educated,” Harkness remembered.

“Their love story is depicted in one of my novels, A Sahib’s Daughter, and also in a play I wrote for Step By Step School entitled The Key was In My Hand and performed at Soso Tham on the occasion of her 90th birthday,” she added.

The couple, in the photographs which were shared by the family, looked perfect and deep in love. And it is this compassion and dedication that helped Marbaniang to carry on with her work. “My grandfather would take care of the administrative side as she sweated over other aspects of the school,” said the granddaughter, who was preparing the ground to share more about the woman who influenced her life and being.

“Mei (mother in English. This is how she referred to Marbaniang) was mischievous, quite unknown to the outside world,” Nangkyntiew said. During the family scrabble sessions, “she would come up with words which did not exist and grandfather, who was equally well-read, would find it out”. Both Marbaniang and Wason were “social butterflies” and loved inviting people.

“I was in Delhi pursuing higher studies, and on my birthdays, she invited guests to celebrate here in Shillong. Imagine! I was sitting alone in an unknown city and she was celebrating my birthday with friends and family! She loved people,” reminisced Nangkyntiew.

Marbaniang was the daughter of a tea planter and later became the wife of a tea planter. Hence, environment and the local ecology played a big role in her life. Water conservation was her concern. She made sure that the rain water is conserved for gardening and other purposes at home and put emphasis on conservation even in the school.

Nangkyntiew remembered how her grandmother would direct her to collect water from the rain pipe and use them for watering the plants and cleaning the toilets.
“She was very independent and wanted to inculcate the same qualities in me. She pushed me to take up various tasks and, especially, do my chores. I am what I am today because of her,” said the granddaughter, who is a mother of two and runs a business based in Delhi.

Marbaniang can well be “the lady with the lamp” in the modern era. She not only tried to inculcate the best qualities in the society but also inspired many to be the change. Even at 81, she would actively take part in school functions and socialise.
The granddaughter was lost for words when she tried to describe her energy at an age when most people would go senile. “I remember she was at the helm of affairs even at 81. She always said, ‘I am still learning’, that was so inspiring and got me going. Now, I feel that to follow in her footsteps, I have so much to learn too,” she said.

As her daughter, Harkness said she was deeply influenced by her mother’s strict moral compass and strong work ethic. “This moral compass was developed by her abiding influence and reinforced in the Christian Boarding School where she taught and where I received my education, Mount Hermon. I’m told that I also have something of her strength, resolution and sensitivity. She cared deeply about what people thought of her although she was never afraid to be herself.”

Indeed, Marbaniang was not afraid of anything, and hence, she could face challenges with aplomb, the school being the biggest one. She believed that ‘small is beautiful’ and she maintained the school, which has a new building now, for primary students.
Marbaniang died on January 2 at the age of 92. “Age was never a deterrence and she was active till the end. I think there must be a continuity in her action and I will try to maintain it,” said Nangkyntiew.

The enigma continues even after her death. “She was an angel to me who was always there to help and support in my endeavours,” said Uma Purkayasthya, another elderly educationist who knew Marbaniang closely.

For the rest of the family, she left behind an eternal void. Her exuberance, charisma and energy were unprecedented. “It’s been less than a week since she passed away. I can’t take it in. Her presence was a bright beam of light that guided, inspired and dazzled all who knew her. I have been inundated with tributes to her from around the world: ex-students, teachers, planters and friends old and new. I can’t thank you enough for these messages of love and encouragement. They were such a comfort to me during the dark hours following her death. I can’t believe that she is gone. I know she was ill and weak and it was inevitable but somehow I thought she would live forever. In my mind she will for I will never be able to erase the memory of her being from my heart,” said Harkness.

Marbaniang will live forever, through her works and ideology.

~ NM