A Son Remembers His Father

Amit Shah



Amit Shah is a semi-retired publishing executive and owner of Green Comma, a service company for education and social-impact nonprofits. He lives in Somerville, MA, with his wife, Pam, and three cats.

Editor's note: His story about his mother is available here.

What he achieved

My father, Amal Shah, born on September 23, 1917, was an educationist, specializing in the education of the visually handicapped. He was the principal of the Calcutta Blind School, which had been founded by his grandfather, Lal Behari Shah, as one of the first three educational institutions for the blind in India in the late 19th century.

Amal formed the first scout troop for the blind in Asia in the 1930s. One of the scouts later became the principal of the school in the 1980s. The troop won the Jackson Shield competition in Bengal in the late 1930s\; the first non-sighted troop to do so. He received a British-Indian award, Kaiser-i-Hind, in 1942 for his work with the blind.

In 1939, he won a scholarship to Teachers College, Columbia University, where he received certification for various aspects of teaching the visually handicapped.

My father, age 23, 1940, at the Eastman Kodak pavilion of the New York World’s Fair.
This Fair is considered by cultural historians to be the telescoping of what the material future of the world was going to be according to the US. It was right after the Depression and before the US entry into WW2. It turned out to be pretty accurate in terms of consumer goods and a dismal swamp for the community of nations.

He later parlayed his contacts in the United States to form an Indo-American aid society for the blind in India. This group raised funds for the Calcutta Blind School and provided the muscle to bring one of the first Braille printing presses to India in the early 1950s. In 1960, a Braille library was inaugurated in Calcutta and that structure is today used for digital Braille translations and on-demand printing.

Throughout the 1950s, Amal was a whirlwind of activity for educational issues affecting the blind in India. He was a founding member of the Bengal branch of the National Association of the Blind (NAB)\; an advisor to governments in Pakistan and Nepal and led Indian delegations to UNESCO and world congresses in 1952, 1954 and 1956.

In 1961, Amal was awarded a Padma Shri for his life's work. He retired in 1967, suffering from multiple heart attacks and diabetes that was untreated till his mid-thirties. He passed away in 1983.

Amal and Amit 3 years old
Amal Shah in centre with his son, who was three or four, in 1953-54.

Amal Shah with family and car

Amal on left, son Amit, daughter Swapna, wife Aruna at Calcutta Botanical Gardens in 1956.

My memories

The old man is really old. 99 today. Good gracious!  It's been 33 years since he died. He was 66. I was 33 then. I am 66 now.

He and I are tethered. Not oppressively any more, though that was the case for decades.

He was a gifted man. Gifted in his determination to get things done. Gifted in connecting with people and making them feel at ease. Gifted at wading into a crowd and making himself at home.

He was a stupendously difficult and flawed man. My mouth runs dry at the ways he fell short.

His footprints on his career, his life's work, his public experiences and rewards were enormous.

His effect on his children, his wife, and his closest in-laws was at times cyclonic and dark as the darkest night.

Today, I think I understand him more than anyone (other than my mother) else ever did. It wasn't always so. It is now.

The years of comparing my life to his are over. I am today my parents' child. The good, the bad and the ugly. It took a lifetime to sort all that out, and it still is a journey. No longer a dusty road but a path in the woods with surprising clearings along the way.

I often think: What would he have done? And tell myself, Don't do that!

But more often, I think: Do exactly that -be brave, be bold, be loving, give more than you receive, talk to people.


© Amit Shah 2016

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