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In Memoriam


(17 January 1935 – 29 September 2021)

a woman for all seasons

by Mohamed M Keshavjee, International Cross-Cultural Specialist on Mediation, Lawyer, Author and Mediator

During the years 1962-1965 when I was a student at the newly-built Aga Khan High School in Nairobi, each morning some 400 students of all age groups, both boys and girls, would file out of an octagonal-shaped assembly hall marching in unison to the piano music played by a young drama teacher, Amy Patel. Amy had joined the academic staff a few months earlier as a Drama and English language teacher in charge of the library. During these morning assembly sessions, Amy regaled us all with songs such as Vic Damone's classic “My heart has many dreams”, Gerardo Matos Roderiguez’s famous tango, “La Cumparsita” and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Getting to Know You” from their 1956 award-winning musical “The King and I.” It was Amy’s dream to make sure that each one of us during our stay in the high school would have at least one opportunity of being on stage, regardless of how insignificant the part was that we were going to play. As is turned out to be, Amy spent the next 10 years of her working life making that dream come true. She worked tirelessly to make sure that our education did not lack in this one important aspect.

Born in Karachi, (then British India) on 17 January 1935, Amy was the eldest of four girls, daughter of Eracshaw Dossabhai Patel of Bombay and his wife Khorshed (nee Kabraji) of Karachi, scion of the Kabraji clan of Pakistan well known for their prowess in writing, comedy and drama. Amy’s parents were immigrants to the British Protectorate of Uganda, her father having been sponsored for immigration by the leading Indian entrepreneur, Damji Kara Sidpra, into whose employ he entered as an engineer. After a few years, Eracshaw joined the colonial civil service as an engineer and was closely involved with the construction of the Murchison Falls Dam. Amy was always a diligent student and at a young age showed an inclination for the arts and more particularly English literature and drama.

On completion of her senior Cambridge, Amy was sent to India to study at Bombay’s St Xavier’s College. There she attained a first-class honours degree in English, Art and Drama. She then went to England where she gained an MA degree in English Literature and Drama from the University of London. She also attained a Certificate of Excellence in Piano and Orchestra from the Royal College of Music. On completing her studies, Amy returned to Uganda and took up a position at the Aga Khan Primary School in Kampala from 1956-1960. During this time, she also went to Hong Kong for two years where she worked as a teacher teaching English Literature and Drama.

It was in 1962 that Amy left Uganda to come to the Aga Khan High School in Nairobi where she spent the next 10 years of her working life. Her recruitment was part of the remit that the Aga Khan gave to the then Administrator of [Ismaili] Education in Kenya, Vazir Jimmy Verjee, to ensure that the newly established school’s human resources matched the architectural excellence of its building. Nestled in acres of beautiful green fields, the new school was an architectural splendour and on a clear day one could see the snow-capped peak of Mount Kenya some 100 miles away in the Aberdare Forest.

Amy the Primary School teacher in Uganda

It was in the unfolding of 'the vision of the Aga Khan IV that Amy, like many other teachers in the Aga Khan School system, made such a sterling contribution. Being in the humanities, in retrospect, Amy’s contribution was seminal as with the passage of time it would show the role that drama was going to play in people’s lives and in their search for meaning.

Amy, as mentioned earlier, was teaching in the Aga Khan Primary School in Kampala. According to Muslim Harji, one of the grade four students of her class in 1958,

“she positively influenced my life for the better. She introduced me to Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn… I have always been telling this to my children. [Her death] for me is a very sad event …”

It was during the Aga Khan IV's visit to Kampala in 1962 to mark the opening of the Assembly Hall of the Aga Khan school that His Highness sat through Amy’s production of “Oh Rosalinda”. He then decided to request her to go to Nairobi and teach at the newly established Aga Khan High School in Kenya.

According to Nzeera Ketter (née Umedaly), originally of Uganda:

Ours was the first generation to bridge the gap between our very Indian culture and integrate it, without losing any of it, into the modern world that we were going to inherit”.

Nzeera and her friends, who adored Amy’s teaching and mentoring as primary school children wrote a book of poems to her. Amy immediately spotted their talent and enlisted them and their whole class in writing and play acting the musical drama “Oh Rosalinda” which was an adaptation of the ballet Coppélia by Delibes which was being staged for the opening of the new Assembly Hall by the Aga Khan. “We made the scenery, the costumes, and did all the planning and music and ended an unforgettable term in primary school. This prepared us for more adventure and exploration in high school.” For Nzeera and her friends

“Amy’s gift to us was that of what a fertile imagination can do to open up the mind and, as a result, our cohort of students worldwide have had a most adventurous and productive life”.

By performing just a few plays in Kampala, Amy was able to touch a whole generation of students. What was awaiting Nairobi was a series of plays that would change the destiny of many more students and of a school that was to become a leading contestant in the Kenya Drama Festivals in the years to come.

Amy in Kenya

Amy’s arrival in Kenya coincided with the school’s need to raise funds for its swimming pool. Ever ready to throw her lot in, Amy decided to write a play and open it to the public. Here she had a bevy of untapped talent to draw upon from all age groups and all in the secondary stream. According to Zuleikha (Zulli) Karnik (née Tejpar), Senior Prefect and House Captain at the time, now based in New Delhi,

“Within 6 weeks, Amy put on a big and beautiful musical show called ‘The Isle of Mauna Kea’, a play based in Hawaii and had almost the whole school involved in it. In just a few shows which were open to the public we raised 70% of the costs and managed to secure a grant for the remaining 30%. Amy and her team worked tirelessly night and day and soon we had our Olympic-sized swimming pool all ready with the children competing in inter-school swimming contests on a national basis.”

Amy was a determined soul who, when she took on something, saw it through till the end with an assiduity of purpose. She loved drama and music and instilled a love for both in all those who she encountered.

Amy’s repertoire of plays was large and eclectic and during her years in the Aga Khan schools she put on a number of plays. No one has an exact count but students from all around the world remember a part they had played, or an incident associated with the play. Often it was humorous. For Ramzan Abdula, now a medical doctor in Saskatchewan in Canada,

“I played the chief Papagallo of the Hawaiian island of Mauna Kea”, while for Zaher Meghji Ahamed who was among the first few students from the school to leave for further studies in the USA, Amy assigned the role of a swooner singing “Yellowbird”, a song by which he is still remembered today. For Rehman Hajee, now based in Vancouver Canada, it was producing the sound effects of some of the plays that were entered in the Kenya Drama Festival in 1965, where he also played the role of the mayor in a play called “The Mayor of Torontal” produced by Amy’s colleague, Douglas Ife, a literature teacher in the upper forms and working under Amy’s overall direction.

No one was too insignificant in Amy’s scheme of things. For Gulam Harji, now a retired engineer in Texas,

“I could not sing but Amy placed me in a chorus of bandits in ‘Fiesta’ where we had to sport longer sideburns than the chief of the bandits.”

Gulam with his long sideburns was on a bus to downtown Nairobi one day when he was set upon by four toughies who roughed him up for being a wannabee. He was able to fight them back and on relating his experience to Amy was rewarded for his courage and promoted to being in charge of the artwork for the props. For “Fiesta”, Amy had Azim Noordeen Datoo, now a lawyer in Victoria, Canada, paint the large mural forming the backdrop. The entire Assembly Hall looked like an Andalusian village, resplendent with colour.

Amy’s greatest strength was her sense of inclusivity. She extracted the hidden talent that lay dormant in each of the students she taught and made them all love the arts. Amy taught students to read but not reading by rote but reading within the spirit of the very first verse of the Revelation which says “Read! Read in the name of your Lord who created. He created man from a clot.” Q (96:1; 96:2). Amy taught us to read and to read aloud but with a view to reading human nature through drama, through music, through good literature and through art.

Amy was creative and her repertoire was vast and eclectic. According to Gulbanoo (Almas) Abdulla now based in Calgary, Canada, and who played a spinster called Miss Prudence in one of Amy’s plays where she wore Amy’s smart woollen grey suit with a beautiful blue and white brooch,

“Amy was super creative. She trained us for elocution and poetry contests, played the piano, created her own lyrics and songs, and got us to perform to our heart’s content. It was just wonderful.”

For Sadick Keshavjee, who provided the musical accompaniment in most of her plays by way of drums, bongos and casternets.

“Amy gave the school a dramatic personality which distinguished it from all the other schools in Kenya at a very critical point in Kenya’s post-independence years. The school began to excel in a number of fields-debating, oratory, sports, mountaineering and swimming. Amy’s presence in this overall blossoming was ubiquitous.”

It was Amy’s creative genius that appealed to the students, and she got them involved in all areas of production. According to Gulbanoo:

''“she was ingenious in giving her own hilarious twist to Shakespeare’s plays. In “Romeo and Juliet”, she had my sister Laila play Juliet which ended in a hilarious incident. Laila as Juliet called out from the balcony to her Romeo (Salim Merali) who was singing on his guitar “Come outside, there’s a lovely moon up there!” Laila, in response climbed on a table from a chair behind a curtain in her high heel court shoes, calling out “Romeo, Romeo where art thou?” Suddenly the table started shaking and Juliet in a romantic frenzy lost her balance and fell flat on the stage. The audience broke out into laughter. Juliet died having committed ‘suicide’ by falling off the balcony with Romeo rushing to her side and on seeing his beloved dead pierced his heart with a dagger and dramatically fell on Juliet’s shoulder”.

In “Midsummer Night’s Dream” Amy got one of the girls, Laila again, to play the part of a wall through which the lovers express their romantic love. Laila was asked to hold up two fingers of both hands to form a V shape through which the two lovers could connect with each other. According to Gulbanoo:

“it was hilarious to see two lovers expressing their love through the four fingers representing a hole in the wall.”

As time went by, students themselves took the liberty to add their own lines to those of Shakespeare. In one skit from “Fiesta”, based on Romeo and Juliet, the lead actor (Diamond Esmail) speaks to the dead Juliet (Ghazala Chisti) covered in a shroud, and asks rhetorically, “Sorry, oh Juliet, why art thou so beautiful, corpse?” To everybody’s surprise and the audience’s outburst of laughter the body in the shroud moved and answered, “Because I use Pond’s Cream!” Amy found this absolutely hilarious and decided to keep that line in the play.

Students of all age groups remember Amy fondly till this day. For Gul Root (née Virani) a pharmacist based in London, England:

“Through all her productions, Amy not only taught us a great deal about drama but allowed us to have great fun. She was a fun-loving teacher that has left us with amazing memories… I can just see her smiling at us from wherever she is.

For Zeenat Saleh (née Tejpar) based in Besançon, France and a lead actor in ‘Fiesta’:

"Amy played the piano beautifully and we all gathered around her and were mesmerised by her extraordinary talent and her ability to get the best out of us.I was a complete drama addict and besides going to the National Theatre to audition for any small part, I would make sure to audition for all the plays Amy was putting on. Amy was a perfectionist. She made us rehearse a part over and over gain until we got it perfect. She made us work hard but her service was selfless. She made our school years the happiest of our lives.”

Amy’s Legacy

Amy brought fun to the lives of all the students in the school. Her unique contribution was in introducing all the students to a new horizon which was outside their daily experience as an Indian diasporic community in colonial Africa. She did this through an eclectic choice of materials ranging from Cole Porter, Maurice Chevalier, Sigmund Romberg, Rodgers and Hammerstein to Jean Anouilh, Sophocles, Kalidasa and Shakespeare. She took students to plays in Nairobi at the Donovan Maule Theatre, obtained tickets for them to visit the museum, made them visit the libraries and got them to perform in the Drama Festivals each year, hitherto a preserve of the European schools in the ex-colony. In the process she made the Aga Khan School Nairobi a serious contestant in the annual Drama Festivals where they often bagged the top prizes.

According to Antonio Monteiro of Toronto, Canada, Amy’s colleague and one of the few teachers from that small group still alive today:

“Amy was a dedicated individual who spent very little time in the staff room. She spent all her free time helping students. She was full of joy and happiness and her happiness was infectious. A truly talented individual, she put the school on the map in Kenya as a leading contender in the drama scene in the country. No doubt, an unforgettable individual.”

Amy Remembered

Amy’s contribution will be remembered by many for years to come. No story of Ismaili education in post-independence East Africa can be complete without her mention. To her family, made up of her three loving sisters Roxy, Meher and Shehn and former husband Rasik Shah and children Jahan and Meera and all spouses, children and grandchildren, the sentiments about her are beautifully captured in a poem written by her nephew, Omar Talib called Aunt Amy.

It reads:

Aunt Amy

Thousands of you know this great lady
To me she is simply my Aunty Amy.
Brilliant smile and bouncy step
Bubbling wit and shining pep.

Her tiny hands sent Steinways to shiver
And the very same fingers sewed coats from a sliver
From eye popping lampshades to billowing gowns
And brilliant theatrics that left you spellbound

Brilliant braider of fabric and story
Time with Aunt Amy was always a glory
Ice cold milkshakes spiked with kahlua
Singing and laughing and utter hoopla.
Enchanting evenings with chitter and chatter
Delightful days with looms of laughter

You held the helm of all this happiness
Thank you and thank you
For leaving your compass.

In my heart you remain
Always the same
Gypsy frocks and
knitted socks

Where the wind blows
Your spirit will flow
I will not cry
It isn’t goodbye.

For the countless students whose hearts Amy touched during the decade and a half she was with the Aga Khan Schools in Kampala and Nairobi, the message is:

Dear Amy,

As Khalil Gibran so beautifully said:

“No man can reveal to you aught but that which lies asleep already in the dawning of your knowledge.” You walked in “the shadow of the temple” among your followers and gave not of your wisdom but rather of your faith and your lovingness. In your wisdom you did not bid us to enter the house of wisdom, but rather you led us to the threshold of our own minds. In the process as each one of us stands alone in God’s knowledge, so must each one of us be alone in our knowledge of God and our understanding of this earth."

To you Amy, we remain eternally grateful for what you did for us. What you had, you gave, what you could, you did.

And in the process, you showed us all what love could do in our long journey in trying to understand the true meaning of life through the education we received.

Rest in Peace Amy for our love too is with you.

A Photo Legacy Of Amy Patel and Her Students