Remembering John Mason — teacher, mentor, symbol of Anglo-Indian excellence

For John Mason, education was not a profession, it was a calling

In a world of unnecessary divides and social media arguments, few emotions unite us more than childhood memories of a beloved teacher. When John Anthony Mason passed away at 78, the outpouring of grief and warm messages from a cross-section of our society — from people who were generations removed, had never met each other, and had perhaps not met “Mr Mason” in years — was as beautiful as it was humbling. John Mason, “Uncle John” to me, lived a good life; more than that, he touched innumerable lives in so many good ways.

John Mason was the quintessential school teacher and headmaster — a real-life Mr Chips who also reported a happy and fulfilling family, married to Anjali (Sapru) and the father of Neel and Dia. For me, he was an affectionate and adopted younger brother to my father Neil, with whom he shared so much. He was a star student at La Martiniere in Kolkata, famously winning the Good Conduct Medal in his final year and conforming then and for the rest of his life to the principles of an honourable schoolboy.

After graduating with an MA in English Literature from Jadavpur University, he returned to his alma mater to become a much-loved teacher of English, a mentor in a range of extra-curricular activities, ranging from debating to dramatics, writing textbooks to quizzing. My Martinian friends call him the finest principal La Martiniere never had. His old school’s loss was St James’ gain.

St James’ was not counted as among Kolkata’s top-rung schools when John Mason joined it as principal in 1978. In a few short years, he transformed it into a beacon of academic and all-around excellence. Well before he left in 1990 it had become the school parents would prioritise for their sons. John Mason saw education as holistic, realising, for instance, that theatre was important to give a child confidence, performing and speaking before an audience, a love for language, a deep dive into the subject of the individual play, a sense of logistics, management, and ownership.

He didn’t just watch from the wings, he was part of the process. When the Red Curtain Theatre Company chose to perform Shakespeare’s Richard III, John Mason was the natural choice. Not only did he do the role with aplomb, St James’ became the happy rehearsal spot for many theatre luminaries. Soon St James’ annual plays set the standard for Kolkata’s school musicals. As Sumit and Katy Lai Roy put it, “John Mason changed the world of theatre in Kolkata.” He embedded it in school culture.

For the sheer accretion at St James’, I regard this as John Mason’s greatest achievement. Few individuals can inspire and turn around an institution in the manner he did. As Saurav Chatterjee, an old pupil, and Mason mentee, now a sports entrepreneur told me, “Mr Mason not only transformed a school but also helped us confused and troubled souls realise our potential and take on challenges that life presented. He always believed in giving his students the freedom to express themselves and choose their paths.” For Uncle John, education was not a profession, it was a calling.

From Kolkata, John Mason moved to Dubai, as principal of Modern High School, run by the Varkey Group. He was there from 1991 to 1996 and played a key role in my early career as a professional quizmaster. One day, he phoned me and invited me to conduct my first quiz outside India. In that avuncular fashion that was ever so gentle, but also an indication that he had decided for me, he said, “Listen, you need to come here. You need some international exposure.”

Uncle John was at the airport. He drove me to his house, where Aunty Anjoo made me comfortable. I will always remember what he told me after the quiz: “There are two types of people who come to Dubai to perform. Ones whose careers are on the way up — they come here before they become famous. And then there are those who are past their prime and winding down. Obviously, at 30, you are in the first category. We’ll watch out for you!” It was his way of blessing me.

From Dubai, he went to Dehradun, as headmaster of Doon School. Given the high-profile alumni, the pressures there were of a different order. John Mason was an “outsider”, not a Dosco either as an old boy or as a teacher. Yet, diligence, sincerity, and sheer goodness made him a success. He gave Doon his all, and it embraced him right back. No wonder so many people in so many cities and from so many schools and backgrounds felt a tug when they heard John Mason had left our world. Bunny Suraiya, the wife of perhaps Uncle John’s oldest friend and schoolmate Jug, put it poignantly, “Missing him already … Christmas will never be the same.”

India’s school system has been built by the grit and commitment of many teachers, administrators, and educationists from all states, sections, and religions. It is a matter of pride for our community that, despite the tiny numbers, our country’s Christians and specifically Anglo-Indians have contributed disproportionately. Somewhere in the Happy Classroom in the Sky, John Mason, Frank Anthony, Neil O’Brien and many other cherished names of Christian education will raise a toast to protect, preserve and grow India’s great educational institutions run by a minuscule minority.

[This article appeared in The Indian Express | Tuesday, February 21, 2023]