When I think of the grand manner in which 5th September, the Teachers’ Day is celebrated now, I feel sad for the teachers in our school days. Back then, beyond a hand-made card there was little more that we could give our teachers on this day to express our love and respect for them. Teachers’ Day would come and pass without any fanfare.
Our teachers were fairly well educated, and some of them, with a bit of luck, would have done any university faculty proud. There surely were some who weren’t up to the mark. They, however, made up for their deficiency in teaching skills by a liberal use of the power of their lungs and, on occasions, fists.
The paltry salary that a teacher earned those days was utterly insufficient for him to live in dignity with his family. Tuitions were nowhere near the money-spinning enterprises they are today.
In fact, when in an essay on “My Aim in Life” a fellow student expressed his true intent to become a teacher when he grew up, a teacher advised him to think harder as that vocation won’t get him enough for a decent life. No wonder, therefore, we would sometimes be at the receiving end of their frustration with life.
Still it goes to their credit that at the end of a decade most of us would successfully leave the school with memories to be cherished for the rest of our lives. One such memory is of the best teacher I ever had in all my life.
I first saw him on the day of my admission to the school. For whatever reason, my surname was spelt wrongly in the list of applicants. This could lead to my exclusion from the admission test. Not that I was too bothered . Those days there was hardly any rat race for admission to ‘good schools’. Even I, therefore, would have landed in one stable or the other. However, I was destined to join this school.
In the midst of the confusion my surname had created, a person of average height, wearing a crisp ochre -coloured kurta over his dhoti entered the scene. On hearing what the issue was, he asked one gentleman – I later learnt that he was a messenger – to go into the waiting room and find out if any other boy with my name and surname was waiting to be called in. As the report was in the negative, the mistake was corrected, and I was admitted after the usual test.
Thus began my very own “tryst” with destiny and with the Teacher. The more I got to know him, the more I got attracted to him. This was hardly an experience that only I had. I am sure all my school mates of those days would say in unison that he indeed was a teacher par excellence.
He taught Sanskrit to the young students – from the Third to the Eighth grade. Our class came under his tutelage from the Third Grade, when he taught us the basics of the Sanskrit grammar. And how the sapless Upakramanika would become the sweetest and easiest of all subjects as he explained the “sutras” or the formulae. Though much of it has now faded from memory due to disuse, the language has remained a favourite.
He never raised his voice even once during the long years that I saw him teaching in our school. Any form of coercive punishment had no place in his class. Yet, even when he would just walk down the corridor, even the most talkative of us would fall silent. Our respect for him was profound and spontaneous. At the same time he was not indulgent of our misdeeds or a “buddy” to anyone.
The magic perhaps lay in his personality that exuded his love for the boys, which they reciprocated in equal measure. Once, when one of my class mates became too ill to attend school for several weeks, the Teacher took us along to his home to enquire after his wellbeing. I remember that we had taken along some fruits for our ailing friend. As I think of this one incident I feel how fortunate we were to have such a teacher.
On most days he would keep aside the last five minutes of the prescribed forty for the class to tell us some story. Whether it was a story from the epics or just a description of some experience of his, the entire class would marvel at his ability to make the scene alive what with an occasional flourish of his hands, or modulation of his deep voice.
It may now sound unbelievable, but it was at the Second Grade that we were first introduced to Sanskrit in our school. We studied the Chanakya Sloka in the Second and Third grades and a bit of The Gita in the Fourth and Fifth grades, besides learning the basics of Sanskrit grammar from the Second grade itself.
Of course we were too young to understand The Gita; nor was it the intention of the school to indoctrinate us in any way. Our Teacher chose the chapters in a manner that we enjoyed, if I may say so, the “music” of the Song Celestial!
We had two syllabi for Sanskrit from, to my recollection, the Sixth Grade – the Heavy and Light courses. The ‘light course’ would follow the normal text book, while those opting for the ‘heavy course’ would study a part of the Raghuvansham by Kalidasa for three years.
This was a study in some detail, but we smoothly sailed through the prescribed chapters, with the Teacher as the helmsman. Besides learning Sanskrit, it was our first introduction to real study of literature.
Sometimes I would feel this was one of the few classes that made it worthwhile to attend the school. He knew so well how to field our questions which, on occasions, would be mischievous as we then had just begun to be curious about so many ‘wonders’ about girls! But his answers were always satisfactory.
The Teacher organised a sort of literary club, the Saraswata Sammelan. The initiative was entirely his. It met after school hours on Saturdays. Here the students would present their own compositions, be it a story, a poem or an essay. Telling a tale, reciting verses, and even showing some magic tricks were allowed in this congregation of about 40 students. But the piece de resistance of these meets was the story of the Mahabharata, narrated by the Teacher, in weekly instalments. For some fifteen minutes we would be under the spell of the master story-teller and would feel sad when it ended. What a great way of finishing a week of school activities!
At the end of the 8th grade, I opted for the science stream, against the advice of the teacher who wished me to study the Arts and asked me to tell my father about his advice. I disobeyed him this once and have regretted my decision ever since. Though I suffered the consequences of my karma, I am convinced that the teacher was a rare guru who had the ability to judge a pupil’s true inclination.
Before we left the school, the Teacher had been transferred to another school outside Calcutta. A friend and I somehow got his address from our school, and visited him. That remains one of the most memorable occasions in my life. He was elated that we came after so many years to pay our respect to him, who had once taught us Sanskrit! For us, though, he was not merely a Pundit, a teacher of Sanskrit. He was the Teacher.
That was the last time I saw him. I do not even know if he is still alive; but wherever he is, he remains ever bright in the memories of his students.
On the occasion of the Teachers’ Day, which is round the corner, I pay my tribute to Shri Bibhutinath Bhattacharya who, to me, has always been the Teacher, the like of whom I am yet to come across in all these years!