The bell announced the end of the recess. But there was something in the crystal sky and the crisp autumn sun that made the entire troop of muddy boys defy it. The sun had come out after weeks of rain and the entire school had congregated on the slushy playground during the "tiffin" break. Innumerable football matches were being played on the same pitch simultaneously. We went on playing, defying the bell.
We were no angels, but such indiscipline was unthinkable even by our standards.
After a few minutes, suddenly, there was a massive flight. Most of us didn’t know what caused the panicky retreat, we just ran; the playground emptied in minutes. Then we noticed the familiar dark hefty figure of our Assistant Headmaster, Umapati Babu, standing beside the ground quietly, doing absolutely nothing. A calm unhurried man who spoke in a small voice, sir had introduced us to the fear of God when we were young.
Controlling 800 odd young rowdies was left mainly to Umapati Babu, who made the daunting task look easy. He rarely raised his hand to thrash an errant boy, but his name spelt terror. He was seen only in a sparkling white kurta and a dhoti that scarcely covered his knees. Dressed in the same attire and barefoot, he often scored goals from free-kicks during the annual teacher-student football matches, although after so many decades, I don’t recall if he could bend them like Beckham. Mostly busy with administrative work, he didn’t teach any course regularly; but he could chip in anywhere if required: he was equally at home in subjects ranging from Sanskrit to maths.
Once, my friend Arunabha and I got on the wrong side of this extraordinary gentleman. On Saturdays, our school used to be over at the recess time. One Saturday after school, we planned to play cricket. The two of us took Umapati Babu’s permission to take out the cricketing gear. Come Monday, the stumps were missing from where we had left them after our game. When we were summoned by the Assistant Headmaster, we had no inkling of this, or the misfortune that was to follow. An epitome of simplicity and fair play, sir straightaway accused us of stealing. Our mumbled protests were swatted like fleas. He closed the interview quickly: ‘Bring back the stumps tomorrow. But your troubles won’t be over.’
The humiliation was devastating. We were about thirteen then, and had faced injustice even earlier. But that incident brought home how cruelly unfair the world can be: a cardinal lesson that everybody learns, sooner or later.
The resolution of the crisis was no less a learning experience. The next day, we met Sir with a set of new stumps. For the first time in our lives, we looked him straight in the eyes and said, ‘Sir, we have brought new stumps. We never stole anything.’
Umapati Babu stared at us – eyes blazing – for what seemed an eternity. We cringed before the stare and knew that our goose was cooked. Then his lineament softened; said he, ‘Take your wretched stumps and get lost!’
Perhaps I saw a hint of moistening in his eyes, I am not sure. But I am sure it was his way of telling us that there is no shame in admitting one’s mistake, even to a child.
I heard yesterday sir is no more. If there is God above, He seems to have forgotten the art of making men like him.
[Mr. Umapati Kumar was the Assistant Headmaster of the Secondary Section of Ballygunge Government High School, Kolkata, when I was a student there from 1962 to 1968. This article was published in The Statesman.]
Kolkata, January 2005