Victoria Institution was named after the British Empress who ruled India from 1876 to 1901. Although a girls’ school, they allowed boys up to the fourth standard. My formal schooling began there as my ma taught at the school. It was a great way to begin: I was the only boy in a class of thirty and had a number of girl friends. Among the bevy of beauties, I had an almost serious relationship with a girl called Leena. Could I be so fortunate that she would read this memoir?
The Bus No. 3 that mother and I took every morning passed by an open space where monster cranes used to ram long steel joists into the ground. The hammer would be dropped through a casing from a great height and it would fall on the head of a joist with a huge clang. I would eagerly wait to see the spectacle of the hammer falling. On days it didn’t happen while we passed by, I would be badly disappointed. I could not have known then that an important chapter of my life would begin at that place. Much later, I went for an interview for a job on the thirteenth floor of the first Calcutta high-rise that came up there, a building named Jeevandeep.
In the bus, a notice was written in bold red letters. The authorities perhaps thought commands would be more effective in the former emperor’s language. With my limited English, I read it, rather, interpreted it as: No some king! After some thought, I came to the conclusion that on a bus, one was not supposed to behave like a king.
When I was at the second standard in my ma’s school, I took admission tests for class three at two Bangla-medium high schools, both exclusively for boys: St. Lawrence and Ballygunge Government High School. At St. Lawrence, the first question was “Write down your name.” I did. The second task was to write my father’s name. After writing the first two letters, I stopped because I didn’t know how to write the combination of two Bangla consonants that was a part of dad’s name. I did not bother to read the following questions and doodled until the time ended. That was the first recorded failure in my life. Many were to follow.
Our school was considered one of the best in Kolkata. At the entrance of the school compound was an old banyan tree, but it was too early for us to connect banyan trees with enlightenment. The football ground and the long two storey building with its wide corridor and big classrooms on one side overwhelmed me. So did the auditorium, where we would assemble for prayer at seven in the morning.
On the first day, Samir, with whom I shared a desk, kicked me through the school hours, while I rued the absence of feminine company. I was too preoccupied and timid to respond. Samir got bored, stopped kicking the next day, and became a somewhat condescending friend. He was a brilliant footballer. He used to play with much bigger boys of class five, and even amongst them, he dribbled through any defence and scored goals whenever he wished to. We all expected him to become a famous footballer, but he ended up in a bank instead. What a waste of talent!
The first thing that comes to my mind about my early schooling is the struggle to wake up, particularly in the winter, in absolute darkness. Ma would regularly carry a sleeping me and make me stand in the bathroom. I would wake up and start peeing the moment she splashed a mug of cold water on my feet. As ma and I waited for the school bus under the portico of Basusree cinema, municipality workers would wash the road with foaming jets of water. It would have been swept, and the detritus removed before we came out. By the time we boarded the bus, the city of my childhood would look like a freshly bathed beauty.
The school bus was driven by a burly man named Hiralal Babu, a strict disciplinarian. He wouldn’t even allow us to whisper while we were on his bus. That was my first brush with tyranny; since then, I have loathed every kind of authoritarianism. But there was no tyranny once we got off the bus and entered school. In winter, we loved to play hide-and-seek in the early-morning fog that enveloped the big playground in our campus. The watchmen would light a fire with dry leaves and we would warm ourselves during breaks from our sports.
Our headmistress, Aparna-di, was very fair, beautiful, and had a shock of curly black hair. She smiled all the time and was never angry; we loved her, and at the same time, were scared of her. She taught us Bangla in the fifth standard. Once baba took me to her house – she was distantly related to him. It was a small house with a handkerchief garden in front. I think she lived alone. She had a huge Alsatian for company.
At the primary school, we had both male and female teachers, all of whom were, I think, over thirty and mature individuals who understood children. Elderly Usha-di was our first music teacher and the first song that we tried out in chorus was Aguner parashmani. With thirty boys singing about twenty-five different tunes, it must have been trying for our teacher. I do not remember another music class when we all sang together.
Although we weren’t burdened with much homework, we were given weekly tests regularly, possibly on Fridays. That ensured we had a nodding acquaintance with the text books. While handing back the test papers after correction, the teachers would ask us to add up the marks once again. I do not know if it was a deliberate method to make us more confident children (who would have in the back of their minds that they could verify what adults did). No one would ever find a mistake. Only once I found I was awarded one mark more than what I should have been. I pointed out the error to our teacher. (After this point, my biography diverged from that of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.)
The teacher reduced one mark and added two to the total. He said, ‘The extra mark is for honesty.’
Corporal punishments were rare. My only experience was when we had gone to a place next to Bandel Church for a picnic. Anup and me went to explore an underground chamber in a dilapidated building there. Although we didn’t find any buried treasure, the adventure was highly successful and satisfying. But sadly, as we were coming out, we met with our assistant headmaster, Khagen Babu. I wouldn’t like to discuss what followed.
Rakhal Babu once told us the story of Christopher Columbus’s expedition to America.
‘When Columbus saw neither land, nor a shore based bird even after 28 days into the voyage’, our teacher said, ‘the crew became restive. Some of his sailors were convicted murderers. Queen Isabella had released them only because they had agreed to join the dangerous mission. Rations were running out, starvation and death stared the crew in the eyes. They were nervous and angry. The first mate had overheard some of them planning a mutiny … these murderers would stop at nothing. That evening, Columbus looked into the mist and endless gloom beyond the gunwale as an oil lamp swayed and threw light and darkness alternately … the sailors might kill him if he didn’t give into their demand and turn back … the lamp was swaying … there was darkness and then there was light … he knew he was destined to be a man of history. He was the chosen one to discover an alternate sea route to India ….’ The teacher took a group of spellbound boys aboard Santa Maria.
Middleclass families like ours considered education a valuable asset mainly because they thought it was the only key that might open a door to prosperity. We grew up hearing the doggerel:
Podashona kore je
Gadi-ghoda chade she.
Study well. As a matter of course,
You’ll drive a car or ride a horse.
But lots of highly educated people lived a much less glamorous life, in fact, in penury. Father’s only brother, who had a brilliant mind and was a master of many trades, was one of them. So there were serious doubts about the adage just mentioned and we heard another take on it:
Podashona kore je
Gadi-chapa pode she.
Study well. As a matter of course,
You’ll be trampled by a carriage horse.
Despite the somewhat iffy prospects of studying well, education was considered important and it was not pursued with pecuniary motives alone. In fact, it was considered valuable also because it opened a door to spiritual betterment, a goal that possibly more people pursued those days than now.
My father was a businessman who worked out of home. The first room as we entered our flat was his office. In that room was a huge table, the top of which was covered with a beige synthetic sheet of Rexene, a material that is not seen anywhere nowadays except in railway coaches. At night, the table would serve as baba’s bed. After supper, my father, who achieved little or no material success in life and was constantly dogged by financial problems, would lie down on the bare table in a white khadi dhoti wrapped around his waist, with a book in hand. Resting his head on an air pillow that ordinary mortals used while travelling on trains, he read until early morning. Every night. He had an eclectic taste and read anything from Indian philosophy – Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan was his favourite author – to palaeobotany, whatever that might mean. He loved poetry, but didn't touch fiction. He often quoted the Sanskrit saying: The king is worshipped only in his own country, but a scholar is worshipped everywhere.
Baba’s enthusiasm for gathering knowledge did not translate into me becoming a good student. I was just about average. But my sister and I were not under constant pressure to excel. A Bengali scholar, Rabindra Kumar Dasgupta, who was born in 1915, wrote:
[When we were children] no parent tried to make supermen out of their offspring. Some of the visitors to our house asked me what I would become after growing up. I didn’t know how to answer them. One day, I asked my father, ‘What will I be when I grow up?’ He said, ‘There’s no need to think about it now.’ I said that some of our guests asked me the question. He said, ‘Tell them you’ll be a vegetable vendor.’ I did not think it was an unusual proposition. After that, when a relative asked me, ‘What will you be when you grow up?’ I said, ‘I’ll sell vegetables.’
About forty years later, in our childhood too, there was hardly any pressure on children to become supermen, neither at home, nor at school. My repeated failures to excel in studies did not upset my parents too much and there was plenty of fun outside school. A longish vacation to some interesting place was common, particularly during the month-long summer or autumn holidays.