Lopa Banerjee, deputy editor of L&C pays a humble homage to her first teacher of English during her school days, Manik Chatterjee sir who passed away on September 29, 2017.
“Gurur Brahma gurur Vishnu Gurudevo Maheshwara/
Guru saakshaat param Brahma, tasmayee sree gurave namaha”….
The scriptures of the ancient times have said it all in these lines of a timeless ‘sloka’ about our teachers, our mentors who lay the first stepping stones, the foundations of the journey we undertake in our lives. The ‘Guru’ or the mentor is equated with the trinity, Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva or Maheshwar, their all-pervading forces combined to form the sacred entity of the ‘Guru’ who is the first one to empower his student or his disciple’s life.
In the early 1990’s the world in my sleepy suburban hometown of Barrackpore was dramatically different from the world which I inhabit now, more than two decades later. The days spent in my very traditional Bengali medium Girl’s school droned in self-same, monotonous exams and exercises in absolute indifference to the world of Keats’, Shelly’s and Wordsworth’s poetry, to the dramas of William Shakespeare and the alluring prose and fictional works of British writers. The evenings and nights spent at home amid endless occurrences of loadshedding or power-cut and the buzzing of mosquitoes around us tempted me more and more, with every passing day, to flee away, silently, secretly to the world of Arabian Nights, the world of imagination and Enid Blyton, the world of ‘The Solitary Reaper’ of Wordsworth. The more I drifted away from the everyday world of regular science, Mathematics and Algebra, the more I was shrouded by the fear of being an outcast. Not that I cared, as I was a hopeless dreamer back then.
It was during those dimly lit evenings that I started taking private tuitions for English from Manik Chatterjee, popularly known as Manik Sir among all my class friends, sitting awkward and lost amid the overpowering presence of my batchmates and peers huddled together from the neighbouring schools, more in the pursuit of class notes of quick success in the forthcoming examinations, rather than anything else. I, for that matter, was one of them, in a way as I looked forward to the notes and essays he would deliver in his teaching sessions, but in another way, was not one of them, in the sense that I craved things which were much, much beyond those mundane class notes and explanations. I was looking for my first true mentor in the true sense, a father figure who would nurture the emotional world that all my love for Enid Blyton, William Wordsworth and Arabian Nights entailed me with, a mentor who would embrace my first encounter with the tidbits of literature. And yes, we evolved slowly, he, my Guru, my teacher, and me, his dear student, as he came to know and respect how I would throw everything aside just to listen to his analysis of O Henry’s short story ‘The Gift Of The Magi’ or his deft descriptions of Percy Bysse Shelly, the rebel poet who, in those days, he said, was a reflection of my own silent, yet rebellious spirit.
“So you write poetry but are afraid to share with others? Your mother told me.” He had asked me one day, probably during Class XI.
“Not afraid, but perhaps over-conscious. I don’t want them to read my poems as I think…I think I won’t remain one among them.” I had stammered.
“So what is the need of being one among them, tell me? You can always carve your own name, create your own world. And that will be more precious than this world of tomfoolery that you are wasting your time in.” He had remarked.
I had stammered some more that day, and left for home. Little did I know that day that his thoughtful words and insight would change my world, one drop at a time, and resonate with me years after, in a different corner of the world, while he drifted off to another world this year.
In his baritone voice, when our very own Manik sir recited the powerful, vivid lines of the romantic English poets, or the lines from the epic ‘Meghnad Badh Kavya’ by Bengal’s own Michael Madhusudan Dutta, little were we, in our juvenile days able to understand the full impact of those lines. But in spite of that handicap of mature understanding, I knew in my heart of hearts that one day, these lines recited by him would ring in my consciousness as a surreal reality, a reality that would transcend the boundaries of time and space.
And they truly did, as I passed out of school, entered college and university, started writing as a freelance writer and did other things, some meaningful, and some, utter nonsensical things. All the while, his words echoed in the recesses of my brain: “Be capable of greater things, Ma. You are destined for bigger things in life.” Nobody back then had pronounced those words, those aspirations for me with as much passion as he did. I was part of a mediocre reality, as he himself was, and our expectations from life were humble to say the least. But our most revered Sir, with all the ordinariness around him, had dreamed big, if not for himself, then for us, his disciples.
Towards the end of my college when life had other plans for me, the other realities of my life had made me meet Sir lesser and lesser till I promised myself I would meet him again after a gap of many years, when only I could discover my true potential, the way he had always dreamt for me.
Two decades later, with a few strands of grey hair and my books, my literary babies and my biological offsprings, here I was in the month of August 2017, beside my English teacher during my high school days, my beloved Manik Chatterjee Sir, the man who had laid the first stepping stones of my journey with English literature and language. My birthday had just passed a few days back and I had gone to seek his blessings for my ongoing journey.
In the cozy comfort of his home again, he looked at me with the same enquiring eyes and enthusiastic zeal as I presented him the books that I wrote, edited and introduced my daughters to him. We lived continents apart now, and I was in India only for a short trip for some urgent work, but it seemed this meeting was predestined, and the ties, the old connections were alive and breathing, only with much vigour and gusto, as he rediscovered me now, in a different light.
“Sir, you look so pale today, you must take care of yourself and recover fast. We will meet again next year when I will visit India.” I had insisted on that day, and he flashed that unassuming smile that conveyed volumes. Little did I know this meeting would be our last in the mortal world. But as I look back, I feel perhaps this meeting, this reconnection also has a greater meaning and resonance, somewhere, in some unexplained way.
We are in a fast-paced world today where we see more of skilled tutors and instructors, and less of true mentors, who are instrumental in shaping the stories of their students’ lives. Sir Manik Chatterjee belongs to that rare breed of teachers/mentors who could recognize the rare diamonds from heaps of coal, and worked selflessly to chisel those uncut, raw diamonds. All the poetry that I write, all the stories and essays that I craft today, my humble salute to this man who had given me the rudimentary lessons in literature, and life.
Sharing a short poem in his memory, that I had wrote after meeting him after a long gap of almost twenty years.
Gratitude knows no words
Only the happy tears of a long pending catharsis
The traversing of parting words that had once flown in a melancholy strain
Come back to reclaim you in an ocean of surrender
Where you melt down, and are reborn, to lose yourself, once again.
May we meet again, sir, in another untainted world where we will discuss poetry and Tagore and Shakespeare and Michael Madhusudan Dutta once again.
More to read from Lopa Banerjee