They had both acted out of an intense desire to do the best for a student and his future… That was their mission in life as teachers.
There are some events of life that remain deeply etched in memory, to be recalled at a moment’s notice, as fresh as ever, as if they just happened yesterday. And every time they are pulled out of the memory bank, they emerge anew, unwittingly adding to the vision of life.
Flashback to 1949. We had just moved to Varanasi after the disintegration of our erstwhile joint family, to stay in a huge multi-storeyed house that had been built by my great grandfather, on the banks of the Ganga, before the First World War.
I was admitted to CM Anglo-Bengali Intermediate College in Class IX on giving an undertaking that I would pick up Hindi to be able to follow the lessons in the class. Coming from a prosperous village in West Bengal, Hindi was well…Greek to me.
Cut to 1951. I was studying night and day for the High School Examination conducted by the UP Board of High School and Intermediate Education, Allahabad.
India had been free four years. The air was thick with excitement of building a free and fair nation. Uttar Pradesh, the Hindi heartland was in the grip of Hindi enthusiasts. Hindi was being introduced as the medium of instruction and examination.
The Board had decided to offer students the first ever option to write the examination in Hindi. With ‘heart within and God overhead’, I took up the challenge. Hindi, it was going to be.
Bangali Tola High School was the examination centre for students of our school. Some teachers of our school had been put on duty as invigilators.
Among them was Jatin Biswas, who was better known among students by his nickname ‘Jatin Khudo’ (Jatin Uncle). His appearance was untidy and rustic, his nature peevish. He spoke in East Bengal dialect, particularly of Barisal, now in Bangladesh, which was widely mimicked by his students behind his back.
Needless to say, he wasn’t popular for his peculiar mannerisms. And incidentally, I wasn’t his student. He didn’t know me in person but one can say, was “aware” of me.
The day I was supposed to appear for my History examination, I did the most unimaginable thing. I forgot! The previous night I had studied late with my friends. We had exchanged notes but somehow we did not talk about the next day’s paper.
As the exam started, my friends worriedly awaited my appearance. But it didn’t happen. How could it be? I was buried in books in our terrace room, studying for the paper. It was too late for any of them to come and enquire.
When almost half an hour had ticked by, Jatin ‘Khudo’, who had noticed my absence with consternation, grew restless and started making enquiries about me.
My friends told him that I had been perfectly fine the night before, so I couldn’t possibly have been ill. Where does he live, asked the teacher. Varanasi, the city of the serpentine lanes, does not go by addresses (which are there only to help the postmaster perhaps) but by landmark descriptions.
So all my friends could offer was that I live in a 4-storey house (the biggest in the area), which has semi-circular verandahs and a lemon tree in the courtyard!
Armed with that information, and putting a standby invigilator in his place, Jatin Khudo trudged to our locality. The distance was not long but negotiating the lanes was not easy.
He spent some time locating the house with the lemon tree and on finding it, banged the door furiously, calling my name at the top of his voice. Startled on hearing his voice, I trooped down to the verandah.
As I emerged, he greeted with his fiery words in East Bengal dialect: “Baisa baisa nebu khaitasaus! Porikkha deba na? Ek ghanta hoiyya gechhe!” (You are idling here, enjoying lemons? You don’t want to give your papers? One hour is gone!”)
The words came like a bolt from the blue. It took me a moment to gather my wits. There are moments in life when you do not know what to do, unless someone tells you.
Still reeling from shock, I was told cryptically by Jatin Khudo to rush to the center in whatever state I was (which happened to be a pair of well-worn knickers and a faded shirt). I grabbed my pen and admission card and ran as fast as my legs would carry me, with my rubber slippers making flip-flop noise in the stone paved lanes. Jatin Khudo followed slowly.
Getting into the examination centre after a good hour has elapsed is easier said than done. Particularly when the principal of Bangali Tola High School was someone like Priya Gopal Bhattacharya. This well-known educationist was known throughout Varanasi’s education circles as a strict disciplinarian, who would not bend rules on any count.
I was stopped at the gate itself. After much insistence, I was finally taken to him. The tall, lean man with a face that made no attempt to hide his irritation, glowered at me.
I made a clean breast of my folly. He looked me up and down, as if trying to assess the veracity of my statement. “Under the rules you can not be allowed to appear,” he said, coldly in chaste English. Then after a moment of thought added, “More than an hour has passed. Will you be able to make up for the lost time?”
My voice was almost inaudible. “I can do the trying,” I mumbled sheepishly, forcing the words out somehow. No sooner had I said this, he asked an invigilator to guide me to my seat and give me the question paper and answer sheets.
“But Sir, already an hour has passed,” the invigilator pointed out. Principal Bhattacharya said in a cold and determined voice, “I know. It is my discretion.” These words still ring in my ears, even today.
I immersed myself into writing the answers. My pen flew as if it had developed wings. I didn’t look up even once, putting my whole concentration in dividing the available time in answering all the questions. The added problem was I was writing in Hindi, although by this time I had developed a fluency in the language.
I achieved my targets, though I don’t remember how exactly I did manage to answer the entire paper in two hours only. My friends turned me into a “hero” though for me it was the most embarrassing thing to have forgotten an examination, just like that! Inexcusable, to say the least. They thought I had achieved the impossible.
Looking back more than 60 years today, I shudder at the thought of what would have happened if Jatin Khudo had not come all the way to look for me or Principal Bhattacharya had not let me give the exam. They had both acted out of an intense desire to do the best for a student and his future, so what if the boy wasn’t actually their student. That was their mission in life as teachers.
And to achieve that, they both used their “discretion” – Jatin Khudo to leave the exam hall midway and come trudging through the lanes to call me and Principal Bhattacharya to bend the rules. As for me, I realized the true meaning of the word “discretion” – when is it to be used, for what purpose – and of “teachers”.
Well, they don’t make ‘em like that, no more.
This musing was first published in Meghdutam.com (between 1999 to 2002).
Pic attribution: varanasi.cityseekr.com
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