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Looking Back At The Sixties: Tale Told By An Absolute Nobody -- Part 2

Discussion in 'Snippets of Life (Non-Fiction)' started by ojaantrik, Mar 1, 2019.

  1. ojaantrik

    ojaantrik IL Hall of Fame

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    From Part 1

    I normally caught the No. 10 bus at Gariahat crossing to reach College Street. These were double decker buses, pretty crowded while boarding, but on lucky days the boys found empty seats. On exceptionally lucky days, there could be a girl from the college sitting next to the boy. Being able to pay for her journey (ten paise probably) produced blissful smiles on their faces. Outside academics, it was the ultimate achievement one could hope for. There was a longer route as well from College Street to Gariahat. This was the No. 2 or 2B bus route, the length-wise preferred route if accompanied by a girl.


    The college was bordered on its southern fringe by the Calcutta University campus, as Presidency University still is. What has disappeared though is the grand Senate Hall with its Corinthian pillars. The Senate Hall directly faced Goldighi in College Square and many an idle afternoon were spent in College Square by peanut munching students. Beyond the eastern boundaries of College Square stood the Paramount "sherbet" restaurant (along with its competitor Paragon, which exists no longer). We partook of the excellent elixir they served on days when our meagre allowances permitted the extravagance. What we drank there left us in a tongue licking state for days on end.


    On the southern border of College Square stood Puntiram Sweets, which we visited on poorer days to consume a variety of snacks. The northern boundary of the college was flanked by the YMCA building, which itself sported a small restaurant and this too we dropped into once in a while. Beyond YMCA, across Harrison Road was Dwarik Ghosh's renowned eatery, which sold mouth watering “luchi” and “aloor dam” for 6 paise and “luchi” and “chholar dal” for 4 on our financially stressed days. There was yet another restaurant on Harrison Road, Gyan Babur Cabin, which directly faced Bankim Chatterjee Street. I don’t think too many students from the college went there, but thanks to a magnanimous cousin, I did get to taste one of its delicacies on a long lost afternoon. The dish carried a name as exotic as exotic as “Kiss Me Quick”. Gyan Babur Cabin rests now in peace one knows not where, an event which could well have motivated my cousin to migrate to Australia.


    College Street Coffee House of course occupied the pride of place. It was the most patronised restaurant and it continues to live till this day. It was somewhat expensive, quite apart from being smoke filled. Chairs were often hard to find and there were invariably days when one could afford to consume nothing other than the smoke and the supposedly intellect stimulating conversations carried out by people sharing the table, or, at best, the cheapest fare it served. This was known as “infusion” and looked like black coffee. One hears a great deal about Coffee House being the most authentic producer of bales of Bengal’s intellectual fabric. But I have to admit that the only thing that ever attracted me to that restaurant was its Mutton Afghani. I visited the place a few years ago only to discover to my horror that Mutton Afghani still existed, but it did so in a quality-wise hopelessly depreciated state.


    College Street itself may have grown more congested compared to those prehistoric days, but even if it has done so, this is not too apparent to the naked eye. It was always bursting at the seams, and it is difficult to imagine that the seams have actually given way. Of course, the one way traffic arrangement is a modern day phenomenon, but it is hard to distinguish the one way flow from the two way flow of the past.


    ***


    I was a regular student of Presidency College from 1959 through 1963. I completed my BA degree in Economics in 1963, but remained enrolled as a student in the College till 1965, though I was attending classes in Kantakal at the time as a post-graduate student. An arrangement between Presidency College and Calcutta University those days made it possible for Masters’ students to be enrolled as students of Presidency College, primarily to let them have access to the College library. Taking this into account, I think I can declare myself to have been officially a student of Presidency College for six years.


    As I said, I had started off as a student of the Intermediate of Science (ISc) class, after finishing what was known as the School Final Examination. What are my memories from the ISc class? Not much alas that are worth recording. Few teachers in the science stream managed to leave any deep impression. And this has little to do with the passage of time, for I have fascinating memories of teachers who taught in the school that sent me to this college. I have recorded those memories elsewhere.


    One teacher in the ISc class though stood out and this was P.C. Rakshit. His classes were full of drama, drama that easily attracted young minds. He taught us physical chemistry and I recall the manner in which he distinguished a physical mixture from a chemical compound. A physical compound, he said, was a bit like a “muri-mudki” mix. Even after mixing them up, it was not difficult to un-mix them into their component parts, simply by physically separating out the two components. The mixtures that doctors prescribed those days and compounders served were therefore not physical compounds from a chemist’s point of view.


    Another fascinating incident that I remember from this class was the experiment he carried out to show how water could be produced by fusing two molecules of hydrogen with one molecule of oxygen. I was much impressed by the sound and fury accompanying the experiment. When the experiment was completed, we saw a clear glass dome sprinkled with water drops. If I remember correctly, he used a catalyst to carry out the experiment and that was the first time I learnt about a catalyst. Rakshit did not teach us for too long and the syllabus changed to inorganic chemistry. These were taught by teachers whom I quickly forgot.


    Physics was taught by a number of teachers, but it was Nagen Das who took the largest number of classes. I am afraid that I remember very little of the Physics I learnt either. The teaching methods were uninspiring and on that account perhaps, I found the subject unattractive. On the other hand, as I realised much later in life, Physics is concerned with fundamental and deep questions. The professors though did not pose the questions, for me at least, in a manner that could arouse my inquisitiveness.


    Mathematics was yet another subject that failed to excite me and this was most unfortunate. I had opted for Mechanics as an elective subject for the School Final Examination and performed reasonably well in the finals. The Mechanics I was taught in school constituted a part of the Mathematics syllabus for ISc as well. But the teaching method was maddeningly dull and helped me forget all that I learnt in school.


    The classes that I attended in the ISc course did me more harm than good and Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics helped me little to progress in my academic career at this stage of life. This is strange, to say the least, since in later life I literally fell in love with Mathematics as I specialised in Economic Theory and a good deal of my research in the subject used Mathematics that I hated in Presidency College but learnt with enthusiasm when confronted by some of the most wonderful teachers I came across. Of course, I need to admit here that my reactions to the teachers may not have been shared by my classmates. They could very well disagree with me and I have little to offer in self-defence if they do.


    ***


    Despite my deficiencies, I performed manageably well in the ISc examination and my father was hell bent on sending me over to an engineering college. The batch of students I belonged to was quite exceptional in this respect. The score-wise best among them opted for engineering courses and there were few left who were willing to continue with Physics, Chemistry or any of the other regular science subjects. The Physics Department in particular had rarely been betrayed by the rank holders in this manner. So, what was unimaginable those days, students belonging to lower rungs easily found admission into the Physics, Geology and other Honours courses. Not that they did not flourish in later life. In fact, I have already mentioned Asish Basu, who could not find immediate admission to the Geology department. But he is a world renowned geologist today even though he could have been considered a non-starter when he joined the Geology course.


    I had of course lost all interest in pursuing a science career and fought hard at home to switch over to Economics, which during those days was considered an Arts subject. Once I was able to convince my father to let me off the hook, I was admitted to the Economics Department quite easily, though I cannot say that I performed particularly well there either.


    The professor who moved us most was Bhabatosh Dutta, whose teaching skills are impossible to forget. He was full of humour and his classes were intensely dramatic. The students simply lapped up what he taught and I missed only one of his classes during the course of my entire BA class and that on account of some illness or the other. I loved Bhabatosh Dutta’s teaching methods, because he reminded me of Utpal Dutt who taught us English in South Point School. Utpal Dutt’s teaching was full of drama as well and the students got instantly attracted to his classes.


    The other well-known teachers I was exposed to in the BA Honours class were Tapas Majumdar and Nabendu Sen. They were serious teachers, but the drama element was missing in their courses. Dipak Banerjee taught us for a single day, after which he left for an assignment abroad. On that single day though, he gave us useful advice. And that advice consisted of drawing our attention to a number books in macroeconomics which were to be avoided under all circumstances. He did not proceed beyond this.


    However, around four years later, I got to know him closely, when I was selected as a research scholar in the newly instituted Centre for Economic Studies in the Economics Department. During those days, I did get to learn a good deal from him and it was he who was mainly instrumental in my securing a fellowship in a US university to complete a PhD degree. My association with Dipak Banerjee continued till the very end of his life. As is often the case, the teacher student relationship vanishes and is replaced by friendship. Something similar in nature occurred as far as my relationships with Nabendu Sen and Tapas Majumdar were concerned as well.


    I was taught by Upendra Nath Ghoshal too, the departmental head, who clearly thought me to be the worst student in the class. Nirmal Majumdar taught us Aristotle’s Politics, Nirmal Chandra Basu Roychoudhuri lectured on International relations and Ramesh Ghosh taught us Political Theory. I failed to impress the Political Science professors without exception and ended up the BA course with a firm conviction that I was an absolute nobody as far as my abilities as a student were concerned.


    ***


    When those bygone days “flash upon my inward eye”, I cannot help asking myself why it was that Presidency College forced me to drown deep into mediocrity and lose whatever self-confidence I possessed. I end up with a solitary explanation, which may well be incorrect. It was an age when a student’s ability was judged almost entirely by the marks she or he scored. It was not easy to score high, for it involved perseverance. Hard work that is, with a solitary goal. Not growing inquisitiveness about the unknown, but the sprinter’s zeal for snipping off a micro-second from the time required to reach the finishing line. The philosophy inculcated unto students was hard to distinguish from the motivations that provoke a Sachin Tendulkar or a Serena Williams. Beating the opponent was possibly more important than responding to the allure of imponderables. This was actually encouraged. It was an age when numbers scored in examinations alone sanctified. In this connection, one needs to be careful of course in pointing out that there were several instances of students who succeeded in maintaining the balance too, between high marks and a greed to learn. Mukul Majumdar was the most prominent among this latter group, but he was not the only one.


    ***


    Going back to the ISc course, while it did not fulfil any major goal for me at least, viz. opening my mind to science and mathematics, I have to admit that the course was not a total waste and that for the wrong reasons. English and Bengali were compulsory subjects for us and these were taught by teachers who did fascinate me. If I remember correctly it was Tarapada Chakravarty who taught us Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This was not the first time that I was being introduced to the work, for back in school Utpal Dutt, who was perhaps the best teacher I have ever known, taught us the same poem. Perhaps my familiarity with the poem helped me absorb Tarapada Chakravarty’s version particularly well. If this was true, then it stood in contrast with my experience with Mechanics described earlier. Quite apart from him, we had Sailen Sen, Bhabatosh Chatterjee, Amal Bhattacharyya, Arun Dasgupta and a few others in the English Department and they did wonders for me. There were excellent teachers in the Bengali Department too, but the one I remember most fondly was Bhabatosh Datta.


    ***


    I left the college totally bereft of confidence in myself. But not all of us were cowards. In this connection, I remember my classmate Dipak Mitra (who was better known by a nickname that his peers had adorned him by, but one which I shall refrain from using now). I have no idea how Dipak had performed in the School Final Examination, but I do recall that he displayed a singular disinclination towards what the college taught. He remained unmoved by the Presidency glory throughout the two years of the ISc class. Dipak rarely attended classes and must have employed well-known tricks to be marked present during the roll call with which each class began. It was mandatory to attend a minimum percentage of the number of lectures delivered. Falling short of the percentage figure had serious consequences. Permission to attend the final ISc examination was denied. There must have been people who were so punished, but not Dipak. He managed to sit for the final examination alright. And I distinctly remember him leaving the examination hall for some subject or the other long before the final bell went off. This was unthinkable in Presidency College. The examinees were so serious that they had to be forced to stop writing beyond the announced end of the examination hour. But Dipak could not care less. He submitted his answer script at least an hour before the test was over.


    Not that he failed the ISc examination. He was too smart to fail in anything he ever took up. He didn’t end up with a glowing record of course as far as ISc went, but he was least bothered on that account. Following the ISc examination, he left the college in search of greener pastures. My knowledge regarding what he was upto following his encounter with Presidency College is vague at best. But I did come across him much later in life. He was a successful and highly regarded corporate lawyer at the time and, what was most important, we turned into excellent friends long after we were both out of Presidency College. Of course, given Dipak’s successful career, he was a bit of a globe trotter as well and it was no easy job to drop into his office or home and chat freely.


    Dipak was not incapable of playing pranks on the teachers and one incident comes readily to my mind. It involved Kajal Bose (later Sen), the beloved Kajal-di of the English Department. Kajal Bose was back from Oxford and had freshly joined the college. Women faculty members were rare those days and the only other lady I recall teaching at the time belonged to the Botany Department. Kajal Bose was young, beautiful, full of poise, an epitome of Bengali culture of that age.The Intermediate class on the other hand was an all boys class in an otherwise co-educational college. Few among the boys in the class had ever been taught by women teachers. I was a bit of an exception in this respect, for I had passed out of a co-educational school which employed both men and women to teach. Dipak and the others had a different background. And Dipak, as I said, had a headful of ideas.


    Although he rarely attended classes, he decided to attend a Kajal Bose’s class one fateful morning. He was a bit of a ventriloquist as I discovered that day, who could produce noises whose source was hard to trace. And he decided to try “confusions with” Kajal Bose. He was sitting straight faced at the back of the class as she began to lecture. When out of nowhere one heard clear notes of a sarod being played in full volume. Kajal Bose ignored this bravely for a while, but the rest of the class didn’t. We began to hear giggles and the class turned unmanageably noisy. But Dipak carried on with a face devoid of any expression at all. Finally, Kajal Bose reacted.


    “Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves?” she literally thundered.


    No one appeared to fit that description. She stood there in horrified silence for a while and finally threw out a challenge.


    “Is there anyone in the class who has the courage to identify the mischief monger? If there isn’t, the entire class will have to pay for this.”


    This was a serious threat and one student responded. His name was Bishnupada Ukil. Till today I think he, like me perhaps, was a misfit in the ISc class, or in Presidency College itself. In fact, he had given me the impression that he was attracted to learning Sanskrit more than anything else. He had difficulty in expressing himself in the English language and had developed the habit of writing up his English sentences and reading them out to keep conversation going. Bishnupada stood up with his sheet of paper.


    “What exactly is it that you want us to tell you Madam?” he read out loud and clear.


    Kajal Bose was quite flabbergasted to say the least. She thought she had made herself amply clear and simply stared back at Bishnupada in disbelief.


    But Bishnupada read on unperturbed. “Do you want us to tell you the name of the student who is creating this noise?”


    At this point, Kajal Bose found back her speech. “Why, yes of course. Who is responsible for this noise?”


    With a sheepish smile on his face, Bishnupada read back, “That Madam we cannot tell you!”


    I have a vague memory that, to her credit, Kajal Bose courageously continued with her class, ignoring the sounds that continued to pollute the air and that Dipak probably never showed up for Kajal Bose’s classes again.


    None of the three people involved in this anecdote reside our world anymore. Kajal-di, after a successful career, passed away under unenviable circumstances. Bishnupada, who joined the WBCS, left us many years ago, following a heart attack I was informed. And Dipak himself was the last one to leave. He was suffering from the most dreaded of afflictions. Fortunately though, his suffering was short lived. I went to see him in the ICU at Bellevue Clinic, where he was languishing in a semi-conscious state, but he did recognise me and gestured me to come closer to him. I went as close as I could, defying the barriers of tubes and other medical equipment. His voice was faint, though I heard him quite clearly. “Don’t lament,” he said. And those may have been the last words he spoke to anyone at all. He left us next day.


    Dipak was fond of translating Tagore songs into English and he had even published a book, Echoes, a few years ago. He presented me a copy of this book and here are a few lines from the first song in the book:


    “Remember me yet if I am gone afar,

    If old love is overlaid with a web of fresh passion:

    If you know me not, even if I am near,

    As I were a shadow that might not be, remember me yet.”

    Published by Presidency College Alumni Association in Autumn Annual, Vol. XLVII 2018-19



     
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  2. satchitananda

    satchitananda Moderator Staff Member IL Hall of Fame

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    Beautiful memoires, OJ-da. Am so sorry for the delay in responding. The only reason was that I wanted to have some time to just relax and enjoy reading your writing. This is not something to be read in a hurry. I certainly do not regret my decision.

    I often think back to my childhood days and it all feels all so surreal. It is almost as if that was life on an entirely different planet. These memories evoke the same feelings once again.

    Some of the things you say resonate with my experiences. The vivid memories of every single teacher who taught us in school, followed by college days where the good teachers could be counted on my finger tips. I don't remember the names of a majority of them.

    I simply loved this para. This is what I keep saying - marks and 'performance' in college really don't count for much in the long run. This sort of echoes the same point. Many so-called mediocre students really make it big in life. Nobody ever asks them for their marks once they really have made a mark!

    I could not help feeling sorry for your teacher who was treated to the sounds of a sarod! Nor could I help thinking it could have been handled very differently AND effectively.

    Beautiful memories indeed. Parting with friends who decide to take a flight across the veil is always a very painful thing. But then that indeed is life.

    Thanks a ton for this OJ-da. Looking forward to many more snippets from your desk. Really good to have you back.
     
  3. ojaantrik

    ojaantrik IL Hall of Fame

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    Dear Satchi,

    This was a long piece and I didn't expect it to be read. However, as always, you read it seriously. Thanks for your patience. Going back to the paragraph you quote, I am reminded of my good friend Richard Thaler at the University of Rochester where I did my PhD work. Dick was considered a non-starter and no one took notice of him. Year before last, Dick won the Economics Nobel for his work in Behavioural Economics. And look at me! Hardly anyone knows me, though I did quite well at Rochester. Of course, I really don't care much about my not so distinguished career. But I am very proud of Dick. I congratulated him as soon as I heard the news and he responded within 5 minutes. He is the only Nobel Laureate that I have known so closely.

    oj-da
     
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  4. satchitananda

    satchitananda Moderator Staff Member IL Hall of Fame

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    Wow! You are lucky to know one personally!
     
  5. ojaantrik

    ojaantrik IL Hall of Fame

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    :)
     

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