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An era of excellence in 100 years of Matlab High School

Published : Friday, 21 October, 2016 at 8:46 PM Count : 1742

It was a sunny spring day on the first day of May in2016, 51 years since I had graduated from a high school. On that day, I was running my 30thmarathon (42.2 km) in Vancouver, Canada. My body was struggling, running on the seemingly endless meandering course along the sea wall. But my mind, surprisingly cleansed and clear from 16 years of running at least one marathon in each continent, was 11000 km away. At Matlab, Bangladesh. It was as though I became a high school boy again, reliving the incidents and praising the personalities from the nineteen-fifties and the sixties ---an 'Era of Remarkable Excellence' --- to which I was fortunate to be a witness and in which I played a small part. The achievements of the high school in that era were remarkable indeed, in view of what Matlab was then --- a rural area inhabited mostly by peasants, fishermen, and small business owners, all tormented by wild monkeys and snakes, and plagued by cholera and typhoid. Talent pool for the school was shallow and finance pool was almost dry. Then came one man! He took charge, like the new chief operating officer of a fledgling company. By virtue of his vision and goal setting, and by dint of his and many of his staff's hard work, the school became a model of educational excellence. The model may sound familiar in modern days. Stunningly, it was developed and implemented six decades ago. And not in a company in the Western world, rather in a resource-restricted village school at Matlab. Matlab story is not only of educational excellence, it is of a philosophy of management; of applying psychology and placebo effect in motivating and treating health issues, long before they were discovered and implemented in the Western world; of doing more with less; and of promoting peaceful co-existence. There is a lesson or two in it for all readers: alumni, current and future students, teachers, and educators, at any level and anywhere.
While running and, with each stride, becoming more and more confident of finishing Vancouver, I was already planning for the future. I decided to make a dedication of my next marathon to the following institution and its five luminaries (the number later increased by one, based on the feedback from two distinguished alumni) from that star-studded epoch:
l    Matlabgonj J B High School (MJBHS), my alma mater from 1960 to 1965, on the occasion of its centennial celebration on 1 January, 2017;
l    the late Waliullah Patwari, MJBHS's legendary Headmaster, without whom that extraordinary era might have been just ordinary;
l    the late Aswini Kumar Chakrabarty (Kabyatirtha), my father and teacher, and MJBHS's teacher since its foundation in 1917;
l    the late Abdul Latif, MJBHS's mathematics and physic teacher, who had the most impact on my academic life, including that in Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET; undergraduate)and University of Waterloo, Canada (Masters and PhD);
l    the late Prasanna Kumar Saha, the overall best teacher and mentor, as MJBHS's Assistant Headmaster; and
l    Dr A Matin Patwari, an MJBHS alumnus and my father's direct student, for his brilliance in placing first in East Pakistan Board in 1950.
From Watching Children to Matlab Childhood
At the time of starting this article, I was two weeks away from the St. George (Utah) Marathon on 1 October, 2016. Lying on a pool lounge chair, I could see a lagoon-shaped pool, shaded partially by palm trees. The azure sky was partially covered with white clouds, which were slowly moving to mingle with their neighbours. Kids wearing floating-aids were acting like kids: some wading through the shallow water, some singing, others being lifted by their parents and flipped over into the clean turquoise water. Their joy reminded me of my joy of swimming in a pond or diving into a canal from bridges in two villages: Matlab and Bishnupur in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan).
I was born in Matlab in a house less than 300 m away from MJBHS. My father rented it from the late Madan Pal, a businessman in Matlab Bazaar. The house was on the west side of a pond, on the north side of which was the main mosque, and on the east side of which was the Jagannath Temple. The temple was famous for its Rathajatra, a Hindu festival, in which a chariot of Gods and Goddesses was pulled by devotees, in the rainy season; and for the festival of24-hcontinuoussinging of one line of Sanskrit mantra by local and hired groups, in the winter. Matlab was a model of religious tolerance in that era, during which intense Hindu-Muslim tension existed and erupted occasionally into violence elsewhere in Pakistan and India. It was in the aftermath of the 1947 partition of India into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. The partition led to the world's largest mass migration from India to Pakistan and vice versa, displacing more than 10 million people and killing hundreds of thousands to two million innocents, of both faiths.
My Father: A Father and a Teacher
My father, a Hindu Brahmin, despite the prevailing uncertainty, decided to stay in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), his ancestral home, unlike almost all of his relatives who fled to India. A teacher at MJBHS since its foundation, he was given assurance of security by the then school Headmaster, the late Waliullah Patwari, a Muslim by religion and a Muslim Leaguer by politics.
Father was called Pundit Mahasay by the Headmaster and others. Some called him Bhatcharj, in recognition of his Kabyatirtha degree in Sanskrit, a rarity then and even now. Sanskrit is the language in which Hindu and Buddhist religious functions are performed, and from which Hindi and Bengali languages evolved.Till1962, in East Pakistan, Sanskrit was the compulsory subject for all Hindu high school students, while Arabic was for all Muslim students, all the way from class five to class ten. Since doing well in class ten board exams was Headmaster's goal for the school, father was highly regarded for his degree and dedication to teaching Sanskrit. He also taught vernacular (Bengali grammar), which accounted for 30% of the total marks in Bengali second paper. Dr Matin Patwari, mentioned earlier, was father's direct student in the latter.
Besides being a full-time teacher, father was a part-time priest, performing religious functions for the residents of Kaladi Ghosh Para (community), one of whose benevolent residents, the late Biswanath Ghosh, is the founder of and the letter B in the name of Matlabgonj J.B. The letter J in the name is for the late Jagabandhu Saha, the other founder from the Saha Para on the south-east corner of the school. On its south-west corner was Ghosh Para, where we moved to within a few months of my birth. I literally lived in the school campus. A small pond separated our house from the school compound.
We lived in a friendly 'enemy property', consisting of two tin-roofed houses with a separate kitchen, all abandoned by a Ghosh family when it moved to India after the partition. Father was invited by other friendly Ghoshes, all of whom were his religious disciples and some of whom were his former students. They feared that, if left vacant, the houses would be taken away by the govt. for being an 'enemy property'. India was designated by the Pakistani Govt. as its enemy and hence people who had fled to India was declared enemy and the real estate properties they had left behind were designated as 'enemy property'. Father did not have to pay any rent. Good that he did not have to. Because, the salary from the school was barely enough for the family to live a bare-minimum modest life.
My schooling at Matlab started in a tin-roofed primary school, across from the main building of the high school. It was 1955, still before fountain pen was available to me for writing. I still remember writing a primary school exam, using a pot of ink and a long-handle dip pen with a nib. I spilled the ink from the pot and had to run home, about 250 m away, to get my brother's pot. I also remember writing a class IV exam in the primary school with tattered walls. As I was focussed on writing, I could hear someone saying something in a hushed voice from outside, and then my classmate from inside asking him to repeat what he was saying a bit louder. The classmate was the 'second boy' in the class, academically. His elder brother was outside trying to help his younger brother out. That did not work out for the brothers. I came in first in class IV.
I had the option of continuing class Vin the primary school or being admitted to the high school. Father took me to where he was teaching, even though that meant the class V scholarship exam was not available to me in high school. Good that he did what he did. I was able to have him as a teacher for one more year than I would have, had I continued in the primary. I was also able to be a Matlab High student for one more year. Matlab High then was the place to be to get a great education. Being a teacher there since 1917, father knew it better than any.
To be continued...
Tapan Chakrabarty --- a MJBHS alumnus (1965), a BUET chemical engineer with a PhD from University of Waterloo, a seven-continent marathon finisher, an inventor and an innovator, and a columnist --- writes from Calgary, Canada

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