An era of excellence in 100 years of Matlab High School
On a fog-shrouded February morning, brother and I, after bathing in the cold school pond, went to the puja mandap. Father, partially hidden in fumes billowing out from a clay pot (dhupati), was busy uttering the sonorous Sanskrit mantras, like a song. The scent of the incense burning in the dhupati and that of the marigold flowers on a large dish filled the air with a festive aura. I was proud to see father being the centre of attention. I was also pleased to see him being closest to the Goddess, both physically and spiritually. That bode well for my getting her blessings.
The important part of the puja was anjali, an offering of three rounds of prayers and flowers. In each round, we held palash, plucked from the tree from the school yard, and marigold flowers, along with bell leaves in our palms. Father shouted three words at a time of a Sanskrit mantra, praising the Goddess and asking for her blessings, and we repeated in unison after him. No sooner had we finished the mantra, than we threw the flowers and the leaves toward the feet of the Goddess. Only the front-row throwers with good arms and skills were successful in hitting the target.
After three rounds of anjali, we performed a ritual that tested each student's skill of holding onto a straw with her or his forehead. No glue was allowed. To perform the ritual, I knelt down and pressed my forehead against a thin and about 5-cm long kash straw, placed on a level ground. At the end of repeating another Sanskrit mantra after father, I stood up slowly, with the stick still stuck to my forehead. The belief was that the longer the stick stayed stuck, the better would be the exam result. So I stood still in one spot, away from others and wind. All on a sudden, a mischievous classmate came from behind and touched my forehead. The stick fell to the ground. Distraught by the inauspicious incident, I wondered what lay in store for me that year. Result from Class VI scholarship exam, a few weeks later, was the worst for me in schools or universities. But there were other reasons for that result: demotivated math teacher, not managing time during exam well, and family misfortunes.
At the zenith of a great period of joy and happiness for the Chakrabarty family of Matlab Ghosh Para, cruel fate was scripting a tragedy, unbeknownst to us.
Headmaster and father's last words
The friendship between Headmaster and father came to a sudden and sad end on a direful day in 1961. A day I still remember from dawn till late at night.
In the morning of that day, I was in a class room, west of the school office, writing a class VI exam. My concentration was interrupted by the serious tone of someone calling my name. I looked up to see Headmaster. His hunchback was more noticeable than before. I knew it was a grave situation. Father could not come to school that day. 'Baba, stop writing. Come with me.' At home, mother started weeping seeing us two. Brother, Swapan, was nearby, sobbing. Father looked at me and brother, and pointed to us to get closer to the bed. Headmaster was already there. He then placed our hands on Headmaster's hand and pleaded: 'Please look after them after I am gone.' Headmaster could not hold his tears anymore. 'Who is going to replace my golden pundit?' he said. He then left for his school to find solace. A few minutes later, father left us to find post-life peace. Father was no more to see me receive more awards. 'Shrijukta Aswini Kumar Chakrabarty (Kabyatirtha)', my father, my high school teacher, and my first music teacher, became 'The Late…' since 1961.
Interest in sports and nature
During school years, I was more interested in extra-curricular activities than studies. I played all kinds of sports and games: football (soccer), volleyball, hadudu, cricket, field hockey, golla chhut, danguli, a variation of hopscotch, marbles, stone skipping, regular and snake luddo, making and flying kites, hide-and-seek in jute fields, punting in canals, swimming in the ponds and canals, diving from bridges into canals, etc. At Bishnupur, I used to catch fish using a bamboo rod and rice bait. I once tried to catch fish with hands in our pond, a tricky pursuit in which I was nowhere as adept as my friends. One day, I got lucky. I ended up catching a koi fish, not with hands, but with my right foot when it stepped on the sloppy, slippery and spikey koi, getting it trapped beneath my foot in the clayey mud.
I was also in love with nature and trees. I walked through forests and listened to birds sing. I smelled the flowers. I was fascinated by the beads of dews, precariously hanging from the blades of grass. I stared at the moon on a full-moon night, maddened by the scent of beli flowers. Walking through the forest was not without risk, though. Once a monkey chased me to a pond in the area, where the college is now. The pond was covered with densely-clustered water hyacinths, with beard-like brown roots submerged in water, infested with blood-sucking leeches. The monkey sitting on the bank was a bully and a tormentor. He won't leave me alone, giving the impression that he had plenty of time to enjoy my misery.
I was also fond of picking and enjoying wild fruits from the forest. I also used to climb trees to eat seasonal fruits. If there was a tree with comfortable and risk-free sitting, I would take a book with me. That reputation of a boy reading books sitting on trees was recalled by a villager in 2010, some fifty years later, when I returned to Bishnupur.
Overcoming a setback at MJBHS
All the extra-curricular had to be put on hold during exam period. I used to become dead serious, like other top students were throughout the year. I had a strong desire of being at the top of my class. The accolades and the respect associated with being the top student of a top-notch school was too great to let go of it. Through celebration and school assembly declarations Headmaster recognized his school's top performers. I revered top students of MJBHS, thinking one of them might be the next Matin.
News spread fast in the villages, through a chain of human mouths. Kids used to come to our house to watch me study. I liked the attention initially, but their prolonged staring made me feel uncomfortable. I started feeling nervous sensations in abdomen and spine.
A top student of the school, the late Liaquatullah Patwari (LP), my father's direct student, who was five years my senior academically, called me one evening from the main hostel playground to his room. He then asked me to recite the reasons for the fall of the Mughal Empire, which I had learnt from the book of my elder brother. He wanted to confirm what he had heard about me in school.
Praises by LP and others went to my head and had an adverse effect on my class VI scholarship exam, when I ran out of time writing class-IX materials in class-VI history paper. That combined with father's death a few weeks before the exam and having a demotivated math teacher resulted in my not getting the class VI scholarship, even though I was the top student from the school. But I did not lose heart, as I knew the reasons for the setback. Headmaster was jittery, as I was his hope for the 1965 SSC. He went out recruiting and brought in Idris Ali Mazumder (IAM), who had placed second in the scholarship exam from another village school. In class VIII scholarship, I placed second among all the students. Headmaster came home to take me to school. On the way, he gave me the good news and said, 'Your next focus should be on SSC.' The spot where he said that is still in my memory. And the words he said are still ringing in my ears.
My results caught our acquaintances' attention. Some were attributing my results to being the very 'last son' of a sexagenarian Bhatcharj. (The words 'very last' are used here as a sanitized paraphrasing of a local Bengali expression.) They were also alluding to my being born of father's second marriage, following the natural death of my step-mother. They had a reason to. Some of my step-siblings' children were of my age. Father was old enough to be my grandfather!
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