Matlab High School's way-ahead-of-his-time headmaster, the late Waliullah Patwari, was worried at the plight of his 1965 batch's best hope of placing among the top three in the class 10 board exams. As insurance, he kept on bringing in top students from other schools every year, a practice he pioneered. But he did not give up on me either. One day in the school veranda, headmaster became my physician. He treated me with a glass of drinking water blessed with an Arabic prayer. He was a Muslim and I was a Hindu Brahmin boy wearing a 'sacred thread', a loop of seven hand-spun strings (made by my mother) hugging my torso, running from the left shoulder to my right hip. Despite my difficulties, I continued to maintain my class position, in all six years of high school. I also fulfilled headmaster's hope in the class 10 board exams. Elated after hearing the result, he picked me up from home and gave me a fatherly hug after disclosing the good news. He then whispered, although nobody was around, the bad news. The board officials had lowered my original ranking. They did so, because, in headmaster's words, I was 'a fatherless Hindu minority student from a village school, with no power to protest'. He then consoled me by saying: 'Baba (a father's affectionate addressing of his son), you'll do well. You've tenacity of purpose!' It was 1965 and I was fifteen. I was, albeit, happy with my result and humbled by the observation of a sagacious --- fair-complexioned with a sharp nose, wearing a Tagore-like beard --- headmaster.
A similar observation would be made several years later, in the late sixties, some 12000 km away from Matlab, in Minneapolis, USA, by another educator. Dr Norman Garmezy, a developmental psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, noticed a boy coming to a school, carrying in a bag 'two slices of bread, with nothing in between' (11 February, 2016, New Yorker). The boy made the same lunch every day, as no other food was available at home. Father was absent and mother was alcoholic. In the face of adversity, the boy did well in school. Dr Garmezy described him as being 'resilient'. And the field of resiliency in psychology was born.
Two school boys: one in Matlab and the other in Minneapolis, both without fathers and both distressed, both overcoming adversity. One identified as possessing 'tenacity of purpose' (resiliency) by a village headmaster in then a poor country; and the other identified as being 'resilient' by a psychologist from a university in a rich country. Remarkably, both boys had been resilient even before the word resilient was coined.
Resiliency is an innate human trait for rebounding from a setback or a handicap or an adverse situation.
Besides being a world-class educator, Mr Patwari proved to be a pioneering psychologist, in my opinion, predating even Dr Garmezy in discovering resilient students. Unlike Dr Garmezy, he did not have to travel to schools searching for distressed kids (except for the top-of-the-class recruits); they came to his school, over several decades of his tenure there. Mr Patwari also predated modern-day psychologists in practicing the 'placebo effect', by treating me with 'blessed water'.
Of late, while reviewing resiliency literature, I unearthed, to my utter surprise, that variations of some of the skills, I had developed at Matlab in the early sixties, at ages 13 to 15, and later honed at BUET and in India, as a refugee during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War --- are what modern-day psychologists teach others, who are not naturally resilient, to be resilient.
Resiliency resides in 'some' of those, who are not born with silver spoons in their mouths and to 'some' of whom successes are not proffered on polished silver platters. For those driven 'some', it is an asset like 'gold', ensconced in their cores, to be tapped into in times of setbacks.
Bangladeshi char (a river island) dwellers possess such innate resiliency to rebound from setbacks. In an article on rising sea level, they are praised for being 'probably the most resilient people on Earth' ('The Coming Storm', National Geographic, May 2011). These hardy souls abandon a char that is disappearing under rising river water and relocate to a new one appearing elsewhere, to start afresh. Matlab and my ancestral village Bishnupur are not too far away from those chars. I once saw, in the Matlab chartable dispensary, a victim of a fight over the ownership of a new char. The fallen fellow had a three-pronged spear stuck to his face.
The world has no shortage of resilient kids and adults. Wilma Rudolph, an African-American athlete, overcame childhood deformity in her polio-stricken leg to win, not one but three sprinting gold medals in the 1960 Tokyo Olympics. Nelson Mandela survived 27 years of incarceration to end apartheid and become the first black president of South Africa. He captured the essence of resiliency in a cogent quote: 'The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.'
Reliance on resilience has helped me rise a little from my most recent fall --- the reason for the procedure at the Foothills. Over the past three months, while training for the upcoming ABUETA Vancouver Marathon, I have run longer than 21.1 km, at a stretch. In so doing, I have surpassed my doctor's suggested target of running a half-marathon --- not once, but multiple times. In those week-end long runs, resiliency made up for my weakened cardiovascular and muscular shortcomings. Our body is stronger than we think!
On 1 May, 2016, the day of the marathon, images of two school boys: one wearing a sacred thread over a shirtless torso and the other carrying a sandwich bag will stoke my ensconced childhood resiliency. 'Tenacious Tapan!' in a rural Matlab accent, will whisper one pioneer, while 'Resilient!' in a polished Minneapolis accent, will counter another. Image of an African-American female runner, breasting the finish-line tape of an Olympics sprint event, will increase my own leg turn-over rate, while eyeing the finish line in Vancouver. There, a finisher medal will be placed over my shoulder and sur mon c?ur, by a volunteer. 'Glory is in rising after a fall,' in a South African accent, will utter a noble figure. It will be a victory of resiliency!r (The End.)
Tapan Chakrabarty --- a BUET chemical engineer with a PhD from the University of Waterloo, a seven-continent marathon finisher, an inventor, an innovator, and a columnist --- writes from Calgary, Canada