| Bakul Chatterjee with her books. At 78, Chatterjee is Shibnath Shastri College’s oldest fresher. A promise made to her husband and a glimpse of a new world keep her going. Picture by Amit Datta
Friday was Bakul Chatterjee’s first day of college. She, like her BA (general) batchmates, passed the Higher Secondary (HS) exams this year. She, like her fellow students, attended the freshers’ welcome from ‘seniors’ at Shibnath Shastri College.
But Chatterjee is most unlike other students. She is a 78-year-old woman, who enrolled for admission after clearing HS 24 years after she passed Madhyamik, at age 54.
Armed with a hearing aid and decades of perseverance, Chatterjee — one of whose grandsons is in an engineering college — enjoyed every bit of the freshers’ welcome she got from her ‘seniors’ on Friday, and the dollops of extra attention as the oldest college student in town.
The frail Chatterjee, living a few hundred metres away from her college, was dropped home by her new classmates. Perhaps they will become friends, but she is ever-conscious of the difference between them, which, she believes, extends beyond the gulf created by her years.
“I am far more tenacious and determined than them,” feels the mother of five. “I doubt my story will inspire the present generation, though,” rues the careworn woman, who doesn’t feel that telling her tale can “serve any purpose”. Chatterjee, who was born in Faridpur district’s Madarpur sub-division (now in Bangladesh) and was married into a family in Dinajpur (also in Bangladesh), passed Madhyamik in 1979. That was just before the death of her husband, S.C. Chatterjee, an engineer with the central public works department. “It was my husband who made me promise not give up my studies, come what may,” recounts Chatterjee.
She kept her promise, appearing for the HS exams two years later. But, by this time, studies had taken a back seat to her other responsibilities, and she failed the exams.
Chatterjee, however, was not one to give up. She continued to appear for the exams year after year — “I have lost count of the exact number of times” — and finally cleared them in 2003. This try was particularly difficult, she admits, following the death of one of her sons, Ranajit, last October. “I took to bed for three months, but managed to pick up the pieces after that,” she muses.
Chatterjee is excited about her life ahead, as are those who have the chance to share it. Students’ union general secretary Soma Sensharma is amongst them. “We have assured her that we will do our best to make her feel at home,” she smiles.
Dhruba Mukherjee agrees: “She seemed a little nervous when she came for admission, worried that she might have trouble because of her hearing problems. But we told her we would help her pull through.”
For Chatterjee, however, grief has tempered her happiness at getting this late chance at an education. One of the main reasons she persevered with her books was to shut out the sorrow of losing her husband and her son.
But the memory of a promise made long ago and the glimpse of a new world will keep Chatterjee going.