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Children of a greater God

Every holy book and management bible will tell you that sometimes you need to get away from the rat race and ‘retreat’ within yourself to search your soul. I know corporate heads who do it once a year and priests and nuns who do it more often. Some retreat to ashrams, others to Ayurveda Wellness Centres to meditate, think, feel, re-focus, reaffirm and even cry.

For some of us, The Telegraph School Awards for Excellence has become our annual ‘retreat’. The ‘some of us’ includes principals, teachers, students and parents, and amazingly, even priests, nuns and corporate heads. It also includes my colleagues Biswanath, Somnath, Partha and all at Heritage who have made it their mission to find unsung heroes from villages unknown and schools unheralded. We too meditate, think, feel, refocus, reaffirm and even cry.

Last Saturday, it was pilgrimage day, the ashram once again being the Science City auditorium. This time we had an economist-politician as our chief pilgrim. You and I know that it takes a lot to move a mountain, more to move an economist and even more to move a politician. But our special pilgrim was Dr Manmohan Singh, an economist-politician out-of-the-ordinary. He was moved, and he said so. Several times in his speech he referred to how “the extraordinary spectacle” of The Telegraph School Awards for Excellence, in association with Khadim’s, had touched him so deeply. The spectacle was extraordinary because it was all about ordinary people leading extraordinary lives without even realising it, let alone expecting to be honoured for it. It was about Dasarath Pandey of Rishra Vidyapith, who earns 11 rupees for every corpse he performs the last rites for. Having had to take over prematurely from his asthmatic father who had become allergic to smoke, Dasarath ‘does’ a corpse a day to support his family — even on exam days. In fact, on the mornings of most of his Madhyamik papers, he would do his duty at Sreerampur Jaganath Burning Ghat in Hooghly, then rush to the exam centre. From the grief of experiencing death close up, a few hours later, he had to adjust to the silence of the examination hall. He did, and passed with a second division.

Recipients of the Abhirup Bhadra Memorial ‘Thank you Baba-Maa’ Award, Pratima and Dulal Ghosh (extreme right) greet Soumya Bhattacharya of BE College Model School and parents Srabani and Parimal, also recipients of the same award, at The Telegraph School Awards for Excellence at Science City

It was about Arpita Mitra of Dinhata Girls High School, Cooch Behar, who passed the Madhyamik relying solely on her lip-reading skills, because she is 100 per cent hearing and speech-impaired. It was about Nasim Ali Mondol who scored 844 out of 1000 in this year’s HS — which is more than what his father earns every month tying bidis. It was about Arnab Kar of Burdwan, who, in spite of having the burden of a Rs 50,000-loan for his father’s treatment, scored 91 per cent in the HS, ranked 186th in the Joint Entrance and is now studying at NRS Medical College. It was about Pradip Singha, who helps his ma to sell lal shak while his bedridden father stays home — a little hut near a garbage dump in the Dhapa area. That didn’t depress or distract Pradip; he scored 81 per cent in the Madhyamik exams.

It was about Gorachand Dutta, the son of a thonga-seller in Panskura, who scored 88 per cent; and Rupa Manna, the daughter of a fishmonger in Shibpur, who won two golds and a silver at the 12th Yoga Olympiad in Portugal in July this year; and Manirul Haque who lost one hand and the use of the other, after being electrocuted. Superboy Manirul, controlling the pen between his teeth, scored more marks in his school-leaving exam than I did with the pen firmly gripped between my fingers.

As I stood beside these giants, I felt so small, so humbled. I couldn’t help but compare myself with them: with everything on a platter, I can’t achieve half the things they have. With everything running for me, I can’t get halfway to where they have. Or, for that matter, where educators and founders like Bharati Mitra and C.R. Gasper have taken Nava Nalanda and St Augustine’s over the last three decades; or, for that matter, where father-figures Dr M.C. Alexander and Basudeb Bhattacharya have taken Grace Ling Liang and Hariyana Vidya Mandir.

Theirs’ has been a lifetime of dedication and devotion to their schools, which is why Meera Singh of Chowringhee KG and Day School did not marry and a galaxy of achievers of Ballygunge Government alumni was there to salute Suprabhat Chakraborty. Saluting them were corporates who care, and show that they care: Khadim’s, Patton, Ambuja Cement, Sanjeevani, Eveready, Balrampur Chini Mills, Frank Brothers, Guidance and the Apeejay Surrendra group.

Masud-ur-Rehman Baidya, Manoj Ghosh and Temba Tsheri Sherpa

Applauding them were schools that had themselves excelled to be on the honours list: from Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and Salt Lake School to Agrasain Balika Siksha Sadan, MC Kejriwal Vidyapeeth and Sunrise in Liluah; from St Xavier’s Institution in Panihati to Dreamland School in Howrah and Little Star in Bally. Every year schools, each so special, yet so different from each other and so far apart, come together on the same stage. Every year there is a theme that sets us thinking. Last year it was the birth of a movement of peace and brotherhood, with Martinian Souvik Banerjee promising to go to Pakistan with the message. Souvik and I returned from Karachi earlier this year, and though the killing continues and the mistrust remains, our movement grows. Inshallah, if our visas come through, 40 Souviks and I will go across to Pakistan next January with a mother leading us from the front. She is Shukla Bandopadhyay, who told a stunned audience that morning that she would love to go with us to meet Pakistani mothers who have lost their sons ‘to this madness’. She lost her only son, Captain Anirban of the Gurkha Regiment, shot through the heart defending his men in Kashmir on the 23rd of March last year. She doesn’t want others to lose theirs.While that movement continues, another began with this year’s theme highlighted by the Chairman of The Telegraph Education Foundation, Neil O’Brien: ‘Are we putting too much pressure on our children'’ Amidst spine-chilling facts that education-related suicide deaths in India outnumber poverty and dowry-related ones, Joydeep Palit’s ‘Hritaal’ showed their class in an electrifying performance to Suman and Anjan’s ‘schooler bag ta baddo bhadi’.

The curtain rang down with a final message of hope when the stage lit up with Katy Lai Roy’s closing act with skaters trained by Madhuchhanda Sanyal of M. B. Girls HS School. The star skaters of M. B. Girls matched steps with those from Zenith of Lake Club as they danced to the tune of Calcutta International’s Shanu Banerjee, as Dana Roy and the Ballygunge Shiksha Sadan choir sang out orphan Annie’s message that ‘the sun will come out tomorrow’.

We left Science City with lumps in our throats, wet handkerchiefs in our pockets and humility in our hearts, convinced that the sun will definitely come out for today’s unknown heroes — tomorrow and forever.

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