Teachers’ Day came and went last week. Emails were forwarded to me written by students as tributes to their teachers. Some gushing, some misplaced. But they set me thinking about some of the teachers I had had so many years ago. Could I think of them bereft of nostalgia?
I went to a school located in a crowded and dingy part of Calcutta. The school was named after the city — Calcutta Boys’ School. It was the only school I went to and during my 11 years there, the school was dominated by the then principal, Clifford Hicks, who was a legend, as he made CBS into an outstanding academic institution. He was a terror who believed in ruling by instilling fear among the students. His corporal punishments often bordered on sadism. I remember that, even in middle school, I used to tremble whenever I heard his voice. The ideological ambience of the school articulated in chapel everyday by Mr Hicks was a bizarre mishmash of Bible thumping, crude pro-American propaganda and an endless rant against Jawaharlal Nehru and communism. Looking back, I wonder if Mr Hicks was not a minor player in the Cold War. He could also be extraordinarily kind. I know of two brothers — the elder now a physicist and the other a well known economist — who would never have been able to continue their education in CBS had it not been for Mr Hicks’s generosity. Mr Hicks had many qualities but my overwhelming memory of him is that of fear and of nepotism — of which, in senior school, I was a beneficiary. I cannot count him as a teacher who made me unless one takes negative impact to be an influence. As an adult, his memory made me aware of what not to be.
There were other teachers in school who moulded my mind in ways that Mr Hicks would perhaps not have approved. One such was Swapan Chakrabarti, who taught us very briefly in middle school and then left to join the IAS. To a growing boy beginning to come to terms with the corpus of knowledge lying outside school textbooks, he came as a breath of fresh air. I remember him giving me a copy of Now, the magazine that Samar Sen, the radical poet and journalist, edited. This in CBS was a subversive act and I think Swapanbabu did it deliberately to take me out of Mr Hicks’s cloistered world. It was the first moment of liberation, never forgotten. How does one say thank you for that?
I read somewhere that there was a form master at Eton, who, when he met the sixth formers for the first time, used to ask, “Do you want me to cram you for a first or do you want me to open up your minds?” In CBS, in the senior classes, Santi Roy did not quite pose this question but went on for three full years to open up our minds. Looking back, I am amazed at how much I learnt from his classes. He was supposed to teach us Bengali, more specifically Tagore’s memoirs, Jivan Smriti, and some of his essays. These were the set texts. But he taught us so much more — about literature and life.
William Torrick did not open up our minds but he taught us how to write English simply and correctly. In my profession today I can see how important those lessons were.
If one Chakrabarti initiated me into the world outside of Hicks’s empire, another Chakravarti, Asim, in my last year in school, gave that world more specific content and direction. He pointed me to Presidency College, its tradition of teaching and its legendary teachers. It was from him that I first heard the name of Ashin Das Gupta.
Of Das Gupta I have written elsewhere and at length. Suffice to say that he was the best teacher I have ever had at any level. Within the classroom, in a quiet and undemonstrative way, he would begin from simple first premises — one example, “In 1707, the Mughal Empire was in crisis’’ — but by the time the set of lectures was over one was standing at the frontiers of research on that subject. Each and every lecture of 50 minutes, delivered without notes, was a chiselled gem. He taught me how to analyse and how to express that analysis with brevity and lucidity. Outside the classroom he made me read books and articles often outside the syllabus and ridiculed me when I didn’t read or when I parroted other people’s views. He taught me to think for myself and when I did, his eyes twinkled. That used to make my day: the memory of that often does even today.
Learning was not confined to the institutional confines of school and college. Pranati Dey (the wife of the poet, Bishnu Dey, and then a member of the English faculty of Jadavpur University), a close family friend — someone I called an aunt — took it upon herself to teach me Macbeth, which had been prescribed as the text for our school-leaving examination. For two years, twice a week she read the play with me line by line, teaching me how to read the play, to look for meanings of words and the significance of scenes and characters. She gave me long-playing records of Laurence Olivier and Paul Scofield to listen to. Her thorough teaching came flooding back to me a few weeks ago when I was sitting through a Bengali rendering of the play. I could immediately locate every gloss on and deviation from the original.
While an undergraduate at Presidency College, I came into contact with Barun De, who as a teacher in the early 1970s was utterly different from any other teacher I have encountered. If Das Gupta had given me analytical depth, De gave me analytical breadth. He introduced me to historiography and the debates of historians. He made me read Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson, Lewis Namier, Lucy Sutherland, Marc Bloch, Ranajit Guha and many other masters of the historian’s craft. He radiated historical learning and I was fortunate that he took me under his wing and guided my first steps in research.
I have kept the most important teacher till the last because he is the most difficult to write about. I adopted Asok Sen as my mentor when I was 17. He, poor man, had no choice in the matter. His small sitting room with books and Jamini Roy paintings all around was the best university I went to. In the beginning he talked and I listened —Marx, history, literature, philosophy, theatre and cinema. Imperceptibly he pushed my young mind forward to read, to think, to question. Very soon our meetings, often lasting for hours, took on the nature of discussion. And that is how it has remained over the last four decades and a little more. Even today my first discussion regarding any new intellectual idea is always with him in that small sitting room.
None of these teachers crammed me for a first but they did light up my mind and formed my sensibilities. They gifted to me something that I cherish, something invaluable.
They taught without expectation of any kind of state honour or award. They taught, in the words of another great teacher, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, as they “watch[ed] the gentle opening of… infant minds [and]… the mirror of futurity”. A student’s remembrance is their best, and perhaps only, felicitation.