Old age perhaps induces idle thoughts. Many of these are of regret and contrition. One such depressing attack of conscience that continues tormenting me concerns an unpaid debt of a seemingly insignificant amount.
It was January, 1951. I was hurrying out of Lucknow’s Charbag rail-way station. Someone I was together with in the undergraduate classes, but not very close, was entering the platform to catch the train I had just left. We stopped and exchanged a few polite pleasantries. A snafu occurred at that moment. I had to pay off either the porter or a vendor, and discovered I had no small change with me to pay the two rupees that were needed. As I was scouring my pockets, the college acquaintance took out two one-rupee coins from his purse and handed them over. Embarrassed, I thanked him profusely and promised to return the sum at the first opportunity. He responded with the usual no-mention phraseology. It was getting late, he headed towards the direction of the train. In my state of confession, I forgot to ask him his address.
As it happened, I never met this college acquaintance again. I had vaguely heard he was with the sales unit of a pharmaceutical firm in Calcutta, but had left it after a while to join an altogether different occupation. The next thing I heard was that he had died early, in his mid- forties. I made one or two perfunctory enquiries about the whereabouts of his family and let the matter drop. The two-rupee loan was no longer returnable, that was that.
Gerontocracy forms its own rules. The memory of the two one-rupee coins I borrowed, and of never redeeming the borrowing, keeps haunting me. The idle mind indulges in some weird arithmetic. What was Rs 2 in the early 1950s if compounded annually at a rate of interest of 10 per cent, will now be at least Rs 890; that is to say, this is the amount I owe the family of the college acquaintance. Since the judiciary has of late been making to parties, whose money the government had been dilly-dallying to pay for some reason or other, summary payment of the full amount along with penal interest at 12 per cent per annum, there is no reason why I should cavil at offering interest of 10 per cent at the compounded rate for the money I owe, and offer a lump sum that would amount to Rs 890. But wait, this estimate is on the basis of 1951 prices. The general price level has, no question, risen by more than 100 times over the past sixty-odd years. So, to be scrupulously fair, I must agree to pay a minimum of one hundred thousand rupees to the successors of my college acquaintance. I know his family would never come forward to claim it, nor would I take the smallest step to trace them and redeem my debt. But the torment will not go away.
My financial liability at this moment for the two rupees I was compelled to borrow at the mid-point of the last century is, at least, calculable. But what about the scores and scores of kind gestures from others that one has benefited from over the years, the true worth of which is beyond measurement in terms of either money or some other criterion? For instance, can I put my hand on my heart and dare to assert exactly how much I owe to my teachers in the government school where I studied in the sleepy district town in eastern Bengal in the 1930s?
It may be an extraordinarily outrageous remark to make, but its substance is irrefutable: the global economic difficulties coinciding with my span of childhood were tremendously fortunate for us schoolgoers in that period. It was the nadir of the Depression, and there was, in any case, little scope for a steady earning through physical exertion. The Bengali middle class, given its aversion for manual work, was unable to shed the cultural norm categorised as derogatory. Calcutta University exercised its jurisdiction over around ten colleges in Calcutta and perhaps another twenty or thereabouts strewn across Bengal. They routinely produced close to one thousand graduates in diverse disciplines every year, and the university on its own poured out maybe 250 to 300 youngsters who had passed the post-graduate examinations in different disciplines. To this stream got annually added the driblet of graduate and postgraduate degree-holders from the fledgling, but star-studded, University of Dacca. Only a few — very few — were lucky to be absorbed in the two universities either as junior lecturers or research scholars. Perhaps another 25 to 30 of them — the crème de la crème with brilliant academic backgrounds would get appointed to teaching positions in the vacancies created by the retirement or death of teachers. The rest were at the mercy of the precarious labour market.
A beeline for job opportunities within the government, which supposedly ensured greater security and a comfortable salary scale, was, of course, always there. The Indian Civil Service and somewhat less distinguished categories in the Central government were either the remotest dream or few and far between; the crowding was for openings in the provincial government. Every year, there was at best scope for taking in barely 20 sub-deputy magistrates and munsifs. Competition was stiff enough, but doing well in the compulsory tests and coming out with flying colours were not enough. In the view of the alien rulers, a Bengali young man was bound to have some link with this or that secret revolutionary terrorist group and police verification would often weed out aspirants who had emerged successful in the entry test. The number of the lucky few would still not exceed a bare couple of dozens. Once absorption in the government was out, the next coveted target was an entry into a lowly position in a British managing agency or a commercial firm such as Bird and Company or the Ralli Brothers. But unless someone had ‘connections’, the chance of getting entry into such concerns was thin.
The vast majority of fresh graduates — many with first class university degrees — would join the huge multitude of unemployed graduates and post-graduates from preceding years in the hunt for a living. A substantial number from among them had both a creative imagination and the urge to express themselves. With idle time and empty belly, some of them turned to writing poetry or fiction or to compose lyrics, which they would set to music. This would explain to a large extent the qualitative shift in Bengali literature and music in the 1930s.
A number of the hitherto jobless would secure assignments in Calcutta at Rs 25 to 30 a month with this or that private company of dubious background on a temporary basis. They would stay in cheap hostelry in the city and manage to remit home in the villages or small towns of Bengal the precious sum of five or ten rupees every month. A crop of private banks would open and shut almost as frequently; they would offer a young man a clerical post which would fetch Rs 60 or 70 a month, provided he managed to procure in advance a deposit with the bank from an affluent relative or acquaintance, the minimum stipulated amount being around Rs 5,000. It was much too stiff a proposition for most, and the story therefore ended there. A very large number of such young men turned into insurance agents. But, since their earning was exclusively on the basis of commission from completed insurance deals, an insurance agent was more an honorific designation for someone who was out of work.
Every year, the pool would grow by a few hundred additional numbers. Many among the employment seekers held first-class Master’s degree in the arts or sciences; some had also completed a graduate course in teachers’ training and were placed in the first class. Lady Luck would smile on a select few of them; they would be offered a teaching post in a high school and would join post-haste. About 20 or thereabouts among those, holding both a first-class Master’s degree and a first-class degree in teachers’ training, would be favoured with a teaching post in any of the 15 or so high schools run by the provincial government in the dream scale of Rs 75 to 125; in private schools, the corresponding scale was Rs 25-50 or at most Rs 30-60 per month.
I had got admitted to a government high school in the district town and became what I became because of the love and effort put in by these groups of teachers. Some of them possessed a brilliance of mind and could claim a depth of knowledge that would put to shame quite a few of those who occupy a professional chair in any of the universities of the country these days. They were reconciled to their fate and applied themselves with intense seriousness to teaching naïve youngsters like us. The average size of a class did not usually exceed 25 to 30, and the teachers made it a point to spare the time to look into the problems, if any, encountered by a particular student. At the same time, they really felt proud and happy to come across a little kid with more than average intelligence and gripped by an innate thirst for knowledge. It is as if they had taken a pledge to shape this boy into a miraculous genius. Even after the boy had finished school and was plunged into the fray of life and facing its magnificent, sometimes adverse challenges, these teachers would refuse to lose track of him, his disappointments were their own, his triumphs were their adequate laurels.
How do I quantify what I owe to these teachers in my school? The expression, ‘incalculable’, has its own dignity and splendour. My debt to them is incalculable, and therefore unrequitable.