He may sound an unlikely hero, but Yeasin Pathan’s solitary struggle is the stuff legends are made of. He may look an unlikely saviour, but the frail man’s light eyes are alive with a brightness that can only come from a burning passion.
A school peon, a devout Muslim, a father, a husband, a brother, but above all a ‘fanatic’, Pathan has been consumed by his cause to save the terracotta temples of Pathra for the past three decades. “I saw people breaking off pieces of the mandir and protested. They could not understand why I should care, but I just couldn’t watch them destroy our cultural heritage,” explains Pathan.
Though his efforts have received acclaim from the highest quarters, he still battles penury and threats while trying — successfully — to preserve a piece of our heritage in a village of Midnapore. But on Saturday, Pathan’s bright eyes clouded with tears shed not for his beloved temples. They were tears of joy, sorrow and wonder, as he gave away prizes for outstanding courage demonstrated by schoolchildren at The Telegraph School Awards for Excellence. “It was one of the most cherished moments of my life,” smiled Pathan. “To see kids who have struggled so much is truly amazing,” he said after the ceremony.
The recipients of the Surrendra Paul Memorial Award for Courage had Science City on its feet to applaud their tales of valour. There was Mandeep Kaur, of National High School for Girls, who has lost her legs to polio, but still climbs flights of stairs to class, refusing any special help. Pramatesh Pal, with only partial control over his limbs, who travels two hours every day by public transport to reach the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy, Taratala. And many more.
The winner in this category was Aparupa Banerjee, whose world was ripped apart by a fatal road accident this June. She had gone to Mayapur with her family. After a darshan, they wished to go to Krishnagar to see the clay-doll market. Travelling in an auto-rickshaw, they were hit by a speeding lorry.
When 15-year-old Aparupa regained consciousness, she was stunned by what she saw. Her mother, father, aunt and uncle were all “lying on the road, bleeding”. Her two little cousins were safe, but no adult was conscious, and she was sure her uncle was dead. “All I was thinking was how to get them some help as fast as possible,” says the Class X student of United Missionary Girls’ School.
She managed to get the injured to the hospital. Her uncle did not make it. Aparupa took charge, after getting three stitches for her own head wounds, dealing with doctors and the police. Later that night, Aparupa’s father succumbed to his internal haemorrhages.
Her mother and her aunt are still recovering. But Aparupa, carried by some strange inner strength, is now back in school and is keeping her family’s spirits up. “I don’t know where it is coming from… I just had to carry on,” she shrugs.
Pathan was overwhelmed sharing a stage with such young spirit. “I don’t think I have ever been to such a big event,” he said shyly. The day was a big one for him in more ways than one: The Telegraph Education Foundation has agreed to give the Rs 20,000 necessary for Pathan to print a book on the historical importance of Pathra’s mandirs. With five of the 34 remaining temples already being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India, thanks to his persistence, things are looking up for the centuries-old site near Kharagpur.