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Salute to tallest trio in statistics

- A student remembers Gun-Gupta-Dasgupta ahead of Presi felicitation

To be among the chosen 14 in Presidency’s marquee department was an achievement in itself. And then, to be taught by one of the authors of one of India’s seminal texts on statistics — a fascinating, difficult and at times exasperating subject — was a privilege.

But for a long-haired, lanky 19-year-old, that sense of achievement turned to, first, naught and then to mortal fear, after coming face to face with Atindra Mohan Gun, who along with Milan Kumar Gupta and Bhagabat Dasgupta, had penned Fundamentals of Statistics, the Bible for undergraduate studies in statistics in India.

The year was 1983, and Prof Gun was head of the department of statistics at what was then Presidency College. During his weekly classes on probability and its many imponderables, the one we all particularly dreaded was the double period at the beginning of the week.

His teaching was thorough, leaving no room for doubt. And once you thought you had grasped it all, he would suddenly summon you to the blackboard in front of that mini lecture theatre of our tidy department on the 2nd floor of the Baker Laboratory building, and ask you to solve the problem he had just begun.

My fear was that I would invariably mess it up after a few steps. I did on a few occasions. And that look in his eyes was enough to tell me that I had failed him. He didn’t need to utter a word.

But then, he had the right to be unhappy, upset even. For he was so meticulous in the way he approached probability. He had to be. Otherwise, you don’t live statistics, day in and day out — first as a student in the Fifties, then as teacher and later as head of the department, set up in 1944 and functioning out of the few rooms from where Prof P.C. Mahalanobis had initially launched the Indian Statistical Institute.

Prof Milan Gupta recalls his first day at Presidency as an intermediate student, lost in the hallowed precincts of an institute far removed from his hometown in erstwhile East Bengal. Searching for his class, he remembers walking through the corridors of Baker building and chancing upon a nameplate of Prof Mahalanobis and ISI.

Did that seal his decision to finally choose statistics over physics at Presidency, after a brief flirtation with chemical engineering at JU? Or was it after watching his Hindu Hostel roommate from Nepal tossing a coin repeatedly in furrowed-brow seriousness while conducting a simple experiment on, what else, probability?

When we were in college, the department had already lost Prof. Bhagabat Dasgupta to the education directorate, where he disproved the notion that teachers make poor administrators. “I have enjoyed my teaching in Presidency College and would like to return to teaching,” he later wrote in the 1982 reunion journal.

Now in their eighties, they seem to all crave the same, a sentiment that comes across while explaining the raison d’etre of the Fundamentals of Statistics, first published as a single volume in 1962. “In those days, we used to study tomes by Yule & Kendall, Uspensksy, et al. There was no book tuned to our undergraduate studies,” explained Prof Gun, now frail due to periodic bouts of asthma.

Prof Gun was the senior of the lot, the sixth batch of the undergraduate department that was set up in Presidency in 1944, three years after Calcutta University began post-graduate studies. Professors Gupta and Dasgupta were in the seventh batch.

Soon, they were to add several more books to the reigning pantheon of texts, namely, An Outline of Statistics Vol-I,II; Basic Statistics (for students of other disciplines) and, of course, a reworked Fundamentals in two volumes.

If Presidency was the cradle of the evolution of statistics in India, then the trio of Gun, Gupta, Dasgupta were the torchbearers for future learners. “Apart from being legendary professors, their contribution to the development of teaching statistics has been unparalleled,” said Biswanath Das, their student and our teacher.

His memories are priceless.

If a student of statistics was allowed to pursue interests other than academics, it was sport. For Prof Gun it was cricket, as Das and the others found out while appearing for an examination.

India was about to register its first win against Australia. Jesubhai Patel had scalped many of Richie Benaud’s men (he ended the match with 14 for 124) and the nation was eagerly awaiting the outcome. “We could barely concentrate on our exam. Finally, I mustered the courage to ask, ‘Sir, khelar ki holo ektu bolben (Sir, what’s the state of the match)? The others were aghast. You don’t ask Prof Gun such questions. But to our relief, he smiled and mumbled, ‘Jitey gechhey… tomra lekho (They have won…you write). We got back to our exam. The celebrations would have to wait,” Das recalled.

Many years later, I extracted what I now sense was a similar smile from Prof Gun. “Dekho, onek sundar lagche na okey (Doesn’t he look good now)?” he asked, pointing to me in the front row. I had got rid of my shoulder-length hair. The professor approved. The class roared in mock appreciation.

The statistics department has now shifted to the top floor of Derozio Hall. I recognised the teak cupboards that used to house books, stationery and Facit machines, a typewriter-like noisy contraption meant to be a calculator. Luckily, Calcutta University would allow us use of electronic calculators in our examinations.

The amiable Pipul Datta, now head of the department, is able to use the rigour of the subject, no doubt honed under the tutelage of the famed trio, to steer the ship and ensure today’s students are shielded from the pangs of transition.

“I am happy that the legendary troika will be felicitated at the department,” that is about all he managed to say, multitasking between students’ recommendation letters, academic commitments and sending out word to ex-students about the year’s Teachers’ Day function.

He has just finished collating a list of the department’s fixed assets, which is to be sent to the university administration. Typed and ready, it has to be sent across to the main building, about 50 metres away, through a path that winds its way beside a playground.

An office assistant will have to walk across. The department of statistics is without an Internet connection ever since the chemistry lab fire of October 2010.