The Telegraph
Wednesday , October 3 , 2012
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Since 1st March, 1999

Seek and ye shall find beauty of Bengal
At 82, quest for meaning

Ajit Chanda takes the first paper of the MA Part II Bengali examination at Krishnadebpur High School on the outskirts of Burdwan town on Sunday. Picture by Krishna Das

Banglar mukh ami dekhiachhi/ Tai ami prithibir rup khujite jai na ar (I have seen the face of Bengal/ So the beauty of the earth I seek no more).


Oct. 2: Few who have seen contemporary Bengal can be faulted for asking what Jibanananda Das, the most widely read Bengali poet after Tagore, meant when he penned the lines.

But when Pratyusha Chanda, a 17-year-old student, asked her grandfather the same question, Ajit concluded that he needed domain knowledge on the subject. So, he enrolled himself for a post graduate course in Bengali at Burdwan University.

Two years later this Sunday, Ajit took the first paper of the MA Part II Bengali exam.

Never mind the retired headmaster from Hooghly is 82.

Pratyusha was in Class X when she approached her grandfather with the question on the poem, popularly known as Banglar Mukh (The Face of Bengal), that was part of a collection published posthumously in 1957.

“I felt bad when I could not answer my granddaughter’s question. I started reading the works of Jibanananda and Rabindranath Tagore in detail. I thought of delving deeper into Bengali language and literature and, in order to do it, I decided to do my MA in Bengali and enrolled in the correspondence course of Burdwan University,” said Ajit, who retired as headmaster at Akna Union High School at Polba in Hooghly.

Soumen Konar, the headmaster of Krishnadebpur High School, described the uncommon sight that unfolded on Sunday, September 30, when over 800 students took the MA Part II Bengali exam at the school.

“I saw an old man walking into the school, carrying some books. I thought he had come with his grandchild who is a candidate. But the old man slowly walked up and asked me if I was the headmaster. When I introduced myself, he declared he was a candidate and requested me to provide him a seat where there is a lot of light. I was surprised and gave him a seat as requested,” Konar said.

The additional director of distance education of Burdwan University, Nabakumar Ghosh, said: “Ajit Chanda cleared his MA Part I Bengali papers last year. We all know about him because we were surprised when he enrolled in the course in 2010 at such an old age.” Ajit will have to appear for three more papers.

Ghosh then cleared the air, just in case anyone is wondering: “Ajit Chanda is our oldest student.”

A resident of Naldanga in Hooghly’s Bandel, Ajit explained why he did not hesitate to enrol himself at such an advanced age: “I am basically a teacher and I am always eager to learn.”

His story also holds a mirror to the struggle of a generation that did not give up when the going got tough.

“When I passed matriculation from Akna Union High School in Polba in 1951, my father did not have a job and I could not continue my studies. I got a job as a teacher in a primary school on a salary of Rs 43 to support my parents and a younger brother,” he said. “In 1962, I completed my intermediate and then did my BA in English, appearing for both exams as a private candidate. Meanwhile, I got a job in a high school as an English and Sanskrit teacher. I also did my BEd.”

In 1986, Ajit was appointed headmaster of Akna Union High School. “I was overjoyed to become the headmaster of the school from where I passed my matriculation,” he said.

When Ajit enrolled himself for the Bengali course in 2010 at Burdwan University, he was renewing an association after 38 years. Ajit had passed his MA in English as an external candidate from the same university in 1972.

That was not the sole golden memory from the past. He met one of his former students, Shatrajit Goswami, and sought his help. “I told him that ‘I feel I have some shortcomings in what I have learnt so far. So I need your help’. My student helped and guided me,” Ajit said.

Goswami, the head of the Bengali department at Rishi Bankim Chandra College for Women in North 24-Parganas, recalled: “When my teacher came forward to seek my help, I helped him eagerly. After all, he was my teacher.”

An insatiable thirst for scholarship, a relentless battle against odds, the good fortune to head the same school from where basic lessons were learnt and a grateful student’s gurudakshina….

Even in this season of gloom, when Bengali youths leave for construction labour in Kerala, though Jibanananda wrote he would not give up Bengal’s basmati paddy fields for Malabar or the hills of Ooty, who can say some faces of Bengal are not beautiful?