Mrs Bubna has something most people her age and even those younger by a decade or more have lost along the way. A sense of purpose, beyond the personal. Usha Bubna nee Jain taught Economics (Pass) at Calcutta’s Loreto College beginning 1958. “I began on a salary of Rs 145, which went up to Rs 300 in the 1970s,” she says with a chortle. In 1996 she was to retire. As Mrs Bubna tells it, “I had been very involved in college activities. I introduced the UGC to college, I brought the provident fund, I set up the alumni association. Sr Tina (Farias), the then principal, figured I would be at a loose end. She said, ‘The vocational centre is closing down, why don’t you start a programme for those girls’.”
That “programme” took the shape of the Women’s Cell. Its students are mostly from the slums around 4 No. Bridge, some are from Loreto’s Rainbow schools. They are taught by a band of selfless educators and anchored by Mrs Bubna. Publicity is anathema to them; word of mouth is good enough to attract new students. All of this is typical of Mrs Bubna — not self-effacing, not self-important either, only focussed on the task at hand. To date, notwithstanding a hip injury, she and her walker journey to Middleton Row as many days a week as is required of her.
Generations of Loreto students, even those who ventured nowhere close to economics, remember Mrs Bubna. They cannot say why, but describe her in detail — “imposing figure”, “purposeful stride”, how she wore no jewellery, the way she tilted her head to one side and smiled her shy smile.
Mrs Bubna cannot talk about herself. It is her brother Arun Jain who talks about their “exceptionally liberal baniya family”. Father Kashi Nath Jain was the first graduate in his family. He studied English, then law and then turned businessman. He got married to Bimla, a lawyer’s daughter, when she was 14. Jain says, “Badijiji was born when she was 18.” Later, Bimla completed the equivalent of a BA in Hindi. Their six children received a sound education.
A young Usha studied English (Hons), then did a master’s in Economics and, thereafter, got a scholarship to study in Germany. When she married R.K. Bubna and the two went to meet Loreto principal Mother Paul, the nun asked Mr Bubna: “Will you let her continue teaching?” Mr Bubna, who had by then completed his MCom and LLB and did his MBA only after, says, “I told her ‘Of course. I couldn’t become a teacher so I married a teacher’.”
Mrs Bubna always wanted to teach. No, it didn’t matter that she taught a pass course, a subject she knew her students would not pursue. Her colleague Romola Ray, who started the geography department at Loreto, says, “In our time, it was not about teaching the subject but about training good, intelligent, solid citizens.” Her students remember her as a “competent” teacher. Julie Banerjee Mehta was an English (Hons) student but she remembers and repeats Mrs Bubna’s explanation of the backward-bending supply curve of labour. Sharmila Ray Kamum says, “She treated us like college students and she taught like a college teacher. You could listen if you were interested, and if you were there for the attendance, that was okay too.” This ties in with what Mrs Bubna’s niece Rohini Chowdhury, a writer and translator in the UK, has to say about her growing up years at her maternal grandparents’ home. She says, “My aunt was my go-to person. Looking back, she was the most open-minded parent one could have. No judgement, never an imposition.”
Today, Mrs Bubna is teaching young women from quite another section of society. When asked if it feels any different, she shares the story of Fatima, who would come to the Women’s Cell after finishing all domestic chores. Mrs Bubna says, “Half the time she hadn’t eaten. She couldn’t cope with the class. The teachers would say ‘ask her not to come’. But Fatima wanted to sit in class, so I let her. ‘It feels like fresh air, this atmosphere’ she said. One whole year she did little else. And then, she blossomed.”
Fatima passed Class X. Mrs Bubna says, “I can never forget that day.” The pride and joy in her quivering voice are apparent. Her reaction is not unlike the one Debika Guha described from the time she was awarded the K.N. Jain Memorial Gold Medal instituted by Mrs Bubna’s family. Guha said, “There are many medal donors but the way she blessed me...”
In 2000, the All India Association for Christian Higher Education gave Mrs Bubna the Teacher of the Year Award. Atreyi Basu of the Women’s Cell talks about how Mrs Bubna plans classes, draws up schedules, holds meetings, and handles crises, with skill, effort and heart, to ensure the students get the promised education. “Intelligence doesn’t distinguish poor from rich. Our girls are keen to get an education,” she says. She points out how Mrs Bubna manages but never tries to control. Patricia Gaughan, a younger colleague from the cell, says, “If Ma’am thinks she has made a mistake, she says sorry to us. And how many times she says thank you!”
Mrs Bubna’s story is not hers alone. It is Loreto’s too. Her long years of service, efforts and achievements are entwined with the institution’s milestones. Many interviewees said they couldn’t talk about her without being reminded of other Loreto greats. This space is not big enough to hold all those names, but it is big enough for a salute.
At the time of writing this piece, Id is around the corner. Mrs Bubna has scheduled an informal meeting with the Women’s Cell. Colleague Ruma Das says, “We think a national holiday means doing nothing, right? And Mrs Bubna’s enthusiasm…”, the rest is lost in effervescent laughter. I suppose this is the essence of Mrs Bubna, this is what makes her 87 years young.