Instead of proceeding southwards at the crossing of Manoharpukur Road and Rashbehari Avenue and arriving at the now vanished patch of green I once pondered over, if you were to make a right about turn and retrace your steps along Manoharpukur itself, all the way towards its crossing with Lansdowne Road (or, what is renamed Sarat Bose Road now, a Netaji connection needless to say), and keep moving eastwards, you will ultimately land on Russa Road (where Basushree Cinema once towered, but now resembles an exhausted heap of a panting stray dog in the middle of a scorching summer). Actually, the Uttam Kumar Manch lies too in benign neglect somewhere along the stretch, but I didn’t intend to take you that far.
Time-wise though, you need to travel a lot more in reverse gear, towards a solar juncture when no one imagined Uttam Kumar could ever be awarded a public stage in posthumous glory. On the temporal plane however, as I said, you merely need to cross Lansdowne Road and walk around a hundred yards or so westwards. And you should be able to locate the home I have in mind. Or, more accurately, the space that the set of low roofed, over congested rooms connected by a shared balcony cum corridor had once occupied, but no longer does. A single storied long lean building let out to several tenants I thought. I have searched for it in vain for the past many years as I passed that way.
I wish I could locate her at least once though before taking my final curtain call. But I doubt that this can ever happen either. She has disappeared, like her home, I know not where. A darkish slim girl, a smiling face carrying about it a freshly washed evening aura. Her hair neatly combed and tied up in a pair of pretty ponytails. She wore a conservative, long middle class skirt, reaching well below her knees as she sat on the family bed. Her books were cleanly arranged on the bed and her writing table was a short wooden stool set in front of her.
It was not hard for me to make out that she was waiting with all the anticipation at her disposal for my arrival. I cannot recall exactly how old she was, probably a student of Class Seven or eight at most. I, on the other hand, had just finished my Intermediate of Science Examination from Presidency College and was goofing around doing pretty much nothing. When a friend suggested that I earn a little on my own giving tuition to school students. I had little idea where such tuition hungry students waited, but my advisor was generous. He found out the address where the girl looked forward to being tutored.
Recall that I am talking about the wrong side of prehistory. It required a good deal of courage to agree to walk into a middle class home and train up a girl not much younger than the tutor himself. Nonetheless, I tried, for the wages offered were a fabulous Rs. 10 a month!! The first time I would be spending my self-earned money and Rs. 10 was a fortune. A bottle of coke cost twenty five paise and a comfortable bus ride to my college in North Calcutta (which was the other end of the town) was a mere 10 paise. The height of luxury was a Rs. 1.25 ticket to a matinee show in a flawlessly air-conditioned theatre. What was it that I pined for that I could not possess now? No this was too good an offer and I readily agreed, though, needless to say, the decision was carefully hidden from my parents and especially from my mother. She would surely have played spoil sport. Her sons’ (my elder brother and I) association with teenage girls had to be viewed with endless suspicion.
Well, one bright evening, I was led into this home and introduced to the girl’s father who welcomed me with open arms. Few words were exchanged, for the girl was all impatient to drag me over to her books. A bright ambitious girl who had no time to waste over small talk. It was Trigonometry that we started off with. The subject had just been introduced in her class and I didn’t miss the excitement that radiated from her eyes. I began to tell her about the basics, drawing a right angled triangle and explaining what sine theta stood for. Next came cosine theta quite inevitably. And as I was about to explain tangent theta, the girl intervened firmly. “Teacher, please don’t tell me. I want to figure it out on my own!!” I stared at her in wonder and waited for her to come up with the results of her calculations.
She was definitely an intelligent student, who would make any teacher happy, even one that was as young and inexperienced as I (eighteen years old to be precise). Hence, the fun continued, problem after problem, subject after subject and I think I lost track of time. Till I suddenly noticed that it was past 9.30 in the evening. I knew I had to be back home or else people should begin to worry. My mother maintained uncompromising discipline and no one had the courage to defy her.
So, I gave her a set of exercises that I would be looking into next time and got up to leave. I hadn’t noticed that the girl’s father was sitting in the room right behind me and keeping watch over me. He took me by complete surprise as I turned around and stood in front of him. I had no idea in fact what he was doing there. Eavesdropping perhaps, measuring up my character? Making sure that I was not making a pass at his daughter? Or was he trying to figure out if I was familiar with what I was teaching?
Discomfiture prevailed for a while as I stared back stupidly at him. He looked very tired, probably waiting for the bed to be vacated for him to lie down and rest. I managed to recover my senses though and smiled at him as I prepared to leave the room. He stopped me and requested me to sit down. I had hardly expected this, but I complied, though I was getting late. Clearly, he had something in his mind and his face expressed embarrassment. And I waited for him to open up.
“I have a request for you to consider,” he began. “As you can see, these two small rented rooms are all I have to keep my body and soul together. I am not in a position to spend much on my daughter’s tutor.” He halted and hesitated and then blurted out, “I really cannot afford Rs. 10 a month you see. Why don’t you think of yourself as a part of my family and reduce your fees? Will you please teach her for Rs. 5 a month? Rs. 10 is awfully expensive. You understand don’t you?”
I was taken aback and didn’t have to try too hard not to understand. At the same time, as I faced the father, I knew that the daughter was sitting behind me listening to the conversation. A smart girl, whom any teacher (even one who was teaching for the first time) would love to teach. The girl, who had told me only an hour or two ago that she didn’t want me to give her the answer to a question I had not even asked, for she wished to try it out on her own. But her parents lacked the means to help her along.
I was caught for a while on the horns of a dilemma. I didn’t know how to answer the man. If I refused, the girl who had aroused the teacher’s interest in me on that very first meeting, would be dispirited. I didn’t wish to hurt her. At the same time, I wasn’t sure what ought to be the right course of action. So, I just smiled at the man sheepishly and left his premises in silence, probably giving him the impression that I had agreed.
I had little worldly experience at the time (or even now for that matter), and kept wondering back at home what the correct course of action might be. This was my first tryst with real world economics I suppose, though I hadn’t yet had any formal exposure to the subject. “Would it be wise to comply with the request?” I kept on asking myself. As I learnt soon after in college, the man was asking me to reduce the “supply price” of my tutoring service by no less than fifty per cent. If I did agree, what impression would I produce about the quality of the commodity I was selling?
Or, for that matter, about myself? If I lowered the price, I was either not sure of my ability as a teacher, or, worse, I was readying to enter a monastery. Both possibilities crossed through my mind needless to say, and neither was too appealing.
I took the easy way out after thinking over the matter. I never went back to teach the girl, nor did I send any information. I suppose I was too much of a coward to haggle over the price. Fortunately, they had no idea of my address and could not trace me back to my home. I did receive a message of course from the father, sent through the aforementioned intermediary, inquiring why I had not showed up a second time. I felt no desire to oblige the messenger with a reply.
I do not know how this little girl fared in her life. Did she rise high in a profession or was she simply married off as they often are? I shudder to think of her simply leading the life of a mother and then probably a grandmother and nothing else. I want to believe instead that she travelled high up, much higher than I ever did or could. And I wish that the innocent smile that I had once seen on her face has not metamorphosed into a hardened sneer with her “progress” in life.
Manoharpukur Road is a storehouse of memories. It flows like a river, a river full of recollections. Not all of them are pleasant alas. Rivers dry up, they produce floods.
But they also reflect back once in a while the full moon during springtime.
Like the smile on the little girl’s face. The girl whose name I shall, sadly enough, never be able to recall anymore.