Category Archives: Memoirs

Interesting experiences from my life. Giggles and sniffles.

Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta: Tale of an Untold Tragedy

Prologue

The river of life, like any other river, flows forwards. And by the time it reaches its estuary, it is often difficult to figure out where it originated. This is not true of mighty rivers, such as the Mississippi or the Amazon or our own Ganges. But there were endlessly many smaller rivers that had borne their cargo filled boats since ancient times and dried up, leaving little trace of the waters that had lapped their shores in their youth. To discover the course these rivers might have followed, or even their names sometimes, one needs to trace them backwards.

The same observation applies to human beings too. Unlike David Copperfield, who told the story of his life “from the beginning of his life”, some, such as the person whose life story of sorts I will attempt to resurrect, left behind him hardly any documentary trace of himself. Nor did people who knew him well and had good reason to preserve his memory for posterity undertake that task. Or, at least, methodically so. What survive about the man are mostly unverifiable rumours left behind by people who have themselves ceased to exist. Nonetheless, as a living member of the family Dr. Das Gupta belonged to, but born well after he had himself departed from the “breathing world”, I took up this near impossible task of recreating the man. I had heard about him on the family grapevine at best and was well aware of the absurdity of the pursuit. I plodded along nonetheless. I believed, I suppose, that even half a true story could well be worth the effort. Pasts are obliterated undoubtedly, but never completely so.

My work began around 2018. The search yielded scattered information, which, though not arranged in chronological order, were valuable. Each new finding added to my excitement as I went along putting the bits and pieces together, hoping to recreate as much of the person as I could.

Since this story moves backwards, it is best perhaps to begin with a calendar record of the year Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta rejoined his creator. He had breathed his last in the year 1938. This piece of information was gleaned from a faded old letter written by Professor Parimal Ray1 from Dacca (now renamed Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh) to his friend Mr. Pankaj Kumar Das Gupta2 (popularly known to his family and friends as “Ponku”). India was still a British colony when the letter arrived. It was composed in Bengali. Translated into English, it reads as follows.

Department of Economics
University of Dacca
Ramna, Dacca

23rd November, 1938

Dear Ponku-babu,
I couldn’t help writing this letter. Ever since the departure of your family members from Dacca, we have been hearing that Dr. Das Gupta is seriously ill. However, I did not for once imagine that the tragedy had progressed this far. The other day, Monu3 wrote to me that his illness was yet to be diagnosed. Directly afterwards, the heart-breaking news arrived. He was sleeping in his cabin in a steamer in Narayanganj when I saw him for the last time.

Yesterday, his condolence meeting was held in Curzon Hall in the University. Dr. Das Gupta had cured a Muslim boy who was suffering from Meningitis. He expressed his gratefulness in words that were not only worth hearing but also appropriate for the occasion. He ended up crying. I have never witnessed such a scene.

This is a disaster for your family. Calcutta has been the chosen area of work for most of you, distancing you from Dacca for some time. It appears now that your family’s attachment with Dacca is finally over.

Little else remains to be written. It is not hard to surmise the state of your minds. Please accept sincere condolences from my wife and me. And do please convey them to Monu.

Yours,

Parimal Ray

To Pankaj Kumar Das Gupta
Ballygunge, Calcutta

Here is the scanned Bengali version of the letter, written, as can be seen, using Dacca University stationery.

Merely a week prior to this, Professor Ray had written yet another letter using similar stationery.

Department of Economics
University of Dacca
Ramna, Dacca

16 November, 1938

Dear Ponku-babu,

We have had no news from you since you left for Calcutta with Dr. Das Gupta. The entire faculty of Dacca University, including us, are deeply concerned about him. All manner of news concerning him arrive everyday, but they do not appear to be dependable. You are doubtlessly preoccupied with his condition. Nonetheless, we shall be endlessly relieved if you could spare a bit of your precious time to write to us about him and the nature of treatment he is undergoing.

I am writing this letter not only on our own behalf, but on behalf also of a large number of professors who are Dr. Das Gupta’s friends. Needless to say, we will spend our time in apprehension till hearing back from you.

Yours,

Parimal Ray

To Pankaj Kumar Das Gupta
Ballygunge, Calcutta

A scanned version of the original Bengali letter resembled the previous one.

How the End Arrived — Word of Mouth

When I was a schoolboy, my mother told me about the man once in a while. She saw him for the first time when she was wedded to one of his half-brothers in Calcutta in 1935. She had travelled to Dacca with the joint-family she had been so absorbed into. I do not think she lived in Dacca for too long, for her husband (i.e. my father) had set up practice in Calcutta as a Dental Surgeon (with a DDS degree from the University of Pennsylvania). The man was seriously ill when she saw him next in Calcutta in 1938, where he was brought over for treatment. He never made it back to Dacca.

My mother was full of respect for Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta and, like everyone else who spoke about the man, considered him to be one of the kindest human beings she had come across, bordering on saintliness. Although a son from my grandfather’s first marriage, he had turned into a father figure for his much younger step-brothers and sisters. He took charge of the family after my grandfather died and the family members looked up to him for every kind of help conceivable, including psychological and financial support.

Apart from being involved in successful private practice, he was attached to Dacca University from its very inception in 1921 as a Medical Officer. As the letters above tell us in poignant terms, he was a much honoured doctor in Dacca, whose death wrapped up the city in a pall of gloom. At the time he was struck by an unknown disease, my mother heard that he would come back home from work and retire into his room where he sat in a chair unwilling to speak or even eat his meals. No one knew what was ailing him, though to start with, the few family members who still lived in Dacca in his close vicinity (except possibly for one mentioned below) did not think there was any major problem to worry about. The doctors who saw him held similar opinion, but as matters grew worse, he was unable to even walk. The attending doctors advised that it was necessary to make him walk. A nephew, the son of his eldest half-sister, had lamented to me many years later, that being a young man at the time, he was assigned the task of forcing the doctor to walk, while, with whatever strength he had left in him, he kept telling his people that the doctors had not diagnosed his condition correctly. No one listened to his weak protests of course, till realisation dawned that something was seriously wrong with the man. There was one person, however, who was an exception and believed that the illness was not to be taken lightly. He was related to the family through his marriage with the youngest half-sister of Sudhir Kumar. This person, as his daughters have heard from him, had gone to visit the ailing man as he lay in a semi-comatic state in his bed and asked him if he could recall some incident or the other. In reply, the dying man had said that he didn’t have the strength to remember anything at all. (This youngest half-sister had received scholarly recognition and was a highly respected professor in a well-known college in Dacca to begin with and then later in Calcutta. She too died at an early age.)

When realisation finally dawned, Sudhir Kumar was transferred hastily to Calcutta, which required a steamer ride across the Padma river those days (from Narayanganj to Goaland) and it was in this steamer that Professor Parimal Ray had seen him for the last time as he had said in his letter. In Calcutta, the family moved to a rented home in Rashbehari Avenue, Ballygunge in 1938. It was here that the best doctors available at the time examined him, but medical science had not progressed enough to pronounce a judgement on the nature of the affliction. The prognosis therefore went from bad to worse till he finally succumbed to what is suspected today as brain cancer.

Since he was a much loved man, the entire family broke down in sorrow and, as I was told by my mother, the step-brothers and sisters who were present could not hold back their tears. They cried inconsolably over their loss.

Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta — An Introduction

Dr. Das Gupta’s full name was Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta and he was the second son of Kamala Nath Das Gupta from his first marriage. Kamala Nath retired as a Judge from the Small Cause Court, Dacca and Munshiganj and was the recipient of a Rai Bahadur4 title conferred by the British Government a few years after King George V attended the Delhi Durbar5 following coronation.

Around the time Kamala Nath was bestowed the title, he had retired from service and his family lived in the Wari area of Dacca. The exact address of his residence was 37 Rankin Street. People aware of Dacca’s history believe that Rankin Street was a posh locality of the town. It does not enjoy that status any longer, though the house exists even today wearing a battered appearance. Here is a photograph of the house from 1971, before it began to run down.

37 Rankin Street in 1971 — Photograph: Courtesy Abhijit Dasgupta

The house should have been built during early twentieth century, but, as we shall see later, a question hangs over the precise year of its construction.6

Records of the award Kamala Nath received (as well as the two letters we started off with) were retrieved from a “magpie’s nest” maintained by his son Monu from the second marriage. The nest in question consists of trunksful of history, a good deal of which his son Abhijit Dasgupta and daughter-in-law Sarbari Dasgupta7 have managed to salvage. We will refer to some of these documents and objects as we proceed.

To begin with, there is a certificate and a medal that Kamala Nath received when he was awarded the Rai Bahadur title.

Rai Bahadur Certificate Awarded to Kamala Nath Das in 1916
Front and Back of the Rai Bahadur Medal awarded to Kamala Nath Das

The certificate, it will be noted refers to Kamala Nath Das Gupta as Kamala Nath Das. The reason for this could well be that it was common practice to shorten the family name Das Gupta to a monosyllabic Das, or sometimes, as we shall find out later, to a disyllabic Gupta. As far as Das went, the matter could have a connection with the Hindu caste system. The way Das was spelt in Bengali left room for yet another Das spelt differently. Kamala Nath was a Vaidya by caste and while the English spelling could not reveal his caste, the Bengali spelling most certainly did. This was probably a matter of social importance, for Vaidyas write the Das as দাশ in Bengali, while non-Vaidyas write it as দাস। Even if the quaint custom has little relevance these days, at the time Kamala Nath lived, দাশ should have earned him respect as a so-called high caste individual.

As noted, Kamala Nath had married twice. The second wife, Soudamini, arrived after the first wife had passed away. By his first marriage, Kamala Nath had three sons and a daughter. Male dominated society ensured that the names of the wife and the daughter were soon devoured by the tides of time. The sons’ names survived of course. They were Satish Chandra Das Gupta, Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta and Suresh Chandra Das Gupta, in that order.

Soudamini gave birth to ten children, or at least ten children that did not die in their infancy8. These were five daughters and five sons (Ponku and Monu, whom we met earlier, being two of the sons). Unlike the case of the wife and the daughter from the first marriage, the daughters whom Soudamini showed the light of day had names that many of the existing members of the family have not yet forgotten. Circumstantial evidence suggests a “Snow White tale” that the children from the second marriage were treated better than the ones from the first. This could well have been the reason why the eldest son from the first marriage, Satish Chandra, left home pretty early in life and to the best of our knowledge distanced himself from the family till his last days. He had children though, and grandchildren, who helped re-establish links of a sort with the existing stock of Soudamini’s progeny.

Satish Chandra’s youngest full-brother, Suresh Chandra, was a bachelor and a school teacher. Unlike Satish Chandra, however, he came back to the family from time to time and maintained connections with both branches till his own end arrived. He too was known for his kindness towards all and sundry and this included his half-brothers and sisters. Nonetheless, and to the best of our understanding, he did not hold too high an opinion of Kamala Nath’s second family. He was a strict disciplinarian and committed himself to a life of celibacy. His life style was austere, particularly so when it came to his attire. There were few in the family that had not been admonished by him for their sartorial excesses. One recalls him pulling up a young niece (daughter of the youngest half-sister mentioned earlier) for wearing sandals that did not cover her feet completely. Footwear was meant to keep one’s feet clean he had observed, a purpose that the strings of a sandal could not accomplish. Instead of wearing sandals therefore, he advised her to tie pieces of pasteboard to the bottom of her feet with the help of thread when she went out to public places. The man, therefore, did not lack a sense of humour, though he was better known for his fits of temper. Despite his cleanly habits, he contacted cholera in old age. Even though it did not kill him, his legs were paralysed as a result.

Sudhir Kumar, the second brother, was a darling to his half-brothers. The letters we had read at the beginning of this narrative were addressed (as we saw) to one such half-brother (Ponku) and mentioned yet another (Monu) when Sudhir Kumar was undertaking his final journey. It appears that these two and the remaining half brothers in Calcutta were taking all the care they could of Sudhir Kumar when he was terminally ill. It is not known if Satish Chandra or Suresh Chandra were present near his death bed.

Sudhir Kumar — Search Initiated

Sudhir Kumar as we know was a doctor by profession and had received his MD degree in USA. This piece of information constituted oral history for the family. However, not a single person who sang about his achievements is alive now to vouch for the veracity of the Sudhir Kumar lore. Fortunately though, someone or the other had heard and remembered that he had a connection with St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Guesswork suggested that if such a connection did exist it should have been towards the early part of the twentieth century.

With this folk tale in hand, I contacted St. Francis Hospital in the hope that its archives might throw some light on the man. The result of the search was disappointing, for here is an excerpt from the email it produced.9

“In the fall of 2002, St. Francis Medical Center, in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh, was sold to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health System. A new Children’s Hospital has replaced the 137 year-old St. Francis facility, founded and owned by The Sisters of St. Francis of Millvale.”

Though frustrating, the information pointed in the direction of University of Pittsburgh. I approached the Vice Dean at the time, Dr. Ann E. Thompson, but her searches did not shed much light either. To quote her,

“I have not been able to find anything new except that I learned that records of St. Francis Hospital seem to be kept in two places:
St. Francis Hospital Records—a small group are at Heinz History Center: click here for the finding aid to their collection. 
Other records for the hospital have been maintained by the Religious Order of Sisters that ran the hospital.  They are: the Sisters of Saint Francis of the Neumann Communities — https://sosf.org/our-history/
The first one at the Heinz History Center seems to be very recent and probably not helpful.  But the other one just might be helpful.  Perhaps if you connect with them, they can find him.”

Back to square one appeared to be the content of the last message, but a new possibility suggested itself in the meantime. There were Indian doctors who did travel abroad in search of higher degrees around early nineteenth century. (They do so even today.) The chosen destinations at the time were almost invariably UK and Europe and not the USA. A particularly famous one among these doctors was Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy. This brilliant graduate from the Calcutta Medical College (CMC) went to England in search of the FRCS and MRCP degrees. His records are worth recalling.10,11

“Intending to enroll himself at St Bartholomew’s Hospital to pursue postgraduate study in medicine, Bidhan set sail for Britain in February 1909 with only ₹ 1200. However, the Dean of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital was reluctant to accept an Asian student and rejected Bidhan’s application. Roy did not lose heart but kept submitting his application again and again till the Dean, after 30 admission requests, admitted Bidhan to the college. Bidhan completed his postgraduation in just two years and three months, and in May 1911 accomplished the rare feat of becoming a member of the Royal College of Physicians and a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons simultaneously. He returned home from the UK in 1911.”

Since it would have been more natural for Sudhir Kumar to go to England at the time (before setting sail for USA), the British Medical Association was approached. Despite their sincere attempts, no medical student named Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta could be located in UK in the early twenties. In the meantime, an important and helpful document surfaced. This was the Flexner Committee Report published in 1910.12

“The Flexner Report is a book-length landmark report of medical education in the United States and Canada, written by Abraham Flexner and published in 1910 under the aegis of the Carnegie Foundation. Many aspects of the present-day American medical profession stem from the Flexner Report and its aftermath.
The Report (also called Carnegie Foundation Bulletin Number Four) called on American medical schools to enact higher admission and graduation standards, and to adhere strictly to the protocols of mainstream science in their teaching and research. The report talked about the need for revamping and centralising medical institutions. Many American medical schools fell short of the standard advocated in the Flexner Report and, subsequent to its publication, nearly half of such schools merged or were closed outright.”

The Flexner report was highly critical of the state of medical education in the USA at the time. According to some accounts, many of the schools did not require more than a high school degree to admit students. Most medical schools were profit seekers, who handed out a degree in exchange for substantial sums of money. They did not even have a regular faculty. Teachers were borrowed from other institutions. The Flexner Report put a stop to this practice. But the report was helpful in my pursuit, since it suggested (given especially Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy’s experience) that Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta could have found it easier to study medicine in USA rather than in the UK. This was a hypothesis worth exploring and two questions needed to be asked in this connection. First, when did he reach USA, if in fact he did go there. Secondly, which American school did he enter? These were impossibly difficult questions to answer, but at the same time the challenges were far too interesting to ignore.

When Did Sudhir Das Gupta Land in America?

Since medical schools had no record of him, I decided to try out an alternative strategy. Could one study, I asked myself, passenger lists of ships arriving in that country? If so, where could these be found? After several attempts, the search led to the website ancestry.com13 and success reared its head for the first time. The site informed that a passenger ship named Mauretania had arrived in New York (from Liverpool) on October 17, 1913 and among its list of passengers was a man called Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta. He was described as a student who had come from Dacca, India. His residential address though was not 37 Rankin Street. It was 35 Rankin Street instead. Clerical mistake could have accounted for this. But it also suggested the possibility that Kamala Nath Das Gupta had moved into his new house after 1913 and that he lived in rented accommodation nearby to keep watch over the construction work of his own house. Another possibility that cannot be ruled out is that the house was not fully completed by 1913 and some of the family members lived in rented accommodation nearby. Of course, these are unverifiable hypotheses, but there is little doubt about the date of Sudhir Kumar’s arrival in USA. The following two documents tell us a great deal about his landing and the ship that took him there. (The eighteenth person in the passenger list was Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta.)

Passenger list for Sudhir Kumar’s ship
Mauretania — the ship in which Sudhir Kumar travelled to USA

The Medical School Sudhir Kumar Graduated From

The information about his arrival kept my hopes alive, but it left the second question wide open. Where did he complete his medical degree? There were endlessly many schools, most of which Flexner didn’t approve of. Which one did Sudhir Kumar walk into under such circumstances?

This question led me back to the University of Pittsburgh once again and this time the person who took charge of communication was Małgorzata Fort (Ph.D, Head of Digital Resources Development, Health Sciences Library System, Falk Library of the Health Sciences, University of Pittsburgh). The lady signed off as Gosia and that’s the way I shall refer to her. Gosia was a goldmine of information. She carried out a search that must have been backbreaking and finally came out with a bagful of information about Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta’s medical education in USA.

To start with, she found out that Sudhir Kumar’s MD degree was awarded by the American College of Medicine and Surgery, Chicago, Illinois (The Medical College Key Table assigned it the code III 22). She also sent me a photo of the school from the distant past.

Gosia wrote that this college was swallowed up by Loyola University in 1917 as a result of the Flexner Report. She found out further that Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta was listed in the American Medical Directory for 1916 (5th ed.), 1918 (6th ed.) and 1921 (7th ed.) as “Das Gupta, S. K.; intern Evangelical Deaconess Hospital, Chicago.” In other words, after graduating from the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery, Sudhir Kumar completed his internship at the Evangelical Deaconess Hospital, Chicago. It is not clear to me if this was the same hospital as the German Evangelical Deaconess Hospital, Chicago, but a source14 says that the German Evangelical Deaconess Hospital was later named simply Evangelical Hospital. Most likely, the following picture shows the hospital in question.

A matter of some concern needs to be addressed now. According to Gosia’s information, Sudhir Kumar completed his MD degree in 1914. And, as we have noted already, he had arrived in USA in 1913. How can a person complete his MD in a single year? However unsatisfactory the American medical school system might have been at the time, it is highly unlikely that a foreigner could complete his MD in as short a period as a single year.

Unverifiable Hypotheses

The backward journey in search of the origins of Sudhir Kumar’s life had hit a stumbling block. If any documented answer existed, it had to be found either in England (since the ship in which Sudhir Kumar travelled to USA had sailed from Liverpool), or in India. The British Medical Association had already told me that no Indian medical student around that time had a name that was even vaguely similar. India therefore turned out to be the only possible alternative.

The part of Eastern (undivided) British India that Sudhir Kumar had come from had a number of medical schools. Of these, the most well-known, was the CMC (which still retains that name).15 Apart from this, there were two more institutions in Calcutta. One of these was the Calcutta School of Medicine (which was established in 1886 and whose name changed to Carmichael College in 1918). The institution grew into the now famous R.G. Kar Medical College.16,17 The other institution was the Sealdah Municipal Hospital, which started in 1864 in response to pressures generated by the Sepoy Mutiny.18 In 1884, it was renamed the Campbell Medical School. The school transformed to Campbell Medical College in 1894. Independent India renamed it Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College19 and it is a busy hospital in Calcutta today. Apart from these and closer to Sudhir Kumar’s home was the Mitford Hospital20 (probably known as Mitford School earlier) that grew into Sir Salimullah Medical College in 1962. The institution is located now in Bangladesh.

Some of these institutions offered medical education using Bengali as the medium of instruction, to help students who found it difficult to follow lectures in English. What sort of degrees or diplomas did they offer? To quote Uma Dasgupta.21

“The licentiate degree22 would be conferred on anyone who passed the examination after having studied for five years in any recognised school of medicine. The MB degree required the same prior qualification and the same duration of study, but the curriculum was larger. For an MD degree, the degree of BA was a prior necessity, while a practice of two years was necessary after getting the LMS. … The minimum qualification for admission to the Calcutta Medical College was raised from Entrance to First Arts (FA) in 1873.”

Dasgupta does not mention if the qualification for admission was raised in other medical schools too. Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, whom we came across earlier was both an MB and MD from CMC. He was born in 1882 and, as we will discover later, was five years older than Sudhir Kumar. Records in India and Bangladesh were vacuous, as was the case for the search carried out by the British Medical Association. This failure forced upon me a hypothesis that Sudhir Kumar was an LMF or an LMS (mentioned as the licentiate degree by Uma Dasgupta) from an Indian institution of the sort described above. It is also quite likely that the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery allowed the credits from the five year LMF/LMS course to be transferred. As a result, Sudhir Kumar entered that school as a senior student and completed the MD degree in a year’s time23. This was a hypothesis that was at least logically consistent.

The Question of Age – More Hypotheses

How old was Sudhir Kumar when he arrived in America? The question is easy to answer. The passengers’ list above describes him as a 26 years old man. However, the list is not too legible and I had to try and double check this fact from yet another source. Before I did so, I needed to face up to an obvious question. He appeared to have entered the American medical school at a somewhat advanced age. Given our hypothesis, he had five years of medical training in India before he walked into the Chicago school. This need not mean of course that he started his medical studies in India at the age of twenty one. Let us take into consideration the fact that he needed to complete the equivalent of junior and high school before embarking on his medical pursuit.

Uma Dasgupta’s work suggests that he went for the Entrance Examination and not the FA. With an FA, he could have sought admission in CMC and gone on further for the MB degree. The conclusion that he didn’t try out the MB route in CMC follows from both Dasgupta’s observations as well as the Flexner Report, which suggest that the MB in India was a more difficult degree to pursue than the MD in USA. And we do know that he had gone for the latter. CMC is ruled out, but both Carmichael and Campbell existed at the time. He could have studied in these schools. (For reasons to be explained further on, I doubt that he had studied in Mitford School in Dacca.)

I assume that he had to pass the school leaving Entrance examination and the average age at which people cleared it was about sixteen. He arrived in the USA at the age of twenty six. If he did an LMF degree, he would have been twenty one by the time he finished it. His arrival in USA was separated from this event by five years, a period during which he had the opportunity to practise as an LMF doctor. It is natural to assume therefore that he was a practising LMF doctor for five years. Such an occupation would have ensured that he had saved a reasonable sum from his earnings, which he had used to finance his journey and his one year study at the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery, USA. I have pointed out that medical schooling was expensive in the USA at the time. Add to this the travel expense. Something of this nature had almost surely happened, for long deceased family members were known to mention that Sudhir Kumar was a self-made man. Besides, as already noted, it is reasonable to suppose that his father was building his house at the time Sudhir Kumar travelled to distant shores. Even if he wished to help his son, he may not have been in a strong financial position to do so.

Quite apart from this, Kamala Nath had fourteen children from his two marriages, of whom six were daughters. Marrying them off and arranging for the sons’ schooling could have been a difficult monetary proposal. Whatever his salary was, after meeting these obligations, he may not have had substantial savings left. On top of this, he had a house to build. Around this time and even later, people were known to build their residences after retirement, since this is when they could lay their hands on a pile of money which they were awarded as retirement benefits. In endlessly many cases, they did not survive too long after retirement and their property was enjoyed by their children. We know (from his Rai Bahadur certificate) that in 1916 Kamala Nath was a retired judge. Retirement age ought to have been sixty or so and he was beyond sixty years when he received his title. Sixty was old age at the time. So, he could have been an old man with a new house when Sudhir Kumar was pursuing medical studies in the USA.

So much for the hypotheses.

Kamala Nath (probably post retirement) and Soudamini

Back to Documents

In the context of the American Medical Dictionary, Gosia Fort had drawn my attention to the possibility “… that they were just slow in updating their records …” She did this to clear up a mystery that had materialised in the meantime. While searching ancestry.com, new pieces of information revealed themselves. An important one was the fact that Sudhir Kumar had been drafted by the American Army in 1917. Fortunately, the record was very clear as the registration card reveals.

Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta’s World War 1 Draft Registration Card

The card is dated June 5, 1917 and it states that he was a Resident Physician at St. Francis Hospital, Pittsburgh, Alleghany County, Pennsylvania. His date of birth, the card says, was December 30, 1887 which is my additional support that he was twenty six years old when he arrived in America in 1913, the age stated in the passenger list of Mauretania also. (This established further that he was five years younger than Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy.) We saw, when we started this story, that he passed away in the year 1938. He was 51 years old therefore when he finally departed. On the other hand, the Rai Bahadur certificate confirms that his father was at least sixty, if not more, when his life came to an end. Sudhir Kumar was seriously ill when he left the world. His father by contrast died probably of old age.24 What was he doing when his father expired? We shall need to face up to this question soon enough.

Gosia drew my attention to another interesting question. As we know, she had found Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta listed in the American Medical Directory for 1916 (5th ed.), 1918 (6th ed.) and 1921 (7th ed.) as “Das Gupta, S. K.; intern Evangelical Deaconess Hospital, Chicago.” The draft record shows on the other hand that Sudhir Kumar was in Pittsburgh in 1917. Not only so, he was already attached to the St. Francis Hospital in the capacity of a Resident Physician during that year. Gosia pointed out the discrepancy and this is why she mentioned the possibility that the American Medical Dictionary could have been slow in updating records. According to this Dictionary, Sudhir Kumar was in Chicago in 1917, which he certainly was not.

Gosia sent me yet another interesting story. This was a clipping dated January 1, 1919 from the Pittsburg Gazette Times. The image is poor, but it is not difficult to see that “Dr. S.K. Gupta, an intern at St. Francis Hospital, testified that Bassett’s bill at that institution was unpaid”. (The word “intern” could probably mean a “Resident Physician”.) Ira R. Bassett was a blind pool operator and may well have been associated with what is described as money laundering in the present day world.

Dr. S. K. Gupta testifies on behalf of St. Francis Hospital in 1919

Was Dr. S.K. Gupta the same person as Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta? This is not exactly a million dollar question now. We saw earlier that his father’s name had left out the “Gupta” part. Couldn’t it be possible that the son found it more convenient to drop “Das”? If not, what are the chances that two Indians with names so similar (“Gupta” in particular and the initials “S.K.”) worked in St. Francis Hospital, Pittsburgh at the same time in early twentieth century? Fortunately, the problem was resolved by the magpie’s nest research. Abhijit found out that among the things Sudhir Kumar left behind him was a pocket watch with telltale initials engraved on its lid. Here is that watch.

Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta’s pocket watch — (SKG)

He had begun to sign his name as Sudhir Kumar Gupta for reasons unknown to us. Some more details about the watch itself were found along with it.

The watch had been manufactured around 1915, but we do not know when Sudhir Kumar had actually purchased it.

The draft records call him a Das Gupta of course, which is not surprising. A draft card needs to be as accurate as possible, somewhat like a passport. We still do not know when exactly he changed from Das Gupta to Gupta. But change he did as we saw earlier in the newspaper clipping from 1919.

Dr. Sudhir Kumar (Das) Gupta was working in St. Francis Hospital in 1919 and we had also found out towards the beginning of this story that the Hospital changed in 2002. How much change had taken place in the hospital’s looks? A postcard from 1955 (the photo immediately below) and the photo following it reveal that metamorphosis.

St. Francis Hospital 1955 – postcard photo
St. Francis Hospital now

We are reasonably sure now what the man was doing till 1919. But the American story doesn’t end here. Before we chase him further, we wish to know what he looked like in his salad days. Probably both these photographs, and certainly the one on the left, date back to his days in America. No man wore western hats in India at the time, which means that the photo on the left originated in the USA.

Dr. Sudhir K. (Das) Gupta’s salad days — circa 1915-1920

A handsome “young” doctor living a bachelor’s life! We discovered from ancestry.com that the case was not exactly so. He had ceased to be a bachelor on December 24, 1919. Cook County, Illinois Marriage indexes show the details.

The second column from the left lists the family names alphabetically and Sudhir S. Gupta is not hard to discover. He had married a lady called Rose S. Liberty on December 24, 1919. The marriage took place in Illinois. So he had travelled from Pittsburg, Alleghany, Pennsylvania to Cook County, back to Chicago for the wedding.

Do we have their wedding photograph? No. Do we have a photograph of the husband and wife standing or sitting next to each other? No. However, family sources say such a photo did exist, but even the magpie collection has lost track of it. Abhijit and his wife Sarbari have searched for that photo (which Abhijit at least had seen in his younger days) but they ended up in failure. Family members belonging to Dr. Sudhir K (Das) Gupta’s generation had been heard to mention that photo. Stories had circulated in the family that Sudhir Kumar did have a link with an American girl. What nobody had known till now (as far as I can make out) was the fact that he had actually wedded an American lady. And we even know her name, thanks to ancestry.com. She was Rose S. Liberty.

Rose S. Liberty ??

The fact that the photo above had emerged out of Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta’s belongings suggests that the lady wearing a saree and holding on to the young boy was Rose. Abhijit believes she was the same lady he had seen in the lost photograph with Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta. In that photograph too, she had worn a saree. Who the other woman in the photograph could have been is anybody’s guess. Regarding the boy, we can hypothesise a little more. Ancestry.com says that Edmond Arthur Liberty, son of Rose Liberty (the middle initial S missing), was drafted for the Second World War during 1940 through 1947. He was then aged 23. It also states that he was born on July 26, 1917 in Spokane, Washington, USA. If Edmond’s mother was the same Rose that Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta married, it is unlikely that he is the boy in the photograph. He could not have been more than five years old around 1919-21, which, as we shall see, is when Sudhir Kumar left USA. The boy in the photograph looks older. On the other hand, if Rose S. Liberty did have a son, he was probably the product of an earlier marriage and we have therefore little or no information about him.  

The Last Document from USA

The final document Gosia Fort sent me revealed without a doubt the monumental tragedy of Sudhir Kumar’s life. I had always suspected that such a tragedy existed, but was never too sure of its nature, especially since the man himself had never been heard to have complained. An excerpt from Gosia’s mail along with the documents she attached to it clarified any doubt that could have existed.

“Sudhir Kumar Gupta, M.D. joined the Department of Psychiatry for the academic year 1919/1920 and 1920/1921. He was listed as a demonstrator in psychiatry. He taught courses in psychiatry clinics at St. Francis Hospital to fourth year students of the School of Medicine together with Prof. William Kemble Walker and Dr. Cornelius Collins Wholey. Next academic year 1921/1922 someone else took his position, but it means that he was still in Pittsburgh in the spring of 1921. I am attaching excerpts from the School of Medicine announcements published in 1920. It includes titles page, Calendar page, page with Demonstrators listing, and page with Psychiatry course description.”

Here are the attachments she sent along with the mail.

The fact that he came back to India for some reason and never went back is common knowledge in the family. But Gosia’s mail showed that he had probably returned to India in the year 1921, exactly a hundred years ago from now. He had a regular job in St. Francis Hospital when he came back. He had given it up and never gone back. He had a wife too whom he could not have seen again. And as far as Indian society went, he remained a “bachelor” till the end of his life! In India, his connection with an American girl assumed the guise of a “hush hush” business. Rose had to vanish, or else Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta couldn’t be prevented from returning back to USA. The doctor accepted the sentence with a “(w)ith bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness, …”

Life in India

A new university was established in Dacca (now Dhaka) in July, 1921 and family members who are no longer alive had often told us that he joined the University as its first Medical Officer. There was no medical school in the university at the time and he had therefore accepted a demotion of sorts from the position of an instructor (Demonstrator) in an American school. My efforts to track him back in Dacca University produced a blank. I was even told that records relating to him would have existed had he been a faculty member, which he was not. He was, we were told, merely an administrative officer whose records have not been preserved. If we go back to the letters with which this story began, we will see that he was in fact a highly respected doctor, who even practised medicine and cured people suffering from the then (and probably even now) incurable diseases. However, the Dhaka of today has forgotten him and not a single person approached could help. A reason why they no longer remember him may be accounted for by the fact that most of Sudhir Kumar’s step-brothers had migrated early to Calcutta, long before the partitioning of the country into India and Pakistan in 1947. Sudhir Kumar, however, as far as we know, continued in Dacca, as did his younger sibling Suresh Chandra along with their step mother Soudamini and her mentally disturbed youngest son. It was not exactly a flourishing family anymore, without much of a public presence.

I was now left with no other alternative but to engage myself further in intelligent guesswork and search around for rumours that still circulate in the family. It could well be that around the time Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta wedded Rose Liberty and began teaching in St. Francis Hospital, his father Kamala Nath was nearing his end. I also think that Kamala Nath did not have enough savings to bequeath to his wife and children. The conclusion is based on the fact that I believe he had built his exquisite house with the help of his retirement benefits. Even if he had married off most of his daughters, one married daughter had been sent back to her father’s home by the family she rightfully belonged to. (There are stories explaining this event, mostly related to a husband who tortured her when she was pregnant with her only baby. This baby was born and raised in her maternal grandfather’s house. As far as one can make out, she had never seen her father. This girl later married the famous singer and film music director S. D. Burman and their son was yet another musical genius R. D. Burman.) One more daughter, the youngest, was still to be married off. And there were of course the sons from the second marriage who were too young to choose a career on their own. The family needed material help to hold on to its social status and the story goes that Sudhir Kumar received an urgent telegram from Dacca, sent by his step-mother, that his father was very ill. There was dire need for him to return back “home”. I have mentioned earlier that the youngest (scholarly) daughter’s husband told his children how ill Sudhir Kumar was in Dacca. This gentleman was known to be outspoken. His daughters, who are my first cousins, inform me now that their father had told them further that the telegram contained little truth in it. The father may have aged in natural course, but he was not exactly ill enough for Sudhir Kumar to be rushed back to Dacca from Pittsburgh. He was brought back to take charge of the family which had begun to find it difficult to maintain the lifestyle it was accustomed to in the exclusive Rankin Street area. Or so it would seem.

He retraced his steps back to Dacca in response to the telegram. No one knows how long his father lived thereafter. Sudhir Kumar probably had a bit of savings from the USA. But he also had a father and a step-mother with her litter of children. Since Satish Chandra maintained a distance and Suresh Chandra was a school teacher at best, the responsibility of looking after Kamala Nath’s second family was almost surely transferred over to Sudhir Kumar. No one knows what he told Rose before leaving USA, but it is natural to suppose that he had decided to come back to her within a short period after making arrangements for the family in Dacca. And then, very likely, he got more and more entangled with family affairs back home. One imagines him requesting Rose to wait a little longer and then a little bit more, till the days added up to weeks, the weeks to months and the months to years and then decades. Both Rose and he realised that their two year old family life (1919-1921) had died in its infancy. In the meantime, knowingly or unknowingly, his younger half-siblings and step-mother kept him imprisoned in their self-motivated, hugging embrace, somewhat in the manner of a python crushing its prey to appease its hunger. And he, in turn, accepted without resistance the sentence pronounced on him, unable to resolve a Buridan’s ass paradox.

The gentleman who questioned the truth of the telegraphic message, had apparently also pointed out that Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta had purchased an automobile, which was used more by members of his family than him. Some say they have seen a photograph of the man standing in front of his car. And Mandira Bhattacharya’s account of 37 Rankin Street speaks of a garage in the house. This garage was probably where Sudhir Kumar or his family members parked the car. I have personally not seen the photograph of the car, but I do remember seeing a picture of him riding a bicycle to work.

Ancestry.com could not produce information about Rose Liberty’s life, but what Sudhir Kumar was doing is amply clear. He had become simultaneously a father figure and a sacrificial lamb for the entire family. He even managed to send two of his step-brothers to England and USA respectively for higher education, at his own expense.

Sudhir Kumar never married again. Almost certainly Rose and he didn’t divorce, or else he would not have carried his photograph with her, the one that cannot be traced anymore. It appears that he was forced to give up everything that he had built on his own. Though it is not known if anyone was interested in seeing him married, the fact is that he never showed an interest in that possibility himself. He remained faithful to Rose in his own absurd fashion. What Rose was doing in the meantime has so far not come to light. It is reasonable to assume that his younger sibling Suresh Chandra understood the nature of Sudhir Kumar’s misfortune and decided never to raise a family of his own. We have a photograph of Suresh Chandra in his old age.

Suresh Chandra Das Gupta – circa 1967 – 1970

Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta ensured to the best of his ability that he carried out his “responsibilities.” He couldn’t do much about the youngest half-brother, who was psychologically unstable.25 He paid for the education of the brothers (including ones whom he sent abroad). He arranged for the marriage of these two as well as that of the youngest half-sister. However, Suresh Chandra, his youngest full sibling and he himself avoided being struck by Cupid’s arrow.

How long had Sudhir Kumar lived in America.? From the records we have unearthed, it would seem that the period was 1913 through 1921, around eight years or so. I have heard from my father though that the man was away in USA for eighteen years! How can this be explained? We have argued that prior to his journey to the USA, he should have spent ten years in India, pursing his LMF degree and then practising as an LMF doctor. This takes us back to 1903. Given that he was born in 1887, he was sixteen years old in 1903. This is the age at which one cleared the Entrance examination. The figures therefore match.

My father was at most a year old child in 1903. He did not know Sudhir Kumar at all till the latter materialised in Dacca from USA in 1921, i.e. eighteen years later. My father, in other words, saw Sudhir Kumar for the first time in his life when he was an eighteen years old boy himself. As a teenager, he may have heard that he had a half-brother who lived in USA. The fact that he had never met Sudhir Kumar in Dacca till he was himself eighteen years old means that Sudhir Kumar was away from Dacca those many years. All his half-siblings had probably heard that Sudhir Kumar had left home when they were either too small or not even born. No one at home, it would seem, kept track of Sudhir Kumar’s whereabouts for so long at least as he was in India, but away from Dacca. We have of course tried to construct a plausible story about him since the time he left Dacca. The fact that he was away from Dacca goes to prove that he could not have studied medicine in Mitford School. But his absence from Dacca did not mean that he was residing in the USA He could have followed his elder brother’s steps to Calcutta. One does not know if they had lived in Calcutta together. How his medical education was financed in Calcutta is yet another unknown. He might have been engaged in part time work. Nobody in Dacca appeared to have cared till he travelled to USA. As a doctor in USA, he turned overnight from a nobody to an indispensable person for the family. From a forsaken person to someone commanding enormous importance. And this happened because the family was apprehending a not too distant rumble of hard times.

We conclude then that both Satish Kumar and Sudhir Kumar left home early. The first one didn’t quite come back, the second did under unenviable circumstances. The third brother Suresh Kumar’s story is unclear.

Epilogue

Little else remains to be told of this tragic and perhaps sordid Sudhir Kumar tale. The reader though can still be introduced to the earliest photograph that exists of the person. We know of course that he was born in 1887. But we have said little else about his life towards the end of the nineteenth century. Fortunately, Abhijit found a photograph of the child Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta along with his parents. This looks like a studio photograph of Kamala Nath’s first family. It is the only photograph that we have of his first wife and daughter. The daughter was a baby and sat on her father’s lap. It looks like a photo taken in a studio during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Historian Partha Chatterjee says such studio photography was quite uncommon in India at the time, except probably in cities. Dacca could well be one such place. We see the three brothers. The eldest, Satish Chandra stands behind his parents. Sudhir Kumar is seated on a rug on the floor at the front. Suresh Chandra stands on the left, holding on to the chair his father sat on. And their mother (with her unknown name) sits next to her husband. The photograph emerged out of the magpie collection. It had remained hidden inside a bunch of Suresh Chandra’s letters. Suresh Chandra was clearly fond of this photograph of the family that, in his childhood, he knew as his own. The children, as can be seen, were dressed up by the studio in a somewhat fairy tale style in Persian clothing of the period. Having people photographed in such costume could well have been the custom followed at the time.

Kamala Nath Das (Gupta)’s first family – circa 1893-94

Sudhir Kumar resembles a six or seven year boy in the photograph. Given that he was born in 1887, the photograph could have been taken around 1893-1894. The little boy had his dreams. Probably he was still reading fairy tales. His fairy tale world was not destined to last too long. The same was the case of his three siblings. They were soon going to lose their mother and ushered into a totally new world. A world of rude realities that children are not supposed to be able to cope up with all that easily.

But Sudhir Kumar’s case was destined to be somewhat different. Fate, as in Greek tragedy, had chosen him for its favourite hero. A new mother arrived and with her arrived the step brothers and sisters. Fate had reserved for him the role of their custodian. He didn’t know that this was the direction in which life was driving him. He turned into a doctor and a faculty member in an American school of medicine. He built a little shelter of his own, but he lost it and his mate somewhat in the manner in which he lost his childhood and his mother. It was decreed as it were that his spells of happiness would be brief at best. And then, as though he had not suffered enough mentally, he had to silently writhe in physical pain and die young. Leaving out his own mother and his youngest half-sister, he lived the shortest life among the members of the family.

Going back to the letter we began with, it is natural to wonder if the Muslim boy who expressed his gratitude to the memory of the departed doctor was the only one in the then Dacca to have benefited from him. There must have been many others who had received his healing touch. But not a single researcher who has worked on personalities who had enriched the Dacca of yore was able to discover this man. The man had been taken advantage of by the family that he had brought succour to, sacrificing a great deal in the process. As if this weren’t enough, it appears that society at large too chose to forget that such a kind and helpful doctor ever existed. His tragedy was truly colossal.

_______

Footnotes
1. Well-known economist, literateur and politician Ashok Mitra’s book of memoirs “Apila Chapila” introduces Parimal Ray as the best-known professor in the Economics Department of Dacca University. Apart from being the famous writer and poet Buddhadev Bose’s friend, he was associated with the literary magazine, Pragati, published by Buddhdev Bose. He taught Ashok Mitra for two years or so before leaving for Delhi, where he taught in Ramjas College and the IAS Training School. He left for New York with a UN assignment and did not live too long. More information about Professor Parimal Ray can be found in Ashok Mitra’s book. I am indebted to the eminent historian Partha Chatterjee for drawing my attention to the book.#goback1

2. Pankaj Kumar Das Gupta (Ponku) was Dr. Sudhir Das Gupta’s half-brother. He was an LIC employee in later life.#goback1

3. Monu was Nirmal Kumar Das Gupta, another half-brother of Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta. He was a lawyer by profession. A great deal of material on which the present semi-historical document depends were found in his collection by his son Abhijit Dasgupta and daughter-in-law Sarbari Dasgupta. Abhijit is a known personality in the television news world and Sarbari taught in City College, Kolkata.#goback1

4. Rai Bahadur #goback2

5. Delhi Durbar #goback2

6. Mandira Bhattacharya, who lived in this house from the mid-1940’s has given a detailed as well as a loving description of the building in her book “Dhakar Smriti o Dr. Nandi” written in Bengali. The book was published by Prathama Prakashan in 2018. (Translated, the title of the book is “Memories of Dhaka and Dr. Nandi”.) Dr. Manmatha Nandi, her much respected physician father whom Dhaka has still not forgotten, had purchased the house from the Kamala Nath Das Gupta’s descendants. At a later stage in his life, Dr. Nandi had probably sold away the property and moved over to Jalpaiguri, India.#goback2

7. Dasgupta is what the family name has changed into over time.#goback2

8. Given the time period we are discussing, the possibility of a child death or two cannot be ruled out. Infant mortality is still a problem in India and other emerging economies.#goback2

9. St. Francis Hospital.#goback3

10. Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy.#goback3

11. Dr. Bidhan Ray was one of the doctors who examined Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta towards the end of the latter’s life. From the letters quoted at the beginning of this journey, it would appear that even this brilliant man failed to diagnose what had ailed Dr. Das Gupta.#goback3

12. Flexner Report. #goback3

13. Ancestory. #goback4

14. Evangelical Hospital. #goback5

15. Calcutta Medical College #goback6

16. R.G. Kar Medical College and Hospital #goback6

17. Dr. Manmatha Nandi, whom we have already come across had passed out of Carmichael College with flying colours according to his daughter Mandira’s account in “Dhakar Smriti o Dr. Nandi”.#goback6

18. Sepoy Mutiny #goback6

19. Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College and Hospital #goback6

20. Mitford Hospital #goback6

21. Dasgupta, Uma (2010). Science and Modern India: An Institutional History, C. 1784-1947. Pearson#goback6

22. The licentiate degree was referred to as LMS (Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery) or LMF (Licentiate of Medical Faculty).#goback6

23. This appeared to have been common custom in USA till as late as 1935. The person whom we came across in our post The Father, the Son and the **** Ghost had completed a four year DEDP course in Paris before being awarded the DDS degree in dentistry by the University of Pennsylvania within the course of a year. At that time, it should have taken around four to five years to obtain the DDS degree in USA.#goback6

24. If this was not the case, at least word of mouth accounts of the manner in which he breathed his last would have existed. His children, at least the ones from the second marriage, were not particularly well-known for their taciturnity. Especially the one described in The Father, the Son and the **** Ghost. #goback7

25. A wedding was arranged for this brother as well, but Dr. Sudhir Kumar Das Gupta had ceased to exist by then. This is not the place to relate that story or even find out the reason that necessitated it. However, here is a photograph of that event. The photo was shot on the terrace of 37 Rankin Street. It shows some of the brothers and sisters from Kamala Nath’s second marriage, including his second wife (the old lady in the centre). Suresh Chandra does not appear in this photograph. In fact, all the children from Kamala Nath’s first marriage are missing.#goback8

Group photograph from wedding of the youngest half-brother — circa 1946

The Born Loser

Prize‘I wonder why nobody don’t like me,
Or is it a fact that I’m ugly?’

This immortal Belafonte calypso it would seem carries great wisdom, especially so when I look back at my unenviable performance in the circus of life. Indeed, it appears to me that I could be the only person I am aware of in my small circle of acquaintances, who clearly failed to turn out to be the hero of his own life. Indeed, I am a unique counter-example to the generally accepted fact that every cloud is endowed with a silver lining. Leave alone silver, the clouds that hovered over my head all through life did not betray any metallic connection whatsoever, not even to lead.

It is best that we move straight to the mournful heart of the groan-full matter — my career as an under-achiever. Putting it somewhat more forcefully, I appear to have earned meritorious distinction as an epitome of demerit in about all the contests I ever participated, with the result that the few prizes that ever came my way were invariably offered to me under questionable circumstances.

Take for example the time I won the third prize in a swimming competition. There was little to complain about this achievement of course, except for the somewhat embarrassing fact that there were exactly three competitors who took part in the event. Nonetheless, a prize was a prize and I carried my minuscule tin plated wooden shield back home with unmistakable pomp radiating from my face. But people near and dear, my very own flesh and blood, greeted me, not with awe and reverence, but with an emotion that wavered dangerously on indifference. In other words, it was a day that the cheer girls in the neighborhood spent in gloomy unemployment.

Fortunately or unfortunately though, Robert Bruce’s much advertised accomplishment centuries ago continued to be a source of inspiration and I tried for a while not to give up. The next opportunity to prove my mettle presented itself a few years later when I led the college team to a drama competition organized by the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur. Like an inexorable constant of nature, there were once again three teams that took part in the show. Loreto House (an all girls’ college), IIT itself and us. And much to my glee, we won the second prize on this occasion, the first going to Loreto. However, there was a somewhat unsightly fly in our ointment of success. The judges had actually ranked us third and IIT second. The second prize was nevertheless offered to us on the ground that rules did not permit the home team to accept a prize and there were only two prizes to give away! And this piece of information was delivered to the audience over the public address system!

Such being my well-documented record, I was stupefied one morning when a letter arrived for me offering me a prize financed by an endowment in Kolkata University. I was then a student of the MA class in Economics and exams were still far away. By this time, I had reached a conviction, Robert Bruce notwithstanding, that the only way I could ever win a prize would be for it to be offered prior to the competition, before that is any one had had a chance to compete. Such prizes are not unheard of. If I am not too mistaken, dignitaries are quite often anointed by honorary doctoral degrees. Degrees, in other words, which are not backed by dissertations.

I was elated by the news that I too was about to be honored and assumed that it had little to do with my performance, academic or otherwise. But, after embarking on a careful study of the epistle announcing the news, I realized that this was a hard prize indeed that the powers that be were talking about, hard as in cash. I couldn’t believe my eyes and requested all my friends and enemies to study the document under a microscope or at least a magnifying glass, or whatever it was that Sherlock Holmes and his cronies employed to establish irrefutable evidence. And the investigations revealed, that quite unknown to me, I had indeed bagged a first prize in the university, in physiology !

Now, if this piece of intelligence produces a sceptic wrinkle on a brow or two, let me proceed to offer explanations. Before I stepped inadvertently into the quicksand of economics, I was a student of the natural sciences and forced to study the holy trinity of physics, chemistry and mathematics, along with physiology, which, despite its status as a somewhat distant and possibly illegitimate cousin of the aforementioned disciplines, was elevated to the rank of a minor stimulant for the brain. And it appeared that I had, by a miracle that would put Noah to shame, managed to patent this minor tonic, the major ones having been reserved for greater minds than mine.

I am sure that heretics would be wondering by now if I was the only student in the university who had studied physiology that year and I shan’t blame you if you were to entertain such uncomplimentary thoughts. Thankfully enough though, the answer to your doubts is a clear ‘no’, even if the number of adversaries I faced was not large enough to attract the attention of the Guinness Book. To the best of my memory, there were around ten or twelve students amongst my contemporaries who studied this discipline in the university. And I, to my endless satisfaction, had been leading this mini-caravan. This was the closest I ever came to performing the Robert Bruce feat.

At least three years had elapsed between my accomplishment and the university realizing that an honour hungry talent awaited the bestowal of recognition. Accordingly, the papyrus (or was it parchment?) was despatched to heal the wound of long neglect. There were no festivities associated with the event of course. I was instructed instead to show up at the Darbhanga Hall offices of the university to be guided further about the procedures to be followed, to establish my legal claim to the booty. I proceeded as advised to the second floor of the august building and initiated inquiries, producing my mildewed document for the clerical staff’s scrutiny. Each one of them, as expected, disavowed connection with the prize of contention and pointed vaguely towards dark labyrinthine corridors leading to even darker chambers.

I stuck to my claim like a vice, however, and proceeded intrepidly, inspired by thoughts of the fabled cave in which Bruce observed the indefatigable spider building its nest. The surroundings where I stood did not leave much scope for imagination in this respect either. The room bore an uncanny resemblance to Robert’s cave. After labouring for what might appear to be an eternity, thereby outshining Bruce by several centuries, I finally found the spider, guarding his lair in the guise of a middle aged man who regarded me and the document I proffered with undisguised suspicion for about a quarter of an hour. First, from above the glasses he wore and then from under. I too stood my ground with iron determination, resembling no doubt, to add a French flavour to the Bruce analogy, the young son of Louis de Casabianca on the burning decks of L’Orient.

It was a battle of nerves, the only one I ever won. The gentleman finally exchanged my paper for the one he produced from a secret locker in his secretariat table, explaining most reluctantly the procedure to be followed thenceforth. His paper, as opposed to mine, was apparently a gift voucher, which I would need to produce to a renowned bookseller and the latter would in turn exchange the voucher for a book or two of my choice.

Success at last! I rushed off to the shop in nearby College Street without caring to check how much the voucher was worth. Robert Bruce surely snickered in his grave! Well, as I found out, the prize was worth exactly Rupees Ten. And I had decided to buy the collection of Maugham’s short stories, which, during Ancient Mariner days, cost a solid Rupees Fourteen!

Now, fourteen being a number that mankind has generally recognized to be somewhat larger than ten, my dream and I appeared to be standing on opposite sides of the Great Wall of China.

I tried to convince the seller that a large discount was in order for customers bearing the stamp of brilliance. But the sick old man remained as unmoved as Shylock in pursuit of his pound of flesh. I needed to bear a cost of Rupees Four (which was around 28.57 per cent of Rupees Fourteen, as far as my calculations revealed) for peaceful settlement of the murky transaction. It was an unheard of luxury for a university student with a middle-class background to carry Rupees Four in his pocket during the period of history we are dealing with. But once again, miracle prevailed. After frantically searching inside my pockets (mine, not others’ mind you!), trousers and shirt included, I was able to produce a pile of coins, which the mean fellow counted with supreme concentration before agreeing to part with his proprietary claim over the Maugham collection. I emerged triumphantly from the shop, richer by the four Penguin volumes, but poorer by pocket money that could possibly have lasted me two weeks or so.

I can’t recall exactly how my mom greeted me when I presented her with the news that I had squandered away the money she had allotted me from her less than bursting kitty. It would appear, however, that I managed to survive and I possess the books till this very day.

Whether they can be legitimately described as prizes remains, however, an unresolved philosophical problem in my opinion. To the best of my understanding, 28.57 per cent of the collection fails to satisfy the definition of a prize, though I doubt that I shall ever be able to identify which amongst Maugham’s stories fall in the non-prize category!

Worse, there is no way for me to establish proof that any part at all of the collection was a prize. There is no inscription inside the books recognizing my dubious distinction and the suspicious clerk had taken possession of the only evidence I did have that the prize belonged to me.

So, if you were to test the veracity of this story, I will surely appear to you as a confidence trickster. And I in turn will then have little choice left other than pacifying you with a full-throated rendition of the calypso we started off with.

I wonder why nobody don’t like me,
Or, is it a fact I’m ugleeeee …
?’

Jr April 18, 2021 – The Mona Lisa Man

Morning arrived like every other morning. The usual chores, the usual rituals surrounding ‘toast and tea’. Staring for a while at the newspaper without reading it. Then, to prepare myself ‘to meet the faces that I meet’, a stroll over to the balcony. A sunny day awaited me and people were going about their ways, each towards his or her destination, too busy to notice me. Which reminded me. This had not always been the case. People who used to walk past our balcony in another part of the city during another epoch of history, did notice us, or at least some of them did. That’s putting things somewhat mildly though. There were passersby who not only noticed us, but actually made it a point to draw our attention towards them.

Amongst them was the old man we came across in A Two Penny Opera (to be called two-penny for short), the one who possessed dubious singing skills. And there was of course the other old man too, who could have offered him stiff competition as far as the nuisance value of vocal chords went. If memory serves me right though, the two-penny entertainer had given his last performance well before his rival showed up. Consequently, the tournament actually never took place. Which is not to say that a tournament was not fought at all. A somewhat violent confrontation in this context did actually occur, but two-penny had no role to play in it.

The aforementioned locality for the story, if you permit me to refresh your memory, was one of the right hand branches of Jatin Das Road that connected to Lake Terrace. Lake Terrace itself, despite its somewhat wiggly appearance, ran more or less parallel to the main stem of Jatin Das Road and, as I had told you elsewhere, I physically arrived on earth near the midpoint of this connector. If Jatin Das Road were to be likened to a river, the connecting branch that bore the same name, could well remind you of one of its tributaries. However, the same logic should have applied to Lake Terrace as well, except that for reasons unknown to me, the municipality refused to accord to this southern neighbour of Jatin Das Road the status of a street that allowed us an address named after itself. Not that it didn’t have a branch of its own too, but to locate it you needed to walk eastwards from the Jatin Das branch where I found my identity.

The cluster of neighbourhood buildings that constituted my customary hangouts during the Jatin Das days could be approached therefore either northwards from Lake Terrace or southwards from the Jatin Das mainstream. And people arrived there in their respective journeys with or without maps. Happy people some should have been. Some complaining about vague misfortunes. A few searched for addresses that never existed. A man who had completely lost his mind and visited our residence in the small hours of the morning looking for my dentist dad. He had, unfortunately, once been employed by my dad to carry out small errands. Many of them may rightfully show up some day or the other in these pages. The present story, however, will be reserved for two-penny’s successor and the duel he fought with a member of the opposite sex.

He was tall compared to two-penny, who was in turn shorter than most people I have known. The new arrival carried, like his predecessor, a tin can. Curiously enough, the can too was somewhat longer and narrower than two-penny’s. Its paper wrapper had disappeared, so what the tin originally contained when sold across the counter is a mystery we will not pursue. Unlike two-penny, he didn’t use the can’s bottom as a percussion instrument. He belonged in fact to the doleful category of visitors and simply begged in multifarious tones, collecting in his can whatever he was offered. Like most of his kind, his dark skin grew darker each day as the sun shone unsparingly on him. His hairless face sat above his bare torso, while a piece of cloth that had once been white covered him waist downwards. It was hard to make out if he ever washed either himself or the cloth. As I remember him, his face bore an inscrutable expression. His lips were permanently stretched in a manner that made it difficult to figure out if he was smiling or crying. He could well have been a real life male version of Mona Lisa, even if he failed to inspire any gifted artist to draw his portrait. Like two-penny, he too deserves a name. We shall refer to him therefore as Mona Lisa Man, or simply by an acronym of sorts, Mlm (to be pronounced Mlem).

There being little novelty in Mlm’s begging skills, he did not draw much attention to begin with. Soon enough though, he realised that he needed to turn innovative to increase his earnings. And lugubriosity being the only capital in his possession, he decided to sell it under the garb of music. In other words, two-penny’s successor arrived one fine morning in a new role. The role of a singer. This was a misfortune for us, for Mlm produced sound waves, or simply noises, that were totally out of tune. He was musically handicapped, and severely so, even compared to two-penny. Besides his repertoire consisted of a single number. And this was Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, the much popular bhajan sung all across India in praise of Lord Rama, the godly hero of the Indian epic Ramayana.

As most Indians know, the second line of the bhajan runs Patita Pavana Sita Ram. For those unfamiliar with Hindi, a rough translation of these two lines is in order. It says — ‘O Lord Rama,  descendant of Raghu! You and your beloved consort Sita are the uplifter of the fallen.’ The words ‘patita pavana‘ refer in fact to the fallen awaiting elevation by the royal couple.

Quite apart from singing this song out of tune, Mlm, regrettably enough, appeared to change its very meaning as well. Being asthmatic perhaps, he struggled to find back his breath by the time he reached the ‘patita pavana‘ part. He broke up the second line of the song therefore into two distinct parts, ‘patita pava’ and ‘na-Sita Ram‘. Since Mlm invariably applied extra emphasis on the ‘na‘ after finding back his breath, his version of the song changed Sita to na-Sita. Sita, replaced by ‘na-Sita‘ sounded like ‘no-Sita’, for ‘na‘ has a negative connotation in most languages. This produced a fresh new interpretation of the song, one that ran totally counter to its original meaning. Instead of rescuing the fallen, Mlm lamented as it were that neither Sita nor Ram were even available to perform the task.

But there was room I felt for yet another interpretation; that instead of praising Lord Rama, Mlm was moaning over the misfortunes suffered by a Sita-less Rama. And since Rama does in fact shed tears in the epic over Sita’s abduction by a demon King, the Sita-less Rama idea could not be entirely ruled out. Rama finally ended up killing the demon to rescue his beloved wife, but that part of the story has no bearing on the song in question.

Let us move on now to the second character in this tale, a woman, who is best described as a wandering minstrel. She wasn’t exactly young, but Mlm was definitely older than her. She wore cleaner clothes, a white saree and some sort of a matching top. Her plentiful hair was tightly bound into a knot above her head. She was dark skinned too, in fact more so than Mlm, with sandalwood markings on her forehead. These were unmistakable signs of some religious sect or the other to which she belonged. She carried a traditional one stringed drone lute, the ektara, which she played in accompaniment with a whole range of bhajans that she sang with remarkable grace. Her voice was endowed with both weight and range and it was clear that she had managed to be musically trained sometime in her unknown past. Begging might well have been a way of life that her religious beliefs dictated. But there could have been other causes, not excluding tragic ones, underlying her peripatetic lifestyle. No one, however, was particularly inquisitive about her past. It was her singing alone that concerned us. It was literally a balm for our ears, suffering as they were from the Mlm engineered bomb blasts.

As soon as the notes floated out of her voice, the residents in the area turned alert and quite a few of them gathered in front of their homes as the woman sang from the pavement. This was a treat for us all and she received alms way above what the middle class neighbourhood could afford. After entertaining her audience with a number of songs, she departed I think towards the Lake Terrace end of the Jatin Das tributary, to rest a while perhaps prior to her next performance. The woman had dropped like manna from heaven and we waited impatiently for her next show each time she regaled us with her charming voice. She was a happy surprise for an audience accustomed to little other than mundanity.

The treat was not destined to last too long. And that was a tragedy, though the tragedy had a comic touch about it.

The woman arrived one late morning in spring and pulled at the single string of her instrument. Her voice echoed back the tune and we ran to our ring side seats on balconies and windows. Soon she sank deeply into her music with half-closed eyes and her audience too responded with dreamy appreciation. She didn’t exactly dance as she sang, but her head nodded lightly to the rhythm of her song and there was a ripple in her body. Her feet too lightly tapped on the pavement.

This day though was different from the others. For, all of a sudden, we received a rude shock. Immersed as we were in the music, no one noticed that Mlm too had arrived on the scene from the Jatin Das mainstream. He had crept quietly behind the woman and, without any prior notice at all, jolted her with his inimitable first strain of Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram. We were totally unnerved by this unanticipated intrusion, though, to her credit, the woman sang on for a while, ignoring the interference. The man too did not stop. He stuck to his own performance ignoring completely the fact that someone else was singing simultaneously. And compared to her singing, his voice sounded as disconcerting as a loud drilling machine boring a hole through a metal sheet.

The woman was no Lata Mangeshkar needless to say, but the fiasco that ensued began to resemble the great singer being interrupted by the said drilling machine in her immediate neighbourhood. She was singing, if I remember correctly, Hari Mere Jeevan Pran. Translated, this should read, Hari (or, Krishna), thou art the very breath of my life. But Mlm was simultaneously treating us to his version of Raja Ram. Each ignored the other, with the result that the two lyrics mingled into a single one that left no scope for human comprehension at all. We were treated to a perfect fusion of tune and the tuneless, a musical cyclone of sorts. Some of us were irritated, but some smiled too, for what was happening in front of our eyes was buffoonery of the highest order. Even Chaplin might have found it difficult to reproduce.

In vain did we signal the man to stop. For Mlm, faithful to the name I christened him by, carried on his performance without batting an eyelid. The woman ignored the interruption for as long as she could, but eventually she lost her cool. And this happened, when much to her annoyance, she lost track of the notes and sang one totally out of rhythm. She stopped for a moment to correct herself, but failed again. And this is when the expression on her face changed with lightening speed from devotion to hatred. She swung around and faced the drill machine. Her entire appearance had changed and she was ready for battle. Now there was a single song being aired, the one Mlm sang, totally indifferent to the proceedings.

The woman screamed at Mlm in a voice that surprised us all. A ferocious battle cry it was which had no trace at all of musical softness in it. She was bitter and poured out her hidden supply of venom, one that could have been accumulated only through endless suffering. Her musical magic gave way to her torment ridden past. Music forgotten, she snarled like a leopard ready for the kill. However, before she could initiate her attack, Mlm too responded, for the first time throwing away his Mona Lisa mask.

They screamed at each other in a North Indian dialect that I could hardly follow, but I understood enough to know that there was no love lost between them. The woman, who had entertained us with her mellifluous voice so often, proved beyond doubt that she could get far more out of tune than Mlm. The latter at the same time swore at his loudest best. As I watched the scene, I wondered if either Rama or Hari were witnessing the incident sitting wherever they normally sit. Perhaps they did, but they certainly didn’t interrupt. The audience, however, finally lost its patience and began to disperse. Seeing which, it was the woman who decided to give up. A public road though being a public road, Mlm refused to budge. Not only so, he kept returning back to his na-Sita Ram refrain at the slightest sign that the woman might resume singing as well. She didn’t do so and simply walked away in disgust towards Lake Terrace and, sadly enough, never showed up again in our locality. In comic contrast, Mlm continued to sing at the appointed hour every day of the week. I cannot recall when his time ended, but he certainly did vanish one day, leaving the na-Sita puzzle eternally unsolved.

Our Jatin Das locality, however, has managed to withstand the test of time. Even during these rapidly changing days, the locality has not transformed too much, as I found out quite recently. The patch of pavement where the duel was fought exists still. The performers have disappeared for good of course, but that didn’t prevent in the least my ‘inward eye’ from resurrecting the concert from sixty odd years ago.

My eventfully eventless day is over now as evening is about to herald in yet another night. I have come back to the balcony to stare for a while at the moonlit sky. The street below is almost empty, except for a lonely street dog that passed by. Then suddenly, out of nowhere appeared a man with an open umbrella above his head. He walked away swiftly, protecting his head from the moonbeams I suspect, for it was not raining, nor was the scorching sun a source of discomfort. He was a loony no doubt, as lonesome as the dog. I have no idea where he is headed, but for a reason I cannot fully comprehend, I wish to follow the trail he left. Perhaps it can lead me back to my Jatin Das world once again.

The Father, the Son and the **** Ghost

Utpal Dutt and the Magician: A Tale of Two Performers ©

Utpal Dutt, before he turned into a professional actor commanding pan India fame, was a school teacher. No run of the mill teacher he was of course. Any student exposed to his teaching skills in the early days of South Point High School in Kolkata will probably affirm this. Not unlike a magician, he could make his students fall into a trance. The medium of instruction in the school was English and he taught us English literature. His English accent was immaculately British, which we admired to no end. But coming from middle class Bengali homes, as most of us did, we were fully aware of our own inabilities to pick up his brand of English. Despite Utpal Dutt’s sincere efforts, our limitations lingered.

Dutt was an amateur stage actor as well at the time and the founder of the Little Theatre Group (that later changed to People’s Little Theatre). In the interest of the students, his acting group often performed Bengali versions of Shakespeare’s plays in the school premises, translated by Dutt himself. These included plays such as Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and others. Thus, he was equally at ease with Bengali and English, reserving English for the classrooms and Bengali for the stage.

He was, however, not the only entertainer we were exposed to. On special occasions, the school had its students entertained by other varieties of performing artists too. This story concerns one of those, a stage magician, and his interactions with Utpal Dutt. The school had no auditorium at the time and shows were held on make shift stages. One such was rigged up for the magician in the manner of Dutt’s own stages and the students congregated there to watch him. Utpal Dutt simply loved the students and, as was his wont, he too joined the festivity.

The magician appeared to be earning a living of sorts from his skills, while Dutt was probably dreaming at the time about a professional acting career. In a way therefore, the two were not equals as far as their earnings from stagecraft went. Of course, the magician was not particularly well-known in his profession either and was almost certainly struggling to establish himself. He never found the success he sought, or so it would seem, for his name hasn’t survived the tides of time. No Houdini, or Sorcar, or Gilli Gilli Gogia Pasha he was therefore, or even remotely managed to turn into. As noted, Utpal Dutt too was then relatively unknown and neither performer knew the other personally. However, Dutt was destined to climb great heights in later life. The magician, therefore, had little idea about the great actor to be that he was facing on that long lost evening.

The conjurer kept us enthralled with a series of tricks and, encouraged by Dutt, we clapped thunderously at the end of each item presented. Quite unexpectedly though, one of those tricks caught Utpal Dutt on the wrong foot. The trick appears in hindsight to have been reserved for Utpal Dutt and him alone. It commenced with the magician stepping down from the stage and approaching the audience with a pack of playing cards. His eyes searched for the right face and landed quite randomly on Utpal Dutt. He confronted Dutt, requesting him politely to choose a card from the pack and reveal it to everyone present, except the magician himself. Dutt did what he was told and then replaced the card in the pack. The pack was shuffled thoroughly and the magician went over to the stage to place it inside an empty drinking glass on the top of a table. Following this, he turned back towards the audience looking directly at Utpal Dutt. And it was then that the fun began.

“Now Sir, why don’t you request your card not to hide inside the pack any longer?” began the magician. “After all, I am not acquainted with it. Can’t you ask it to show us its face?” The magician was speaking mostly in Bengali, which the students understood quite well. Utpal Dutt was visibly embarrassed by the idea of speaking to his chosen card, though the actor in him could well have done a great job of such conversation. However, he avoided that course of action and remained seated amongst the audience and simply smiled sheepishly.

The magician though insisted doggedly, which is when the English language invaded all of a sudden, for Dutt was asked to address his card in English with two simple words — “get up”. Simple yes, for he could well have used more sophisticated expressions like “reveal thyself” or, “come out of hiding, will you?” But it is unlikely that his acquaintance with the English language went that far. Worse, he was as ignorant of his own shortcomings vis-a-vis that language, as he was of Dutt’s outstanding command over it. Dutt could hardly refuse, for a room full of students were staring at him expectantly. He followed the magician’s advice therefore and came out with his version of the “get up” order in what sounded like trochaic meter, delivered in an Othello like booming bass.

Like any other magician, the one facing us possessed rudimentary acting skills too. He used them to his advantage now and almost collapsed on the stage in feigned fear as soon as he heard Dutt’s voice. Then, wearing a scandalised look on his face, he reprimanded Utpal Dutt in chaste Bengali. “If you scare the card this way, how will it even manage to peep out of the pack? Please don’t scold it so loudly, will you? Be polite, be nice to it? You are forcing it to remain in hiding!”

Then he went on to demonstrate the way he needed our teacher to utter the two fateful words. What he said sounded like a request alright and a passionate one at that. But there was a problem. The “get up” he insisted upon was somewhat songful in nature and spoken in a manner that made the words sound more Bengali than English. His tone bore a close resemblance to that of a doting Bengali mother urging her pampered brat of a child not to throw garbage on the heads of unwary passersby.

In short, his English was as far removed from Dutt’s as a tropical rain forest could have been from the Sahara desert. We, who were closely familiar with Utpal Dutt’s diction roared out in laughter, though our own pronunciation was doubtlessly far closer to the magician’s than Dutt’s. Yet the goings on appeared hilarious in our eyes, because we doubted that the teacher could reproduce the magician’s version of “get up” without distorting what he taught in his classes. The magician of course little knew why the students were laughing. He merely believed I suppose that he had excelled in his job. He responded with a wide grin.

Now, more than half a century later, I cannot fail to note a paradox of sorts surrounding the event. There is little doubt that no native English speaker could have understood what the magician had said to Utpal Dutt. Any such person would probably have expressed his incomprehension by merely scratching his head. But the thunderous manner in which we reacted amounted to jeering at the magician for his lack of speech wise sophistication. Quite obviously, we had developed into a bunch of snobs under Utpal Dutt’s tutelage, even though he had never intended things to happen that way. The paradox lay in the fact that Utpal Dutt ended up directing many a stage actor to speak the magician’s “Bengalified” English, purely for its comic effect. He must have spoken it himself too if the role demanded it. But on this day, Dutt the teacher refused to imitate the magician’s accent, which he could have done effortlessly. In fact, if he did imitate, his students would have gone back home with the impression that he had demeaned the man, not for being an incompetent magician, but for a reason totally unrelated to his trade. His fault would lie in the fact that he spoke his mother tongue more freely than he spoke a foreign language.

None of us would have reacted the way we did if the magician could have come up with Utpal Dutt’s English. This, however, was quite impossible, for the school he had gone to had almost surely not employed a Shakespearean actor to teach English. Unlike the students he was facing, he had probably studied in a school where English was not the medium of instruction. Most likely, even his English teacher taught the language in Bengali. Consequently, he was not familiar with the niceties of English accent. He could not speak King’s English. Nor could we.

Utpal Dutt probably realised the nature of the paradox the way I myself do today, having graduated out of my teenage asininity. Instead of mimicking the magician, he spoke the words in the manner of a boy soprano. Moreover, in doing so, he demonstrated his magnificent acting skill as far as voice control went. We heard open mouthed the range his voice could travel, from bass to treble. This did not quite satisfy the magician’s demand though, but he decided it was not as fearsome as Othello preparing to strangle Desdemona. He did not insist any further and much to everyone’s delight, the card in question did in fact climb out of the pack by itself and allowed us to verify its identity. Utpal Dutt came out with an earth shattering bravo and the rest of us clapped cheerfully.

A few days later, some of us came across the magician one more time. He was waiting near the school office, to collect his compensation for the performance. We began to chat with him and he turned out to be a friendly person. As all young people do on such occasions, we started enquiring about the secrets of his tricks. He told us vaguely about the art of magic and ended up at one point asking us to request the school authorities to start a magic course for the students. This was certainly unheard of. No school on earth meant for general studies offered a course in sorcery. Even at that young age, we concluded that the man needed a steady income, an income that would let him peacefully concentrate on his art without having to depend on a hand to mouth existence, which is what his stray performances ensured at best. We knew that his proposal was absurd and the matter ended there.

The magician’s own future could not have been clearly visible to him either, but one suspects that he in his turn too had undergone a professional change sooner or later and vanished, unlike Mr. Dutt, inside a dark alley of anonymity. Yet, one cannot help wondering, what could have happened if he was offered a chance to teach some subject or the other, say Geography or Mathematics, in the school for a regular salary. He would then have enjoyed the position of Utpal Dutt himself. Dutt was able to pursue his dream career, which could not have produced a dependable flow of income at that stage of his life. This did not pose a problem, probably on account of his regular income as a teacher of the English language. The magician’s academic qualifications did not measure up to Dutt’s, or even lesser teachers’ in the school. Not merely the school where Dutt taught, but elsewhere too. Besides, he was probably not inclined towards teaching either. He must have ended up in some lonely island or the other to earn his living and whatever work this might have involved, it could not have lent much support to his performer’s hopes. Also, who can tell? Unlike Utpal Dutt, who was able to walk miles to achieve his dream, the magician may not have possessed the grit to struggle against the unavoidable odds faced by a creative artist. It is a cruel world we live in.

Looking Back at the Sixties: Tale Told by an Absolute Nobody

Published by Presidency College Alumni Association in Autumn Annual, Vol. XLVII 2018-19

“True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy…”
Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 4

Anyone belonging to my generation, when asked to conjure up his version of the Presidency tale, cannot help feeling a bit like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s “Rime”. The college that I attended and the age it represented have been washed away by the tides of time. Half forgotten memories cling nevertheless like albatrosses around the necks of some of us, which is a punishment that can be awarded only to people who have shamelessly outlived their allotted time in “this breathing world”.

The shame of over-extension does not visit those, of course, who had not only been a part of that “age of fables”, but continue to live on even today in supreme glory, and rightfully so, having joined possibly the ranks of the immortal. Almost surely, Amartya Sen leads the chosen few, accompanied by stars such as the geologist Asish Ranjan Basu, physicist Bikash Sinha and several others. Nonetheless, being admitted to Presidency College following the school board examinations endowed every student without exception during that age with an aura of greatness, which was difficult to rub off outside the college premises. Middle class parents took pride in announcing that their children were the chosen ones and their less fortunate neighbours invariably envied them.

As I remember, following what used to be known as the School Final Examination, I had walked through the gates of the college for the first time with “bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness”, to start off as a student of the Intermediate of Science (ISc) class. Admission was inextricably linked to the aggregate score secured in the School Final Examination. I should have been surprised and possibly filled with jubilation to locate my name in the first list itself of the successful admission seekers. At the very top of the list shone those who had achieved a rank in the board examination. First, second, third and so on as the list travelled all the way down in order of mark-wise merit. My name appeared somewhere near the very bottom, belonging as I did to the group that had also run, though I doubt that I ever tried seriously to participate in the “also run” race. I had probably managed to simply limp along at best, a habit that I have failed to kick till this very day.

I maintained a respectful distance from the medalists, however, especially so once classes began. The champions were strewn across the classroom glowing in celestial glory, while a large number of us hoped as best as we could to escape notice. I recall professors, one in particular, who on the very first day that he saw us, ordered us to declare our scores, not sotto voce but loudly and clearly. Those who revealed monumental scores were further investigated. “What was your rank?” The answer could be a stunning “Third” or a “fourth”. But the likes of me were not spared on that account. Our desperate prayers to be granted invisibility having been ignored by the powers in Heaven, we too had to own up our rank-denied ignominy. The classrooms might have resembled cauldrons of class struggle on such occasions, being filled up by two sorts of students, the Prince Hamlets and the crowd of “attendant lords”.

Whatever the perceptions of the world outside might have been, within the college boundaries, class distinctions existed. Only a handful of students were assumed to be the heirs apparent to thrones of glory, with the majority resembling strangers à la Camus. Of course, fate decreed that many a throne had to be abdicated in the course of time, sometimes wilfully, sometimes in battlefields. The anonymous beginners often transformed into celebrities and the hastily anointed ones disappeared into the wilderness with equal frequency.

***

Volumes have been written about the goings on within the college premises, about professors whose names will stand carved in stone for the rest of eternity. Since the high and mighty have already sung paeans in their praise, I can succeed, if at all, in adding minuscule footnotes to them. I will try and perform that holy duty at some point or the other in this essay. However, what attracted me more to start with were the environs of the Presidency College of yore. The clock tower, next to the observatory in the main building, if memory serves me right, never worked, so that recorded time appeared to have remained frozen throughout the entire period of my student day association with the college. The Derozio Hall did not exist, though we had been promised by Sanat Bose, the then Principal, that funds for the auditorium had been sanctioned. He warned us with deadly precision though that it was not likely to come up in the foreseeable future. There being no auditorium in the college, most cultural programmes organised by the Students’ Union were held in the Physics Lecture Theatre in Baker Laboratory building. This is where we were charmed by Debabrata Biswas, Purabi Mukhopadhyay and many other renowned singers.

This Lecture Theatre, which continues to exist, was also the venue for public debates organised by students and the most popular and unbelievably talented debater I was fortunate enough to witness performing there was Sudhangsu Dasgupta. Hiranmoy Karlekar, who was himself a student of Presidency College, was also an impressive debater. In all likelihood, around the time I heard him debate, he was a post-graduate student. Gayatri Chakravarty (later Spivak), along with Jayabrata Bhattacharjee (who was a year junior to me) and a much younger Sundar Chatterjee (later transformed into the film actor Dhritiman Chattopadhyay) regaled us with their debating skills too.

The best of the debates that we were exposed to in the Physics Lecture Theatre was organised in the form of a “Mock Parliament” and the issue that was debated by this Parliament was the dismissal of the democratically elected communist government of E.M.S. Nambuduripad in Kerala. The dismissal took place on 31 July, 1959. It was my first year at Presidency College and I have no clear idea about the exact date of the debate. Eminent politicians such as Siddhartha Sankar Ray and Sadhan Gupta, as well as regular debaters like Sudhangsu Dasgupta and N. Viswanathan participated in the debate. Saila Kumar Mukherjee, who had been the Speaker of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly from 1952 through 1957 acted as the Speaker for the Mock Parliament too.

It was one of the grandest of shows I witnessed during my student life and I simply cannot forget the oratorical skills that our young minds were exposed to on that afternoon. The students were thrilled and I think that the motion was thrown open to vote, but I do not remember which side won on that lovely autumn afternoon. It’s quite possible that the Treasury benches won, since the Students’ Union at the time had an SFI minority and the group that dominated students’ affairs was the anti-SFI group PCSU (Presidency College Students’ Union).

Students presented musical performances too on occasions and one in particular that has remained glued to my mind was Partha Ghose’s singing with a piano accordion that he played himself. Most probably, he was then a student of the final year of the Physics Honours course and I was a year junior to him, studying Economics. It is difficult to come up with a list of the numbers he presented, but I distinctly remember him singing Kishore Kumar’s unforgettable song “shing nei tobu nam tar shingho …” He achieved instant popularity in the college by his performance and I was told that many of the girls who attended his show literally fell in love with him. And why not? He was handsome, he was a talented singer and he was an accomplished student. The girls simply swooned and the boys too participated in their own way in the “merry din”.

There was yet another venue for an annual gathering, the Star Theatre in North Calcutta. Students used to stage all boys or girls plays there, since university rules strictly forbade boys and girls performing together. The girls normally perfomed Tagore dance dramas, such as Chitrangada or Shyama. Boys restricted themselves to plays like Sukumar Ray’s Chalachchitto Chanchori. Dwijen Bagchi, a lawyer in later life, was an accomplished actor. He excelled in these shows. Normally English language performances were avoided. During my student days though, English plays were staged for two consecutive years. The one I participated in had a female character in it, which was doctored upon, thereby changing it from someone or the other’s wife to his brother.

***

Students spoke to one another mostly in Bengali, avoiding English as far as possible. The atmosphere was typically Bengali middle-class. However, a cultural revolution of sorts occurred during the year I joined the BA programme in 1961. A significantly large number of students joined the college who had a Loreto College or a St. Xavier’s College background. Most of them were fluent with the English language and opted for what was called Alternative English for the BA Pass course instead of Bengali. It took a while for the college to get accustomed to this new breed of students, but they were quite friendly themselves and those who wished to associate with them were soon part of the group. The most revolutionaries were led by a group of girls who had arrived from Loreto College. They brought a metamorphosis in the college premises, sartorially speaking. Prior to their arrival, the girls who studied in the college showed up in cotton saree clad Bengali simplicity. The Loreto girls arrived in tight fitting salwar-kurtas and their kurtas, unthinkably enough, were often sleeveless. And there was a girl, who, if I remember correctly, arrived one day in her skirts. That was a bombshell. There was a murmur of disapproval, which could have, I am not entirely sure, reached the Teachers’ Room as well. But pretty girls in pretty dresses were pretty girls in pretty dresses and they won hands down. I am still in touch with some of these revolutionaries and they are no different from any other average Bengali person. In any case, middle class or not, they did precipitate a change and apparel-wise at least, the girls transformed the Presidency look ever since that year.

***

The quadrangle next to the Baker Laboratory was a quintessential green, maintained in that state along with rows of the best seasonal flowers under the loving care of the Principal. A person entering the college for the first time was invariably caught by the breathtaking beauty of the garden and the bright green field. The maintenance did not extend of course to many of the other essential facilities, but this oversight was a part of middle class culture as well and no one ever demurred over such issues. One assumes though that the Principal’s office and the Teachers’ Rooms were adequately equipped to attend to nature’s calls.

The green quadrangle was where Dipak Ghosh excelled. He was a talented cricketer and students crowded there to watch him produce over-boundaries, one after another, during matches played against other colleges. St Xavier’s College was our principal opponent and when they came to play at the Baker quadrangle, literally all the students forgot about their classes. The Xaverians’ principal target was Dipak Ghosh and their joy knew no bounds once Ghosh was dismissed. It was difficult though to put a stop to his magic, which does not mean of course that he never fell prey to the opponents’ attack. On one occasion, I remember him being sent back to the pavilion by the captain of the St. Xavier’s team, Shivaji Roy I think, who caught Ghosh in the slips. Among Dipak’s many cricketing achievements was the number of glass windows in the Baker Laboratory Building that his boundaries managed to smash into splinters.

Yet another accomplished cricketer was Bikash Sinha, whom I have mentioned earlier. However, there was a fundamental difference between the likes of him or Partha Ghose and Dipak Ghosh. Sinha and Ghose were successful students as well, which Ghosh was not. He was a student of the Mathematics Honours course, but I doubt that he ever attended classes. I do not think he managed to complete his degree at all. On days that had no cricket matches scheduled, he sat in the Coffee House in Albert Hall, chain smoking in a quiet corner, mostly alone. What his problem was, I never found out. He came from a well to do family I was told that lived in a two storied bungalow near the Gariahat crossing. And one day, without notice, he simply died. Some told me that his family had a history of premature deaths, but I didn’t know him sufficiently well to know the details. A pall of gloom descended on the college on that ill fated day, students speaking in whispers, but soon enough life was back to normal.

***

I normally caught the No. 10 bus at Gariahat crossing to reach College Street. These were double decker buses, pretty crowded while boarding, but on lucky days the boys found empty seats. On exceptionally lucky days, there could be a girl from the college sitting next to the boy. Being able to pay for her journey (ten paise probably) produced blissful smiles on their faces. Outside academics, it was the ultimate achievement one could hope for. There was a longer route as well from College Street to Gariahat. This was the No. 2 or 2B bus route, the length-wise preferred route if accompanied by a girl.

The college was bordered on its southern fringe by the Calcutta University campus, as Presidency University still is. What has disappeared though is the grand Senate Hall with its Corinthian pillars. The Senate Hall directly faced Goldighi in College Square and many an idle afternoon were spent in College Square by peanut munching students. Beyond the eastern boundaries of College Square stood the Paramount “sherbet” restaurant (along with its competitor Paragon, which exists no longer). We partook of the excellent elixir they served on days when our meagre allowances permitted the extravagance. What we drank there left us in a tongue licking state for days on end.

On the southern border of College Square stood Puntiram Sweets, which we visited on poorer days to consume a variety of snacks. The northern boundary of the college was flanked by the YMCA building, which itself sported a small restaurant and this too we dropped into once in a while. Beyond YMCA, across Harrison Road was Dwarik Ghosh’s renowned eatery, which sold mouth watering “luchi” and “aloor dam” for 6 paise and “luchi” and “chholar dal” for 4 on our financially stressed days. There was yet another restaurant on Harrison Road, Gyan Babur Cabin, which directly faced Bankim Chatterjee Street. I don’t think too many students from the college went there, but thanks to a magnanimous cousin, I did get to taste one of its delicacies on a long lost afternoon. The dish carried a name as exotic as exotic as “Kiss Me Quick”. Gyan Babur Cabin rests now in peace one knows not where, an event which could well have motivated my cousin to migrate to Australia.

College Street Coffee House of course occupied the pride of place. It was the most patronised restaurant and it continues to live till this day. It was somewhat expensive, quite apart from being smoke filled. Chairs were often hard to find and there were invariably days when one could afford to consume nothing other than the smoke and the supposedly intellect stimulating conversations carried out by people sharing the table, or, at best, the cheapest fare it served. This was known as “infusion” and looked like black coffee. One hears a great deal about Coffee House being the most authentic producer of bales of Bengal’s intellectual fabric. But I have to admit that the only thing that ever attracted me to that restaurant was its Mutton Afghani. I visited the place a few years ago only to discover to my horror that Mutton Afghani still existed, but it did so in a quality-wise hopelessly depreciated state.

College Street itself may have grown more congested compared to those prehistoric days, but even if it has done so, this is not too apparent to the naked eye. It was always bursting at the seams, and it is difficult to imagine that the seams have actually given way. Of course, the one way traffic arrangement is a modern day phenomenon, but it is hard to distinguish the one way flow from the two way flow of the past.

***

I was a regular student of Presidency College from 1959 through 1963. I completed my BA degree in Economics in 1963, but remained enrolled as a student in the College till 1965, though I was attending classes in Kantakal at the time as a post-graduate student. An arrangement between Presidency College and Calcutta University those days made it possible for Masters’ students to be enrolled as students of Presidency College, primarily to let them have access to the College library. Taking this into account, I think I can declare myself to have been officially a student of Presidency College for six years.

As I said, I had started off as a student of the Intermediate of Science (ISc) class, after finishing what was known as the School Final Examination. What are my memories from the ISc class? Not much alas that are worth recording. Few teachers in the science stream managed to leave any deep impression. And this has little to do with the passage of time, for I have fascinating memories of teachers who taught in the school that sent me to this college. I have recorded those memories elsewhere.

One teacher in the ISc class though stood out and this was P.C. Rakshit. His classes were full of drama, drama that easily attracted young minds. He taught us physical chemistry and I recall the manner in which he distinguished a physical mixture from a chemical compound. A physical compound, he said, was a bit like a “muri-mudki” mix. Even after mixing them up, it was not difficult to un-mix them into their component parts, simply by physically separating out the two components. The mixtures that doctors prescribed those days and compounders served were therefore not physical compounds from a chemist’s point of view.

Another fascinating incident that I remember from this class was the experiment he carried out to show how water could be produced by fusing two molecules of hydrogen with one molecule of oxygen. I was much impressed by the sound and fury accompanying the experiment. When the experiment was completed, we saw a clear glass dome sprinkled with water drops. If I remember correctly, he used a catalyst to carry out the experiment and that was the first time I learnt about a catalyst. Rakshit did not teach us for too long and the syllabus changed to inorganic chemistry. These were taught by teachers whom I quickly forgot.

Physics was taught by a number of teachers, but it was Nagen Das who took the largest number of classes. I am afraid that I remember very little of the Physics I learnt either. The teaching methods were uninspiring and on that account perhaps, I found the subject unattractive. On the other hand, as I realised much later in life, Physics is concerned with fundamental and deep questions. The professors though did not pose the questions, for me at least, in a manner that could arouse my inquisitiveness.

Mathematics was yet another subject that failed to excite me and this was most unfortunate. I had opted for Mechanics as an elective subject for the School Final Examination and performed reasonably well in the finals. The Mechanics I was taught in school constituted a part of the Mathematics syllabus for ISc as well. But the teaching method was maddeningly dull and helped me forget all that I learnt in school.

The classes that I attended in the ISc course did me more harm than good and Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics helped me little to progress in my academic career at this stage of life. This is strange, to say the least, since in later life I literally fell in love with Mathematics as I specialised in Economic Theory and a good deal of my research in the subject used Mathematics that I hated in Presidency College but learnt with enthusiasm when confronted by some of the most wonderful teachers I came across. Of course, I need to admit here that my reactions to the teachers may not have been shared by my classmates. They could very well disagree with me and I have little to offer in self-defence if they do.

***

Despite my deficiencies, I performed manageably well in the ISc examination and my father was hell bent on sending me over to an engineering college. The batch of students I belonged to was quite exceptional in this respect. The score-wise best among them opted for engineering courses and there were few left who were willing to continue with Physics, Chemistry or any of the other regular science subjects. The Physics Department in particular had rarely been betrayed by the rank holders in this manner. So, what was unimaginable those days, students belonging to lower rungs easily found admission into the Physics, Geology and other Honours courses. Not that they did not flourish in later life. In fact, I have already mentioned Asish Basu, who could not find immediate admission to the Geology department. But he is a world renowned geologist today even though he could have been considered a non-starter when he joined the Geology course.

I had of course lost all interest in pursuing a science career and fought hard at home to switch over to Economics, which during those days was considered an Arts subject. Once I was able to convince my father to let me off the hook, I was admitted to the Economics Department quite easily, though I cannot say that I performed particularly well there either.

The professor who moved us most was Bhabatosh Dutta, whose teaching skills are impossible to forget. He was full of humour and his classes were intensely dramatic. The students simply lapped up what he taught and I missed only one of his classes during the course of my entire BA class and that on account of some illness or the other. I loved Bhabatosh Dutta’s teaching methods, because he reminded me of Utpal Dutt who taught us English in South Point School. Utpal Dutt’s teaching was full of drama as well and the students got instantly attracted to his classes.

The other well-known teachers I was exposed to in the BA Honours class were Tapas Majumdar and Nabendu Sen. They were serious teachers, but the drama element was missing in their courses. Dipak Banerjee taught us for a single day, after which he left for an assignment abroad. On that single day though, he gave us useful advice. And that advice consisted of drawing our attention to a number books in macroeconomics which were to be avoided under all circumstances. He did not proceed beyond this.

However, around four years later, I got to know him closely, when I was selected as a research scholar in the newly instituted Centre for Economic Studies in the Economics Department. During those days, I did get to learn a good deal from him and it was he who was mainly instrumental in my securing a fellowship in a US university to complete a PhD degree. My association with Dipak Banerjee continued till the very end of his life. As is often the case, the teacher student relationship vanishes and is replaced by friendship. Something similar in nature occurred as far as my relationships with Nabendu Sen and Tapas Majumdar were concerned as well.

I was taught by Upendra Nath Ghoshal too, the departmental head, who clearly thought me to be the worst student in the class. Nirmal Majumdar taught us Aristotle’s Politics, Nirmal Chandra Basu Roychoudhuri lectured on International relations and Ramesh Ghosh taught us Political Theory. I failed to impress the Political Science professors without exception and ended up the BA course with a firm conviction that I was an absolute nobody as far as my abilities as a student were concerned.

***

When those bygone days “flash upon my inward eye”, I cannot help asking myself why it was that Presidency College forced me to drown deep into mediocrity and lose whatever self-confidence I possessed. I end up with a solitary explanation, which may well be incorrect. It was an age when a student’s ability was judged almost entirely by the marks she or he scored. It was not easy to score high, for it involved perseverance. Hard work that is, with a solitary goal. Not growing inquisitiveness about the unknown, but the sprinter’s zeal for snipping off a micro-second from the time required to reach the finishing line. The philosophy inculcated unto students was hard to distinguish from the motivations that provoke a Sachin Tendulkar or a Serena Williams. Beating the opponent was possibly more important than responding to the allure of imponderables. This was actually encouraged. It was an age when numbers scored in examinations alone sanctified. In this connection, one needs to be careful of course in pointing out that there were several instances of students who succeeded in maintaining the balance too, between high marks and a greed to learn. Mukul Majumdar was the most prominent among this latter group, but he was not the only one.

***

Going back to the ISc course, while it did not fulfil any major goal for me at least, viz. opening my mind to science and mathematics, I have to admit that the course was not a total waste and that for the wrong reasons. English and Bengali were compulsory subjects for us and these were taught by teachers who did fascinate me. If I remember correctly it was Tarapada Chakravarty who taught us Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This was not the first time that I was being introduced to the work, for back in school Utpal Dutt, who was perhaps the best teacher I have ever known, taught us the same poem. Perhaps my familiarity with the poem helped me absorb Tarapada Chakravarty’s version particularly well. If this was true, then it stood in contrast with my experience with Mechanics described earlier. Quite apart from him, we had Sailen Sen, Bhabatosh Chatterjee, Amal Bhattacharyya, Arun Dasgupta and a few others in the English Department and they did wonders for me. There were excellent teachers in the Bengali Department too, but the one I remember most fondly was Bhabatosh Datta.

***

I left the college totally bereft of confidence in myself. But not all of us were cowards. In this connection, I remember my classmate Dipak Mitra (who was better known by a nickname that his peers had adorned him by, but one which I shall refrain from using now). I have no idea how Dipak had performed in the School Final Examination, but I do recall that he displayed a singular disinclination towards what the college taught. He remained unmoved by the Presidency glory throughout the two years of the ISc class. Dipak rarely attended classes and must have employed well-known tricks to be marked present during the roll call with which each class began. It was mandatory to attend a minimum percentage of the number of lectures delivered. Falling short of the percentage figure had serious consequences. Permission to attend the final ISc examination was denied. There must have been people who were so punished, but not Dipak. He managed to sit for the final examination alright. And I distinctly remember him leaving the examination hall for some subject or the other long before the final bell went off. This was unthinkable in Presidency College. The examinees were so serious that they had to be forced to stop writing beyond the announced end of the examination hour. But Dipak could not care less. He submitted his answer script at least an hour before the test was over.

Not that he failed the ISc examination. He was too smart to fail in anything he ever took up. He didn’t end up with a glowing record of course as far as ISc went, but he was least bothered on that account. Following the ISc examination, he left the college in search of greener pastures. My knowledge regarding what he was upto following his encounter with Presidency College is vague at best. But I did come across him much later in life. He was a successful and highly regarded corporate lawyer at the time and, what was most important, we turned into excellent friends long after we were both out of Presidency College. Of course, given Dipak’s successful career, he was a bit of a globe trotter as well and it was no easy job to drop into his office or home and chat freely.

Dipak was not incapable of playing pranks on the teachers and one incident comes readily to my mind. It involved Kajal Bose (later Sen), the beloved Kajal-di of the English Department. Kajal Bose was back from Oxford and had freshly joined the college. Women faculty members were rare those days and the only other lady I recall teaching at the time belonged to the Botany Department. Kajal Bose was young, beautiful, full of poise, an epitome of Bengali culture of that age. The Intermediate class on the other hand was an all boys class in an otherwise co-educational college. Few among the boys in the class had ever been taught by women teachers. I was a bit of an exception in this respect, for I had passed out of a co-educational school which employed both men and women to teach. Dipak and the others had a different background. And Dipak, as I said, had a headful of ideas.

Although he rarely attended classes, he decided to attend a Kajal Bose’s class one fateful morning. He was a bit of a ventriloquist as I discovered that day, who could produce noises whose source was hard to trace. And he decided to try “confusions with” Kajal Bose. He was sitting straight faced at the back of the class as she began to lecture. When out of nowhere one heard clear notes of a sarod being played in full volume. Kajal Bose ignored this bravely for a while, but the rest of the class didn’t. We began to hear giggles and the class turned unmanageably noisy. But Dipak carried on with a face devoid of any expression at all. Finally, Kajal Bose reacted.

“Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves?” she literally thundered.

No one appeared to fit that description. She stood there in horrified silence for a while and finally threw out a challenge.

“Is there anyone in the class who has the courage to identify the mischief monger? If there isn’t, the entire class will have to pay for this.”

This was a serious threat and one student responded. His name was Bishnupada Ukil. Till today I think he, like me perhaps, was a misfit in the ISc class, or in Presidency College itself. In fact, he had given me the impression that he was attracted to learning Sanskrit more than anything else. He had difficulty in expressing himself in the English language and had developed the habit of writing up his English sentences and reading them out to keep conversation going. Bishnupada stood up with his sheet of paper.

“What exactly is it that you want us to tell you Madam?” he read out loud and clear.

Kajal Bose was quite flabbergasted to say the least. She thought she had made herself amply clear and simply stared back at Bishnupada in disbelief.

But Bishnupada read on unperturbed. “Do you want us to tell you the name of the student who is creating this noise?”

At this point, Kajal Bose found back her speech. “Why, yes of course. Who is responsible for this noise?”

With a sheepish smile on his face, Bishnupada read back, “That Madam we cannot tell you!”

I have a vague memory that, to her credit, Kajal Bose courageously continued with her class, ignoring the sounds that continued to pollute the air and that Dipak probably never showed up for Kajal Bose’s classes again.

None of the three people involved in this anecdote reside our world anymore. Kajal-di, after a successful career, passed away under unenviable circumstances. Bishnupada, who joined the WBCS, left us many years ago, following a heart attack I was informed. And Dipak himself was the last one to leave. He was suffering from the most dreaded of afflictions. Fortunately though, his suffering was short lived. I went to see him in the ICU at Bellevue Clinic, where he was languishing in a semi-conscious state, but he did recognise me and gestured me to come closer to him. I went as close as I could, defying the barriers of tubes and other medical equipment. His voice was faint, though I heard him quite clearly. “Don’t lament,” he said. And those may have been the last words he spoke to anyone at all. He left us next day.

Dipak was fond of translating Tagore songs into English and he had even published a book, Echoes, a few years ago. He presented me a copy of this book and here are a few lines from the first song in the book:

“Remember me yet if I am gone afar,
If old love is overlaid with a web of fresh passion:
If you know me not, even if I am near,
As I were a shadow that might not be, remember me yet.”

***
***

Tryst with a Teacher

Teachers who stick to a syllabus bore me to death. I have always enjoyed being taught by teachers who didn’t mind crossing boundaries and trespassing into other subjects. Arithmetic mingling with geography, history with chemistry, or, for that matter, English literature taking a u-turn into physics. Teachers who lead you that way are eccentric for sure, but I am quite convinced that they are the ones who make learning a gloriously enjoyable experience.

I am reminded in particular of my English teacher in school. He made us read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and while he was teaching that book, he introduced us to events leading to the French Revolution in magnificent detail. It was not clear whether he was teaching European history or English literature. And we thoroughly enjoyed all this, especially so since he didn’t stop with the French Revolution. Soon enough we were learning about the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and his retreat from Moscow. Needless to say, we used to look forward to his classes, for each class exposed us to ever new surprises. And the surprises didn’t remain confined to history alone. They bordered sometimes on sci-fi as well!

“Do you know what an atom is?” he asked us one day in the middle of his lecture.

Some of us knew, some didn’t. So, he went on to explain the basic structure of an atom, telling us what neutrons, electrons and protons were. He described how sub-atomic particles revolved around a nucleus at unimaginable speed even as the physical body that was made up of the atoms, like the black board for example, clung to the wall betraying not a single sign of any movement.

The students stared at him in puzzled silence.

“You see, an atom is a bit like the solar system. The sun in the middle and the planets circling it ever so restlessly. But you and I continue with our lives without bothering about such matters. Yet, we are continuously seated on a gigantic ferris wheel! Isn’t that surprising?”

We nodded our heads vigorously. True indeed, how stupid of us. But then he went on.

“Is it possible though that the solar system is merely an atom, one amongst endlessly many that are sticking together to make up some colossal structure?”

We scratched our heads.

“Well, look at the black board. It is merely a collection of endlessly many atoms and each atom has a queer resemblance with our solar system. Let’s put together trillions of these solar systems and may be they will begin to look like a solid body. Perhaps like a stone on a ring worn by yet another super-gigantic creature. An infinitely large brobdingnagian individual, who loves his ring, but doesn’t know that there are nano beings living somewhere in his ring. He has his life to lead with no idea at all about the love and hate that keeps us busy as well.”

We listened to him open mouthed and stared back at each other. Some smiled stupidly.

He suddenly raised his voice several decibels and came up with an even more dramatic possibility. “Suppose by accident, some of these subatomic particles crash against one another. They are circling at such immense speed that the atom might explode. Right?” He smiled.

We nodded vigorously once again.

“An atomic explosion of sorts! What will happen to the black board if such an explosion were to occur? It will disintegrate into splinters. No?”

Yes, that did look like a possibility, however absurd.

“And what will you do with the blackboard if such an incident were to take place? You will have it thrown away. You will have no use for it, right?”

Yes, of course, a splintered blackboard should be quite useless in a classroom, we agreed.

“But now, suppose such an accident occurs in our solar system.” He said this and waited for our reaction.

We didn’t react. We were quite dumbfounded.

“Well, an atom in the giants ring stone would have exploded, thereby destroying the stone altogether. The giant will be puzzled for sure. Why did the ring disintegrate? he could wonder for a while. Then, since he has other important work to do, he will not worry too long about the broken ring. He will simply take the ring and throw it away. Just as you said you will throw the blackboard away. Right?” He came up with a stage whisper as we continued to remain spellbound.

This sci-fi story has stayed back with me for a long, long time. I think it was 1958 when I heard this imaginary tale.

I have often told you about this teacher. His name was Utpal Dutt, one of the best stage cum cine actors India produced. Only few know how good a teacher he was too, before changing his profession.

I have no doubt in my mind that it was he who inspired me to take up teaching as a profession.

 
 
 
 
 

Gone with the Wind

Like the rest of humanity residing on the wrong side of seventy, I often lament over the good old days when a family physician visited your home. Somewhat in the manner of a dear old friend, he smiled and briefly chatted during visits, and these constituted the best part of the cure. But he prescribed medicines too, usually referred to as mixtures. They were liquids of varying shades and colours, which well-trained compounders in pharmacies served in corked up bottles. On the body of the bottle was pasted a slim strip of paper, whose sides were carefully snipped off at regular intervals to mark the doses for the medicine. There must have been a simple technique the compounder employed to produce the markers, whose total lengths as well as the sizes of the tabs that indicated the quantum of the mixture in each dose varied across bottles, depending presumably on their sizes and the intensity of one’s illness. I am pretty sure that they spent quality time with a pair of scissors and a paper roll designing the markers. The mixture preparation art with the clearly demarcated dosages glued to the bottles has disappeared completely with the arrival of proprietary medicines. But then so has the family physician.

The physician was not the only example of the species that visited your home. I remember Hari in this connection, from seventy odd years ago. He was the first barber I came across in my life and I realise now to my surprise that Hari is an anagram of hair! I doubt though that his parents had named him Hari to initiate him to his profession. In fact I am not even sure if they knew what the word hair meant. On the other hand they might have known, for once in a while you did come across hair-cutting saloons even during those primitive days.

Hari was inseparable from his little wooden box of implements and knew precisely when his clients needed him for their haircuts. Like the compounder, Hari too started off his job with paper. Not the compounder’s spotless white roll, but an old sheet of newspaper that he borrowed from his client’s home. He spent at least ten minutes or so patiently folding up the sheet right down the middle, making the three sides of a page perfectly align with those of the facing page. Then he carefully selected a spot near the centre of the common side and carved off a semi-circular section around it with his scissors. When the pages were reopened, the semi-circle transformed into a circular hole large enough for any normal sized head to pass through. Finally, the perfectionist that he was, he slit up one side of the circle vertically downwards, a few inches or so, to give the thing the appearance of a shirt front (without button holes of course).

The garment, worn by his client seated on a chair, looked like a shirt of sorts, projecting on both sides over his shoulders. If there were two more holes, one to the right and one to the left of the shirt front, a person’s arms could well be pushed out through them, making the newsprint cover resemble a pillory from the middle ages advertising the imminent arrival of the printing machine. The shirt was meant to protect the best part of the torso of the person undergoing a haircut from the shreds of hair that soon began to travel downwards.

Once the newspaper cape was ready, he put on his nickel framed semi-usable glasses before shifting over to the actual business of hair-cutting. The haircut ceremony at our home invariably took place on the ground floor balcony facing the street. The newspaper clad client had to sit quietly for at least half an hour, announcing stale news from a few days ago to all interested passersby. Once the ceremony was over, Hari helped him slip out of his newspaper confinement, neatly folded it up again and carried it away. I don’t know what he did with it, but it is unlikely that he used it for bedtime reading.

He was happy with his dark wooden box, containing a pair or two of hair-cutting scissors, a time-tested razor, a couple of not so clean looking combs with missing teeth, a single pair of vintage clippers, and almost invariably a tin framed mini-mirror, for clients who had to be convinced that they had received value for money. He was slim and clad invariably in a once white dhoti and shirt and sported silvery hair with occasional patches of grey. As a child, I used to be afraid of the razor and insisted that he used the clippers alone instead of shaving the back of my neck with his razor. He wore a constant smile on his wrinkled, sunburnt face however, and assured me that there was nothing to worry about. I don’t think he could convince me, but I couldn’t persuade him either.

Hari charged a sum that could not have exceeded today’s equivalent of 50 paise. Once the job was over, he released his captives from newspaper confinement and invariably parted with a wisdom filled advice on the way to take a bath after a hair-cut. “Start off by pouring pots full of water over your head to wash off the hair sticking to your body. That will clean you up,” I might have followed his counsel, but cannot recall anymore if it brought me success.

My memory suggests that he was the same old man, from the very first day of our acquaintance to the last, and that could have been several years. In fact, I strongly suspect that he was born old, but unlike Benjamin Button, continued to stay old till he died. I don’t know where he died, except that once he had passed away, his son, Panna, showed up, claiming his right to take charge of his father’s business. For some reason though, he didn’t continue for too long. Either he died from natural causes or he lost out to the slowly developing barber shop culture. And I distinctly remember that he had not mastered the technique of transforming newspapers into shirts.

Hari with his newspaper capes took a final curtain call many years ago. But newspapers still exist along with their home delivery service. This brings Sharma to my mind. Sharma used to deliver newspapers to my home, a silent and never complaining person. Unlike Hari’s wooden box, Sharma had a bicycle and he cycled around the locality with his daily newspapers. He was well-informed about our preferences and every morning, as soon as I opened the front door, I found all the four newspapers I regularly subscribe to waiting at the entrance. His specialization was not limited to newspapers alone. He showed up during festival seasons with a list of annual issues of popular magazines, which my wife enjoyed reading. And once every month, he came up with his bill at a late morning hour when he knew we couldn’t be asleep. He was particularly helpful during emergencies as well. Once in a while I found out somewhat late in the morning that I needed the day’s edition of a paper I did not normally buy. Sharma had left his phone number with me and all I had to do was give him a ring. The issue I was looking for arrived soon enough.

Old time residents in my locality told me that Sharma’s did not live an enviable life. He was a bachelor and took charge of a bunch of useless nephews his brothers had left behind them. So, Sharma spent his life caring for the nephews and probably their mothers as well. Once in a while he used to go back to his native village for a vacation, asking his nephews to take charge of the newspaper delivery to his regulars. The nephews though were not dependable and the newspapers arrived at my home with random gaps. This was most annoying and we complained to Sharma when he came back. He smiled in embarrassment and told us that he would try his best to have the matter resolved, but I didn’t think he had any control whatsoever over the nephews. Matters continued the same way over years. Yet, having known and trusted Sharma for so long, we continued to patronise him.

Till one day when we heard that he had sustained an accident in his old age and lost use of both legs. He was packed off promptly by the nephews. One of them showed up at my residence and informed me that he was going to ensure the regular delivery of newspapers then onwards. He failed to keep his promise of course and finally, out of sheer disgust, I engaged a different newspaper boy. This new boy is dependable and has not failed me so far.

In the meantime though, Sharma himself showed up all of a sudden, bearing a complaint from his nephew that he had not received his payment. Sharma was not able to walk at all and had to be helped by someone to climb up to my first floor apartment. It was a sad spectacle, but I had no choice other than explaining to him the nature of the problem. I was unwilling to accept Sharma’s nephew as his replacement. Sharma didn’t complain and left without demanding any payment whatsoever, though I offered to compensate him for the newspapers I never received.

I asked him whether he was planning to come back. In response, he drew my attention to his knees, which appeared to be permanently enclosed in strange looking casts bound to his knees with wires. That such a person could not possibly ride a bicycle was pretty obvious. Though newspapers will still be delivered to my home, Sharma at least has gone for good. Where to I have no idea, even though the word Ashram happens to be an anagram of Sharma.

Of Doctors, Loose Bowels and Françoise Hardy

She howled at me. I wasn’t particularly scared of a howling female. Of course, she was not my wife. A female in the shape of my howling wife never fails to loosen by bowels. But as I said, she was not my wife.

“I want you to get that hole sealed up by tomorrow,” howled she, who, as you will recall, was not my wife. She could be someone else’s wife of course. My wife was sitting right next to me and somebody else’s wife was facing me from the opposite side of the table. “Early signs of cataract may be, but cataract can go to hell. You have a hole in your right retina. Get it fixed by tomorrow.” The somebody else’s wife howled once more. She is popularly known as Dr. R, one of the best eye surgeons in Kolkata. “Just take a look at this,” the somebody else’s wife told the not somebody else’s wife. She pointed out something on the computer screen to the latter, who in turn vigorously nodded her head several times and told me later that she had seen nothing but a multi-coloured computer screen “signifying nothing”. She is a computer hater. She believes in fact that humanity is on the verge of extinction on account of computers. And holds me responsible for early signs of the cataclysm.

“How do I fix the hole in the retina?” I asked her, not feeling particularly confident at this juncture. “They never taught me the art of fixing retina holes. Can you fix it for me please?” I pleaded finally.

“No, I can’t fix retina holes,” the howler howled. “You have to see a retina surgeon.” She proceeded to write down a name on her prescription pad. “Call up F Hospital and seek an appointment with him right away. Get going, on your march. Left, right, left, right …” I don’t think she actually issued those marching orders, but the expression on her face could be interpreted that way.

I was back home soon enough and called up the recommended hospital. The gentleman who answered the phone heard me out and then said, “But Dr. B will not be available for at least a week. He was here only this morning and left instruction for his patients. He is out of town by now.”

Now, that was a scary message. Somebody else’s wife had asked me to get the hole sealed up within twenty four hours. I conveyed the message to the man, who refused to budge a centimetre. “Dr. B,” he said “won’t be back before 7×24 hours.” I tried to calculate how many hours they add up to, but being bad in arithmetic amongst every other useful thing, failed miserably. My bowels put my brain on alert. They were about to loosen up.

“What do I do then,” I wailed. “Dr. Somebody else’s wife has told me that I have no choice.” I remembered at this point of time that she had howled a solid question at me. “Don’t you see flashes of light in the middle of a dark night?” I had to admit that I did. I think she issued the marching orders that I thought she did but may actually not have, after hearing out my admission.

“Why don’t you see Dr. S instead,” said the man who refused to budge a centimetre. “He will be visiting day after tomorrow and he is one of the best retina specialists in the country.”

“Day after tomorrow! But that is way beyond tomorrow! Besides Dr. Somebody else’s wife had asked me to see Dr. B and Dr. B alone.”

“Why don’t you call her up and ask her then?” said the man who didn’t budge a centimetre.

“She howls,” I replied.

“What?” said TMWDBAC.

“She howled at me when she said I had to see Dr. B, who you say has gone into hiding.”

“Call her nonetheless and ask, if you wish to seek her permission. Then let me know. I am fixing a provisional appointment for you,” said TMWDBAC and disconnected.

You see folks, though I am not particularly scared of howling SEWs, my fingers trembled in no uncertain manner when I tried to call this particular Dr. SEW. As I had expected, the phone remained unanswered for the first ninety nine times or so that I called. But then she obliged.

“You see,” I explained, “I am the one you asked to see Dr. B to get that hole in my eye fixed. I saw you yesterday. My name is X, the one who sees flashes of light in the middle of the night.”

“Yes, I remember,” she answered in a howl-less tone this time. “What about it?”

“Dr. B will be away from the city for the next 7×24 hours. You told me to get the repair done within 24 hours. Though I don’t know what 7×24 hours is equal to, I have a gut feeling that it exceeds 24 hours. ”

“Oh, is that so? OK, I am referring you to someone else. Go see …”

“Can I see Dr. S instead at F Hospital?” I interrupted her with supreme bravery.

She immediately shifted gear and began to howl. “Dr. S? How on earth will you get to see him? He visits the hospital only once a month and that too from distant Chennai. His next visit falls due exactly a month from today.”

“But Doctor,” said I, “somebody at F Hospital said that he is due here day after tomorrow and that I can even get an appointment with him.”

She was silent for a long while. I began to wonder if she had hung up. But then her voice floated back. “He did, did he?” she was totally un-howling now. “Well, if you can get an appointment with Dr. S, then nothing could be better. He is one of the best in the country.” She repeated exactly what TMWDBAC had told me. It doesn’t matter that you cannot see him within 24 hours.” She seemed to be suggesting that it was worth the longer wait, whether or not I lost my ability to see at all in consequence.

Mr TMWDBAC’s views were confirmed and an elated I called him up and fixed the appointment.

“I told you so, didn’t I,” purred Mr. TMWDBAC.

I waited for the hour to arrive and went and saw Dr. S. In the meantime, I held on to my eyesight with all the strength of mind I possessed. I waited at the end of a long queue, but did get to see him. He examined me and said, “You don’t know how lucky you are that you saw Dr R. She is a great eye surgeon, though not a retina specialist. She specialises in cataracts. Few cataract specialists could have detected what you are suffering from. You are lucky, most lucky, that you saw her.”

Dr. SEW had brought me luck in the shape of Dr. S from Chennai.

“But she had said that I was unlucky, with a hole in my retina and all,” I mumbled.

“Oh, we will fix that, don’t worry,” assured the surgeon. “Your other eye too has a problem, but I will not touch it unless it looks really serious. Surgery is the only solution to the problem, but right now it’s not all that threatening. We can wait. You see me from time to time for check ups. I will tell you if extreme steps are necessary. Also, you can always hop into a plane and see me in Chennai, if …” he left the sentence hanging in the air. It had a sword of Damocles flavour.

“And the hole?” I lamented.

“I will cure that right away. They will put drops into your eyes and when you are ready, I will solder the hole with a laser beam.” The eyedrops brought back to my mind Oberon’s machinations against Titania, but I soon realised that the drops had blurred my vision far too much for me to recognise anything, not just anybody, around me. By the time I regained my vision, there was no one around except my wife and she was far too familiar with my asinine ways to raise an alarm. We came back home in peace.

That was around four or five years ago. And I have been seeing him ever since, at least twice a year and so far things have remained stable. We have turned into buddies sort of and he even revealed to me that he was a vinyl record fan and suggested that, given my interest in music, I too should shift to vinyl. I have a fairly large collection of those records. I told him about it and he immediately wrote down the name of the best brand of players to go for. On the prescription pad! “It’s around 25K,” he informed me, looking somewhat unsure if I could afford it. I sat poker faced in response. In any case, my books I knew had taken up all the space allotted to me at home.

To make the point clear, I chose one of my favourite records from the collection and presented it to the doctor next time I saw him. He was most reluctant to accept the gift, but I managed to persuade him. It was an old favourite, Françoise Hardy. The cover of the disc was slightly damaged given its vintage. I noticed that I had written the date and place of purchase in a corner of the cover. Rochester, 1972.

I have no idea if the doctor enjoyed listening to it, but he told me on the following occasion that he had to spend a good part of his valuable time cleaning up the grooves of the record and getting the cover back in shape. He even gave me his phone number and asked me to visit his home when I went to Chennai next and share a drink. Who knows? One of these days I may need to hop into a plane and visit him in Chennai, as he had asked me to on the very first day I had seen him. The circumstances under which he had asked me to hop into a plane were unlikely to land me at his home for a drink though.

Fortunately, however, the good doctor has been giving me a clean chit for a long time now, except for the last time I visited him a month or so ago, when he sounded a warning.

“You know what? I am surprised that neither you nor the inside of your eye ball look as old as the age you have declared to the hospital. What bothers me most is not your retina right now, but the fact that I don’t see any major sign of cataract yet. The way you are going, you may not need a cataract surgery for the next ten years at least. And no cataract surgeon will ever agree to treat a 97 year old! It is too risky. But the good news is that right now you are eye-wise in perfect shape despite your age.”

Which sounded like a warning you know. I mean there could be eye unrelated parts of me that are in imperfect shape. My bowels are sending me that unmistakable loosening message once again.

To appease them, therefore, I decided to listen to Hardy once again. I know you are all familiar with the number, but no harm listening to it one more time.

Or just ignore it.

 

The Master’s Class

Arup Mallik, 1997

Arup Mallik, who passed away on May 25, 2017, was an economic theorist from Calcutta, a city with an established tradition of producing some of the brightest Indian economists. He had impressed all those who taught him and won coveted prizes in India (he studied in University of Calcutta) and the United States of America (he did his PhD work at the University of Rochester). He warily avoided self-advertisement though, and refrained from publishing his research output in academic journals, possibly on account of the unreachable standards he had set for himself.

He spent most of his career teaching economic theory to postgraduate students of Calcutta University. During his heyday, he was the quintessential teacher who delivered classroom lectures the way Mozart might have conducted his symphonies. “Here was a Teacher! When comes such another?” was the expression of wonder with which his students invariably applauded him.

He taught mostly his own creations, which he doggedly refused to write up. A single exception to this rule was his paper titled “A Note on Multiplier and Real Wage Adjustment” (1977), on which several other researchers based their published papers, but which itself vanished, probably through termite-ridden neglect. His sharp, analytical mind was constantly engaged in dialectics, rejecting theses by antitheses, replacing ever new structures by newer ones. He was a nonconformist as far as conventional economics teaching went and constantly searched for alternative paradigms. Thus, teaching itself was a form of research for him.

Quite apart from his teaching skills, he was vastly popular among his friends and students, thanks to his sense of humour and personal charm. Many of his students-turned-friends grew up into successful researchers in the established sense, earning worldwide acclaim. To their credit, however, not one of them disowned what they inherited from the master. The master too remained blissfully happy that international accolades didn’t travel his way.

Anecdotes relating to Arup Mallik abound. In this context, a personal experience comes to mind. Around the late 1970s, Cambridge-based Piero Sraffa’s work was extensively studied in economists’ circles in Calcutta. Arup himself was a specialist in the area (and other areas as well) and I, a classmate from his past, approached him with a question that I couldn’t resolve. Arup listened to me for around a quarter of an hour, twirling his curly hair with his thumb and forefinger which was his habit when deeply engrossed in thought. Then, suddenly, he began to clap his hands in obvious delight and provided simultaneously a crystal clear answer to my question. What surprised me was that he went on praising Sraffa at the top of his melodious voice. “This is absolutely fascinating… Sraffa is a genius,” he repeated several times. Having explained Sraffa to me in his inimitable style, Arup passed on the entire credit of the explanation to Sraffa himself, as if it were the latter that had helped me clarify my doubt about his work. Arup belonged to a hopeless minority that misreads its own achievements as those of others.

Over time, Arup’s vibrancy started dissipating and one suspects that the strict curricula-based mechanical teaching rules put him off. He gradually became less forthcoming and, except for his association with a few old students, began to distance himself from the student community. He was afflicted with health problems too and receded into a cocoon, in spite of the best efforts of Sarmila, his erstwhile student, later colleague and caring wife.

Few youngsters today who have chosen to pursue the discipline of economics have probably even heard of Arup Mallik, leave alone his brilliance. If so, it is a monumental tragedy.

[Originally published without the photograph in The Telegraph, Calcutta on June 1, 2017.]