Tag Archives: presidency college

Spring Moonshine

Instead of proceeding southwards at the crossing of Manoharpukur Road and Rashbehari Avenue and arriving at the now vanished patch of green I once pondered over, if you were to make a right about turn and retrace your steps along Manoharpukur itself, all the way towards its crossing with Lansdowne Road (or, what is renamed Sarat Bose Road now, a Netaji connection needless to say), and keep moving eastwards, you will ultimately land on Russa Road (where Basushree Cinema once towered, but now resembles an exhausted heap of a panting stray dog in the middle of a scorching summer). Actually, the Uttam Kumar Manch lies too in benign neglect somewhere along the stretch, but I didn’t intend to take you that far.

Time-wise though, you need to travel a lot more in reverse gear, towards a solar juncture when no one imagined Uttam Kumar could ever be awarded a public stage in posthumous glory. On the temporal plane however, as I said, you merely need to cross Lansdowne Road and walk around a hundred yards or so eastwards. And you should be able to locate the home I have in mind. Or, more accurately, the space that the set of low roofed, over congested rooms connected by a shared balcony cum corridor had once occupied, but no longer does. A single storied long lean building let out to several tenants I thought. I have searched for it in vain for the past many years as I passed that way.

I wish I could locate her at least once though before taking my final curtain call. But I doubt that this can ever happen either. She has disappeared, like her home, I know not where. A darkish slim girl, a smiling face carrying about it a freshly washed evening aura. Her hair neatly combed and tied up in a pair of pretty ponytails. She wore a conservative, long middle class skirt, reaching well below her knees as she sat on the family bed. Her books were cleanly arranged on the bed and her writing table was a short wooden stool set in front of her.

It was not hard for me to make out that she was waiting with all the anticipation at her disposal for my arrival. I cannot recall exactly how old she was, probably a student of Class Seven or eight at most. I, on the other hand, had just finished my Intermediate of Science Examination from Presidency College and was goofing around doing pretty much nothing. When a friend suggested that I earn a little on my own giving tuition to school students. I had little idea where such tuition hungry students waited, but my advisor was generous. He found out the address where the girl looked forward to being tutored.

Recall that I am talking about the wrong side of prehistory. It required a good deal of courage to agree to walk into a middle class home and train up a girl not much younger than the tutor himself. Nonetheless, I tried, for the wages offered were a fabulous Rs. 10 a month!! The first time I would be spending my self-earned money and Rs. 10 was a fortune. A bottle of coke cost twenty five paise and a comfortable bus ride to my college in North Calcutta (which was the other end of the town) was a mere 10 paise. The height of luxury was a Rs. 1.25 ticket to a matinee show in a flawlessly air-conditioned theatre. What was it that I pined for that I could not possess now? No this was too good an offer and I readily agreed, though, needless to say, the decision was carefully hidden from my parents and especially from my mother. She would surely have played spoil sport. Her sons’ (my elder brother and I) association with teenage girls had to be viewed with endless suspicion.

Well, one bright evening, I was led into this home and introduced to the girl’s father who welcomed me with open arms. Few words were exchanged, for the girl was all impatient to drag me over to her books. A bright ambitious girl who had no time to waste over small talk. She meant business and as far as I can remember, it was Trigonometry that we started off with. The subject had just been introduced in her class and I didn’t miss the excitement that radiated from her eyes. I began to tell her about the basics, drawing a right angled triangle and explaining what sine theta stood for. Next came cosine theta quite inevitably. And as I was about to explain tangent theta, the girl intervened firmly. “Teacher, please don’t tell me. I want to figure it out on my own!!” I stared at her in wonder and waited for her to come up with the results of her calculations.

She was definitely an intelligent student, who would make any teacher happy, even one that was as young and inexperienced as I (exactly eighteen years old to be precise). Hence, the fun continued, problem after problem, subject after subject and I think I lost track of time. Till I suddenly noticed that it was past 9.30 in the evening. I knew I had to be back home or else people should begin to worry. My mother maintained uncompromising discipline and no one had the courage to defy her.

So, I gave her a set of exercises that I would be looking into next time and got up to leave. I hadn’t noticed that the girl’s father was sitting in the room right behind me and keeping watch over me. He took me by complete surprise as I turned around and stood in front of him. I had no idea in fact what he was doing there. Eavesdropping perhaps, measuring up my character? Making sure that I was not making a pass at his daughter? Or was he trying to figure out if I was familiar with what I was teaching?

Discomfiture prevailed for a while as I stared back stupidly at him. He looked very tired, probably waiting for the bed to be vacated for him to lie down and rest. I managed to recover my senses though and smiled at him as I prepared to leave the room. He stopped me and requested me to sit down. I had hardly expected this, but I complied, though I was getting late. Clearly, he had something in his mind and his face expressed embarrassment. And I waited for him to open up.

“I have a request for you to consider,” he began. “As you can see, these two small rented rooms are all I have to keep my body and soul together. I am not in a position to spend much on my daughter’s tutor.” He halted and hesitated and then blurted out, “I really cannot afford Rs. 10 a month you see. Why don’t you think of yourself as a part of my family and reduce your fees? Will you please teach her for Rs. 5 a month? Rs. 10 is awfully expensive. You understand don’t you?”

I was taken aback and didn’t have to try too hard not to understand. At the same time, as I faced the father, I knew that the daughter was sitting behind me listening to the conversation. A smart girl, whom any teacher (even one who was teaching for the first time) would love to teach. The girl, who had told me only an hour or two ago that she didn’t want me to give her the answer to a question I had not even asked, for she wished to try it out on her own. But her parents lacked the means to help her along.

I was caught for a while on the horns of a dilemma. I didn’t know how to answer the man. If I refused, the girl who had aroused the teacher’s interest in me on that very first meeting, would be dispirited. I didn’t wish to hurt her. At the same time, I wasn’t sure what ought to be the right course of action. So, I just smiled at the man sheepishly and left his premises in silence, probably giving him the impression that I had agreed.

I had little worldly experience at the time (or even now for that matter), and kept wondering back at home what the correct course of action might be. This was my first tryst with real world economics I suppose, though I hadn’t yet had any formal exposure to the subject. “Would it be wise to comply with the request?” I kept on asking myself. As I learnt soon after in college, the man was asking me to reduce the “supply price” of my tutoring service by no less than fifty per cent. If I did agree, what impression would I produce about the quality of the commodity I was selling?

Or, for that matter, about myself? If I lowered the price, I was either not sure of my ability as a teacher, or, worse, I was readying to enter a monastery. Both possibilities crossed through my mind needless to say, and neither was too appealing.

I took the easy way out after thinking over the matter. I never went back to teach the girl, nor did I send any information. I suppose I was too much of a coward to haggle over the price. Fortunately, they had no idea of my address and could not trace me back to my home. I did receive a message of course from the father, sent through the aforementioned intermediary, inquiring why I had not showed up a second time. I felt no desire to oblige the messenger with a reply.

I do not know how this little girl fared in her life. Did she rise high in a profession or was she simply married off as they often are? I shudder to think of her simply leading the life of a mother and then probably a grandmother and nothing else. I want to believe instead that she travelled high up, much higher than I ever did or could. And I wish that the innocent smile that I had once seen on her face has not metamorphosed into a hardened sneer with her “progress” in life.

Manoharpukur Road is a storehouse of memories. It flows like a river, a river full of recollections. Not all of them are pleasant alas. Rivers dry up, they produce floods.

But they also reflect back once in a while the full moon during springtime.

Like the smile on the little girl’s face. The girl whose name I shall, sadly enough, never be able to recall anymore.

Buddhu vs. Aristotle: Kaun Hara Kaun Jita

Ms. Vidya Sinha

I wish they would start a school that teaches you the art of wooing. I have been exercised over the idea ever since I watched Basu Chatterji’s movie ‘Chhoti si Baat’, starring the ever innocent Amol Palekar and the ravishing Vidya Sinha. I admit I fell head over heals in love with the latter the day I saw the earlier Basu-Amol-Vidya movie ‘Rajnigandha’. And ‘Chhoti si Baat’ merely added to my agony, for despite the tricks of the trade Ashok Kumar taught you in this movie, Ms Sinha remained as illusory to me as the blushing sky on a sea shore, bidding farewell to the setting sun.

These at least were the thoughts that crossed my mind as I stood on an evening on the deserted beach of Shankarpur, around half an hour’s drive from the congested landscape of the Digha sea beach. As evening approached, I watched the brilliant blue sea transform itself into a mass of frameless darkness, with nothing but the dimly visible white outlines of breakers lashing on the shore. It sounded like the muffled scream of eternity, held in chain by ever capricious nature.

And then, suddenly, without any warning at all, sweet nostalgia invaded. The dark curtain lifted, revealing a row of white washed cottages smiling in the late spring sunshine, somewhere close to where I stood. A handful of college mates hollered their way into one of these, away from home, determined to enjoy the mysterious pleasures of all that was forbidden in middle class families. All, except one, were students of Presidency College, Calcutta, when it was at the height of its glory. The odd one out was Buddhadev. His name metamorphosed to Buddhu soon enough, as was bound to happen in teenage company.

I had met Buddhu for the first time only a few days earlier at a friend’s residence and found him pleasant company. Of course, as was my wont, I didn’t spare him my Presidency snobbery and backed myself up further with a store of ammunition that I used to keep in reserve for the unwary, even at Presidency College. I had come into its possession by virtue of my somewhat precocious exposure to the gems of English literature at the hands of Utpal Dutt. I was lucky enough to have him as my English teacher for the last three years of high school.

Thanks to Mr. Dutt, we knew Coleridge, Chaucer or what have you by heart by the time we were students of Class X. Shakespeare too formed a part of our extra-curricular activities and this meant, amongst other things, that I had a rudimentary knowledge of the history of Western drama.

However shallow my understanding might have been at the time, or continues to be even today, I was no stranger to the three Aristotelian unities, of time, space and action, and the manner in which modern theatre, a la Shakespeare, broke out of that straitjacket. And these half digested pieces of information were the mighty AK-47s I employed with relish against Buddhu when the conversation veered around to the recently released Satyajit Ray film Kanchenjangha. Buddhu, poor chap, had found the movie quite unintelligible as well as boring and proceeded forth to blurt out this information in no uncertain terms. He had put his foot in his mouth it would seem, for snobs, alas, never let go of an opportunity to berate mediocrity!

Much to his astonishment as well as supreme embarrassment, I seized upon the opportunity to display my treasure trove of “divine knowledge” and proceeded to explain that Kanchenjangha was no boy-meets-girl film. It was, on the contrary, an experiment in abstract art, a transplantation of Greek stagecraft, Aristotle’s unity of space and time, to the modern cinema. I was at my pompous best and Buddhu stared at me in stupefaction as I tortured him relentlessly. He waited with humility and patience till I had reached the boundaries of my limited knowledge and stopped to find back my breath.

I had clearly won the utterly one sided battle, for he surrendered unconditionally as he mumbled, “Well, you see … umm … you know … the general run of cinema goers are probably not aware of these finer points of art … and I was not adequately trained either …” His voice trailed off as I secretly patted myself on my back and patronizingly allowed our discussions to descend to subjects that lesser mortals normally participate in.

But Buddhu was pleasant company as I observed earlier and I was happy to learn that he would be joining us for our planned trip to the newly coming up Digha sea resort in the not too distant future. And soon enough we arrived in full force to occupy a government managed tourist cottage, reserved for us by some magnanimous uncle or the other. Needless to say, it was an establishment that ran on subsidies, like most other business enterprises during India’s love affair with Fabian Socialism. As college students, we found the arrangement particularly advantageous of course, from the pocket money angle.

The first night passed off peacefully enough, though two of our friends, whose identities I cannot recall anymore, tried to keep us entertained till the small hours of the morning by singing Bade Ghulam Ali’s “Aaey na balam …”! They were totally out of tune and at one stage we threatened the duo with murder. After which, silence prevailed, not because the singers were unnerved by our threats, but on account of the fact that all of us succumbed to slumbers whose depth youth alone can appreciate.

I wonder how many days we spent there till the miracle happened, which took the shape of a young lady falling like manna from heaven with her parents into the cottage immediately adjacent to ours. And life could never be the same for us anymore. The cottage lay in full view of our curtain-less windows and we in turn tried with all diligence to present our own best views to our neighbours, absolutely free of charge. Our voices grew louder and louder and conversations more and more witty as we tried desperately to fill up inadequacies of sight by the power of our lungs. And finally, when nothing else worked, we fell back on Cupid’s ultimate gift to Bengali teenagers, romantic Rabindrasangeet numbers!

We sat as close as we could to the window seats and began to sing ‘Path diyey ke jaaey go choley, daak diyey shey jaaey …’ (Who is it that keeps calling out to me as s/he strolls along the path…?). Buddhu was a good singer I remember and he took the lead, swinging his arms much in the fashion of Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

The only problem of course was that he had brought a single pair of trousers with him and had washed it late in the afternoon. It hung on the clothes line somewhere and was still too wet for him to wear. He had nothing but his underpants to protect his modesty and by common consent therefore, the lights were turned off. Buddhu did the Zubin Mehta act in a state of semi-nudity while we poured out our hearts, following the lead of his invisible baton with rapt attention.

Love’s labour was totally lost however.

The adjacent building, but for the lights that lit the rooms, remained as silent as a haunted cabin. No one registered the slightest recognition of our presence. Leave alone the girl, not a single person belonging to her family appeared to be interested in our musical soiree. We sighed deeply and finally found solace in sleep once again, accompanied, perchance, by dreams.

By the time we were up and about next morning, the sun shone brightly, a pleasing breeze greeted us from the sea, the tall evergreen trees lined up along the shore gently swayed back and forth. All nature conspired against the lovelorn lot. But none of us was man enough to start a conversation with the girl. A mere morsel of a girl defying the towering snobbery of a Presidency crowd!

We sat glum faced in death like silence in our rooms. What on earth does she think of herself that she wouldn’t even appear on the balcony? She was no Anna Pavlova, not by any stretch of imagination. We did have a glimpse of her when they arrived two days ago. Not even pretty, man, just a homely girl. Whereas look at us! Each face brimming with unmistakable sign of genius. A mere look at us should tell her who we were, each one a potential Nobel Laureate. How stupid can a female be?

We did not speak out our thoughts audibly of course, but wavelengths matched and one by one we congregated to our balcony to stare at the sea and ruminate over God’s injustice.

And then, suddenly, what’s this we see yaar? Isn’t that Buddhu, the very same Buddhu who sang with nothing but his underpants on last evening? Or, probably not even that? What’s Buddhu up to? No good surely.

We watched him wide eyed and in total disbelief. Freshly showered, wearing his Sahara dry trousers, the rascal was walking up the path leading to the cottage of our fantasies. It was hard to believe what we saw. He was actually there, knocking on the door. Traitor! Did we not turn off the lights for his sake alone? Did we not sacrifice all we possessed merely to prevent his exposure to the world at large in a state of undress?

And then, lo and behold, the door is opened by the very damsel who had been eluding us all through. We stand there all ears listening to the conversation.

‘Hi! I wonder if you could help me,’ said Buddhu the dirty swine.

‘Yes, sure, what can I do for you? Won’t you come in please?’ spoke out the lovely voice that only a freshly blossomed woman can possess.

‘No, no,’ Buddhu was clearly on his guard now. ‘No need for me to come in. Actually, I seem to have lost my comb, can I borrow one please?’

‘Oh, is that it? Give me a minute please.’ She was back as promised with a comb and Buddhu started to comb his luxuriant hair as she watched him from a distance of two feet. So did we, only from miles away so to speak.

‘Lost his comb, my foot!’ each one of us recited in silence as we gnashed our teeth. Some excuse man! But he stood there, the scoundrel, combing his miserable hair for what appeared to be an eternity and exchanged pleasantries with her. His voice slowly descended to scarcely audible sounds and we did not know what confidences they exchanged, but prayed to God Almighty that her father would show up with a stick or a broom at least and get rid of the trespasser. But God preferred to remain deaf on that morning.

Buddhu finally returned the comb to her and began to retrace his path back towards our cottage. He swaggered, needless to say, and, if I remember correctly, even winked back at the flabbergasted lot that growled as it awaited his glorious return to pavilion after scoring his century. Should we try and find out the details of the fate that greeted Buddhu when he stepped into the cottage? That would be unnecessary waste of space wouldn’t it?

But there was a clear message that I did not fail to absorb on that distant morning. Buddhu the mediocre, Buddhu the pedestrian, Buddhu the commonplace, Buddhu, who had failed to appreciate the artistry of Satyajit Ray, had nonetheless managed to win the battle that the Presidency cum Utpal Dutt led Aristotle school had lost!

What is it that women admire in men? Wit or chutzpah? I haven’t discovered the answer, but I can afford to smile at my ignorance now. As Belafonte would have sung: “Now that I am ninety three, I don’t give a damn you see!”

I looked up at the sky where the silent stars glittered. They must have been merry spectators of the event four decades ago, but I did not think they would ever testify to the veracity of this simple tale. Nor would any of my mates, at least one of whom had even ceased to exist. And I did not know where most of the others were.

I was completely immersed in thought and did not notice that the black curtain had quietly fallen, cutting off the brightly lit stage where the magic show of innocence had been in progress. I knew only too well that this was one show that would fail to engender encore calls from an audience.

I heaved a sigh in the dense darkness as I remembered my own countlessly many ”Chhoti si Baat-s”. Ashok Kumar, alas, wound up his school soon after Amol graduated. And Vidya Sinha’s tribe proved to be no more than a chimera all through my life.

I began walking my lonely way back to the hotel while the sea kept roaring behind me in eternal indifference.