Schooling The Great

Tarun Goswami

Noted film maker Satyajit Ray had once gone back to his alma mater, Ballygunge Government High School, years after passing out and found that the walls and roofs of his classrooms had shrunk. Ray realised that it was he who had grown up. Memories of our school days are indeed precious to us, giving us a solid foundation for the life ahead though at times it may also expose the lacunae of the very education system.

For instance Rabindranath Tagore who was admitted to Oriental Seminary and later to St. Xavier’s Collegiate School felt fettered by the four walls of the classroom and the method of learning by rote. In ‘Jibansmriti’ he reminisced that every morning the classes started with a prayer which none of the students could follow. He thought the words of the prayer were “Koloki puloki single, melolling, melloling, melloling” which of course meant nothing. Later Tagore realised the actual words might be “Colour full of glee, merrily, merrily, merrily”. However, Tagore could not decipher the actual words of the prayer. Perhaps, this system of education which did not impart knowledge prompted him to start Patha Bhavan which later flowered into Visva-Bharati.

Few people know that Sri Ramakrishna had opposed education which only helped the teachers to make money and termed it as “chal kala baddha vidya” (education bound by money). After being brought to the city he was admitted to an indigenous school on Jhamapukur Lane. The school was held in the house of Raja Dwigambar Mitra. Every morning Gadhadhar used to come to attend the school. He was fast in picking up addition but then the teacher started to teach subtraction and he lost interest. Gadadhar instead started disturbing other students. The teacher then asked him to leave the class and bring his elder brother, next morning. Gadadhar, before leaving class told the teacher that he would not learn anything that would help him to exclude. After this incident he never ever attended school.

Jagadish Chandra Bose, the noted scientist, developed his love for plants after he joined St. Xavier’s Collegiate School. The Jesuit fathers carried out experiments in Physics which he enjoyed. Later, when he began his experiments with plant life in Presidency College he acknowledged the contribution of the Jesuit fathers who had taught him in school. It was at St. Xavier’s that Jagadish Chandra defeated one of his friends, a trained boxer though he himself had no formal training in boxing. While the students and teachers gathered on the ground Jagadish Chandra knocked him out, without much effort.

Narendranath Dutta who later became Swami Vivekananda was a student of Metropolitan Institution in Central Calcutta. One day a teacher had punished him for talking in class. Narendra tried his utmost to convince the teacher that one of his friends was the real culprit but the teacher refused to pay heed and caned him.  He suffered a deep cut on his left ear. When he returned home his father, Biswanath Dutta, an attorney of the Calcutta High Court and his uncle Taraknath decided to go to school next morning and threatened to file a case against the teacher in the Calcutta High Court. However, they relented from filing a case in High Court after the headmaster intervened. Narendranath had upheld truth even in the face of punishment, an ideal he continued to follow throughout his life.

Another interesting story is associated with Oriental Seminary.  Khoka Gunda was a notorious criminal who was hanged for murdering Pagla Babu, an Esraj player in 1938. Khoka was thrown out of school after it was found that the person who had come to school during admission was not his real father. Khoka’s father had abandoned him and his mother. Khoka made it mandatory for his gang members to be either a former student of Oriental Seminary or even a drop-out.

Hemanta Mukherjee, had a mellifluous voice even as a student of Mitra Institution and was cautioned by the headmaster for singing in class. During break he would sing while his classmate, Subhas Mukhopadhyay who grew up to be a poet would accompany him on the desk which was used as a makeshift tabla. However, when Hemanta became a famous singer his headmaster invited him to participate in a musical programme at the school.

Uttam Kumar was also very popular in his alma mater, the South Suburban School for his singing ability. He took part in the annual drama organised by the students on the occasion of Saraswati Puja. Noted writer, Pramathanath Bishi was among the early students of Santiniketan and his teachers included Rabindranath, Dinabandhu Andrews, Nandalala Bose and others. In his autobiography he wrote “Gurudev (Tagore) gave lessons in Bengali while Andews taught English and Nature Study and Nanda babu (Nandalal Bose) taught us painting.”

One cannot deny the pleasant memories that one is flooded with while entering through the gates of his alma mater even many years after passing out. It is a pleasure to meet old teachers and the annual reunion is always a journey down memory lane.