A Lesson in Bird Watching

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It was an ordinary sort of morning.   For a student of first year Intermediate Science at Ashutosh College Calcutta in early 1949, life was seldom very exciting. The timetable indicated a period of Bengali Literature followed by a period of English after which there was a double period of Physics practical and then two free periods.   Late in the evening there were two periods of Mathematics to be done before I would be free to go home.   A period of Bengali Literature under Mr Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyaya was always an exhilarating experience but the period of English Rhetoric and Prosody that followed had bored me stiff.   The Experiment in Physics practical was elementary. I just had to calibrate a thermometer.   I was through with my task in half an hour.   Walking out of the lab I ran in to my friend Gora.  He grabbed me by my wrist and asked if I was free for some time.   Two free periods added to half of the current one certainly qualified as ‘some time’.  ‘Yes’ I said, I was free for some time.    Without letting me go he turned towards the exit.    Where are we going? I exclaimed. With mischief in his eyes he said ‘I am about to give you a lesson in Bird Watching’. 

Gora and I had grown up together.   We had studied together at the Jessore Sammilani Institue for the only year that I had attended any school.   The School had been created by Gora’s grandfather, Sri Jadunath Majumder, and the school building stood adjacent to his house on a piece of his land gifted by him for the purpose.   Sri Jadunath had a major presence in Jessore town.   The Town Hall, the District Library, Sammilani Institute, Sammilani periodical magazine, all bore witness to his contributions to the civic life of the town.   His children and grand children were all very well placed; quite a few were in the civil service and the Army.   From his school days, Gora had also decided to join the Army.  Gora’s formal name registered in the school was Kumar Dabakram Majumder.  However, our times were turbulent.   Halfway through our tenth standard in 1948 both the families migrated from East Pakistan and came over to Calcutta.   We both had matriculated into the University of Calcutta in 1948 and both of us had joined Ashutosh College for Intermediate Science.   We were therefore closest of pals. 

  I had grown up as a home-taught child without attending a school until class ten.   As a result, my exposure to the teen age world was rather limited.    The girls at home were all senior to me and as a result, their friends were also quite senior to me.   I had never been exposed to the chance of socializing with girls of my age or younger than me.   I was not amongst the ‘Bird Watchers’ of my class.   On that morning however I did not protest as Gora dragged me along as a companion for his own adventure.   We took a brisk walk from the college, crossed over to Harish Mukherjee Road and went down to the ‘Gokhale Memorial Girls’ School’.   It was by then the break time.   Gokhale Road abutting the school was full of pretty faces and high pitched chattering of incomprehensible gossip.      We stood on the pavement on the other side of the road and began our serious study of the colourful aviary.    I might have been an amateur in that art, but there was no dearth of enthusiasm. 

Mr. Rangalal Sen was a senior executive with Oxford University Press at Calcutta.   He was married to a second cousin of my father.   He was therefore a senior member of my extended family.   He was a man of reserved nature and for me he had always been a forbidding character to be feared and avoided.   His residence was near Harish Mukherjee Park, fairly close to the Gokhale Memorial School.   On that day, just as I was warming up to the lovely pursuit of bird watching, I found Mr Rangalal rolling down Gokhale Road in his tiny Austin A7.   Instantly, I was in a quandary.   I was sure that if he found me loafing about in front of a girl’s school, he will take the trouble of coming over home and having a friendly chat with my father about his son, a thought that sent shivers down my spine.   I had to hide.   I grabbed Gora’s hand and ran into the first gate that was open on our side of the street.   That gate happened to be the entrance to the Services Recruitment Center, No 1 Gokhale Road, Calcutta.    From his perch high up in the galactic mass, my Fate looked down upon me and smiled.   I of course had no idea of His plans.

The Services Recruitment Center was an old sprawling building.   Its left wing as one faced the building housed the Air Force Recruitment Center and the right wing housed the Army and the Navy centers. There were some rooms at the rear part of the building that housed administrative offices.    We had entered the building without any fixed aim.   Bright large posters asking all and sundry to join the Services adorned all the walls.   We gazed at them as we roamed about.     Gora found some papers that attracted him.   I left him there talking to an Army JCO and moved on.   The two wings of the building were separated by a corridor.   I wandered down the corridor with nothing specific on my mind.   I found nothing there of my interest.   As I tried to come back I found my way blocked by an Air Force officer rebuking another lad of my age who had been trailing me around.    The officer was annoyed by our trespassing into the office area.   I had no way out and I had no intention of taking a rebuke.   So, when he finished with the other lad and turned his attention to me, I asked him whether he could tell me anything about the Inter Services Wing of the Armed Forces Academy.   This was a spot of quick thinking on my part as I had seen an advertisement about the ISW/AFA that very morning in the news papers.   The officer was impressed by my query.   He took me into his office and gave me a long presentation about ISW / AFA.   It was a new scheme by which the officers of Army, Navy and Air Force would be trained together for two years and then be streamed out to the respective services.   I feigned keen interest, collected a set of colourful brochures and application forms and came out.   Gora was waiting for me outside.  He looked at the forms and smiled.  He had already filled in the forms for entry into the ISW / AFA a week earlier and the wretch had not even told me!    We made our way back to the college and laughed our heads off at the happenings of the morning.    

The brochure and the application form were still in my hand when I reached home.   My father was sitting on his easy chair in the front room as usual.   The partition of the country and the resultant loss of all his assets built over a lifetime had hit him hard.   His health had broken down.   He was unable to practice medicine any more.   His health did not permit the strain and competition in Calcutta for medical practice.   It was all too tough.   He used to sit in his chair all day and bemoan the condition of the world.   He asked me about the papers in my hand.  Without a thought in my mind I handed him the papers and went in for my evening meal.   When I came back after my food an hour later, father was still scrutinizing the papers I had left.   As I came into the room he looked up and asked me whether I would really like to join the ISW /AFA. This was a completely unexpected question.   I was somewhat prepared to receive a rebuke for having gone out of the college and wasting my time, but this sudden interest in the Services from my father caught me by surprise.   I had not given any thought to the possibility of my joining the Services; I therefore did not have a ready answer for the question.   On the spur of the moment I turned the question around and asked Baba what he thought about it.   He obviously had invested a lot of thought on the subject over the previous hour.   He told me how he was not sure of his ability of supporting me for five more years for my hoped for study of engineering.   He was uncertain of even his ability of restarting a practice, and therefore it would become necessary for me to begin earning money quickly.    In a newly independent nation joining the Services would be a noble act and it would also offer me a quick route to financial stability.   All in all, it seemed that he would support my decision if I wanted to join up.   

At this stage, Ma walked in and joined the discussion.   She was very cross with Baba for encouraging me with non-essential pursuits.   I’d better concentrate on my studies if I was to do well in my examinations, she opined.   Slinking out of college and wasting time here and there was not what was expected of me.    Baba intervened in my favour and a long argument ensued.   At the end it was decided that studying hard for a competitive selection at the national level would be a good experience for me.   Father decreed that I could apply for an entrance to the AFA provided I promised him success.  He would not like to see me go through a major test and not succeed.    The decision whether I would actually join the Services would be taken after I managed to get selected.   After all, there was no compulsion to join even if I did get selected.   This mollified Ma.  I took the application form back from Baba and got down to the task of filling it up.   Scrutiny of the form and the brochure however revealed two major road blocks.   There was a requirement for an application fee of Rupees thirty seven and eight Annas.  This was a huge sum and was clearly beyond that month’s budget.    What was worse, my guardian had to undertake to support me with Rupees thirty EVERY MONTH for the two years of my stay at the AFA and with Rupees forty per month for the period of my training at the Air Force Academy.   This was indeed a tall order.    It appeared to me that I would have to give up the idea purely on financial grounds.   Next day at the college I told Gora what had transpired at home the day before.   He then told me that there was a provision for a waiver of Rupees thirty on the application fee for displaced persons and there was a provision for scholarships for indigent cadets.   I saw a light at the end of the tunnel.     That day I ran around and did the paper work for the waiver.   Baba signed the forms without a murmur.    The smile on the face of my Fate broadened into a grin!

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12 responses »

  1. Please write about the partition. When did you realise that you had to leave Jessore forever ? How did you leave Jessore?

  2. Some weeks ago when you and I exchanged a few words on Facebook, you had enquired if I had read this episode of your “bird watching”. I had truthfully answered in the negative as I then had not. Now I have. And I do recall your narrating us more than once the background of your “accidentally” joining the IAF – albeit sans the “bird watching” part that started it all. I knew Gora kaku and you had unwittingly entered the Services Recruitment Centre to avoid encountering Mr Rangalal Sen (I had forgotten his name though).
    Nonetheless, it’s pleasant to read it and ponder over the connection between a seemingly innocuous action and how that may change one’s destiny and life. In your case, Fate had indeed grinned rather broadly. Congratulations – even if it’s a little late in the day to do so.
    I also feel obliged to point out a not too insignificant factual lapse in the narration. From all available accounts, Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay never taught at the Asutosh College. Or any college for that matter. Perhaps you are confusing him with some other illustrious author/professor?
    Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay (12-9-1894 to 1-9-1950) passed his matriculation exams in 1914, Intermediate (Arts) in 1916 and B.A. (with distinction) in 1918. He then got admitted to both M.A. and Law classes under the Calcutta University but did not complete either to obtain the degree/s. Instead, he joined Jangipara School as a teacher and also taught at a village school at Sonarpur Harinavi in South 24 Paraganas (1920-22). Thereafter, for a while, he worked as a publicist/spokesman of Gorakshinee Sabha and for a longer period as a secretary, private tutor and finally as an Assistant Manager in the estates of Khelat Ghosh at the Bhagalpur circle. It was in Bhagalpur that he wrote the Pather Panchali. Even Aaranyak is the result of his experience/travels as the Asst. Manager across various parts of the estate in present day eastern Bihar. However, he returned to his vocation of a school teacher and had worked as a teacher at the Gopalnagar school till the last day of his life.
    During Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee’s tenure as the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University, there are instances of prodigious scholars with only a B.A. degree who taught in the M.A. classes. But never later. And, despite his doubtless ability, the rules would prohibit Bibhuti Bhushan to teach in any college affiliated to the Calcutta University.

    • Pallav The BBB I mentioned is not The BBB you are talking about but another man of another generation. He was teaching in Ashutosh College in 1948-49 and was then of about mid thitries. He was a wonderful teacher, but no novelist. Sorry if you gat a wrong impression.

  3. Ah, a namesake?
    My confusion was rather obvious I guess as most people would identify only one BBB – so well known to all Bengalees and countless others too. More so because you talk about a period when he was still alive and was a pedagogue himself – although at a different level.
    I’m not sure if you had noticed in the news the recent passing away of his only son Taradas Bandyopadhyay (from his second marriage with Rama) – a very good littérateur himself in his own right – whose most notable contribution to Bengali literature perhaps was to finish writing “Kajal” – the story of Apu’s son – that BBB had begun but didn’t live long enough to complete.
    I’ll be happy to share with you many interesting anecdotes about BBB’s life as told mostly to Baba and Ma by Rama jethima. But that can happen only when we meet.

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