Some time in the second week of November 1946 Baba told me to get ready to enter school in the New Year. What did I have to do to get into a school? Which school was he thinking about? Why did I have to enter a school at this stage? Was not I having well enough an education at home while having a whale of a time in general? I had many questions boiling inside me, but Baba had answers to them all. I was, in his opinion, ready for attempting the Matriculation Examination of the University of Calcutta, and it would be better to attempt that as a regular student of an accredited school if I wanted to take to the science stream at college level. I was then about twelve and a half years of age. I had never attended a real school. My year and a half with the Tapovan did not really count. I had never been assessed for scholastic fitness of any given ‘class’. I read what I felt like reading or what I was told to. The library at home was full of books and no one prohibited me from reading any of them, irrespective of whether the book contained a novel, a play, a collection of poems, history, geography, or Baba’s collection on medical sciences. I did not know what a student of class X was expected to learn. My elder sisters had matriculated quite comfortably without going to a school, but then they were mere girls and were quite satisfied with subjects in the ‘Arts’ stream. I was a boy. If Baba felt that my future lay in the field of ‘sciences’ and for that if I had to go to a school, so be it!
About choosing a school Baba had very clear ideas. It could not be the Zilla School. In Bengal of the forties, every district had a government high school at the district Headquarter town. There was quite a big one located at Jessore. However, being a government school, it was staffed by the nominees of the party in power: and that was the Muslim League. The recently recruited teachers were highly politicized. Baba had no desire to let me loose in that environment at that time. Then there was the ‘National High School’. It was close to our home and therefore convenient for me. However, the school was newly founded. It had no play grounds. The teachers were mostly young and newly recruited. They did not rate highly in Baba’s eyes. That left only the older ‘Hindu’ school, the Jessore Sammilani. This school was founded by Late Sri Jadunath Majumdar, who was an icon of the town. More over, the Majumdar family was very well known to ours. Jadunath’s son was Baba’s friend and Jadunath’s daughter in law Laxmi was a very close friend of my mother. Laxmi auntie’s son Gora was of my age and was a childhood friend of mine. The school itself was situated next to the Majumdar house, on land donated by Sri Jadunath. A new Head master Mr Bimal Kanti Sarvajna had recently taken over the charge of the school from the old Head Master Mr Amrit Lal Mukherjee. The townsfolk held both of them in high esteem. So, it was the Sammilani for me.
I went along with Baba to the school one day and met the head master. He was an imposing man, six feet tall and perhaps five feet in girth! But he had a set of twinkling eyes and a ready smile. I did not get frightened by him at all. He wanted to know why I had not attended any school till it was my time to enter class X. Was it not rather unusual? Baba was quite straight forward in his answer and quite unabashed. He liked teaching his own children. Sending the children to a school would have robbed him of that pleasure. Why was he planning to change the situation now? Even that was easy to answer for Baba, who was never afraid of telling the truth. There are many reasons, he said. He had given up his job and had started a private practice. He had less time now at his disposal. More over, unlike the first two children, I was a boy. I would like to take up the science stream at college level and it would be easier to get into a good college if I passed the Matriculation Examination as a regular school student rather than as a private candidate. The head master was satisfied with Baba’s logic. OK, he said. Let him sit for the final test along with the children of class IX. If he passes without any problem I will admit him into class X; a simple solution to an unusual problem.
In our time, there was no ‘Board of Secondary Education’ for each state. Each university however conducted a ‘Matriculation’ examination that permitted a successful candidate to enter a college under that university. Such universities were called affiliating universities. In Bengal, only one university, The University of Calcutta, was of that status. Up to 1947, all colleges in Bengal were affiliated to this University.
The syllabus for this Matriculation was actually quite nominal. For Calcutta University, there were six compulsory subjects and an optional seventh ‘additional’ subject. These six compulsory subjects were English, Bengali, Sanskrit, History, Geography and Mathematics. For entry into the tenth standard I had to appear for all the six compulsory subjects up to the level of class nine. I was quite comfortable with the three languages and maths, but was somewhat iffy about history and geography. Anyway, the week-long tests came around and I cleared them comfortably.
On 1st January 1947 I entered Jessore Sammilani High School as a student. I was familiar with the location of the school, I had come there once with Baba initially, and then I had come daily for a week to sit for my tests and then I had come once again to inquire about my result and to pay my fees. Now, however, I was entering the school for the first time as a regular student. Baba had permitted me to use his cycle and I was quite happy about that. The school was too far from the house for a comfortable walk. The thought of using a rickshaw to commute to the school and back every day never entered my mind. Financially it would have been unsustainable. At two annas and half for each trip twice a day, the rickshaw fare would have exceeded my school fees of ten rupees a month.
The school had a high boundary wall and an iron gate. Immediately after the entrance, on the right hand side there was an imposing temple dedicated to Saraswati. The temple was in daily use. There was a permanent priest who kept the premises of the temple spotlessly clean. Archana of Devi Saraswati started early in the morning well before the students arrived for their classes. The time for daily Aarati coincided with the ‘Tiffin Break’ and quite a few students spent four or five minutes of their break on the temple steps, with their palms together in prayer. Opposite the temple on the far left corner was a small two room dwelling painted yellow with green doors and windows. This was the official residence of the head master. Between the temple and the residence on the front side and up to the school class-room block in the rear lay the school yard. It was not large enough to hold a football or hockey ground, but was large enough to accommodate the six hundred odd students and teachers for a gathering. The class-room block was a single storey structure along two sides of the yard in the shape of a letter L, with a wide veranda running through the length of both the wings of the building. The lower classes were at the bottom wing while the higher lasses were located on the side wing. The school offices were located at the corner between the two wings of the building. Class X, the senior most class, was located in the room closest to the temple.
I found myself in a class of 29 boys. To my dismay I discovered that not only was I the shortest and most light-weight of the lot, I was also the youngest boy in the class by far. Some of the boys were quite tall and most of them were heftier than my level of comfort; horror of horrors, some of them even shaved their beards regularly and kept moustaches! I was of course a big boy now and was determined not to be frightened, but it took a lot of my willpower to look and act brave.
The class room had three columns and five rows of benches and desks. I was the only ‘new boy’ in the class. After all, joining a school at the level of class X was not a normal practice, and in a small town like Jessore hardly any one moved out or in to bring in new faces to a class room every scholastic year. The boys did not know how to draw me in to their crowd just I was at a loss trying to find out how to get in to this new society. Some one directed me to an empty seat in the front row left column. A fair roly-poly boy with short cropped curly hair occupied the other seat on that bench. His name was Bikash and he turned out to be the son of the head master of the school. We smiled at each other. Without a word I put my notebook down on the desk and sat down next to Bikash. My only year at a school thus began without any fanfare.