I started my school life on 2nd January 1947 as a student of class ten at Sammilani School Jessore. On my first day at school I discovered two known faces in a group of 29 boys in my class. One was Gora Majumdar, the grand son of late Sri Jadunath Majumdar who had founded our school. Sri Jadunath’s son Gurukram Majumdar and his wife Laxmi were friends of my parents and Gora was of my age. Theoretically I should have counted him as a ‘childhood friend’. Unfortunately we were out of Jessore from 1942 to 1946 and I did not really carry any memory of any friendship that I may have had with him prior to our moving away. I recognized Gora and remembered that I had visited their house along with my parents some years ago, but that was about all. The other known face was that of Shyamal Sengupta. Once again I knew that I had met this boy in the past and had visited his house with my parents, but I did not have any recollection of any personal interactions with him. So there I was with 26 absolute strangers and two acquaintances as I started a new phase of my life.
School life was substantially different from my day-to-day existence experienced so far. The first big difference was the presence of a large number of people to interact with. At home, the relationship with parents, siblings, grand parents or siblings of parents were all established before I had become conscious of my own self. When I went to the Tapovan, once again the boys were from a single defined social grouping. Every one knew every one else even outside the confines of the Tapovan. Here, on the other hand, I could find prior social contact with only two of the 28 that I met. This therefore emerged as a major challenge for me.
I was allotted a seat in the front row and Bikash shared the desk with me. He was very fair and roly-poly, slightly shy but very intelligent. His main handicap was his being the ‘head master’s son’ but he carried that burden lightly. Within the first few minutes Gora came up and renewed our acquaintance and I was happy to be recognized. I did not know it then but I had a baggage to carry too. I was my dad’s son. Without any conscious effort I expected deferential treatment from total strangers just because I was I! Perhaps I had got used to reflected illumination through my fathers social standing. In school however, many boys did not know who Baba was and did not care a whit about it. This was a strange feeling for me and I had to develop a whole new set of thumb rules of behaviour all by my self and all for my self. To my great satisfaction, I managed very soon to become my self amongst my friends rather than be known as my father’s son. This was one of my first battles won on my journey through life.
In this new world of a high school there were many things totally new to me. One of them was organized games. My school did not place much emphasis on organized games. The school compound was not used for any sporting activity with any regularity. It did have a sports field, but that field was located across the town behind the town’s water works. The only game played on that field was football once or twice a week. I showed no interest in this activity. A couple of weeks later one of the boys came up to me and asked me why I was not showing up at the football ground. I was quite frank about it. I told him that I had never played football in my life. Never mind, he said. Come this evening and I shall teach you how to play. I was excited about the prospect of playing soccer and arrived at the play ground at the appointed hour. To my great disappointment the ground was empty. As I stood beside my bicycle in one corner of the playground, other players dropped in, in ones and twos. A while later a person, who I discovered later to be the football coach, came in. When enough boys had collected to start a game, the coach blew a whistle and ever one gathered at the centre of the field. No formal introductions were made, but the coach seemed to know my name. He divided the boys into two groups and included me in one of those. Soon a game started. The field was set in a five-three-two-goalkeeper formation and I was placed as the left half-back. I did not know the rules of the game and made a fool of myself in no time. After a while the coach changed my position that of the outer left forward, ‘left out’ as it was known in popular terminology. It made no difference to the floundering that passed for my performance. Within ten minutes I was rested. Another boy, a late comer who was standing on the edge of the field, was asked to take my place. The game went on. No one recognized my presence. At the end of about 90 minutes, every one came out of the field and dispersed. I felt like a fool. In that whole gathering, there was no one that I knew well. Even the boy who had asked me to come to the sports field had not turned up. Being ignored to this extent hurt my self-pride and yet I could not show any of these feelings to any one when I got home; admitting to a failure in social management of this magnitude to my parents would be even more humiliating.
Next morning, I did not know how to react to the few boys of my class who were present at the football field on the previous evening. Fortunately, none of them showed any interest in talking to me. I was relieved. At the end of the school-day, as I pushed my bicycle out of the school compound, I found the boy who had asked me to go and play soccer standing purposefully as if to meet me. He stepped forward and spoke to me as I attempted to mount my bicycle. ‘My name is Paramesh’ he said; ‘Parameshwar Bhattacharya’. I stood there holding my cycle not knowing how to react to this renewed approach. ‘Did you like the game of football yesterday?’
I stood there looking at the face of this boy and tried to size him up. Was he trying to be funny or sarcastic? It did not seem so. ‘I am sorry I did not manage to go for the game yesterday’. I did not respond to his monologue. He came by my side and started walking down the road. I did not want to be seen as a rude person. I did not get on the cycle to ride away. We walked in silence. After a while I asked him where his house was located. It was close to my house, he informed me. Our house was on a road called Bhola Tank Road. This small road took off from the main ‘Jessore Road’, that came into the town from Kolkata, in front to the Zilla High school. A medium-sized water body named Bhola Pookoor stood at the beginning of the road opposite the zilla school. The road was named after this water body. The road was metalled till it reached a factory that produced combs under the brand names of Jessore Combs and Kiron Combs. In pre partition India, this factory held a dominant market share of all combs manufactured in the country. Kiron Babu, the owner of the factory, was very proud of this achievement. After the factory, the road degenerated into an unpaved track. A group of small houses clustered around the end of the road. Paramesh stayed in one of these houses. After walking for some time I offered him a lift, dropped him home and got back home my self. I did not try to discuss football again with Paramesh, and he did not bring the subject up either. I did not venture into organized group games thereafter at the school. Even later in life I tended to pickup individual games rather than group activities. (Thus, at the College level I took up rowing and sculling whereas at NDA I concentrated only on horse riding and show jumping. Those stories would not however fit in to this narration of my school days.) From that day when Paramesh met me outside the school gate, we two became friends without ever knowing why we did so.
One by one the number of boys whom I could think of as a friend increased. Anil Banerji, Nimai Bhattacharya, and Debaprasad were added to the list. We did not question our compatibility emotionally socially or financially and there was a wide scatter amongst us that did not affect our friendship in any way. To this group, Gora Majumdar, Bikas Sarbajna and Shyamal Sengupta were added on easily. Within a fairly short time, we became an identifiable group even in our own eyes. As a matter of fact, we felt strong enough of an identity to go to a professional photographer and have a group photo taken at the cost of ten whole rupees for four copies! From the clothes used in the picture, I presume that the picture must have been taken some time in February 1947; by March it would have been too warm to put on any warm clothes! I enclose that picture of Nimai Bhattacharya, Anil Banerji, Debaprasad and myself even at the cost of having to admit that without a doubt I was the baby in the group.
In April 1947 I fell ill with typhoid. I was in bed at home for three weeks and then for another three weeks with a relapse. I nearly died as typhoid was not easy to tackle in those days. Through out my period of illness, my friends attended to me every day. The depth of our ties were surely tested right there. As I now look back to 1948 and review how life has pulled us along different paths I am amazed by the sheer diversity that we faced and yet managed to retain contact with the group of friends formed accidentally in those very turbulent times. In our sustaining this friendship, we did not have the assistance of things like the facebook or tweeter or email or even normal telephones. Yet we managed to stay in touch with each other and stand together in individual hours of need. Our diversity was all-pervasive and yet we faced challenges that were similar in many ways. Let me list and tally our progress through life.
Out of those 29 boys, all 29 passed out of school at their first attempt in 1948. In those days, it was not normal for a small time small town school batch to have a 100% pass percentage. None of these 29 remained unemployed by the time we reached our 20th year of age. In 1950-51, when unemployment was indeed very high, this was certainly an exception. None of us in those 29 could go through post-graduate studies as a continuation of our school days. Those of us who did reach those levels of formal education did so struggling through life over one two or three decades. I could do my Masters only after I had retired from the Service. None of us joined the standard main professions. Amongst the 29, there was not a single doctor or engineer or lawyer or banker or accountant. We did have a bus driver and a tram conductor, we had a goldsmith and a general merchant, we had a cinema photographer and a photo journalist, a publisher and a full-time communist worker. We also had an events manager. Gora joined the Army and retired as a Major General, Paramesh joined the Navy and retired as a Chief Petty Officer, Anil joined Railway Signals and retired as a regional manager. Debaprasad joined the Customs and Exise department and retired as a bald overweight happy government servant. Bikash followed his father’s foot steps. He became a school teacher and then a Head Master with a huge fan following amongst his pupils and their parents. I joined the Airforce and had a very eventful life. Nimai Battacharya has made his mark in the field of Bengali literature and is now a very popular author. More than six decades have gone by, but still, those of us who are still alive keep in touch with each other.