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Remembering Father

My revered father’s 55th death anniversary fell on the 29th March of the current year. It was in 1962 that my mother and father arrived at Nagpur in the beginning of March. They were on their way to my second brother, now no more, who was at that time posted at Trivandrum. It was a long haul for them from Gwalior. Hence they decided to drop down at Nagpur for a few days. I was only a probationer having entered Indian Postal Service in June 1961.

On the very day they arrived father had a massive heart attack. A doctor whom a very dear friend got hold of said that it was beyond him and that we should consult somebody more qualified. In those days the Civil Surgeon of the district was considered the best physician. There were very few MDs and physicians with the qualification of DM were practically unavailable. Besides, there was hardly any treatment that could be given to a cardiac patient. There were no stents and cardiac surgery was largely unknown. A cardiac attack was actually considered a death sentence.

True enough, the Civil Surgeon said Father’s heart was far too enlarged and suggested oxygen support to him. He also wanted me to inform others in the family. Though I could never believe that I was going to lose my father soon, predictably suffering all the discomforts associated with a cardiac attack for about three weeks he passed away on 29th March.
Reflecting on his rather short life I find it was somewhat peculiar. Born in a family of landed gentry of what was then East Bengal he chose a life of deprivation and want. But he never regretted his choice though he was frequently badgered about it by my mother. After doing very well in his Middle Examination of the Dhaka Board he defied his father and refused to take care of the landed property. Being the only son, his father expected him to help out in dealing with matters relating to his substantial property. But no, he disappeared from his house and came away and stayed in the historical town of Chinsura by the side of River Hoogly. The place had a chequered history. The town was founded by the Portuguese who were later thrown out by the Dutch. The Dutch later traded the place with the British for their enclaves in Sumatra. Chinsura has some marvelous heritage buildings of which the government complex is one – exquisite and well-preserved.

Father did his matriculation from Chinsura and his name appeared in newspapers as he was among the merit holders. His family again tried to get him back dropping his studies but he would have none of it. He instead went over to Calcutta and did his graduation with double honours in Mathematics and English Literature in I Division from Scottish Church College. For post graduation in English Literature he moved into the famous Presidency College, now Presidency University. He couldn’t get a good grade as he had what was then known as brain fever just before the examinations, perhaps now described as encephalitis. For want of money he couldn’t take a drop and lose a year and eventually got a second class. That was in 1916, more than a hundred years ago.

For a number of years he was involved in social work which included organizing funerals for unclaimed bodies. Hunger was a curse and many would, it seems, drop down dead on the streets of Calcutta out of sheer hunger. He and his friends would pick them up and perform their last rites. Father later travelled to Lahore where one of his friends fixed him up in Sanatam Dharm College to teach English. The name of the College, I understand, had been changed on creation of Pakistan. It must have proved to be an incongruity in Islamic Pakistan.
But much before that father came away to Ujjain to teach in Madhav College and was later transferred to Gwalior and was appointed around 1935 lecturer in Victoria College, then the only degree college in the princely state of Gwalior. He served in this college for 16 or 17 years and retired at the age of 55 in 1951, the age of superannuation prevailing those days. But then, he had another 10 years of service as principal of a newly opened intermediate college in the badlands of Morena, a place known more for its gun-toting dacoits than anything else. The College was later upgraded to a higher status and it became a degree college. It was largely on account of his efforts that the University approved the upgrade.
He was picked up for this position after his retirement by the minister of education of Madhya Bharat, Madhya Pradesh had not been created till then. He was chosen because of his affable ways with the students, which seems to have become evident to the minister during the negotiations that were being conducted for dealing with the students’ movement that was then raging in Gwalior. The union leaders had complete trust and confidence in him. They wanted him to negotiate with the government for settlement of their demands. The student leaders like Naresh Johri and Sitla Sahay, who later became ministers in Madhya Pradesh government, went underground for fear of being arrested. They would slip into our house on the sly in the darkness of night while still underground to ascertain the progress of negotiations and to brief father about their views.

Father had always been well-regarded by the students of the College. In those days the students were few – perhaps the strength was around 200, against the current general strength of about a couple of thousands or more. Besides, they generally used to be from middle classes and were well brought up. He remained the professor in-charge of the students’ union for a number of years. His active participation in social, cultural and sporting activities brought him very close to the students. His good-natured conduct with his students and keenness to help them any which way endeared him to them. Besides, his notes written on Shakespeare’s plays were very popular amongst students of the sister colleges affiliated to Agra University.

This apart, in those days teachers were highly respected in the society. It was knowledge, not money that was respected. Even where power and riches were the preserves of the feudal land-holders, knowledge was what was esteemed and those who had it were revered. Comparison with the current times is futile as neither are there teachers of that kind, nor are the pupils like those of yore. A social degradation seems to have progressively overtaken the Indian society during the last half a century swamping all standards of cultured and ethical behaviour.

Looking at his life from this distance of fifty five years or so one can only wonder about destiny. Take my father’s destiny for instance. Born in the far corner of the north-east in Sushong of Moimonsingh District of East Bengal under the shadows of Garo Hills, where the sun rises an hour earlier than in our parts, destiny took him from place to place in various parts of the country during his sixty five years only to find his final resting place plumb at the centre of the country – far, far away from his moorings Those sixty five years were neither easy nor comfortable. He discarded the old feudal order and the comforts and luxuries that his rich father could offer. Instead he chose enlightenment and education even at the risk of penury. Bengal was changing then as the new 20th Century commenced and many young men had discarded the old traditional ways of life on having been introduced to liberal education introduced by the British.

And yet he seemed to have had no regrets. Leaving the home that was a tiny spec on the map of East Bengal and stepping out of it into territories that were virtually foreign in those early years of 20th Century must have been daunting, especially for an ordinary young man without any financial backing. Gutsy, as he seemed to have been, he had confidence in himself to survive and intellectually prosper. Forward looking as he was, it was he who persuaded all of us to take the Civil Services competitive examinations which, he thought, were well within our grasp and success in them would ensure a good and respectable life. In the backwaters of Gwalior many did not even know about these examinations and where success in them could lead to. When my eldest brother qualified for the Indian Administrative Service in 1953 father had to explain to many what it actually stood for. His faith in us proved right as three od us made the cut.

Times have since drastically changed and I think it was good that he went away when he actually did. The current times are not for straight and honest people like him who could command and control unpleasant situations with the sheer strength of moral and ethical power. No wonder, he was unruffled by many threats to his life given by students of the violent badlands of dacoit-infested Chambal Region.

Today it is entirely different; the virtues of ethics and morality are mocked and laughed at to the discomfiture of those who practice them. The society seems to be faced up with a tremendous deficit in values that older generations used to hold close to their heart. Only time will tell what and where this deficit will lead us to.

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Proloy Kumar Bagchi

Media/Journalist/Author

Madhya Pradesh ,  INDIA

Once a civil servant, now a freelance columnist, blogger and a citizen journalist

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