Reminiscing people and events at a temporal distance of five decades is not easy. Things that I wish to remember – names, sequence of events and aftermaths – play hide and seek with me. Trivia that I never thought I had stored away, come rushing like a cataract but without any definite order – not even obeying my desperate efforts to steer them – and often in fragments.
I remember that there was a small shop to the left of the only entrance to the school premises but can’t recall the shopkeeper’s name (was it Shankar-dā?). It was a grocery, selling many items beyond its defined scope; we used to buy the usual stationary items, besides chānāchur and læbenchus when we could afford such luxury. The narrow lane to the right of the same entrance went to Mallik-pādā (where Aloke Mallik) lived, and thence to Shāñdeśvar-talā ghāt (where black-faced hanumans abounded on the ancient banyan tree and a huge bull, bos indica, used to ruminate idly on the many marigold garlands bestowed on his considerable neck); Babulal, the Bihari pea-nut (roasted in shells) and Bengal-gram (sharply spiced but oil-less) seller, used to doze there in the welcome shade, bereft of customers in the sweltering afternoons. He had once told me about his distant youth when he used to be a “badā badā bāl aur dādiwāllāh dākāit”. He hadn’t got his tongue around the alien Bengali vowels in his thirty years at Chinsurah.
The metalled road that branched off the main road to the side alley, that finally lead to the school gate, had the red-brick teachers’ quarters (sometimes a students’ hostel) to the right and, if I remember right, grey-eyed Asim Pal’s house too. We were in the same class. Many years later, when I was well entrenched in Dunlop’s Sahaganj factory, I rediscovered Asim, tucked away in a corner of our accounts department, doing bank work mostly – that kept him off the factory premises most of the time. It was at the factory itself where I bumped with lanky and long-haired Gurusaday (Sadhu?). Nirmal Sadhu, after his father’s death, inherited the shop called Leather House, dealing mostly with sports goods and footwear, and the cigarette distributorship that kept him afloat despite his squandering ways. Aloke, Asim and Nirmal, all three of them, lived so close to the school that they sat down to breakfast with the first bell for school prayer and went home for lunch in the twenty five minute break. Pradip-dā, who later went to the BE College, used to lead “Dhana-dhānyé…” or “Jana-gaņa-mana…” while pumping the harmonium bellows. Many years later I was told by Samir Pal that Pratul-dā, who later became famous as Pratul Mukhopadhyay singing rebellious songs, had the prayer-leader’s role before Pradip-dā.
Was it Champak Sadhu, who had fallen of the new (then under construction) building’s roof when the parapet was yet to be built, but survived the twenty odd feet fall with nothing more than a broken bone or two to show? That was shortly before my joining. Then, we heard that a couple of boys had broken into the mysterious tunnel, built during Haji Mohammad Mohsin’s time, that began behind the old building staircase (that lead to the headmaster’s office) and ended somewhere near the Hooghly-Bhāgirathi. That was before my time too, and rumour had it that at least one if not both the boys were killed by poison gas accumulated in the tunnel; I only got to see the bricked up circle under the headmaster’s staircase that was out of bounds to us.
I remember the 1957 (the year I entered) and 1962 (when I passed out of the school) election slogans. The earlier one, slow-paced, shouted, “Vote for Prabhāt Kar”, “Vote deben kisé? Kasté dhānér śisé”. The next one had picked up considerable speed and style in the lapse of just five years, perhaps impatient with the earlier one that had dampened the Communist Party spirits. And, the age of rhyming campaigns, with considerably better scanning and metric skill than ever after, had come to stay. “gadté déś rukhté Chin Congress-ké vote din,” urged one party, only to be taunted by the opposition with “khub gadlé déś bābā, khub rukhle Chin, māthār upar pāhād-pramān Americar ŗn.”
Local trains in the Bandel-Howrah route got electric engines and spanking new green-and-yellow EMU coaches that year. Metric coinage came into the foray too; Pradip accompanied me to the post office (opposite Duff school, past the Commissioner’s bungalow), and we proudly converted an anna each for six shiny copper naye paise to show around for weeks. (One precocious girl, my co-passenger in the company-provided school bus, had eagerly clutched at my other hand to look at them better, and made me blush deeper than beet-root. I could feel my ears heating up on their own, thinking that it was visible to all others.) It was the same year that someone gave me an album to store my laboriously gathered stamps, and I bought my first ever first-day-cover from the General Post Office in Kolkata, chaperoned by a gregarious Kuttu-kākā – my mother’s uncle really . Too much had happened in 1957; far too much for me to miss many wonderful events now.