Nikhil Charan Bose is no more…
Nikhil Charan Bose, or Nikhil-da as we knew him, was one of the major pillars which supported the august institution of Ramakrishna Mission Vidyalaya, Narendrapur, my alma mater. I got a phone call from one of my teachers (Sarad-da) yesterday telling me that he had passed away on the 11th of February, 2011. The shock was so great that I did not even care to ask anything more about it: so, I don’t have the medical details of the same.
I had talked to him a few days ago, in fact in early January, he had called me up to talk about the memoirs of his that he was writing. He thought that he would mention some of the stories of our times in the school: I was more than flummoxed because Nikhil da was no ordinary teacher. His teaching career spanned for close to 7 decades: he taught thousands of students and I am sure anyone would be honored beyond imagination if Nikhil Bose wanted them to feature, even in the most minuscule manner, in his memoirs!
Nikhil da was born on the auspicious day of Janmashtami in 1917. He was born, if I remember correctly, in the then undivided Bengal, and in today’s Bangladesh. He was a tennis and boxing champion in his college days and excelled in sports as well as academics. He was never very open about his academic life, and was always more than humble about it. I learnt some of his stories from Ajit-da (who passed away last year, 18th June). [Someday I will write about Ajit-da, the Feynman of Narendrapur, and no, not always a “fine” man by the norms of regular society: all the more reason for me to be in constant awe of him. But this post is not about him: it is about a person even the irreverent Ajit Sengupta held in the highest of esteem: Nikhil Bose].
He once told us that his teaching career started on 5th July, 1943. Since then, I made it a point to always call him up around that time to talk about his teaching anniversary. He always seemed to be pleasantly surprised that I remembered. He suffered a major setback a couple of years ago, when he fell at his home and broke his hip (# Neck of Femur). He was subsequently operated upon and recovered slowly but surely from the event even at the age of 92 years! Ajit da knew I was in the middle of an examination (the Final MBBS exams, no less) when this happened and he waited till the last day of the exam to let me know of this. (Ajit da will come in frequently in this post, because no account of Nikhil Bose can be rendered without an ample sprinkling of Ajit Sengupta). I went to meet him at his home once he was discharged and was pontificating him on the need to be careful and such stuff, when he tut-tutted my worries away and said he was bored and wanted to go back to teaching as soon as possible. A moment that will stick to me forever!
Even at that age, his handwriting was impeccable, as were his Grammar and syntax. He despised the US-spellings, like color/favor,etc. and would chastise me for messing with the Queen’s language. He pronounced English the way it was supposed to be: not the Benglish or Hinglish we Indians are famous for, but the proper, British English! Listening to his classes was therefore, always an auditory treat. Another facet of his which I respected tremendously was his attention to details. The smallest of spelling errors, the minutest of grammatical errors were always caught by him.
Needless to say, he was a dedicated teacher. He would never ever be late for a class: and I remember he would wait outside the class a few minutes before the previous subject ended. Once I remember our Maths teacher get so embroiled with a Mechanics problem that he forgot to notice that the bell had rung and Nikhilda had been waiting outside for some 10 minutes. Someone thought that they had had enough of figures for the day and lightly reminded the Maths teacher that Nikhilda was waiting outside. On hearing this, the Maths teacher stopped mid-sentence, said that we shall pick it up from the next class, and ran out of the class profusely apologizing to Nikhil-da. Such was the respect he commanded from his colleagues (most of who were anyways younger than many of his students!).
One thing that I distinctly remember about Nikhil da was how he remembered the strengths and weaknesses of every single student. In our English exams, we had to write essays within a certain word limit, which I always managed to breach. He was severely critical of that and said that I needed to “buckle up”. Once, before the Secondary exams, he pulled me aside and said that I should write the essay very quickly and not stop to think for too long: because he thought the more I thought over the essay topic, the more likely I was to mess up on the word limit (we were severely penalized for crossing the limit!).
One of the most stunning stories of Nikhil da was told to me by Ajit da. Few real life experiences stand parallel to this one. One day, he did not show up for his classes in the first half of the day and telephoned the school at the last moment to excuse him for the first few classes. When he turned up in school in the second half, the Headmaster was clearly a little peeved because he had to make last moment arrangements, which are never a pleasant affair. But, out of respect to this very senior teacher, he politely inquired if everything was alright. Nikhil da shocked the Headmaster by saying that his wife had passed away late last night and he was caught up performing the last rites in the morning, and hence was unable to appear in school on time. This said, he walked off to take his class.
Nikhil da joined Narendrapur in the late 1970-s after he retired as the Headmaster of Uttarpara Government High School, a very highly rated school in my part of the woods. When he joined Narendrapur, he was already a well respected name in the educational circuits of the city. However, such was his humility that he always maintained that he kept on learning from the students and teachers of Narendrapur everyday.
Nikhil da deeply respected Ajit da. It was something to hear him speak of Ajit da in his mellow tones. After Ajit da passed away, I was worried that Nikhil da would take the news badly, as did his family. They kept the news from him for sometime, and broke it to him slowly and softly. After that, I called him to talk to him and check how he was taking it. He was very frank and candid. He admitted that he was shocked, but also said that one had to be pragmatic in life. I think that he was being very strong about it, but the passing of Ajit da had unsettled him more deeply than he showed it, at least to me. That day we had a long chat about Ajit da and he recounted tales of his beloved “Ajeet” (he stressed the second syllable a bit) in his mellifluous accent.
Some of my fondest memories of school were from Teachers’ Days (5th September in India). That day, we used to have half the day off and for a change, the teachers were supposed to swap positions with the students. I was one of the few privileged students to have had BOTH Nikhil da and Ajit da as my students. While Ajit da had a great time enjoying himself as I blustered through the Reproductive System (of the TOAD of all things!), Nikhil da gave me a free leash on choosing the topic. I was going through my Shakespeare admiration phase then, and decided to teach on the dynamics of a sonnet. Having had the experience of Ajit da’s class behind me, I decided that this time around, I would not mess up. I thoroughly researched the topic, wrote copious notes, went to Ajit da’s room to get them corrected by him, and generally got into a twist for the whole week preceding D-Day. (Why I went to a Biology teacher to get my English notes checked is confusing, I admit, but not when the person in question was Ajit da, who seemed to know everything about everything!)
After I concluded my lecture on Sonnets, and discharged the class for the day, I found Nikhil da was waiting for me outside (Most of my batchmates were bored to death by my overly wordy lecture and ran away as fast as they could). He asked me if he could have a look at my lecture notes, because he thought that was a wonderful exposition! I believe till today that he was being polite and humble, but I still enjoy the fact that he gave away what will remain forever one of the most cherished memories of my life.
In general, Literature teachers were very stingy with their grades and did not part with the marks easily. It was just not the same with Nikhil da. He was generous with the marks. Ajit da always maintained that only the people who had managed to get good grades themselves as students were the ones who could give them away freely as teachers.
I talked to Nikhil da twice in January. On the second day, we talked about meeting him one day. He wanted me to have a look at the memoirs he was working on. I never could find time to fix that meeting up. And that shall remain one of my biggest regrets. Even though I could visit Ajit da one last time when the final rites were being performed, I could not pay my last respects to Nikhil da. I could not meet him, one last time. And that shall remain to be a huge regret for me. Forever.
If you are reading this, and have any memories of this great man, please feel free to share it with me here. Leave me a comment, send me an email, whatever. Also, if anyone out there has a pic of Nikhil da, please send it to me (firstname.lastname@example.org is my email address).
With the passing away of both Ajit da and Nikhil da, two of the biggest inspirations in my life are no more. However, they lived their lives as an example to us:
“Life is no brief candle for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” — George Bernard Shaw
A memorial service will be held on he 24th February, sometime in the evening (I think it is yet to be confirmed) at the Ramgarh Community Center. If you are in the city, and have the time, please do try to come down to honor the memory of one o the greatest teachers ever. I read somewhere that great teachers inspire their students. That is exactly what teachers like Nikhil Bose and Ajit Sengupta were capable of.
**For the benefit of my non-Indian Readers: The suffix “-da” is a shortened form of “-dada” which roughly translates into “elder brother” in English. However, it is impossible to translate the connotation of love, fraternity and unconditional respect that this monosyllable stood for in any language spoken outside the walls of my alma mater. I say this to all my non-Narendrapur friends who wondered why I was calling a nonagenarian my brother!