My high school Biology teacher remains one of the most influential people in my life. He was not only a teacher of the Life Sciences, but also, of the science of life. And today marks the completion of a year since he passed away.
As I stumble through one of the most difficult phases of my life, I miss his guiding light, his friendly smile which was almost always followed by a mischievous wink.
He was an erudite scholar, not only in the sciences, but also in many other subjects. While such a statement would conjure images like this to the minds of the ones that do not know him:
to us, his students, who actually knew him and had come in contact with him, he was more like this:
He was like a Gregory House, in the regimented institution where I was a student. He always asked WHY and always poked us to do the same. Long before I entered the medical fraternity, I was being given an initiation into the science of evidence based medicine by Ajit da.
In the pre-med days, when I was preparing for the entrance exam, he was a pillar of support and strength to me. When I rushed to school to convey the information of my awesome exam scores, he did the whole smile-wink thing and said “I told you so!” before walking away in that characteristic style.
He was like our own Dumbledore. Being a Pottermaniac with an imaginative predisposition, I was always comparing my alma mater (Narendrapur Ramakrishna Mission), a hostel-based school, to Hogwarts. And while the oppressive teachers/administrators were the minions of Dolores Umbridge, Ajit da was my very own Dumbledore. True, he lacked the beard, but he made up for that with his quirky sense of humor (as I grew up, he introduced me to the wholly new concept of innuendos, something he was a master at. That, and puns!).
He was like an Encyclopedia. When, even as a medical student, I went to his place to tell him of my Biochemistry medals, he started quizzing me. I was shocked to learn that this ol’ high school Biology teacher was so up to date on stuff that I was scratching the surface of.
He was a champion wordsmith. I was a constant pest before the school debates and he would always drop a few pointers, all off the top of his head, which would invariably lead me to the top few in the competition. That I acquired a formidable reputation in my school days, as a prolific debater and public speaker was more his credit than anything!
Some of the fondest memories of Ajit da are in his classes. He would NEVER do anything in a conventional way. When people say about teaching methods outside the box and wonder whether they will work or not, I am reminded of his methods. Sometimes it seemed he did not know where the box was!
Ajit da was a big fan of Harold Urey. Like Urey, he was always striving to know more about different subjects, different disciplines. He was a brilliant raconteur and would tell Urey’s eccentric stories. I always felt he identified a little with the Nobel winning Physical Chemist who started off studying Zoology (something Ajit da himself did). He would cherish telling the story of the Stanley Miller – Harold Urey experiment which led to the abiogenesis of amino acids. It was a part of our high school biology curriculum and if you have not been taught this part by Ajit Sengupta, you have not lived. I might add that his dramatic portrayal of a dull and drab Biology chapter was in no small ways responsible for first making me want to go into Medicine!
I have been lucky to have been his student, and unlucky to have lost him so soon. Last year, I also wrote about the passing of Nikhil Da, another great teacher, who influenced a lot of people, like, guess what, Ajit da!
My thoughts are with Jayanti-di, his daughter and other Ajitophiliacs, like me, who are, undoubtedly, missing this genius today.
P.S. The obituary above appeared in Anandabazar Patrika, a leading vernacular news paper in my neck of the woods. I am not aware who wrote it, though the adulatory tone indicates that it must be some student of his, but I am afraid that it is filled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies. However, I am not one to nit pick on this one, since the main issue is to cherish the memories of a wonderful man, a great teacher, and a legend in his own right. In the next post, I will post an audio commentary I created last year after his death to honor his memory.