Today marks 2 years since that fateful day when Ajit Sengupta passed away. As one of the many admirers and students of this wonderful teacher, my heart fills with an indescribable heaviness as I sit down top type out this post.
As all his students remember, he had a unique posture while teaching. He never sat down during class. He stood, with one of his legs folded, crane-like, resting it on the table, while he stood one-legged and worked magic. Not even the most stuporous hours post-lunch seemed like boring to his students. He had a unique way of bringing to life the subject he taught.
He had a few rules. He never wanted to see a dirty blackboard when he entered the class. The class monitor was always in a frenzied hurry to erase the previous teacher’s scribbles before Ajit-da rushed in. One of the least envied seats of the classroom was the boy sitting closest to the classroom door. He was supposed to open it when Ajit-da came in and close it again behind him without making a minimum of fuss and take his seat for the class. And when the class was over, he was supposed to reach the door and open it before Ajit-da managed to get off the teacher’s podium and reach the door. Now considering Ajit da walked at, like, 50 mph, that was not an easy task to accomplish! I remember one time I was the unfortunate “door-boy” and in my hurry to reach the door before him, I tripped over the rickety chairs and fell flat on my door. Yet, in utter horror, I recovered and without bothering to stop and dust myself, I scrambled to the door and opened it just in time. Ajit da left with a wink-and-smile…
By the time we reached Ajit da’s classes, he was nearing the age of retirement and a lot of his extra-curricular exploits were a part and parcel of Narendrapur legend. Stories about his acting in Bengali Faculty plays were told in hushed tones. We never managed to have the hon0r of watching him act but once had the privilege of hearing his recitation.
It was the Rabindra Jayanti Utsab in class IX (or X) and he recited “Duhshomoy”. It was such a wonderful rendition of a favorite poem of mine, that his style has stuck to me. His baritone, the subtle changes in mood, the intonations, and of course, the way he could modulate his voice to bring to life the legendary poem is unforgettable.
He had had a difficult and adverse childhood. We did not know of this when we were students, of course. I heard the story of his childhood from him one day when I was cribbing about the meretricious problems in my life to him. After he gave me a glimpse into the childhood story, I could barely restrain my tears. My life was a bed of roses in comparison.
Ajit-da taught me to develop a mind of my own. Narendrapur Ramakrishna Mission is a fabulous school, but as in any institution with strictly implemented discipline and rules, free thought and developing one’s own opinions was a little bit of a challenge. However, those who came in contact with him, knew of his anti-establishment streak, were bound to develop an opinionated mind of their own. He taught me to question things that seemed illogical; he asked me to inculcate the true portent of Swamiji’s clarion call of “Abhih“; rather than go int0 theoretical discussions, he was more inclined to teach us by example.
He hated to examine answer scripts and was regularly late in submitting them to the authorities. He once told us that he felt physically pained at the amount of bull crap we put into the papers. He felt especially pained when his own students would not fare as well as he had expected of them. I didn’t realize it then, but now I understand the amount of dedication one has to have for his work to feel so hurt when his proteges fail to reach the levels he expected of them.
He took our Class X “tutorial” classes and it was such a joy to hear him teach Basic Physiology. He waxed eloquent when he talked about the intricate machinery that was the human body. If you heard him speak of the human body, the amount of respect he showed to the phenomenon of homeostasis, you would be inclined to think of him as a philosopher in the garb of a scientist. Of course, we class X fellows were too young to understand what exactly he wanted to portray, because, for us, physiology was a pain in the neck. It wasn’t until the final years in medical school, when, while studying Internal Medicine, the whole thing fell together for me… and with a click, I realized part of the joy he felt when he described the human body as a wonderfully designed machine.
Ajit da would tell us to question the status quo. A favorite quote of his was:
“It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.”
Without even my knowing about it, he had planted in me the seeds of the dissent that is a critical part of being a student of evidence based medicine.
Ajit Sengupta is not dead. It is just two years since he left his corporeal form. He lives on within each and every one of us, that burning mind still illuminating ours, that mischievous grin still being showered on us, that baritone still egging us on, that incisive mind still challenging ours to expand…
The days shall blur into months, the months into years and the years into decade… time shall run her merciless juggernaut over our frail memories and life shall hack into our time with its incessant demands. Yet, no matter how far into the future we go, each time we say “I am a student of Ajit Senguipta!” our hearts shall swell with a pride that comes only from knowing you, being your students…