Whenever a few Narendrapur alumni get together, no matter how ling ago they had passed out of school, no matter how far apart their individual graduation years are, sooner rather than later, the discussions are bound to gravitate towards teachers, their memories and their legacy. We were fortunate to have been taught by dedicated, loving souls, who had all contributed to our growth, both in our professional life, and more so, as persons.
Two of the teachers who have always featured in our discourses because of their dedication to the Ashram, the students, and of course, because of their individual eccentricities, have recently passed away: Ram Kumar Upadhyay da and Arun Das da. And I am still in shock; probably the reason why it took me some time to sit down and type out my thoughts. Unfortunately, I had only fleeting experiences with these doyens of high school education.
Mr. Ram Kumar Upadhyay:
First, let me talk about Ram Kumar da. We had brief encounters with him during our third language Hindi classes. I am sure my batch mates who had first language Hindi would have more stories to tell about this colorful person. But, in my limited experience of being taught by Ram Kumar da, the thing that shone through was his seriousness. He was a very serious, and sometimes, too exacting a teacher. Just because he was filling in for a class of third language, he would never let his standards and expectations down; he expected us to be nothing short of the best we could achieve. And he would push us to do that. He was, however, a fair person. In his evaluation of exams, I remember my first language Hindi brethren cribbing about his obsession with the details and nitty-gritty, and hence, their poor marks. With third language Hindi students, he was somewhat different. He was never short of heaping praise when it was due.
He was a very affectionate person, and knew me by my name, and remembered me, several years after I had passed out: and all this despite never being directly taught by him and only having had him as fill-in teacher or exam evaluator. I guess this is my impression, because I was never very close to him, but he seemed like a man of few words.
Let me curate some of the stories about Ram Kumar da which have been coming up in the Facebook forums for the Narendrapur Old Boys. It would be a pity to lose out on the memories of such wonderful people.
Sri Ram Kumar Upadhyay: He taught Hindi, so I was never a direct student. But I had seen him from close quarters because he was the Hostel warden. Behind the external visage of a strict, angry disciplinarian, we knew he had an empathetic, loving soul.
He had a quick temper: and was never one to spare the rod when it came to disciplining us. And the most notable feature of his was his pot-belly!
I had received a lot of love and care from him, and so, when I obtained his phone number via Facebook contacts, I decided to give him a call one day. On calling him up at his residence in Bihar, his son answered and told me that he was resting; I hung up saying I would call back later. That “later” never happened.
So, when I suddenly read about his passing on a Facebook post, I am wracked by guilt; I feel the longing to hear that voice of his… Upadhyay-da is no more – but in my memories, he is still tracing out his evening rounds through the blocks of the residential quarters. His pot belly leading the way! He still looks at errant schoolboys with eyes of fury and calling out in his bloodcurdling voice, enunciating Bengali with a distinct Bihari accent: “E Maaanik! Tui ki korchhis?” (Hey boy! What are you up to?). Though he is no more, I can never forget those fiery eyes, hiding the noble-hearted guardian who had nothing but our best interests in his heart.
Another one from a direct student:
Mr. Arun Kumar Das:
Coming to the second teacher for today’s post, Arun Das da. Well, I have more direct experiences with Arun da. Once again, I had very limited experience of being his student inside a classroom. Like most Narendrapur students, I have had more memories of him outside the class.
Arun da taught Mathematics, but we never really attended his class. We mostly came in contact with him at the morning Physical Training sessions and in the afternoon play hours, especially during the Cricket season.
Talking of cricket, there is one memory which stands out: Arun da was taking strike and our seniors were bowling at him. He would walk down the pitch, and almost get a good 3-4 yards down and smash the bowlers to all parts of the stadium. Disdainful dismissal of a bowler: that day I learnt what that truly meant. Someone tried to get one up on him and bowled a head high full toss as he was charging out, and Arun da swatted it away like a fly: the ball ended up on the top tier of the leg side gallery of the stadium. When we were students, he was probably in his fifties, so it makes this feat even more impressive!
He would lecture us during the PT sessions and we would feel amused. Some of the lazier ones would try to push the lecturing on so that we would not have to do running and jumping around. Sometimes, some unfortunate guy would get into his crosshairs and he would smash the living daylights out of them: quite literally. In fact, one of my dear old friends (he just got married a couple of weeks ago!) made the heinous crime of laughing during his PT lecture-cum-rant sessions. Arun da caught him and bashed him up good. He even threatened to slap the living retinas out of his eyes. Students who have withstood Arun da’s bashing have always become part of the local lore and legends. Another batch mate of mine, a fabulous wicket keeper, and a rabble raiser in general, was bashed up in installments! Arun da hit him in three or four sessions during the morning runs! Fortunately for me, I have always managed to stay out of his crosshairs and not land up on the wrong side.
Anyways. I really got to know him when I had passed out. When I came back to school for quizzes and other random stuff (whenever I had the time to travel over, I used to pop back in to Narendrapur when I was in Medical College Kolkata), I ran into him a couple of times. This one time, I remember meeting him, I could hardly recognize him. He told me he had been ill for a long while and had just gotten back on his feet. I don’t know if it was because of his illness, or because I had grown up, he looked small and much less intimidating than the teacher who threatened to smash us up because he could outrun us in PT.
During that meeting we had talked a fair bit and he had told me to never forget the morals the school had tried to imbue us with: service to humanity. That day I had felt that as a medical student, as a doctor-to-be I had a far greater role in the scheme of things than I could envision.
He was a hard man. He was a simple man. And anyone who ever came in contact with him, would admit, he was a man of his words. In an age where we have bartered our simplicity, our truth and our morals for meretricious and ephemeral gains, Arun da is a beacon of inspiration.
In so many ways, Ram Kumar da and Arun da embodied similar traits. They were both very hard men, on the outside, and very caring, loving and dedicated individuals from within. They had an impeccable work ethic and expected nothing less from their students. They were infallibly honest. And they were unwaveringly true to the Ashrama. They had their own eccentricities, and we, as students, focussed more on those traits than on the more subtle, yet, more telling ones. With their passing, we have lost two of the best teachers, the best human beings our generation could have grown up emulating.