Tomorrow is Teacher's Day. For all you know, it may be Teachers' Day as well (grammatically challenged bloggers are often faced with dilemmas like this).
I thought this might be a good occasion to sneak in a quick blog post. I had thought of writing about a couple of my favourite teachers and professors, but since I found this sprawled across The Telegraph today, I thought these legends should be the ones I should write of tonight. Or rather, about one of them.
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My first introduction to Professors Atindra Mohan Goon (not Gun, as the article above suggests), Milan Kumar Gupta and Bhagabat Dasgupta were in Class XI: we were asked to study a algae-coloured book called Basic Statistics, which, despite not containing as many "worked-out examples" as the green and orange ones written by Nani Gopal Das, was probably my first handbook of statistics.
As school uniform gave way to jeans and Azhauruddin to Tendulkar, the trio played a greater role in my life: they had actually co-authored four of the books we had read as undergraduates. Professor Gupta actually taught us in his unmistakably inaudible voice in our second year. Professor Dasgupta we did catch a glimpse or two of.
Professor Goon, however, was a different story altogether. He was the Head of the Statistics Department when I took my first meek steps in the historic college. He taught us Linear Algebra from a book written by - well, Professor Goon himself. I also took private tuition from him in a group of seven - all of them my classmates.
I will be narrating a few incidents here. Do not be misled, dear reader. Of course I have immense respect for him. However, in addition to being a legend, he was also a character of the supreme kind. Let me narrate the incidents.
Some of the incidents might be lost in translation. I will provide the Bangla script and translation wherever possible.
Professor Goon, as we got to know later, had a few "pet" students every year. In ours, he had one favourite student: P, the batch-topper. He also had a couple of targets - A (often referred to as K in Presidency College) and, er, myself.
A was possibly Professor Goon's least favourite students. A (K) was also one of the champion carrom players of the college. On a bright, distracting autumn morning, passion took over moral responsibilities, and A (K) lost track of time.
A (K) did the unpardonable: he ended up being late in entering the great man's class. Professor Goon's reaction was a mixture of scorn and elation (at having a chance to have a bash at his "target").
So he went - "আজকালকার ছ্যাল্যারা, পড়াশোনা করব্যা না, হিন্দু হস্টেলে থাকব্যা , ক্লাস শুরুর আধঘন্টা পর পান চিবোতে চিবোতে ক্লাসে আসব্যা..."
(rough translation: Look at today's kids! They don't bother to study, they live in The Hindu Hostel, they turn up half an hour after the class has commenced, that too with paan in their mouth...)
Things I should mention here:
1. A (K) did not live in The Hindu Hostel. Ever. He lived in South Kolkata, and we took the same metro to college every day.
2. A (K) was not chewing paan either. He seldom did so, and never in class.
3. Professor Goon never found out what A (K) was really guilty of, though. A (K) usually nicked whisky from home in small empty bottles meant to contain homeopathy medicines and consumed them during Professor Goon's class - something that The Legend could never find out.
As I have mentioned before, his other consistent target was me. On one of the days, he finished teaching five minutes before the bell rang.
He now had five minutes to spare. I clearly remember it was the class immediately before the lunch break. He had a choice between having to spend the five minutes somehow and letting us go. He chose the former.
He picked me out. And gave me a verbal bashing on how incompetent a student I have always been, and what a disgrace to the department I am.
Things I should mention here:
1. He had not asked me any question on that day. Any.
2. He had not asked me any question on any previous day either.
This is not my story. Professor Saibal Chatterjee, one of the greatest professors I have had a chance to come across, told us this on a very wet August afternoon when it was absolutely pouring down outside, rain pattering down hard on the ancient windows of the classroom.
SC was in the mood. He was supposed to teach us kurtosis or something equally mysterious, but he ended up teaching us the philosophy of statistics instead. It was supposed to be a double-class, but time somehow seemed to fly: even the hypnotic aroma of the rain-soaked flora adjacent to the Baker's Laboratory could not distract us from SC's class that day.
This is SC's story. He confided this to us just before dismissing the class for the day.
This is about his student days. Yes, Professor Goon had been the ubiquitous Head of Department. SC and his classmates, being fresh out of school, had been taking full advantage of their new-found liberty and had decided to bunk classes and have a long chat at Indian Coffee House - that place of urban fairy tales that has witnessed a lot of twentieth century dreams and romances blossom or wither or both (not necessarily in that order).
SC's gang was having a lot of fun, it seemed. Until someone filled in Professor Goon with the information. The great man walked out of the Department of Statistics, then out of Presidency College, crossed College Street, made his way up the stairs and located his students.
He walked up to the table; then, with determined hands, he grabbed each student by his ear and led each one out of the door; one by one. With the entire Indian Coffee House as witness.
No one ever dared to bunk a class again. Or had the cheek to visit Indian Coffee House again.
We also took private tuition from Professor Goon. On Wednesday mornings, possibly - at an unearthly hour of seven in the morning or something equivalent.
We were a group of seven (this number had nothing to do with when the classes began). The great man sat at the head of the table. P (mentioned above), our batch-topper, his left. I was late on day one, and hence was made to sit on his right (can you imagine my plight, given Incident Two?).
P had an elder sister. On one of the more idle days Professor Goon ended up chatting with P (with the rest of us listening in).
Professor: দিদি এখন কী করছে? (What does your elder sister do these days?)
P: স্যার, দিদি কাটাকলে পড়ছে। (Sir, she studies at Katakol - the name of the bus-stop where Calcutta University has its Department of Economics at Post-Graduate level)
One could see the dilemma taking shape on the wrinkled face of The Professor. On one hand, he could not let anyone go free after referring to Calcutta University as Katakol (that would be blasphemy of the highest order in his books); on the other hand, he could not get himself to shout at P.
He needed a solution, though. He stared at me. I could see a feasible response stewing in those eyes. Then, after a pause for what seemed like an eternity, Professor Atindra Mohan Goon uttered, eyes fixed on my hapless self:
আজকালকার ছ্যাল্যাদের মনে র্যাস্প্যাক্ট নাই। ইউনিভার্সিটি বলত্যা পার্যা না। কাটাকল বল্যা।
(today's students do not have any respect; they do not say "University" - they say "Katakol" instead.)
I shudder to think what might have been the reaction had I committed a sacrilege of the same volume.
We went to the tuition at seven, and were supposed to be released by nine. However, once a month, a calling-bell rang at a quarter to nine, and immediately Professor Goon sprung to activity; he usually terminated classes for the day and asked us to leave immediately.
Naturally, this struck to us as mysterious. We had to find out who it was that robbed us of valuable lessons in Bolzano-Weierstrass Theorem and similar basic necessities.
On one of those careless mornings The Professor had kept his front door open. And we saw. And we knew.
Each and every window of the huge living room was open. The room was bathed in summer daylight. At one corner of the living room stood a rather meek-looking rice-seller. Rice was spread all across the room. And our Professor, virtually on all fours, was making his way through the ocean of rice, possibly looking for the tiniest speck of gravel.
We should have guessed that. It should have been obvious to us.
The year was 1996. I was not a natural school-bunker, so this was going to be the first time I was about to enter a relatively empty Book Fair - at about two in the afternoon on a weekday. The problem was, a lot of my classmates wanted to go as well.
Professor Goon's temper was (in) famous; and so was his absolute hatred at oddities like bunking classes. Still we braved it. We knocked. We entered.
Sir, can we take the rest of the day off to go to The Book Fair?
A thick volume of what looked like a Biometrika lay very close to his right hand. I hid behind someone. I figured out that though he had aged he probably still had it in him to throw a book across a room.
Instead, he smiled. And nodded.
Never has a Kolkata February been as glorious.