Long, long ago, there was a family that had come over to India crossing the border of what used to be East Pakistan. They came to the city that was the greatest of all – the City of Palaces, the City of Joy, and in the early 1900s, the City of Tagore as well.
It was one of those joint families that so defined the city of the era. There were seven children in the family: the elder three were siblings, all sisters. The other four, their cousins, were a sister followed by three brothers.
Despite not exactly being showered with riches from childhood the septet grew up together in the same way that teeth or fingernails do.
But this is not a story about teeth or fingernails. This is a story about one of these girls; more specifically, this is about the second of the lot (who, I must admit, has an issue with her teeth these days).
She was almost a short girl; she had hair curly enough to give her head the look of char-grilled Maggi Noodles; she did not have 20-20 vision either, and was blessed with old-fashioned spectacles at an early age.
She made it up, though. She studied in one of the more renowned schools of South Calcutta and topped in nearly every examination. She also had a rather curious, unusual, somewhat inexplicable penchant for mathematics. In fact, solving mathematical problems used to be a hobby.
It was an absolutely normal childhood strewn with the rather singular traits of the post-Independence era – the kind that came with restriction like children needed to be back home by evening. She accepted everything without a single word of protest. She was, by all definition, a good girl.
School gave way to college where she obtained a scholarship. In college she found a non-trivial man and decided to marry him. Gone were the prospects of pursuing education and becoming a doctorate. She got married, just like that, and went to a distant city miles and miles away from her birthplace.
The scholarship money went into buying a Godrej stainless-steel almirah that she still flaunts with pride. She blended into adulthood with the same ease with which Nutella melts in the mouth.
She came back after about three or so years and almost immediately assumed the dual role of teaching and running a household. This included looking after the in-laws as well.
Obviously she taught mathematics. That was her forte. The surprising bit was her choice of school. Though she got offers from the high-profile options she decided to stick to a nondescript suburban (village, more likely) school instead.
Her father had managed to instil certain non-trivial principles within her. “There will never be any shortage of teachers in the bigger schools. But if all good teachers go to these schools, who will teach in the smaller schools that no one cares for?”
So she took a bus every morning; went to Tollygunge Station; took the train to Budge Budge; then found transport of some sort (rickshaws on most occasions) to reach the school.
Not only did she turn down the offer from the ‘glamorous’ schools, in the process she also decided to spend hours in commuting when a single five-minute auto-rickshaw would have sufficed.
She had two sons. Both went to the same school that had a reputation for having space shortage, which meant both had to attend morning school for a few years. She got up at five, saw them off to school, went through her household chores, and left for school.
Maybe she caught a few minutes of sleep in between. Maybe she did not. Nobody knew.
Then, when her husband was transferred to a remote location she had more responsibilities in her life: she had to play a father and a son well. She never flinched, though. No burden seemed to bother her, somehow. She was one of those women.
She lost her little sister from an apparently incurable disease. She absorbed it. About a decade later she lost her father (who was, without a doubt, one of the most rational men to have existed).
She did not wince. She carried on. She reached her fifties without anyone noticing. The woman whose life once revolved around books and sport and relatives was now restricted to a routine.
She left home at ten. From school she visited her mother, who had refused point-blank to leave house and stay with her daughters. She used to visit her every day.
She used to come back at 7.45 PM; her tired brain had to fall back upon mindless Bengali serials – provided she did not have examination papers to check. And she often dropped off to sleep while doing so.
Her sons (especially the proud, haughty, ungrateful elder one) often laughed at her for having such poor taste. She ignored. She walked around, carrying on with her favourite activity of arranging leftovers in exact-sized containers and fitting them in impossibly small nooks of the refrigerator the way only the most logical of minds can.
Then, all of a sudden, the Principal of the school passed away. Everyone wanted the girl, now a woman, to become the replacement; she acquired books the size of bricks and started studying in her mid-fifties.
And then, there she was, once a small schoolgirl in pigtails, now controlling a school of girls in pigtails.
As if she already did not have enough on her plate.
With time she lost her mother as well. It was all school and home from there. She came back by seven and hogged the remote-control, or at least fought over it. The soaps that used to mean nothing to her amazing mind years ago became her fodder for the next day of struggle.
She changed the unremarkable nature of the school for good. She introduced the higher-secondary level, ensured that the school-building expanded under her, and ran through the lengths and breadths of Calcutta to attend various meetings and acquire several grants.
The remarkable bit about this was the fact that she had achieved all this within a ridiculously small time-frame. She worked hard and long – often too hard and too long for most teachers approaching the end of a long, exhausting, monotonous career.
She worked with the single-minded determination of making a dysfunctional school work and succeeded. The intense workload turned her into a borderline diabetic, but she never cared. She was never one of those people who seemed to care.
Alongside all this she turned into the agony aunt to many, including some of her seniors. She sat through whines, personal and professional, hearing them out and almost always going out of her way to help them.
The women who used to be her colleagues ages back were now replaced by their daughters. Some of her new colleagues were younger than even her sons. She held fort, representing the Calcutta of the old, still attempting to lay emphasis on the value of education over training. Most importantly, she was one of those fortunate few who actually liked their day jobs.
On the other hand she refused to use the internet (and kept pushing her hapless sons to excavate newly published circulars on the website of the Board).
She turned sixty, and as it invariably happens with Government employees, she had to retire. In contrast to many other farewells, it was not a big event, though a lot of her colleagues wept openly.
There was no reason for inhibitions. The woman who had made the school her second home was all set to give up everything to return home for good. A chunk of her life – probably the most significant one – was gone.
This was what she had given up her years and her health for. And now – today – on December 1, 2013 it has all come to a predictable end. There was quite a scene at her retirement with colleagues crying and all that mush.
When all that was over she returned home with what looked like a complete horticultural garden. The flowers will wither away in a day or so; the cards vanish somewhere in the convoluted labyrinth of the house; and the saris or whatever they have given will get stored inside that Godrej almirah.
PS: This concept is a poor imitation of Kuntala's excellent piece.