Space For Rent

Space For Rent
Friday, July 31, 2015, Shraban 16, 1422 BS, Shawal 14, 1436 Hijr

A school, a headmaster, and two teachable incidents
Tapan Chakrabarty
Published :Friday, 31 July, 2015,  Time : 12:00 AM  View Count : 405
The school in the title is Matlabganj JB Pilot School (MS). The MS Headmaster was the legendary late Waliullah Patwari (WP). And the two teachable incidents are from 1961 and 1962, both concerning me and witnessed by me. Those incidents are still like two champa flowers, spreading their sweet scents and soothing my psyche in times of despondency. They are also like two luminous candles, capable of illuminating dark recesses in educational institutions, including universities.
MS was the most unlikely educational institution for the teachable incidents to occur, though. It was not a well-funded school, for instance, like Faujdarhat Cadet College (FCC) in Bangladesh, a college claimed to have achieved half a century of excellence (14 January 2010, The Daily Star), attended by the most talented student body in the country in 'a dazzling exclusive establishment, oozing with class and privilege ? five changes of uniforms every day, one to suit each activity? while waiters wearing crisp white uniforms served us meals (15 December, 2009, Daily Star)', and taught by top-calibre, well-paid teachers, all provided for free of charge by the government.
MS was not even a government school, financially solvent enough to recruit and retain excellent teachers. Always cash-starved, it could not even regularly pay its teachers, my father being one of them. A majority of its students were impoverished villagers, some going to school wearing patches on their shirts, pants, and lungis, and eating partially-fermented panta bhat (cooked rice soaked overnight in water to prevent spoilage, in absence of refrigeration) that made them drowsy in morning classes. The financial situation was so dire that some students, including one top-of-the-class, had to be taken away --- and be placed in hostels or with another family by the headmaster --- from their parents, who would rather have them selling sugar-cane molasses or milk-products in their shops, or plowing and sowing in their fields than attending schools.
Situated in a rural setting at Matlab, which then used to be pestered by food-stealing wild monkeys and plagued by life-snatching cholera, MS lacked resources and environment to attract good teachers. One day its fortune changed for better, upon the arrival of a young headmaster, with a heart of gold and a mind brimming with innovative ideas --- ideas that were several decades ahead of his time. WP was, indeed, a godsend from another village, not too far away from Matlab. Because of his vision and actions, MS outshone many well-funded city schools in the most-important class-ten board exam, year after year. In 1950, the best year in its history, MS placed a student, who had to stay with a family, tutoring children in exchange for meals and lodging, at the top of the list, in all of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). That student is Dr Abdul Matin Patwari, who later became VC of BUET and that of two other private universities. That was an incredible example of achieving excellence with meager resources and scanty amenities by two Patwaris, one a student and the other a headmaster, their common last name suggestive of both being descendants of jute farmers or jute merchants. I myself witnessed a few strokes of such MS brilliance as a student there from 1960 to 1965. A sentimental trip I took to Matlab in early 2015 helped me revisit many of the teachable incidents at MS.
After reading the KU incidents that morning, I pondered over the university discrimination problem; contrasted it with two relevant heart-warming incidents from MS; deduced a plausible explanation as to why schools fare better than universities in being fair to students; and discovered a potential solution to the problem.
Two relevant incidents, described below to explain the solution, were from the early sixties, when I was a student at MS, still during its era of academic excellence. Its state, during my visit in 2015, was described by an elderly villager as: 'That Ram (the ruler) is gone, that Aujodhya (the land) is gone.'
The land in that quote is MS. The ruler was headmaster WP, a humble person of very modest means. A collarless full-sleeve cotton shirt and a traditional lungi or a pair of white pajamas were this ruler's raiment. A folding easy chair of wood and canvas was his throne. The school veranda with four pillars, overlooking the small playground along the pond to its south, was his throne room. A lone palash tree standing by the pond was the only decoration around in the 1960s.
In February 2015, I was standing on the throne room, the hallowed veranda, of MS. A veranda in a school does not draw or deserve a lot of attention. But at MS, it was the centre piece, a place of actions. It was where headmaster sat and sometimes slept. He preferred it, perhaps for its airiness and natural light, to his stuffy, dark office (no electricity then at Matlab) inside. Always a disciplinarian and a keen overseer, he might also have been there to make his presence known to the students staying in a hostel --- one of three school hostels then; none in 2015 --- west of the playground.
The veranda watched me growing up, playing in the ground, and walking on the path to Matlab Bazar and launch station from home and back. While going to the bazaar, I wished headmaster was not there, especially when he expected me home studying. Such were my respect and fear for his presence and power.
It was the veranda, from where headmaster, the ruler, used to rule, making motivational speeches in daily morning assemblies, meeting important guests like education board officials, and giving away prizes to winners of annual school events.
In one such event, my name was announced as the winner of a set-speech competition in my class. As I stood up from among many others --- all seated quietly, pretending to be well-behaved, on the playground grass --- and was walking nervously to the veranda, someone shouted to the headmaster, "Sir, he is a Hindu!" Startled, I stopped and looked to my right. Headmaster looked surprised. The seated students were stunned. Who could be the heckler? What courage! In the presence of a headmaster, feared by all for his very presence and dreaded disciplinary methods.
All eyes were soon on Zahir. It had to be him. Zahir was the recalcitrant son of a rich business man from Narayanganj, not far from the capital Dhaka. His dad had donated money in exchange for an MS education for him in a rural setting, away from city distractions and rogue companies he was keeping there.
Headmaster glanced at Zahir, but did not say a word, perhaps thinking of the donation from his father. He just handed me the prize --- two distas (stacks) of loose writing papers (all prizes at MS then were study-related, like lanterns, dictionaries, or fountain pen --- and continued on with the rest of the ceremony. He did not have to say anything. His silence sent a strong message to Zahir, other students, teachers, and support staff. What he communicated with his action was: Who was what did not matter, not in his school. It did not matter that I, the Hindu son of his deceased Sanskrit and Bengali teacher, won the competition, a set-speech competition on the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
As I think of that incident at this advanced stage of my life, I am amazed in appreciation of the leadership of the headmaster in the 1960s. He created an atmosphere, where I of another faith, deciding on my own to take part in the competition, preparing the speech, and collecting information from books respectful of the prophet, his life and philosophy; the class teacher, a Muslim, allowing me to present and judging my speech to be the best, not based on who I was, but on the quality of my presentation and its content; and the headmaster presenting me the prize in face of a public protest by Zahir, the son of a big donor to his school.
That impromptu veranda incident was MS education at its best --- an education by example, outside school syllabus and outside classrooms. It was an education on expanding one's frog-in-the-well mentality, respecting others faith, treating all students fairly, and valuing inclusion. One simple incident with multiple profound teachings!
The veranda was the venue again, where I was the witness, and the incident that time was an investigation of unfairness. Hiding behind a pillar one early evening, I was watching the headmaster, the judge, sitting on his throne, the easy chair. Idris Ali Majumdar (BUET CE '71), the plaintiff, was standing there, accompanied by his advocate, his hostel superintendent. The atmosphere was tense. It had the makings of a serious matter. Earlier, a friend had rushed to the playground and tipped me off about what was going on over there. It was about Idris' placing second behind me in the class-seven school final. He had scored lower marks than me in Bengali, my strongest subject in school. The accused, the grader of the exam paper, a Hindu Sanskrit teacher and my deceased father's replacement, was not present. Even though I was not the accused, I knew I would be the one to be affected by the judge's decision. The motive, presumably, was religious bias. I am a Hindu, the grader was a Hindu. Idris is a Muslim. Headmaster, a Muslim, also had a vested interest in Idris. He had recruited him from a neighbouring school a year earlier, with promises of a better education and more opportunities at MS.
I could see the headmaster hard at work, turning pages of each exam paper, comparing side-by-side Idris's and my answers on each question. At one point, he paused. The tension in the veranda escalated. The plaintiff and his advocate, sensing 'the smoking gun', exchanged looks of expectation. I felt nervous. Headmaster needed to be sure, though. He turned a few pages forward and then backward, on both papers. He then lifted his torso from the low-lying chair, folded the papers, threw them towards the feet of the advocate, and said rather indignantly: 'Before you complain, check your facts first.'
He went on to elaborate that in one question, worth 10 marks, Idris could manage only a small paragraph, when I wrote five full pages. The plaintiff and his advocate left without saying a word. I went home relieved, assured that my top-of-the-class position at MS --- a source of tremendous respect from peers, teachers, relatives, and villagers --- was safe for a year. Only 12 at that time, I did not quite fathom the significance of what the headmaster had done. I thought then that was what a headmaster, a teacher, a person in education or in a position of power should have done: making fair decisions.
(The next instalment of this article will appear next week.)
Tapan Chakrabarty, a seven-continent marathon finisher, an inventor and an innovator, writes from Calgary, Canada

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