The 1965 batch of Calcutta Boys’ School (CBS) has good reason to feel a bit special. It sits right at the heart of what could be called the school’s golden era. So when Subhas said why not catch up, there was a chorus of approval through the Net.
The meeting itself, proposed by Probir and heartily seconded by everybody, in the congenial surroundings of Kolkata’s Tolly Club on a sunny winter afternoon, proved to be a climax of a whole process of relocating and rediscovering. There was enormous excitement in meeting some of your school chums after 47 years (how on earth will we recognise each other?) and at last getting introduced to the spouses! Let’s wear name tags, someone said. In the event, the guessing game proved the toughest with those who had totally lost their hair. The fun was in watching so many venerable old gents so absurdly overflowing with boyish gusto, aided and abetted by the able waiters who kept filling your glass. One gin and no more, I had firmly told myself. I overshot it by 200 per cent.
My great joy came from linking up with Niloy, after we had lost track of each other for more than three decades. As I explained to the wives, we two, along with our parents, had been interviewed on the same day, joined school the same day and were both promptly named Fatty in good public school lingo, an appellation we have done justice to till this day.
Talking of public schools, CBS was and was not one. It followed many of the formal ways of public schools, including corporal punishment. When you were caned on the behind before the whole class, you thought it was the end of the world. When you finally exited after having served as prefect and with a half-decent diploma under your belt, you had no doubt as to what had made you.
What set CBS apart from the rest of the breed was the relatively modest level to which principal Clifford Hicks kept the fees. This enabled him to access what he considered his prime catchment area, middle-class Indians who valued education above all else. Public school life is not kind and certainly not for the oversensitive. So, some got scarred and quite unfairly too. But those who made it had a robust self-confidence without being snobbish and a bit of, for want of a better word, character.
Some of it came out even in the midst of all the bonhomie. Rinzing said he had gone a long way to stand up for Binayak (he said he would come but eventually didn’t) within the official establishment in the last couple of years of his career. You know, he explained, I can’t be half-hearted about what I set my mind to, and how can you tell the rest of the world what a great country India is (he’d spent his professional life waving the flag) if this is what we do to ourselves (incarcerate a guy who has spent a lifetime serving the most deprived of Indians). I could have got up and saluted both.
I did as much when I took Niloy to the wives and told them that not only was he an accomplished gynaecologist, but in his set-up on the outskirts of Kolkata he also did a huge amount of work among the underprivileged. Or take Ninan, who told those who hadn’t kept in touch that he had spent 40 years now in Delhi. How did CBS values do in the darbari culture of the city, where the real currency of exchange is favours? He didn’t say so but my sense is that being able to come out at the end of the day on the right side of your conscience is more difficult than achieving professional excellence.
So who made us? Mr Hicks, of course, but within that assessments differed. After the pluses and minuses, I said I would give him 60 out of 100. But Subhas said, after running a company and thus realising how difficult it is to run a good school (so many of the challenges are similar), he would give the literally towering figure 80. The one kindly spirit who we knew was watching over us was Mr Guha. Through Euclidean geometry he taught us how to think logically. I cannot forget him shaking with passion, signature spectacles in hand, haranguing us perplexed teenagers: look at the beauty of the logic! We understood the beauty of girls, but geometry?
The one person whom we missed (all attempts to locate him had failed) was Ivan Sassoon. He taught us how to write good English — not the least of all, Soumen, who among us unquestionably wrote the best essays. If education is all about being literate and numerate, then you know who the adi gurus were. And if being a good Indian means having a sense of public purpose and a bit of integrity, then the Oscar for a lifetime of imparting that to youngsters goes to Mr Hicks.