There is little in common between the sparse, almost Spartan atmosphere of Calcutta Boys’ School (CBS) in the early sixties and the Coochbehar Lounge of Calcutta Club half a century later. What tied the two together was a group of mostly 60-plus men – misshapen and gone grey if not bald – and a sprinkling of wives gathered together to bask in the reflected glory of one of the men’s school contemporaries, Altamas Kabir, recently appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court. The school’s old boys’ association could not pass up this chance to thump the back of the best-known member of not just the 1963 batch, but maybe all batches.
The weather was sunny and redolent of approaching winter. Justice Kabir, or “Altuda”, as he said he liked to be addressed in a gathering like this, was on time, looking every bit the portly judge who glides in and out of rooms with quiet authority.
There were speeches galore, but all were blessedly short, adorned in the archaic and ornamental prose of the legal fraternity as the new CJI’s former colleagues at the bar and bench paid him fulsome tribute. What brought back the lightness of youth were the anecdotal reminiscences. Among the nicest was the one from lanky old Amit Talukdar. He didn’t dream of giving himself the airs of a judge and behaved every bit like the slightly junior boy he was in the group.
In those day, CBS was strict and disciplined; none of the boarders would dream of crossing the Lakshman rekha – the red boundary wall – without permission. Except one. Early every morning, Altamas Kabir would jauntily step out of the campus, hockey stick in hand, to walk up to Esplanade from Moulali and then take a tram to Kidderpore to practise with the high-powered team of St Thomas’. And when Amit Talukdar asked silver-haired Mr Torrick why Altamas Kabir was so favoured, the reply was: play hockey like him and you will also be allowed to go out.
Once the lesser speeches were over, Justice Kabir was matter-of-factly told that he would now have to speak, if not sing, for his lunch, which was to follow. Those, like yours truly, who had not met him since leaving school found he fully deserved the reputation of being both soft and well-spoken. But amidst the pleasantries and anecdotes, he made a few points that had substance even amid the lightness of his delivery.
The towering spirit of Principal Clifford Hicks had already been invoked in earlier reminiscences, but it was left to Justice Kabir to state softly – but firmly – that if the “values” Mr Hicks inculcated in us had prevailed in the country today, it would have been in different shape. He recalled how when he was appearing for a law exam he was amazed to see widespread cheating all around, something CBS boys were taught to shun.
In lamenting our current condition, he noted one aspect of Delhi – where he had now lived for seven years – that he could not bear. Without batting an eyelid, people made personal allegations, not caring to check the facts. This had a negative impact on society. Then, for good measure, he turned to one of his batchmates who had spent long years at The Statesman and added that the media played along, endlessly repeating the allegations.
Mr Hicks stood at the centre of what was the best story of the afternoon. After recalling amidst laughter how the principal never spared the cane, Justice Kabir went on to vividly recapture how he was called to the stage and congratulated when an article of his appeared in the famous “Now and Again” column of the then king among Indian newspapers, The Statesman. Notwithstanding the corporal punishment liberally dispensed, there was affection in his heart.
As he signed off and we moved to the verandah to do justice to the good food, in particular the fish fries, memories surfaced thick and fast. Altamas Kabir was a good actor and actively participated in school plays, but his greatest achievement was to get a double promotion, always a rarity, but made unique by the fact that he jumped from class IX to land in class XI and then went on to do well in his school-leaving finals.
Someone recalled that when the future chief justice used to argue his briefs as a lawyer, he made it a point to not just dwell on the legal issues but go a little deeper, pointing to the underlying values that were at stake. Somebody presented him with a beautiful hand-woven shawl from the north-east, which was mostly pristine white but had a bit of powerful red to set things off in contrast — an adequate metaphor for the role of values and their decimation today.