It is impossible that you could miss him in a crowd. And had Shokhanaath Sikdar ever shared a first-class compartment on a long-distance Kolkata-bound train of the Indian Railways with Ray’s Lal Mohan Ganguly, I am convinced the latter would have definitely wanted to “cultivate” Mr Sikdar. Though almost separated-at-birth-twins with Mr Ganguly, the resemblance further accentuated by accessories such as a brown monkey-cap and a red and blue checked muffler, Mr Sikdar had a distinguished and unique style of his own.
His day started early fighting with the neighbourhood paperboy, he called Khoka. Each daybreak, Khoka would toss the popular morning daily, neatly tied in a roll, and throw it across Mr Sikdar’s coveted south-facing 7x 3 ft verandah adorned with money plants, a pottedtulsi and some kamini flowers. To an onlooker, the blue-walled balcony adjoining the cramped living room was nothing beyond a slice of additional space generously used as a clothesline. Between Mrs Sikdar’s printed cotton nighties and petticoats, there was just enough room for an old cane chair and two low choir stools. In all, the weaving had fallen loose, but it did not bother Mr Sikdar, nor kept him away from his private haven, and he fought to conserve its authenticity as the truly intellectual corner in his middle class suburban home. Khoka and his Olympic style paper tossing was a constant threat to that preservation. Mr Sikdar had repeatedly warned Khoka that it in the past, his rough and uncouth attacks had hurt thekamini buds and snapped a portion of the money plants, both signs that were considered inappropriate, but the boy had paid no heed.
After calling out names, each morning Mr Sikdar would sit down in this blue space, reading the morning newspaper from the first word on the front page, browsing through headline news to classified pages including quack aphrodisiacs and gauging the impacts of planetary movements and their predictions on his less celestial life. Once he hadRahu and Ketu’s orbits sorted, dipping thin-arrowroot biscuits in his tea, he would always attend to the matrimonial, obituaries and all the other components that spiced up an ordinary man’s life in an otherwise monotonous setting.
After retirement from his job as the mathematics teacher of a government higher secondary school, Mr Sikdar’s world had become confined to the blue walls of his modest one-bedroom flat. Mrs Sikdar, childless and ageing had begun to complain of gout, since she stepped into her 50s, and now her days were all spent in cooking a simple meal for the two, a few religious rituals and watching melodramatic soap operas on Bangla television.
From his cane chair on the verandah, Mr Sikdar would watch her getting engrossed in the high-pitched family dramas on the idiot box, often so much that she would emote with the characters on screen. At times, he had even caught her crying with the innocent and cursing the wicked and scheming faces on television. Mr Sikdar, who grew up in an age when television was a rarity and being a couch potato was sinful would wonder how a 50-year-old woman could get so carried away by something so unreal and distant.
Apart from the TV, the blue-walled modest living room had a sofa cum bed. This was meant to be the most decorative and most expensive of furniture the Sikdars had ever bought. It was the pride of the living room. A student’s mother, out of sheer respect for Mr Sikdar’s Mathemagical brilliance had gifted a self-created set of appliqué cushion covers for the sofa cum bed. On occasions when there were guests in the house, and it happened rarely though, this was used as the extra bedding for the special visitor.
But of course, there was a brilliant laminated family photograph of three generations, proudly displayed on the TV top that you couldn’t miss. On a rare moment, when all the three generations of Sikdars had taken a Kundu Special tour to Darjeeling and the entire family of primary school teachers, bank managers and government servicemen had pooled in all the LTC they got, booked company holiday homes and managed to spend a week basking in their own glory in the Himalayan town. The photograph was a memoir of that rare moment one morning, when all the Sikdars, including the young ones Dollar and Sonnet (Mr Sikdar’s youngest brother was a bank manager. His convent educated wife had a fetish for English names and after the twin boys were born, she used her obsession with an overpowering vengeance thereby dismissing all alternate suggestions made by other family members) had arranged themselves proudly in three rows. The men in bright mufflers and hand woven pullovers at the back, the women in wet flowing tresses over cardigans and sarees were seated in between, and the children in road picked Bhutia jackets were kneeling down at the front. The group was facing the sparkling white mountain range with the holiday home as backdrop. Though proud to be framed in a perfect Suraj Barjatiya style family frame, none of them noticed or remarked upon the fact that there would be proof of the mighty Kanchenjunga in the photograph.
Till date, the pride associated with this photograph knew no limits and though neighbours and friends tried to often contest the value of this priceless piece of Sikdars, none were successful so far.Once, Mr Sikdar’s next door neighbour Shambunath Pal, tried to flaunt a photograph that showed his grandson standing below the Eiffel Tower. Now Mr Pal, unlike Mr Sikdar was not a man with many degrees (“uneducated businessman” in Mr Sikdar’s words). He ran a saree shop in one of the bustling districts of the city and had amassed a lot of wealth. A considerable portion of that wealth had gone into sending his only son Babushona to a private engineering college in Bangalore. Babushona, once his engineering degree was earned managed to do an MBA and find a job in a company that was doing a project with a French multinational. Needless to say, Mr Pal, much to the resentment of Mr Sikdar, was extremely proud of the fact that in a family where matriculation was considered sacred, Babushona had added so much glory so as to live in “bilet” or foreign shores out of his own academic steam.
So one day when Mr Pal brought out the picture of the Eiffel Tower and challenged Mr Sikdar on the pricelessness of photographs, Mr Sikdar looked unshaken. Studying the picture with the spectacles right at the tip of his sharp nose, he raised an eyebrow and said, “Hmmm….mane thik e ache, tobe oi amader Howrah Bridge taye beshi loha bodhoi,” (seems ok, but methinks our Howrah Bridge has more iron in it).
It only happened by a sheer conspiracy of fate that I landed up at Mr Sikdar’s door one hot and sultry summer afternoon. Let me explain. Mr Sikdar’s ‘almost umbilical’ ties with a government boys school was destined to weave into my life as soon as I met and fell in love with the brightest and best student the school had ever trained. My fiancé, Sid (Shiddharto to his teachers and all the other trails of his past life) was Mr Sikdar’s favourite student in his entire teaching career. The boy, the first in his school to crack the indomitable IIT entrance exam, as he recalls and narrates to all he knows was the “Braaitest” student he taught.
All that was more than a decade back! And Sid’s life, interim had undergone several changes. From the IIT Campus in Kanpur, he had moved to Rutgers for a Masters and ever since the lure of the greenback and the thrill of international recognition had kept him committed to sharing his bright intellect with the US of A. But he hadn’t forgotten his teacher. “I owe it to him in a way,” he would say.
Since I was travelling to India, Sid insisted I dropped by Mr Sikdar’s residence and paid him a visit. He even bought a shiny Kenneth Cole watch for his teacher and jokingly called it a “delayed but brandedgurudakshina”. I knew the significance of this teacher in shaping the man I adored, so I agreed without further debate.
So on a hot uneventful summer afternoon, I cajoled myself and took a drive down the by-lanes of suburban Kolkata and landed up straight in the blue walled living room of the Sikdar’s.
“Are you also an engineer like him?” Mr Sikdar asked me as he gestured for me to sit on the prized sofa cum bed. He had not even offered me a glass of water as yet! Fearing that my IQ level was at stake and I might be subject to solving brain racking Calculus before my eligibility to sit on the sofa were decided, I sat down quickly and replied “No No, am into literature” then added stupidly enough, “My Math sucks!”
“Er, I mean, I am scared of Math.”
“What are you saying? How can you be scared of Math? What is there to be scared? Only the dumb, dull and lazy are scared of Math,” Mr Sikdar almost roared in front of me.
“Aha…why are you scolding her? She is not your student,” Mrs Sikdar came to my rescue with a glass of red liquid.
I folded my hands in greetings and took the glass from her.
“Rooh Afza…I got it from Moni’sdokaan just yesterday. Dekho to kheye kemon? (See how it tastes!)”.
I smiled gratefully at her and sipped into the over sweetened artificial flavoured drink. But on a hot afternoon, it did not taste as bad as I had feared.
Mr Sikdar seemed put off by my presence. He sat on a stool, a little away measuring me up inch by inch. Perhaps even contemplating how his brightest student could even consider a life with a woman who did not enjoy calculus or trigonometry. I realised I had goofed up by touching the most sensitive passions of his life…mathematics! Not really thrilled about being classified in a category of “dumb, dull and lazy” I dug into my purse and took out the gift that Sid had sent to appease Mr Sikdar.
“What is this?” He still seemed unsure if I could be trusted.
“It’s a small gift Sid has sent you.”
“Sid? Who is that? Oh, Shiddhartho!” he said while opening the wrapper and seemed utterly delighted as he saw the gift. “Baah…please say my thanks to him,” he stood up as he spoke clearly indicating that our conversation ended here.
Sensing that I had little reason to linger on, I got up to leave, when Mrs Sikdar stopped me.
“Oki? Where are you going? Ei bhor dupure na kheye chole jabe naki? Ami bhaat boshiye diyechi. Kheye jeo. (how can you leave in this hot afternoon without having lunch? I have started cooking rice for you. You must eat with us).
I thanked her for her hospitality and looked nervously at Mr Sikdar. She perhaps sensed my discomfort and said, “He’s like that. Doesn’t speak much with anyone. Plus, today, they have the Higher Secondary result coming out. He’s tensed.”
“Oh,” I said and smiled with relief. It wasn’t me. The old teacher was anxious because of the board examination results.
She asked me to call her “mashima” and invited me to her little kitchen. I drew a small pidi (a raised wooden platform) and sat watching her chop potatoes and onions on a traditional bothi and marvelled at the finesse of that art. She asked me what I did in America, if I cooked at home, ifposto was available in Houston and yes, if I could watch Bangla serials on television. There was something so sweetly simple about this middle-aged lady that I fell at ease immediately and even the ordinary meal ofdaal-bhaat and alu posto in a shabby oil stained kitchen tasted utterly divine.
Just as I was about to wash my hands after the meal, I heard a loud commotion outside the house. In few minutes, I saw a swarm of young boys rushing into the room, all talking at once and falling at Mr Sikdar’s feet while he shouted excitedly,“Ki holo? Kemon holo?” (What is it? How is it?).
One of the boys, a shy dark lean one in very simple ordinary clothes came forward from the group and touched his feet. “Sir, I got a rank. Not sure if first or second as of now, but I scored the highest in the district.”
Mr Sikdar hugged him to his bosom and said only one word, “Baah…!”
And I could see all the pride, the affection, the support and the intensity of appreciation encapsulated in that little word.
Then, he picked up the watch Sid had so fondly bought for him and asked the boy to stretch his hands.
On his bare wrist, he clipped the watch and said…”This is your prize.”
As I stood at the kitchen door with Mashima, witnessing the simple selfless act of an old teacher, whose only dedication in life was to shape the lives of others, whilst he continued his own modest living, I realised why Sid had such high regards for his man who never claimed his portion of the victory but nobly passed the baton of glory and success from one hand to another through generations.