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Tagore’s Shah Jahan and Essay on Gandhi

And the time was just before our Half-Yearly (Mid-Term) Exams. Thus, we were busy with exam preparation rather than participating in Birthday festivities.
Shah Jahan Taj Mahal post card
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I have a very pleasant memory about Tagore‘s poem titled ‘Shah Jahan’.

It was the Year 1969. The whole country was celebrating Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), the Congress Leader, freedom fighter and the Father of the Nation’s Birth Centennial. I was then in Class (Grade) IX. 

And the time was just before our Half-Yearly (mid-term) exams. Thus, we were busy with exam preparation rather than participating in Birthday festivities. My elder sister, Rabina who was as eloquent and informative as  Akashbani Kolkata (All India Radio, Calcutta), would spend more time in gathering useful information about exams, rather than studying for it. One day she returned home excited with top-secret information that there was an ‘executive order’ to have Mahatma Gandhi in ‘every’ essay questions of Bengali and English papers in our High School.  Baba (my father) was a local leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI). Thus, in my own convoluted logic, this ‘forceful indoctrination’ of Mahatma on students, made sense to me. Our revered Headmaster Bijoy Krishna Das was the local congress party leader. Anyway, for us the students it just meant there was no need to memorize 5/10 possible essays, just one would do.

Bankim Bihari Manna taught Bengali in classes IX and XI. Although a science student, I was pretty good in Bengali, which meant I almost perfected the techniques to get good grades. And for some reason, Bankimbabu (Sir) liked me a lot. Just before the exam a senior from class XI approached me with lecture notes of Bankimbabu on Gandhi. Then he showed me some stolen goods on Gandhi, also written by BankimBabu. He couldn’t follow anything and wanted my help with the promise that he would share the stolen goods with me. As it happens with drugs, the stolen notes were much more potent than actual class notes.

I was never an original writer but having read a major part of the popular Bengali Literature (though mostly novels and short stories) I was able to follow most writings. I was completely mesmerized by Bankimbabu’s composition of Gandhi: Around 40% of it was quotes just from this particular poem Shah Jahan’ by Rabindranath Tagore, and that time I had no idea of who wrote it.  I was completely taken by the rhythm and sheer power of the language. And the rest around 60% in prose was equally mind boggling. That part was penned by Bankimbabu but read more like a writing of the famous Bengali novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhaya, of ‘Durgeshnandini’ fame.

After a lot of struggle, I was able to decipher Bankimbabu’s Gandhi Essay. It was more like a critique of Gandhi. Bankimbabu compared Gandhi to the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of Taj Mahal, a showcase. Anyway,  I was able to provide the Class XI student with a watered down version of the notes (Lecture + Stolen) with instructions on how to memorize. He was so happy; he told me to keep all the notes. Thus, I didn’t have to make copies of anything.

Just before the exam a senior from class XI approached me with lecture notes of Bankimbabu on Gandhi. Then he showed me some stolen goods on Gandhi, also written by BankimBabu.

That was the rainy season. I would be listening to the rain cascading down our corrugated tin-roof like numerous narrow streams, swinging on our veranda-hammock (called dolij dolna in our rural dialect) and memorizing the quotations – the whole exercise just mesmerized me! As for the Bengali Exam I just memorized a Gandhi essay from a notable textbook plus a few more as backup – because I was not so sure about the authenticity of my sister Rabina’s top-secret information.

Lo & behold! The Gandhi essay was in our Bengali exam questions*! The 3-hour paper was an easy one. The Gandhi essay part had 20 credits. In less than 2 hours I finished the rest 80 credits. I had more than an hour for Gandhi. And I took a great risk in not using the already-memorized-essay and decided to compose my own masterpiece. This was the first time in my life to compose anything close to original. My exam seat was next to the window and it was raining heavily. Rainwater was cascading down from the outer edges of the window and then flowing into the nearby paddy fields. Prose flowed spontaneously in my head to fill-up the spaces between quotes from Shah Jahan used by Bankimbabu. I was so absorbed in writing that I lost track of the time. Suddenly the final bell rang, and an invigilator came to snatch my paper. However, I vividly remember adding at the end of my essay, addressing Gandhi:

“তোমার কীর্তির চেয়ে তুমি যে মহৎ ,
তাই তব জীবনের রথ
পশ্চাতে ফেলিয়া যায় কীর্তিরে তোমার

“You are greater than your achievements.
The chariot of your life
Leaves your achievements behind, time after time.”

(‘Balaka’, Rabindranath Tagore)

Epilogue 1: After the exam was followed by the Durga Puja holidays. I was passing by our School navigating a huge Puja crowd. Suddenly, I heard Bankimbabu was calling me. His school-boarding-room was just about 5-yards from the road. Such a call could be traumatic for any student.  Bankimbabu had a reputation of being ‘nasty’ to not-so-good-students (according to his definition) and acerbic, particularly to senior girls. I had seen how ‘badly’ he treated one of my own elder brothers, Amal Kumar Bera. Anyway, he took me to his room and asked me to sit down on his bed which was strewn with exam papers from many classes. 

He went straight to the crux of the matter: “How did you get hold of my notes?” I politely responded, “You gave it to Class XI students, and one of….” He stopped me and pulled out my paper…..started checking thoroughly. I think he wanted to find out something from the ‘stolen goods.’ Of course, there was none.  But he won’t give up. “Then what about the quotes? Did you cheat in the Exam hall?”  Then and there, I recited some parts of the poem I’d quoted. At last he was impressed. He told me, “You will get the highest score in the essay-part, all classes combined.”  After the Puja holidays, classes resumed and we got our exam papers back . Bankimbabu awarded me with a 19 out of 20!

Epilogue 2: You won’t believe, after more than a half a century, I concluded a co-authored essay on Dr. C. R. Rao (1920 –  ) for his Centennial Celebration. That essay, “Glimpses from the Life and Work of Dr. C.R. Rao: A Living Legend in Statistics,” is loved by many, and has already appeared (re-printed) in three publications.

*Rabina’s information about the ‘executive’ order to put Gandhi in all Exams was not implemented fully. For instance, Gandhi didn’t feature in our English (test) taught by Panchanan Maity Babu. Nor did he appear in both English & Bengali tests in Class X, of which another elder sister Lakshmi was a student. What bad luck she and her classmates had! Now I very much doubt there was such an ‘executive’ order from our Headmaster Bijoy Krishna Das. He was a perfect gentleman and kept politics aside while at school.

Disclaimer: I narrated the above purely from more than half a century old memory. It is quite possible that I have not recollected everything perfectly. My sincere apologies for that.

Anil K Bera is an internationally renowned econometrician. He is Professor of Economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign’s Department of Economics. He is most noted for his work with Carlos Jarque on the Jarque–Bera test. Anil Bera was born in remote village in West Midnapore and attended college at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata and received his Ph.D. in Econometrics from the Australian National University. His sense of humour and wit makes him a cynosure of all parties.

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