The calling bell tinkled twice in quick succession. Tapobrata heard it but couldn’t open the door as he was having a bath. Soumili was at the bus stop to receive their four-year old from school.
“Coming”, he shouted even as he was trying to finish towelling himself dry. He had a feeling that the chime this time seemed to be somewhat discordant and premonitory.
He pushed open the door and saw the postman. He felt the sun was at its blazing best outside.
“Well. . .”
“A registered letter for you, sir,” said the postman looking spruce and dapper. Tapobrata signed and received it. As soon as the guy left, he tore open the letter, his hair whipping across his forehead, and read the contents, put succinctly in just three sentences,
Dear Mr Tapobrata Laha,
It is a matter of grave concern that you have been systematically inciting students to disobedience and violence against the school management to gain cheap popularity during your probationary period. We are, therefore, under the painful necessity of informing you that you have been suspended from duty for a period of six months with effect from 25 June — the day of re-opening of our school after summer recess, until our Discipline Committee headed by the Mathematics teacher probes the charges against you and submits its report.
Headmaster & Secretary
Swarnakamal Boys’ High School
Nabapalli, West Bengal
Tapobrata’s jaw dropped despite his attempt to hide the sad smile that stretched across his parched lips. A trickle of stuttering feebleness ran all over his body that he’d never experienced before. Over the last few months he’d been anticipating some drastic step against him but he could never, in his wildest dreams, have imagined that he’d face the axe so soon.
“Am I losing my peace of mind at the scent of a crisis?” he wondered gliding his fingers through his hair.
The feeling was unnerving. It, however, didn’t last long as a quiet determination began to disperse the clouds of confusion from his mind.
Soumili returned with their daughter still prattling on about something, which was not intelligible to her mother. A pale-skinned woman of about 30, she was perspiring profusely. It astonished her to see that her husband was sitting straight before his computer table, the right side of his face placed lithely on his right palm with the elbow on the edge of the table, his eyes closed.
She grabbed a plastic chair and sat beside him after engaging her daughter with the newly-purchased toys.
“What’s that? Any show cause notice?” She knew her husband’s relationship with the headmaster of his school had reached a dead -end.
He raised his head, his eyes opened while his face creased into a wry smile.
“You’ve guessed almost right. It’s a suspension letter.”
“Suspension? On what grounds?” She appeared stunned at the revelation.
“On a flimsy and cooked up charge.”
“What will you do now?”
“I’ll sweat it out for a couple of hours.”
“Don’t be silly. Can’t you be serious?”
“Well, I’m as serious as an owl. Why worry? I’d give tuitions.” His voice was as cool as that of a yoga guru.
Soumili was aware of the streak of stubborn tenaciousness in her husband’s character. The one thing that peeved her most was that he abhorred making compromises. She entered the kitchen disturbed and began preparing chicken for lunch.
Finding that Soumili was gone, Tapobrata began to ponder his next move. He rummaged through his stacks of newspapers and picked out the Sunday and Wednesday editions of two English dailies of the previous week and began to look for the appointment/ job advert pages. Just as he put them back in place, the joy of his life wrapped her tiny and milky white arms round his body. He planted a kiss on the cheeks of her daughter.
“Baba, Ma’s calling.”
“Lunch is ready.”
Tapobrata’s joining the school was a quiet and low-key affair. Most teachers ignored him, as though, like Sanskrit, the subject of his specialisation, he too was redundant and obsolete. He remained the butt of their jokes for some time.
“Look, there sits a Michael Jackson. What stylish jeans and shirts! Will he deliver pop music lessons?” Mr Sambit Nath, a mathematics teacher, nudged the geography teacher, Mr Prabir Sarkar sitting beside him and whispered.
“But doesn’t he look so smart, handsome and personable?”
“Just wait for some time; we’ll come to know about his real worth.”
At first, he was allotted classes in Bengali and that too for junior sections. It did, however, make a refreshing change for learners to be taught by a person so handsome with an ever-smiling face.
The kids had been accustomed to seeing raised eyebrows, cold hard eyes, scowls, grimaces and sneers. For fun they counted how often a teacher got angry, how often they entered their classes late and left early and how often they yawned. But here was a teacher who, even for once, didn’t get irritated, who never lectured but talked to them like their elders talked at home.
“What a master story teller! How infinite is the reserve of tales in his bag!” His voice was music to their ears. His use of simple, plain words and his humorous anecdotes enraptured them. The classrooms became lively with the kids doing most of the talking. Even the backbenchers and bunkers opened their mouths as much as those who occupied the front benches. Never before did they take part in spelling bees, role playing, reciting poems, acquiring grammatical skills through quizzes and even singing songs. And Bengali became the most interesting subject to the learners.
Mr Nath and the likes of him complained to the headmaster that he’d turned his classes into cultural clubs. “What an audacity! A teacher sings in a class!”
Mr Arup Nandi, the English teacher, exclaimed, “A Pied Piper of sorts!” He laughed at his own humour, which was incomprehensible to other teachers.
When the headmaster called him to his office and sought an explanation, he said his colleagues were right!
“I advise the children against showing disrespect to the national anthem or the school’s prayer song by singing them wrongly. So I sing them myself.”
The headmaster found nothing wrong about it. One day he himself eavesdropped from a corner near a classroom. He’d to admit with a grudging admiration that even when he read prose pieces, the rich musical quality of his voice rang in the corridor.
Sometime after, when he was on his routine round, he heard Tapobrata singing Tagore’s Aguner Parash mani.
“My God, what a deep sonorous voice!” He stood there with his mouth agape when the whole class was singing it in chorus.
“Sir, we’ll choose it as an opening song for our annual function, right?” a student suggested.
“No problem, my boy.”
Soon Tapobrata became the most sought after teacher so much so that students of upper classes began to demand that he be allotted some classes with them too. And the headmaster reluctantly succumbed to the pressure to the dismay of teachers teaching these classes.
Tapobrata liked to play football with students for at least half an hour before commuting back to Nabadwip, his ancestral home. The games teacher who seldom spent time with the students after school hours complained that the new teachers was infringing on his authority. An amused Mr Nandi, mumbled, “What a dog-in-the-manger-policy!”
In the first terminal examination, most students of the sections allotted to him showed dramatic improvement in their Bengali paper.
“What a nuisance! Children are doing well in Bengali at the expense of our subjects. What will they gain from it in the long run?” carped the math and science teachers.
Tapobrata had planned a one-day educational excursion to Murshidabad. When everything was finalised, he told the students to seek the headmaster’s permission. An irate Mr Bhaduri called him to his office and said,”How can you organise this tour without my prior permission? Every year the math teacher and the games teacher organise a picnic tour but our students enjoy it very much. Let them do it for this year as well.”
“As you wish, sir.”
On the day of picnic not a single student turned up. The headmaster was furious and held Tapobrata responsible for this loss of face. The math teacher and the games teacher too thought that he’d a hand in this and cooled their heels to strike back and jeopardise his position. To add to their disgust, a few guardians came and had a heated conversation with the headmaster for his refusal to okay the excursion plan.
The headmaster thought that Tapobrata was not only inciting the students but their parents as well.
“It’s high time his wings were clipped. He may one day challenge my authority with the kind of popularity he’s got.”
The school reopened but the only living creatures that crawled their way forward through the main gate were some stray canines. No kids were seen in the vicinity, no noise inside and outside. From a distance the compound wore the look of a deserted place. “Have the students forgotten the re-opening date?” the teachers wondered on their arrival.
It was then that they heard of the news of Tapobrata’s suspension, and it stunned them. “How can a teacher, hero-worshipped by a whole lot of students, be slapped with a suspension order?” a few whispered. “But how did the students get wind of his suspension order when we’ve had no inkling about it?”
A week passed but no student appeared. The headmaster, red-faced over the development, called a meeting of the school management on the eighth day and found himself pilloried by guardian representatives. “How could you take a decision unilaterally on such a crucial issue? Rescind the suspension order and bring Tapobrata Sir back,” they thundered.
While the meeting was still on, a gusty August wind suddenly began to blow. It was followed by torrential rains, flashes of lightning and simultaneous crashes of thunder.
“May I come in, sirs?” the frenzied voice of the office peon was heard outside.
“Yes, come in. What’s the matter, Madhusudan?”
He entered, evidently panting.
“Sir, some five boys have sneaked into the roof using the rain water pipe. They’re thoroughly drenched. They seem to have a demand. Please listen to them yourselves.” His agonised appeal sent a tremor of fear coursing through them.
They rushed outside and braving the hostile weather, gathered in a spot from where they could see the boys. But no sooner did the headmaster look up, his face turned wan and sallow. His son Bishnu was there! It now dawned on him why Bishnu seemed to have been sulking in silence for the last few days
“What do you want, my boys?” one of the members shouted.
“Bring Tapobrata Sir back or see how we jump to the ground to embrace death. Give us a written assurance that you’d do it. Right now!”
“Don’t do it, Bishnu, please. We will bring him back,” they said.