One doesn’t need the ritual of Teachers’ Day to recall some of the happiest memories of childhood. Yet when classes begin on Monday –often a depressing prospect after the weekend – there will be students who will not forget to greet their teachers because 5 September is an inspiring reminder of the birthday of Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan who left an academic legacy that has survived all the tensions that have erupted again and again. It was largely on account of that legacy that teachers have commanded respect even during the worst years of student protest in Kolkata. While memories of a vice-chancellor being hounded out of office and being compelled to function from home are still painful, there are unforgettable images of Tarak Sen and P Lal becoming role models for students in the institutions where they taught. There could be many reasons why it is not so easy to find such role models. But that has not prevented students from greeting their teachers through their mobiles or, at best, personally handing over a card to thank them for a kind gesture.
Sentimental exchanges between teachers and students acquired varied dimensions long before rituals were invented. Some of the exchanges have been immortalised in films. Can anyone forget the scene in Aparajito where the young Apu who has impressed the school inspector with a recitation of poem is encouraged by his teacher and school principal to keep reading books on science, history and the lives of great men. It is anyone&’s guess whether the literary skills he acquired as he grew were inspired by those early lessons. In an altogether different setting much later in the turbulent setting of Kolkata, one finds a young man caught by his teacher committing a ghastly act of crime and warning him with those fearsome words that rang out from the screen to the streets of Kolkata: “Mastermashai apni kintu kichhu dekhen ni” (Sir, you have not seen anything). But in the same film, Atanka, there is a police commissioner who recognises his old teacher still giving private tuition to a lad on the day he is mercilessly beaten up by young goons. Teacher student experiences have not always hit the low that we have witnessed both in films and in real life. A senior colleague cherishes a photograph of himself as a kid taken by an Anglo-Indian teacher who was extremely fond of him a few days before he left Kolkata to settle in England. There were other teachers who played table tennis and football with the boys, exceptionally jovial on the field and in the games room but unwilling to make any concessions in the classroom. It was a different story with the old private tutor who turned up in the evening to teach (and generally look after) the children in bhadralok households who needed all the help they could get to finish their homework. The master mashai obliged because, after some time, he would virtually become part of the family. There are engaging pictures of teacher and taught and of the guru-sishya tradition that cannot be reconciled with the campus outbursts of later years. The silver lining is that some schools and colleges in Kolkata will observe Teachers’Day as if to emphasise that the old values have survived in the mind if not always on the ground.