“Those schoolgirl days of telling tales and biting nails are gone
But in my mind I know they will still live on and on
But how do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?
It isn’t easy, but I’ll try
If you wanted the sky I would write across the sky in letters
That would soar a thousand feet high ‘To Sir, With Love’
The time has come for closing books and long last looks must end
And as I leave I know that I am leaving my best friend
A friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong
That’s a lot to learn, but what can I give you in return?
If you wanted the moon I would try to make a star
But I would rather you let me give my heart ‘To Sir, With Love’”
I was 14 when I first watched the movie ‘To Sir, with Love’, and I knew I wanted to sing that song when I’d graduate from school – for my Principal Sir, Samir Kumar Bhattacharya. I could never do that because he had to move on to another school just a year before I finished school. The song has stayed with me.
News that Sir had passed away reached me yesterday. I looked at a few social media posts from my teachers and decided to look away. I didn’t have the capability to process it. I went through the day, doing the regular things. There was a constant dull pain that lingered on, but I effectively avoided it. I lacked the strength and the will.
I met Sir only once after I finished school, and he asked me to sing for him. That was our one strong bond – music. It was at his school, Chanderbala Modi Academy (CMA) where they discovered I could sing and put me on stage when I was just a 9 year old, to compete with school seniors, who were Gods for me. A shy child, I used to be terrified – of the stage, of the idea of representing my House, of expectations, and of competing. But it was a major push from him that drove away (to a large extent) my many fears and inhibitions. For the next 5 years that I participated in the singing competitions, I used to only sing for a thumbs-up from him. Although the bright lights used to almost blind me on stage, I would relentlessly seek him out in the front row. He would be listening intently, smiling and nodding. The smile and the acknowledgement however, weren’t enough. I used to aim for his classic thumbs-up. A strong sense of calm would settle upon me the moment I’d spot the sign, all anxiety and nervousness would melt away even when I’d be in the middle of a song. Life used to just get better in an instant with that short validation from him!
I tried to keep in touch for as long as he was active in the virtual world. He was a busy man, and then he got unwell and stayed off the internet. There were however, always photos that would trickle in into my newsfeed, of former students meeting him and telling us how he was the one who shaped our lives. I knew he was around. As the years passed, his advancing age kept showing in the photos. His clothes had changed from the crisp formals that I was used to, to comfortable house clothes. He had also gotten rid of his thick moustache. And at times I noticed how he didn’t wear his glasses in the photos. I heard about diabetes having made his eyesight weak, about him making regular trips to the hospital. I couldn’t fathom the thought of my Principal without a pen, making quick notes in green ink, or without a book. I realized age was catching up. He looked fragile and I couldn’t deal with this reality.
I feel terrible for never visiting him even after I found out about him being unwell. Maybe I never realized that one day I would wake up to know that he was gone. What I have of him is the image of his that I’ve had in my mind since childhood – the dynamic man who had all the knowledge, courage, energy and power, the man who taught us to question, to stand for justice, the man who instilled in me and my fellow CMA folks basic values and principles that have made us decent humans – the man who campaigned along with his students against rising air pollution and child labour back in the 1990s and early 2000s. He taught us to constantly go beyond textbooks and to develop a never-ending desire for knowledge of the world outside. Our school was at Ankleshwar – a small town that was far away from the glamour of the cities. We didn’t have McDonald’s or even a decent movie theatre back then. There were no large-scale science fairs or debating competitions. But we still had it all. We had our science fairs – smaller in scale, but treated with equal importance. We watched movies in our school library on Saturdays. We had a massive community lunch on 2nd October every year, and we had debating competitions where we had to deal with tough questions and scenarios. A man with an excellent taste in the arts, he would take personal interest in the Dance & Music competitions, and the one-act play competitions, which were beyond excellence. Any parent who has ever witnessed one of the cultural events at CMA would agree when I say those performances were nothing short of being pure stellar. Flanked by a talented pool of teachers who understood him and his vision for the school, we had the privilege of spending our childhood in an oasis at a place that was so isolated. He ensured CMA looked beautiful and green – a place we took our guests to, to take photos and to look at the beautiful pieces of art that adorned the premises. Our art teachers made gorgeous clay-sculptures, shola-works and grand wall murals that decorated our school.
He would keep inviting guests to school, to talk to us about anything that made us realize how massive the world is and how we have to keep pace with it, just so that we would never get comfortable in our beautiful little pond. He once invited a US American who was in town for business just to talk to us about how fast cable internet was back at his home. He told us how webpages just ‘pop’ up with a click, when all we knew about the internet back then was the annoying phone line sounds during which one could take short naps!
Sir encouraged us to travel and to realize how diverse and beautiful the world was. To keep us grounded and in touch with the harsh realities of the world around us, he made us raise funds for those affected by the Orissa supercyclone in 1999, he asked us if we would sacrifice our birthday celebrations for the families of the soldiers who were sacrificing their lives at Kargil in 1999, he sent groups of students to rebuild schools in Bhuj when a massive earthquake shook up Gujarat in 2001, and he kept reminding us about the power of communal harmony in 2002. We had a prayer book that he had compiled, that couldn’t possibly get more secular. He tried his best to raise a group of individuals who would be socially aware, empathetic, hungry for knowledge and never complacent. Kindness and compassion for him were as important as being athletic or studious. We even had an award for ‘The Most Compassionate Child of the Year’!
He filled the school with music and art, and encouraged us to be close to nature. There was something for every child. He would play Mozart, Beethoven and Vivaldi during our morning assemblies and asked us to close our eyes and imagine. He would then encourage us to share with the entire school what we saw. Our school had rabbits, fish and turtles. He once called out to me and handed me a turtle. It would have easily weighed over 3 kilograms. I shuddered at the suddenness and to calm me he made me aware of the patterns on the turtle’s shell. He had almost all the answers. Once when he was telling us that every organism that exists on this planet has a purpose and can teach us something, I asked him how could disgusting houseflies be important. He told me they motivate us to keep our surroundings clean. Such a wonderful and simple way to impress a 7 year old!
The little efforts he made probably didn’t seem monumental to us back then. But every little act of his had a lot of thought behind it. He always told us about how necessary it was to dream, to feed our imagination, to constantly tell ourselves that we could do or be anything we wanted to, but more importantly, he told us to never stop at just dreaming. “There’s nothing wrong with building castles in the sky, but never forget to build the ships that’ll take you there”, he reminded us often. There were so many wonderful things he told us during our daily morning assemblies. At times we were receptive, at times, blame it on the restlessness of the young mind, we weren’t. But the lessons, the words and the pearls of wisdom stayed etched somewhere within our minds and hearts that continue to guide and direct our lives.
He never had an assistant outside his office. You only had to knock and you could enter the minute you heard a bell ring. We took to him our concerns, our new poetry, a new song we picked, or just a little Hi. He always had a huge jar filled with coins from far away countries, and he would usually give one away to students when they’d visit him. A reminder of the countries that were to be visited, or maybe an effort to introduce students to a hobby.
He was a man of principles. When I was in the 5th grade and participating in the duet-song competition for the first time, he wrote for me a short call-for-action to memorize and speak on stage, to urge the audience to donate toward the Orissa Cyclone relief fund. The call-for-action was supposed to be made at the beginning of the cultural program, but he later changed his mind and asked me to do it at the end. He smiled and said to me that a tiny 9-year old making a humanitarian appeal might influence the judges of the music competition and their judgment might get biased. I doubt I’d have understood that reasoning back then, but it somehow stayed with me. I only remember being terrified and messing up majorly every time I attempted at practicing the appeal in front of him. He patted my head and told me I’d do well. And like magic, I did.
In 2006 when he had to leave the school he had built from scratch, nurtured and saw prosper, we were all shocked and heartbroken. We wrote persuasive letters asking him to not leave, predicting the fall of CMA the day he’d take a step outside, we went to his office and cried, begging him to stay because somewhere even in our inexperienced and innocent minds we knew that this school was a one-man show. We knew the strong pillars of values, knowledge and strength would crumble in his absence. Being witness to the beginning of the transformation of a CMA without Samir Kumar Bhattacharya, I take the liberty to say that the pillars did begin to crumble. Whatever little remains of the CMA that I knew and grew up in, is because of the handful of teachers who started their journey at CMA right at the beginning with SKB.
Years later in 2012, when I was going to Germany for my Masters, I wrote to him, thanking him for the kind of education and platform he had provided us with, for the experiences and the exposure we received at a school in the middle of nowhere. Despite growing up in Ankleshwar, I had never felt inadequate or unprepared when I went to Delhi, Mumbai or even to Europe for my higher studies. I told him about how I was travelling in Europe, living one of my biggest dreams, and how I owed so much to him. He sent me a reply within just a few hours. I have contemplated enough over whether I’d want to share it here, and decided that I want to, because it is so warm and so characteristic of the SKB we all knew:
“Wow Arundhati my darling girl. I am so proud of you. Yes, I tried my best to give you all our best. What you children perhaps didn’t know at that time is that I had to keep my head up above the surface of innumerable happenings and ensure you all didn’t get drowned in the deluge of happenings all around us. My methods were very simple – love them all and give them a platform to stand tall over others so that when your time came you would not be wanting in any manner. I was very choosy about selecting the staff and very sensitive about the demands of my students in terms of values, principles and quality. This I guess created many products like you and so many others. Thank you for your lovely message oozing with love. God bless you my darling child. Do keep me posted with all your small and big achievements. God bless you. SKB”
He was our first celebrity. During lunch breaks he used to make rounds of the school, meeting students and taking keen interest in their lunch. Children flocked around him with their lunch boxes, just so that he would taste their mothers’ cooking and smile with a twinkle in his eyes. When I became school prefect, I was assigned the corridor outside his office. He’d take equal interest in chicken fried rice as he would in eggplant curry! Basically, he was Albus Dumbledore for me.
Of course he had his flaws, there were times when he would do something extremely unpredictable, when he got selfish, and there were instances where one would feel disenchanted. But one must remember that he was operating in an environment that had more limitations than possibilities. And he was after all, only human. Of course, a very demanding one at that! I can only imagine the kind of massive expectations and charged up work environment my teachers would have had! But few have ever been vindictive. Wherever he saw talent and potential, he only desperately wanted to nurture and feed it. It was this ultimate desire for achieving excellence that overwhelmed the ones who worked with him.
For me and for many other students before me, CMA was all about SKB. But SKB was never just limited to the walls of CMA. His legend lives on, spread across the world within the many many students who have had the fortune to have him as a role-model during their formative years.
I thought writing about him would eventually make me realize about the loss. I began with tears in my eyes, but I found myself to be smiling and be resilient as I progressed with writing this. I just ended up reminding myself about the way I was brought up. I guess a great teacher never goes away.
Dear Sir, you’re right here.