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26 November 2007

The Joy Of The Precocious

{Excerpted from my autobiography}

An immense hunger for knowledge that about a dozen of us had ensured that we kept ourselves abreast with the latest that was happening around the world not in the fields that comprise matters of general knowledge interest, but ones that the students learn reluctantly.

We found mistakes in the suggested academic curricula. We suggested improvement in teaching techniques. In the third quarterly issue of the school magazine, Panorama HCS, for which I was entrusted the task of editing, I brought in features – like interviews and debates – that were hitherto inconceivable for school-goers. As teachers from Kerala were slowly replacing the European ones, we feared our perfect Surrey accent would go for a toss. When the brown mem-sahibs came to know of our consulting the ex-English teachers at their homes, a sense of inferiority got the better of them.

The school library was a favourite spot for unwinding. Curiously, our relaxation too was fuelled by exploration of the unknown. I spent hours learning techniques of derivation in mathematical formula-making and soon stopped learning new formulae completely. It did take me a minute or two more to solve sums, as compared to those who knew the applicable equations by rote. I was nevertheless ready to pay that price for the sheer joy of discovery I got from derivations.

I can now recollect two particular incidents of Standards VII and XI where I had put the teacher in a soup. In the first case, a sum gave us the annual income of a person and asked us to find how much he earned per week. I was the only person to get it right though mine was the only one to be marked wrong. Many divided the amount by 52; some, first by 12 and then by 4, or straightaway by 48. Those who followed the first method scored full. The second got 3/4th of the allotted score. I didn't even get a zero. In its place was rather a poignant remark: "You think too much!" I had first divided the amount by 52 and 1/7. Then I went on to provide a second solution in case the year concerned was a leap year. In the second solution, the divisor was 52 and 2/7. (52 weeks means 364 days. In non-leap-years, the 365th day was considered 1/7th of a week. Hence, two extra days of a leap year made 2/7th of a week. Therefore, the divisors had to be 52 & 1/7 and 52 & 2/7 respectively).

I was surer than what The Bible is in saying that Adam and Eve were the first humans on earth, that my method was perfect. That evening I complained of the matter to father.

Baba was the most doting father on earth. To him, I couldn't ever go wrong. If I did, he would look the other way (Ma was a contrast. She persecuted me even when I was right). This time, I was right too. Baba didn't heed to Ma's advice that it didn't look proper carrying the child's complaint to the teacher. That month he strictly issued a dictum to Ma barring her to attend the Parent-Teacher Consultation Day. He went instead.

Ms Celina, the maths teacher, must have never had such a harrowing debate on maths with a parent. I blushed out of embarrassment as Baba asked her about the fastest ways of reaching answers in things as banal as ordinary multiplication. Though such things are wrongly left out of syllabus in Indian schools, the teacher should have known the techniques. Unable to keep pace with Baba's Vedic mathematics, poor Ms Celina broke down. That was enough for Baba to understand he had crossed the limits of propriety. As such, putting the teacher to shame was never my intention. I just wanted her to give me the score I deserved; the new total would give me my lost first position back. Anyway, we both apologised and I never got those 'marks' that were rightfully mine.

The other incident relates to the concept of angular velocity. This was in Standard XI. As the physics teacher noted that the formula was as simple as linear velocity divided by the radius of revolution, I asked why she ignored that the thing revolving was on earth, which too was revolving. The answer was simple. The dynamics of a macro system never affects its infinitesimal fraction. In case of the earth, since the planet rotated and revolved along with its atmosphere, therefore within the setup, there was no relativity. And I am sure the teacher had the answer. But my rising from the seat would invariably cause her nervous breakdown. She stammered and fumbled for a while and finally yelled, "You need not exhibit your extra intellect during the regular class hours!"

One day in Standard IX, Surendra Kumar Akela and Chandravikas Srivastav fought for the entire duration of the lesson with the teacher of Hindi on the pronunciation of 'committee'. Ms Sushma Srivastav, the teacher, had pronounced the word as 'Cuh-May-Tea' as north Indians do. But she did not get bogged down. Instead, that turned out a very interesting lesson on how and why English words' phones change in different places around the world.

Kishun Prasad was not satisfied with the explanation that blue was blue as the object concerned absorbed rays of all other wavelengths but reflected the blue. He would ask why the object was so partial to the given colour!

But far more than queries of academic interest, it was our unique brand of politics that threatened the school authority.

It is generally seen in major political movements that a mass uprising results in the fall of a regime. That mass movement, in turn, is facilitated by the growing of unity among the general class of people. And as and when such a phenomenon takes place, the ruling class gets jittery of the outfall. We, the students, had no such intention of toppling any authority.

What triggered a sudden unity amongst the students of Standard VIII were some lessons in our Hindi textbooks that caused an upsurge of values like nationalism and friendship. Suddenly nobody was complaining either to parents or to teachers about the misconduct of a classmate. Suddenly there was a self-styled governing body of ours that decided on rights and wrongs of each one of us. Parental guidance and tutorial guardianship became redundant. The parameters were not only iconoclastic, but also absolutely radical. So far so good. The problem started when we widened the purview of jurisdiction and started judging everything from what our parents cajoled us to do, to what the school management dictated.

It should be a pleasure seeing your children imbibe high morals. But the fact is that the teachers and parents are mere mortals. They have their own share of faux pas and blunders. More bluntly speaking, they do not adhere to the norms that they impose upon the children; and they will never like the children pointing that out to them.

And that is exactly what we did. I spearheaded that movement and thus was the foremost to enrol myself in the bad books of guardians. The line of demarcation between motions of unity and movements of politics could not be seen or appreciated by the elderly. They thought we would soon get affiliated to political parties and start a union in school. But we were very clear on that account. We hated politicians from their very looks. Our fight was for the betterment of students and hence there were no separate inter-class or inter-school lobbies indulging in squabbles. All students were ONE.

What took the happiness out of teachers was the election of the school council of 1986. Prahlad Rao Chetty, a classmate was shoved by the physical trainer for being a bit outside the queue to the polling booth. Five classes – that made about 12 sections with 30 students in each – boycotted the election in protest. The electoral event turned into a damp squib.

The obsession of Indian elders for keeping children under control put us in the bad books of both the teachers and parents. I topped the blacklist for my straightforwardness. It was not that we hid our misdemeanours. In fact, as and when any of us was at fault, we would meet outside the classroom, discuss and reach a judgement that the given student was wrong in whatever he had done; and he was forced to confess, apologise and voluntarily ask for punishment. But this couldn't satisfy the school authority. They wanted to keep the judge's chair to themselves. Self-discipline did not suffice.

Holy Cross was a rare school that not only inspired students to participate in activities other than the regular academic curricula, specialists were appointed to turn the students into pros. From the music teacher to the physical trainer, every recruit was far more expert in her respective field than average schoolteachers are.

We were also given another rare education: Marketing. Whenever certain commodities were needed for the school, we were exhorted to organise events to raise the requisite funds.

In 1982, Bokaro saw load shedding for hours on end. A massive generator was needed to keep the classes going in our four-storey 'A'-shaped building that had sections A – D each in KG I, KG II, Std I, … Std VIII; one class each from Std IX to Std XII; besides laboratories, sports and other accessories' rooms. We decided to hold an exhibition to sell the handicrafts we made that year and included many interesting games for the general public at our playground. The proceeds from the event far exceeded the amount needed to buy the generator. The balance was spent on equipping the stage of our auditorium with seven microphones, a good addition to the three we had earlier. That in turn enabled us to deliver dialogues even in whispers when the scene so demanded during plays; and what was supposed to be drama virtually became as natural as cinema during the cultural extravaganzas.

Such added education and calibre that we developed gradually made us known in the entire city. While walking on the streets, we could hear onlookers whisper our names with admiration. Every year our identity changed. We were Napoleon, Nelson and Bishop in the years that English plays were staged. We were freedom fighters and even terrorists in the years of enactment of Hindi plays.

Then there were students who had the enviable record of standing first in successive years' class-graduation examinations. I had a strange record in this regard. I stood first and faired miserably according to my whims and will. One fine morning, I might find history fabulous and spend a month learning more about Adolf Hitler than what his mother knew about him. Another month a buoyancy of appreciation for Archimedes could float my fortunes in physics. A third month I would put a Euclidean notice on the bulletin of our classroom: "He who does not understand Geometry need not enter!" A fourth month I would just not care and somehow manage to pass in the exam. Studies since Standard VIII has been a child's play for me. That had two pitfalls: One, I often lost interest and hence, my academic record was not consistent. Two, I could not finish my entire formal education before I completed my 25 th year on earth. Depending on the quality of teachers, tutorial tools and course materials available, studies were either too interesting or outright monotonous. In the second case, I would invariably refuse to turn a page for months and think that was that. No more studies.

Back to the school-life between Standards VIII and XII.

In due course, many of us acquired larger-than-life stature in the society we lived in. I cannot deny an element of vanity that crept into our psyche at such adoration. We forgot our age and thought there wasn't anything left to be seen in life; and that we knew as much as the elders and could draft our destinies thereon.

On the positive side, we heard teachers lamenting the fact that ours, the senior-most batch and the most promising one at that, was soon going to leave the school and migrate to other states for higher education. On the negative, we heard, "Who the hell they think they are!"

This gradual ascension to being the prime bête noire was to my peril when eventually in December 1988, I had to be judged on a controversial issue. A docile chap in my place would have got a far more lenient reappraisal.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.