I don’t know whether you will read my answer script until the end because you have seen that I haven’t answered even one question; only written this letter to you from the beginning to the end. You might frown after reading a few lines, mark it with a zero, and then send a report to the university against my name for writing nonsense. I am not worried whether you mark me with a zero or send a report. Maybe you might even have the patience to read the entire letter and it is with this hope that I am addressing this to you.
I could have answered one or two of the questions but let alone getting pass marks, I would not even reach the twenties. So I won’t attempt to do that. Moreover, after this evening I will be beyond passing or failing. I will complete my last account under the wheels of any one of the innumerable trains that run in the suburbs of Kolkata. By the time you check my answer script, the brief and stale news of the death of an unidentified young man will be erased from your memory.
Your teacher’s conscience will be jolted here. You will say, “Shame! Shame! Committing suicide for not passing his exams! What greater dastardly cowardice can be imagined? If the young people of the country don’t have this bit of moral strength, then where will the Bengalis stand—what will happen to the future of this race?”
Believe me sir, I know all these things. Also believe me, I too, wanted to live. I thought that at the touch of my hand the crazy and turbulent hilly river of the Santhal Parganas would come and stand still in the huge catchment area; as soon as I pressed a switch the best industrial belt in Bihar and West Bengal would be brightly lit up by thousands of hydro-electric lights; in the reddish glow of the blast furnace I would pour molten iron and lay the foundation of the India of the future. Sir, I did not want to commit suicide.
The boys around me are writing their answers as fast as possible and many among them are still dreaming like me. After a few days many of them will find their names in the cross list and their dreams will be shattered. But even among them some will be successful in life—they will hold the torch of hope for the future of India. They are lucky; let them move forward. The innumerable ones like me who will be lost, or the ones who will keep on living without a life worth living, their names will not be recorded in any success story involving five-year plans. I do not know you, have never seen you, and will never see you, but I know you are a professor. You stay close to students, the waves of their lives touch you, perhaps you even love them. So whether or not you read it until the end, who else can I convey my thoughts to, except you?
Sir, when I started dreaming, I forgot that I was a farmer’s son living in a remote village of Medinipore. But even though my father was a farmer, his love for the country was in no way less than the leaders who shone in Delhi. I was born in September 1942 in a jungle in the middle of the night. This was because the military was torching our village and my father, clinging to the national flag with his bullet-ridden body, had fallen down in a paddy field.
My father wished that if a son was born, he would name him Swadhinkumar. On that terrible night of fire and arson I was born under the independent sky, with the blessings my bleeding father bestowed upon me. This was because, in spite of the military’s torture, not a single person from our country gave in to the military that day.
But Sir, let me stop repeating history. If you have read until now, then you will surely lose your patience. Why would you bother to listen to the history of my family? Besides, I will not get more than three hours before they come and snatch the answer script from me. So let me narrate things briefly.
Being a farmer’s son, I could have somehow managed to eke out a living by farming, or if there was a famine, I would have died like many others who either died of starvation or by committing suicide. But it was my bad luck that my uncle got me admitted to the school in our village. I don’t know whether you will believe it or not, but I also managed to win a scholarship.
Sir, that scholarship is what led to my destruction. I started to dream. My mother drew me to her chest and flooded me with tears. For the first time I saw my mother shed tears for my father. Afterward, with hope in my eyes, I went with my uncle to get admitted at the high school in town which was about eight miles away.
There was no money to stay at a hostel. I sought shelter in the house of the Samantas who were paddy and rice merchants. The Samantas were distantly related to us but they did not admit to being related to poor farmers. The main relationship was between the landowner and the tiller, the moneylender and the loaner. My uncle begged and entreated them to let me stay there. I got admitted to a high school and even managed to bag a free studentship.
Sir, goddess Lakshmi had blessed the Samanta household with two lorries and three houses. But those who do business do not waste a single paisa. They donate five hundred rupees and ultimately manage to amass twenty five thousand. They let me stay and provided me with food but they would recover these costs.
From this answer script you can gauge that my handwriting is not bad; to add to that I had a head for math and had secured hundred out of hundred in the math exam in minor school. They did not lose the opportunity to have me work for them. At first they would make me write letters; next they made me write ledgers, and later even made me do calculations. This became my routine duty for two hours every morning.
I would get the opportunity to study only after eight o’clock at night. But even with that, was there any scope to study properly?
I lived in a small room next to the godown along with one of their clerks. The clerk was past forty. He appeared dry and skinny, with two strange, huge, and bright eyes. As soon as I sat down to study he would light his hookah and begin smoking.
How old was I then? Not more than twelve. As he smoked, his eyes would brighten up further and in a horrible coarse voice he would tell me stories, the meaning of which I didn’t understand then, but figured out much later. They were crude, immoral affairs—narrating how he had spoilt and violated the modesty of different women in different ways. I could not understand the merits or demerits of those incidents but I felt very disgusted.
“Please keep quiet, let me study a little.”
“Oh, come on, stop it! A farmer’s son trying to be Vidyasagar—eh! Instead of that just pick up the hookah—learn how to smoke instead.”
If the clerk had been tired and ready to sleep then the lantern would be extinguished. The little amount of kerosene that was permitted from the Samanta household would not allow any light beyond nine o’clock. The little bit of money that I earned from my scholarship would all be spent on many minor items and there was nothing left to buy kerosene with.
Nevertheless, I managed to stand first or second up to the eighth standard. Afterwards, there arose the problem of procuring books. I saw that buying books for the school final exam would cost about seventy to eighty rupees. My uncle sent me some money by selling the paddy kept for our household consumption, the Samantas donated ten rupees, and the headmaster was generous enough to give me three school copies. And yet, even half of the required books could not be procured.
And that ten rupees loan from the Samantas had to be repaid by writing ledger after ledger.
Sir, after winning the scholarship I thought that I did not belong to that group of ordinary students. I had strength and aided with that belief, I, Swadhinkumar, would stand independently on my own feet. The India for which my father had shed his blood, that same India would provide me with an opportunity for real work. But neither could I study properly, nor could I sit for my exams. After the results were declared, I found that I had passed in the third division.
Everyone, including the headmaster, started to look down upon me. The boy from the Samanta household who had failed thrice in his BA exams, the one who spent his time with a rifle on his shoulders killing wild birds along the banks of the Haldi river, said that it was my luck that I had passed the exams. So many brilliant boys flunk in the school final exams.
For two days I hid myself in the room. I didn’t even get up to eat. I felt my mother’s tears fall on my forehead. “Get up son. If you concentrate on your studies once again, you will succeed in life. There are so many unfortunate children like you who could not pass their exams at one go—think about them.”
Sir, I became resolute once again. I went to Kolkata. I got a letter of recommendation from the Samantas, and the Sarkars were their relatives and they had a tobacco business at Burrabazar. I found shelter there.
The work was the same. I would have to help them in their shop and if necessary, would have to run errands. Even then I thought Kolkata was, after all, “Kolkata”. What a life it was—so much opportunity everywhere. There were famous colleges with renowned professors and if I could just get admitted to one of them, then a little bit of their knowledge would illuminate my mind. Waves of people from different parts of the world were coming and breaking forth in Kolkata and if I could match that tune then I would be able to stand with my head held high. It would be just like a dead sapling returning to life after receiving the first monsoon rain.
I went to college with the money we got from the sales of some paddy kept for home consumption. I knew that because of this, maybe everyone in the family would remain underfed or would even starve. But if I could do well in the exams, if I could establish myself, if only I could do all of that, I would make it.
The huge college building was packed like the rathyatra fair. After pushing through the crowd and reaching the office, I got to know that with a third division I would not get a seat in the I.Sc course.
Not once or twice, Sir, but I got rejected from six colleges. At last I was provided a seat in one not-so-famous college. I went to meet the vice principal in case I could get financial aid or a scholarship.
“Scholarship?” The vice-principal raised his brows, “for a third division student?”
“We don’t give any concessions for the I.Sc degree, and that too for third division students.”
“Sir, I am a poor boy.”
“Every Bengali boy is poor. If you think in that way we will have to provide scholarships for all the boys in college.”
“Sir, I am from a really poor famer’s family…”
The vice-principal was very annoyed. “Then why did you come to college? You could have worked in the fields. Higher education is not meant for people like you. Leave—don’t bother me.”
I could not get a scholarship. While returning back home, I remembered the sly comment made by the Samanta household clerk: “A farmer’s son wants to turn into Vidyasagar, ha!”
Sir, I should have returned home then and there. I should have stayed in the fields in the midst of the scorching sun, as drops of sweat dripped down my forehead. It would have been nice go back to my own place, the whiplash of the city would not have hurt me. But Sir, I could not stop hoping. Somehow I became determined and thought that I should see the end of it all.
I lived in one corner of the tobacco shop belonging to the Sarkars. It was so different from the Samantas. Though I had to live there in a small hut, there was the open sky outside, there was light, and a huge pond with dark and deep water in which we could bathe. The air was full of the smell of datura, champa and bakul flowers. But this was a lane in the Burrabazar area. Even at noon, electric lights would burn in the rows of shops and there were huge, tall, musty buildings on both sides of the four-and-a-half feet wide lane. There was no air; thousands of people would jostle until one or one-thirty at night. It was stifling hot, and the smell of tobacco and jaggery would emanate from the rows of shops there. Also, there was ear-splitting commotion.
Amidst all this, I lived in a wooden cot in one corner. The entire night rats would run around the room while cockroaches could be seen during the day. The Sarkars would pay my college tuition fees and would give me five rupees as allowance. In return I had to go out in the morning and evening to various places to collect their dues. There was no scope to somehow arrange for tuition. Books? Till today I don’t know how much money is required to buy all the books prescribed for the I.Sc syllabus. Sir, probably even you don’t know. The books that were available at five rupees during your time now cost nothing less than twelve rupees. I had bought a couple of old editions from the footpath but they did not even contain half the syllabus.
And as for studies, I had to go to the Sarkar house at Bowbazar to have my meals. It would be past ten o’clock when I returned. Then when I lit the opaque yellow bulb and sat down to study, my eyes would almost tear apart; the notes in the exercise books would just seem like illegible scribbles. I don’t know when I would fall asleep and rats and cockroaches would run over my body for the rest of the night.
And college? It was too crowded. A bench meant for five students had to accommodate seven or eight of us. There was no place to put your exercise book down and copy the notes; the laboratory arrangement was even more dreadful. About fifteen students could work there but instead fifty were asked to fit in.
Future scientists – those who were meant to enrich the history of an independent India – this was how they were being educated.
Even then Sir, I tried my level best. I am not speaking on behalf of one or two students but for all the ordinary, regular students who had come to college to get educated. Why do they not succeed, why do they fail? Sir, let me narrate one incident. Now that I think of it, I cannot help but laugh whenever I think of it. It was the college’s foundation day. The usual events were in place: flag hoisting, meetings and speeches. The vice-principal delivered the best lecture that day. He was almost in tears when he was delivering it.
“We have conducted a statistical survey—about ten percent of students in the college can afford to buy all the prescribed books, twenty percent can buy some, and the remaining seventy percent can’t even buy one book. Under such circumstances how will we teach them, who will we teach? If we don’t find a remedy for this then where will our country stand in the end?”
The vice-principal had already thought of a remedy. He stated clearly that college education was not meant for poor students.
Sir, the second hour bell has just rung. I won’t be able to write for long. If you have read until now, I won’t take up your time any longer. Now let me finish my story in brief.
My mother does not know how to read or write. My uncle scribbled a letter on her behalf that read:
“You become established, my son—become one among the ten best people in our country. Pay respect to the name your father has given you. You will have to become a worker in independent India—please don’t forget that.”
I didn’t forget—not even for a single day. But independent India didn’t bear my responsibility, didn’t open the path of education for me. Working in that tobacco shop, amidst the meaningless squalor in class, in the stifling heat and cacophony of that room in the lane of Burrabazar, in the dim light of the yellow electric bulb, everything would turn hazy in front of my eyes—from time to time my head would be burdened with a wave of pain. I would feel like running away from all this, jumping into the dark waters of a deep pond, breathing in the smell of champa, nagkeshar and other flowers, and enticing the dark clouds in the rainy season to recite these poetic lines: “Come rain come, I will give you paddy…”
But in Kolkata there was no cold and dark pond, no damp smell of the nagkeshar flowers, no paddy of our country house to sustain throughout the year, there was not a shower of rain to cool the fire burning within people’s hearts.
Where would I go? How would I escape?
But I won’t lose hope, I thought. I’d live and I’d grow up. Without me the fire would not be lit in the new blast furnace, electricity from hydel power would not be produced, there would be an end to atomic research, the petroleum in the refinery wouldn’t be converted into petrol, kerosene, blue oil, or paraffin. I would somehow have to grab the mantra of the demon Moy mentioned in the epics since I was a scientist in independent India.
Sir, everything was a dream. There are innumerable students in different colleges of Bengal who are living and moving around with such dreams. One day the dream gets shattered and the dreamer sees, Sir, that he has not studied at all and things begin to go downhill. When would I study, from where would I get books, I wondered. The few books and notes that I had managed to acquire were meaningless in the dim light of that yellow bulb. They just seemed to crawl like insects in front of one’s eyes. After that my nerves broke down and all my senses became blurred. When I woke up at dawn in that damp room along with the tobacco, jaggery, rats and cockroaches, I seemed to be burdened by a hundred kilos of weight on my head. Moreover, as soon as it was eight o’clock there were the account ledgers to be taken care of.
The answer scripts of the annual exams are not checked; everyone gets promoted if their fees are cleared. I did not appear for the pre-test. I had not read anything. Then came the main exam.
Sir, let me admit my crime here. As the date of the test got closer, there was a burning sensation continuously raging war in my mind. Books—if only I had a few books then, even if I did not get awarded with a place in the first division, at least I would have secured a place in the second division and earned a grade in mathematics.
Don’t get angry Sir, just try to assess the feelings in my heart. I somehow turned insane. I started stealing books from my classmates in college.
What must you be thinking about me? Keep wondering. I myself could not believe that in the end I had turned into a thief. My father sacrificed his own blood for the independence of the country, and despite being his son, I became a thief.
Sir, if possible, before judging me, please give another thought to why students steal books and why they cheat in exams and why they leave the examination hall if they find the question paper too difficult. All these are instances of unjustified behaviour. These things should never happen. No one will even support them. But why does it happen then? Why do students go in the wrong direction? Have you ever thought how one pass or fail grade affects their lives?
I somehow managed to scrape through the tests with the help of the stolen books. The fees had already been paid, so they would have allowed me to sit for the final exams even without appearing for the test. But what would happen after that? The examination fees had to be paid. And it was a lot of money.
The situation back home was pretty dismal. I got to know from my uncle’s letter that they had already started to think about how to run the family household in spite of the fact that the new crop of paddy has just been harvested. The last vermillion-stained rupee in the pot of Ma Lakshmi had already been spent—maybe they could send me some money by selling the cow.
I wrote to him, telling them that they don’t need to sell the cow. I would somehow manage to arrange for the money.
But from where would I arrange the sum? The student aid fund helped with fifteen rupees. What about the rest?
The head of the Sarkar household summoned me. He said that I would not have to worry about the exam fees. He would give me fifty rupees.
Sir, now I realise that it was not just charity; there was an ulterior motive behind this gesture. In this world, one has to pay his dues in exchange for such generosity. The fees were paid. What happened next? For the last two months I have been repaying the generosity of that loan.
Can you believe me, Sir? Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Bengali, English—I could not study anything. In lieu of that fifty rupees I have been spending sleepless nights, straining my eyes to prepare ledgers for the Sarkars.
What sort of ledgers, you may ask. Ledgers to evade income tax. Secret ledgers. I had to repay the generosity of fifty rupees with each of my nerves, each drop of my blood. Could I study after all this? I am not a super human being.
In spite of all that, I had come to sit for the exam. I didn’t lose hope. I thought that surely a miracle would take place; I had already become adept at stealing and had also brought a few torn pages from the books to help me cheat; but miracles didn’t happen. I couldn’t pull out a single scrap of paper from beneath my shirt. Not while I sat for the first paper, second or the third—everything began to dance in front of my eyes. Only the false ledgers of Sarkar Company began to swirl around my head; each student and invigilator’s face seemed like the credit and debit section of the ledgers.
This Bengali answer script is my last exam script.
Sir, the warning bell just rang. They will snatch the answer script in five minutes. My narrative has almost ended. This evening I shall relieve myself of the burden of all that has brought me down, by going under the wheels of a train.
Sir, I wanted to live—I, Swadhinkumar, wanted to live for independent India. Why could I not live, on behalf of thousands of students like me, is a question I am leaving to you. You will be able to find a thoughtful reply.
Am I committing suicide like a coward? No, Sir. This is not me admitting defeat—it is my protest. On a thunderous night in September 1942 my father sacrificed his blood for the sake of our country. My blood will also create history for the lakhs and lakhs of students of our country. I don’t know when that history will bear fruit. You know Sir, and so can you tell us?