Under hammer

I took out the medals of merit from the gold-coated container one after the other and tried to read out the legends on both sides of each medal
Under hammer

Dr Birendra Kumar Gohain


I took out the medals of merit from the gold-coated container one after the other and tried to read out the legends on both sides of each medal. I liked the pure silver medal the most as it was given in honour of the illustrious Late Dutta Dev Guru Goswami, the Chief Pontiff of the famous Auni Ati Satra (the sacred religious institution of Majuli) for securing the highest marks in Sanskrit in the Matriculation Examination in Assam. I read the legends on both sides. I absentmindedly began to touch it fondly and respectfully. "You Idiot," Shanti said, "How could anyone believe that you secured the highest marks in Sanskrit and the second-highest marks in English, besides occupying the fourteenth position in the University, when you could not take care of a cheque, that too, issued by the Gauhati University?" I meekly nodded, and said, "You are my dearest friend and troubleshooter. Tell me now how I can place the matter before the University Authority and tell them that I lost the cheque containing the reward of Rs. 50 for securing the highest marks in Sanskrit and they should issue a new cheque!" Shanti grimaced, and said, "You should meet the Registrar of the University and say how you very stupidly put the cheque inside the file loosely and it slipped through it and got lost. Did not your parents teach you to tell the truth and never to lie?" He said nonchalantly. I accepted his advice but knowing his habit of demanding the pound of flesh, I kept silent to save the cost of a cup of tea and his favourite samosa with a fried egg. He gave me good advice and insisted that we should meet the Registrar instead of the clerk who issued the cheque. "You know, he must have a son of our age full of idiosyncrasies. He will sympathise." The Registrar, who is the administrative head of the University looked askance and when I told him that I lost my cheque, he shook his head and called the clerk and asked him to issue the cheque.

The clerk looked sternly at us and after some time, he came up with a new cheque for signature and after taking the signature of the Registrar, he handed it over to me. Shanti audaciously asked for a cup of tea as it was being served to the Registrar. With a resigned look, the Registrar ordered tea and snacks for us. Shanti reminded me of my moral duty to offer tea, samosa and a fried egg to him and said with a wink," Never forget to strike the iron when it is hot." He also said, "It is loud and clear that your golden age in Sanskrit is over." The cheque, after many hassles, got encashed and the number of friends accompanying me to the restaurant increased till I spent it all. Then, Rs 50 was quite a good amount as the monthly mess dues paid by us in the Cotton College Hindu Hostel, Third Mess was Rs. 60 per month. Shanti quipped, "Don't forget the plight of Rajdhan who is surrounded by friends when the money order comes from his father in Kashmir and how he was abandoned by his fair-weather friends when the money was spent up." I said, "Yes. But you are to pay the price of keeping the company of the fair sex just to make us jealous." My Sanskrit teacher always encouraged me to pursue my studies seriously and after the Sanskrit examination in the Matriculation examination was over, he came to me and after listening to my answers, he said with pride, "Birendra, you will attain the highest marks in Tezpur Centre."

When finally my name appeared in the daily, Sastri Sir came to our house to shower his blessings on me. He was so kind to me. My mom was a chronic patient of gastric trouble and so I had to go to the Dispensary to consult the doctor after every five days to get medicine for her. I had to bicycle back home to give the medicine to my mother and then go to school. One day, Doctor Sir was late and so I had to bicycle back home fast so as not to be late for the classes. When I saw our Sastri Sir coming on his bicycle from the opposite direction, as a measure of courtesy, I applied brakes to stop and fell. Sastri Sir helped me up but the medicine bottle for my mom was broken. Then I told Sastri Sir that I had to rush back to the Dispensary to collect the medicine afresh when he told me, "Do not rush, Baba, I shall not mark you absent." I was pleasantly surprised that he used the pet name of his son to call me and from that day, he called me Baba even in the classes. How I missed his funeral ceremony being in our College in Guwahati and when I heard the sad news, I burst into tears and went vegetarian till the tenth-day ceremony was over. "Now that you have secured the highest marks in Sanskrit, you will become Shastriji", my immediate elder sister teased. I took out the silver medal and threw it away in anger. As was fashion, I wanted to study Science. At best, I wanted to take Sanskrit and Mathematics and Additional Mathematics as these are my most favourite subjects. But such a combination was absent and swimming with the current, I opted for Science and Mathematics and as was foretold by my maternal uncle who was a Professor in Zoology, I repented 'in the long run' for abandoning Sanskrit which was my most favourite subject. "I am told, you secured the highest marks in Sanskrit. Why can't you translate the Ahom king's commandments in Sanskrit to English?'', our Guru, the Satradhikar of Dakhinpat Satra said to me. I felt sorry for abandoning the Language of the Gods and promised that I would get the English translation done by a Sanskrit teacher. I was taken aback when a Ved Vidyalaya teacher gave me the wrong translation. Ultimately, our family astrologer came to my rescue. I remember with pride how our teacher of Sanskrit also loved the Communist manifesto of Karl Marks. There was a degree of freedom in thinking and action in our College days. Barua Sir who was the most popular professor in English allowed us to ask questions on any topic of English. This very generous teacher was the model teacher in English with great scholarship and a keen sense of humour. "Sir, how could April be the cruellest month?", I asked him thinking that he would retort, "The Poet was not from Assam where the flowers blossom and the cuckoo comes and the maidens dance in gay abandon in April, Bohag, the happiest month here!" He didn't mention T.S. Eliot but gave me a proud look that I could quote from a classic. He gave a classy picture of the Spring, the season to be merry and to make merriment. He would say, "One should be endowed with a sense of poetry and beauty as our life is so beautiful". When the Government gave me the responsibility of shaping up a cultural Complex, I took the matter seriously. By that time, the detailed project report was already prepared. I found the designs of the buildings so unattractive and with no sense of beauty that we had to change the designs to conform to beauty. I borrowed the ideas from the artistic wonders of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The poetic beauty was reflected in the designs of the buildings and I got the greatest satisfaction when a director of a film sought permission to use the Cultural Complex for film shooting. "You brought Thailand to Assam", those who are not jealous of me will sing the praise. "You know, we are to bring the ethos of Tais to this complex." I know it is not the only reason to beautify the complex with the touch of Thailand. Was it because I visited the beautiful cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai leisurely and with a sense of eagerness and pride and got mightily impressed. "Do you worship your ancestors?", I asked the headman of the Thai family in Chiangmai. "No, we don't".

"In our Tai societies, we worship our ancestors in the kitchen and occasionally offer food and drinks. We also do it in April on the day of the Sangkan festival which we call Bihu." The gentleman would not react. What did I see on the porch? A bottle of soft drinks and cakes and a cigarette. The owner of the house smiled, "You know, my father was a chain smoker". He had to admit that the Thais have the ritual of worshipping the ancestors as we do in Assam. How adoption of religion affects the entire culture of a society! I remember the Mungmao trip when we saw an old banyan tree with the remnants of an offering at the foot of the tree. It was a significant trip to the birthplace of our Chaolung Siukapha, the great. The leader of the Tai guides clearly said that there is no ritual of tree worship amongst the Tais of Mungmao when I pointed out the residue of the ritual. I respectfully explained how the Tai Ahoms have the ritual of worshipping the god of the jungles and that the residue at the foot of the big banyan tree might be the sign of such a ritual. He, being a Buddhist, strongly denied such practices amongst the Tais of Mungmao, China. I fondled the other medal given to me by a Rai Bahadur of Jorhat. I didn't get any recognition for securing the second-highest marks in English. Mahesh Bhuyan Sir of Chemistry used to say, "Nobody remembers the second best and so be the best". Bhuyan Sir has a fantastic memory. He can recite Ladli Mohan Mitra's book on Chemistry line by line and word for word. He is a living Encyclopedia and we use to treat him as the reference book. "Why don't you take the weight off your feet", Ghanashyam said sitting cosily in the Delight Restaurant, Panbazar. It was not the usual restaurant we visited. We would come to Delight Restaurant when we got money from our scholarships and generally ordered liver fry. It was a costly restaurant not frequented by students. But it glows aristocracy. What do we do when we get our money from various scholarships? We visited the night shows of films, the musicals in the State Library Auditorium, Dara Singh-King Kong wrestlings in the Judges field, the Bhupen Hazarika's musical extravaganza occasionally. Sharma Thakur, our Professor of Physics sometimes showed us some documentaries in the Union Hall. We used to be afraid of him as he was very strict and a hard taskmaster. He used to sometimes entertain us with short films. I distinctly remember the film of Dr Kutnis in China. Sharma Thakur Sir was such a wonderful person. He was the best in his tutorials, very simple in his dress and manners but a strict disciplinarian. In the hostels of Cotton College, there is a system of holding freshman socials attended by the College teachers and luminaries. Three hostel mates went to his residence to invite him for the freshmen social in our hostel, that is, Cotton College Hindu hostels, Third mess. Being the students of Arts, they had never seen him and so they asked the person tending the flowers to call the Professor. When the person asked what the matter was, one of them said, "Call the Professor". He smiled, "Give it to me". On the evening of the Freshman social, they recognized him and apologized as they thought him to be the gardener of the house. I touched the third medal fondly. It was given by a Literary Association for securing the highest mark in Sanskrit. "Now that you are the Chairman of the Sub Committee for the Assamese language implementation, you should take up the issue of compulsory teaching in the mother tongue of Assamese in the classes of Central Schools' ', the President of Asom Sahitya Sabha said. I consulted the Constitution of India and relevant Supreme Court rulings on the subject and drafted a letter addressed to the Commissioner of the Central Schools insisting on the introduction of Assamese as the medium of instruction in the Central Schools.

After some days, I received a reply saying that they have no objection to it. Only the local guardians of the students willing to study in Assamese have to give no objection. Then we realized why it is difficult to implement it as no guardian wants Assamese as the medium of instructions for their children. But they blamed the Government for not introducing the Assamese language in the Central Schools. When I joined as the Home Secretary of the Government of Assam, the Deuri Students' Union, Assam had a meeting with me one day. They raised the issue of the introduction of their mother tongue as one of the subjects. To their surprise, I agreed to their proposal. The Constitution of India gives rights to the children to learn one's mother tongue and hence I promised them to do so. I was trodding on the soft lawn of Darrang College, Tezpur in which I was a lecturer in Physics. I was wearing a new Harveston shirt that day. I saw my friend Ranjit Barthakur, an Advocate in Tinsukia coming my way. I tried to go straight to my room in the Professors' lodge but he rushed to me and caught me by hand. "This is the way you treat a close friend, you bloody Professor. I have come from Tinsukia to meet you. " I simply kept mum and led him to my room lest he demanded my new Harveston shirt from me. It was a designer shirt which I could manage to buy with a mere pittance of my salary. But being highly observant, he noticed my shirt and immediately retorted, "This is the reason you were rushing to your room?" Then he demanded that I hand over the shirt then and there. I understood that this was the last time I would see my shirt on me. I angrily retorted, "You have not come to meet me in a friendly gesture. I know, you have come to Tezpur as Aniruddha to meet your Usha secretly." He somehow didn't insist on taking off my shirt then and there and followed me to my room. As soon as I entered, he took off my shirt and wore it. After a week of his return from Tezpur, I received a letter from his father, an illustrious Headmaster of a High School in Dibrugarh. He pointed out the folly of inter-caste marriages and asked me to persuade his son from marrying a high caste non-Brahmin girl. After a month, we went to Sivasagar to attend the marriage ceremony of our friend Shanti. It was an arranged marriage. I told Ranjit, "You are born in a family of twice-born Brahmin. Why do you think you will be happy if you marry outside your caste against the will of your father. " I told him to follow the example of Shanti marrying in his caste forsaking his long-standing lover. "So you received the letter of my father. "My repeated requests and demands of his parents fell on deaf ears and both Shanti and I had to attend his marriage ceremony with his Usha in Tezpur. About a month's ago, we had the misfortune of losing our friend Shanti permanently. It was Shanti's son who informed me of his demise. Hearing about the loss of my intimate friend I wept bitterly. Shanti was such a dear. He was always for my welfare. When I came to play carrom in the morning, he would chastise me saying how on earth I could while away my study hours so carelessly. During the Chemistry practical examination, he was worried that I would not make it. He was experimenting with his examination next to me. I was analysing the chemical composition of the sample given to me for examination. I analysed it to be either Ethyl Alcohol or Methyl Alcohol and could not decide. Then Professor Baidya Bhuyan came and after listening to me, he asked me to taste it. I tasted but couldn't make up my mind. Shanti was observing me and said, "Have you never tasted liquor?" I took his hint and correctly identified the sample. Life turns worse in age. So some poets eulogise Death. But I loved the Bengali couplet, "Morite Shahina am Sundar bubonic ", that is, I don't want to die in such a beautiful world. We wait and wait for Godot half-heartedly despite pains and hope for the best in both life and death.

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