There was a time when the young Post Graduates used to choose college teaching not by default but rather by preference. After all, life of a college teacher was not quite the same as it is post revised UGC scale of pay of ‘98. In terms of money and economic security, it might not be quite a prudent career choice, as it were. However, the stories are in plenty about switching over from administrative positions or from the post of corporate executives to college teaching. With very few having a PG degree around in the late 50s and the early 60s, they had the privilege to pick up any job they liked by way of preference rather than out of compulsion. But then to be a Professor in a college used to be mostly an ideological or an ethical choice. The college teachers enjoyed stature and respect, not simply because they were in a profession that required the highest academic degree (PhD being still an additional qualification), but because they had earned that academic and social reverence through their sheer commitments and amazing scholarship. This was also the time when the college teachers were not just a teacher in the classroom; they were inspirations for generations of students and at the same time they also commanded great admiration and awe.
Every well-known college of that era in Assam would have a few stalwarts, whose stories as a teacher would invariably be part of the college lore, who were not only great teachers, they were legends. The late Professor Sarat Mahanta of Sibsagar College was one such teacher.
I first met him way back in 2004 during my visit to Sivasagar along with his eldest son Partha Sarathi Mahanta and his family. I was greeted with warmth and the smile which remained one of the abiding traits of his persona. He was a Professor of History but equally well versed with all other issues pertaining to politics, culture, current affairs and literature. Born on 1st May, 1937, to Tulsi Mahanta and Subhadra Mahanta of Sri Chaliha Bareghar Satra of Sivasagar, he had a humble but culturally deep rooted upbringing, for his childhood was surrounded by an atmosphere of intimate spiritual resonances and the proximity to the echoes of history. Nazira is a small but a historically significant town where he had his schooling and also the place where he had begun his career as a teacher. For Professor Sarat Mahanta struggle in life began rather early, as he had lost his father when he was still in school.
Having completed his school education in Nazira Higher Secondary School, he went to Sibasagar College, to complete his Bachelor’s, then to Gauhati University to do his post-graduation in History. But when he was still studying in college, he had started teaching –first at Barpatradol High School then at Nazira Higher Secondary School.
After having completed his Master’s in History he joined his alma mater, Sibsagar College at Joysagar on 21 September, 1964 as a young teacher. It was a long journey, he had retired as Professor and Head of the Department of History after having completed an illustrious teaching career of long thirty three years at a stretch. A dedicated teacher and a keen historian, Prof. Mahanta had equal devotion to his social commitments as well. For about two decades he was associated with the Assam Tribune as a local correspondent. There was a time when the local press correspondents mostly used to be the school and college teachers and most of them would start writing for newspapers with the urge to give adequate focus to their localities which would, otherwise, hardly find a place in the media as ‘news worthy’; at the same time they also made major contributions by highlighting both achievements and the perennial developmental issues and social problems of those places to build both public opinion and draw attention of the authorities.
His deeper understanding of the history of one of Assam’s most famous districts, Sibasagar, was instrumental in making his association with the press more nuanced and effective. Like teachers, journalists too used to have equal amount of social respect and credibility as the custodians of truth. To that image and identity of journalists, people like Sarat Mahanta made crucial contributions by being unwavering in representing the realities of the people and the places. Sarat Mahanta was also one of the founder members of Sibasagar Press Club.
He belonged to a generation of teachers when they used to emphasize more on the very basic obligation of a teacher- teaching. Generations of students still fondly recall their ‘Mahanta Sir’ who had deeply influenced their life and shaped their intellectual vision. As an academician, a press reporter and an essayist, writing for him was a perpetual engagement. He had left behind a huge body of sporadic writings on several issues, however, he had compiled only a few of them into book form, among which Concise History of Assam is one of his most significant contributions to the study of Assam’s history.
Having equal command over both Assamese and English, he had numerous articles in both the languages. Among his Assamese works Polokate Itu Xitu is a collection of essays when his Akonir Akbar Birbal aru Neel Nadir Xadhu is a collection of children’s stories which he had especially compiled for his grandchildren.
After retirement he remained equally busy. A life member of Asom Sahitya Sabha, he was an invited member to the Executive Committee during 1993-94, when Dr. Bhupen Hazarika was the President of the Sabha. He had served as a member of the Assam Human Rights Commission from 2003 to 2007. During his tenure in the Commission his role to make common masses aware of their rights for justice and empowerment was exemplary. He was also installed as the Satradhikar of their own Satra, Sri Chaliha Bareghar Satra. On being installed as the Satradhikar, he had emphasized on preserving the historically significant properties and relics of the satra in the form of an archival collective.
In fact, he had taken initiatives which can best be defined as a public history project through which he had involved the community to identify and preserve the historically significant elements associated with the satra as well as the locality. As an active member of the Committee for Compiling Indian History, he had played a very crucial role in incorporating the history of Assam as well as of Sivasagar in the pan-Indian discourse of national historiography.
Prof. Mahanta is remembered not only as a great teacher, but also as a fine human being, as the one who would invariably greet with his disarming smile and reassuring warmth. He breathed his last on 18 June, 2013, but his students and admirers still deeply recall his exuberant presence and his abiding legacies. (Jyotirmoy Prodhani is a Professor of English at NEHU, Shillong.)