Getting the oar in across memories

By Abu Jar M Akkas

Meeting childhood friends, still remembered, blurred in mind or completely forgotten, is a desire to harbour. The associated excitement doubles when it happens after four decades and, especially, when it also offers a chance to roam about the ground inside the high-walled compound of the school building that I did long ago.

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St Joseph’s School in Dinajpur — where I began my formal studies with the kindergarten class, then moving up to Class I and then Class II and, yet, then Class III, when I moved to Dinajpur Zilla School, leaving behind a number of classmates in sadness and taking some of the sadness along with me — planned to celebrate 65 years of its existence — the sapphire jubilee, a term coined only in 2017.

All friends of ours, who live in Dhaka, jumped in, but with one after another gradually deciding not to join. A few completed the registration but did not take the trouble of travelling to Dinajpur. I hardly have memories, but a few blurry images, of the school, where I had been for three years, from 1975 to 1977. But I had always wished to visit the school, widely known as the Mission school as it is run by the missionaries, at Ganeshtala, in the central district of the small town, whenever I had walked past it. But I could hardly muster up the courage. Seeing things at an early age left some images in mind, which in the later life mostly ballooned, built on imagination.

I always had the fear that seeing it at a ripe age might lay waste to my imagined world. But with the school having reached its sapphire jubilee in 2016, and the celebrations scheduled for October 21, the chance came my way and I grabbed it for glimpses of the faces from childhood and of the days that were there four decades ago.

On the day of celebrations, I was asked by a senior to recollect my memories of the school in a session. I declined. Yet I could remember few things. In 1975 when I, with my father holding my hand, entered the office of the headteacher, Sister Theonella whom we called Bara Sister, or Sister Superior, I was watching everything with wide eyes, even when she asked me a few questions. And she said, ‘So wide are the eyes! Will you eat me?’

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The highest academic feat that I could achieve in my academic life was in this school, coming third in a section during the examinations of Class II. But then my father decided to get me into Zilla School. St Joseph’s then had up to Class III and was planning to open Class IV and, gradually, Class V. One of the sisters told us in the class that we could stay back. But it did not happen.

After I had succeeded in securing a seat in Zilla School in 1978, when my father took me to the school to get the transfer certificate, we found the document signed and readied. My father asked if they had obtained the results from Zilla School and Sister Superior nodded positively. She said that no one would stay back at St Joseph’s if a seat could be won at Zilla School.

I noticed a few changes this time that I visited the school. Four decades ago, there were an alstonia tree and a poinciana tree on the edge of the compound. The poinciana, which stood at the far end of the campus, was sometimes cut down. But the alstonia has been standing for more than 65 years. It has been there all along, from a time before the school was set up in 1951, by Sister Pia Fernandez, who came to Bangladesh from Mangalore, Karnataka, India that year. She had four other sisters with her. The tree has only grown old.

The ground, which once had grass, was now covered with bricks in a herring-bone pattern. The flagstaff, which was in the east then standing in parade tailing back to the west, has now been put up in the south with students standing in parade tailing back to the north. St Joseph’s Convent, where the sisters also lived, was detached from the school building. It has now been extended southwards to connect to the school building. Many of the teachers of our time who retired still live in the town. We visited four of them, during breaks of the celebrations that continued for about 12 hours.

The innocence that the girls and boys, who were my mates, then held has now become the experience that they need to wend their way. It is quite an experience to experience those faces again, as Harivansh Rai Bachchan puts it: sabki zindagi badal gayi | ek naye sanche mein dhal gayi | … phir jiwan mein dost purane nahin ate (Life has changed for everyone | set, moulded into new matrices| … yet friends are never old in life).