Shri Rabindranath Mitra was English teacher in our school — Raisina Bengali High School in New Delhi. He was a recipient of the President of India award for best teacher. Yesterday was his birth centenary.
One of our seniors in the school — Ranabir Sen posted a nice, soulful tribute on Facebook page of our school alumni. I am reproducing his post as a mark of respect and tributes to our Robin Sir.
Six times a week for 2 years, dhuti-clad, cigar smelling, baritone voice walked into our class, armed with nothing but a formidable English pedagogy that had helped year after year to break down English language barriers in “Banglophone” class rooms.
On the very first day, he asked us to open all the window … soon we were from “Tin Tin” teens to “ The Idiot”. It was not in our syllabus. “A Tale of Two cities” was our text-book. We became aware of Myshkin’s “idiocy” and the realities of nineteenth century Russian society with money, social status, religion and love all intertwined.
“Sydney Carton was the unique creation of Charles Dickens.” We learnt by rote. He dictated while strolling in the class room and we noted. Word by word. Slowly, patiently he would repeat twice, thrice. Without referring to anything, it was all in his head. He knew how notes serve poor, middle class Bengali students. English was not the language they spoke at home. And not many would choose this subject to dive deep in college later. Particularly like us, who were science students.
The magic began. The terminal exam papers were returned to us along with his corrections and with a smell of cigar lingering … “Darun to gandhota”. English became the subject to score … to up the total percentage
1975 was the golden jubilee year of the school. The President of India was to visit our school. Robin Sir chose “Julius Caesar” for us dumb to play as part of the programme. And he would be the director. Rehearsals were after school hours until night. And on Sundays.
With dhuti and cigar in the mouth, never ever shouting but firmly instructing us to pitch: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones; So let it be with Caesar”. All of us were struggling between the conflicting demands of honour, patriotism, and friendship of the Romans and accents, vocal control, body language, stage movements and lighting.
Robin Sir wouldn’t say much about him. We were interested more to pick the good which will inter with our bones. We sought his blessings before our final school-leaving exam and he said: “Toder ami bhulbo na…Caesar O kara jay…eta tora dekhiye dili”
Few years later his son Rajat joined the organization I used to work as a freelancer and found in him the reflection of Robin Sir and we struck.
From him I learnt: Robin Sir, was born in 1917 in Bhagalpur and studied English in Patna Training College. There was never enough food for nine brothers and sisters. Once their landlord in Bhagalpur locked their house as their father couldn’t pay the rent, he had to jump over the wall to rush for the exam. Having seen the hunger and food crisis in worst form, he would often say to his son Rajat – “ Bhalo Kore Kha”. He could never adjust to western food. I remember making a burger at home and he would put butter on it to eat it like bread, Rajat said.
Rajat continued: “He was a voracious reader. We had a library of 10,000 books at home and he instilled in me and my sister the value of reading. He was a gifted speaker, a storyteller and the God had given him gifts of explaining things. He had a phenomenal memory and till his last days he could recall something he read long ago.“
He refused to wear trousers because he was told a man has to wear trousers to speak English, so he started wearing Dhuti (traditional lower garment of Indian males). Once he was laughed at “apni dhooti porey english paran?” He started smoking cigar to show the contradiction and the ridiculousness of it as how you don’t need to wear trousers to teach english and smoke cigars.
The most gifted teacher breathed his last in 1999. In his last days he would say: I am the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro … there are three Englishmen hiding within this skin … the world always change yet it remains the same.
He lived simple. His needs were few. We couldn’t give any name to him (which we gave to all other teachers). How could we? He taught us to depart from the text to the talk.
About power of humility, values of inclusion, communicating with the simplicity of a child, sense making in an increasingly senseless world, developing world view of things….
Apnake shato koti pronam!