Ramakrishna Mission Ashram at Narendrapur: Memory revisited

Tapan Misra

I got back the sprint which I had forty four years ago. Yesterday I visited my Alma Mater, Ramakrishna Mission Ashram at Narendrapur, where I spent valuable two years at plus two level during1978-80. My parents could not have afforded this prestigious residential college had it not been due to generosity of Ramakrishna Mission that waived off all the fees with a princely scholarship of Rs. 75 in those days. Additionaly, one got generous access to the sample text books, given to the college by book distributors.

The Ashrama has grown bigger, adding new buildings, new hostels, new gyms, swimming pool, additional full sized football ground, huge plantations. If course, the gardens and flowers are as resplendent as they used to be in those days.

I missed the huge twin oxbow lakes, named Vivekananda lake. They have got dried and mostly filled up to build space for newer facilities. The remaining lake bed is being cultivated with cauliflower and lady finger.

When I joined Narendrapur on a rain soaked afternoon in late July of 1978, I was allotted room number E5 at the ground floor of Gouranga Bhavan. The hostel is still maintaining the pristine look, with the large painting of Sri Gouranga Mahaprabhu, greeting you when you set foot inside. My room overlooked the courtyard, surrounded by hostel rooms in three floors. The spartan hostel rooms have produced many brilliant minds in several universities, IITS, MNCs, hospitals, medical colleges, industries, banks, newsrooms, businesses, scientific and industrial labs and in many other fields, across the globe. Needless to say, they also produced very few lesser mortals like me, who enjoyed basking in the afterglow of the illustrious classmates.

The first semester of class eleven were scheduled in the last week of October, 1978, just before Durga Puja holidays. The college authorities were heartless to select dreaded Chemistry as the first subject of the semester examination. God heard our collective prayers. Just the previous day, one of the worst cyclone to hit Bengal coast, brought a deluge with incessant rain. Vivekananda lake was over flown, bringing all ground floor rooms under knee deep flood water. We played whole night with large shol and rohu fishes swimming briskly from courtyard to rooms and between the bed legs. We were fully confident that the next morning the semester examination will be cancelled. But lo and behold, college authorities arranged examinations in upper floors and we waded through flood water to appear for the Chemistry examination. I escaped from ignominy of failure in Chemistry by God’s grace as I was given one extra mark. We learnt the life lesson the hard way that come what may, never deviate from the set goal and schedule.

Our room had windows, with vertical iron rods as grill, with a central horizontal wooden support through which the rods used to pass through. My ground floor room window had a speciality – one of the muddle rod was cut in half, nicely hidden in the central support. With small amount of tweaking, the rod could be removed, opening up famous 11 number gate in Gouranga Bhavan through which we could wriggle in and out with a bit of gymnastics. Our college was very strict, locking the hostel at 1030 at night. Those of us who tasted new found attractions of Hindi films with heroes like Vinod Mehra, Bachhan, Vinod Khanna, Rajesh Khanna, used to visit movie theatres in Kolkata in cheapest night shows. We used to clandestinely jump out of campus wall at a vantage point for our nocturnal sojourn to movie theaters. When we used to return at dead of night, our only way of entry inside the hostel was wriggling through 11 no. gate, while pelting stone chips to ingrate barking stray dogs of the campus, who used to follow us back to hostel.

Our hostel super Satya Maharaj somehow came to know the existence of this secret door. I was banished to a first floor room in the opposite end W-23. We learnt a new trick of climbing up walls. What to do? Necessity is the mother of invention and new learning.

Yesterday when I visited my room, I felt the same trepidation while passing by a famous room, adjoining the prayer hall. This room was the abode of my three illustrious classmates, very studious, engrossed in solving toughest problems of Agarwal and Brilliant coaching, which I could never afford. I used to marvel that they used to solve any problem in any subject in a jiffy. The troika had such an illustrious reputation for their academic prowess, boarders of lesser mortals like me, used to scamper past their room lest we get a feeling of our uncertain future, chilling down our spines. Our experience of their prowess proved correct in later life. One became Director IITB, one CTO Samsung and the third a famed professor and McGraw Hill book author from ISM.

Part of the second floor was kept as a sprawling open terrace. The terrace is still the same. We spent many many summer evenings and winter afternoons, exchanging chit chats, reliving film dialogues, reciting poetries, day dreaming under brightly lit sky. This open roof top had a special attraction even for our classmates residing in other hostels. I distinctly remember my Assamese-Bengali friend introducing us, on this rooftop, with beautiful rendition of “Ganga Amar Ma”, “Manush Manusher Janyo” by Bhupen Hazarika for the first time. Nobody was knowing about Bhupen Hazarika that time. My said classmate rose to become an idealistic political leader, famed professor in IITM and Director of IIT Ropar.

On Sundays a barbar used to visit us in the court yard. We used to sacrifice our fledging teen beards, unkempt hair at the alter of his scissors. The barbar was inspired with monastic discipline. He could reduce your hair load to a military style crew cut, the only hairstyle he knew, within five minutes.

Once we decided that, for a change, we all ground floor boarders will tonsure our heads as fun and a mark of our bosom solidarity. We all stood in a queue. The leader of the gang offered himself as the first one to sacrifice his hair. Amidst loud clapping, he got his head shaved. But looking at his bizarre look, rest of the gang chickened out and refused to follow the leader. I still remember the choicest adjectives he was hurling at us till ennui of monologue overpowered him. A great lesson on leadership skill – leadership roles are some times accompanied with heavy personal cost!!

The famous Am Bagan, Mango Orchard, in front of the school building is kept unchanged as it was 44 years back. On Sundays and holidays, parents were allowed to meet their wards only in this orchard. The doting parents used to shower their affections and home made foods to their wards. Sometimes, accompanied with copious tears. Boarders like us, who had only very rare visitors, used to stroll around with forlorn and envious look.

Our deputy super was a young Brahmachari, staying in a corner room across our corridor. Every Sunday, his rich parents and sister would arrive with basketful of chocolates and assorted goodies. He would sit in Padmasana with closed eyes. His mother would touch her son’s feet in obeisance and sob uncontrollably. We used to wait for his parents to leave. No sooner they climbed down the stairs, we all used to hijack the goodies.

We used to play underhand cricket in the Am Bagan on lazy afternoons or Sunday mornings. This special cricket had specialised players and rules, probably formalised by generations of underhand cricket players. The Bishen Singh Bedi of underhand bowling in our batch is now a formidable professor in Mechanical Engineering in JU.

We had 10% boarders as blind students. This Ashram had a unique blind school and college, where blind students and normal students used to share rooms and attend classes together. They even used to be our compatriots in our nocturnal visit to movie theaters. Our visually challenged classmates were also our partners in the underhand cricket.

I thought I have forgotten many things of that period after 40 years. But the short visit rekindled so many memories, brought alive so many faces, the faces which have not grown up from their teens. Reliving of four decade old memory. Who says you can only live once?

Tapan Misra is a distinguished and acclaimed scientist. He was Director Space Applications Centre and is globally recognised for developing the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) technology for India’s Space Programme.

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