St. Gregory's High School- a reflection
Dr. Chowdhury Ishraq Uz Zaman
IT was during one of my recent trips to Bangladesh that I visited Saint Gregory's High School. It has been 35 years now that I had walked out through the gates of my school for the last time. Only once, since then, do I remember having returned to the warm embrace of my alma mater for the 100th anniversary celebrations. I therefore, and quite rightly, considered myself as guilty as anyone who ignores his very roots and quite wantonly forgets where he rose from. This trip to Saint Gregory's was thus an attempt at redeeming me of that guilt. Equally important perhaps, was an innate desire to relive those moments of childhood lost to the fathomless well of Time.
Shabbir Ahmed Imtiaz, my childhood friend from our days at St Gregory's was quick to offer to accompany me, and to arrange for the transport. Here, perhaps, was another Gregorian suffering from guilt similar to mine and looking for atonement himself.
With the car snaking its way through the snarl of Old Dhaka traffic at the pace of a snail, I had all the time in the world to soak in the familiar sights of yesteryear. In the blink of an eye I am transported into a packed rickety “Town 2A Service” bus incessantly blowing its familiar foghorn as it makes its way to Victoria Park (later renamed Bahadur Shah Park).
I am suddenly shaken out of my blissful reminiscence as Shabbir asks, “Remember Victoria Park?”…How could I forget Victoria Park? How could I ever forget getting off the bus at Victoria Park every morning on way to school and the instinctive glance at the clock of the Armenian Church… will I be able to squeeze in a quick game of basketball or handball before assembly?
Luxmi Bazaar Road in front of the school is not quite the same anymore. More people and more rickshaws make everything look so much more crowded - so different. Gone also is the very familiar and traditional-looking Municipal Corporation building right across from the school a landmark we had come to accept as universal.
My eyes are instinctively drawn to a corner right outside the school gates…my heart seems to know what I am looking for…but I don't see the old bearded jhaalmuri-wala standing there, selling his mouth-watering spicy puffed rice. Thirty five years later, he is not expected to be there. But I do believe that if I could turn the clock back that many years, he would immediately reappear at that corner and sell me his jhaalmuri with a lot of kashondi (mustard) (the way I always liked it). I feel a strange heaviness in my chest.
The familiar drone of countless chatter greets us as we enter the school yard. “Look, Shabbir! The cycle stands are still here!” We walk up to the church which is now barricaded by a steel fence. One thing is certain no one can sit on the steps anymore under the bell tower and share stories during lunch break, like we often did.
Shabbir and I enter the large central hall of the Main Building the very heart of St. Gregory's a place we would visit at least once everyday (even if our class was in another building) because it had, among other things, the library and the notice boards.
It was the notice boards, in particular, that we were always attracted to because they announced everything, from those as heartening as “Rainy day No school” to attractive gifts (that were up for grabs) pinned onto the notice board by Brother Hobart.
I am forced by the child in me to scamper up to one of the notice boards for a closer look it is not a rainy day today, Brother Hobart's gifts are not there anymore. Standing there, 35-40 years later, I can almost smell the sweet pungent aroma of a cigar, and almost feel a familiar punch on my arm as a resounding voice booms above me, “Ki Koros?” (“What are you doing?”). I turn my head and look up Brother Hobart Pieper is not there.
The deafening silence of the main hall nearly knocks me over; the sound of multitude familiar footsteps made all the more prominent by their very absence. I turn to look around the haunting emptiness of a place once bustling with life hits home… as I realize that this place is now abandoned.
I am informed that since a new massive building was being constructed, everything was in the process of being moved out of the older edifice to prepare to tear it down. It was not only saddening but also distressing to realize that this majestic structure that had nurtured countless young buds of talent for more than a century, helping them to bloom into the movers and shakers of this country, was to be disemboweled and then destroyed.
And so I take my time looking around; taking in all those familiar features we hold so dear…the arched doors, the stained-glass windows, the statue of Saint Gregory, the steel beams holding up the ceiling, the crack in the paint and every intimate curve, corner, nook, niche and cranny of St Gregory's High School…that I will perhaps never see again.
My attention is instinctively drawn to the door of the Teachers' Room across the hall. I can almost see our teachers…Mr. Peter D'Costa (wearing the familiar salmon-colored shirt, always a size larger), Mr. N. K. Sarker (in his immaculate white 'dhoti'), Mr. Nicholas Rozario (looking as sharp as a scout master should), Mr. N. C. Sutradhar and a few others walking out… books and attendance register in hand, as they make their way to our classrooms where we are raising hell between periods.
Shabbir and I then wander into the smaller hall further down from the main hall where the library used to be. The massive shelves and the hundreds of books have all been removed. The room looks as bare as a flower robbed of its color and fragrance. Quite surprisingly, though, the small desk at the corner meant for issuing books is still there. I touch it lightly as I try to travel back in time…imagining that I am waiting there as the librarian puts the 'return-date stamp' on books about airplanes, ships, trains or planets that I am taking home to read.
Opening into the library area (right at the bottom of the stairs) is Class 9 with its saloon-style swinging doors. I was in this very class exactly thirty seven years ago. The desks and the benches are all gone. I walk into an eerie silence and a ghostly emptiness.
The familiar gray cement floor, the arched doors and the blackboard (taking up most of one wall) stirs up recollections of a time long gone. I walk over to stand at the exact spot where Sadeq once pulled out the bench from under Azizur Rahman (almost twice his size) as we were all sitting down after greeting our teacher and Azizur Rahman promptly disappeared with a resounding thud. (Sadeq of course, was thereafter made to stand on a bench for most of the period by the teacher, for having pulled off a fast one in his presence).
Synapses of old memories begin to crackle to life… and from somewhere deep within, an ear-shattering chant wells up in my head:
“Are you sleeping, are you sleeping,
Bro-ther Charles, Bro-ther Charles?
Morning bells are ringing,
Morning bells are ringing,
Obviously we are waiting for Brother Charles to come in to teach us physics or chemistry and (in our opinion) making best use of the couple of minutes that we have to ourselves. Standing there in the middle of the classroom, I can almost single out every adolescent voice of every class-friend of ours (now scattered all over the world) who joins in the chant. I instinctively glance at the swinging door…for any moment now I expect the otherwise mild mannered and soft spoken Brother Charles to barge in, livid with anger, and knock one of the swinging doors off its hinges with his fist (like he once did)… Brother Charles Bibeau never arrives.
We walk out of the Main Building through a door leading out to the side…and right there stands the water fountain. For some strange reason (and to this day I have not been able to explain why) we always seemed to drift toward the water fountain and hover around it. One of the most obvious reasons, I believe, was that there was water there and we always seemed to be thirsty notably during a class.
A few paces away to one side of the fountain stands a memorial dedicated to Mr. Peter D'Costa, Mr. N. C. Sutradhar and Mr. D. N. Pal Choudhury three of our teachers who left before their time. I stand in front of the monument with reverence as I read the names of my teachers from four decades ago. Somewhere deep within, I get the feeling of three pairs of eyes looking down on me with kindness and warmth - and then touching my heart with a fondness and affection that is as overpowering as it is overwhelming.
As I stand there under the blazing sun, a floodgate seems to open with a deluge of names from the past Brother Robert Hughes CSC, Brother Hobart Pieper CSC, Mr. N. K. Sarker, Mr. S. R. Chaudhury, Brother Charles Bibeau CSC, Mr. Kamil Ali, Mr. Nicholas Rozario and others we will never see again, however much we may wish to.
If there was any way that I could get my voice to travel across the intangible web of Time, or the ethereal boundary that separates the living from the dead, I would assure them that countless glorious monuments have been dedicated to each and every one of them.…in every country and in every corner of this world that every Gregorian standing today is a living monument immortalizing their unwavering sincerity, dedication and perseverance and will continue to be so for generations to come.
(Dr. Chowdhury Ishraq Uz Zaman writes from Ottawa, Canada)