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     Volume 4 Issue 36 | March 4 , 2005 |

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In Retrospect

Old Friends are the Best Friends

Azizul Jalil

A little more than seven decades ago, I was born a Ceasarian baby at the Calcutta Medical College. My wife was born in Calcutta too. My wife and I have a narir samparka with Calcutta (i.e. Kolkata). Our last visit to Kolkata was about thirty years ago in 1975. This time, it was a short visit of four days and the main purpose was to meet the old school friends I left behind in 1947. The other objective was to visit Shantiniketan. However, the Poush Mela was already over and due to logistical problems and physical strains involved, a visit to Shanitiketan had to be put-off. We had to be content on return to Dhaka to watch a video of the Mela through the lens of Dr. Hafiz, a friend who had gone there in December last year and captured all the sights and sounds.

Old foggy memories helped us to some extent in retracing our steps in the city, but only to some extent. We took a street taxi and went up and down the Park Circus area to visit our respective parental homes but failed and gave up. The streets are extremely crowded and our familiar landmarks had either vanished or become unrecognisable. However, our determined effort to see my old school in Ballyganj was successful. The building remains the same except one wing, which has acquired one extra floor. The great old Botgach to the left of the gate has survived. The playground and the Assembly hall remain the same. I was happy to visit each of my classrooms where I had studied from Class III to IX.

Visiting the old Newmaket was easier. I found that little had changed since the early forties when my grandfather would take me and my brother for snacks, in small cubicles separated by curtains. An English movie, in the close-by Lighthouse or the Metro cinemas would follow. Now these halls show Bollywood movies and for Bangla movies, you have to go far to old movie theatres in the suburbs.

As soon as we reached Calcutta and established the first contact, the telephone started ringing. They were some of the school friends with whom I had studied at the Ballyganj Government High School from 1940 until we left Calcutta in August 1947. Of them, Amal and Dipankar I had met in London in the mid-fifties where we were all students. Pratip and I had met in Calcutta in 1975 and last year during his fateful visit during which his wife suddenly died in Dhaka. However, Monoshija, Nripesh (both retired professors) and Somnath (a retired doctor), I had not seen since 1947. When we finally met this time, it did take a minute for everything to came back. It was not surprising because we were seeing each other for the first time after good fifty-eight years. However, soon we were on tui terms, hugging each other warmly and telling old school-boy jokes as if time had stood still and we had not changed at all during the past half-a-century. Differences in religion, national identity, politics or the like vanished as if they did not matter at all.

On the last evening of our visit, we arranged to meet for a barbecue meal in the garden of the hotel on the Little Russel Street in which we were staying. We dined in the midst of plants and flowers, and floating candles which provided a wonderful ambience. There was a musical performance and at our request, the artists sang a few Rabindra Sangeet, appropriately including Purano Sei Diner Katha, as well as some of Salil Choudhury's popular songs of the fifties. Calcutta winters are milder compared to Dhaka's, and the clear weather, with the moon in the sky, was quite delightful. Nripesh, a bachelor, an ex-Jadavpur University professor of physics was going out of town that afternoon for some conference had come to see us in the morning and we had a long conversation. This included impressions of his annual Dhaka visits to help an ex-student organise the science faculty of a new college. Nripesh's sister was the wife of another class friend of ours, Biswajit Choudhury, a lawyer. Alas, he died of cancer last year. I spoke to his wife, Sarbani on the phone and recollected our meeting her and Biswajit thirty years ago in 1975. Retired Air Vice-Marshal Arun Roy was sick, so he and his wife Ruby called to regret not being able to take part in our small reunion. They had visited us in Washington a couple of times during the last ten years.

Amal Dutta, a former CPI (M) member of the Indian Parliament for fifteen years and a practicing barrister came with his wife who was a doctor. They had entertained us in 1973 in their Hindustan Park residence. He had left the CPI (M) some years back and has now written a book on the atrocities committed during Lenin's time. He presented me with a copy. Dipankar Ghose, a confirmed bachelor, was one of the editors of Calcutta Statesman. He also gave me his latest book on Nehru's policy mistakes. On retirement, he now represents an Indian news agency in Calcutta. In 1975, he had invited us to a generous luncheon at the Great Eastern Hotel. Pratip Sen and Monoshija Sarkar had lost their wives and so had Dr. Somnath Singha Roy. Monoshija had early signs of loss of memory and told us poetically that he had not left the practice of medicine, but medicine had left him. It was sad indeed and reminded us that we were no longer teenaged school friends in the mid-nineteen forties but septuagenarians in the early twenty-first century. Hours passed by with fine friendly conversation, exchange of notes about each other's families and common friends, some alive and others who had passed away, in Bangladesh and India. At this time, the hotel management on their own behalf presented us with a cake with a candle and "Sweet Memories" written on the top. This brought tears to our old eyes. We departed soon afterwards.

Next day we were leaving Calcutta in the evening. Barrister Nararayan Guptu, another school friend called. He had served as the West Bengal Advocate General for fifteen years. We had met a few years ago in Washington. He came to take us from the hotel to the old Bengal Club for lunch. Two of his friends/colleagues joined us at the Club- a former Chief Secretary in the West Bengal government and an ex-Vigilance Commissioner of West Bengal. The Club was in a majestic old British colonial-type building and had served as a residence/club of many British judges and civil servants in the olden days. We had an interesting discussion over lunch about the working of the West Bengal government and its anti-corruption body.

After the dinner the previous evening and the luncheon next day, all the friends exchanged addresses and phone numbers, promising to remain in touch as long as we were alive. How sweet is old and true friendship!

Azizul Jalil, a former civil servant and a retired World Bank staff member, writes from Washington.

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