Sunday, 13 April 2014

Remembering Father Gilson-By Jawhar Sircar

Jawhar Sircar
The year was 1967. I joined the Pre-Senior Cambridge class, 
which was equivalent to Class X, in the Humanities Section, with an 
enviable track record of standing last or second last in every class 
from VI onward. The crowning glory was my failure to pass Class VIII, 
followed by my close shaves in my second year in the same class as 
well as in the next class, when I studied Science in the ‘Higher 
Secondary’ stream. Till date, I have never been able to figure out how 
I landed up in the ‘Senior Cambridge’ group in Class X, after my 
abysmally-poor performance in Class IX of the ‘Higher Secondary’ 
group. The other feathers in my cap were the several warnings 
received for ‘poor conduct’, mischief and misbehaviour. In other 
words, I was an ideal bad student when I joined, not without 
trepidation, the first day in my new class. 

Everything was strange: the room, the boys, the subjects – 
no physics, chemistry or maths, only silly subjects like history, 
geography and literature. But the strangest was the class teacher, 
Father P.Y. Gilson. I had seen this strange padre in the corridors and 
had always wondered how this placid Belgian missionary, with such a 
peculiar accent and without any noticeable chin, survived the heat of 
India and the turmoil of unruly boys. I would like to flatter myself into 
believing that he had heard of me as the quintessential problem child. 

Even if he did, he seemed to take no notice of it in spite of my 
fight with an overgrown Parsi boy right on the first day and its 
evidence so prominent all over my dress. He asked me to move up to 
the first bench, which was outrageous. And he proceeded straight into 
the lessons, little realising that I could hardly understand anything, as 
I had not studied the basics of these subjects in Class IX. Be that as it 
may, I was unconsciously drawn into the stories(which child can resist 
a good story?) that this Father seemed to weave with his magical 
voice.

His narrative was so life-like that I listened spell-bound, and gently 
stepped on a magic carpet which carried me over fantasy-lands. His 
quips had a rare touch of Gallic humour and, for the first time in my 
life, I was not bored in the class-room. When the period ended, I 
could not believe myself I had actually enjoyed literature! 

More wonders were to follow as more stories came out of this 
magician's hat and very soon, I actually started looking forward to his 
classes. Perhaps the greatest transformation that Fr. Gilson induced in 
me was not only a friendly attitude to his subjects but towards studies 
per se. And that was only the beginning. As class teacher, he was in 
overall charge of my scholastic welfare. Between classes and after 
classes, he would encourage me to meet him for extra lessons to 
make up for the whole year's study that I had missed at the class IX 
stage. The special care that he seemed to heap upon me had a 
soothing influence not only upon my attitude to studies, but to the 
world at large. No more was it a hostile jungle where only bookworms 
studied and sissies came first in class. 

But, my reverie was soon shattered by the reality of the class 
tests. The dread and horror with which I had viewed this ‘Inquisition’ 
was reinforced by the sinking feeling that I was condemned to stand 
last in this class as well, in spite of my brief flirtation with academics. 
“English Essay” was the first test and I distinctly remember the 
choking voice with which I told Fr. Gilson that I had never scored well 
and that I was always at a loss with words. His encouragement could 
hardly stop the streams of sweat that flowed endlessly during the exam,
 as I groped for the right expression and the appropriate word. 

But when the results came out you could have knocked me 
down with a feather. I had stood fourth in class! My parents were 
overjoyed, my friends pinched me but nobody realised what it did to 
my confidence. The next surprise was a ‘first’ in Arithmetic. Coming 
from the Science stream to Humanities it was not so difficult to score 
and I had learnt to dream. History, Geography and others followed, 
but there was no way I could stop this new-found excitement of 
‘topping’. 

The rest was just crazy – success followed success, of course 
with a lot of toil under the constant guidance of Father, dear Father. A 
few months later, we learnt that Fr. Gilson was to leave for another 
school and in a day or two he just left! I wept openly. Nobody had 
ever treated me like this before. Nobody else could turn around a sad 
case like mine into a fairy-tale. And thanks to him, I am where I am 
today: no doubt about that.

Many years later, I was posted as Additional District Magistrate 
of Asansol and Durgapur in the Burdwan district of West Bengal. I was 
overjoyed to hear from a friend that Fr. Gilson was the Headmaster of 
St. Xavier's, Durgapur. I sought for an immediate appointment. How 
could I tell him all that I wanted to say? Here was the teacher who 
had turned my life around. After so many years, would he recognize 
me? He was the man I had referred to in all my Teachers’ Day 
speeches in all the stations where I had served as a Magistrate, at the 
dozens of school-committees on which I served as President, ex officio.
 I could hardly wait.

The day finally arrived. A strange feeling of nostalgia 
overpowered me, as my official car drove into the school with red 
lights, policemen and other unavoidable trappings of authority. I was 
ushered in from the staircase and as I walked into Father's room a 
familiar scent greeted me. He was not there, for he had to take a class 
as some teacher was absent. But he came in soon and shook my 
hands warmly. "I am proud of you", he said. He was just the same, a 
trifle older. But, I was transformed, from a picture of confidence to a 
quivering, nervous ‘student’ groping for words. Even before I could 
frame my gratitude into proper sentences, the bell rang and Fr. Gilson 
sprang up from his chair exclaiming: “Oh my God, there's another 
class to attend. And the little boys are waiting. Naughty, you know, 
like you were. I must go. God bless you, my son. Do well. But I must 
leave.” 

The good Jesuit had no time for my praises and my ever-lasting 
gratitude. He had others to tend to, to improve, to reform. 

****** 

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