When the announcer called his name, Dr. Ashesh Sanyal got up with a smile on his face to give his acceptance speech, carefully placing the flower bouquet, the plaque and the award cheque on the table in front of him and walked up to the podium slowly.
In his career as a talented and accomplished professor of mathematics, he has delivered many a speech with élan. The spotlight, the podium, the vast audience in the semi-darkness of the auditorium doesn’t make him nervous at all now. He has said ‘thank you’ so many times that it flows like water, the moment he takes to the podium. But today was different, Dr. Ashesh Sanyal stood at the podium contemplating what to say, perhaps overwhelmed at the honor and the award cheque, both were large enough to make him speechless. It seemed that he was looking for words to express himself. The audience meanwhile started to get restless and the cacophony of noise from the auditorium broke his reverie and started to speak with a shy smile…
You must have realized that today standing in the midst of you all and receiving such honor, I was lost in thoughts for a few moments. Some of you may even felt that I was overwhelmed in receiving such appreciation and perhaps I would say that I do not deserve such accolades, as is customary in many such speeches.
I would say, you have guessed it right, I was overwhelmed and an emotional storm started brewing inside me. Yes again, I truly do not deserve all this accolade and awards and this is not any hollow acceptance speech but I am speaking from the depth of my heart.
I am going to tell you something that I have not shared with anyone till date. You may find it difficult to digest after the reading of my citation by the chairman of the organizers here but the truth is I was very weak in mathematics in my childhood. And not just weak but really scared of the subject. I used feel feverish just thinking about it, the subject class used feel like a concentration camp. I remember, till the sixth standard, I have failed in the subject in many term exams. Once I got just 5 marks out of 100! Yes, you heard it right 5 out of 100.
To make me capable if not strong, my parents appointed a private tutor to teach me mathematics. This particular tutor had the fame of making the weakest pupil score good marks in the exams. His appearance was very intimidating to his students with a thick mustache and joint eyebrows and the eyes that were always red in anger; moreover he carried bamboo cane for disciplining his errant students. And his booming voice was enough to make my heart jump out of my mouth!! He used come twice a week for two hours a day and would grind me in an invisible machine called mathematics. I used consider him only next to Satan and hated him from the bottom of my heart.
His teaching style was really scary. He would himself solve problems after problems in a notebook reading out the steps to solve them without bothering to check if I have understood or not. Thereafter, he would ask me to solve the same set of questions in my notebook and if I missed one step or the answer was wrong, his cane came handy too easily. So, I tried rote learning of the answers but the problem with rote learning is if you forget one step then that’s the end of it, the question will never get the right answer. I think the amount of caning that I received at that time was proportional to the reducing marks in my mathematics paper.
When the half-yearly exams result were declared, I received Zero out of Hundred.
My uncle (father’s elder brother) finally got rid of the monster of a tutor and told my father “There is a guy who knows mathematics: he is quite poor, let us try him out and see if he can make the boy understand mathematics.”
I was nervous again, a new tutor! It was like jumping into fire from the frying pan. I kept praying that at least the new tutor should have a pleasant personality and temper unlike the previous monster. Somehow, I felt all mathematics teachers were like the previous tutor, always angry and ready to punish the hapless students like me.
Anyways, the new tutor came with my uncle and all my premonitions evaporated instantly. Instead of being scared of my new tutor, I was amused to the hilt. There was this lean man carrying a bunch of notebooks and papers that overflowed from his bag. He was anything but scary and I rather felt pity for him. I had gotten over my fear in him, so I smartly guided him to my study room.
The new tutor in a timid way patted my back and asked “Are you weak in mathematics? Are you scared of the subject?” then in a conspiratorial voice said “I am scared too about mathematics but please do not tell your uncle or father otherwise I will lose this job, my only earnings.”
I was taken aback. He came closer to me and said again “I don’t know much about mathematics but if I didn’t take up this tuition, I would have starved to death. Now, you are my savior, if we both try, perhaps we can help each other.”
“H-h-how ca-a-n I help you” I started stammering. Sir just caught hold of my hand and said, “I might get stuck at some point while solving, you must help me in solving the sums. You are young with fresh brain; you will surely be able to solve it. And please don’t tell anyone that you are helping me, I will get into huge trouble.”
I was dumbstruck looking at my new tutor. He was most apologetic in his demeanor and almost pleading with me in a tearful manner. Something snapped inside me, suddenly I felt empowered and decided that I cannot fail this person, I must put my whole energy in saving my new tutor. You know, when you see a person drowning, you too jump into the water to save him even if you are not a swimmer. That was the moment from where mathematics became my obsession. I decided to do the sums on my own, use logic to solve them and more importantly, do well in the exams. If I could show improvement in my results, then only my new Sir can save his job. It was for him that I transformed myself.
I don’t know if you all will believe it or not but the very next day onwards, the fear of mathematics simply vanished, evaporated from my consciousness. I started spending hours on mathematics trying to solve the problems and if I got stuck, I would put all my energy till it would get solved. Slowly I realized that problems that I once thought unsolvable are really very easy. The logical steps that used elude me earlier were now very clear. I started enjoying mathematics and would feel elated after solving a difficult question.
My new tutor also tried very hard but would often get stuck at some point and would request me to help him. Soon our role reversed, we would try to solve the same question separately and I would always come up with solution before him. He would say, “Oh, you have solved it already, I got stuck at this point, can you please explain the process to me?” I would then explain him the process as if I am his tutor. He would say “Okay, it’s that easy!” thereafter just to hide his own embarrassment he would give a tough question and say “I am sure, even you can’t solve this.” I would get even more determined and find the right process to solve it. Sir would smile innocently and say “You are really very brainy. Will you be able to solve the questions during the exams? Please ensure that my job remains otherwise you know I will starve to death.” By this time I had developed immense self confidence and would assure him “Sir, you just wait n watch, I will get full marks.”
Sometimes he would get some very difficult ones and tell me “Just see these questions if you can solve, I can’t make a head or tail of these. I think even you can’t solve them.” I would get very annoyed and leave everything till I could solve them. He would sit by me and give some tips as if asking me if they were the right ways. As I would solve them I would shout “Eureka” and explain him the process like a teacher. He would gratefully say “Thank God, you’re there to solve these tricky ones.”
Meanwhile, even in school, my teachers could see the transformation within me and would often exclaim “Your brain has opened up magically, it is unbelievable!”
I would instantly remind them “You won’t believe it when you mark my paper in the exams.”
My tutor would reprimand me saying “You shouldn’t boast like that, if you make silly mistakes or forget the steps during the exams, you will not get the desired result.”
“I will never forget the steps; mathematics is now securely embedded inside my brain. And if not for any other reasons, I have to secure good marks just for you. I can’t fail you Sir.” I would assure him sincerely.
That was the first time I saw sparks in his eyes but couldn’t make out if it was out of excitement or something else.
Doctor Sanyal took a sip of water from the glass kept on the podium and took a deep breath before starting again.
I won’t take much of your time, you have been very patient with me but my story is nearing its end now.
When the result was declared in the school, my teachers were literally taken aback. They kept saying, it is a miracle that the boy who rarely got double figure marks all these times has secured 100% marks in mathematics. My mathematics teacher had checked my paper thrice but could not deduct even half a mark, it was 100/100.
I rushed home in a euphoric state with my result and urged my father, “Please take me to my tuition Sir, and I want to share my result with him just now.” I could feel that I won’t be able to rest till I tell him that “We have succeeded”.
My father’s face was quite grave not showing any joy at my brilliant result. He said at length “Yes, I have been waiting to take you to your Sir. Let’s go.” And then as an afterthought said “Even he wants to meet you urgently.”
I was surprised to see our car getting inside the hospital instead of a house. I asked my father “Why are you taking me to the hospital?”
“Your tutor is very ill. Two days back he fell down in an unconscious state and when we got to know, we admitted him here. An hour ago he regained his senses and has been asking for you since then.” My father said solemnly.
My mouth became dry and I anxiously walked with my father through the long corridors of the hospital. My tutor was lying in a ward bed at the corner of a large room. He was thin but now it seemed that he has lost few more kilos in the last two days, dark circles have formed under his eyes. He was visibly in pain but when I showed him my mark sheet, his face lighted up for an instant. He took my hands in his and kept smiling as tears rolled out of his eyes.
The nurse urged us to leave as his condition started to deteriorate. With great difficulty, Sir spoke to my father “Please see to it… what I told you.”
“Yes, you be rest assured, I will do what I have to do.” My father assured him.
Dr Ashesh Sanyal stopped for a while covering the microphone mouthpiece with his hand, took a few sips of water and then composing himself started again.
That was the last time I saw him. He passed away that very night. My father and uncle cremated his body without telling me. Next evening my father called me and said “Your Sir had left this for you.”
There was an old file folder roughly tied with blue ribbon. Inside were three notebooks and some loose sheets of paper. All covered with blue ink depicting strange mathematical figures.
I had absolutely no clue about the texts but the handwriting including the crisscross was very familiar.
“All of it are higher mathematics, research oriented. He was such a brilliant brain, we could hardly figure out.” My father sighed and then continued “He couldn’t finish his research. These are beyond the comprehension of most people but he was confident that you will be able to take this research to a logical conclusion when you grow up. He has given his blessings for your success.”
Dr Ashesh Sanyal took off his specs and started cleaning the glasses with his handkerchief. He kept on rubbing the glasses, his eyes filling up with tears. There was pin drop silence in the whole auditorium. He was trying desperately to control his pent up emotions. Then he said …
You would have realized that I am trying to control my emotions. Yes, I wanted to stop my tears but they are not listening to me anymore and there’s a tsunami building up inside me. I have nothing more to say but I am sure you have guessed it rightly that I owe everything that I have today to my Sir. He acted as if he didn’t know mathematics and ignited the passion inside me to succeed. He let go of his ego just to ensure his pupil would be successful. Yes, he changed my life, my destiny. In fact, he has given me this life. He made me what I am today. This award, the citation and the prize money, all are rightfully his only.
This research breakthrough of Prime Number for which I have received this huge award, has been possible only because my poor, unknown Sir had written down the basic approach for the research work. I have followed his path diligently and that is my only contribution.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have decided to set up a Trust Fund with the money that I have received today for the benefit of the exceptionally talented but economically weak students of mathematics; they will receive monthly stipend from the Trust – Shibnath Sarkar Memorial Scholarship.
Yes, Shri Shibnath Sarkar was my mathematics tutor. He made me what I am today. This Trust Fund is my Guru Dakshina to him.
Note: The original story is in Bengali called WRIN by Sourav Mukhopadhyay. It created a huge impact on me and I couldn’t resist re-writing it in English with minimal changes. I offer my sincere apologies to Mr. Sourav Mukhopadhyay, if I have erred in bringing out the true emotions and nuances of his original craft.