The Headmaster’s Dilemma

Subha Das Mollick

Debasish stuffed his mouth with the last spoonful of oatmeal porridge – his staple weekday breakfast – and rushed out of his house to catch the 8.45 bus to Dhulogori. Debasish’s mother, the 65 year old widow Minoti, said a silent prayer to Durga, “May my son pass the test you are putting him through”.

Debasish took his favourite seat by the window of the last bench of 47B and settled down to do some reading for the special class on storytelling that he had introduced in the school time table. The children loved these weekly sessions of storytelling. A hundred of them filled the small classroom and sat spell bound for an hour to hear stories of children like them living in faraway lands. On the days of the storytelling classes, the attendance shot up. Many children had confided that they came to school only for the storytelling classes. Today, Debasish would tell the story of the Chinese boy – the village post master’s son, who had by mistake opened the letter written by an industrial labourer to his little daughter. He would raise questions on moral responsibility and generate a discussion.

How Debasish wished he could show films in his class. Films would really open up the imagination of these village children. Maybe next year. By next year he would be able to procure a projector for his school. His benevolent friend Pranab was making arrangements to buy one at concessional rate.

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The past year had been heady for Debasish – exhilarating and challenging. Ever since he took over as Head Master of Dhulogori Adarsha Vidyalaya, he got down to clearing cobwebs, optimizing space and time and injecting small procedural changes in the functioning of the school. The junk beneath the staircase was gone. The space was now used for storing sports equipment – the carom board, the football and net and some sports jerseys – everything donated by well wishers. The plot of land around the school building was now used for growing seasonal vegetables. The boys and girls took turns to tend this vegetable garden.

“In two years’ time I should be able to release funds for a new school building”, Debasish had told Pranab at the last meeting. “All I have to do is, increase the enrolment and cut down the drop-out rate.”
“Go slow, brother,” Pranab had warned him. “Don’t be in such a hurry.”
“Who knows how long I shall last in this position,” replied Debasish. “I want to maximize this opportunity and bring about some permanent changes.” “As Sister Cyril says, a school is a resource centre for the community. If the school grows, the community will grow too.”
“Be careful, bro,” Pranab had warned. “You have a knack for ruffling feathers the wrong way.”

Remembering the conversation, Debasish smiled to himself. He had, in fact, ruffled more than a few feathers when he looked into the mid day meal project. That was a cobweb that was most difficult to clean. Anupam Bose and Tarak Mandal had been managing the mid-day meal funds. The children were supposed to get eggs at least twice a week. They were served eggs once in two weeks. The children were supposed to get vegetables and dal in every meal. They got only watery dal and rice. It was on record that every day 250 children had the mid may meals. Debasish never saw more than 40 children eating on any one day. Debasish removed Anupam and Tarak from the mid-day meal project. He decided to supervise it himself – at least for a few months.

“Dhulogiri is here’ – the bus conductor shouted. Debasish’s reverie was broken. He got down. It was a longish walk from here to the school, the path winding past paddy fields and ponds. Debasish did not mind the walk. He took this opportunity to know the village better, understand the existential challenges in the lives of his students. Debasish walked past the home of the zari worker Ahmad. Ahmad, as usual, was bent over his trapeze and stitching the zari threads on to the tightly stretched muslin cloth. Taslima was helping her father. She was busy untwining the zari threads. She noticed Debasish when his shadow fell on the zari.
“It’s almost ten ‘o’ clock and you are not yet ready for school?” Debasish pulled up Taslima.
Ahmad replied, “Master ji, Taslima cannot go today. I have some urgent work to finish and I need her help”.
“Ahmad Bhai, school is equally important. Please understand the value of education. Your daughter is a bright child. She can be eligible for the minority scholarship that our State Govt has announced”.
Ahmad looked up. “What scholarship Master Ji?”
“If a child from a minority community consistently gets more than 50 per cent in her exams, she will be eligible for this scholarship – five hundred rupees a month. But for that she’ll have to attend school regularly”.
Debasish moved on. He turned back and shouted, “Taslima, you’ll be missing the story class today”.
Taslima stole a glance at her father and lowered her head. She continued her work, but a hint of a tear shone at the corner of her eye.
Debasish continued his journey along the mud path. He remembered, last monsoon he used to have a tough time negotiating this muddy patch.
Ayan, a school boy in his early teens, ran across the field and joined Debasish in his journey. The first question he asked was, “Which story are you going to tell us today, Sir?”
Debasish in turn retorted, “You haven’t cleaned your shirt properly. You must maintain your school uniform spick and span”.
“Mother was not well yesterday. I had to wash it myself,” Ayan defended himself.
Debasish smiled. A humming bird sang at a nearby tree.
“You must teach me the names of all the birds that you see here,” Debasish told Ayan. Ayan was only too happy. He started rattling off the names of all the birds.

In three minutes Debasish and Ayan reached the school. The children were trooping in. Debasish saw Bibhash, a student of class VIII watering the vegetable garden. Right now it was the season of okra and brinjal.

Debasish settled down in his office and sent for his trusted lieutenant Parimal. Parimal had joined this school as an English teacher just two months before Debasish. He was a bright and hard working young man. Debasish had decided to take Parimal under his wings.

“Parimal, let’s prepare the list of the eligible candidates for the minorities scholarship. Will you please take out the Govt circular and the results of last semester? After the assembly we’ll sit down with the list.”

Parimal followed the instructions and started rummaging through the files.

Debasish left the room to address the assembly. He was happy to see the students’ attendance. The teachers were lined up at the back. He could not spot Anupam and Tarak. He had been informed that the duo were spotted several times in and around the party office. God alone knew what they were up to. Debasish could not be bothered.

Hrishikesh and his team sang a new song today. There was also a new harmonium on the table. This was the result of an effort made by the school choir. Debasish noted with satisfaction that resources were being mobilized for the right causes.

Back at the headmaster’s office, Parimal had taken out the list of the Muslim students. There were only two students who had got above 50 per cent. Debasish wanted to take a closer look at the list of marks and the attendance list. Perhaps names of two more students could be included – two boys had got around 47% but their attendance records were good.

A young girl, Meher, stood at the entrance with a big box. “May I come in, Sir?”
“Yes. Come in. What class do you have now?” Debasish asked her.
“Sir, my mother has sent these sweets for you.”
“Is it your birthday today?”
“No, Sir. Mother made these sweets this morning. She has sent some for you.”
“Thank you so much. I will take one. Please distribute the rest among your friends”.

Meher left the room. Debasish turned to Parimal. “Do you understand the implication of this? Word has got around that minority students will be given scholarship.”
“Yes, Sir”, Parimal replied. “There will be a lot of resentment if you send the names of only four students.”
“But scholarships are not for giving away just like that. The student has to earn a scholarship through hard work.”
“In these impoverished parts, it will be difficult to convince the parents with that logic.”
“But we cannot make a mockery of scholarships. Can we?”

The-headmaster's-dilemma-2 Debasish decided to call a meeting of the parents of minority students and explain the whole thing to them and also announce the names of the awardees.

That day he was a little distracted in the storytelling class. As he was telling the story of the Chinese boy and his post master father, the faces of Ahmad, Abdul, Riaz were floating in his mind’s eye. Was he doing injustice to these parents by not sending their children’s names for the scholarship?

After the class Debasish mailed the list of four students to the Minority Affairs Department. He also announced a parent-teachers’ meeting for the coming Saturday.

Two days later, he got a call from the Minority Affairs Department. “Mr. Mandal, you have sent names of only four students. How many Muslim students are there in your school?”
“More than 200 Muslim students are enrolled.”
“So, why only four names?”
“I have followed the guidelines of your circular.”
“But scholarships are going abegging.”
“Let the students work hard to earn the scholarships. Maybe next year we can send you a longer list.”
“Think it over again, Mr. Mandal. Elections are coming. You know what I mean.”

At the parent-teachers’ meeting there was furore, as expected. Debasish read out the circular, read out the marks of all the students, but parents were displeased. They had been pinning their hopes on the scholarship. They gave a long list of monetary hardships in their homes.

One person stood up to say that Debasish was misappropriating Govt funds. He was not a parent and Debasish did not know his name. This person was a trouble maker and most probably a party worker.

Debasish immediately said, “I would like to include three parents in the scholarships committee. Please volunteer.”

The parents looked at each other’s faces. They were quiet for a while. Finally one hand went up. Then another. Then another.

Parimal took down the names of the parents. Debasish told them, “Thank you for volunteering. Please remember, all the committee members have to look into the collective interest of the village. You have to rise above self-interest and we have to ensure that next year many more students of Dhulogori become eligible for the scholarship.”

The trouble maker made a comment, “You are an outsider to our village. You will never work in our best interest.”

Debasish ignored him and continued, “From next week we shall have special tutorial classes after school. I shall stay back for one hour and so will some of the other teachers. The students will practice their maths and English lessons so that they do well in the exams. The parents who have become committee members will ensure that the students attend these tutorial classes. And these classes will be not only for the Muslim students, but for all weak students.”

Ayan was hanging around with his friends. Debasish told him, “Ayan, run and ask Haruda to bring tea and samosa for everybody.”

One year later, Debasish entered the storytelling class with Meher. The classroom was jam packed. Most of the teachers were also there. Debasish had arranged for a microphone and speakers because today Meher would do the talking and her voice would not carry far.

Meher began her story. A year ago her parents had been convinced that Debasish was a traitor. They had tried to dissuade her from going to school. But Meher became more and more attached to school. She began paying attention to her studies. She attended the after school tutorial classes and her results gradually improved. Now she is not only eligible for the scholarship, but she is also confident that she is capable of doing higher studies. Meher’s concluding remarks stunned the gathering. Meher said, “One year ago if I were given the scholarship, my parents could have repaired the roof and bought a new lamp. But now I think I will complete my studies and take up a job. Then I will move my parents to a bigger house with a lot of lamps.”

Debasish took a deep breath. The past year had been trying for Debasish. He had sensed the hostility of some of the villagers. He had feared that he would be transferred. But he had his share of well wishers who had ensured that he continued. Debasish could now apply for funds for renovating the school building.

Subha Das Mollick is a teacher of cinema and media studies and a documentary filmmaker. She is also the founder secretary of Bichitra Pathshala. She can be reached at subha.dasmollick@gmail.com.