2012-09-06 08:00:00

The Chain-Smoking, Cane-Wielding Teacher Who Changed My Life

 Father Camille Bouche was a teacher who would have found little favour with today’s parents.

A pink-faced Jesuit priest from Luxembourg he spoke English with a heavy Gallic accent in a Kolkata where BBC accents were the standard of excellence. He smoked incessantly, rings of second-hand smoke wafting over all those teenaged boys running down the school corridors, sometimes even dropping the ash down our collars. He used his cane liberally and stingingly. Over the years, generations of boys, fathers and sons, all got a taste of that whistling cane. If he was in charge now, someone would have surely been raising a stink about the chain-smoking, ash-dropping, cane-strumming foreign priest.

Today teachers are measured by how well they prepare children for all the competitive examinations that lie ahead. Father Bouche’s job was different – it was to fashion us out of mud and bruised grass and send us out into the world. He stayed behind with the debris of our adolescence – tattered uniforms, prepubescent moustaches and well-thumbed schoolbooks. If any of his old boys, perhaps a businessman now or a colonel or an IAS officer came back to visit the old school, they would find him exactly where they left him — in his stuffy little room, his face shiny with sweat, in a worn singlet and trousers, his cassock hanging on a hook on the wall. Now the roles would be reversed and the boys he had once caned, now doctors, would scold him for smoking too much.

In our cloistered middle-class Bengali world, Father Bouche opened our minds just by being who he was. We would hang out in his room, rummaging through his books, begging him to show us the bullet wound in his knees — a relic of World War II when the Germans shot 19 of his schoolmates and he went into hiding to avoid conscription. We were terrified of unannounced hair check days when his cane snaked up behind us to see if our hair was creeping over the collar. The jangle of his keys could silence a roomful of boisterous unruly boys. But he was also a friend at a time when we didn’t realise teachers could also be friends. “Gentlemen of good families and bad reputations,” he would call us jovially and we’d grin back at him, reveling in the naughtiness of our “bad reputations” given that most of us led fairly tame lives. Baba Jhopey (jhop being Bengali for bush) we called him behind his back — for most of us that was the extent of our derring do. 

The benchmark of a good teacher is how she teaches you the subjects she is meant to teach you in the classroom. But the mark of a great teacher is the lessons he imparts outside the classroom. And looking back I realise how much of what I remember about Father Bouche happened outside the classrooms where he taught us English and moral science and history.

RR Aiyar (batch of 1965) remembers his own father complaining to Father Bouche about how much Aiyar and his brother would fight. “Fr Bouche’s simple reply was ‘And what were you doing at that age?’” In his blog Calcutta Blues, JP Rangaswami (batch of 1979) remembers his sneakers not being particularly clean before what he thought was an inconsequential cricket match. Father Bouche insisted he clean them properly before he got to play. When he asked him later why he did that the prefect said ““Baba, it’s an important discipline, you will think better and play better if you dress properly”.

They were many things I found out about Camille Bouche as time went on. The Belgian priest wrote short stories in Bengali under the nom de plume Kamal Basu. He was a confessor for Mother Teresa’s nuns and close to Mother herself.

But the biggest lesson he imparted was in his death.

Father Bouche came to Calcutta in 1947 a few months after India’s Independence. At a time when for so many of his students an education at a good school like St Xavier’s was meant to be a ticket out of India, he made Calcutta his home. When he was diagnosed with cancer we thought he would go back to his native Luxembourg. He did but he came back. It was simply the only home he had known, it was the family that meant the most to him — those legions of boys, the malis and clerks at the school, the nuns of the Missionaries of Charity. The man with no visible family of his own gave us a lesson in family values. “Remember that you are whatever you are because of your parents,” he once told me, a lesson that my mother repeats with great relish to this day whenever she can.

I was in America when he died. I got a two line email from my sister. Father Bouche died Tuesday in Calcutta. Funeral on Thursday in Thakurpukur. Father Bouche had seemed indestructible, in a way our childhood always seems indestructible. Knowing that there was no Father Bouche sitting in his room in Calcutta anymore decisively closed a door on that childhood the way the death of a parent does.

I could not make it back for the funeral. But on that day I understood two things. Family is not about blood. The best teachers teach by just being.

When parents worry and fret over what school to admit their young ones, they compare and contrast and check IIT entrance success rates. But it’s too bad no report card exists that will ever count the worth of a teacher like Father Bouche.

I was a puny boy in school, useless at sports. But I had a sharp tongue and he would call me “my little mosquito”. Instead of trying to fit in with the rest of the boys, he encouraged me to do the things he thought I could do even if they were not part of any curriculum – debating, quizzing, writing. I remember him correcting my first serious attempt at an English essay. “Don’t try to be too clever” he scolded me gently “Write simply.”

So in the end, I must just simply say what I have said many times but without really understanding the words. Happy Teacher’s Day, Father. And thank you.

Image courtesy of Sandip Roy.

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