THE TALE OF A BRILLIANT BOTANIST WHO ‘SANG’ BOTANY TO HIS CLASS

When I met Murat on 23 April 2020 in Gyanpur, Uttar Pradesh, we were meeting first in the last 46 years. The meeting had elated both of us as we had been schoolmates. Murat, a six-foot tall stripling and a poet of sorts amongst us, had now turned bald, bulky, and bulbous; and you wondered if he was taller than thick or thicker than tall. Hadn’t my nephew pointed out Murat to me, I would’ve missed noticing him. As he excused himself, after our initial greetings, to dispose of waiting visitors, I looked around the palatial house he had built and the retinue of servants, engaged. A young girl, 20, led a servant with a tray of tea things to us. Later, on my asking if Murat’s daughter was still in college, my nephew told her to be his Confidential Assistant, and not his daughter. Moments later, I could see her, writing pad and pencil in hand, join Murat. As Murat’s poetic phrases like “Slow and steady wins the race”, “Life is but an empty dream”, and  “These are the times that try men’s souls” wafted to me, as smooth as silk, my thoughts flew to Dasharath Sir, my botany teacher at college.  

I could see Dasharath Sir, his eyebrows arched up emphasizing his words; specs half-way down his nose saddle making way for his sight at his listeners; head tilting – and nodding – to the students once to his left, and then, to his right; eyes glowing up as if they were showcasing the tumult of thoughts in his head; and every bit of his face as if shouting from the rooftops that nothing else, except what he was talking about, mattered. He talked – nearly sang – botany to his class as smooth as a poet recited his poems to the audience. He never used a note scribble – as others did – to teach his class; ‘danced’ in front of students as he talked to them; forgot the time and place as he taught; and his classes always overflowed with students.   

If you happened to be in T.D. College, you would find mass of students huddling across the doors and windows of a classroom. You would know straightway that Dasharath Sir’s class was on. You would find huddlers listening to the discourse in class with rapt attention.   Many students of DAV College of the town kept track and wouldn’t ever miss Dasharath Sir’s classes.   Speaking about flowers, he would talk of sepals, petals, and other flower-parts. Discussing sexuality of plants, he would talk of anther, ovary and other generative parts. And finally, he would lace all of them together in structure and function. He would do it with the deftness of an expert bead stringer. When he talked of the plant kingdom, terms like Cryptogams, Phanerogams and other plant groups, would come from him as if automated. It seemed he saw visuals of evolution of plants. He unknotted the taxonomic tangles with matchless skill. And it was a taxonomic tangle that had taken me to his house.   

As I posed the botanical puzzle I was struggling with, he asked for my exercise book and began jotting down solutions there, his whole torso shaking as he wrote in his bold, and large, and hard, hand. The table creaked under the pressure of his writing as he murmured the words while he wrote them down. A mere 10 lines of his scrawl would fill a page where I could’ve easily fitted 20. When he had filled five pages, a sharp shriek from inside broke his focus and he went in, in a huff. When he returned after half an hour, he told me he would’ve to take care of his daughter and asked me to meet him later.  

Later I learnt his daughter, 13, was suffering from cerebral palsy since her birth – stiff, tight muscles that couldn’t relax in some part of her body; she, walking on her toes instead of on the flats of her feet; rigid, difficult-to-move joints; inability to control movements of her limbs; and eating and talking, always a battle. I couldn’t regret enough to have visited him when he was busy nursing his daughter. His disciples had ascended to various leadership positions in society – eminent scientists, civil servants, Vice Chancellors, heads of research organizations, police and forest officers, colonels, and brigadiers – and I wondered if anyone of them knew the constraints he had lived through. I’m sure they hadn’t; Dasharath Sir wasn’t a person to reveal his private affairs to you, to anyone. What an enormous soul, and what a fateful fate!   

Murat finally urged that “We have no time to stand and stare, get on the job with aplomb and dare”. He was talking as if he were addressing a gathering of 200 and not 20. His loud appeal broke my reverie. Visitors lined up to touch Murat’s feet.  I could see that Murat’s poetic prose had thrust him within the striking range of the crown. Murat hobbled towards us. His Confidential Assistant began jotting down grievances of the huddlers.  I wondered if Dasharath Sir would have liked to exchange his place with Murat’s.  My conscience instantly scolded me that he would never do that. I knew it would be absurd even to hint he could do that. Dasharath Sir did what he did to his class because he lived botany, he loved botany, he dreamt botany, and he breathed botany. He didn’t do it because someone would pay him through a huge house, a hoard of servants, or a place in power structure.  

Dasharath Sirs wouldn’t rest in peace without knowing the puzzle called botany to perfection as Ram Bahadurs wouldn’t rest in peace without loving the forest and without living the forest.

If you’re lucky you may meet a Dasharath Sir; and if you do, observe – and absorb – his missionary zeal, humanities, and warmth, as much as you can. Dasharath Sirs, like Jaan Baksh, are angels  with an eel-like flair to slip off to the crowd, and once they slip off, you might miss them for life.  

Be on look out.

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