Uzanbazar, one of Guwahati’s oldest localities by the river Brahmaputra, is the address of many an elite. But the locality – among its neighbours are the Raj Bhavan, Gauhati High Court and a British-era recreation club – was known more for its underbelly, almost like New York’s Harlem.
The locality’s reputation rubbed off on Lal Singh Academy, a government-recognised Assamese medium high school. Students, mostly boys, were prone to picking up the ‘trademark traits’ of the area, such as using slang Assamese and raring to flex their muscles.
As Guwahati grew, Uzanbazar lost its reputation as a dangerous place to go. The boys of Lal Singh Academy too aren’t as belligerent, but the school rarely produces quality students these days.
This is because, past pupils say, there aren’t too many teachers like Umesh Chandra Sarmah around.
Sarmah, 65, taught mathematics at the academy until he retired as headmaster in 2011. Students recall him as an educator whose strictness was soaked in friendliness.
“Lal Singh Academy is not among the best of government-run schools, and many students are from underprivileged groups. But there is no such thing as a bad student; it is the responsibility of a teacher to bring the best out of the slowest of learners as well as motivate the unruly ones,” Sarmah told Hindustan Times at his residence in Bonkowar Nagar adjoining Uzanbazar.
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After joining the school in 1975, it did not take long for Sarmah to break the mental block students develop for mathematics. He alluded to the locality, objects of everyday use and wit to drill integers, BODMAS, angles, coefficients, logarithms, calculus and probability in the minds of the students. He injected jokes to drive home the point that mathematics wasn’t as serious as the students thought.
“Teaching is about relating to students as their equal, learning from them and devising constructive tricks to ensure the students get the concept and not learn by rote. It is also about getting to know the students individually, and visiting their homes to know how they are progressing,” Sarmah said.
On one such visit 40 years ago, Sarmah came across primary school student Jiten Kalita. “I went to their house to enquire about his elder sister, one of my students who is now a senior officer in the Indian Railways,” he said.
Kalita, who now teaches mathematics at Indian Institute of Technology-Guwahati, recalled being drawn by Sarmah’s personality to choose Lal Singh Academy as his only high school option. “Words cannot describe the influence Sarmah Sir has had on me. He is one of a kind,” Kalita said.
Kalita is in regular touch with Sarmah, as are scores of other past pupils who made it in life. And some often bring their wards, studying in private schools, along for ‘Sir’ to bless.