Uma Purkayasthya is more than an authority on Tagore — she is an author, a poet & quintessential teacher
Even before the interview started, veteran educationist Uma Purkayasthya made it clear that she was more keen on talking about the Shillong of the yore, the rich heritage of the city and the collective cultures of the communities which lived or settled here than basking in self-glory.
“I can narrate the time and history of events and tell you about the Shillong of old time. I can also talk about Tagore (poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore) but please do not put me on a pedestal that I do not deserve,” she was categorical. It took some cajoling to make her talk about her works and achievements. The list is unending.
Purkayasthya came to Shillong in 1959 and discovered the abode that witnessed the making of some of the greatest works of Tagore. “I visited the Brookside bungalow in Rilbong and came to know about its history. In 1960-61, the world was celebrating the poet’s birth centenary and the Assam government put up three plaques, including at Brookside. Before that, no one knew much about Tagore’s stay here. Brookside was a deserted location before that,” she said about the beginning of a journey and quest for tracing Tagore’s footsteps in Shillong.
All her life, Purkayasthya has done extensive research on Tagore and his visits to Shillong. The bard visited the hill city thrice but there was no written document about those sojourns. Purkayasthya said it was a daunting task to find information and “I had to knock on the door of every senior citizen to find anecdotes about the man I revered the most”.
A portrait of the bard hangs on one of the walls of the humble living room of her rented house at Oxford. Her awards and honours adorn the wooden showcase. A book on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose by Kalpana Gupta lies on the sofa along with a few pages from her notebook. “My husband had a wonderful collection of books. My personal collection was also not bad. But after his untimely death at the age of 48, I did not know where to keep all those books. The house is too small and I was always so busy with work that it became impossible to take care of the books. So, I donated most of them to various libraries, including Netaji Pathagar (in Rilbong),” she said.
The octogenarian defies age. The diminutive figure moved with agility as she got up from the couch to bring her books and notebooks. She still has an excellent memory and talks about Tagore and her works on the bard in an authoritative tone.
An alumnus of Guwahati University, Purkayasthya’s first published work was a Bengali poem Kavi Pranam, a tribute to Tagore, when she was in Class VII. “I was an avid reader of Shuktara (a popular Bengali magazine) and would often send my writings for publication. But every time I would be disappointed. One day, I found my poem in the magazine and I was so elated. It was like a dream come true,” she remembered.
Purkayasthya’s works, both in Bengali and English, have been published in numerous magazines and newspapers. Her first play, Prayoshchitto (Penance), was performed on Dhaka Radio and was critically acclaimed. “My writings helped me get the first job too,” she quipped.
Before starting her career as a teacher, Purkayasthya worked in AG office in Shillong. She laughed as she talked about her nervousness during the interview. “It was before I completed my masters. Other candidates who came for the interview were more educated than me and I was so scared to face the interviewers. When I was called inside, I was at a loss. They asked me what are my hobbies and I said, ‘I can write’. They asked me about the play and I narrated the story. I could see their faces change. I knew they loved it and I got the job,” she said.
With an ailing father at home and a job at hand, Purkayasthya had to struggle to take time out for herself. She continued writing and contributing to magazines and journals. Her collection of 85 short stories, 64 essays, 25 poems and 17 dramas were printed in various publications.
Purkayasthya joined Government Girls Higher Secondary School in February 1967 and embarked on another journey. It was a challenging work but she did it with aplomb. She was more than a teacher to her students and became their friend, philosopher and guide. “I have come across many unruly children but I never believed in corporal punishment and I was determined to follow a method more literary to discipline the children,” she said. A hint of pride gleamed in her eyes and she relaxed on the couch with a sense of satisfaction.
Drama, humour and story-telling were her media to reach out to the children in school. She would compose plays and train her students to enact them. Even for teaching history, she would resort to drama. “That, I felt, was the easiest way to make a child remember lessons. For instance, when I would teach them the chapter on Alexander and King Porus, I dramatised it. I would invite a few girls in the class to play the roles. I observed that they learned faster that way.”
Purkayasthya has also written in Khasi. She has penned several essays on Khasi poet laureate U Soso Tham and freedom fighter U Tirot Sing.
The most notable among her works in the local language is Ka Shuti that is based on Tagore’s short story Chhuti (Holiday). The play was broadcast on AIR Shillong twice in 1982 and was highly appreciated. Her book, The Beacon Light of The Khasi Hills, is a research on Tarani Kanta Purkayashthya, a legendary educationist who propagated education in the Shella area. The school that he started still exists.
She was the first to translate Tagore’s Shillong-er Chithi in English. Her essays on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, particularly about his association with St Edmund’s College, was much appreciated. She has meticulously collected every article and was more than happy to share the collection with the correspondent.
The author and poet’s greatest works have been documenting Tagore’s visits to Shillong. Her book, Tagore and Pineland Shillong, is the result of years of research. It received the Lopamudra Puroskar at the All India Poetess Conference in 2016.
“In my first writing on Tagore, I had mentioned about his two visits. Later, I came to know about his stay at Sidli House on Upland Road. The sprawling Assam-type building belonged to the royal family of Sidli. I immediately went to enquire and met Manjula Devi, the then owner of the house, to know more about Tagore’s stay. When the property changed hands, the new owner promised to reinstate the plaque that was put up by the government of undivided Assam. It was never done,” she reminisced about her days of research.
Her works of fiction are reflection of life and society, the pain of partition and the struggle for survival. Her contributions were acknowledged by several organisations like Oasis Shillong, in collaboration with the Khasi Department at St Edmund’s College, Bourani Socio-cultural Organisation, Rotary Club Shillong, Nikhil Bharatiya Bangiya Sahitya Sammelan and World Community Sylheti Sammelan, among many others.
However, there was no recognition of her works by the state. In fact, the successive governments have never formally appreciated her contributions to the intellectual development of the state.
But Purkayasthya does not complain about it.
“It does not matter. The love and respect that I got from my students and fellow teachers and the encouragement of people here are enough for me. It is my asset, my biggest honour. I am grateful to many people for helping me in my endeavour. I believe in the ideals which I learnt from my biggest guru, my mother Prabhabati Sen, Prof Shyamadas Bhattacharya and Dr Usharanjan Bhattacharya (of Guwahati University),” she smiled.
“I am also thankful to publications like The Statesman in Kolkata, Samay Prabaha in Guwahati, Aphira, Sentinel, The Telegraph, Jugosankho, The Shillong Times and Meghalaya Times, to name a few, for printing my works,” she added.
Purkayasthya is currently working on two books in English which will be published soon.
It was time to end the interview and Purkayasthya again sounded the word of caution. “Do not call me a researcher in your write-up as I am not one. It was my love for Tagore and his works that prompted me to find out more about him. And remember, do not glorify me unnecessarily. I did what I wanted to and liked the most,” she said with the same authoritative tone. There was no way one could ignore her command.