My Grandfather, an Eminent Professor, and His Three Illustrious Sons

Agra College astronomy
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Ashok Sarkar (born 1929) retired as an Air Commodore from the Indian Air Force. He was awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM) by the Indian government. His career included commanding a number of Air Force field units, and a diplomatic posting at the Indian Embassy in Moscow during the 1960s. He was an outstanding student and sportsman in his youth, and after his retirement, he was an inspiration for young sports talent in Agra, his hometown. He continues to run a play-school for young children, a labour of love he founded with his late wife, Chitra, and enjoys a quiet life nurturing the prize-winning flower garden at his ancestral home in Agra.

My grandfather, Shri Beni Madhav Sarkar, was born in the 1870s in a well to do Bengali family of landlords. They grew Daab (coconut plants) in their fields in the Hooghly district of Bengal. Unlike others in the family, he showed a great liking for studies, particularly mathematics. As such, he pursued higher studies at Presidency College, Calcutta.

After completing his studies, he took up a teaching job in Aligarh University. Prof. Sarkar was an accomplished mathematician. For example, he contributed mathematical questions to leading journals published in England, such as the Educational Outlook.

And, he was a very handsome young man. He soon attracted the attention of another Bengali, Dr Ghosh, who was the first Indian Civil Surgeon posted at Balrampur Hospital in the United Provinces (renamed Uttar Pradesh after Independence). Dr Ghosh had only one daughter, named Leelavati. Somehow, he coaxed my grandfather to marry his Leelavati, who was quite suitable as she was an accomplished lady of parts.

Dr Ghosh's plan was to keep his son-in-law and daughter both under his stewardship. But, this did not work out, and my grandfather moved to Agra in 1907 to take over as Head of the Department of Mathematics & Astronomy at Agra College.

While during the day, he devoted all his time to teaching mathematics at the college. At night, he spent hours with his telescope, carrying out astronomical work in the company of his wife.

The department of astronomy established by Prof. B M Sarkar was one of its kind in India. The college attracted students from far and wide, to study astronomy in particular. Unfortunately, he passed away, when he was 50 years old. He left behind a large volume of rare books and literature on mathematics and astronomy. There was no one to carry forward his interest in astronomy, and Agra College's Department of Astronomy sadly came to a close upon his demise.

During the 1950s, my grandfather's name somehow resurfaced in Agra. A road in the Delhi Gate area was named after him. Strangely enough, the road starts from the point in front of the house, from the roof of which, once upon a time, most of his astronomical work emanated.

Beni Madhav Sarkar Road Agra

Prof. Beni Madhav Sarkar Road, Agra

Illustrious sons

Prof. B. M. Sarkar had three sons, each distinct from the other in his qualities.

His eldest son was Charu Chandra Sarkar, who was handicapped due to an infantile accident.  On one occasion, Prof. Sarkar faced pressure from his wife and other relatives to add one extra mark to Charu's MA mathematics total marks. This extra mark would have enabled Charu to become a lecturer in Mathematics at Agra College. But, Prof. Sarkar was a very principled man. He resisted the pressure, and gave the job to another student, who had actually scored one mark more than his son had. Nevertheless, Charu went on to become the Principal of Shia College, Lucknow, purely on his mathematical prowess and administrative ability.

Prof. Sarkar's youngest son, Sudhir Chandra Sarkar, my father, was a born cricketer of unusual talent. He was a left-handed batsman. They say that shops in Agra would be closed on the day that he was slated to be playing a match. Immediately after his graduation, he got a job as a tutor in Daly College, Indore (meant for the Princes) purely on his cricketing ability. Later, when he went to Leeds University, UK for further studies, he was duly honoured with university colours. He remained a man of great principle and honesty throughout his life.

Prof. Sarkar's second son, Sushil Chandra Sarkar, was an intellectual. He began his career as a Zoology lecturer in Agra College, but soon went to England to pursue his research on Cobra snake heads, his pet subject. In those days, the journey from Bombay (now Mumbai) to London was by sea, via the Cape of Good Hope.

He carried half a dozen live Cobras in a pitcher as part of his luggage. When his ship was near the Port of Aden, he decided to air the snakes. As soon as the lid of the pitcher was opened, one of the snakes crawled on to the deck. What a commotion! He was asked to throw all of the snakes into the sea. But, he somehow managed to retain two of the snakes after killing them, so that he could complete his research in the University of London.

He completed his Ph.D. in double quick time and was made a Fellow of the Zoological Society of England - a rare honour for a young scientist - and was enrolled for the D. Sc. program. Besides, he joined Queens College London in the teaching department. Nancy L. Blakestad's Ph.D. dissertation (1994) at King's College of Household & Social Science, Oxford University, states: "The first research student in biology, Sushil Chandra Sarkar, undertook research on the teeth and salivary glands of Indian snakes."

By now, financial assistance from home in India started drying up. The teaching job salary was spent mostly on research work and personal needs. At times, when he was broke, he would sit on the pavement, displaying a placard - ‘Indian Palmist & Astrologer'. He made a substantial amount on repeated occasions, as he had a deep knowledge of both.

Midway during his research, Dr. Sarkar he had to return to India, due to repeated calls from home, particularly his mother, who wrote that the family needed him in India. On his return in the early 1930s, he was appointed Principal of RBS College in Agra, popularly known as Rajput College. Apart from various curricular activities, he also introduced compulsory military training for both students and teaching staff of the college. He established a firing range for shooting practice. His love for music inspired the students to take it seriously enough to form a band, which soon became the talk of the town.

In order to ensure that none of his students was party to any nefarious activities, Dr. Sarkar introduced a system of roll call twice a day, to ensure that their presence was recorded in house. During that time, a young boy was killed in the vicinity; one of the students of RBS College was suspected by the British administration of involvement in the death. However, the Warden had proof of his presence in the premises in the Roll Call register at the time when the crime was committed, which proved that he was not involved. The Principal and the Warden fought in vain to prevent their student's wrongful arrest by the British authorities. In protest against this attitude of the authorities, Dr Sarkar decided to tender his resignation.

By now, he had already started a charitable homeopathic clinic in his spare time. When he gave up the job of Principal, he devoted all his time to studying and practicing homeopathy. In a couple of years, he set up a huge practice as a full-time doctor. He worked almost 20 hours a day!

A true philanthropist to the core, he provided free treatment for the poor, but charged high fees from well-off people, such as Princes and Nawabs, who came from all over India. His charismatic personality and manner of presentation were so reassuring that his patients almost got cured by his talk alone!

Because of his charitable work, he was elected to the Agra Municipal Corporation Committee and played a leading part towards the development of Agra city.

Because of his high scholastic qualifications and experience, he was made a member of the Agra University Senate. By his influence, he brought eminent teachers from Bengal and South India to head various colleges under Agra University. He set up a competent sports department in the university to monitor and involve all colleges to ensure participation in the various all India inter-varsity competitions and tournaments. He would regularly invite army and air force officers to select the teams so that no partiality or corrupt means was employed in team selection.

In 1948, I was a prominent member of the Agra University cricket team. We played the final match of Rohington Baria Tournament at Lucknow, against the Bombay University team, which contained no fewer than five Test players. He not only personally travelled to witness the match, but also ensured that Principals and others from the various colleges under Agra University were present to cheer the boys. This was his degree of devotion and sincerity towards whatever work he undertook.

I happened to be Dr. Sarkar's favourite among all other children in the joint family. He not only encouraged me to take on sports in a big way, but also personally came to see me playing, to observe how I was performing in every important match. In 1941, to the surprise of the huge crowd present, he came to see me participate in my school's athletic championship. He was extremely happy when I became the school's athletic champion. Despite his very heavy schedule of work, he would invariably come, even if for a few minutes, to encourage me.

He passed away in 1966, when I was posted at the Indian Embassy in Moscow.

He was a man who will always be remembered for his brilliance, intelligence and humanitarian qualities, a true son of Agra.

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© Ashok Sarkar 2015

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