You could infer the latter from his perpetually soiled shirt and tattered trousers. We of course paid him no notice, had no reason to. He did not make an appealing sight and insignificance was writ large on his face. Through a corner of the eye I had periodically seen him clean a corridor or bring in a supply of chalk to our class.
It changed the day I was not feeling well, and the teacher allowed me to go home. Somebody called my father, who was to come and fetch me. While I waited, feeling sick, in the scorching midday sun, Birubabu appeared from nowhere.
“You don’t look well,” he said, “you shouldn’t stand in the sun.”
“I am waiting for my father. He will come and get me.”
“You better wait in the shade. I will tell your father when he comes.” He added, “Come with me.”
He escorted me to what I later learned was his room. He poured a glass of water for me and then left to look out for my father.
It was a minuscule room, perhaps once used as a storage area. There was a cot, a small cupboard and a modest desk with a frayed rattan chair where I sat. Little else.
Very incongruously, right next to the bed was a cheap but rather large bookshelf. It was packed with books. I wasn’t feeling well at all, but my curiosity overcame my indisposition.
I was greatly astonished. Though I was a bookworm I seldom touched a book of poems. It seemed less connected to life than the stories and novels I read, something airy-fairy, and I avoided it. Now I had to reason to rethink.
I was in bed the next three days, but I could not get the gatekeeper’s collection of poetry out of my mind. I mentioned it to both my father and mother, and they said something I still remember: it is unwise to judge people by how they look or what they do.
My curiosity remained and Birubabu seemed a man of mystery. The following week I went up to him at the school gates to thank him for his kindness. Hesitantly, I broached the subject of his book collection. He paused for a moment, then said very simply, “Poems help me.”
We moved homes the following year and I went to a different school. I had new friends and new interests. Tentatively, I began to read poetry. Modern poetry, which at first seemed obscure and bizarre, started to make sense. I realized one understands nothing of a language unless one immerses in its poetry. Some poets became icons of my life.
Five years later I went back to my old school, which now had a new young headmaster. The school no longer had a gatekeeper, he told me. The groundskeeper opened the school gates in the morning and closed them in the evening.
When I mentioned Birubabu, the headmaster narrated an unexpected account. Birendra Sanyal was earlier a teacher in a private school in another state. When he came to Kolkata, he didn’t find a job and was forced to take a job as a gatekeeper. He left after three years without leaving a forwarding address. The headmaster had heard the rumor that he now works for a newspaper in another town and writes poetry under a pseudonym.
What was not a rumor was the fact that I was the eighth alumnus who had come to him to ask about Birubabu. All had a special memory of the man and an act of kindness to report. All remembered the scruffy thin-boned soiled-shirt man with fondness and gratitude.
An act of kindness? Sure. But I had a larger debt to own: the immense, immemorial, inscrutable beauty of poetry. Poems help me too.