One thing that characterizes role models is success and fame. Hence Sachin Tendulkar, Shahrukh Khan and their ilk are the role models of today’s youth. These personalities symbolize success and power attained through some parameter of excellence (sublime batting and over-acting in these specific cases) and there is definitely worth in looking upto that. But are successful people, in the accepted sense of the word, the only people worth worshipping? I am sure all of us agree that that should not be the case. The worship of success to the exclusion of everything else is one of the fundamental problems of Indian society and such role models only affirm the “success is everything” paradigm. Success in itself is not the problem. It is just that the parameter of determining it is almost exclusively money and power.
So lets look at a true role model. He is not a politician. He is not an artist. He doesn’t flex biceps or bring crowds into the stands. He is not part of the “India shining” crowd of self-aggrandizing CEOs. In short, he does not meet the parameters of success which we have come to accept.
His name is Gopal Chandra Patra, principal of Baikunthapur Primary School, in West Midnapore district of West Bengal. Beginning his life as a daily laborer he got a job in a primary school in the backwaters of Bengal in 1974. If going from a laborer to a teacher wasn’t inspiring enough what he subsequently achieved is what makes him a giant among men. He set about creating a library and a science laboratory in his school. Where did the money come from ? It was his own; as a rule he donated half of his meager 8000 rupee salary back to finance facilities in the school he supervised.
He inspired a 70 year old illiterate man to learn to read, campaigned tirelessly against the ills of alcohol which plagued his village and organized health camps. Nine children with heart ailments were treated successfully due to his efforts. Of course he got no help from government agencies but then whets new about that ? His meager health and earnings atrophied but not the idealism inside him. He was diagnosed with gall bladder cancer but he carried on with the same fervor even as his life foirce seeped out of him. Ultimately recognition came to him from Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Trust and from the Telegraph which, in a star studded event with Sonia Gandhi as chief guest, recognized his contribution and his idealism. In an emotional acceptance he fought back tears as he accepted the award in his wheelchair and worried about what would happen after he is gone. The next day at the age of 53 he was no more.
In an age when many teachers have been reduced to becoming salesmen with reading glasses, Gopal Chandra Patra symbolized the true “acharya” or someone who instructs by his “acharan” (behavior). It is stories like Mr Patra’s which the media should be carrying for here was a life to live by. Unfortunately with the exception of newspapers based in Bengal, no other Indian newspaper carried anything about him. I suppose Shahrukh Khan turning 40, the re-release of Mughal-e-Azam, the never-ending death drama of a terrorist who won the Peace Prize and Uma Bharati’s tantrums are more newsworthy than the simple story of a man who symbolized courage and sacrifice.
Of course most of us are not going to change our behavior after reading his story. But maybe that is because this is just one story. We need more such stories. There are so many Indian heroes like this all over the country whose stories need to be heard. At the very least in an age of cynicism when we ascribe ulterior motives to all actions (mainly because there usually is one) it is humbling to see that there are people who do not follow the stereotype . People who can rise above the muck of our daily existence, people who show us how life is to be led, people who can bear unflinchingly what heaven sends. Which is how Euripides defines courage.