Bidyanagar: As Pranab Mukherjee was sworn in as the 13th President, a band of his friends from West Bengal recalled with nostalgia the days spent with him.
"Our friendship never waned though Pranabda quit college in 1968 to join active politics as a member of Bangla Congress," said Mahadev Sinha, Principal of Bidyanagar College here in South 24 Parganas district where Mukherjee had begun his career as a lecturer in political science and history on August 8, 1963.
To him and a few others there like Prodyut Kumar Mondal, now a retired professor of the college, Mukherjee is but a phone call away. "We often speak to Pranabda over phone. He spoke to us even when he was contesting the presidential poll. He wants to know even small details about the college. His memory is remarkable," they noted.
"Despite his high rank and stature he has remained the simple man that he was. He shares telebhaja (deep fried vegetables), which is among his favourite food, and muri (puffed rice) with us," Sinha said recalling that Mukherjee used to have 'addas' with them during his visits to Kolkata. Mangoes are his other weakness, they recollected.
"Pranabda as a teacher had excellent rapport with the students ... He always behaved well with them and was always punctual," says former student Sunil Gorai, who later became the librarian of the college.
Mukherjee taught Indian politics, Indian Constitution and foreign constitutions in the college. He became a member of the governing body and its vice-principal in 1965.
Harendranath Majumder, who was a minister in the Bangla Congress regime during the 1960s in the state, had spotted Mukherjee at the Bharat Sabha Hall library and had got him the job at the college, where he was the governing body president. It was Majumdar again who helped him to join politics in 1966 and the rest, as they say, is history.
During his stay in Bidyanagar, Mukherjee used to go along a mobile library to nearby villages on weekends. He took the cause of spreading education so seriously that he made the entries in his own hand and tried to create readership. After classes, Mukherjee would train teachers of nearby Bidyanagar primary school, Gorai said.
Mukherjee used to reside in the college quarters and always had a good word for each worker there, recollected Biswanath Kuley and Chandranath Bera, who were in charge then. His easy ways and ready laughter is remembered by Bimal Jana, who in those days ran a tea shop near the college.
"Pranab Babu would often visit my shop after classes and chat with his colleagues over cups of tea ... Never saw a frown on his face," said Jana, who is now 90-years-old and bed-ridden.
He has preserved the cup that Mukherjee used to drink from at his small shop and had met him when he came to a function in the college last year.
The college will celebrate its golden jubilee next year. "We invited him to attend it even before he entered the fray for the presidentship and he gave us his word," said Sinha. The chair that he used to sit on as a teacher is being preserved by the college. "We always felt he will be a big man one day," his friends said.
In fact, the college would never have grown to its present size and stature without Mukherjee's help. From only 60 students in the humanities stream it has over 2000 students in science, commerce and humanities now. "We are getting a large UGC grant for the expansion of the science departments thanks to him," said Sinha.