School

Chem Club

When I entered 9th grade, I had to choose a club in my High School.  I was a Boy Scout and I had the choice of continuing as a Scout but I didn’t know how to swim. This meant that the First Class badge was out of my reach.  We had a choice of a few clubs and the science clubs were generally popular.  Many of my friends were joining the Chemistry Club and I decided to follow suit.  There was only one problem, I had to muster up the courage to talk to my Chemistry teacher – Mr. David Chatterjee.
 

Each school boasts of a small set of teachers who are remembered fondly across batches. They are usually institutions in themselves. Mr Chatterjee would go on to become an institution in his own right. I had heard of him even before I joined school. My brother, who is 5 years older than me, would talk to me about his school – St Joseph’s and the teachers. He spoke highly of his Chemistry teacher and to demonstrate the stuff he was learning, he would mix citric acid and baking soda with a little water and the resulting reaction would leave me impressed. He inspired me to set up my own “Chem Lab” on our balcony. I had a couple of test tubes, a piece of wire that was shaped to hold a test tube and in lieu of a Bunsen burner, a candle.

My experiments were of the smelly kind. Heating left over egg whites and letting them sit till they smelled of what else but rotten eggs. My brother told me that Hydrogen Sulphide smelled of rotten eggs. So it was not all play, I was doing experiments. I also mixed some mango pulp with water and sugar and left it till it fermented and started fizzing. My brother told me that there was a thriving colony of yeast in there, so I wasn’t really wasting my time and my experiments continued. Boot polish and homemade jam were also involved in some experiments. He also told me that cyanide was a deadly poison and it tasted like spoilt almonds. Almonds were a treat and when I did get to eat them, if I bit into a bitter one, I was reminded of cyanide.  Morbid perhaps, but the mind makes associations.

We started Chemistry in 7th grade but for the most part, we had heard about some of the High School teachers even when we were in the 4th grade. Mr Hartwell Yates, the legendary Math teacher who had already been teaching at our school for 40 odd years. Mr S.G. Bhat, the Hindi teacher and Scout Master and Mr David Chatterjee, the Chemistry teacher. Mr Chatterjee, I must admit was probably known for his mercurial temperament. As we came to the end of 6th grade, our teachers (who all happened to be female) warned us that our days of shenanigans were coming to an end. The teachers in High School (for the most part, mainly males) would not tolerate any nonsense and they would take care of us. It was unsaid but understood that corporal punishment would be meted out judiciously and perhaps a little liberally.

I went to an all boys Jesuit School and corporal punishment was par for the course. It was a hoary tradition to be caned by the principal for any misdemeanor. My brother who was the epitome of a “Holy Joe”, still suffered a caning in 4th or 5th grade when he did not show up for house games. He was not even aware that he was in the team but there were no excuses and Fr DaCosta let him have one across his buttocks. I went to a school that was originally set up primarily for the children of the Europeans in pre-independence India and certain Victorian traditions still prevailed. Think of an Indian version of Tom Brown’s school days. Fortunately, caning fell out of favor as I entered school. I digress though. I don’t remember my first day in Mr Chatterjee’s class in the 7th grade. I’m sure I was nervous and so were my classmates. He was known as “Chat” and that’s what we called him amongst ourselves.

Mr. David Chatterjee (Picture courtesy: Vinay Naresh Kamath)

Chat took his craft seriously. He was immaculately attired, it was not unusual to see him dressed in a suit. It was obvious he was passionate about Chemistry. The lab was adjacent to the classroom  and he would ask his assistant Mathai (another institution in his own right) to bring out chemicals and equipment to demonstrate experiments as he taught in the class. He had a neat handwriting and he smiled triumphantly as he worked his way down the board and balanced a tricky equation. It was as if he was delighting in the thrill of sharing this secret with his students. He paid attention to details. He docked me marks for the illustration of an experiment in my weekly test. The relative proportions of the Bunsen burner and flat-bottomed flask that I had drawn were inaccurate. He suggested that we make stencils to help us draw accurate diagrams.

Chat did not tolerate any shenanigans though. Smiling in his class was dangerous since you ran the risk of him thinking that you were laughing at him and he was particularly sensitive to that. I think boys can be classified into three camps. The first one comprises of the cautious ones who don’t create trouble in class, but are happy to be interested onlookers. The second are the ones who are generally quiet but are opportunistic and will pick on a teacher if they think they can get away with it. The third are a special breed who are driven to create trouble regardless of the consequences. At that age, I don’t think malice is a factor. Perhaps it’s a way of gaining approval of classmates, of being regarded as fearless or perhaps there are personal circumstances that cause them to act up. The last camp I suspect go on to become successful risk takers in the future provided they channel their energies in the right direction. I fell squarely into the first camp. I figured I was better off sitting on the first bench where I would not bear witness to the antics of the third camp, thereby running the risk of smiling or laughing and getting caught.

It was hard not to smile though. Chat’s command over the English language was exquisite and when provoked, his remonstrations to the unfortunate student who was caught laughing for some private joke were classic. “I say, I will catch you by the scruff of your neck and the seat of your pants and precipitate you out of the classroom, I say”! Or to the unfortunate student who loitered on his way to class – “I say, punctuality is not being on time but being 5 minutes early!”. I’ve taken that advice to heart. He detested the use of “H2O” in our class notes unless it was in the context of an equation. “H2O refers to a single molecule of water, I say!”. There were references to parents drinking scotch on the rocks and in the case of my brother’s batch, I think references to “crossing the Rubicon”. “Spineless jellyfish” was used when students did not own up to their misdeeds.

And so, I tagged along with a couple of my classmates during tea break to the Chem lab to ask Chat if we could join the Chem club. He was at his desk at the head of the lab, surrounded by chemicals. His desk usually had a packet of cigarettes, an ashtray and coffee in a flat bottomed flask . He was evidently in a good mood and after agreeing to let us join the club, he asked us why we appeared nervous and did not drop by during our breaks to see him. We looked at each other wondering who would bell the cat and then my friend Shreepal bravely said “We are scared of you sir!”. “Scared! I say, do I have horns growing from the sides of my head?” he asked us. We hesitated and as his face lit up with a smile, we smiled in relief.

Chat at his desk in the Chem lab (Picture courtesy: Vinay Naresh Kamath)

The Chem club meetings were something else. We had a weekly test from 8:30 am to 10 am on Saturdays after which we attended our club meetings. The Chem lab was on one end of the school away from the main building and playground. Chat was in his element then. He had a select group of interested students from the 9th and 10th grade and he was more relaxed. He performed a couple of experiments each week and then spoke at length about the chemical reactions and the practical applications. One week it was an experiment to detect blood on clothing (sheep’s blood from Russell Market), another week it was gun cotton and the third it was something to do with estimation of urea in soybean (or the extraction, I don’t remember). We also performed experiments in the well equipped lab.

My friends in the Physics and Bio labs were done by 10:30 am and happily trooped off to the playground (the “big field”) to play football. Our labs went on till 2:30 pm sometimes! I must confess that I sometimes rued my decision to join the Chem club, my other classmates seemed to be having fun on a Saturday afternoon while I was in a lab, often hungry. I felt the same way when I took on my engineering project at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. I worked several months with a couple of my friends on my project while the other groups seemed to be having fun doing a lightweight “management” project. We all got the same grades at the end. However, both these experiences helped me tangibly. Chat’s chem club and the discipline he instilled, helped me in my engineering project, which in turn helped me when I was in Grad School.

Our school celebrated its Quasquicentennial (125th) anniversary in 1983. A large Science Exhibition was planned and Chat was really excited about the whole thing. We all had to select projects. I was in 9th grade and I opted rather ambitiously to synthesize Rayon with my friend Abdul. We read up on the process in our school library and worked diligently on it for a while but got nowhere. We then decided to change our project to make matches. As members of the Chem club, we had access to the lab during lunch breaks and so a number of us were in the lab one afternoon, working on our respective projects. We had read up on the ingredients and the process.  Chat asked me to grind Potassium Chlorate and Red Phosphorus and I went up to Mathai for the chemicals. I also asked for a mortar and pestle. Abdul and I had planned to experiment with different ratios and I added the two chemicals in the mortar and started grinding them together. I was blissfully talking to Abdul and grinding the chemicals when there was a deafening explosion. The mortar disintegrated, so did the top of the jar of Potassium Chlorate, leaving half a jar with the white powder inside. The bottom of the pestle was missing, the top was still intact in my clenched fist. My ears were ringing, a small fragment of the bottle had nicked my eyebrow. I was lucky to get away without injuries.

I was at the first table when the explosion occurred

I was told by my friends that Chat levitated in his chair that day. He hurried over and after ascertaining that I was fine, he asked me what I was doing. When he saw the remnant of the pestle in my hand, he exclaimed “I say, when I said grind, I meant mix it gently in paper!”. I should have known better, I was mixing combustible substances. He was too shaken to yell at me and he probably felt sorry for me. He asked me to wind up my experiments for the day. My ears rang for a couple of hours after that.  The explosion had been heard by some of my friends who were playing football on the big field. The next day, Chat suggested that I try some other project. Abdul persisted with matches while I switched to mirror making.

It is a testament to Chat that he was able to secure substantial funding for the Chem projects. The projects spanned the gamut from volcanoes, to ammonia printing presses. From making matches to the behavior of electrons in strontium crystals. The last one was a project by Rahul, the acknowledged brain of the school. He was a year senior to me. Chat was especially proud of that project. I was now on my third project. My projects were messy, unglamorous and required a lot of experimentation. Rahul’s project was elegant in comparison. The school carpenter fabricated a box with a glass window in the front and opening at the sides for his hands to reach in. The insides of the box were painted black. Rahul placed strontium crystals between two watch glasses and rubbed them together. When he stopped a spark was visible against the dark background of the box. He had an electron orbital chart pinned to the wall behind him and he explained how the excited electrons jumped to a higher orbit when the watch glasses were rubbed together and when he stopped, the electrons jumped back to their original orbit, emitting the excess energy as light.  His explanation was more scientific.  It is a testament to Chat’s teaching that I remember this today (and I hope I have it right)! Rahul is now a distinguished professor at MIT and on receiving his life time achievement award from my school, singled out Chat as one of his main inspirations.

Meanwhile my mirror making was in doldrums. I was mixing sliver nitrate and if I remember correctly, sodium hydroxide with water and pouring the solution over a glass pane that had a border of putty to contain the solution. The pane was then placed on a beaker of water that was heated by a bunsen burner. The steam would evaporate the solution leaving a coating behind. I wasn’t getting the proportions right. There was no internet to scour for information, Chat did not have the exact proportions. As I worked on the project each day, I did not realize that the silver nitrate would stain my hands. We had no gloves, no safety glasses and masks were unknown. I spilt the solution on my hands and my clothes. My hands were soon stained and so were two pairs of my uniform. My parents were not pleased to say the least, two new sets of uniforms during the middle of the school year were an unplanned expense. I decided to continue with the stained uniforms until the exhibition was over.

I was getting desperate, we were just 3 days shy of the exhibition and I was the only student who did not have his project working. Chat was trying to help but he had a number of other students to assist. It was probably 5:30 in the evening when Chat came over to me as I finished yet another trial. My mind was numb as I held up the glass and told Chat that it looked like my experiment had failed. All I saw was a dullish grey film. As Chat took the glass from me, my junior, John, who was not in the Chem club but assisting us, cried out that it was reflecting! Of course, I was looking at the coating, the opposing side was the reflective surface. I heaved a sigh of relief. Chat shook my hand and asked me if I had noted down the proportions.

The exhibition itself was a success. It ran for three days and several schools as well as parents and members of the public visited us. In the interest of economy and expediency, I was now making mirrors in test tubes and reusing the test tubes after cleaning them. One of the Bio lab students borrowed a mirrored test tube. He was generally vague about the purpose but I inferred that he fancied a girl from the neighboring Bishop Cottons Girls’ School and he planned to present it to her. The duo, whose Bio project involved pricking fingers to draw blood and determine the blood group, took their own sweet time as they longingly caressed the fingers of the girls who were brave enough to volunteer to have their blood group determined. The care was reserved for girls, boys had their fingers jabbed and dispatched in quick time. Another experiment involved putting fish – back mollies and guppies in liquid nitrogen, displaying their frozen bodies and then thawing them back. They did not survive long. Cryogenics was not just the stuff of science fiction. My friend, Arun’s ammonia printing press was effective enough to photocopy the snack coupons that were handed to us and a couple of them passed scrutiny at the canteen. My friend, Hetal, unfortunately, dropped a bottle of Sulphuric acid and burned his foot. John who was in the 6th or 7th grade and had been assisting Hetal, confidently took over his Volcano project. When the exhibition ended, the stains on my hands remained for sometime. They were mistaken for burns by my fellow passengers in the bus. Chat suggested a couple of chemicals which did not have much effect. My brother sandpapered some of it off and the stains gradually disappeared over time.

A report on the Chemistry Club from my School Annual – 1983/84

When ICSE (High School passing out exams) came around, my friend from Baldwins borrowed my Chem notes. I had my brother’s copy of the Chemistry textbook by Holderness and Lambert lying around at home but I did not need it. Chat’s notes were gold! He had drilled us well and I think none of us feared Chemistry. Qualitative analysis in college was a breeze after having done it in school under Chat’s tutelage. I never met Chat after I finished high school. Years later, when the teachers were asked to vacate the school owned quarters, my batch decided to contribute our mite to help Chat. I helped coordinate the effort and Chat sent a gracious email to me through a friend. Unfortunately, he met with an accident soon after and passed away in 2002.

 I still remember snippets from my Chemistry class – “SCODS”, the acronym for physical properties of a substance – State, Color, Odor, Density and Solubility.  Magnesium ribbons being used for flash photography, the use of quicklime to light theater stages (and hence the origin of the term “limelight”).  Flame tests with different metals, sodium was yellow, potassium was pinkish in color.  Esters and their use in perfume manufacture.  The Bessemer process to make steel.  Endothermic and exothermic processes and the “acid to water” rule that you ignored at your own peril.  The brown ring test.  My classmate,  Zakir, to his misfortune, peered into the test-tube only for the acid to spurt into his eyes.  Granted, I paid a lot more attention in my Chem classes largely out of interest and partly out of fear but there is no doubt that Chat was an excellent teacher.  My brother still remembers his concepts of Valency and can balance equations.  My classmates still rattle off equations as if they studied them yesterday.  
 

When I look back, I realize that as young boys, we usually had a one-dimensional view of our teachers. I knew, even then, that Chat was extremely passionate about teaching. Somehow, I took that for granted. We were more taken up by the fact that his coffee was occasionally heated in flat bottomed flask on a Bunsen burner (a practical solution, now that I think of it) or that a classmate had reputedly pilfered one of Chat’s cigarettes on a dare. We focussed to a certain extent on his temper. There probably were reasons behind that, but at that age, we were not aware of them. Chat had a laser like focus on teaching and he was all business. He was also a lifelong Josephite, having studied in our school (under the tutelage of another legend – Mr Alvarez) and then coming back as a teacher. Perhaps, he knew what went on in the minds of the mischief mongers and did not want it to interfere with his teaching. While Chat appeared suspicious of our intentions in class, he was surprisingly trusting when it came to the lab and more so, the Chem club. We were encouraged to perform experiments, we were allowed to fail and try again and learn from our mistakes. He sent us off to Avenue Road to procure chemicals and probably badgered Fr Coelho for funds for the increasingly ambitious projects in the Chem club.

As I grew up and went through college and university, I realized that passionate and committed teachers who knew their stuff were the exception rather than the norm. For many, teaching was just a job that had to be discharged, sometimes grudgingly. Our chemistry classes were never dry. The Indian education system is notorious for bookish rote learning but Chat went out of his way to perform experiments whenever possible. He invited his brother Dr Nityanand Chatterjee from the prestigous Indian Institute of Science to give us a lecture. The talk itself went over my head but Chat wanted to show us what was possible once we graduated. The Chem lab was easily the most well equipped as well as the best maintained lab in the school. But aside from his teaching life, there were many other dimensions and layers to him and perhaps some of his students did get to know him better after they graduated but I didn’t.

Years after I graduated, I happened to become friends with Ray, one of Chat’s classmates from school. He recalled that Chat was passionate about Chemistry even in school. It was perhaps he who told me, that once, on his way home from school, the bus had to be stopped and evacuated since the passengers smelled fumes. It was subsequently found that an experiment had gone awry in Chat’s school bag and the bus resumed on its journey after it was sorted out. It strikes me that Chat was able to maintain his childhood passion and make it his career. He was available during lunch, after school and on Saturdays to help us with our experiments during the exhibition. I think it was the combination of the two qualities that made him the teacher that his students still recall with fondness. He was willing to share his knowledge and passion but more importantly, in my opinion, the most precious thing that a person possesses – his time.  He did so generously and freely with his students. I’m sure that quite a few of my schoolmates would concur with me.

12 thoughts on “Chem Club

  1. Excellent article. Well written with a lot of details. Brought back a lot of memories. SCODS being one of them. I loved Chat, and it was because of him I did my PhD in Chem Engineering. I graduated in 1981.

    1. Naveen, thanks! Incidentally, that is a refrain I’ve heard from others too. It’s rare that a single teacher inspires students to pursue a career in a a specific field. You were perhaps a year junior to my older brother – Rabindra.

    1. Brilliant! brought back so many memories especially the SCODS and his admonition of being precipitated from the classroom. Although I went on to study medicine, I find a lot of his ‘chemistry rules’ useful when I am trying to help my daughter going through her O levels (ICSE). He made teaching so very passionate. A true inspiration indeed!

  2. Rajesh, your writing takes me back to a simpler and very enjoyable stage in my life. I only spent three years at SJBHS, but consider myself a life long Josephite. I saw Chat for the person I experienced in the classroom. I remember Chat often referring to me as “nightingale” in front of the class as I was “voluntold” along with Biju and Sandeep to sing the school anthem in assembly. Remember witnessing the many receivers of Chat’s fury and to be honest, I would sometimes wonder where the deep appreciation for Chat would come from. As kids
    and young adults, we spend time focused on the stories that evoke laughter rather than appreciation. Your writing helps me see things from a different light and at times leaves me with some regret for not fully appreciating and understanding the people that I have crossed paths with. Thank you for putting your experiences in words. Chat remains alive.

    1. Thanks, Everette. I’ve often wondered about some of our teachers, especially Mr. Varadhan and I feel sorry for them when I put myself in their shoes (or unfortunately, slippers in his case). The pay was paltry and if they could not supplement their income with tuitions, it probably was hard. If you were a good teacher, you taught yourself out of tuitions. And in Mr Varadhan’s case, he walked in each day expecting to be ambushed by a bunch of students who delighted in irritating him.

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