Nirjharani Chakraborty, principal of Rishi Bankim Chandra College for Women, never hesitates to pick up a broom and sweep a dusty classroom or verandah. After all, she started her career that way.
Nirjharani began as a Group D employee in a school where she washed cups, dusted benches, swept floors and rang the bell. Today, she not only heads a women’s college but is also the area’s MLA.
This extraordinary story of struggle and perseverance started when she was a slip of a girl at 15, and was given the job of cleaning the very school she had passed out from. Her teachers at the Kanchrapara Girls’ School had been kind to her, she says. They realised that if she wasn’t given the job she would have to quit studies and become a housemaid.
“The job saved my family and helped me study,” recalls the 54-year-old, whose name means a free-flowing spirit like a waterfall. “I was just 15, so it was an unofficial arrangement. For three years I worked as a Group D employee and when I turned 18, the post was regularised.”
Her problems had started when her father, a railway clerk, retired. She was still in school and there were four younger siblings to feed. His pension was simply not enough to keep her in school but she was so bright and so unwilling to drop out that her teachers waived her fees, fed her, and even bought her books. After she passed out in 1968, they pleaded with the school managing committee to give her a sweeper’s job which had a monthly salary of Rs 60.
“Soon there was a vacancy for a clerk and the teachers recommended that I be promoted, so I started handling the school accounts, the attendance registers and correspondence. My salary was raised to Rs 115. By that time I had also started studying for my BSc at Bankim Chandra College for Women at Naihati,” she says.
Today, she is principal of this very college. Diminutive and wiry, and dressed always in a starched cotton saree, Madam
Principal rarely screams, preferring to assert herself in a quiet but no-nonsense way. She lives in a comfortable house owned by her husband but it is still a humble dwelling and not ostentatious in any way. Nirjharani hasn’t forgotten the help that friends and teachers gave her along the way. Her morning job didn’t allow her to attend the first two classes in college, but her lecturers and mates were only too willing to pitch in with notes and extra classes.
When she graduated in 1973, with a first class degree, her old school offered her a science teacher’s post. She enrolled for a teacher’s training degree and got a first class here too. It was considered on par with a BEd honours degree and with this she went on to enroll for and complete her MEd. “It was then that I applied for a lecturer’s position through the West Bengal College Service Commission. I was allotted a post in the Nahata Women’s College near Bongaon in 1986 and taught there for 16 years. I used to travel eight hours a day, she says.
Even this was not enough. Soon she was researching her PhD and was awarded a doctorate in 1991. “By then Rishi Bankim Chandra College had trifurcated and a morning women’s college had started. The College Service Commission advertised for the principal’s post. I sat for the exam and qualified,” she says.
In 2002, she took over as principal. The new job honed her leadership skills. She took the lead in organisational politics for college teachers and became vice-president of the CPM-backed West Bengal Principals’ Council. But even the twists and turns of her life had not prepared her for the surprise that lay ahead. Her astounding success had not gone unnoticed. The CPM chose her to contest the assembly elections from Bijpur that covers Kanchrapara and Halisahar. “It came as a big surprise, honestly. But I accepted the challenge and won by over 17,000 votes against Trinamool Congress’s Kalyani Biswas,” says the MLA. She is perhaps the only college principal-cum-MLA of the state, and wears both hats with ease.
“Since mine is a morning college, I can also attend Assembly,” she explains. “Also, I get the whole day to move about my constituency.” She is now busy clearing the decks to build a flyover and dredge a canal in Kanchrapara, a district town that is seeing rapid growth. And in the middle of all this, she still finds time to wipe blackboards after class hours.