PRESIDENCY COLLEGE – THROUGH A PERSONAL LENS
We are shaped by the institutions of our childhood: by our family, school and college. They make us what we are today; they will continue to exert their subtle, invisible influence on us in the future. Of these three, our family is divinely chosen and our school is selected by our parents. College is something which we can choose for ourselves; or sometimes, it happens, that the college chooses us.
When I had completed my Higher Secondary examinations way back in the early 1990s, I had only one ambition in mind – I wanted to study English Honours (growing up on a diligent diet of English fiction, I could not imagine studying anything else). There was a three-pronged road ahead of me: I could continue in Lady Brabourne College from where I had done my plus-two, or I could study in Jadavpur University (then a rising star in the academic firmament, not yet the unchallenged monarch of all things English), OR I could go to Presidency College.
Presidency – the name evoked extreme reactions whenever I suggested that maybe I would like to go there. Some sighed in appreciation – it was the foremost educational institution of Bengal, if not India. Some sneered in condemnation – it was a ‘dead elephant’, all the glories were in the past, the Naxalite Andolan and subsequent political interference had irrevocably damaged not just the famous Tower Clock, but also the towering supremacy of Presidency.
But despite the tarnish, Presidency beckoned. It lured with its old, noble buildings – the hallowed corridors and high pillars. It tempted with the promise of cosy classes and mentoring teachers (at that time, there were only 20 seats in the English Department and 9 teachers – an almost impossible to believe teacher: student ratio).
Queues for admission forms were long, snaking out of the gates almost to Coffee House, the iconic intellectual (some pseudo, some real) meeting place. I was amazed when the student volunteers tried to make me take more than one form, “How can you be sure that you will get into Eng Hons? Why not apply for another subject, so that you will have a better probability of getting into this college?” I argued that I was interested only in English, if not here then elsewhere. Elsewhere? The volunteers looked at me in disbelief, almost as if I had uttered a blasphemy. That was the Presidency effect. It was like a religion – before entering, people might be skeptical; but once they were admitted, they were converted for life.
But admission was not easy. Presidency would not allow you to rest on your board examination laurels, it tested your mettle through admission tests (So did Jadavpur and St Xavier’s, to be fair). 1000 applicants. 20 seats. And a question paper that tested your feet-on-the-ground as well as gave you wings to fly.That paper set the pattern for the three years of Presidency experience. We learnt the ground realities even as we dreamt of flying. Academically, we were rubbing shoulders with some of the brightest brains in the city.
They came from the both sides of the great social divide – the elite city schools and the obscure rural schools. But though the differences in dress, speech and manner would be marked in the beginning, by the end of three years there would be a mutual rubbing-off of corners and the posh and the non-posh would mingle amicably in the Presidency cauldron.
Acting as the Great Leveller were certain factors: Pramod-da’s canteen, student politics and Milieu, the annual college fest.
There were many students who would bunk classes religiously, hang out the whole day (and a large part of the evening) in Pramod-da’s dilapidated canteen, smoking up a storm (some legitimate cigarette smoke, some hazy illegal marijuana fumes) in animated addas, and drowning in cups of toxic tea and requited/unrequited love. Whatever our subject, most of us majored in Canteen Hons. Friendships were forged over the fish-chops (God only knows what variety of fish ) and parchment-tough-luchi with alurdom supplied by Promod-da (on credit, of course, very few people ever paid cash – many of my batch-mates still have outstanding debts, I suspect). Promod-da survived on debt, and we survived on recycled/stale canteen food. Only the really studious types, those who never set foot in the canteen, brought tiffin from home. In that, too, there would be a culinary divide: the Eng Hons girls would opt for home-made sandwiches cut into dainty triangles in pretty plastic boxes, whereas the Bengali or Philosophy students would bring rooti-tarkari (chapatti-bhaji) in sturdy aluminium tiffin cases.
Spilling over from the canteen into the Students’ Union room, students would reorganize themselves into different sides of another great divide – the political groups of Organised Left, ultra-Left and anti-Organized Politics. Elections would be vigorously campaigned and hotly contested. When I was in studying in 1991-1994 and for most of the years thereafter, the Presidency College Students’ Union was controlled by a majority of Independents. These students (and others who voted for them) were keenly aware of political developments, and they had their own voice; but they did not want that voice to be hijacked by the comrades of any outside Party.
Local issues were as important as national ones; once the Prinicipal was gheraoed because he had requested the Municipal authorities to remove stray dogs from the College premises. He regarded them as a menace, but to us the dogs were intrinsic to the charm of the College – a special favourite was Milieu, the brown-and-white non-stop-tail-wagging mongrel born during the festival of 1993.
The skills in slogan-shouting and poster-painting had dual utility – they came in handy during the elections and the college fest. During Milieu, the corridors and the classrooms would be transformed with colourful posters, and the slogan-shouters would usually win all the debates and JAMs (Just a Minute-extempore competitions). Headbanging and heartbreak would both be common, especially on Western Music nights, aided by bottles of cheap rum or bangla (country liquor) smuggled under the nose of the sharp-eyed but soft-hearted darwan, Johnyda.
It was not just about extra-curricular activities, though. At heart, most of us were serious about studies, and the classes were always well-attended. Lectures would sometime continue way beyond the ringing of the bell, and sometimes topics, especially from Literature or Cinema, would be hotly debated in the corridors or canteen. The usual Science-Arts discrimination did not exist in Presidency – many of my friends in Statistics or Economics were as well read in Camus and Sartre as the Humanities students. The Bengali Honours students were often thoroughly versed in English classics, (and vice-versa), making for spicy inter-cultural literary discussions. The Calcutta University syllabi did not restrict our reading or interest in literature: Milan Kundera, Kafka and, of course, J D Salinger had their loyal cult-following despite being absent from the syllabi. Discussion on books and films would often create an intense atmosphere conducive to the sparking of romance: many a girl was wooed by comparison with a fictional heroine, say Banalata Sen or some such.
All departments had their quota of charismatic teachers, and the unique practice of having weekly tutorials (two students per teacher) encouraged a level of academic interaction which often continued well beyond college years. Of course, classes in Pass subjects would see a rush for the back benches which would facilitate undetected dozing, and many would slip out of the back doors after the roll-call was taken by the teacher.
But, miraculously, despite the overcrowding of the canteen and the whole-hearted political, cultural and romantic activities indulged in throughout the year, most of the students would perform very well in the examinations, and the list of University –toppers would invariably include a large number of Presidencians. A case in point: in 1994, there were four first-classes in English in Calcutta University, all of them from Presidency.
This awareness of excellence did not come from arrogance, it stemmed from self-confidence as well as from the fact that we were part of an institution which had produced leaders in almost every field of human endeavour. When the College celebrated its 175th anniversary celebrations in 1993 (delayed for a year because of the Babri Masjid riots), we witnessed in awe a never-ending stream of luminaries (Amartya Sen, Jyoti Basu, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, Budhdhadeb Bhattacharjee, Ashim Dasgupta, Ashin Dasgupta, Aparna Sen, et al) visit their alma mater. This sense of being part of a great tradition helped a lot in keeping us focused despite the diversions of College experience.
But we were keenly aware of the shortcomings, also. The sudden transfer of brilliant professors, the ages-old syllabi which refused to respond to current changes, the risk and gamble of any Calcutta University examination (the gap between effort and result would sometimes baffle the student), were all taking a toll. The slow ruin of reputation could only be reversed by autonomy, with an informed and forward-looking management at the helm.
In 1994, when we passed out, autonomy was a distant dream. But what we did gain, in our three years (in some cases, more, because dropping a year or two was not considered unusual) in Presidency was a richness and variety of experience, a consequent increase in confidence, and a network of friends which has outlasted three years. We also became part of an exclusive ‘brand’ – which has helped immensely in our later careers, for example, in job interviews all over the world. And of course, some of us also gained our life-partners in the green fields and spacious classrooms of Presidency, but then, that is another story.
Contributor Sucharita Sarkar is a teacher and a mother based in Mumbai. She has contributed earlier in Pentasect. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.She is also one of our consultants for our upcoming Film documentation project on Presidency College, Calcutta.
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