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Looking Back At The Sixties: Tale Told By An Absolute Nobody -- Part 1

Discussion in 'Snippets of Life (Non-Fiction)' started by ojaantrik, Mar 1, 2019.

  1. ojaantrik

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    “True, I talk of dreams,
    Which are the children of an idle brain,
    Begot of nothing but vain fantasy…”
    Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene


    Anyone belonging to my generation, when asked to conjure up his version of the Presidency tale, cannot help feeling a bit like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s “Rime”. The college that I attended and the age it represented have been washed away by the tides of time. Half forgotten memories cling nevertheless like albatrosses around the necks of some of us, which is a punishment that can be awarded only to people who have shamelessly outlived their allotted time in “this breathing world”.

    The shame of over-extension does not visit those, of course, who had not only been a part of that “age of fables”, but continue to live on even today in supreme glory, and rightfully so, having joined possibly the ranks of the immortal. Almost surely, Amartya Sen leads the chosen few, accompanied by stars such as the geologist Asish Ranjan Basu, physicist Bikash Sinha and several others. Nonetheless, being admitted to Presidency College following the school board examinations endowed every student without exception during that age with an aura of greatness, which was difficult to rub off outside the college premises. Middle class parents took pride in announcing that their children were the chosen ones and their less fortunate neighbours invariably envied them.

    As I remember, following what used to be known as the School Final Examination, I had walked through the gates of the college for the first time with “bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness”, to start off as a student of the Intermediate of Science (ISc) class. Admission was inextricably linked to the aggregate score secured in the School Final Examination. I should have been surprised and possibly filled with jubilation to locate my name in the first list itself of the successful admission seekers. At the very top of the list shone those who had achieved a rank in the board examination. First, second, third and so on as the list travelled all the way down in order of mark-wise merit. My name appeared somewhere near the very bottom, belonging as I did to the group that had also run, though I doubt that I ever tried seriously to participate in the “also run” race. I had probably managed to simply limp along at best, a habit that I have failed to kick till this very day.

    I maintained a respectful distance from the medalists, however, especially so once classes began. The champions were strewn across the classroom glowing in celestial glory, while a large number of us hoped as best as we could to escape notice. I recall professors, one in particular, who on the very first day that he saw us, ordered us to declare our scores, not sotto voce but loudly and clearly. Those who revealed monumental scores were further investigated. “What was your rank?” The answer could be a stunning “Third” or a “fourth”. But the likes of me were not spared on that account. Our desperate prayers to be granted invisibility having been ignored by the powers in Heaven, we too had to own up our rank-denied ignominy. The classrooms might have resembled cauldrons of class struggle on such occasions, being filled up by two sorts of students, the Prince Hamlets and the crowd of “attendant lords”.

    Whatever the perceptions of the world outside might have been, within the college boundaries, class distinctions existed. Only a handful of students were assumed to be the heirs apparent to thrones of glory, with the majority resembling strangers à la Camus. Of course, fate decreed that many a throne had to be abdicated in the course of time, sometimes wilfully, sometimes in battlefields. The anonymous beginners often transformed into celebrities and the hastily anointed ones disappeared into the wilderness with equal frequency.


    Volumes have been written about the goings on within the college premises, about professors whose names will stand carved in stone for the rest of eternity. Since the high and mighty have already sung paeans in their praise, I can succeed, if at all, in adding minuscule footnotes to them. I will try and perform that holy duty at some point or the other in this essay. However, what attracted me more to start with were the environs of the Presidency College of yore. The clock tower, next to the observatory in the main building, if memory serves me right, never worked, so that recorded time appeared to have remained frozen throughout the entire period of my student day association with the college. The Derozio Hall did not exist, though we had been promised by Sanat Bose, the then Principal, that funds for the auditorium had been sanctioned. He warned us with deadly precision though that it was not likely to come up in the foreseeable future. There being no auditorium in the college, most cultural programmes organised by the Students’ Union were held in the Physics Lecture Theatre in Baker Laboratory building. This is where we were charmed by Debabrata Biswas, Purabi Mukhopadhyay and many other renowned singers.

    This Lecture Theatre, which continues to exist, was also the venue for public debates organised by students and the most popular and unbelievably talented debater I was fortunate enough to witness performing there was Sudhangsu Dasgupta. Hiranmoy Karlekar, who was himself a student of Presidency College, was also an impressive debater. In all likelihood, around the time I heard him debate, he was a post-graduate student. Gayatri Chakravarty (later Spivak), along with Jayabrata Bhattacharjee (who was a year junior to me) and a much younger Sundar Chatterjee (later transformed into the film actor Dhritiman Chattopadhyay) regaled us with their debating skills too.

    The best of the debates that we were exposed to in the Physics Lecture Theatre was organised in the form of a “Mock Parliament” and the issue that was debated by this Parliament was the dismissal of the democratically elected communist government of E.M.S. Nambuduripad in Kerala. The dismissal took place on 31 July, 1959. It was my first year at Presidency College and I have no clear idea about the exact date of the debate. Eminent politicians such as Siddhartha Sankar Ray and Sadhan Gupta, as well as regular debaters like Sudhangsu Dasgupta and N. Viswanathan participated in the debate. Saila Kumar Mukherjee, who had been the Speaker of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly from 1952 through 1957 acted as the Speaker for the Mock Parliament too.

    It was one of the grandest of shows I witnessed during my student life and I simply cannot forget theoratorical skills that our young minds were exposed to on that afternoon. The students were thrilled and I think that the motion was thrown open to vote, but I do not remember which side won on that lovely autumn afternoon. It's quite possible that the Treasury benches won, since the Students’ Union at the time had an SFI minority and the group that dominated students’ affairs was the anti-SFI group PCSU (Presidency College Students’ Union).

    Students presented musical performances too on occasions and one in particular that has remained glued to my mind was Partha Ghose’s singing with a piano accordion that he played himself. Most probably, he was then a student of the final year of the Physics Honours course and I was a year junior to him, studying Economics. It is difficult to come up with a list of the numbers he presented, but I distinctly remember him singing Kishore Kumar’s unforgettable song “shing nei tobu nam tar shingho …” He achieved instant popularity in the college by his performance and I was told that many of the girls who attended his show literally fell in love with him. And why not? He was handsome, he was a talented singer and he was an accomplished student. The girls simply swooned and the boys too participated in their own way in the “merry din”.

    There was yet another venue for an annual gathering, the Star Theatre in North Calcutta. Students used to stage all boys or girls plays there, since university rules strictly forbade boys and girls performing together. The girls normally perfomed Tagore dance dramas, such as Chitrangada or Shyama. Boys restricted themselves to plays like Sukumar Ray's Chalachchitto Chanchori. Dwijen Bagchi, a lawyer in later life, was an accomplished actor. He excelled in these shows. Normally English language performances were avoided. During my student days though, English plays were staged for two consecutive years. The one I participated in had a female character in it, which was doctored upon, thereby changing it from someone or the other's wife to his brother.


    Students spoke to one another mostly in Bengali, avoiding English as far as possible. The atmosphere was typically Bengali middle-class. However, a cultural revolution of sorts occurred during the year I joined the BA programme in 1961. A significantly large number of students joined the college who had a Loreto College or a St. Xavier's College background. Most of them were fluent with the English language and opted for what was called Alternative English for the BA Pass course instead of Bengali. It took a while for the college to get accustomed to this new breed of students, but they were quite friendly themselves and those who wished to associate with them were soon part of the group. The most revolutionaries were led by a group of girls who had arrived from Loreto College. They brought a metamorphosis in the college premises, sartorially speaking. Prior to their arrival, the girls who studied in the college showed up in cotton saree clad Bengali simplicity. The Loreto girls arrived in tight fitting salwar-kurtas and their kurtas, unthinkably enough, were often sleeveless. And there was a girl, who, if I remember correctly, arrived one day in her skirts. That was a bombshell. There was a murmur of disapproval, which could have, I am not entirely sure, reached the Teachers' Room as well. But pretty girls in pretty dresses were pretty girls in pretty dresses and they won hands down. I am still in touch with some of these revolutionaries and they are no different from any other average Bengali person. In any case, middle class or not, they did precipitate a change and apparel-wise at least, the girls transformed the Presidency look ever since that year.


    The quadrangle next to the Baker Laboratory was a quintessential green, maintained in that state along with rows of the best seasonal flowers under the loving care of the Principal. A person entering the college for the first time was invariably caught by the breathtaking beauty of the garden and the bright green field. The maintenance did not extend of course to many of the other essential facilities, but this oversight was a part of middle class culture as well and no one ever demurred over such issues. One assumes though that the Principal’s office and the Teachers’ Rooms were adequately equipped to attend to nature’s calls.

    The green quadrangle was where Dipak Ghosh excelled. He was a talented cricketer and students crowded there to watch him produce over-boundaries, one after another, during matches played against other colleges. St Xavier’s College was our principal opponent and when they came to play at the Baker quadrangle, literally all the students forgot about their classes. The Xaverians' principal target was Dipak Ghosh and their joy knew no bounds once Ghosh was dismissed. It was difficult though to put a stop to his magic, which does not mean of course that he never fell prey to the opponents’ attack. On one occasion, I remember him being sent back to the pavilion by the captain of the St. Xavier’s team, Shivaji Roy I think, who caught Ghosh in the slips. Among Dipak's many cricketing achievements was the number of glass windows in the Baker Laboratory Building that his boundaries managed to smash into splinters.

    Yet another accomplished cricketer was Bikash Sinha, whom I have mentioned earlier. However, there was a fundamental difference between the likes of him or Partha Ghose and Dipak Ghosh. Sinha and Ghose were successful students as well, which Ghosh was not. He was a student of the Mathematics Honours course, but I doubt that he ever attended classes. I do not think he managed to complete his degree at all. On days that had no cricket matches scheduled, he sat in the Coffee House in Albert Hall, chain smoking in a quiet corner, mostly alone. What his problem was, I never found out. He came from a well to do family I was told that lived in a two storied bungalow near the Gariahat crossing. And one day, without notice, he simply died. Some told me that his family had a history of premature deaths, but I didn’t know him sufficiently well to know the details. A pall of gloom descended on the college on that ill fated day, students speaking in whispers, but soon enough life was back to normal.


    Part 2

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