‘Rebecca’ begins with:
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again… I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions… There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been …”
And, my story:
“I visited my Alma Mater again, as if in a dream. She instinctively opened her arms, the gate swinging out on silent hinges, admitting me to the main street now broader with a tree-lined median. Just beyond its pale, wild shrubbery from time immemorial grew and spread all around in the residential grounds. But, she stood neat and prim, glowing in the late morning light. She appeared somewhat diminished by time, self-effacing and withdrawn – as she had never been in my time, in the images persisting in frayed and faded reminiscence.”
I had been forewarned that entry into the college had been restricted. One said visitors were barred at the gate; another said, the gatekeepers asked all sorts of questions, and … believe it or not … they insisted that one left through the same gate by which one had entered!
So, full of misgivings bordering on disquiet, I drove up to the main gate, suitably, but uncomfortably, attired in my faux tweed jacket, with my wife by my side – hoping to impress the gatekeeper about my genuineness. I kept reflecting upon the facts I could summon, if questioned, to prove that I was a bona fide alumnus. I felt lame with the lament that I had not completed college here, but left in the middle.
The gate’s entry-side shutter was closed, but that on the exit-side was open, making me wonder if it was the practice to use only one side when the college was on holiday. Still, I drove up to the entry-side, and the shutter promptly swung open. I drove through without slowing down, lest I be halted and quizzed.
I found myself in a campus very dead. There was not a single soul in sight. A light breeze stirred in the wintry midday light. Construction activity in a huge building coming up on the college side of the main street gave the only sign of life at the moment.
Turning into the drive in front of the main building, I was relieved to see a few men at its entrance. I parked, got rid of my jacket, and towing my wife by the arm, I walked into the building.
The foyer looked cleaner than I had seen in the pictures posted on Facebook. But beyond that, the spinal corridor disappeared as a dark tunnel overburdened with catenaries of thick pipes and cables sprouting-here-and-burrowing-there.
We went into the first wing on the left before the staircase. It was still the Physics Department, but it looked revamped. Lined with staff rooms on the left, in its right flank, behind locked doors and grilled openings, lay the laboratories with dusty empty experiment tables. Through their far windows could be seen the empty space of the open air auditorium where we celebrated the ‘Autumn Festival’.
Suddenly, I felt a need to ask! I walked up to the group at the entrance, and addressed a man in uniform. Saying I was an old student, I asked, “Could I take pictures?” He was pleased to allow me, and got up and began to talk. My antiquity surprised him. He said much had changed since, of which he knew little though, having been there only the last eight years or so. He showed me that the very first wing on the right had been converted into the ‘Academic Section’ (where, in our time, existed the cash-counter, and behind that, the office of the Proctor). It now looked like a deep cavern filled with mysterious rooms behind closed doors. The guard asked me my stream, and was happy to assure me that the Mechanical Engineering department was in its old place. Well, I could not tell, because I could not remember where it had been.
Only after some gentle persuasion that we would find our way about, the well-meaning man left us to our means, and returned to his group, surely to recount our story.
We sauntered down the corridor. The first room on the right was the lecture gallery infamously immortalized by a pen incidentally crashing into a professor’s derriere. It was marked ‘LG1’ – for lecture gallery number one, I presumed. Its doors were all locked, but through the small hazy peep-glass on the door, I could see the orange varnished benches, still looking the same. There was that last bench on the left end, on which three of us, including Shankar Mukherjee and me, had dozed off one hot afternoon, to be woken up one by another, with an amused professor watching us righting ourselves. I was the last one to be woken up by Shankar, to find the whole class watching us with raucous, unbridled merriment. And poor me – to eliminate any impression that I had missed the professor’s joke, I had broken into a sheepish smile, making a fool of myself. Even now, the bench looked the same through the foggy pane – ready for a reenactment of the comedy.
I passed the room on the left where professor Chanda took us on Humanities (Wuthering Heights). Later, in our third year, we had had our first ‘Campus Selection’ with the Indian Navy in the same room.
Plodding further down under overhanging piping and cables, evading falling / fallen debris, we soon terminated our walk down the corridor, climbed to the first floor, and moved toward the mezzanine floor. I could not place the EE department. I passed an annex, and then there was the ME department on my left, its doors open. The inside, now revamped, looked bright. We went into it, and ended up in the drawing halls. I did not remember that there were two halls in tandem, each spreading across the entire width of the wing. The tall tables were still there, with small dusty drawing boards strewn helter-skelter. Outside the windows, some trees stood close. Were they the same ones whose foliage beckoned us to slip out of the long drawing ‘sessional’? We would go explore the upcoming sky-scrapers in the CMERI colony. We would inevitably climb for a panoramic view … But, now something was very wrong. The tree leaves were dust laden, stricken to discolour, and uninviting. I think I found the table where I remembered having worked. With Shovon Mukherjee next to me, we would exchange stuff uttering words like gaamchhaa (for the rubber) and hold-all (for the clip-file in which we carried our intellectual wherewithal), just when the vigilant teacher on duty passed by, making him frown quizzically.
I noticed some old style writing in careful cursive hand on the blackboard. Curious, I went near and found that they were questions for a test.
Walking into the second hall, I felt confused whether that was ‘the’ hall in which I had worked. After lingering to savour the moment, we came out. Along the corridor, on the right, I found a second wing marked ME department. This one had a model of a boiler behind a fuzzy glass pane on the front wall. Inside this wing there was utter chaos, beginning with restrooms on the right, door ajar into uninviting darkness. There were huge electrical panels, and cables, profuse as the locks of Medusa, but absolutely unkempt and charmless, run on overhead trays. Obviously, this wing was under ‘renovation’.
Peeping into one of the rooms, I noticed a young man who turned out to be a teaching staff. I introduced myself, and we talked, but could not relate. He was pretty new. Another teaching staff walked in. More senior, he reeled off some professor names, saying they were my contemporary. But, I could not recognize anyone except Prof. Ashoke Sen. We chatted for a long while, the subject veering to the current standard and demeanour of the students. His grouse was that they (students) all aspired high without assessing their real worth. So, he alleged, a mediocre student worth a twenty-thousand job craved for one worth sixty-thousand. He blamed it squarely on the parents, and let me know that he spared no words when he met them. He suddenly remembered his day’s business, and we had to pass up a deeper discussion on what else ailed the students.
I noted a puzzling set of equations on a blackboard, and a ‘TO LET’ sign on a door, while leaving the department.
Now, came LG2, the lecture gallery on the second floor. This was followed by a door, with a message barring gents. Then there was that small classroom, where we had the English sessional. Here Ravichandaran from Madras used to excel. The poor shy fellow had fallen prey to the charm of leftist movement of milder intensity than what was to follow.
We arrived at the first floor foyer, overlooking the drive in front.
On the left of the stair well was the Department of Humanities and Mathematics. Its signage included ‘and Assembly Hall’ – the one where Prof. S N Ray had inducted us on our first day (for which we had been warned by the seniors to wear tucked-in shirt and shoes). We entered the wing, but I could not recollect where we used to have the mathematics classes.
Opposite this wing, where the library used to be, a board claimed it as the Information Technology Department. The old library hall had been parted by a corridor in the middle, and staffrooms / classrooms lined both the sides. Here, we met our first student. Shyly, he informed me that the library had been shifted. I unburdened some recollections, recounting some of the tragic happenings that had taken place in the library hall. I hope he understood that it was more an act of reliving the past for me!
Coming out, we went up to the second floor, to find a new ‘Biotechnology Department’ just above the library. We met two staff, one relatively younger, who claimed to be the department’s Head. Now, my wife was curious, so he told her to go around and see. We met a post-graduate student, who chatted with her for a long time, and gave a low-down on the staff and the activities of the department. After we left him, we met the Head on the staircase. He invited us to his room, and spoke for some time about the department, mostly holding my wife’s attention. Finally, we left him, and exited from the building.
Outside, on the right lay a well maintained garden covering the ground where, I recalled, our civil engineering professor (Barauri, was he?) would conduct survey practical (triangulation etc.) If we were late, he would ask, “What is the time like?” Thus, I had learned the way the English inquire about time.
I wanted to run through the hostels. The Hall One grounds had a low wall, and the old path straight from its portico was gone. I asked a few students passing by, and they led us on a path through the grassland by the wall. We entered Hall One, and I took pictures of the portico, the mess, the tennis courts and the long pillared corridor to the rooms of the first and second wings.
Seeing us, a guard on duty stood up. He was friendly, and hearing me, he let us go down to my old room, number 101.
Then he guided us through the backside, where a new wing has come up. He led us to Hall Three. I asked him if the Store, which used to sell stationery, was still there. He pointed it out. We thanked him, and took the road running from Hall Three through Hall Five to Hall Four.
Across the old stream (infamous for the dog-meat scandal), which had been lined with cement, I saw a canteen opposite Hall Five. Told it was just a few years old, it looked very shabby.
Three students were settling down to lunch. We bought tea and invited ourselves to sit with them. In their final year, they had not gone home for the holidays, as one said, because they did not like to (a reflection I was able to share). They had guessed that I was an old student, seeing me take pictures. They were quite shy. One had got a placement in Polaris Network, another in IBM and the third in Dasturco. They were eating from typical rectangular mess plates heaped with rice, and mean portions of daal, an indefinite sabji, some desiccated salad, and a bright yellow runny chicken curry with red scum. We finished tea and moved on.
At Hall Two, the guard did not let us go up to the rooms.
We walked past Hall Four, where too, seeing us in front of the common room, an unfriendly guard lounging there became alert and walked over. We pushed on.
We met a student of final year from UP who had got in TCS, but was not keen. He too seemed very tame and artless. Somehow, though I had seen a very small sample, I was getting the distinct impression that either in our time we were much smarter than the present lot, or I have a very inflated image of us.
Returning to the college, we picked up the car and drove, passing between the workshops, and then through the staff quarters. Many new structures have come up, including some pseudo-religious / pseudo-cultural (like a Puja-Mandap, a Student Activity Centre – as I am able to recall now). But, I did not see the Dispensary. The rear gate looked narrower, and beyond it the open area was gone. A short stretch of bumpy road snaked through a slum-like growth, to a huge roundabout with tall railing and taller wild shrubs. The road to the left went to Benachiti. I turned to the right.
I drove in somnambulant stupor, feeling dejected that my cherished past had receded forever into a realm of dreams. I turned left into Mahatma Gandhi road, seeking some liveliness. Now much broader and two-way, past a few roundabouts the road became narrow and single, terminating at D Sector market. It was deserted, the time being well into lunchtime. Most shops had closed. One sweetmeat shop was open. But, no, it did not have fulkopir Singara, which I was looking for. The market also did not look like the one where we used to have that, with thick Kheer served in a teacup.
Then I remembered ‘Horse-shoe Market’. An inquiry yielded the fact that it is now known as Ashish Market. Asking for directions, we drove to that, to find it equally deserted, and without any sweetmeat shop that sold Fulkopir Singara. By this time, the charge of my camera was running out. We grabbed some ice-cream from a shop that was still open. Then we returned to the hotel.
We caught a nap, while the battery got charged. We left after four, driving to the City Centre. From there, we drove to Chitralaya – the road being very involved. When we reached the area at the end of the Kumaramangalam Park, the sun had set. But for some crowd in the park, the roads were empty. I could not recognize the place at all. There was a clutch of car-repair shanties. One of the fellows there gave a vague direction to take a road just by the side. Eventually we found it – a narrow road that turned off the main road, went around a sandy patch, turned right and climbed slightly to an abrupt end. There, on its left stood a forlorn, gloomy building, looking foreboding in the failing light.
Some urchins had lit a bonfire by the side of the road, and its violent flames, the darkness in the woods behind in the park, the deepening gloom – all had the most distressing ‘revisiting Manderley’ effect.
The cinema hall looked so faint that I thought I would not be able to capture it. But, I got a few shots. I wanted to go nearer, but the place being deserted and dark, and the urchins’ presence, all made my wife put her foot down. we returned to the car and drove down M G Road.
Just before the college, I turned right, and passing behind the college, drove towards Prantika. The left side of the road was as before, a dense outcrop of slums. Reaching some place that looked like Prantika, I parked. But I was told to drive further on. Eventually, I came to Prantika bus-stand. Erstwhile of DTS, it was now full of undisciplined mini-buses. I weaved through, turned right into Nachan Road, and eventually reached Steel Market. I parked and asked my way to Subhash Sweets. It was nearby. But, when we reached it, to my dismay, I found it closed, with a crowd of customers gathered in front.
Just as I was about to leave, someone came and opened the shop. I managed to buy some Singara and Nolen Gurer Sandesh. We sat on a low bench outside, and ate some, missing the old delicacies in the tasteless stuff. We put away the rest, and walked into Benachiti Market. The immediate shops, mostly dealing in the lowest denominator of merchandise, did not hold any interest for us. We back tracked, and browsed in a book shop that had a lot of local ‘little magazine’ kind of stuff. I could not buy any as the value for money was missing.
Finally, at seven we drove back to the hotel. Thus my day of a long cherished return to the memories of my college ended.
The next day, we returned to Jamshedpur, and as is wont, I fell into thinking about the college, and why a certain dejection had engulfed me after my visit. I knew the college would have changed. So, there was no surprise for me in this regard, ‘so to say’ (some old boys will remember this last pet phrase of our sociology professor).
Then it dawned upon me – the college had felt like a deserted home. We, its children, I realized, did not return to it to retain and strengthen our bond. We left a very important institution to slowly break down. One that was not in the brick and mortar, but what stood for a certain tradition of collegiate culture and civilization that should get passed on from seniors to juniors. And, thus, no matter whatever way the times changed, the essence of the institution, its soul, would live on. But, we, some of us made refugee by certain happenings in our days, never returned. And, I suppose all of us, those who got displaced, and those who returned, all got busy with our petty lives, and forgot the institution that had made us what we are today, and what still binds us together across all these years.
Probably, if we had kept returning, and kept the flame burning, today there would not be such an all pervading air of frigid alienation between us and our Alma Mater – cold winter wind and pale sunlight notwithstanding.
© Indroneer / 08 January 2015