Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Throwback Nostalgia: Ravenshaw College in the 1970s

For us, youngsters, on the cusp of 1970, Ravenshaw was the college we longed to be in. It was a college of more than a hundred years old, and the grand red structure that sat majestically in the heart of Cuttack was the go-to place for higher education. It was a symbol of pride to be a Ravenshavian; fronted by tennis courts and the massive multi-purpose field in the rear, and trimmed by the newest hostels springing up off the field’s semi-circular perimeter, it was a campus that, in the small world of our minds, epitomized the grandeur of the past and the surefire passport to future success.

Apart from the impressive campus that gave us new-timers a few jitters, what was very upsetting for me the first day in the college was the medium of teaching – it was in English and not in my mother tongue Oriya. Sibanath Satpathy spoke in a monotone as he took us through the alley of syllogism in deductive logic. We understood nothing. Far from the deliverance we had thought college would be, we realized it was a leap right off the frying pan into the proverbial leaping fire.

The other classes were no better. But as days became months and a few months trundled by and we got used to our new environs, life seemed to be getting infinitely better. The freedom and independence we so fervently longed for were there at last. There was no compulsion to be in the college – from morning till evening – as in school. Even if we stayed in college there was no compulsion to attend all the classes. We could choose attending lectures!

Some lectures were of no consequence, though they provided ample entertainment. One such was Major Sir’s, always decked at his knocked-off finest: three-piece suit, Brookes Brothers tie, shiny black shoe.

But Major Sir was popular with us students. Doughy-faced and conspicuously displaying a well-fed belly, he was a cult figure for his indefatigable way of sprinkling Oriya in Queen’s English and for his inimitable transmission of nuggets of historical wisdom.

One day he moralized a student. “Bijoyanand, being a NCC cadet you’re coming hali hali!” We burst out laughing at the smidgen of Oriya-English. Major Sir wasn’t amused. He held forth in a plaintiff tone. “You children have learnt nothing. Have you forgotten how foreigners use French, Latin, German in their English? So why can’t we? You youngsters, born after independence, can’t appreciate use of Indian words in English.” We sat stock-still; our heads hung in shame, for our lack of linguistic patriotism.

Major Sir was every inch a nationalist. His lectures were laced with patriotic fervour; his tone/pitch varied as the battles he narrated swayed to the victory/defeat of the autochthonous versus the infidel. “In 1526 there was this big battle called the First Battle of Panipat: Babar vs. Ibrahim Lodi. Babar the Mughal came with generals, officers, soldiers, men, women, elephants, horses, sheep, goat. Ibrahim Lodi, the emperor of Delhi too marched ahead bravely with his able generals, loyal officers, brave soldiers, sturdy men, beautiful women, gigantic elephants, charger horses, innumerable sheep and goats.”

He scanned our faces, gauging if the crescendo he had built had put us in thrall. His right hand now simulated chopping of an onion as the left held onto a chair firmly and in three slices of onomatopoeic “fought, fought, fought!” the battle was made to get over. “They fought, fought, fought! Very deadly was the battle that was fought. Ibrahim Lodi, the brave Indian king, fought, fought, fought but sadly had to succumb to Babar.”

But within days he had the perfect comeback. “Humayun, you know,” he began with a slobbering grin, “was weak in body and mind. He was a weak administrator, a weak conqueror, a weak king, a weak husband, and even a weak father. In short, Humayun tumbled in his administration, he tumbled in his conquests/kingly duties. He even tumbled down the stairs and tumbled, tumbled, and died.” We choked at Major Sir’s carpet-bombing patriotism.

On the other end of the spectrum, stood Altaf Hussain, with his erudition and wit. He was a fabulous teacher. His reputation as a humorist is still remembered – for having conferred the moniker on the Principal. It was ridiculously simple: the first three syllables of his first, middle, and last names as spelt in Oriya were hoicked and juxtaposed to form an acronym in a delicious mix! No, I will not give out the moniker here. But old-timers will know! We never missed his lectures.

But we had plenty redundancies to potter about under the trees close to the Principal’s office or in the college portico (this avant-garde salon followed a pecking order and through an unwritten law was reserved for seniors), which provided a vantage point to espy all ingress and egress to/out of the college and happenings in the multi-hued, multi-coloured, state-of-the-apparel provided by lack of uniform, so much a part of school drudgery. Portico was the entrepot for our empirical study: who studied in the college, the sociology and proclivity of its students (particularly the distaff side that held many diamantinely charming ones who willy nilly forced us to fall in love head over heels with almost all of them at the same time – alas, in our fantasy!), the rural-urban divide, the trouserwallahs vs. the dhotiwallahs, the handsomeness of the boys and the beautifulness of the girls that made up the populace (the teachers, particularly the younger lot, not excepted), the romantic whodunits that were carried on furtively in a conservative world of Cuttack and spoken sotto voce. For the young hearts we were, emitting adolescent pulchritude, chit-chat and gossip were indeed a cottage industry.

When I returned to Ravenshaw in July 1978, this time as a lecturer, I was in cloud nine. For a Ravenshavian, nothing could be more soul-satisfying than returning to his alma mater to teach. Despite the passage of more than three decades when one has bounced around the country working in different climes, I still covet the short stint of a year and a half that I spent in my college – teaching.

I must admit I haven’t set my foot on the college (now University) in the last 28 years. Last time I went there, was perhaps in December 1982 to speak to the post-graduate and graduate honours students in the History department. A month or two before, I had written a fairly long piece titled The Changing Face of Clio in The Statesman Literary Supplement, and Altaf Hussain, then the Professor and Head of History Department, invited me to speak on this subject of Indian historiography. It was a pleasant experience to meet up with my former colleagues and many of my ex-students and travel back in time and exchange ideas with them. I can’t recall why I never went back to my college all these years. Maybe my visits thereafter have been fewer and for far shorter durations.

Notwithstanding this long absence, as I write this piece I’m filled with a sense of nostalgia. How the world has changed! My mind now is in ferment. For all the humongous blessings – liberalization, globalization, cable TV, and internet – of a shrunken virtual world where traffic has become real-time and magical, alas in one fell swoop the prioritization of study has changed. We, youngsters of yore fancied things other-worldly and romantic with no material bounty in sight; our extra-mural readings geared to life’s pleasures where marketplace and market-driven shibboleths, far from being the buzzword, were considered a pariah. The sense of history, of human civilization, of human and humane concerns, of happenings around the nation and the world concerned us more than anything else. Or so it felt; few aspired and quested for supernova material success.

I say this, my voice tinged with a quiet longing. I ask myself, post hoc today: did we value society’s circus of excess that was bridling in its leash? Not exactly, not at least, for us, free spirits. We believed in living life to the fullest, untrammelled by academic demands or familial expectations or society’s hopes. Successes and achievements, hopes and aspirations, were not exactly not something we didn’t wish for – we did; but these attributes of a fulfilled worldview were trumped by an amalgam of adolescent bravado (even grandstanding) and a vague nihilism that was a transmogrified form of Marxism gone bland to dare form different grains and strands to salt one’s real life. The youthful derring-do admitted no faux rationales, no faux- friendships, no petty or delicious bits of hypocrisy. And there wasn’t too the madcap and dizzying array of choices to spoil us.

It is invidious on my part to draw parallel with today’s youth because comparisons are bereft of context. Life is full of little ironies and tiny hubbubs to provide wings to introspect. Alas, the adult college days have well rushed past, punching up the script and architecture that can’t be changed on a later day, when one has seemingly (and arguably!) wised up. But we sure were not amid the nudge-nudge-wink-wink culture announcing its centrestage colonization with a triumphalist statement. Our times were different, our college was different, and our teachers imbued in us precious values we prize even today.


  1. The days we spend in college, alas all too brief and fleeting, remain in our memories till the grim reaper's summons. Not yet bereft of the innocence of childhood and not still fully initiated into the heady and sinful ways of youth, absorbing eagerly the kaleidoscopic whirl of new experiences, there will hardly be anyone who wouldn't look back in nostalgia to that period in his/her life. Mr Mohanty's hilarious description of his master's English with liberal smearings of Oriya switches on similar memories of my own. Perhaps these experiences should, in good time, will lead to an anthology chronicling a period of idyll in the history of Cuttack.

  2. It was like a relay race as the baton of college excitement passed from batch to batch. Everyone enjoyed the moments broadly within college environment and narrowly within the closed group of pals. If all the batons of individual thrill are joined end to end, it would outplay the genome chain in length. Great Wall of China would still be a poor comparison. The author has thrown an open stimulus to all those who have seen those magic bricks, red in colour.

  3. Thanks for taking down the memory lane.Every moment brought vivid memories of yester-years. Is there a way we could pay back as an alumini to the revered institute or contribute to improve its health/wellbeing? Thanks.

  4. Strangely, I cannot remember my first few days of college – although it must have seemed momentous at that time. My impressions of the period are a confusing mix of confidence, anxiety, a kind of thirst, anger, a desire for relevance, helplessness and so much more that follow no overarching path. I miss a few people and do remember most of my professors but have no nostalgia for the place and have never gone back. I think St Xavier’s at Bombay did not have that iconic hold on one’s imagination as Ravenshaw in Cuttack. Perhaps that is the story of all big places. There are so many colleges. Commuting large distances - you rarely meet friends and colleagues outside. Nothing is shared except classes.