Getting out of a numbered parking lot (essentially places in the dirt under trees with signs) in Jadavpur University, my old “alu matar”, I immediately had a knot in my stomach. It was then I told myself “No silly, you dont have a class test today. That was eleven years ago.” Conditioned reflex. I tell you.
The last time I had been here at Jadavpur University had been 1999. Salman was seeing Aishwarya, Buddhadeb was still considered a Communist and Azharuddin was our knight-in-shining armor idol. So yes I was anticipating a whole lot of changes.
And changes there obviously were. A person was sitting below a tree listening to music on an iPod. A boy and a girl were touching shoulders while looking at a Sony Viao laptop (presumably class notes but I know better). There were shiny signs all around like a zone marked off as “Only researchers in this department can throw litter here”. Some of the departments had appended cool buzzwords at their end to make themselves more with-it like Metallurgy now had Material Science and Nanotechnology added to it, even though Mamata has made sure Bengal is a Nano-technology-free zone. There was a new book store in the Arts section, stocking books which “socially aware” students in JU read in the same breathless manner that most of us read porn, easy-reads like “The Marxist Reader”, “Agrarian movements in post-independent India: a manifesto for revolution” and anti-capitalist tomes like “Learn .NET in 21 days”. The jheel-paar (side of brook), where countless generation of men and women (and also frustrated Nawabs and Babas) had held hands, had a gate. Gandhi Bhavan, the auditorium, full of memories of ogling “outside college” women during Choreography, had been torn down. My department now had a spiffy looking office with a computer—though why the computer was there I could not fathom. The old ancient monitors (black/white and some with green Matrix-like lettering) in our labs had been replaced by flat-screen Dell monitors.
However what surprised me was how so much had actually remained the same. One of our regular canteen haunts still looked like it has been excavated at Harappa. Aurobindo Bhavan, the nerve-center of JU administration, still had that air of silent, peaceful “Men may come and men may go but I do no work..ever” intransigence. Massive piles of files left out in the passages, dusty, molded and covered with cobwebs, in exactly the same place as they were in eleven years ago. The classes now had air conditioners (that’s new) but as a professor told me, not supporting lines to draw power which is why they didnt work (that’s classic JU). The engineering section of the university still looked like a men’s prison. And the arts section a garden of butterflies.
For me the most important thing was that the benches in the classroom were exactly the same. No not exactly. Because what we had written on the benches, as aids during exam, had been overwritten for 22 more semesters. Needless to say, there were scribblings on the walls like the caves of Altamira—proofs of theorems, code snippets, mathematical formulae and derivations. But it was what was on the benches that fascinated me and my friend, Nilanjan as we sat in silence poring over each bench trying to trace the evolution of the JU CSE syllabus over the years. Because a bench in JU isnt just a piece of wood on which you rest your arms but a living history of education. Given that, we were thankful no one removed these heritage monuments.
The students still had demands. Many of them. One of them I couldnt exactly make out since it said that “We don’t want just reviews. But also previews”. I presume they mean that they dont just want their exam scripts to be reviewed on demand, but also that they should be given the right to preview the question paper should they want to. An entirely reasonable request in my opinion.
When an oldboy like me comes back to his university, what he actually is looking for this constancy, an ossification in time , if only so that he can feel “Everything is the same as I left it”. Change on the other hand is disquieting, it makes one feel old and strange in familiar surroundings. But positive change is also necessary and ultimately, in the larger context, welcome. From that perspective, if there was anything a bit saddening was that, despite some transformations in the window dressing, based on my impressions (hasty as they were) I felt JU had perhaps not changed its fundamental nature enough.
My favorite moment of the afternoon was however when I peered into an old classroom. There were some students there hanging about. One of them caught my eye. Thin with big outsized glasses he was standing up, laughing at possibly something inanely silly he had done. What caught my eye was with his shirt— hanging out, and with the buttons not aligned with the holes.
I don’t know why that was my favorite moment. It may be because I saw in that person, someone else. As he used to be eleven years ago. Someone who was also thin, had big glasses and had problems aligning his shirt.
Then of course he reached for his cell-phone. And the moment was forever lost.