2017 marks the bicentenary of the Hindoo College, Kolkata, which was renamed Presidency College in 1855. The College, affiliated to the University of Calcutta, was given the status of an independent University in 2010.
My first tutor in college was the late, great Kajal Sengupta. She was older than my mother, but I called her Kajaldi (no student had ever called her anything but Kajaldi). Towards the end of one of our first tutorials (we were discussing Wordsworth’s Preludes), she said, “What do you think of the text? Why aren’t you disagreeing with me?”
Disagree? I, the product of the West Bengal state board of higher secondary education, had been dutifully taking prolific notes, hoping to reproduce verbatim what she had been saying. Disagree with a teacher? I didn’t know that that was permissible, let alone encouraged.
“You’ll have to learn to think for yourself,” she said. Presidency College taught us how to do that; to not take received wisdom at face value; to question and debate; to be, in the words of one of its famous alumnus, Amartya Sen, an “argumentative Indian”.
Like thinking for oneself, close reading is an acquired skill as well. There was a great premium on close reading at Presidency College. We learned how to parse texts; we learned how, if one paid really close attention to words, they yielded their meaning, their essence – and how, the meaning and the essence could be not quite what you thought they were when you first encountered the words. We sought and found worlds within words.
Other worlds, too. They opened up in those two classrooms one came to on turning left after ascending the stairs on which Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose had ambushed the racist professor, EF Oaten. We were told that, for us to appreciate literature of the Renaissance, we had to have an understanding of the art and architecture of that period.
On a pavement bookstall in front of the college (in those days you found books there rather than self-help manuals), I found a copy of the Larousse Encyclopaedia of Renaissance and Baroque Art. And embarked on a new love affair. It was not just art. It had nothing directly to do with the syllabus either. Psychology, philosophy, history, theology, film: immersion in the world through words.
I learned to appreciate European cinema. Our Saturday afternoon screenings at Derozio Hall led us through the oeuvres of Eisenstein, De Sica, Tarkovsky, Godard, Fellini, Antonioni, Rossellini. And when the international film festival came to town, my teachers assumed that I would be there – queuing for tickets from early in the morning and watching films through the day – rather than in class.
My mind in those three years was being expanded in other ways. Badminton after a session with recreational substances. The swish of the racket a few seconds after the shuttle had arced downwards. The shot completed only after the feather was lying at my feet. Things slowing down, proceeding at a lag with actual time.
Unlike many of my peers, I do not consider my time at Presidency College as the best years of my life. Those would come later, much later. Those would come in finding a vocation, becoming a published writer, making a happy marriage, discovering the unrivalled joy and pride of fatherhood.
But the years at Presidency, I feel, laid some sort of foundation for all that. When I look back now, I think a line from John Le Carre best sums up my three years in college. “It was too kind, too generous, too sudden, too long ago.”
(A longer version of this piece appears in the bicentenary issue of the Autumn Annual, a magazine produced by the Presidency Alumni Association, Kolkata)