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Monday, Aug 26, 2019

Dichotomous me

Ever since I was a zygote in my mother's womb, I wanted to be a student of St Stephen's College. Indrajit Hazra writes.

india Updated: Sep 18, 2011 01:21 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times

Ever since I was a zygote in my mother's womb, I wanted to be a student of St Stephen's College. Well, even if St Stephen's was in Delhi, and a younger me and my fee-paying progenitors were not, the fact that I had never heard of St Stephen's until 15 years ago never deterred me from wanting to be a Stephanian.

Like a horse that doesn't know that a shiny apple is called a 'shiny apple', I just wanted to be part of an institution that would teach me the ways of the world - how to raise my pinkie while drinking tea, discuss Nichomachean Ethics with folks, know which cheese goes with which wine while discussing the Nehruvian Five-Year Plans, drop an Urdu couplet or two in the risotto that I'd know how to make (and eat correctly) - even though I had no inkling that such an institution actually existed under the name of St Stephen's. (Hans Raj College alumni, beware a 'pinkie' isn't what you think it is.)

The reason I have never been much of an old boys networker is simply because I was never an old boy from Stephen's. When you had your eyes set on the bone china, what's the point in displaying stainless steel? Every time I still see a car with a sticker on its rear window - 'Tufts', 'Doon', 'UCLA', 'IIT', 'Harvard', 'IIPM', - regardless of what I make of the passengers sitting in the back seat, my heart drops as I recall my youthful desire to have the words 'St Stephen's' emblazoned across the back of my car like a classy version of 'Buri nazar wale, tera muh kala'. Except, of course, with the words 'Ad Dei Gloriam' on the sticker, I would have formed immediate bonds with fellow Stephanians and earned envious stares from those other people.

But there was another reason why I wanted so desperately to join the Tingel Tangel Club (at that point, since I didn't know what a St Stephen's-like place was called, that was the name I had secretly given to it). It was to pronounce English words the way they were supposed to be pronounced. Especially one word: photograph.

I was on the right trajectory as a student of St Xavier's in Calcutta, where after much corrective treatments, I learnt to say, 'Excuse me?' instead of 'Huh?' (or more accurately, 'Aangh?') when I didn't catch something and wanted it repeated. The next step of my education of life was reached when I entered the portals of La Martiniere for Boys, Calcutta. Unlike the Jesuits in old Xavier's, La Martiniere taught me to refrain from looking shocked when people blew their noses into handkerchiefs and to look shocked when they belched. La Martiniere taught me an important lesson that made me ready for St Stephen's: you say 'potato', not bloody 'potahto'. Pronouncing 'photograph' correctly was going to be the next logical step.

But alas, alack! Jujubes and gnashers! I was waylaid. I joined Jadavpur University, its juddering non-sanctified sound already giving the game away. And once I picked up nasty words like 'phantasmagoric', 'Kafkaesque' and 'KLPD', there was no way I could crawl my way back into Hogwarts.

Like scientists also proficient in the arts (quantum physicist Satyendranath Bose was a master esraj player while Einstein played fine violin and father of the atom bomb Robert Oppenheimer knew his Gita) and unlike artists who are hopeless at science, Stephanians know both worlds - middle class India and babalog India; the world of Hans Raj College as well as that of, well, St Stephen's College. This ambidexterity (a word, I was forced to learn by reading newspapers as you may have guessed by now) allows Stephanians to intimately know words like 'dichotomous' as well as 'panchayat', deeply appreciate EM Forster ('Aangh?') and Faiz Ahmed Faiz (William Carlos Williams). Without Stephen's to guide me, I was left to pick things up second-hand, third-hand through tools available to the mob which includes reading the writings of Stephanians.

Which isn't too bad a fate, even though I have been caught staring rather weirdly at Stephanians I sometimes get the pleasure to gawk at. And even though I still avoid saying the word 'photograph' in public.

First Published: Sep 17, 2011 22:35 IST

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