I was asked the other day if I felt nostalgic about my alma mater, the institutions in Kolkata I did my bachelors and masters from. Was I planning to visit them during this trip to Kolkata. My answer to both questions were, Hell, NO !!!
My passionate NO must have confused my friend somewhat, and frankly it surprised me too. So I thought it would be a good idea to write about it.
Till date, I have studied in 3 schools, 2 colleges under the university for bachelors and masters, and one institution in the US.
Schools, I definitely feel nostalgic about. I miss the churches, the sisters, the discipline, the friends, the school assembly, and all those thing we did as children and starry eyed teenagers. My US alma mater- it’s too soon to miss it. However my colleges are a different story. As a teenager fresh out of high school, I got the rudest shock when I entered college. The process of getting into a decent college was as grueling as getting into an IIT, but only without it’s benefits of a secure career later. For back then (and now perhaps), colleges under the University of Calcutta have no respect or consideration for students from ISC/CBSE boards. Back then, for every 40 or more students from the state board getting in, only 2-4 students from “other boards” would get in. We were definitely the “scheduled castes” amongst the lot of new comers, only with lesser respect and even lesser rights. No wonder more than half my high school mates had fled to Bangalore, even taking the “donation route” to get into the lesser known institutions in and around South India rather than staying in Kolkata.
The next shock awaited me as I started college. It was a complete culture shock, getting along with the fellow students, professors, the kind of syllabus and examination patterns. Nothing matched up to my fantasy of a college life derived mainly from Bollywood, with hunks riding bikes and classes being fun. The boys and their social skills were hopeless, and barely deserved even a smile. The class would predominantly consist of “Bangla-medium” students who had no clue of spellings or grammar, and it was a nightmare to get the class notes right if I ever missed classes. The professors themselves (mostly) was no less, trying to gravitate to Bengali during lectures whenever they could. My first class in Botany was a nightmare because the professor taught in Bengali for the entire class and I had no clue what “Shalakshanslesh” was till mother told me it meant photosynthesis. St. Xavier’s would have probably been my kind of college but they didn’t teach Biology then and I wasn’t willing to move to something like Physics or Math just because it was taught at St. Xavier’s.
The mode of teaching was another disaster. Most professors spent hours dictating notes photocopied from some nicely covered anonymous textbook they wouldn’t name lest we locate the mines those wonderful gems of knowledge came from. We were told from day 1 that the students at
Presidency College better colleges would have an upper hand since they were good enough to make it to Presidency College better colleges, and no matter how well we did, we would always get lower marks than them. There were rumors of university questions being drafted by Presidency College professors from well known colleges, and unless you found the “right people” to increase your exam marks from to take tuitions from, you had to be content with a mediocre performance. Only a handful could score a first class (60%) and those that scored less had no chance of making it to the university for a masters.
The examinations were a disaster in itself, always held in the middle of the summer that dragged for months with huge breaks in between. It was like playing an even longer and boring version of test series cricket. Exams never happened in your own college, you were sent to some Godforsaken college in the middle of nowhere to go write your papers. It wasn’t just a test of knowledge, it was a test of nerves. 8 honors papers, 6 pass papers, and other papers on English and environmental sciences that students mostly passed studying from “guide books”. Professors on exam duty often snoozed or chit chatted in halls, and moved at a snail’s pace and often frowned and scowled if you asked for extra sheets of paper. We were sufficiently forewarned that a situation might arise where we didn’t understand the question at all, because it often happened that the person framing questions had no idea what the syllabus was. While the best written answers would score a 6.5 on 10, the average answers would range from 3-5 on 10 (which meant the effort to score 65% is double the effort to score 50%, and one shouldn’t ever hope for getting something like an 80%).
The practical classes were a nightmare in itself, with the lab reeking of decomposing stuff all the time. I wonder what good it did to me that I learnt to dissect and display the pituitary gland of a fish or the male reproductive system of the cockroach, or the fact that I was taught to distinguish chicken bones from snake bones. I seriously wonder how it has helped me knowing these skills in the last 10 years.
I never dated a guy from college. I would look at those boys and girls bunking classes and chatting all day in front of the college gate and marvel at these specimens and their scintillating future. It’s not that I’ve never bunked classes to watch a movie, but some faces were perennially found in front of the college gates or in the students’ union rooms (Union-baazi being another thing I kept away from). I’d ponder over my insecurities as a graduate out of my university, possibly jobless or trying to adjust in a job environment where people spoke only in Bengali and scowled at people who spoke in English. I wonder how it’d feel to be posted to some remote village with a teaching position. They often said that unless you had lots of money, a college principal for a father, the right political connections to back you up, or all the three, you were finished. I couldn’t date a guy who was in as much shit as I was in, his future not secure for lack of the right connections or because he happened to study in this university.
I thought I’d take 3 years of this and get going. I could get into a good masters program in Delhi. I made it to BHU but then again my university didn’t publish my results on time and BHU refused to admit students whose results were not out by a certain date. So I was back to Kolkata for a masters, ready for another 2 years of being grilled. This time I couldn’t break free, but the next time, I had to.
Students in my masters class prepared for the NET/GATE/IAS/CAT exams, but I knew that was not for me. I didn’t really know what I wanted for myself, but I knew what I definitely didn’t want for me. So I started dreaming of a US school, a place where I hear there were no distinctions based on your background, the power game was more fair, and the probability of making up answers for a question I didn’t even understand was less. The college felt like a prison and I knew US was my only escape route, even if I was going to some remote corner of North Dakota or Alabama (which thankfully I didn’t). I bunked classes and used that time to prepare for GRE. The process from applying to getting there was so costly that I couldn’t afford to screw up a single step. Even then, I had quite some adventure running around to get recommendations from the same professors from college who no one in the right mind would want to go to. I barely interacted with the students in my class, most of who were girls who did a masters because it would get them a husband with a better profile than that they would get with a bachelors degree.
The day I made it to the US, I knew I would never ever want to come back and visit these institutions again. I meet people with fond memories of their undergraduate institutions, claiming that they attribute their basic learning to their undergraduate institutions back in India. I am afraid that is not my story. Even as I travel by the roads and places where my college was located, I feel washed with dread and unpleasant memories of insecurity I felt in my early 20s, not knowing if the future had anything worth looking forward to. When I meet old friends from school on Facebook, I jump with joy. However when I see friends from college, I don’t really feel much joy or curiosity. My college boasted of something like “We teach students so well, they make it to the US” during a counseling session for the newcomers to lure them into joining the college. This was after I got into a US school. I can claim any day that my college had nothing to do with helping me get into a US school. If anything, the insecurity and the frustration it caused me gave me the necessary push to “break-free” and get into a good US school.
So back to the question, no, I don’t think I am interested in visiting my old colleges (though I have visited my ex-school where I worked multiple times). I have nothing to show off or prove to them. I and my college don’t really have any differences, but over the years, we have developed a certain indifference.