Apr 5, 2011

The Remembrance of Things Past

Last week my dear friend in charge of editing this souvenir reminded me, once again, to get my act together and come up with the article I had promised. I was asked, with a generous dollop of sarcasm, if I thought I were Proust. I was also directed by him, in that same (grammatical) breath, to take my finger out of my @#$% and start writing.

I found this reminder poignant, not least because I had decided to write on the lobby; it was one of the places Mr Editor and I hung out for a while to transform ourselves from acquaintances to friends. So, in a true Proustian vein I bought myself some mass-produced madelines from Starbucks to help me indulge in some gratuitous remembering – of things, times and spaces past.

I remember my days well spent at (or, more truthfully speaking, just outside) the Department of English of Jadavpur University. Those days were spent mostly, and most memorably, on a flight of steps just inside Gate 4 of JU that we fondly – very fondly – called the lobby. As far as physical descriptions go, the lobby was a long row of four steps along the main entrance to the JU Arts Faculty building. These steps were intersected at regular intervals by pillars that held up, among other things, the collective weight of learning of the Arts Faculty. At a baser level it turned the long row of the short flight of steps into neat cubicles. It produced for students of the Arts Faculty and beyond, the university’s premier social and socializing space.

And every day, much of the variegated humanity that comprised JU’s students would converge within these spaces. The lobby was for most of our generation at JU a place to chat and argue about the world, its second cousin and the phenomenology of lemon pips in Swapan’s lebu cha. This is where we debated and disagreed; laughed and fought. We played cricket and twenty-nine, adopted stray dogs and indulged in seemingly endless jamming sessions on the steps. We spoke about literature, recited our (often quite terrible) poetry to each other while some of the loons from Film Studies extolled the virtues of “pure cinema.” And yes, we also made friends and found love. These friendships and loves would last us – not all of us, but quite a few – our blessed lifetimes.

And the lobby sure had a reputation. For some faculty members of the English department, this is the closest you could get to the ninth circle of hell. Quite clearly, the “treason” in this equation was one against the attempts at making us discerning readers of literature and culture. (On a different note: hell was close at hand, most materially manifested in the form of the men’s loo in the ground floor of the Arts Faculty).

So there was I, during my first week in the department, trying very hard to make the transition from balancing chemical equations to figuring out if Tess (of the d’Urbervilles) had been raped or seduced – tricky question this. Amidst all this, I was told about the lobby. Not by classmates or seniors but by a stately lady professor who wore her hair in a bun that was almost as big as her head.

“And one final thing,” she announced at the end of a class as she shut her volume of History of English Literature by Legouis and Cazamian, “do not go to the lobby.” We were given a tour de force of the evils that awaited us if we did not watch our steps. It would be drugs, disease and all quite downhill from there. Now which eighteen-year old would not think this a tantalizing introduction?
So off we cantered in that direction to be welcomed with open arms by this alleged space of moral decrepitude. And there we stayed for the full five years of our JU life never ever letting said staid professor(s) interfere too much with our education. This needless to say had been the trajectory of many a student of the JU English department.

But much has changed in JU these days. For starters, the lobby is no more. A few years ago, the JU administration demolished the steps that made the lobby into a beehive of frenetic social activity. The socializing and the activities continue today at a different place with the lobby becoming a piece of congealed memory for many of us. So then let me end with the time-tested cliché: the lobby is no more; long live the lobby.

(Written for the JUDE Reunion 2009 Souvenir).

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