Down Memory Lane (My College Days)
Results of SSLC, eleventh standard of Madras University, declared and there is jubilation in my family and the whole village of Puthan Kovilakam (where we stayed) comprising 18 separate houses in two rows facing each other. Ambi, (that is my pet name by which every one knows me) has passed with flying colours, scoring over 80 per cent marks, they all say and the news gradually spreads to the neighboring villages too. What next’ is the big question lingering in my mind and that of my family members. Fortunately, the school where I studied, has its own college also, of course up to only Intermediate, which meant that one could continue studies for two more years in the same college, the Zamorin’s College, named, after, and run by the Zamorin Raja (king) who has a Kovilakam which is equivalent of a palace. It was one of the Raja’s (kings) belonging to this well known and prestigious dynasty, whom Vasco Da Gama met, when he landed in Calicult (now Kozhikode).
Since I could continue in the same college for two more years, with my excellent performance in high school, throughout, starting from sixth standard, bagging almost all the proficiency prizes – both in individual subjects and in overall performance, year after year, which I got in the form of good books – the natural choice turned out to be Ambi will continue education in that college. Entering the college portals those days, the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, was something to talk about and envied.
My eldest brother, who was the only earning member in the family had to bear the costs of fees, costly books, dresses etc.. He had to succumb to the pressures from our village people for getting me admitted to the college, the question of how he would find the money for my education, still looming large in his mind.. I was full of joy for I thought that I would soon become a collegian. Luckily, there was no ragging or any such kind of harassment of freshers those days.
I started the first day cleanly dressed in a white mundu, the common equivalent or alternative to pant, (which only a few selected, rich boys could indulge in) and a full sleeves shirt. Those days, chappals, (foot wear) were also worn only by the rich and practically everyone else would come barefooted.
The idea of lessons being taught in English was an added delight. The first few days gave an entirely new experience, with college teachers asking for the students to introduce themselves and some general ‘DO’s and ‘DONT’s administered by each of the lecturers and professors who donned themselves in neat suits and ties. All in all, it was a fresh and invigorating experience. The book lists were given, the time table was given and we were advised to get these from the college cooperative stores, where one had to become a member, by paying a small fee. If one didn’t have his own membership, a fellow student’s membership could be used – the membership entitled to discounts on text books and note books because of which there was always a crowd – none believed in forming an orderly queue. Everyone would shout ‘first year English prose, Shakespeare (the prescribed play), physics text book, chemistry text book and so on, each one stretching their hands to the book store attendant, who randomly accepted the students’s requirements, as per his own choice.
While my initial fees etc. (admission, tuition, library deposit, laboratory deposit and so on) had all been paid, the good news came about an exam to be held for scholarships for the poor and meritorious students. While I satisfied the first condition, the exam would test my merit for which I did some preparations. After writing the exam, I could feel almost certain about my selection and lo, I turned out to be the topper in the written exam, and naturally myself and family heaved a big sigh of relief. For, I was totally exempted from payment of regular monthly fees and I also got refund of the money already paid.
Regular classes started soon. What a change subjects being taught in English, in some style, now; gone are the days of Makayalam in which, of course, I had attained some proficiency already since there was a Malayalam extra topic for SSLC, comprising lessons in literary style in which also I could score high marks. Therefore, as the language during the Intermediate examination course, I had opted Hindi, in which also I wanted to excel.
There were the physics and chemistry practicals in specific labs meant for these. What a pleasure it was to handle various instruments and various chemicals. For the practicals, as per usual prevailing practice, the work was to be carried out by teams of two. I was paired with one of my good friends and a brilliant student, Nambissan; however, for Nambissan, the teaching medium, English, turned out to be a nightmare. He was excellent in Malayalam language and always used to score high marks in that subject while in High School. While Nambissan found it too difficult to understand lectures in English, he never expressed this openly; gradually, he was overcome by fear and anxiety and found it extremely difficult to cope with the pressure. It must be admitted that this fear syndrome arising out of the sudden transmission to English medium was manifest in many other students, but in the case of Nambissan, it led to depression and frustration and he frequently remained absent from classes. Many, including his family members could not easily diagnose his ‘disease’. After several trials and errors the doctors treating him found him to be mentally affected, gradually losing his memory, talking irrelevant things and so on, which made him miss the classes for almost three months. Fellow students were all very much concerned with this development. His disease escalated to greater heights making him almost ‘mad’. A few months later, because he started to behave in violent manner, he had to be carefully handled and was kept most of the time alone in a closed room, legs chained! Oh my God, what a pity, we all thought.
Now that Nambissan was not to return for a long period, I had to do the experiments in both the chemistry and.physics labs alone and I had no difficulty. Rather I was enjoying this and because of my abilities to carry on in this fashion, both the lecturers allowed this to continue throughout. I found myself privileged and lucky to have been ‘bestowed
this special honor’ of singly handling the job. In any case, one had to do the experiment in the Final exam, alone, without anyone’s help.
I used to take extra care in writing my Records. I was very particular in using branded ink, ‘Irish’, branded nib for my pen, ‘signature’, branded pencil, ‘steadtler’. And I always took pride in making the record neat, and fine-looking and both the lecturers admired my efforts, also rewarding me with ‘very good’ with scores of 8 or nine out of ten, each time. I can say with pride, that I never allowed any red marking or adverse comments in my record books; the same thing applied to botany record and the zoology record where pictures of frog and it’s various body parts and flowers, leaves, seeds of herbs etc always stood out; particular mention must be made of my zoology record where the picture of frog I had drawn almost looked like a live frog, ready to jump on you.
While all my relatives and friends in the village flocked to me some times eager to se my record books, my college mates also used to envy me for the meticulous are I took in writing up. Very often, it was during evening hours from 5.00 to 6.00 p.m. that I used to devote specifically for writing up the records, while many among my friends and college mates would be playing or watching, during the football season, the Santosh Trophy tournament matches. Occasionally, I too would be tempted to go out, and sometimes would walk up to Mananchira maidan (playground) where these matches used to be played, to see teams entering the playground attired in their special uniforms, or peep through the boundary walls covered with dried coconut leaves, the small gaps offering me passing glimpses of great teams playing, vying for the coveted trophy. Affording a ticket, even to the galleries made of bamboos, was something beyond the means for me.
In between, there came an announcement that the college would be shifted to a new campus which was being readied on the hills, the Pokkunnu, with it’s location three miles away from the existing location.
Talking about record books, the only blot, if at all, was the hole punched with a nail(?) on them, done by the outside examiner for the Intermediate Final examination, for proof of having submitted them, and thereby not allowing any remote chance of resubmitting them for any subsequent examination, by someone wanting to manipulate.
With pride I can say, that I preserved them until 2003, (final of Intermediate examination was held in the year 1954), and reluctantly ‘sold’ them with other useless papers, when we shifted residence in Mumbai, when we ran out of space for such ‘old’ stuff which had accumulated over the years.
Talking of Hindi, here again I took deep interest in furthering my knowledge of the language and loved reading Premchand, one of the prescribed books for the course.
I also participated in monthly elocution programs though I had stage fear at that time.
I appreciated my other class mates excelling in oratory power in Hindi. I can with some pride say that I got distinction in Hindi in the final examination, but whatever proficiency I had acquired in the language gradually dwindled, for lack of opportunities to use it, while at the same getting affected by the ‘Bombaiya’ Hindi, which everyone knows in Bombay (now Mumbai) how it is spoken.
The first year was soon over. It was now waiting for the results. And, no wonder that I was the top scorer with over 85 per cent marks. Knowing about my performance, it was the practice among my friends to first ‘worry about’ my scores, knowing which made them also proud, rather than think about their own marks. I was to get prizes in all the subjects, including prize for the general proficiency – which was happening every year, right from standard six.
It was during the beginning of the next year, that the college part of Zamorin’s college
moved to the hills at Pokkunnu. The college was situated atop a hill, with beautiful sceneries around, the building itself was constructed new for this purpose; the labs were spacious, class rooms were big, there were long corridors and everything looked gorgeous. A big canteen was also part of the premises; of course, unless someone carries food with him/her, which was rare, everyone had to resort to the canteen food only. Luckily, it was run by a good management and the food, meals, snacks everything tasted good, one could get tea/coffee/cold drink, along with idli’s, bonda, vada, bajji etc. for snacks, laddu, Mysore Pak, semiya (vermicelli) payasam etc, for sweets, and the meals consisted only of rice – with sambar, rasam, moru, achaar (pickles), and papads, which used to be ‘stolen’ from the baskets, as the person moved to serve it.
Those days, the financial position of my family was very much the same, with my eldest brother only being the earning member, making both ends meet being always difficult, and sometimes the rent for the house remaining in arrears most of the time. Many a time, I would carry only very little cash for the afternoon meals, though most of the time friends with more cash with them would give me ‘treats’ which I naturally enjoyed. There was one friend, Gopal, whose father being a partner in a Jewelry shop was always lavish, being the only son to their parents, and who could therefore afford to spend lavishly. Gopal, being average in studies, with poor English, used to depend on me for help for clarifications on many points in almost all subjects, carrying my notes for copying etc,
Second year was in full swing, excellent lectures, lecturers themselves busy always and eager to finish the portions as per syllabus. We had King Richard II, Skakespear’s play, we had a compilation of poems by eminent poets Shelly, Keats, Thomas Gray, Milton, Byron, and so on, I sometime used to wonder at the quality of the poems, how the poets could write such poems, and felt that one should learn only poetry, so that one day, I myself could come at least some distance away from those learned poets. Some names of my lecturers, still imprinted deeply in my mind, are Kunkan Nair for Physics, Unni Thampan for Chemistry (who used to explain in a magical way reaction of chemicals – what happens when?), Balakrishnan Nair, always dressed immaculately, whose personality was such that any college girl would fall for him, and in fact it so happened that he finally got married to an equally beautiful student of his).
Everyone, including the girl students, used to borrow my practical records with the intention of copying and making their task easy. Some times the girl students, without my knowledge, would take away the record books from the already submitted lot, making my record disappear at the time of evaluation by the lecturers. Being shy, I found myself totally embarrassed asking the girls (nine of them in my class) who among them it was who ‘stole’ my record book!
During lectures, I generally used to sit in the front row of benches and stood up always to answer any question by the lecturer, without bothering to see all the other students, including the girls, particularly, turning their heads and staring at me.
It so happened that one of the girl students of my class was staying very close to my residence, though there was practically no interaction between us, sometimes, when I used to return to my house in the morning bringing home buttermilk from the shop, or after collecting my ironed bush shirt or some other shirt, this girl used to cross my path on her way to the college (she was traveling to college by a specially arranged van for girl students) and it was embarrassing for me to be seen, not fully ready yet for going to the college, which, any way I was to do a little later in my ‘Frrari’, the second-hand bicycle. In fact, I had only three sets of mundu and shirts, which could be described ‘college worthy.’
In one of the chemistry practicals, I used my own judgement regarding use of beaker and pipet which, for that particular experiment was the most desirable way to do the experiment. . Usually, opposite my table, a gang of four girl students was doing the same experiment. Since they were some what weak in class, or rather they did not have any idea about how to perform that particular experiment, after waiting for several minutes to see what I was doing, the girls simply copied whatever I was doing. A little later, the lecturer came to them and enquired as to why they were doing the experiment that way. The girls replied that Subramaniam was doing that way and they also did the same way. The lecturer then told them that if Subramaniam was doing it in that manner, he had thought about it and could justify his action, but added whether they could explain why they opted for that method; the girls had no answer. Then the lecturer explained to them in detail, justifying my action.
Towards the last few months before the Final Intermediate examination at the end of the second year), lecturers found that they were lagging behind in terms of completion of subjects as per syllabus. So we had special classes for chemistry, physics and so on, which were arranged on Saturdays and Sundays. These classes used to be attended only by half the strength of the class, who were keen on catching up with every thing that really mattered. Once, on a Sunday, in the chemistry special class, there were hardly ten students and seeing this, Mr. Unni Thampan, the chemistry lecturer remarked, ‘ok, I am arranging these classes only for Subramaniam. I know he will attend. Others can decide whether to attend or not.’
It was now the Final examination. I was given a centre at Malabar Christian College, Kozhikode, some two miles away from my residence. Of course, one could take the bus to get there. As usual, I used to stand up frequently, for more and more extra paper. While I was fast in writing, a perennial problem with my hands was the frequent and continuous sweating, which often resulted in forming a ‘little pool’ of water (the sweat) on the blotting paper I used to keep in the lower portion of my hand, over the answer sheets. No amount of wiping out with cotton kerchief would be of any use. Well, this did not affect much in terms of my actual writing of the examination.
After two months, the results were out – published in Mathrubhoomi Malayaam newspaper. And, as expected, I got a First Class. That afternoon, the mark list was to be published on the notice board of the college. Knowing the result is something, while knowing individual marks in each subject is a different thing. I traveled to the Pokkunnu Hills on my second-hand bike, and could see the marks. While I was fully satisfied, with distinction (over ninety percent) in chemistry and physics, and distinction (over seventy percent ), again, in Hindi, with sixty-plus in Botany, Zoology, and 151/300 in English, the performance was enviable and I and family members were all proud too; a little disappointment was my close friend, Bhaskaran, just overtaking me in all subjects by one/two marks. Well, all this could just happen.
On my way back from the college, on my bike, midway to the college and my house, I saw all the nine girl students of my class approaching, and while I was a bit shy, as usual, seeing them all together, I could guess from their face, that they wanted me to alight from my bike and naturally share with them my marks. While in their expectation I would be the top scorer, I had to tell the of Bhaskaran scoring over me. I could see some slight surprise in them, of course.
I reached home, talked to my people, friends, uncle etc. all by walking, since those days telephone at houses was a rare thing – only some rich people in the village and few shop owners owned telephones. Every one in our family circle was really happy and proud, with my mother’s ‘bathing colleagues’ next morning talking only about me, which my mother narrated to me.
The question remained, ‘what next’. My college had degree classes only in arts, economics and history. With my liking and excellent marks in chemistry and physics, I was only interested in science course, including medicine. In Kozhikode, even other colleges had no science courses. Efforts were made by my brother to see if there could be any possibility of my being admitted in Medical College, the nearest availability being only in Madras (now Chennai). If I get admitted, my brother had to foot heavy bill in terms of fees, uniforms, dresses, instruments, hostel accommodation, food, books and so on. All this posed a Herculean task in terms of finding the required huge sums of money, which was far beyond his means; while every one amongst our relatives also wanted me to pursue higher studies, and was putting pressure on my brother, none offered to help even in a small way. There was no education loan system those days.
And even if were to get tuition fee scholarship, still the task of financially supporting me for other requirements was not at all easy. The plan was totally dropped, after looking into the pros and cons.
And, a little later, when my elder sister from Bombay came to Madras to attend his wedding, my brother suddenly thought of. ‘packing me off’ to Bombay, without even consulting my brother in law, who was himself undergoing a lean patch in terms of running his small ‘pettikkadai’, box-like, small shop, selling miscellaneous items like Tamil magazines, paan, kela etc.
While I made attempts to pursue my studies, I was still mad over science, and if one wanted to go for that, only full time classes were there. It didn’t occur to me then that by taking up a part time arts or commerce degree course, I could have added two capitals letters at the end of my name and thus becoming a degree holder, a graduate.
Years later, when I was 49, due to pressure from my boss, Prof. M.G.K. Menon, (who once remarked: ‘I wanted to do something for you, but yo didn’t have even a degree, why don’t you attempt even now!’) that I decided to go for a three year part-time degree of the University of Delhi (when I was still under full pressure, working with Prof. Menon, as his Staff Officer, when he was Member, Planning Commission, and myself then a father of two children) which I could pass with a Second Division! Would acquiring a B.Com Degree at that age make me eligible for being in the Guinness Record Book, I wondered.