Speak Memory: A Hundred Years of Patna University

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Shankar Datt (Professor of English Literature, Patna University) has a great sense of anticlimax, I know for sure. Or you can say he likes to balance things, presenting both sides of the case. He called me up to write something about my days in Patna College for the souvenir to be taken out on the occasion of centenary celebration of Patna University.

I could quite imagine that he had already persuaded the famous and the illustrious, toppers, gold medalists, record breakers, path breakers, pioneers which my college produces as a routine and in abundance for their memories or memoirs. He wanted to throw in sharper relief the fact that intellectual democracy prevailed in Patna College; it had nurtured non- entities like us also.

So here I am trying to coax my memory. Speak memory, speak! But it won’t break its sphinx like silence.

And for good reasons, too. I did not top any examination, I was not even awarded a bronze medal let alone a gold medal. No record breaker, my academic achievements could at best be described as middling middle; neither irredeemably bad nor enviably outstanding.

My presence in the class was not noticed very much, either by my classmates or my teachers, simply because most often I was not there. While some of my friends impersonated me in other classes, thanks to a kindly Hindi professor the shortfall in my lecture in vernacular classes was condoned. He appeared to be a little hypermetropic; he saw great promise in me!

To tell you the truth, the academic curriculum prescribed by the college and the one that I had set for myself did not follow the same trajectory. But of that sometime later. Patna College gave me the honourable vocation of studentship, the status of a boarder in its Jackson Hostel and the university canteen for endless discussion on subjects marked by fatuity, pompousness and self- importance. Taken together all these ensured regular remittances from home which though not princely, was enough to keep me afloat and sometimes allowed me to drown my sorrows in a few drops of alcohol.

After a day fruitfully spent in the canteen, drinking endless cups of tepid lemon tea and smoking cigarettes, time that I should have been legitimately utilized listening to lectures, we were ready – I and my friend, he is no more so I shall call him just my friend- to shift the locale of our earth-shaking discussions to the Coffee House at Dak Bungalow Road.

The call of the Coffee House coffee was irresistible and poets, artists, writers, journalists, students flocked together in the evening. Renu jee (Phanishwar Nath Renu) was the central figure and sometime the Governor Mr. D K Barua would grace the premises. Emergency was a couple of years away). The coffee nicely brewed and stimulating in its own right, enhanced our self-esteem and inflated the worth of our opinions in our own eyes. The ambience aided our self-belief and many a grandiose plan to undertake another revaluation of the English Poetic tradition, F R Leavis was too bloody opinionated and sweepingly magisterial or to debunk T S Eliot’s Wasteland as the greatest intellectual hoax of our time were conceived and aborted.

Under the influence of the non-communist left and apostates like Koestler, Orwell, and Samizdat literature Anna Andrevina Akhmatavova, Solzhenitsyn and Mandelstam, given prominence in our Bible, the Encounter, we decided that Marx was bound to be relegated to the archeological museum of knowledge.

After the coffee and the exalted company of poets and poetasters, playwrights and confirmed plagiarists my friend, who was a day scholar went home none the worse for having spewed so much gyan, but I was bound to face up to the music for having missed the study period, in the hostel, which was between 6 and 8 PM. My hostel superintendent Professor B K Lal, though a kindly person, was obliged to fine me 25 paisa and I had the ignominy of finding it out from the notice board. It seems he mended his ways later because he found that I was not perhaps capable of mending mine.

Mr. Mahendra Pratap and Mr. Madan Jee were two personalities who could unsettle me. Madanjee was the durban – the janitor – to Jackson Hostel and Mr. Mahendra Pratap was the Principal of Patna College – later the Vice Chancellor of Patna. He was also for some time our Warden. Madan jee was the custodian of the keys to our little kingdom and boarders who came late and we had to keep him in good humour which was quite a task considering that he was a sour-faced, mongrelish fellow who could smile, if he could spare the effort.

To be fair to him, he would not grudge very much all those coming back to the hostel after watching a second show. But after that gentle tapping and calls to admit the straggler would be answered with a growl. The more ferocious his growl would become, the more sheepish the voice on the other side of the Hostel gate would become. Night owls like me were quite experienced in handling him but on this occasion things went awry. Some people said he was not malicious, he was simply snoring. I never found out. Whatever.

I had come into some money, now I don’t remember how, some honorarium or something. Money meant celebration and celebration meant beer in Amber, a bar which was patronized by the students. In college I was a pure soul. I used to get drunk on a glass of beer, one half of which was pure froth. There were four or five of us including my friend. As usual he parted company on the Ashok Rajpath, headed for home happy as a lark, in Professors’ quarters Ranighat. He had no fear because his mother would keep awake listening for the gentle knock on the door as not to disturb his father who was professor in Patna University. To me devolved the responsibility of transporting my humble self, drunk like a lord, to the hostel. It was late, much later than the curfew hour and Madan jee was in no mood to relent. The gambit of growling and sheepish bleating seemed to have arrived at a stalemate. It was particularly chilly night. Locked out I was loitering near the kitchen, wondering whether to try my friend or go to my local guardian when one of the mess servants woke up and opened the lock with the simple expedient of an iron nail.

Mr. Mahendra Pratap was known to a relative of mine and perhaps in a moment of concern, he entrusted him the job of overseeing my education. Mr. Pratap had been to Cambridge and perhaps in those days they awarded the degree merely only on the strength of knowledge of Faery Queene and sundry archaic, boring texts. Mr. Mahendra Pratap crystallized his responsibility towards me to one simple task – judging me for my proficiency in Faery Queene. Lurking near the principal’s office for some work or the other I blundered into him twice and on both the occasions he tested me on my knowledge of the above text and found me wanting, notwithstanding the fact that it was not part of our syllabus. Or so I thought!

To pursue my lifestyle of careless and peaceful anarchy I had made one rule for myself: I would break all diplomatic relations with texts which did not interest me and mind you I am not an easy person to please! Unfortunately, Spenser* and I were not on speaking terms and my conversation with him was only through intermediaries. On the first occasion I bought my freedom by assuring Mr. Pratap that I will read him. On the second the information on Spenser that I had gathered through my friend deserted me because - all my critical sensibility was concentrated in hiding the cigarette. I cut a sorry figure and earned a well merited rebuke but that alienated me to Spenser forever.

I ran into Mr. Mahendra Pratap one more time, a close encounter of the third kind. It was around one AM. I climbed up to the first floor where my room was and I thought I saw Mr. Mahindra Pratap. I had mixed feelings. Was it an apparition but there were some real people, my hostel mates with him? Should I run away, is it going to be a public shaming for my inability to wade through the Faery Queene? But Mr. Mahendra Pratap spoke to me, or tried to speak to, perhaps he was trying to recall my name. I readily supplemented his memory, “Faery Queene, sir.” He laughed and addressed me with my proper name. “We are all going to drive out these book worms out of their rooms. Man has landed on the moon and these fellows are not even celebrating.”

I stood dumbfounded. Disturbing the serious-minded students was one of my most favourite pastimes and now it had been accorded official sanction. A night of revelry and riot led by the Principal was the culmination of my anarchic dreams. We went to the Cavendish Hostel, to the Faraday Hostel and I think then to the BA lecture theatre where Mr. Mahindra Pratap spoke in his inimitable style to us about Neil Armstrong and what his achievement meant for the human race. The word globalist was not even coined then but he was a true globalist.

To me Patna College was not merely a structure made of brick and wood and cement; it was not merely the class rooms and play fields. It was a whole eco system of learning comprising of my teachers, my class mates, the fellow boarders, other students, the folklore about students and teachers who had been part of its glorious tradition, the library. My contact with my teachers was largely beyond the confines of the class in informal settings and I got to know some of them very closely. To them I owe my gratitude for having pulled me from crass ignorance into a little bit of awareness.

But above all it was that ineffable feeling of walking in the shadow of countless intellectual giants, formidable minds who had enriched the life of community in many ways, men who had made history and then become part of history.

*Edmund Spenser was an English poet best known for The Faerie Queene, an epic poem and fantastical allegory celebrating the Tudor dynasty and Elizabeth I.


India Today magazine once referred to Manoje Nath, a 1973-batch IPS officer, as being fiercely independent, honest, and upright. Besides his numerous official reports on various issues exposing corruption in the bureaucracy in Bihar, Nath is also a writer extraordinaire expressing his thoughts on subjects ranging from science fiction to the effects of globalization. His sense of humor was evident through his extremely popular series named "Gulliver in Pataliputra" and "Modest Proposals" that were published in the local newspapers.

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