Every time I passed the historic buildings of my alma mater, the University College in Thiruvananthapuram, festooned with red flags and graffiti of revolutionary slogans, the word that came to my lips was “Ichabod” (Hebrew for no glory, inglorious or where is the glory?).
The story of Ichabod is narrated in the first Book of Samuel as a boy born on the day the Israelites' Ark of God was taken into Philistine captivity. The mother of the boy was so distraught that she thought that the arrival of her son had deprived Israelites of their glory. It is by this name that Max Beerbohm called his melancholy essay on the loss of his travel labels affixed on his hatbox.
Indeed, the glory of the University College had long gone by the time I returned to Thiruvananthapuram in 2004. The campus was already colonised by some students and the whole place had a deserted look. A sense of fear seemed to hang in the air. The classrooms were shabby and broken chairs and tables were lying around in the class rooms. The toilets were dirty and unusable. I could not believe that the University College, once a pride of Kerala, had come to such a pass.
I stepped into the University College for the first time in 1961 to join the English BA course and the atmosphere was exhilarating. A sense of history descended on us the moment we stepped into the classrooms. Most of the teachers were legendary and their presence in the class inspired us. Classes were small and the friendships we made remained intact even long after we left the College. A sense of responsibility and scholarship dawned on us because of the atmosphere of learning and excellence. The five years that I spent in the college were most fruitful and rewarding.
We were overawed by the scholarship, dedication and fluency of the teachers. Hridayakumari in white khadi was the very symbol of low living and high thinking. Sitting in her class, I wished I could speak English like her one day. G.Kumara Pillai was awe-inspiring in his demeanour and his gravitas, but maintained a cheerful face. Sudhakaran Nair was friendly and eloquent. Ayyappa Paniker, as a newcomer, appeared shy and unsure of himself. He had not become famous poet yet and we were unable to comprehend his erudition and witticisms. Induchudan, more an ornithologist than an English teacher, kept the team going. K.Srinivasan, Vydyanathan and Sankaranarayana Iyer were sincere and scholarly. Chellamma Joseph and Santhakumari among them live to tell the story of those glorious days. The college and faculty were a perfect fit.
Not that it was all study and no play in the golden days. We had our fun, our frolic, our groups, our party politics and even conflicts. We have angered teachers like Hridayakumari and G.Kumara Pillai enough to force them to turn us out of the class. The provocation in the case of Hridayakumari was that all the boys in the class decided one day to boycott her class for no reason.
We just went to the Coffee House. When she came to the class the next day, she asked all of us to leave the class without any questions or explanations and we marched out without a protest. It took us three days and several apologies to be admitted back into her class. The loss was entirely ours. In the case of G. Kumara Pillai, it was an innocent instance of a boy exchanging some notes across the aisle with a girl. Pillai found the distraction too serious to ignore and out went both, perhaps to have coffee together.
College elections were bitterly fought even those days and they were on political lines. But the difference was that the campaigns and contests were very friendly and the results were accepted with grace. The main parties were the Students Federation (SF) and the Students Association (SA) and the latter had the upper hand. I was myself very active in the SA leadership, but I nominated a friend of mine as the speaker as I wanted to focus on studies in the final MA. During the recent debate as to whether student politics should be permitted on campuses, I had favoured student politics as I felt that the students gained much by the experience on the campuses. I pointed out that many of the political leaders of today had come from campus politics.
By all accounts, the situation in the University College today is a far cry from the happy situation of our times. This is definitely a reflection of the deterioration of politics in general. Violence and murders have become common in Kerala politics and no party is innocent in this matter. But the situation in the University College is unprecedented in the sense that one group of students is really ruling the campus. This has been happening for years when the state Government was in the hands of another party, which had decided to let the sleeping dogs lie. Occasionally, tales of violence came out, but the teachers and the students have been accepting the situation without much protest. They claimed that the situation was under control and that there was no interruption of studies. Now we know that illegal means were used to pass the examinations by stealing answer papers and forging documents. The last straw was an attempted murder of a student who is a member of the same outfit, which had occupied the college.
The outcry over a stabbing incident led to some action against the criminals, who were masquerading as students and some remedial action has been taken. Many deep-rooted conspiracies have been unearthed and the gravity of the situation has come to the fore now. But the glory of the University College cannot be restored in a hurry. The malady is deep and it may aggravate again unless the political parties, which are exploiting the situation change their ways.
As many have suggested, the location of the University College at the centre of the city is a part of the problem. Relocation of the college has been tried in the past. A change of location may be helpful, but if the college can be cleansed of the criminal elements and studies resume, it can become a centre of excellence once again. The various alumni associations, which merely reminisce over the past glory, must get involved in the rebuilding of the college. The history of achievements of the last 150 years must inspire the students and the authorities to rebuild the college and restore its academic value and lost glory. I dream of the day when it becomes a temple of learning once again.