Two years back, I headed a fledgling English Department for a Semester… after which I left the job. In those few months, I met the freshers (the only ones then at the new University) every day – for more hours than is usually the case in any established department. They were a small group and I felt more like a mother than a teacher to them, something that has never happened quite that way before or since — probably because of the intimacy of the small group thrown together for the most part of the day; or probably because of the overwhelming responsibility I felt in trying to shape a new department (a thing I shared with the other HOD’s working then). I don’t know.

Many of the students were from outside the city (esp. from towns of North Bengal) and lived in hostels. Sharing their lives beyond the campus thus became as much a part of the classes as teaching the syllabus. Most of them had also come to study English Literature with absolutely no clue of what it entailed; hence, trying to inculcate in them a sense of the literary is what I concentrated on. They were a mixed bunch, as they always, inevitably, are: very studious and highly motivated, extremely bored, interested in anything but studies, state level cricketer, modelling aspirant, budding graphic artist, as well as creative souls with literary aspirations. Also, a student with severe psychological problems.

Among the literary aspirants, was a super confident student who had just published her first book of poems and on the first day of class, with her head held high, introduced herself thus: “I am a writer”. I’d wished then – I will confess – I had an iota of that 18-year old confidence myself! Her BFF, her “bro”, was – and continues to be – a very polite, quiet, shy boy, who attended my classes and bunked them in equal measure. When he did attend class, he asked sensitive questions; when not, most of his classmates seemed to know what he was up to!

On Teacher’s Day, he gifted me a poem, hand-written in a card that he had made himself. I had been teaching them for just two weeks then and was surprised at the love showered on me that day – cake and flowers and cards and a pencil sketch of my profile. Obviously, I cherished the sketch and the poem most. Six months later, mid-way into their second Semester, they bid me a tearful farewell, in which I cried too. In between, I taught them core courses on ‘Indian Writing in English’, ‘Popular Literature’, ‘British Romantic Poetry’ and ‘Women’s Literature’; and either planned or guided them on numerous events – of both the University in general and the Department in particular.

Of the Departmental events, a lecture series – inviting people from different walks of life with a English Literature background, to speak about their career and passions – was going rather well. The most enjoyable, and brilliant, was one in which Pinaki came and spoke on graphic novels, and helped the students read the one they had in their syllabus (‘Sita’) afresh. But the most memorable event for me was the one I did last with them: a one-act play – ‘Nibedita’ – that I conceptualized, partly scripted and directed, taking three key moments in her life to define her relationship with her mentor. (I sourced a very old Bengali movie in which Arundhuti Debi played the lead as Nibedita for the dialogues, and edited/simplified them for the students). Though we got a week’s notice for this event, for various reasons, some days were lost, and we ultimately had a little over two days in which to do it; rehearsing for almost 12 hours ensured that we managed to deliver. Nibedita, Vivekananda, Ma Sarada made up the main cast, with two imaginary domestic helps at different points, and a narrator who prefaced the story and linked the three events.

If you look at the length of the previous two paras, you will see that I’ve spent more words writing about events than about teaching. That is how it is in private institutions (albeit of a certain kind) in India, as I have come to understand now: they have long hours of work, with periods choc-a-bloc from morning to afternoon, giving hardly any breather to the teachers (students have the option to bunk and relax, of course); and yet, it is “events” which are of paramount importance in these places, and they mostly happen at very short notice.

As any HOD (as we call the ‘Chair’ here in India) will tell you, teaching is far better and more enjoyable than the administrative work. And when managing events is added to that administrative work, the actual teaching hours are sheer bliss – on any day. In the first Semester, I taught the small group in a huge, airy, sun-lit class room on the second floor, with a terrace overlooking the windows; in the second, it was another room on the third floor, a less favourably positioned one which we liked less. I fondly remember teaching ‘Funny Boy’ in the second floor room: that book bonded us in a whole new way, the quality of our interactions changing palpably after that.

Those rooms got filled to capacity the following academic year, I’m told, and the Department expanded and underwent an overhaul after I left. I am happy to know it’s doing well. Some of the students keep in touch with me on Facebook, though they now feature less in my feed than before: whether it is just the distance of time (2 years is a LONG time for millennials!) that is responsible for the decreased interaction, or FB’s algorithms, I am not sure. I continue to take an interest in what they do – like with my Presidency students before them and Heritage students after (in my new teaching innings in Kolkata since 2017, i.e.); in all cases, I’m most delighted when they engage in artistic creation.

The quiet boy I mentioned above writes little stories every now and then. I really liked his most recent one – GULMOHAR – hence thought of sharing. But his post also suddenly brought back memories of an intense half year that took a rather unpredictable turn…

Thank you, Soumyadip, for igniting the memory. Keep on writing…!

Samarpita, Sreejoni, Deepshikha, Neetu, Upasana, Bably, Chandni, Sagar, Ankit – hope you are all doing well & staying safe. I wish you the very best for your final year of studies! Love & blessings!