I went back to college after 32 years for my professor Satish Mathur’s memorial service. He taught me calculus—I did a BA in math—but as I sat there in the college auditorium, looking at his garlanded smiling photo (he had the male equivalent of a 1,000-watt Madhuri Dixit smile), listening to memories of students over the years, I realized he actually didn’t teach me much math, he taught me about life instead and how to lead it. There were stories of hidden acts of kindness that spilled out in the speeches. The one that touched me most was how he looked after a student who was badly injured in an accident, sending meals to her room in the college residence, including coffee that he personally made, for a month, till she was able to finish her exams and go home.
As I had tea in the lawns outside and chatted with students and staff—including my dear friend and classmate, Nandita Narain, who now heads the math department—it got me thinking about what St Stephen’s meant to me and how it had shaped me. The red brick walls, the arched corridors, the wide staircases, the tiny tutorial rooms squeezed between classrooms, the wooden desks—it all looked exactly as I had left it—and everywhere I saw a 17-year-old girl, just like my daughter, only it happened to be me.
Outside the classroom: College teaches you important life lessons, including being yourself and developing a love for learning. Photo: Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times
The fact that I even studied at St Stephen’s was due to another hidden act of kindness. A week after I started at college, my father was transferred to Pune. Back then in 1976—I was the second batch of women in college—there was no residence for girls in St Stephen’s, and my family decided to take me along to Pune and enrol in a college there. When Principal Rajpal saw my I-am-leaving letter, he promptly called my father, persuaded him to let me continue and promised to find a hostel room close by. That’s how I ended up at Daulat Ram College Hostel—spanking new with rooms to spare—and that led to a weird and utterly wonderful double life as a Stephanian by day and a Daulat Ram hosteller by night.
I have been thinking about what are the top three things I took away from Stephen’s. It is hard to pinpoint because they were such light-hearted, giddy-headed years, and with my “double life” I was participating in activities in two places. There was no obvious structure, no stated objectives, you just plunged in on Day 1 and came out three years later, and honestly, besides looking at my mark sheet, I have never bothered to pause and reflect what exactly I got out of college. Until now. Here’s my list, in no particular order.
You just have to be you
Let me explain what I mean. I came from a convent school where the objective, at least as I saw it, was to fit you into some predetermined mould, much like identical pencils in a box, each one neatly sharpened just so. There was a price to pay if you didn’t conform—for example, in my final year I got an F for an essay, with an emphatic red line slashing through each page, because my handwriting didn’t meet the school-prescribed cursive pattern. Released from this suffocating environment, I went to college and breathed in—in big gulps—Stephen’s own special brand of freedom to be who you are. It was a culture, an atmosphere, a gigantic invisible machine that rendered the usual markers of religion, caste, class, family background largely irrelevant, and encouraged instead a free-flowing exploration of your own interests, finding your own points of view, and arming you to stand up for it. If there was any sharpening of pencils that went on here, it was about locating your own unique strengths and sharpening them.
A big love for learning
I have to confess I don’t remember much of the content I studied, but I do remember being head over heels in love with the subject. I particularly enjoyed algebra, which was taught by S.R. Nagpaul—he was a gentle person, with a twinkle in his eye and a happy giggle, a Harvard PhD, and a brain that I worshipped. From him I learnt that math was hardly about number crunching. At its best, it was an art form, with the same search for elegance and beauty, the same approach from instinct and gut, the same ecstatic feeling when you give yourself over to it—I have sat through exams, snapping awake suddenly, surprised I had solved a problem I didn’t have a clue how to address.
Actually it was hard not to be in love, given that the class had plenty of very keen, very bright students, some near-geniuses, and there was a lot of learning from each other. Believe it or not, a bunch of us got together and studied an extra subject, lattice theory, with Nandita’s brother, Pradeep Narain, dropping by to teach us outside of class hours.
The fact that most learning happens outside the classroom is a big learning in itself—the range of sports and extra-curricular activities that Stephen’s offers is exceptional, and so are the levels accomplished. I always associate Prof. Ranjit Bhatia—my third math teacher—more with the fact that he ran the marathon and 5,000m event in the 1960 Rome Olympics, than I do with the math he taught me.
Going the extra mile
Big brains, yes, big hearts too. The image I have in my mind is sitting down for lunch at Prof. Nagpaul’s home. His wife has laid out a feast. There is a bunch of flowers plucked from the garden. It is my birthday, and they are going out of their way to make it very special for this student far away from home. What on earth have I done to deserve such affection?
I guess I said thank you then. And I say it again now—a big thank you, St Stephen’s.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair with Luxury.
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