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Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Stephanian remembers....

It's hard for me to imagine Boromashi as a college girl. She has always been so serene, gracious and softspoken. At nearly 90 years of age, her hair is still as black as in her youth -- blacker than my own, considerably younger, mother's hair -- and her mind as clear as when she topped Delhi University in Philosophy 70 years ago. That feat catapulted her to fame among the probashi (non resident) Bengalis scattered over urban centres in an India in the throes of the independence movement.
A smile invariably flickers on Boromashi's face when she recalls how her photograph and brief laudatory description of her intellectual prowess caught the eye of her future in-laws, leading to her marriage with a man who seemed to complement her so wonderfully: a tall protective foil to her petite, fragile beauty, his booming baritone a contrast to her low, measured tones.
But that came later. First, those enviable results brought her for her master's degree to the portals of a college that was just beginning to gain a reputation for excellence in Delhi: St Stephen's. Essentially a men's college, it finally allowed in a few women at the post-graduate level for a while. And Boromashi was one of the first five women to be admitted.
It was a mixed blessing for the shy but brilliant girl who was held in such loving esteem by the old and young alike. MA in a college full of men? In a class full of men? In a library full of men? In a cafeteria full of men? She was a bundle of nerves. Mindful of their daughters' welfare, two Bengali fathers -- one of them my maternal grandfather, the other his friend -- decided that their girls would be ferried by car to college and back.
The two classmates' transport problems were sorted out by their fathers , but there was still a college full of men to confront. The five girls stayed as close as their individual college schedules would allow. But there was always that band of boys... You couldn't avoid them. Or they couldn't avoid beautiful Boromashi. She still blushes as she recalls chance encounters, the furtive glances that came her way, the fragments of engineered conversation...
"We decided that we would have our tiffin in the car," she recalls. "In those days there were no boundary walls so we walked across the front lawns to the car parked on the road and climbed inside to eat." But the boys clearly were not going to be deprived of their sparse company that easily. "Imagine my surprise then when one of the girls told me that I was mistaken if I thought I was avoiding the boys by sittting in the car. She told be to look at the verandahs in the front of the building..." To her horror she found several binoculars trained in their direction!
Today I reminded Boromashi about that incident and she recalled another one. "One day I was running down the college stairs in such a hurry that I slipped. My pen, my handkerchief, my bag everything went flying in all directions," she told me over the phone. "I was so distraught that a whole bunch of boys rushed forward to help pick my things up. So imagine my surprise when I found some 10 pens and 10 handkerchiefs in my bag!!"
Seventy years on, my son walks those same college corridors -- as did his father and uncle did a few decades before him -- and I think they would agree that those pens and kerchiefs were more eloquent epistles than anything that is emailed or BBM-ed today....
As for Boromashi, she left those extra pens and hankies in a corner for their ardent but disappointed owners to reclaim at their leisure. But the fact that she still remembers their anonymous gestures, would no doubt make them happy. She left before finishing her MA there as her father got transferred and St Stephens had no facilities for her to board there, and in the thick of the 1942 Quit India Movement she awaited her marriage to a gentle giant of a man she had never met.... But that is another post -- and another memorable conversation with Boromashi.

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