Shireen Vrinda interviews her grandfather to find out what it was like to be a student in St. Joseph’s College in the 1940s. An evocation of days of slow mist and smoke and leisurely cycling that might make you want to hitch a ride on a time machine.
We sit facing each other in the quiet of the afternoon; he just turned 95 the week before. His eyes have turned bluish-grey with age and he smiles in slow motion when he hears the word college. He looks to the ceiling tilting his head and positioning his memory to reveal the person of his youth his body no longer recognized. He laughs into the air, still looking upward and his hands move in the same direction to feel the unshaven grey stubble under his chin. The skin on his fingers seems to be consuming his nails; his cuticles almost meet the edge of his finger leaving space in between only in memory of what was. He laughs his head back to equilibrium and begins to speak.
In 1946 Arokiaswamy Kanikam Doss went to St. Joseph’s Arts and Science for admission for a BSc degree. He leaves his house one morning, wearing a crisply ironed white shirt, brown slacks, and shoes that he always shined to perfection the day before. He gets on his BSA cycle and from his house in Jogupalyam road, Ulsoor he begins cycling to residency road where St. Joseph’s College originally stood. (where present-day SJPUC stands) He cycles past Louis boarding house in Brigade road and finally arrives in front of the dome-shaped stone building. He gets off his cycle and pushes it into place inside the cycle stand at the rear end of the college. He walks into the admission office, holding his merit cards and hoping to receive admission into the PCM (Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics) course offered. The two popular courses offered at the time were PCM for Natural science students and HEL (History, Economics, and logic) for humanities students. The commerce college was just being built at the time, “we had little connection with its students” says Doss. The Principal at the time was a Boniface D’Souza, he looks at the merit cards presented to him and acknowledges that A.K Doss was also a Christian, and immediately grants him admission directing him to the fee counter. Doss pays 6 Rupees at the counter which is a month’s fee and cycles back home to tell his father that he is now a Josephite.
A.K Doss credits his father and his grandfather for the privileges he received. Education was a privilege only few could afford and an English education, even more so. Back in the 1920s English education in christian and convent schools permitted the admission of only British children, children of British soldiers, and Anglo Indian children. Indian students were simply not allowed. Arokiaswamy (Doss’s father) only received admission into St. Patrick’s in the early 1920s because his father was a Nautami (Village chief) “privileges like these made the path to education for my father and I easier and when those privileges were taken away, education remained.”
A usual day in college would begin at 9 in the morning; A.K Doss would cycle to college and meet his friends Louie, Samuel Selvaraj, and Christy along the way. They’d park their cycles and go off to their respective classes. Professor Devasai would conduct labs for the science students in the morning. Samuel, Louie and Christy went off to their history class with Professor Peck. Doss very much envied the classes they attended with Professor Peck “The eminence of his lectures made me want to run away from my chemistry class and sit in his.” The one class they all enjoyed attending was Professor Venkat Rao’s or as he was popularly known ‘Venky’s English classes. “Unlike school and college children in today’s time, we didn’t have much to carry. Just a textbook and a notebook,” says Doss. They’d walk into college with just a notebook and meet the librarian Mr. Roberio at the time for their textbooks.
In between classes students and professors would often light their cigarettes and have a smoke together several times during the day. The usual chai and coffee break between classes’ was uncommon but smoking breaks were not. If you wanted to have a cup of chai or a coffee during a day in college you’d have to walk down to the Imperial hotel opposite the Imperial Theater on Residency road. Today St. Joseph’s houses 5 canteens around campus to provide its students with more than just refreshment. But back in 1946, it had no canteens to achieve this.
Classes would always end at 1 and Doss and his friends would immediately cycle to the Boys’ hostel ground in Shanthi Nagar (where St. Joseph’s University stands today). Most of them would either walk or cycle to the hostel ground to play hockey or basketball. The then sports instructor of St. Joseph’s, a Father Andrade would also join them. Father Andrade would tie up his cassock and they would all play hockey until the sunset. “Weekdays often went by like this but weekends were what we most looked forward to”.
Every weekend they would all meet at Louie’s house in Ashok Nagar and then cycle to Lalbagh and sit around the park talking until it was dark or till they were hungry. Every Sunday they’d cycle to the Renowned restaurant opposite the city market and have what he claims was the best Mutton Biriyani in Bangalore for 12 annas or Chicken Biriyani for 14 annas followed by tea for about 6 annas.
On some Sundays, Doss and his friends would meet up at the Cubbon park bandstand to listen to some live music: the ‘Mysore lancers’ and the ‘Air force band’ were a crowd favorite. The crowd sang and danced along to the music under the trees and when it ended the four of them would head over to the Cubbon restaurant where they always ate butter-roasted masala dosa for 8 annas. They would continue talking and only begin cycling back home at 10 pm.
“Life in college was not always this peaceful” The effect the independence struggle had on students around Bangalore was grim. The streets in 46’ always held protestors, especially near the city station. Doss and His 4 friends along with other college students joined the protestors in their chants. Student protests in Bangalore began gaining more momentum, the city echoed with their chants and slogans both of which were met with violent lathi charges. When India was finally declared independent, “all our colleges were still under the Mysore government so nothing really changed.”
Some weekends were more adventurous than the next. About 10 to 15 of Doss and his college mates would go on picnics to forests near Bangalore. They always left carrying basic spices like turmeric, chili powder, pepper, and salt besides this they also carried a beer for each person and a tin of Kent cigarettes which would be shared amongst them. The daylight portion of their picnics they spent hunting, the rest of the afternoon skinning and marinating their kill, and the nights were spent making merry with their friends around a wood fire-cooked meal under the star-lit sky.
Of all the trips they made, the most memorable location for them was Nandi hills. They left early in the morning, tying gramophones that played Sinatra on the back of their cycles, and together they’d peddle and hum until their legs ached for leisure. The small tea breaks they took along the way instantly energized them and they’d dance to the sounds of Sinatra and Jim Reeves or as they called him ‘Gentlemen Jim’.
“Louie was the funny one. We’d all sit around his performances and laugh in great noises. In some situational silences, we’d look to him grinning and say, ‘Jester us won’t you, Louie?’. Instantaneously the sides of his mouth would begin to curl upwards and with a wink, he’d reply, ‘Court me then, will you?”.
They’d reach Kombalkod near Nandi hills and stay the night at the bungalow that a British engineer named Edwin owned. The bungalow was always empty so they took advantage of this and would pay the caretaker 1 rupee to let them stay there for the night.
In 1948 as their college days were coming to an end, they spent their time walking through MG road. They walked to the Indian Coffee Bar because cycling got them there too fast. They sat and talked for hours and hours over mutton cutlets and coffee. They ate slower at the Renowned restaurant and spoke of life after college with slight stomach-dropping hesitance. Promises were made to follow these traditions after they would graduate and some promises were kept.