Monday, January 30, 2017

Highlight of a Sabbatical--Leading a Seminar at St. Antony's College, Oxford

Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Oxford is forlorn in the winter—although the sun did come out today to gild the honey-toned Cotswold stone colleges with golden hues. But this cosmetic facelift did little to cheer the town up. When greyed tree silhouettes are deprived of leafy foliage, when ice encrusts the banks of the Thames, when humanity is stripped off the aged cobbled streets, the town wears a distinctly different look. Still, I refused to let winter get the better of me. It was a red-letter day for me and I felt extraordinarily privileged to arrive in the city as a guest lecturer who would lead a graduate seminar. It is for moments like these that one lives the academic life…Truly.

            I awoke to have breakfast with Sue—more toast with butter, marmalade and coffee. A shower, a more formal outfit for my lecture chosen, I sat down to review my notes and prepare for my lecture. But having awoken at 4.00 am, I was nodding off at 9.30 am and succumbed to the luxury of a morning’s nap—I must have dozed for about half an hour but I awoke and got my second wind. Half an hour later, I was ready to Ieave and I took the Thames Path again.

Visiting Exeter and St. Anne’s Colleges:

            Having had a slow start (I left the house only at 11. 10 am), I meandered along slowly, with nothing really important to do except meet the Director of the Asian Studies Center, Faisal Devji, at 1.00 pm at St. Antony’s College for lunch, followed by my lecture. So, I popped into the Oxfam thrift shop on Broad Street and bought another DVD (About Time), then decided that since I could not possibly leave Oxford without going into Exeter College, I wandered in there. Students were hurrying to a lecture in the Saskatchewan Lecture Hall underground, where I had once lectured during a Summer School Program. Before I reached there, however, I decided to go upstairs to my former room in the Margary Quadrangle that I was re-visiting after at least 30 years. It was open—yes! Fancy new security codes make it impossible for visitors to wander around usually, but I knew my way around easily, of course. I found my former room, now occupied by someone else and I found the bathroom I had used with its old-fashioned bathtubs and no showers. All has changed, needless to say. There is modern plumbing now which belies the Gothic façade of the main quad—although the Margary Quad dates from the early 1960s. I used the facilities, took a few pictures and moved on. I had the distinct feeling that I will not pass through these stairs again. The feeling is sobering.

            I hurry off then for the lecture to see if I can catch a part of it. The lecture hall is packed and there are a few students standing at the back. I join them and discover immediately that the speaker is Jeri Johnson, the American professor or American Lit. at Exeter who had been my friend Firdaus’ Tutor so many moons ago while we were both at Oxford. She is lecturing on the role of the US government on modern literature. I stay for a little while, thrilled, once again, to be able to listen to a lecture in my own alma mater. I then do some more wandering—to the Undercroft Bar where I had downed many a glass of wine with my buddies many years ago. I am unable to enter the chapel (which is closed) or the Dining Hall (ditto). However, I am delighted at my flying visit to Exeter (which also looks very different in the winter gloom) and make my way back to The Broad.

            I contemplate popping into the Ashmolean Museum, but I have little time for it. I decide to walk instead towards St. Antony’s College. I might be a mite early but I can survey Zaha Hadid’s handiwork on the new Library. Just next door to St. Antony’s is St. Anne’s College where I had been admitted to do my Masters’ in Eng. Lit. many decades ago. I had not taken my place as the offer came without a scholarship. Since I had never actually been into St. Anne’s, I decided to poke around. And whom should I run into (and what are the odds of such a thing happening?) but David Longrigg, my former landlord in North Oxford, and good friend. Of course, we chatted for a long while as I inquired after his lovely wife, Elizabeth, who had been a superb landlady. David thought I was “very brave” to lead a seminar at an Oxford college! He was admiring the new building at St. Anne’s that had been beneath scaffolding for a long time. He told me to make sure I returned at night when the lights are on and the books in the new library building are illuminated. I promised him I would.

Once I said goodbye to David, I entered St. Anne’s and had a poke around. I did not realize that behind its modern façade there are Victorian brick buildings that provide an antiquarian touch to the lovely landscaped lawns. It is a very peaceful campus—small, but very appealing. Had my life taken a different turn, perhaps this college would have had huge significance for me, I could not help thinking.

Lunch at St. Antony’s:

Five minutes later, with the clock’s hands nearing 1.00 pm, I was at the Porter’s Lodge at St. Antony’s College and just a few minutes later, I was meeting Faisal Devji with whom I had an appointment for lunch. He turned out to be the nicest person and within ten minutes of our meeting, I realized that we knew so many people in common in Bombay. Almost everyone I asked about were folks he knew personally. It was amazing. We chatted easily in the Buttery over a steak lunch with onion rings and a cauliflower gratin—a larger lunch than I really ought to have eaten before my talk. Upstairs, we had coffee—a decaff cappuccino for me and a tea for him and we continued to chat amiably. There was so much to say, it was amazing.  

Leading a Seminar at St. Antony’s College:

            And then it was 2.00 pm and we arrived at the classroom where my Powerpoint presentation had been set up. There were several people already in the room—many grad students plus my friends and in the varied ages of the folks there, I knew we’d have a very lively discussion. I was introduced by Faisal and I began. It was exhilarating, to say the least. To be back in an institution in which I had been elected to the position of Senior Associate Member and where I was being provided the opportunity to talk about my coming book. As expected, there were many questions that followed and many comments and experiences that were shared with me as I listened to the impact my research had on those present. It is one of the most gratifying experiences of my life—to be able to take my findings out to so many intellectuals in some of the most august institutions in Europe Truly, this talk was for me the most privileged culmination of my non-teaching semester in the UK. It provided an afternoon I would always remember with the deepest pride.

            Tea and biscuits followed in the hall outside where I had the chance to speak to several more people who came up with questions and comments. I took a few photos with my friends Susan, Steve and Rae who were also present and with Faisal himself who had been a splendid host.

Exploring the Zaha Hadid Library:

            Just before we said thanks and goodbye to Faisal and to the premises of the college, we decided to take a closer look at the Library wing designed by the late architect who was robbed off her life in her prime. She has left her mark on many major international buildings and St. Antony’s is privileged to carry her work—possibly the last major commission she took on before her untimely death. We were granted permission to enter the Tube-Funnel like industrial-looking passage she created as part of the Library’s Reading Room. There was complete silence as many students were at work. Indeed, it was fun to wander around, take pictures and size up the strangeness of her vision.

Off to Summertown:

            One of the things I wanted to do while in Oxford this time was a stroll around Summertown, the North Oxford hamlet that has some fashionable shops. I walked past one of my favorite Oxford churches on the Woodstock Road to get through the North Parks Parade with its cute shops and to arrive at the Banbury Road from where I took a bus to Summertown. I caught some of the shops just before they closed for the day and from the Oxfam there, I bought a lovely Victorian-looking warm fleece hat that reminds me of Eliza Doolittle in her flower selling mode! It was a very long walk back from Summertown to Grandpont—indeed it took me about 1 hour and 40 minutes, but I did stop for an ice-cream sundae (which provided a chance for a sit-down) at the ice-cream parlor just opposite Tom Tower at Christ Church College.

Dinner with Sue, Tony and Steve:

            Half an hour later, I was back home at Sue and Tony’s place and getting ready for dinner. Tony’s son, Steve, was expected for dinner and Tony was hard at work conjuring a venison pie based on a stew he had created earlier. Blanketed by puff pastry, it made a very handsome dinner indeed, served with potatoes and cabbage. I had a shandy to wash it all down and in Steve’s company, we had a very interesting chat. It was a deep pleasure to meet Steve and it was simply wonderful to be treated to all these amazing meals by Sue and Tony—the stew was perfect comfort food on a chilly winter’s evening. I had a small bit of Lemon Ricotta Cheesecake to finish off my meal and just after I had the last mouthful, sleep just washed over me. I excused myself and returned to my room to start packing for my departure to Essex tomorrow.

            An hour later, it was 9.30 pm and having my backpack and other belongings all ready, I crept into bed as chatter and laughter from the dining room still continued. I was bushed after what had been a really eventful day for me and in minutes, I was fast asleep.

            Until tomorrow, cheerio…

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