Way back in 1962, travelling with my family from London, the train stopped for a while at a somewhat deserted station called Cambridge — the land of Newton, Rutherford, Dirac and so many icons of history, I mused. The manicured natural beauty of the legendary ‘backs’, generously sprinkled by the hauntingly beautiful Cambridge colleges — surely, I said to myself, this is one of the most romantic places in the world, and this is no ordinary romance. It is a heady mix of the most original ideas in history — a romance with an unusual level of serenity and beauty, yet passionate beyond belief; at the same time, a romance of pure fun and joy with a dash of panache thrown in.
That was Michaelmas term, Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1964. What was incredible, however, was a magnificent sense of freedom after the constraints of class timings back home. No one told us what to do or not to do. Thus, one soaked in the pleasure of unchartered freedom almost immediately after one’s arrival in Cambridge. In our exuberant youthfulness, we became hopelessly irresponsible. Beatlemania was at the top of our social agenda. Long hair and jeans, red flags in Petty Cury (a street, opposite our college), and a firm conviction that communism is the only answer to the world order — such thoughts crowded our minds.
Come summer, the prospect of exams loomed large, but the enticing possibility of the May Ball, the Valentine Ball, the elegant summer parties, occupied our thinking vectors. Some of us were reckless enough to even come back to the college at dawn, and were often asked by the cheekiest and naughtiest porter, “Are you coming in or going out, sir?” One was usually not in a position to answer that with any degree of certainty. The style, however, was irresistible. With the Caribbean tune floating all over King’s Parade, May Ball ended with punts drifting towards Grantchester for breakfast, more champagne, and often ending up in the river and sobering up almost immediately.
Towards the end of the first year, the great professor, Brian Pippard, chided me gently, dropping hints that I was wasting my time and the opportunity of coming up to Cambridge. My tutor at Christ’s, a frustrated nuclear physicist and an acid drop, even suggested that I go back to India and sit on the laurels of the First I had obtained there. Sir Nevill Mott, the Cavendish Professor and later a Nobel Laureate (who was my mentor in England), commented that he doesn’t see me much at his lectures.
By their very presence, the Master of the college, the formidable Lord Alexander Todd, already a Nobel Laureate, and even Jack Plumb, the great historian, made me jump with the agony of lost time. The glorious history of Newton Milton, Rutherford, Dirac, Darwin, Crick and Watson stared at me uncompromisingly. I woke up and never much veered from that awakening. After the finals, we all went down from Cambridge and plunged ourselves in different currents of life. Although Cambridge slowly faded away, a fluctuating sense of nostalgia lingered on; only occasionally, the romance of the salad days stirred somewhere deep within.
In December 2008, and like a phoenix from the ashes of history rose the prince of 19th-century Indian science, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, resident undergraduate of Christ’s College, Cambridge, from 1881 to 1884. It was decided by the college authorities that a bust of Bose would be installed to mark his 150th year. Sibaji Raha, the director of Bose Institute, Calcutta, arranged for the bust to be sculpted and took it to Cambridge.
We all trooped into the college on a cold but sparklingly sunny morning, on December 6. The bust was on the stage of the lecture hall, waiting to be inaugurated. The function was hugely successful, with many excellent talks. Cambridge luminaries from past and present attended, followed by a lovely party, hosted by the Master, Frank Kelly. By the end of the day, every corner of the college had come alive.
This year, I am visiting Cambridge once again, as a so-called distinguished visiting scholar of my college, courtesy Frank Kelly. As I write this, sitting in my flat at 66 Jesus Lane, memories like old photographs flash through my mind. I realize, with an endearing nostalgia, that my digs in my final year were a few yards from my present abode on Jesus Lane.
Everything has remained the same, yet everything has changed. The college buttery (bar) is not as attractive now. “Nobody wastes time drinking these days”, someone said. The present Master is at his charming best; the procedure at the high table remains the same — crazy Latin before and after dinner. The church bell tolls every hour, an all-pervasive tranquility prevails, despite the agitation in one’s head, lost in the memory cans of long-past years.
Sir J.C. Bose now rests peacefully, looking pensive under the incense cedar, surrounded by trees of heaven and mahonia at the newly established Yusuf Hamied Court of the college. The penetrating gaze of another famous Christ’s man, Charles Darwin, settles on Bose. Bronzed, aged 22, Darwin sits on a bench with a mischievous brilliance in his eyes. We are celebrating 200 years of that first evolutionary biologist. A few nights ago, Stephen Hawking described flashes of ideas as “the Eureka moments”. Stephen went on to say, in his very original way, “I will not compare [the Eureka moments] with sex; it lasts longer”. Cambridge is the mother of “Eurekas”. For 800 years, it has been witness to many geniuses. Nothing changes much in Cambridge, yet many things have changed in the world because of Cambridge.