It is not a good idea to tempt the fates. Years of frustrating and repressing intellectual excellence may lead to those values — use of the intellect and excellence — becoming if not extinct, then at least elusive. Now when Presidency College has become a university waiting for the new vice-chancellor to take over, some of its chemistry laboratories have been reduced to ashes. The material destruction is enormous, including immensely expensive equipment and chemicals. Theoretically at least, those can be replaced over time. But these were live laboratories, dynamic with young minds busily engaged in research. What is truly painful is the destruction of this work, much of which, it appears, was kept in the laboratories without backup. That is a loss not easy to make up for, a violent and unexpected change in the lives, plans and hopes of the researchers. Reportedly, the quality of research had been showing a distinct improvement after a period of decline. In the larger context of Calcutta’s need for intellectual excellence, the loss becomes even more poignant.
The fates do not work without human assistance, and here there was assistance aplenty. Chemistry laboratories in an educational institution surely need a double layer of fire protection, the first being the basic protection given to a school, college or university, and the second being a special one for the area in which chemistry experiments take place surrounded by stored chemicals and complicated wiring. Was such protection set up for the laboratories in Presidency University? In spite of various defensive noises from the institution, it is clear that the arrangements were not enough. Fire extinguishers alone can do little; apparently even sprinklers were lacking. But what is amazing is that the centre of what aspires to be cutting-edge research in one of the sciences should be indifferent to the use of modern methods of protection, such as automatic warnings or fire-resistant materials to create buffers and so on. This is particularly remarkable in view of the recent uproar about the need for fire safety, especially after the Stephen House tragedy. Even the scientist with his or her nose deep in the recesses of an ivory tower may have taken note, not to speak of the caretakers and administrators who maintain the institution. Is the wiring checked regularly, or even each time a new machine is installed or an expensive piece of equipment connected?
The task before the new vice-chancellor was huge enough when she accepted her appointment — it has just become bigger. The challenge she is about to take up is unenviable. Yet her coming will mean a new era for the institution, and newness may bring with it an extra surge of positive effort on everybody’s part. That is the best she can hope for at the moment.