I came to Madras in 1954 at the age of 15, when I joined Queen Mary's College in the intermediate class. That was the start of five years I spent along the Marina — two years at Queen Mary's, and three years at Presidency College, where I did my B.A. History Honours.
There were very few colleges in the city. There were only two girls' colleges those days — Queen Mary's and Women's Christian College (WCC). At Presidency, we would have inter-collegiate classes — one week, we would go to WCC, the next week, they would come to Presidency. It was wonderful. But, all that has disappeared today — it's become such a competitive world.
The student body at Queen Mary's was very cosmopolitan. We had a large number of students from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Coorg, and a few from North India as well. I remember, the Princess of Cooch Behar, was a year junior to me. She had come here to study all the way from West Bengal!
The hostel consisted of a set of rooms with a broad verandah. All the cots were in the verandah; that's where we slept. Fans were unheard of in either the hostel rooms or the classrooms; there would be a lovely breeze from the beach. Every morning, we awoke to a gorgeous sunrise over the Marina. And, on moon-lit nights, I wouldn't want to go to bed at all; I'd just sit and watch the moon over the water until my classmates dragged me to bed.
There was a strong colonial flavour at Queen Mary's and at WCC. This was, after all, the first decade after Independence. For instance, we had butlers in the non-vegetarian mess. And, you wouldn't believe the fare we used to get there for Rs. 40 a month — it was princely food. For breakfast, we would have toast and fried eggs, mutton cutlets and stew, and mutton or fish for lunch every day. And, for dinner, we had two non-vegetarian dishes, two vegetarian dishes and puddings. We had biriyani every Sunday, and roast chicken and ice cream every Thursday.
In the college, there was very little talk about the freedom struggle or of ‘India' as something to celebrate. People told stories, instead, about the founder-principal, Dorothy De La Hey, or about the Queen's visit in 1918 (when it was named Queen Mary's College).
Although it was such a prestigious college for women, its attitude towards women was almost Victorian — no one talked about women aspiring for freedom or equality. Marriage was the goal for most girls, and few talked about becoming working women.
The move to Presidency was a big change. For one, there was much more politics in the atmosphere. For another, it was the first time many of us were studying in a co-ed environment. The boys and girls interacted very little. For the few boys and girls who dared to date, the Buhari Hotel opposite the college used to be the rendezvous spot. It was called the Marina Buhari and was an important landmark! The boys went there often for coffee — Buhari's mutton samosas were especially famous.
One of my most vivid memories of Presidency College is of the framed prints of the work of world masters lining the corridor walls. That was my first exposure to Western classical art — Michelanglo's ‘The Creation of Man', ‘The Last Judgment'… there were so many. I'd just want to stand and look at them.
For my first two years at Presidency, I lived with my aunt and uncle in the Omandurar Government Estate (later, the women's hostel moved to Chepauk, and I went there). The Estate had a building called Cooum House, right on the banks of the Cooum (I believe it has been demolished now), and behind that was a big, beautiful lotus pond filled with huge white lotuses. All around it was a walkway covered by tall, shady trees. The whole area used to throb with birdsong. I loved going for walks there. And, in the evenings, I would sit by the lotus pond and study until it was too dark to study anymore. In 1959, I ended up joining Queen Mary's again — this time as a lecturer. In just five years, the college had changed a lot. There was more democratisation of the student body. And, all those colonial vestiges had disappeared — the butlers were gone and the menu had become completely Indian!
Growing up in Dindigul, I came to Madras on annual visits to watch international test matches at the Madras Cricket Club, along with my father and my brother. We'd bring food along and spend the whole day in the galleries! In those days, cricket was unknown South of Madras. My headmistress and teachers would be furious. They would ask, “What are you taking a week's leave and going off for? What is this cricket?!”
Dr. V. Vasanthi Devi Born in 1938, this educationist was Vice-Chancellor of the Manonmaniam Sundaranar University (1992 to 1998), and later the Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women (2002 to 2005). She is currently Chairperson of the Institute of Human Rights Education.
Keywords: Memories of Madras