P.J. Sanjeeva Raj on MCC's sprawling campus, the spirit of Independence and weekend sojourns to Madras
In the June of 1945, I came to Madras as a student and have stayed on since then. I was going to study Zoology at the Madras Christian College in Tambaram, which enjoyed an umbilical connection to the city as a result of rail connectivity.
My first few hours in Madras remain fresh in memory. When the Bombay Mail drew near the Madras Central, the stench from the Buckingham Canal was overpowering. Madras Central was the picture of chaos. The train had hardly stopped when porters scurried into the compartment and hustled people into handing over their bags.
First impressions last a lifetime, but my early impressions of Madras faded away quickly. It all started with the friendly porters. These luggage-carrying men would travel with you all the way to Tambaram, if you bought them a ticket!
MCC helped students of zoology study animal behaviour, an integral aspect of the subject, without having to leave the campus. A portion of the Vandalur Reserve Forest was marked out for the college. Change in ownership did not affect the biodiversity of this land. In those days, exotic creatures such as the slender loris and the scaly anteater were common at MCC. When darkness fell, the jungle came into its own. Howling jackals, screeching owls and nightjars would pierce the silence of the night and create a grippingly surreal atmosphere. The zoology student had an edge over others. He knew where to look for life forms that did not announce their presence.
Diversity was not restricted to the woods. With students from nearly 20 countries, MCC went a long way in enhancing cosmopolitanism.
Scottish missionaries constituted a majority of the staff and the college followed the Oxford-type tutorial system, in which students were divided into groups of 10 or 15. Each group was assigned to a teacher who kept in constant touch with these students and supervised their academic progress. If any student misbehaved, his tutor was summoned.
When I was an undergraduate student at MCC, the country went through turbulent times. Post-War uncertainties cast a shadow over our lives. A blackout was imposed in the hostel. The freedom struggle was at its peak and nationalistic fervour was palpable. Interested in developments pertaining to the nation's future, students would flock to the community radio for AIR's news bulletins.
When we got Independence, the halls (hostels) witnessed large-scale celebrations. The joy with which the Scottish missionaries received Indian Independence was awe-inspiring. They danced with the students. Prof. MacNicol's performance was outstanding. He taught English, but we called him Professor of Miscellaneous — because he played the piano and the bagpipes, wearing the dress of the traditional Scottish highlander.
I continued to be a part of MCC beyond my student days. I lived on the campus as a member of the teaching staff. Nothing matched the pastoral charm of Tambaram. There were vast stretches of barren field and the market in West Tambaram, now overcrowded and bustling with commerce, was then an open field. I would not have given up living in Tambaram for anything, but ‘Madras' had a strong attraction. After five days in the woods, the land of trams, jatkas and hand-pulled rickshaws was a welcome change. Rail connectivity made Madras seem nearer than it was.
As our professors wanted us to visit libraries, we frequented the Connemara Public Library regularly. We had to walk over piles of books, and we could never be sure of finding the book we wanted. Thanks to two canteens, the library was, a favourite haunt for students.
The Moore Market was another place to visit. A variety of creatures — lorises, star tortoises, parakeets and talking mynahs — were sold at this market during the 1940s and 1950s. Puppies were also sold. The seller would call a puppy seemai nai (foreign dog), referring to its pedigree. For an academician, the Moore Market was an immeasurable blessing. It appeared as if all the knowledge in the world was telescoped into this space.
Because of all these charms, Madras was irresistible during the weekends.
I REMEMBER Rev. Dr. A.J. Boyd, who was the Principal of Madras Christian College for almost two decades, knew all the students by their names
P.J. SANJEEVA RAJ Born in Nandyal in 1927, he studied zoology at MCC and later taught the subject at the college. He completed his doctorate in the U.S. and was honoured by societies of academicians such as Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi . From 1964 to 1985, he was head of MCC's Zoology department. In 1968, he founded the Estuarine Biological Laboratory at Pulicat with the aim of protecting the lagoon and its bio-diversity. He has published three books on the lake. The Tamil Nadu Government has acknowledged his contribution to environmental management by conferring the Karmavirar Kamarajar Award (2002-2003) on him.