Bhaskar Ghose’s new book revisits St. Stephen’s College

Inspired by his years as a student of St. Stephen’s College, author Bhaskar Ghose’s “Fraterhouse” is a stimulating account of a premier institute of learning

Published - October 03, 2018 02:03 pm IST

NEW DELHI, 09/06/2015: Bhasker Ghose during an interview in New Delhi on June 09, 2015. 
Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

NEW DELHI, 09/06/2015: Bhasker Ghose during an interview in New Delhi on June 09, 2015. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

How did “Fraterhouse” take shape?

I drew on my perceptions, some memories and ideas from my years as a student of St. Stephen's College, on which the novel's college Fraterhouse, is based. St. Stephen's was founded by a group of visionary young men from Cambridge, who formed the Cambridge Brotherhood in Delhi, which still exists. The Latin word for 'brother' is 'frater' (rhymes with 'cater', 'later', etc) hence Fraterhouse.

The catalyst behind the novel was the strident opposition to so-called elitist ‘Angrezi’ education, of which, in Delhi, St. Stephen's came to become a symbol. Being an ordinary middle-class student whose family, though educated, was then of very modest means, I can state that it was not elitist at all. It had students who came from affluent families and public schools like Doon School, but also a large number of students like me.

But the model of teaching was strictly British...

Yes, the type of teaching was based on the Cambridge model: tutorials, the one-to-one or one-to-two method ( where the students read out essays on subjects given by the tutor) was the main method of teaching and was the most stimulating. It taught us to enquire, to question, to argue on facts, to read widely to be able to argue cogently – as they presumably still do in Cambridge and Oxford. It developed our minds more than anything else I can think of. Lectures with students dutifully taking notes and learning them by heart to pour out into exam answers were not as good a system, certainly. And, yes, in my time there were a number of teachers who were English: The Rev William Jarvis, Raymond Adlam, and C. Eyre Walker in the English department, Ian Shankland and HMW Wake in History, Simon Carvell in Mathematics, to name some. David Summerscale joined around the same time; he was a tall, handsome, golden-haired young man, a good cricketer who soon became very popular.

Tell us about the characters ...how did the genteel NirmalHazra come about?

Nirmal is entirely imaginary, not fashioned on myself or anyone else. The novel is set in more or less contemporary times and women students are almost as many as men; it wasn't so in my time when it was a strictly men's college. Nirmal’s relationship with Aishani was strictly against present-day rules, but it happened because both were young and then it had to be kept clandestine, hence the Kolkata events. I suppose Nirmal as a character was someone I thought I would like to be but was not - extraordinarily intelligent, educated in Oxford, a Ph.D., etc! That he failed in personal relationships was something that grew as I wrote, I hadn't planned it.

And the engimatic Aishani....

Aishani initially was a character who I thought would fade out early on as a former love of Nirmal’s but I found her return irresistible, as a confident, street-smart film maker, shaping her own life the way she wanted to. Her relationship with Nirmal stays enigmatic, though; even at then end one doesn't know, I didn't, whether she would eventually begin to love him – I suspect she would, though!

Emily is the character I was most fascinated with; we never had English teachers in St. Stephen's in my time so it's entirely, entirely make believe, but I think I saw her as an endearing, warm and perceptive person who was at the same time very reserved, keeping her personal feelings under control and hidden, even. In an odd way she came to be to me emblematic of the kind of teaching, the education and the values that English education gave us. And let’s not beat about the bush; the English gave us more than the railways and the language, they gave us education through schools and colleges on which we built, yes, and built brilliantly, giving the world some of the finest minds, and scholarship, it has and had for some years now, but the foundations were laid by the colonisers, even if we hate to admit it.

That – the whole of the process, not just the foundation – is what Nirmal was referring to in that last talk he gave the students before leaving for the US.

And James, who falls in love with India...

James is, I admit, someone whom I shaped around David Summerscale, but only in looks. I never knew David well, and in any case the character of the young Englishman who falls in love with India just came to me naturally, having met a number of such persons. His love affairs were all imagined, of course; I felt it gave him a depth and a degree of credibility, coming as naturally as it did the more I imagined him.

The Nicholls Trust is a figment of my imagination, nothing like the Rhodes Trust that exists but in the process of its withdrawal of English lecturers and replacing them with a system of scholarships I drew on the slow withdrawal I noticed of the English personnel from St. Stephen's – there was a clear feeling that their time was over and they had to go, some sadly, some I imagine with a sense of relief.

Tell us about your style, how do you get past the obstacles of plot and multiple characters?

I do spend time on plot, characters and the structure of the novels I write; I must admit I spent much more time on this one than on the others, writing, re-writing several times over almost three years. But one can't plan everything beforehand, as an engineer prepares drawings of a bridge that he will build. As one writes the characters take on a life of their own and so do events. The secret is to let them, but up to a point. Often writers – I know, because I'm one of them – don't know where to draw the line.

This novel required that time as there are a number of strands to it and I needed to draw them together in the end. I also used the climate as I factor, if you noticed. Using Indian names for the seasons made sense, and the seasons seemed to me to play a role in the unfolding of events, odd though it may sound! The fog in the beginning, in winter, though pleasant, the rains which can get, as we know, violent, and the return of calm with the onset of cooler weather..too much? Judge for yourself!

What were your motivations behind capturing the state of education and politics in the academic world?

I've mixed my experiences as a student with the situation as it exists today. Largely because I know what it was in my time; I don't know today's more complex demands and beliefs. In my days there was a group of people who resented what they thought St. Stephen's stood for – colonial ways, elitism, etc. Don't forget, the early 50s were very soon after independence, so it was more intensely felt. The attack on the college I've narrated in my book didn't actually happen, but there was a threat made, and we did get ready with hockey sticks and cricket bats to combat any trouble makers who tried to enter the college. Fortunately, no one did. But I did feel, as a student, that some changes were going to come – just as Aishani feels in the book and with which she sympathises.

As someone who once headed India’s public broadcaster, how do you see the current media environment?

It's very sad. Not that it was all wine and roses before, but right now I honestly don't feel like turning on my TV. I've found my TV gets YouTube, and watch that happily every evening. I'm trying to get Netflix, and will in a few days. Private TV channels have extremely silly serials and films, though occasionally one or to do show a film or documentary that's worth watching. As for the news, it's just noise, for the most part.

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