Reliving a plateful of memories as Presidency University celebrates its 200th birthday in Kolkata today

I took this picture when I went back to college in 2008

My college, Kolkata's Presidency College, has turned 200 years old today. It is called the Presidency University  these days  as it is a university now and at the time of founding was called the Hindu College.

My Facebook feed is abuzz with fellow Presidencians who are excited about this and some of my batchmates have made it to Kolkata for the celebrations.

Facebook and social media has helped me connect with some of me batchmates and I actually caught up with a few of them as soon back as last week. Our unofficial run up to the 200 year celebrations in Mumbai you could say.

With classmates from Sociology in Mumbai recently

A college senior who lives next door to us in Mumbai
and is great cook. She was in English Hons

A dinner at her house last week there is one Presi socio,
one Presi English and one Presi political science in the frame

The 200th year updates brought back memories of when in was in college. I belong to the Presidency College batch of 1992 - 1995. I had studied Sociology Hons there. 

By the way is it only in Kolkata that 'Hons' is mentioned specially?

Presidency College 1992-95 batch from when we were in college
and when I was rather thin
Remembering the 175th year celebrations of Presidency College
The 175the year celebrations happened when we were pretty new to college. The new sociology building was just being built then. There was a huge shamiana/ pandal put in the field and the campus was full of commandoes. 

The then President of India, late Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma, had come to address us. He was pretty elderly then and used to limp a bit when he walked but was very affable and chubby and won our hearts. We yelled "Shanky, Shanky" as he walked in and he smiled and waved back at us most sportingly. During his speech, he told us how he had wanted to study in Presidency when he was young as the college was pretty renowned even then. However, his mother had apparently made him stay back and study in his native Uttar Pradesh rather than live alone as they felt he was too young for that.

It felt good to know that being super protective about their sons was not just a Bengali mom thing and by the time the late Dr Sharma left the college that afternoon, he had become everyone's favourite granpy.

The current President of India, Dr Pranab Mukherjee, had come too and he gave a talk during the festival week for the 175th year in the economics department. He is an alumni of the college too.

Some people say that Presidency is no longer the same now. I'd advise the current crop not to get too worried about that. Our seniors used to say the same about Presidency when we were there. That's something old timers do.

The Milieu volunteer food box and college food memories

The 175th celebrations happened during winter which is when the college fest, Milieu, happened too and as greenhorns, we were pretty excited about it. 

Over the next two years in college I'd be part of various committees such as the 'reception committee' for the fest. Here you got to sit at the lobby and make announcements on the mike. I never made it to the 'security' committee which was meant for my more burly peers. I really enjoyed being a part of the fest and which is why always say yes when students these days...Sophia's and IIT Mumbai for example ... invite me to judge the cookery events in their fests. Milieu didn't have a cookery event or a fashion show either then. Only 'serious stuff' like debates, quizzes, JAM and the such though the rock night was much looked forward to.

The best part of being in the committee was that one got food packets meant for volunteers. Not the boring chutney sandwich, samosa and chips of Mumbai. Our paper boxes had fish cutlets, mutton chops, mishti and on a good year, mutton biryani too. There was one year when I was a part of three committee and shared food with my friends only after I had my fill!

Getting down to some serious work in the library

Which, also is why I went to the ancient, dark and cavernous arts library at lunch time. I would finish the tiffin my mother would send me and then head to the canteen. Specially if it was something nice.

Pramod da's canteen

A picture that I took in the canteen when I went back in 2008
I believe it is airconditioned now

The canteen, specifically Pramod da's canteen, was the heart of our college life. I am told that there is another canteen now in addition to his but that was not so in our time. 

The parents of some of my friends had themselves studied in Presidency. They had warned us not to spend all our time at The India Coffee House next door. As they once had!

Well, we didn't. We were at the canteen all the time! The term for it was 'Canteen Hons'. The canteen was out of bounds for the academic staff. We would hang around here when there were no classes. And sometimes when there were classes going on too. The hike from the canteen to the Sociology department was rather long and that helped me digest my high calorie canteen diet of vegetable chop, shingaras and the odd egg rolls rather well. 

Most of us, specially the boys, were cash starved and we sometimes got the girls to 'sponsor' the odd soft drink. The reason why we chose egg rolls over mutton rolls were more thanks to a Presidency urban legend than just economics though. The vegetable chops sandwiched in thick bread would make for quite a filling lunch. There would be the odd day when there would be kochuri and alu. We would forge coins saved up for this. In my case, this was from the 'local conveyance' money my mom would give me. Kochuri meant taking a cheaper bus than than taking the Metro.

Chop cutlet to give you an idea.
This is from the Bandra Durga pujo

I think the most exciting thing that happened in the canteen, food-wise, was when Pramod da installed a Fountain Pepsi machine. Inspired by Cyrus Broacha and the FP ad, we couldn't have enough of it! No molecular gastronomy liquid nitrogen pops later could match up the joy of having colas from a tap and mixing Pepsi, & 7 Up and Mirinda and forming 'cocktails'.

Aerated drinks in a college campus shock you? Well, I think smoking was allowed too then and a host of other stuff was on offer on the terrace I am told even though it was the boring 90s and not the 60s or 70s. I was a 'bhhalo chhele' (good boy) though.

The college socials happened at the 'baddie' (badminton) court next to the canteen and in between shaking one's hips rather gawkily to the latest Bryan Adams and SRK Bazigar number, one would feast on the biryani made in the canteen for the event. I think we had pooled in for the food.

The canteen was the spot for adda over countless cups of tea in tiny chipped ceramic cups. A few like me had coffee which cost 50 p more. Topics could range from the fall of the Berlin wall to what can one do about with Ravi Shastri's inability to deliver on the pitch and then to more pressing topics like crushes (chhok kora) and of being crushed by crushes that didn't work out and, towards third and final year, what next to do with our lives.

As I was remembering the canteen today, I suddenly remembered that there was a guy who is said to have joined the IIT and then left it and came to Presidency. He left the IIT apparently because he was bored of the rajma they served!

College Street eats

We had our budget favourites around the college in the College Street area. Not so much the India Coffee House though. The service there was too slow. I used to joke that you'd place your order there and that your grandchildren would come and get the food. We did go there on the last day of our college life though feeling a bit maudlin. Suddenly we spotted a couple of our professors including the legendary PR or Dr Prasanta Roy, who was the head of our department and was someone who kept his classes interesting, encouraged us to think, who was bald and perennially dressed in a white dhoti and white punjabi (kurti) and whom many girls had a crush on. PR insisted on taking our tab that evening.

My friends and I would would go to Tasty which was located on the ground floor of the Coffee House building where one would get a cheap plate of noodles served with ketchup and a rather flimsy fork. 

Down the lane from the Coffee House was (and still is) Putiram the sweet shop. We used to go to the 'Xerox shop' beside Putiram for photocopying notes and books. While waiting, we'd have the kochuri and alu at Putiram and also the uniquely white coloured mishti doi, There was a stall by a wall towards Bowbazar where we would buy tele bhajas or pakoras made with potatoes, brinjal and there was a prawn one too which had a single prawn per cutlet. I might have stopped here during my B School days at IISWBM which was next to Presi. 

Another life saver was something that we discovered towards the latter years in college. This was something we called the "YMCA" canteen. It was a tiny stall/ cage beside the College Square swimming pool. They sold stew where. A sort of clear soup with vegetables such as potatoes, unripe papayas, carrot and tomato and there were chicken and mutton stews too. The vegetarian one was cheapest and what we'd go for. This was served with thick slabs of white bread and were quite filling. I was later told that you got this in the football club canteen in the maidan.

What about Paramount the sherbat place? It was shut when we were in college but I did go there during my B school days for their rather novel syrups and crushes. Someone had asked me about  the iconic Dilkhusha Cabin. My friends and I rarely went there when we were in college, I don't know if others did. A senior from my college, whom I met recently, said we possibly avoided it because it turned out to be more expensive and that folks went there more after they started working. I honestly  do not remember why we didn't go there. Possibly because Pramod da's canteen met all our needs.

Beyond College Street

There was one food 'discovery' outside of College Street that I had thanks to my batchmates. This is when we had gone together one rainy afternoon to Elgin road. Some of the guys in the know took us into a residential building. Inside that, there were small Tibetan run, very bare-bone restaurants. That's where I had my first pork momos and which is why chicken momos never work for me. The high point of the outing was the bowl of pork bone broth served on the house with the momos. Can't tell you how heaven sent they were for our perpetually hungry bellies.

Hotel California

Of all the cliques I have been a part of over the years, academically and professionally, the Presidency College badge was the one which I wore most proudly and it continues to be something I am very proud of.

Ironically, I had actually wanted to study English Hons at Presidency. Couldn't make it past the entrance exam. Then got into Sociology which I had sat for just because I had the option of taking a second subject. It was a subject I was unfamiliar with then. I was rather sad that I couldn't get into English as I was really keen on it but I was keen on Presidency too. So encouraged by my aunt, who had friends had studied the subject, and my late grandpa who was very wise and modern in thought and who knew everything including about the existence of sociology, I took up the subject. Turned out that I ended up loving the subject and I think that my sociological orientation set me up well in life for both my careers of a market researcher and now that of a food writer.

Sometimes it's good when things don't work out. 

Here's wishing Presidency University many more glorious centuries and, if you are from Presidency, I would love to hear of your food memories too from college.

As for me, I do hope to go back someday and eat at my old college haunts.

Could also be of interest

1. My blog post on revisiting the canteen
2. My article on where we used to eat around college