The Albert Hall Coffee House, 1962-65, Part One

[Had a few young friends on Twitter not asked me to, I wouldn’t think of writing a post    on the Coffee House and would have continued merrily with The Fireflies (Three). Reading my first draft I spotted many errors, mostly typographic, grammatical or related to punctuations, but there were unforgiveable others too. That prompted me to change the names of a few of the girls mentioned, not just for the sake of propriety, for all of them, naturally, are somewhat over the hill, no longer the lissom lasses that they once were (though still are in my mind’s eye), but to protect their familial reputations and personal needs for privacy. I have also changed the names of one or two of my male acquaintances — for a different reason — to save my own ‘donkey’.

The cardinal mistake, that cannot be edited out with ease, is that I have let, subconsciously, too much of me in. That wasn’t called for in a Coffee House blog. But I was too ensconced in The Fireflies mood to stay away. I edited some of it out ruthlessly but pondered over the rest and let them be, for it is my Coffee Hose that I am writing about. So I deemed it fit to gather the germane issues under one subheading at the very beginning, where it belongs. I have no issues with my potential readers, meagre as they numerically are, if it is ignored altogether.

This is a written down version of thinking aloud and, everybody knows that lonely fogeys at my age are given to reminiscing too much. My apologies for not writing in Bengali: the standard excuse is that the PC I’m writing on doesn’t have the Bangla font, and the Google Bangla is cumbrous and less faithful than some of the ficklest females that I had met—if feminist friends would allow me that!

Readers, beware, there is not an iota of the promised Coffee House in Part One of this post, except in the title! Thousand pardons for the unintended deception. My stamina to edit a badly drafted post ran out of steam with this much. This all-me part can truly be considered the nth episode of The Fireflies.]    

Me, As I Was Then

A FIRST RATE country bumpkin, I had joined the St. Xavier’s College with the intention of studying physics — the only hard science subject in which I didn’t have the seemingly mandatory letter marks in the Board (West Bengal) examination — because Presidency didn’t put my name up in the first list, but SXC did. I felt slighted, for the same Presidency had dared to put up my name in the first list for Chemistry, a subject for muggers — not in the American sense! [For the sake of records I’d like to point out that ours was the third ever Higher Secondary batch of 1962 (end of class XI), and that we had to learn our sciences in Bengali (জাড্য for inertia, কেলাস for crystal, তাপদায়ী বিক্রিয়া for exothermic reaction and all that). That entailed considerable relearning of the English terms in college and a conscious effort to suppress the long ingrained vocabulary].

I was in the first flush of থরোথরো কৈশোর, an unlovable boy with more pimples than facial hair, a few months shy of sixteen and full of impossible desires, prompted perhaps by glandular impulses that beset pubescent lads. And I had the vision of hanging my coat with Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Enrico Fermi and the likes. That’s why I shunned Presidency in utter contempt. But was I worthy of SXC? Anyone who reads the imaginary interview below would say no.

–      Why should you be accepted?

–      For my HS mark sheet, what else?

–      Huh, do you know how many have scored more than you? Have you asked Ashoknath Chatujje, Achin Sen and others in your class?

–      (Silence…)

–      What games do you play?

–      I’m pretty useful as a left-arm leg spinner and I bat a bit in the middle order.

–      Would you be able to outplay Shibaji Roy, Bhashkar Gupta, or Russi Jeejeebhoy, all from the college?

–      I’m useful at table-tennis too.

–      As good as Harry Aue, the College, Varsity and Bengal title holder?

–      I was chosen twice for inter-school debate.

–      Have you heard Eapon speak?

–      I also write poems in Bengali; three got published.

–      Give us an example.

–      পিওন এলো পিওন চলে গেল,/ কলিংবেলে রাখলনা তো হাত, /না-পাওয়া চিঠি দুলিয়ে দিল প্রাণ, /হৃদয় কেঁপে উঠলো অকস্মাৎ…

–      You could have mugged it from some other’s. Give us another in confirmation.

–      আমি যে কত অনুপমার শীতল মৃতদেহ/ চন্দ্রাতপে উষ্ণ করে প্রেমমুখর রাতে/ অকুতোভয় প্রেমের খেলা খেলেছি কত দিন,/ তবু তোমার প্রেমের কাছে আমিও পরাহত;/ কোথায় পেলে এমন মন্ত্রশক্তি, অর্বাচীন?…

–      You look like a babe-in-arms, but you’ve managed to woo some girls already. Have you had carnal knowledge too?

–      Er… not really. I do know a few girls, the rest is my imagination.

–      Try to imagine better things from now on… Who’re your favourite poets?

–      William Blake, George Barker, Alokranjan, Sakti , Tarapada.

–      Shut up! Will they help you out with your physics?

For a country bumpkin I was better read than most of my new mates, not necessarily in my chosen subject. The Bengali medium, small town, government alma mater from which I passed didn’t ask me to, but I had read far more than most boys would: Vidyasagar, Michael, Hutom, Tekchand Thakur, Biharilal, Rabindranath, Mohitlal, Saratchandra, Trailokyanath, Jogindranath Sarkar, Satyen Datta, Jagadish Gupta, Prabodh Sanyal, Jyotirindra Nandi, Subodh Ghosh et al in Bengali, in no particular order, and a similar array in English, all because I didn’t have to hunt around for them. (I’d let you in to the fact that I understood very little of all that). I also gobbled up, as did most of my school chums, every piece of the মোহন series by শশধর বিশ্বাস, and endless slim paperback স্বপনকুমার editions, for I understood the genre only too well. Even then, I had begun disliking হেমেন্দ্রকুমার রায় of যকের ধন fame. That particular title wasn’t too bad really, but সুন্দরবাবু-বিমল-কুমার-জয়ন্ত-রাখোহরি were matchstick figures at best, and absurd in the likes of ময়নামতির মায়াকানন. My special favourite was JM Barrie; he inspired me to be like Peter Pan, footloose and fancy free, a boy who would never grow old. I think, beneath my grey hair, parched skin and thickening midriff, the eternal boy is still alive and laughing in spontaneous, if unseasonable mirth!

That, and that alone, was the only justification for my being granted admission to SXC, as I see it with hindsight.

My well-oiled head of unruly hair, bristly stiff like a boar’s, was brushed roughly back then—the surplus lubricant oozing down my virginal sideburns. And, in the first month and a bit, I wore school-day shorts, better known as half-pants, and half-sleeve white shirts, till I was advised by well-wishers to switch over to comely dhotis and long-sleeve, slip-on shirts of the period, rolled up tightly above the elbow, the pocket artfully ink-stained. I had no idea how well read I was before getting a chance to rate my friends; that took more than a year, I would imagine.


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