Where Time Stands Stillby Adithi Rao December 7 2020, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 31 secs
Novelist and writer, Adithi Rao, pens a tribute to the famed Mount Carmel College of Bangalore, alma mater to Margaret Alva, Deepika Padukone, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Nirupama Rao, Anushka Sharma.
“In those days,” says Sister Genevieve, pausing for a sip of water, “this area on which Mount Carmel College stands was a slum.”
Quite figuratively, my eyes pop out. I had, after all, grown up in the mid-1970s in this very locality that she is referring to – Vasanth Nagar - where we are now seated together, talking. There had certainly been no sight of a slum in my time. My grandfather’s home, where I spent every summer, had been a comfortable cottage situated opposite the ‘milk booth park’, just two lanes away from what is probably Bangalore’s most famous educational institution. Most of our neighbors were middle-class Tamil Brahmins, and M.S. Subbalakshmi’s Ventateshwara Suprabhata, served as a daily pre-dawn alarm service.
‘I’m speaking of the 1950s, when I first joined the institution,’ Sister clarifies, rightly interpreting the incredulity on my face. (Let me tell you now, in a stage whisper, that I am in the middle of an interview with the legendary Sister G, as she is affectionately known by generations of students who’ve passed through her hands at Mount Carmel College).
Here, she herself had been a student before going on to become professor, vice-principal and eventually principal, during her illustrious career at the institution. After she retired at the age of 58, Sister G ‘re-tyred’, as she laughingly puts it, and took over the management of the pre-University section of the college, where she continues to be a force to reckon with).
Returning to the 1950s, then. What Sister G has just told me about the area being a slum at that time, suddenly makes sense. Bangalore isn’t a very old city. Not when compared to the timeless tradition and regal majesty of Mysuru. Bangalore, indeed, seems to be an accidental space that is utterly bewildered by its own unexpected rise to prominence. It doesn’t take a large leap of understanding to believe that the Vasanth Nagar of my childhood could once have been what she describes it to have been – rows of thatched-roofed huts from where people came to work as housemaids and gardeners in the richer households, and on the premises of the college itself. A conversation with my mother, Mrs. Sudha Rao, who was a resident of the locality from the 1950s until 1995, later confirmed that the slum began just beyond the 4th cross and extended up to Miller’s Road.
Today, Vasanth Nagar is one of the most dearly priced localities in Bangalore.
Between the 1950s and early ‘60s, before the City Trust Board shifted the Vasanth Nagar slum to Tannery Road, the Carmelite sisters used to carry out social work there. Fired by the zeal and dedication of the senior nuns of the order, the younger ones like Sister G joined in the tasks of distributing medicines, raising funds to conduct marriages and hiring the slum dwellers to work on the college premises. Wood needed to be chopped for the cooking (there was no electricity in those days), the gardens had to be tended, the place kept clean and orderly.
After relocating to Tannery Road, the workers retained their jobs at the college, braving the commute to do so. Today, younger generations of those same people have inherited the jobs along with their family names. I turn my head and look out the window as Sister G tells me all this, and my eyes fall on four young sari-clad women in the garden down below, chatting cheerfully to each other as they prune the hedges.
‘Yes,’ smiles Sister, following the direction of my gaze. “Two of those girls’ fathers used to be gardeners here. They were good people, hard workers. Retired now.”
Why is any of this interesting? Only because Mount Carmel College is to Bangalore what St. Xavier’s is to Mumbai. Besides being a legend in its own right, it is alma mater to some of the most prominent women in Indian public life – Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairperson of Biocon, Margaret Alva, politician and the erstwhile Governor of Rajasthan, Nirupama Rao, who in her time, had served as India’s ambassador to the United States, China and Sri Lanka, and Bollywood stars, Deepika Padukone and Anushka Sharma - to name just a few.
Deepika, I am told, arrived most days to college directly from her iconic father, Prakash Padukone, Badminton Academy (situated just up the road), dressed in a sweaty tracksuit, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. When I hear about this, an image flashes in my mind; these faces we see in our morning newspapers, only as young teenagers walking these very corridors, perhaps giggling and passing notes in class, dreaming impossible dreams they never guessed would one day become a reality.
But there is another reason why Mount Carmel as an educational establishment is so important, so relevant. It has been alma mater to countless young Indian women who lived during a time when the only way they could pursue a college education was by doing so in an all-women’s institution.
Mount Carmel College came into existence in 1948. In the late 1800s, the founder of this order of Carmelite sisters, Mother Theresa of St. Rose of Lima, went to Kerala to start an English medium school at the behest of the priests there. In the course of her work, she discovered that many of the local women were illiterate. Unhappy with the state of things, she began to work towards their empowerment, starting English and vernacular medium schools with highly trained teachers who would impart a quality education to them.
In the 1940s, the then Archbishop of Bangalore invited the Carmelite nuns to start a college for women in his city. In those days, there was only one such educational institution - Maharani’s College - in Bangalore. The second, as it turned out, would be christened Mount Carmel College.
The first of the buildings was situated at the head of the main thoroughfare of the sleepy hamlet that was Vasanth Nagar. It threw its doors open to young women, beginning with just a few and expanding to the strength of 10,000 over the decades. Many who came to study in the early days were only sent there because no men were admitted to it. Prominent among them were girls from conservative Muslim and Jain families.
Today, young women from across the country come here to obtain one of the finest educations the country has to offer. This has been the case with other all-women’s institutions the world over - Sophia College, Mumbai, Smith, Wellesley and Mount Holyoke Colleges in Massachusetts, and Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania. At one time, Radcliff and Vassar featured prominently on that list but they have since turned co-educational.
As a Smithie myself, I do recall during my college years in the late 1990s that there were some suggestions that men be allowed admittance into Smith College. But the idea was summarily vetoed when it was made abundantly clear that significant amounts of alumni funding would be withdrawn should that happen. Much of the funding for the college came from women who, having hailed from an era when casual and un-chaperoned interaction between the sexes was simply not permitted, wished to support the tradition of an institution devoted solely to female education.
All of these women’s colleges mentioned above eventually came to be known for their academic excellence as much as anything else.
My mother tells me that during her student years at Mount Carmel in the 1960s, a number of girls used college as a stopgap between school and marriage, often leaving their education incomplete to tie the knot. On the other hand, Mahna Manoj, currently an undergrad at the institution, says that every single one of the girls in her batch is single-mindedly career-driven. The change in trend is truly heartening!
The road outside the main gates of the institution that once led up to a tiny railway crossing, used to be lined with trees as old as time. The tree trunks couldn’t be encompassed in an embrace, not even if two people stood on opposite sides and tried to reach around them to hold hands. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the tiny but well-stocked kaka-shops (the Mappila Muslims of Kerala, commonly referred to as ‘kaka’, are an enterprising business community who run grocery stores in every nook and cranny of Bangalore), catered to the needs of the local community and extended their services to the students of the college.
The tree-lined lane beyond the college gates was dubbed ‘Lover’s Lane’; the sight of a pretty young student strolling hand-in-hand with her boyfriend was not unusual. Then, sometime in the late 1980s, the trees were cut down to make way for the railway underpass that now dominates the junction leading to the college road. The quiet shade of a gentle era was replaced by the hustle-bustle of traffic, haphazardly parked cars and the tow trucks that inevitably follow on their heels.
What has endured over time is a lone corn seller, whom my friends and I so eagerly awaited every evening of our childhood. Some days she would appear on the corner of Lover’s Lane with her cart piled high with golden ears of Indian corn that she roasted into treats for us, spicy enough to make our noses run as we nibbled at them and delicious enough for the memory of it to make my mouth water as I write these words, some 30 years later.
In the 1990s, a consortium of prominent colleges from the United States, in a bid to conduct an India study abroad program, sent a handful of their students to Mount Carmel College to learn about Indian culture, history and food habits. “We planned their food carefully, ”reminisces Sister Genevieve, “but the moment they saw our girls eating roadside butta and pani puri, they wanted some too!”
The mention of butta stirs a memory. As if by telepathy, Sister G adds, “Every year we have a silver jubilee celebration. Last year was for our batch of ’93. They (the alumni) made an appointment with that butta lady who used to be here - she’s still here, you know? And told her that she had to be prepared with plenty of corn so there would be enough to go around. They gave her a lot of money, and she was invited inside the premises and made much of. She was so excited!” chuckles Sister.
And so it turns out that the butta lady, now in her 70s, having lost her husband and then her son, still continues to stand in the lane outside Mount Carmel with her trusty old cart, roasting corn marinated in memories for the current generation, much as she once did for me and mine. Perhaps it is true that the path of life bends and bends again in many places. But if you stop still and wait awhile, it does come around to find you again.
Over the decades, people have shifted to Vasanth Nagar to be nearer the college, so that their daughters who are studying there will not have to commute. Cafés and quaint eateries have replaced the idli-dosa stalls and the little Chacko Bakery of my childhood; old cottages have made way for tall, elegant houses and sprawling office buildings.
“Education is communitarian,” Sister Genevieve says. ‘’It’s a two-way process. Any area develops because of a good institution, and the institution grows because of the community around it.”
As I bid goodbye to her and step outside the gates of the college, I look around at the throng of laughing girls making their way inside. Where old Vespa scooters and TVS mopeds once chugged along, Honda Civics and a Mercedes Benz now flash past. For a moment I see, in my mind’s eye, Rain Trees lining a long quiet lane, and a tiny railway crossing at the end of it.
But then I blink, and the illusion passes. I step into a waiting auto rickshaw and ride away, leaving Vasanth Nagar and its memories behind.