Last time he came visiting, my friend Raghavan invited me to drop in at his college. “If you pass by next week,” he said, “you could get an idea of what colleges are like now.”
“But you’ll be busy,” I said.
“No classes next week,” he said. “My schedule is flexible. Have lunch. I’ll introduce you to some colleagues, and show you the library. You’ll see how things have changed.”
I felt like a fossil. The last time I was in a college was when I left mine for good some four decades ago. But curiosity won, for I did want to see a modern college. I imagined rows of students hunched over computer terminals in grim silence, absorbing the wisdom of the global village...
And so, next Wednesday, at noon, I visited him. His college is far from the city, in a few quiet acres by the side of a busy highway. The gate was wide open, with a driveway leading to the college, a four-storeyed building with a uniformed watchman at the entrance. In the lobby was a young lady behind a counter.
“Where can I meet Professor Raghavan?” I asked.
“First floor,” she said. “Left at the top of the stairs. His room is at the end of the corridor. His name’s on the door.”
Raghavan sat behind a large desk, files and journals arranged neatly on its top, a large bookshelf behind him, and beside him a window with a view of a little garden. It was a quiet and peaceful room, meant for hours of reflection and intelligent discussion. After a cup of coffee he showed me around a glass-walled room where rows of students sat at computer terminals. “We subscribe to information services and journals,” he replied. “Bloomberg and others. There’s live data and analyses from all over the world in there for the students to learn from.”
I felt more like a fossil as he led me to a colleague’s room, much like Raghavan’s own, quiet and meant for mental work. “This is Dr Seshadri,” he said, “Professor of…” Raghavan’s cellphone rang just then, cutting him off mid-sentence. “I have to take this,” he said. “Excuse me.”
Dr Seshadri was short and plump and well-groomed. As we shook hands, I said, “Dr Raghavan didn’t mention what you teach.”
“Marketing,” he said. “The most important subject of all.”
I had a vague idea of salesmen trotting around with bags full of samples, but Dr Seshadri got me straightened out. “It’s much more than selling,” he said. “You can make whatever you like, but you won’t survive in business if you don’t market it properly.”
He was interrupted by Raghavan, back from his call. “Dr Seshadri was just telling me how important marketing is,” I said.
“Yes,” Raghavan said, looking at his watch. “Let’s meet some others. You can have a longer chat with Dr Seshadri over lunch.”
Outside in the corridor we bumped into a tall, lean gentleman with thick spectacles and a neat moustache, with a uniformed watchman in tow. “Ah!”
Raghavan said to me, “here’s Dr Shetty.”
“Sanjay has a message for you,” said Dr Shetty, waving at the watchman. “It’s urgent.”
“Excuse me while I attend to this,” said Raghavan, turning away.
“And what do you teach?” I asked Dr Shetty.
“I teach the students about what makes the world go round,” he replied.
“Finance. Nothing works unless it’s paid for.” He paused. “I have a meeting now, so perhaps we could catch up later.”
Raghavan was done with Sanjay by then. “Of course,” he said. “Lunch. At one, in the canteen. Seshadri will be there.”
Dr Shetty nodded, and Raghavan led me away towards the stairs, where we met a smart lady in her thirties. “Dr Sarala Pai,” Raghavan began.
A young woman, a student, came to his side. “Excuse me, Sir,” she said to Raghavan. “Do you have a minute?”
“Excuse me,” Raghavan said to Dr Pai and me, and turned to listen to the student, who whispered something in his ear.
“And what do you teach?” I asked Dr Pai.
“That nothing is possible without people,” she replied. “If you don’t get people to go with you, you’ll get nowhere.”
Raghavan had finished with his student. “Lunch in the canteen at one?” he asked Dr Pai. “Shetty and Seshadri will also be there.”
“Yes,” Dr Pai said. “See you at one.”
As we moved on, I said, “Each of those professors said his or her own subject is the most important. I’m confused.”
He smiled. “It’s only natural,” he said. “They don’t understand that it doesn’t matter what you know if you can’t communicate it properly. So communication — which happens to be my subject — is the most important subject of all.”
He looked at his watch. “We’re early,” he continued. “Will you wait in the library?”
“Sure,” I said.
The library was a large quiet hall full of bookshelves with the librarian in a cubicle near the door and a couple of clerks working unobtrusively behind a counter. After Raghavan introduced me to the librarian, I got an old book on history and found a seat by a window overlooking the garden. A soft breeze carried the hum of a bumblebee gently in through the windows. Nearby were students, one of whom was taking a nap, resting his head on the table.
I found myself transported four decades back to the library at my college, where I, too, had napped over tedious reference books, and my last thought as I nodded off was that the professors were still prigs, the library still a refuge, and I… I was no longer a fossil.