Aug 7, 2001


Sandeep Banerjee

Oxford, one of my friends once suggested, was a town that had pretensions of being a picture postcard. I never argued with his evocative turn of phrase. After all, it is an exceedingly pretty university town.

The buildings showing off their gothic splendour in the afternoon sun, the chimes from the university chapel, the blossoming cherry trees, the swans on the Thames (or the Isis, as it is called in this part of this island) all affirm the picture postcard nature of the town. And then there are the gargoyles too, smirking at the tutorial ravaged Oxford student and the Big Mac chomping American tourist alike. One could then sum it all up in one word - idyllic (minus the tourist, of course).

While idyllic it is for most of the week, come Friday night and Oxford strives to transcend itself: to put its more exotic facets on display. What is possibly most striking about Oxford on a Friday evening is the panache with which its male residents, Townies and Gownies alike, set about relieving themselves - post beer binging at the pubs - in public.

On one solemn occasion, as I was entering the hallowed precincts of University College, I managed to get my shoes wet, courtesy some enthusiastic Englishman who had taken the steps of the college to be his personal flower-bed. This, I confess, was not a novel experience for me. I have had similar experiences with cows in the narrow gallis of Varanasi. But then they, quite understandably, never wished me 'good evening' like my Oxford benefactor.

And then there are the public phone booths. On weekends, they are a strict no-no as they usually bear the full brunt of the Friday excesses. The exceedingly brave-hearted often have to navigate a sea of beer-induced urine within the booth to then find the much sought after handset covered in - ummm … let's phrase this delicately - puke, de profundis some fellow Oxonian.

You might want to call these reality checks that are coded within the grand Oxford experience which unflinchingly champions the establishment of the mens sana in corpore sano. And indeed, while it remains perpetually etched in popular collective memory as the 'sweet city with her dreaming spires,' there is an Oxford that is far removed from the rarefied atmosphere of the university. It exists only in an oblique relationship to the gowned students and the manicured lawns of the colleges.

This urban reality - rendered more shockingly real owing to the contrast to its 'fairytale-ish' counterpart, the universally acclaimed brand name - is the one inhabited by the tramp, relentlessly chanting his beer-drenched and marijuana-inspired: cud'ya spair sum chainge mait; and the young Bosnian mother who asks the passer-by for money to feed her child on a pram.

I think back to my pre-departure orientation that was organised by the British Council before I left Calcutta. It was an extremely helpful exercise that ensured, among others, that we did not get lost in the dazzling maze of Heathrow. We were also warned against this peculiar entity called 'culture shock' and I was on the lookout for it the moment my feet touched Her Majesty's realm.

And when I did finally encounter it, I have to admit that I was taken aback just a little bit. I had not been told that the young Bangladeshi mother begging for her child at the traffic light on Calcutta's Park Street would re-invent herself for me in Oxford. The garish saree had given way to a pair of jeans and T-shirt, the bangal accented Bengali had become English with a distinctly Eastern European twang and stutter. And yes, she was much more self-assured than the familiar face from back home.

No, I am not being perverse. Nor am I pushing the soft nationalist line of the mera Bharat mahaan variety. Oxford can be brutally real at times, something that adds a refreshing dimension to this medieval English university town. And being the humanities student that I am - hopelessly so, I would argue - I just like seeing parallels even where none apparently exist.

A revised version of this article appeared in The Statesman, Calcutta in 2001.