Tag Archive | Oxford University

Highlight of a Sabbatical–Leading a Seminar at St. Antony’s College, Oxford

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


Oxford is forlorn in the winter—although the sun did come out today to gild the honey-toned Cotswold stone colleges with golden hues. But this cosmetic facelift did little to cheer the town up. When greyed tree silhouettes are deprived of leafy foliage, when ice encrusts the banks of the Thames, when humanity is stripped off the aged cobbled streets, the town wears a distinctly different look. Still, I refused to let winter get the better of me. It was a red-letter day for me and I felt extraordinarily privileged to arrive in the city as a guest lecturer who would lead a graduate seminar. It is for moments like these that one lives the academic life…Truly.

I awoke to have breakfast with Sue—more toast with butter, marmalade and coffee. A shower, a more formal outfit for my lecture chosen, I sat down to review my notes and prepare for my lecture. But having awoken at 4.00 am, I was nodding off at 9.30 am and succumbed to the luxury of a morning’s nap—I must have dozed for about half an hour but I awoke and got my second wind. Half an hour later, I was ready to Ieave and I took the Thames Path again.

Visiting Exeter and St. Anne’s Colleges:

Having had a slow start (I left the house only at 11. 10 am), I meandered along slowly, with nothing really important to do except meet the Director of the Asian Studies Center, Faisal Devji, at 1.00 pm at St. Antony’s College for lunch, followed by my lecture. So, I popped into the Oxfam thrift shop on Broad Street and bought another DVD (About Time), then decided that since I could not possibly leave Oxford without going into Exeter College, I wandered in there. Students were hurrying to a lecture in the Saskatchewan Lecture Hall underground, where I had once lectured during a Summer School Program. Before I reached there, however, I decided to go upstairs to my former room in the Margary Quadrangle that I was re-visiting after at least 30 years. It was open—yes! Fancy new security codes make it impossible for visitors to wander around usually, but I knew my way around easily, of course. I found my former room, now occupied by someone else and I found the bathroom I had used with its old-fashioned bathtubs and no showers. All has changed, needless to say. There is modern plumbing now which belies the Gothic façade of the main quad—although the Margary Quad dates from the early 1960s. I used the facilities, took a few pictures and moved on. I had the distinct feeling that I will not pass through these stairs again. The feeling is sobering.

I hurry off then for the lecture to see if I can catch a part of it. The lecture hall is packed and there are a few students standing at the back. I join them and discover immediately that the speaker is Jeri Johnson, the American professor or American Lit. at Exeter who had been my friend Firdaus’ Tutor so many moons ago while we were both at Oxford. She is lecturing on the role of the US government on modern literature. I stay for a little while, thrilled, once again, to be able to listen to a lecture in my own alma mater. I then do some more wandering—to the Undercroft Bar where I had downed many a glass of wine with my buddies many years ago. I am unable to enter the chapel (which is closed) or the Dining Hall (ditto). However, I am delighted at my flying visit to Exeter (which also looks very different in the winter gloom) and make my way back to The Broad.

I contemplate popping into the Ashmolean Museum, but I have little time for it. I decide to walk instead towards St. Antony’s College. I might be a mite early but I can survey Zaha Hadid’s handiwork on the new Library. Just next door to St. Antony’s is St. Anne’s College where I had been admitted to do my Masters’ in Eng. Lit. many decades ago. I had not taken my place as the offer came without a scholarship. Since I had never actually been into St. Anne’s, I decided to poke around. And whom should I run into (and what are the odds of such a thing happening?) but David Longrigg, my former landlord in North Oxford, and good friend. Of course, we chatted for a long while as I inquired after his lovely wife, Elizabeth, who had been a superb landlady. David thought I was “very brave” to lead a seminar at an Oxford college! He was admiring the new building at St. Anne’s that had been beneath scaffolding for a long time. He told me to make sure I returned at night when the lights are on and the books in the new library building are illuminated. I promised him I would.

Once I said goodbye to David, I entered St. Anne’s and had a poke around. I did not realize that behind its modern façade there are Victorian brick buildings that provide an antiquarian touch to the lovely landscaped lawns. It is a very peaceful campus—small, but very appealing. Had my life taken a different turn, perhaps this college would have had huge significance for me, I could not help thinking.

Lunch at St. Antony’s:

Five minutes later, with the clock’s hands nearing 1.00 pm, I was at the Porter’s Lodge at St. Antony’s College and just a few minutes later, I was meeting Faisal Devji with whom I had an appointment for lunch. He turned out to be the nicest person and within ten minutes of our meeting, I realized that we knew so many people in common in Bombay. Almost everyone I asked about were folks he knew personally. It was amazing. We chatted easily in the Buttery over a steak lunch with onion rings and a cauliflower gratin—a larger lunch than I really ought to have eaten before my talk. Upstairs, we had coffee—a decaff cappuccino for me and a tea for him and we continued to chat amiably. There was so much to say, it was amazing.

Leading a Seminar at St. Antony’s College:

And then it was 2.00 pm and we arrived at the classroom where my Powerpoint presentation had been set up. There were several people already in the room—many grad students plus my friends and in the varied ages of the folks there, I knew we’d have a very lively discussion. I was introduced by Faisal and I began. It was exhilarating, to say the least. To be back in an institution in which I had been elected to the position of Senior Associate Member and where I was being provided the opportunity to talk about my coming book. As expected, there were many questions that followed and many comments and experiences that were shared with me as I listened to the impact my research had on those present. It is one of the most gratifying experiences of my life—to be able to take my findings out to so many intellectuals in some of the most august institutions in Europe Truly, this talk was for me the most privileged culmination of my non-teaching semester in the UK. It provided an afternoon I would always remember with the deepest pride.

Tea and biscuits followed in the hall outside where I had the chance to speak to several more people who came up with questions and comments. I took a few photos with my friends Susan, Steve and Rae who were also present and with Faisal himself who had been a splendid host.

Exploring the Zaha Hadid Library:

Just before we said thanks and goodbye to Faisal and to the premises of the college, we decided to take a closer look at the Library wing designed by the late architect who was robbed off her life in her prime. She has left her mark on many major international buildings and St. Antony’s is privileged to carry her work—possibly the last major commission she took on before her untimely death. We were granted permission to enter the Tube-Funnel like industrial-looking passage she created as part of the Library’s Reading Room. There was complete silence as many students were at work. Indeed, it was fun to wander around, take pictures and size up the strangeness of her vision.

Off to Summertown:

One of the things I wanted to do while in Oxford this time was a stroll around Summertown, the North Oxford hamlet that has some fashionable shops. I walked past one of my favorite Oxford churches on the Woodstock Road to get through the North Parks Parade with its cute shops and to arrive at the Banbury Road from where I took a bus to Summertown. I caught some of the shops just before they closed for the day and from the Oxfam there, I bought a lovely Victorian-looking warm fleece hat that reminds me of Eliza Doolittle in her flower selling mode! It was a very long walk back from Summertown to Grandpont—indeed it took me about 1 hour and 40 minutes, but I did stop for an ice-cream sundae (which provided a chance for a sit-down) at the ice-cream parlor just opposite Tom Tower at Christ Church College.

Dinner with Sue, Tony and Steve:

Half an hour later, I was back home at Sue and Tony’s place and getting ready for dinner. Tony’s son, Steve, was expected for dinner and Tony was hard at work conjuring a venison pie based on a stew he had created earlier. Blanketed by puff pastry, it made a very handsome dinner indeed, served with potatoes and cabbage. I had a shandy to wash it all down and in Steve’s company, we had a very interesting chat. It was a deep pleasure to meet Steve and it was simply wonderful to be treated to all these amazing meals by Sue and Tony—the stew was perfect comfort food on a chilly winter’s evening. I had a small bit of Lemon Ricotta Cheesecake to finish off my meal and just after I had the last mouthful, sleep just washed over me. I excused myself and returned to my room to start packing for my departure to Essex tomorrow.

An hour later, it was 9.30 pm and having my backpack and other belongings all ready, I crept into bed as chatter and laughter from the dining room still continued. I was bushed after what had been a really eventful day for me and in minutes, I was fast asleep.

Until tomorrow, cheerio…

Being an Oxonian Again!

Sunday, January 22, 2017


I awake at the unearthly hour of 5.00 am—still jetlagged and still fighting Bombay-time in my London hostel. By 6.00 am, I get out of bed and get on with my day. I gather up my stuff quietly, creep to the adjoining toilet and bathroom. Back in my room, with the aid of a night light attached to my bunk, I finish packing, dressing and dragging my backpack to the lift.

Brekkie at the Youth Hostel:

I would have liked to catch the 8.00 am Communion service at the Church of All Souls, Langham (referred to at the BBC Church), but it is a longer hike from my hostel than I had thought. Instead, I decide to get downstairs to the dining room and order the Breakfast Buffet—an All You Can Eat Continental spread for 4.99 pounds. I do not realize what great value it is for money until I am presented with a tray with a croissant on it, and asked for my choice of yoghurt—I opt for peach. At the bar, there is juice, tea, coffee, milk (hot and cold), a selection for cereals (I go for the muesli), black and white bread for toast, every possible kind of spread and preserve plus fresh fruit. I eat like a queen and fortify myself up well for the day ahead for I have no idea when my next meal will be. At 9.45 am, I settle my bill, return my key card to Reception and leave. It is probably the last time I will ever stay in a youth hostel and I am feeling a tad sorry about it for I have had wonderful solo adventures in them in cities around the world.

We have decided that I will meet my friend Roz at 10.15am outside Notting Hill Gate Tube station and, to my great good luck, after I lug my backpack to Marylebon Road, a few short blocks away, I discover at the bus stop that instead of taking the Tube from Great Portland Road and changing three trains to get there, I need merely take one bus there directly. Hallelujah!

The bus arrives within five minutes and I am at my destination in about twenty. Roz is already parked close by and we have a reunion as she stashes my backpack in the trunk of her car and we move on. It is possibly the shortest journey I have ever had to Oxford—partly because, on a Sunday morning, the city is still asleep, traffic is non-existent and we are gabbing away non-stop. Time flies and it is only when we arrive at St. Clements, that I realize how quickly we have reached. It is our intention to eat a Thai lunch at Oli’s Thai which is extolled as one of the finest Thai restaurants in the country, but, of course, it is not open on a Sunday. Perhaps tomorrow, I think…

Parking and a Coffee at the Museum of Modern Art:

Roz finds parking on the High Street and we stride along to Marks and Spenser because my friend Sue, in whose home in Oxford I shall be staying, recommended that we visit the Museum of Modern Art (that neither one of us has seen) which is down a flight of stairs behind the store. We find it in a jiffy and settle down with coffee and hot chocolate in the adjoining cafe—although I am still stuffed with my bulging breakfast. More chatter, more catching up to do, more things to chinwag about. Then, reluctantly, we push ourselves towards the exhibits.

There is a special by Lubaina Himid, a Muslim Tanzanian-British, post-Colonial artist whose mixed media work (paintings, collage, sculpture, installation, painted pottery) are a telling commentary on colonial exploitation of Africa. It is an attempt to expose the brutality of slavery and to reclaim the place of the native black African in historical narrative especially around the issue of the world china trade—which I find vastly interesting.

My contemplation of her work is interrupted by news from my brother Roger in Connecticut that my brother Russel is unwell in Bombay. I make calls to my Dad, get to grips with the situation and decide to call him again in an hour. We are getting out of the art gallery through M and S when whom should we run into but my friend Sue, with whom I shall be spending the next three nights! I make introductions but we soon move on and get back to the car. Roz is ready for some lunch and I suggest one of my favorite places near Oxford, The Trout at Wolvercote. She is game…and we are off.

Lunch at The Trout:

Roz drives her car expertly out of Oxford’s complex one-way road system and we are on the Woodstock Road headed for Wolvercote. Regular readers of this blog will know that it is a favorite place of mine—a pub that was favored by Morse and Lewis and which has grown from a small country drinking hole to a somewhat posh gastropub with posh food to match. Over the last thirty odd years, I have spent many a happy hour in quiet contemplation by its weir on the stone terrace at the back, overlooking the river Isis—either alone or in company.

On this Sunday afternoon, it is hopping. We manage to find a table for two, despite having no reservations, and sit down to a lovely luncheon in a super cozy space with exposed black beams, low-slung ceiling and Ingernook fireplaces that make it toasty. Roz goes for a vegetable tart with goat cheese which is absolutely delicious and although I am still stuffed, I go for the Fig and Dolcelatto Nut Roast which is really quite nice. Roz has a glass of red wine, I have the pear cider (my first time, if you can believe it, having it in the UK on this visit), but by the time we get to our last mouthfuls, we are bursting and pass on dessert—more’s the pity because they looked fabulous.

Getting Dropped Off at Grandpont:

Roz drives me back to Sue and Tony’s, as she has plans to meet her son and his family in Jericho. It is a roundabout journey because the pedestrian plaza of Cornmarket makes a detour necessary. Carfax in Oxford is busy on a Sunday afternoon, but nowhere near as crowded as it is in the summer. Again, a quick Hi and Bye to Sue and Tony and she is on her way by 4.00 pm

Dinner with Dear Friends:

With the evening free to ourselves, I find my room, make myself at home and spend the evening catching up with my friends. There is a distinct sense of deja-vu all over again as I survey the house in which I had spent two absolutely heavenly weeks in September while they were in Crete. They settle me down with a cup of tea and before long, it is time for dinner. Sue and Tony work together to produce delicious, nourishing meals, most of which are created from the produce they grow on their allotment. This evening it is a marvelous Leek, Walnut and Blue Cheese Tart complete with pastry, Tony has made and rolled himself into a deep tart dish. We eat it with peas and new boiled potatoes and there is a Lemon Ricotta Cheesecake from M and S for pudding.

There is so much to talk about—mainly about the new presidency of Truummmphhhh! My friends are naturalists and activists and have joined the rest of the world in protesting against his obnoxious policies. On Saturday (yesterday), during the Womens’ March, they stood with banners on Abingdon Bridge that read, ‘Build Bridges, Not Walls’. They are fearful about what lies ahead, not just for America but the world.

But, much as I enjoy our chatter, by 9.00 pm, jetlag catches up with me again and I am yawning and losing it. I excuse myself as they clear up and I get ready for bed. It has been another wonderful day spent in the company of fond English friends in one of my favorite cities in the whole wide world. What was not to love?

Until tomorrow, cheerio…