humidity wavers between a heat wave and a downpour. The air-condition unit
in the car collapses and within seconds, my face is covered with a film of
moisture. Heat prickles at my face, forehead and arms. A slight breeze
brings comfort and disappears into the still air.
car overtakes, shaving me off the road. The veins on my hand are engorged.
Traffic jam. Boys who should surely be at school or play, or home, wave
peppers, peanuts, a bag of green mangoes in my face. Smiles turn into
disappointed jeers as I refuse. I’m moving again. The maxi taxi in front
of me stops abruptly in the middle of the road, on the highway, making me
“slam” on the brake pedals, pulse and anger rising. Swearing, I think
“damn my curiosity, damn it.” That’s all I learned in university. I
should have studied a science, which only dealt with absolutes and rats,
and then I would be safe in a lab somewhere.
am driving to the UWI campus, St Augustine. An eminent academic asked me
to “come and see” the place for myself after I fired a volley of
questions at him one evening whilst drinking hot cocoa with the rain
beating outside. “UWI,” said his wife, is like a high school. “UWI,”
countered the academic, “should be turned into a post-graduate
institution. It does not work as a university for undergrads.”
told them about the Canadian university where a lecturer turned up with
his guitar and strummed war songs. He was going to teach us about World
War I through the poetry written by the men in trenches. And how another
put his feet up and said “I’m going to eat my donut. You guys discuss
lecturers,” said the academic, “are too busy hustling consultant work
and reading out lectures prepared in the ‘70s to be creative.”
I thread my way to the campus, I get a flashback of UWI three years ago. I
was there to conduct a TV interview with a lecturer. Nobody seemed to know
where the Economics - or was it Politics - Department was. “Academic”
and “non-academic” staff, students and toilet cleaners alike looked at
me as if I was asking directions in Russian. They frowned and looked
amazed and it took me half an hour, numerous little clues and half
gestures to find my way to the History Department. The campus was clean
and academic enough, but there was a hush which felt lethargic. I must
have gone at a bad time.
abiding memory of my initiation into university was when I walked into a
townhouse in Peter Robinson College of Trent University in Ontario,
Canada, to be offered a chocolate chip cookie. Everyone in the room,
Miguel the bisexual Venezuelan, Andrea the stunning sylph-like Jamaican
with skin like creamy chocolate, Dave the lanky bespectacled pianist,
Allegra the Brazilian with the cake foundation, Samira the Tanzanian
diplomat’s daughter with the confident voice, thick from smoking
cigarettes and issuing commands, stared.
bit a piece of cookie and licked the crumbs from my fingers and ate the
lot. They stared and stared until the room began to go round and round. I
had eaten an entire hash cookie. High as a kite, I laughed like a bubble
of laughing gas. And laughed and laughed some more. Then I watched them
laugh at me. I was the naive virgin child woman from India and Trinidad
and Tobago with a weird Indian/British/West Indian twang, who wore
leftover tartan skirts from English boarding school, and kurta pyjamas to
breakfast. A dodo-head waiting for experience.
I never ate another chocolate chip cookie again, I never stopped laughing.
And I got stoned on books like Nietzche’s Beyond Good and Evil. And
being totally ignorant of most things including Nietzche’s supposed
influence on the Nazis, pronounced him my liberator.
clang, clang. The chains fell off. I cut loose of everything I was
conditioned to believe in. I was a slate wiped clean. I stripped off the
boundaries of race, religion, country, language, society, and genes. I was
a freewheeling 17-year-old. I was a sponge that absorbed any idea that
floated in the breeze. For about six months I was thoroughly confused. I
fell in love with my ugly Greek philosophy professor, Constantine Bundas.
He quoted Descartes: “I think therefore I am.” When I didn’t think,
I vanished. Prof Bundas made me doubt a chair was a chair, my hand was a
hand. I made myself miserable with questioning.
for the bus, I would whisper like a wild tortured woman in the minus 16
degrees cold: “It is better to be a contented pig than a discontented
Socrates. Or is it the other way around?” I was glutted with questions,
hungry for ideas. I went through those four years breathlessly, going to
bed at 4 am, getting up early and eagerly, like a child perpetually
preparing for a birthday party. Flinging the windows open to brown sludge
or pure white snow, shoots of delicate spring flowers or summer heat. Like
all juveniles I was intensely unhappy or intensely joyful. I was intense
all the time.
university was small, with pretensions of being fashioned after Oxford.
Four colleges built on a river. Students even had to wear gowns for a
while but the Canadians are too earthy to put up with that for too long,
thank God. Most
of my essays were done at night, in a state of feverish intensity.
Kneeling, I would spread the sheaves of notes around me. Occasionally I
would wheel around, grazing my knees to match one idea with the next. It
never occurred to me to type my papers. I was silly enough to feel that
neatness precluded creativity. My final full stop to a 3,000-word essay
would come at about 6 am. I would triumphantly slip it under the
professor’s door 30 seconds before the final deadline.
blame me, professor, blame the choices, blame my youth, blame my freedom,
blame the beautiful landscape, blame being around thousands of eager
minds. If you wanted me to sit in a library from 9 to 5 every day of the
week, and sometimes Saturdays, your university shouldn’t have art
exhibitions where cheese and wine were always to be found. I had things to
do, professor, other than researching the literature of the French
Revolution. You made Flaubert, Balzsac, Moliere come alive I’ll agree. I
preferred to slip and slide across snowy fields to the light of stars, and
icy gaunt trees glowing like crystal after an evening of solving the
world’s problems in the pub.
had to spend all morning continuing an argument in a donut shop. I had to
go running with my mad vegetarian friend at 5 am and sit through yoga with
her. I had to put my week’s allowance into a champagne and strawberry
breakfast party. And after that I was too glutted to work. But here, I
have also lived intensely in the world of ideas, and participated in
tutorials, read all night, written till dawn. Here is your essay. Marked
down for lateness.
was terrible to be so uncertain but it also meant that my range of
possibilities was stretched to the limit. I couldn’t bear to miss any of
it. Despite the fact that academics was incidental to university life, I
actually graduated, one lovely summer, in a laughable girly white dress
and had my picture taken in a cap and gown and fake roses.
am now on the UWI campus. My companions are a former student and a student
teacher. Both bright, articulate, a credit to UWI. Exams are over. There
are few students about. Bad day to visit a university. We walk about. The
wide-angle view reveals a new shiny building, a large pretty library, a
long narrow wooden building with partitions. Looks like shacks from a
distance. Blotches of construction. Then there are the trees which, no
matter how wide they fling their branches, cannot cover the barren brown
have missed the excited students, the horsing about, the debates in the
cafeteria, the intellectual and sexual tension of the combination of 5,000
young people bursting with curiosity. “Well,” says a student teacher,
“not exactly. Most students just can’t wait to get out of here. They
know they need a degree and more so if they want to get a good job.”
former student says, “In my time 10, 15 years ago, we were rebels, like
students everywhere. We were involved. Deeply interested in ourselves in a
political context, had a social life here. I don’t know what
happened.” She trails off.
meet lecturers. They emerge from cramped offices, crammed with files and
papers and some books, into the morning heat. One in typical endearing
academic fashion unconsciously hums a Hungarian tune to remind me of a
tape he once lent me for a radio programme. He was once a communist;
innocent and endearing. He wasn’t different from academics anywhere,
caught up in theory and ideals.
feel safe here. The aggressive boy/men who leered at me through the car
windows belonged to a different country. One professor thought that
lecturers were underpaid and overworked, and the non-academic staff
overpaid and under worked. They all start something interesting then stop
midway, hold back, retreat; none says what they think, afraid of a
backlash. Now I feel I am in China.
wander the deserted grounds and came upon the shabby cafeteria where
students, dispersed, in ones and twos sat drinking and eating, talking
softly. We sit next to two young women whose heads were bent, absorbed in
a conversation. They are trying to get other students interested in campus
life. They are literature undergrads.
sense in them a yearning, an eagerness for experience and ideas,
interaction. Sparks keep them going. One of them lights up at a literature
professor who rattles off poetry, and makes cross-references like crazy.
American Black literature, writers like Tony Morrison have given her a
sense of self, of where she came from, who she is in the world.
both stay in campus long after classes. They love socialising, meeting
students from other parts of the world. It releases them from a
small-island mentality. The other is a live wire, frustrated at the
passivity of fellow students. “They put up with high prices at the cafe;
don’t support the non-academic workers, or take part in campus life,
swim in the pool, exercise, lime. Maybe if we had more interesting
she herself can’t imagine life before university. “What did I do
before this?” After speaking to them I realise that creative lecturers,
stimulating campus activities, lectures, and facilities do not make a
university. The engine of any university experience is what students bring
with them - energy, curiosity, eagerness, a sense of possibility.
contrast, three male undergraduates we talk with on the stairs are
disappointed. Dispirited, passive and soft speaking, they complain that
lecturers are authoritarian, and dull. They expected students to
regurgitate their lectures in exams, and slap down questioning. Were these
the best years of their lives? The answer is bitter: “If these are the
best years, then I don’t know it.” I ask them if they feel threatened
because almost 70 percent of all students are women, tell them women are
outdoing men in every field. They say “no” because they are still
confident that it was “a man’s world.” My female past student
companion answers for them. “What will happen is that they will be
threatened by women’s excellence and you will see a lot more
am making my way back into Port-of-Spain. I think of my question to the
two literature students: “Why are other students not as intense and
energetic like you two?” One of them replied: “I suppose a university
is a reflection of the country we live in. If people are insular and
divided, if young people feel powerless and turn to crime, if people are
worried about being employed, if young men feel insecure, if academics and
columnists are undynamic, boring and repetitive, then you will find much
of the same of it in a university.”
the highway, I am thinking that the ones with the bright spark will
prosper anywhere. It is the passive ones I am worried about. Universities
are supposed to breed leaders, scientists and humanists who will save this
pock-marked world from unhappiness. We
live in times when much of our work is about damage control, fixing
mistakes handed down by history. Universities are supposed to tap energy
and potential of young people, put them into a wide context of a country,
a continent, a universe, so that they can do their bit, apply their
band-aid in their own way.
real graduation prize is called curiosity, which has many relations,
energy, involvement, intensity, achievement even happiness. Curiosity’s
nemesis, passivity, is a university’s worst enemy.