Knowledge is great

The year was 1994. Specky, my wife, came in and said, ‘I’ve won the scholarship.’ That’s it. Nothing more. But I didn’t need any more information. I knew exactly what she meant. She had just been awarded the Commonwealth Scholarship to go and get her DPhil from the UK.

So this is how I got my opportunity to get my passport stamped for the first time! My visa to a country that I had, as yet, only read about or seen in the TV news, was now stamped and then began a relationship that has grown stronger from year to year.

‘Which university do I choose?’ Specky had asked then. And those were times when we were only dreaming to buy a computer but frankly, didn’t know what it could do for us… or what we’d really do with it. So obviously we did not have the support of the internet and the massive bytes of information that the kids today have and can download and make informed decisions.

‘University? Hmmm…’ I said and then we went over the list of universities that the MEA had sent to us.

‘I’ve only heard of Oxford and Cambridge,’ I admitted, and then added, ‘Aha! So even London has a university! Though I’m sure it cannot be as good as the one where Nehru and Gandhi went.’

When we now go back in time a secretive smile connects the two of us… only we know that we chose the University of York because we found the other more known names rather intimidating.

So Specky flew to London to travel to York in Yorkshire and join the department of Mathematics at the University of York. She soon wrote back, ‘I am in love with the cobbled stone pathways here and the old world magic that seems to be simply everywhere. York, everyone here says, is full of history and did I write earlier that anyone coming to England must plan to see London, York, and Edinburgh. This would, in a way, mean he has seen it all… from the ancient to the modern Britain.’

I was obviously curious and when I reached York I was simply mesmerised. Our long walks by the River Ouse going right up to the heart of this quaint and comparatively peaceful city inspired me to write more poetry than I had in the past years. I even began writing my short stories when I was there… but wait… let me declare here that the place I’d love to be in the UK to study is York. Yes, I have been to England quite a few times now and have even been to the idyllic charms of Oxford and Cambridge… but York still comes back as the place where I’d love to be and study… and it was in this city that the two of us found each other.

Specky was there in the mid-nineties to master Complex Analysis… and when I reached York, she excitedly told me that her guide was none other than the well-known master of her field Dr T B Sheil-Small. ‘York University is known as the fortress of Complex Analysis,’ she told me, ‘and you know Dr Sheil-Small is the person whose conjectures I had referred to quite extensively in my MPhil thesis at the Punjabi University. So imagine my reaching York and finding the author of all those wonderful papers staring into my eyes kindly and asking why I had chosen York!’

‘And what did you tell him?’

‘The truth. I just said that we chose York without really knowing anything about the place.’

So well, let me tell you that the months I was there I spent most of my time inside the Computer Labs, stumbling but finding my way through Windows 3.1. It was heavenly even years back… imagine huge rooms with more than 50 PCs and a massive laser printer connected to them and with internet blazing through their cables… it was impossible to actually tear myself away from this magic and trudge back to our family accommodation at Frances Street. The students were helpful and even though I wasn’t a student of the university, I was able to spend time in the library that had a few of its windows overlooking the quiet but dreamy Heslington village. I loved walking through the open corridors from one college to another, quack-quacking with the friendly ducks near the university pond, staring with amazement at the rows and rows of books in the library, the computer labs, the internet, the local and the central printers, the students, the clubs, the activities, and even the classes that I managed to attend.

Yes, I enrolled and was able to attend introductory workshops for understanding Windows and finding your way through Corel WordPerfect. I remember that even in the mid-nineties, the faculty made us familiar with these concepts making using of networking. ‘This is not the way they teach us in our colleges,’ I remember telling Specky.

‘Well, we don’t have so many computers there yet. But they’ll be there soon, don’t worry. And by the way, do our universities give their doctorate students an entire office with a reclining chair, study table, chair, and two PCs?’ Specky said with a twinkle in her eyes.

Let me remind the readers of this post that the York I am talking about is probably not the York of 2014. I’m sure everything is vastly different now… probably much better and more interactive. But even then everything in the university had interactive learning written all over it.

But why would I want to choose York again?

I have google now and I know that the University has retained its rankings and positions in almost all the education surveys. I know from the photographs on the university website that the old world charm is still intact. The river walk is just as sensual and the York Minster still has its famed glass windows. I know that Blakney Place is still quietly and resolutely a favourite for students and that the daffodils still bloom in the right season. I know that the museum and the dungeon are happily entertaining tourists and that Guy Fawks night is still celebrated. I know that the artists still come and sit to draw on weekends in the Shambles and that the day trips to Shipton and other quaint towns are still full of poetry. I know that the local poets still meet regularly. Yes, poetry is the reason I want to go to York.

Poetry… in York?

Yes, even in the mid-nineties I had stumbled upon the Poetry Society meetings there in the heart of the City and had attended a few after paying the mandatory one Pound fee. Well, one GBP was a huge sum for us then as we were subsisting on my wife’s scholarship amount, but simply listening to the local poets there was a treat. And no, I don’t mean the way they pronounce their words there and I remember that ‘bus’ always sounded like bush without the h… but what I mean is the subtlety with which they recite the lines of poems. The slow abut sure diction which is quite different from the way we Indians tend to keep rattling away with our sentences as if our words were in some desperate hurry.

But more than anything else it is the involved and interactive teaching that goes on in the classrooms there that I yearn for… and yes, I am now in my mid-fifties still wanting to be there.

By the way, did I tell you that my son too completed his Masters in Sustainable Environmental Design from the AA School of Architecture and Planning in London? And I mention this because he too had gone to York a couple of years back and wrote, ‘The University has students rushing around with dreams in their eyes. The ducks calmly let them go and then gossip in quacks. And yes, I noticed from the bridge over the lake that these ducks still want to walk on the frozen water… and leave their footprints for us to click and keep. Smart ducks!’

‘Does Yorkie taste the same?’ I asked him on skype.

‘Yes, it does. And it never tastes so good in London,’ said Pushkin, my son.

Pushkin then told me that he had met a few students of literature there and they said that the University has now begun some courses in creative writing. You can join their online courses too.

‘No,’ I said, ‘online courses wouldn’t give me the same interactive advantage. I’d want to be there and discuss why Pip and Estella in Great Expectations still manage to redefine love in a way that transcends their Victorian thought patterns.’

‘I agree,’ said Pushkin hastily and added, ‘We’ll go to York when you’re here next.’

I remember Specky telling me that Masters in England is of one year and that a student can advance to the MPhil stage and then to the DPhil stage in three straight years if he displays the right academic spark! This is why I admire great education… and I know that teaching in the Universities there isn’t a blackboard-and-chalk affair with sullen monologues ‘no questions please’ or ‘come to me for special tuitions’… no sir, the teachers are capable and the assignments are strict. No shirking and no excuses… and I have seen students immersed in their books lying on the lush green lawns behind the University Admin offices.

Did I tell you that another facet of education that is simply unbeatable is where their students stay. Yes, I mean their hostels. Specky stayed in Lawrence Courts for a few weeks before the two males in her family joined her and she opted for a family accommodation. ‘These places are like huge houses with separate rooms and shared kitchens,’ she explained, ‘and both boys and girls stay together.’

I smiled and asked her to go on. She said, ‘The kitchen has everything a student would want… a refrigerator, a gas stove, and helpful students. So we can buy our stuff, store it there and that’s it. Come down when you’re hungry, cook and eat. Do your own washing. But they have the cleaning ladies coming to clean up rooms every week. And then you always have the college mess to fall back on in an emergency.’

Well, I know this doesn’t give you all you need to know but then I know it all… and this is why I still nurture a wish to go to UK as a student in the University of York and study literature… well, actually I’d be doing a lot of creative writing as well.

‘Did I tell you that even in 1994, I managed to get one of my poems published in ‘Point Shirley’, the Univ monthly magazine that the literature students were taking care of?’ Well, one of the editors called up and said, ‘Your lines are pretty Empson-like, if you know what I mean.’

I was happy. I knew then that passion is a part of education there. The pain of working hard is obviously a part of this passion… but then it is only when pain and passion come together that possibilities are born.

I am happy that I have written this post. It helps me relive a dream that just might come true.

#KnowledgeIsGreat is one hashtag on twitter that made me write 140 character rhymes and I compiled them all in one post. You can read that post here:
Knowledge Is Great


My YORK CARD is still in my wallet and takes me back to York every time I look at it.

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This post is written as a part of the #KnowledgeIsGreat contest on Indiblogger



Arvind Passey
11 February 2014