Undergraduate days are always the same mix of anxieties, creativity and hormones—especially in the case of all those boys who leave their native shores on scholarships and otherwise looking forward to liberation of some kind. Armed with a suitcase and hopefully the right clothes, they learn how to launder iron and boil potatoes while struggling with landladies and sex in equal measure. Dhondy’s account of his time in Cambridge dates to the days when Indians and Africans were cheerfully referred to as ‘wogs’ by English dons and Britain was far from being the cool Britannia it claims to be today.
In Cambridge Company, the second of his trilogy—all of which have ‘Company’ in the title, giving them a military undercurrent—Dhondy balances a series of anecdotes that sometimes seem too good to be real. He picks out the unusual aspects of undergraduate life—the usual is bohemianism in a garret, emulating Joyce and E.M. Forster, especially during Christmas, when foreign students were asked to vacate their rooms at college for visiting professors or lecturers. For Dhondy, his days at Cambridge were about donkey jackets and getting rid of the Oxford bags that he was equipped with by the Tata Foundation, who gave him his scholarship. An army brat fresh from Pune, he landed armed with preconceived notions about colonialism and what was deemed acceptable—apart from the Oxford bags. The book is an account of how he found himself in an England that was utterly different from his expectations—ones which had been formed in a Parsi and military world convinced of the stiff upper lip.
On his flights from Cambridge, Dhondy explored ’60s swinging London—with its nightclubs, bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones and a twisting Chubby Checker.
The society he found was at odds between the public and grammar school students—most of the latter were up on scholarship like Dhondy and intensely conscious of being discriminated against by a breed of aristocrats. There was the initial, obvious theory that Dhondy must be a Maharaja of some sort, fuelled by readings of Billy Bunter, though that did not last long in the face of Dhondy’s determination to be D.H. Lawrence. Those were the days when the gas metre had to be fed coins and when people had to hitchhike their way across Europe if they were looking for cheap holidays, and boys hitching were as much at risk as girls—though homophobia was rife too.
Raging hormones were not a help—Dhondy oscillated between his love, Mala, the Indian army chief’s princess; Enid, his D.H. Lawrence venture, haystacks and all, and his set designer. Landladies were insistent about the ‘no visitors’ rule and rustication was fairly often Dhondy’s fate for breaking it. In some aspects, he was lucky—Mala was smuggled out to the UK and, despite being warned off by her family in Pune, he managed not to lose his scholarship. Adding to that was his talent for theatre, which put him at the forefront of college productions. Those days are recounted with relish: acting and directing in Caligula, when his lead had a nervous breakdown, taking Becket to Berlin and almost getting rusticated because of his hard rock-loving team.
The city he explored on his flights from Cambridge was the swinging London of the sixties, with nightclubs, a twisting Chubby Checker and bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on the rise, not to mention a very new one named Pink Floyd, which appears in a flash at the end of the book, causing the reader to check with a ‘huh!’ of amazement at the youthfulness of it.
There are insights into the nature of Indian academics who married Englishwomen and attracted disciples by being anti-establishment, the slow rise of Marxism in campus, a spirited debate on ‘opium’ and ‘opiate’ and constant juxtaposition of life back home and in college, with the attendant contrasts of luxury and deception. There are also Independence hangovers to be met in Bombay in the treatment handed out to some Englishmen—taxi drivers sneered at them surreptitiously—though Dhondy tried to be polite and then discovered how things could change on the other side.
A mix of light and dark episodes, Dhondy’s wit is constant throughout, counterpointed by grittiness. He describes Indian tourists coming to gape at E.M. Forster as he crossed the Cambridge lawn, glides over Rajiv Gandhi’s failing his exams along with Ayub Khan’s son, and ends spectacularly with a nude in a punt—the perfect ending for college life that runs past a river. In the end, what the book says is that the more college life changes the more it remains unchanging, to adapt that famous French proverb. JNU or Cambridge, a thread runs through it.