Monday, July 15, 2013

1066 And All That

On May 17, 2013, I went up (or was it down) to Cambridge to give a lecture.  Sir Partha Dasgupta reminded me that it had been 28 years since I had last visited, and he was right! In 1985 I had spent a bitterly cold couple of months in St. John's College, some significant fraction of it in a British Bathtub. The depressing, sunken chill of that experience will never leave me. 

Of course, apart from some new developments in the City Centre, where you still have to spin around in ever widening concentric circles and then whizz out on a tangent if you want to depart Cambridge, nothing had changed. But I was now installed in a swanky hotel, where an aptly named company was in charge of the toiletries. Well. 


As a bathroom theme periodically recurs in this story, I must recall a visit to a bathroom in another Cambridge in another country not so long ago, where this no-nonsense item just to the left figured instead.


I had a wonderful time with students and faculty, and then I gave my lecture, which was a lot of fun, with excellent comments afterwards. And then, I was treated to a lovely dinner, where a waiter spilt some red wine on the back of my shirt. He was very nice about it, though, and mopped it up quite solicitously. 


The next morning a young fellow -- no sorry, a young Fellow --- took me on a walking tour of the campus.  Cambridge Colleges now charge admission just to see the place, so my guide --- Aytek Erdil --- apart from being charming, friendly and knowledgeable, was also a free ticket.  We walked into King's College to see the magnificent chapel. We were not permitted to walk on the concrete walkway on the side of the lawn, but the porter kindly suggested that we could walk on the grass instead. Ah, the simple Rules of College Life.

Then came the real treat, and it reminded me why, despite all its silly pomposity, there is still something awe-inspiring about Cambridge. The young Fellow lives --- hold your breath --- he lives in the same rooms occupied by John Maynard Keynes!    I kid you not: the same rooms, the Bloomsbury murals by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell on the walls, the near-black wooden floors, the arch over the road below, the view out the window, the pale sun.  
No, not just the same rooms, the same bathroom (and if you don't believe it, check out the photographs).   Here is the beauty of Cambridge and Oxford: these rooms, belonging to one of the greatest intellectuals of this century or any other, are living, breathing rooms (no shower though, we're British!). Imagine a postdoc living in Rabindranath Tagore's rooms. No: we Bengalis sanctify through worship. Cambridge sanctifies Keynes the way I imagine he would have liked it, as an intellectual and a human being.




So there you have it: Cambridge Revisited, still replete with its abstruse formalities that no foreigner can quite penetrate, still equipped with its formidable bathtubs and with what appears indubitably to be the well-used and still-used  Wooden Commode of Maynard Keynes, yet in the end a warm and friendly place, where good intellectuals are respected for their intellect, and no more, and a good conversation is valued.