The main auditorium in the Presidency College had the depressing name, Physics Lecture Theater, but what transpired there was anything but depressing. The atmosphere was electric, the exchanges witty and the attacks cerebral and well-honed. No surprise the debates were well attended. That is an understatement: the hall was packed to the gills.
Students and professors came for a good reason. The debates were a great show. The themes were provocative, such as “Marxism is the opium of the people” and “Columbus went too far,” sure to draw ferocious exchanges on communism and the American way of life. Star power was not in short supply. Strangely, top-flight lawyers, eminent politicians, high court judges, party theoreticians, eloquent professors came to join the fray. Even skilled Oxford debaters turned up, courtesy of the British Council.
The beauty was that the stars mingled as equals with the hoi polloi, the ordinary students of the college. I was one of them. I had come from a perfectly ordinary middle-class family; my parents were decent, undistinguished people who did not own a house or a car. I knew I was rubbing shoulders with students whose parents were reputed lawyers, known scholars, government bigwigs, marquee politicians. It did not matter. If I could think on my feet and shoot from the hip, and make a point with vim and wit, I was as good as anyone. I could point a finger at a minister or judge and contradict him with civility doubtless but also with vigor and sarcasm. I felt like a crown prince.
Most of the strikes, though adversarial, were in good humor and the skill lay in dressing down an opponent by wrecking his logic or undermining his facts. The method to do that varied a lot. Bishnu Mukherjee, a doctor, did it by adopting a style of quiet reasonableness and belaboring a select point or two with gentle persuasion. In contrast, Naranaswamy Viswanathan was a suave actor and used histrionic flair to hammer home his points. Sudhansu Dasgupta, a rotund bureaucrat, easily put everybody else in shade by sheer exuberant logic chopping and word play. Listeners had so much fun that they forgot what his opponents said and always voted for him.
Compared to these stalwarts, I was young and earnest, and believed firmly in preparing thoroughly, arguing cogently and speaking passionately. I was astounded how receptive was my audience when I came up with a telling fact or a striking example. It reinforced my sunny belief that in general people are neither foolish nor closed to a new point of view.
The debates opened also a new vista, for Presidency College had no dearth of charming but sharp women who joined the fray and lent a welcome color to the events. I confess to a certain partiality for a willowy debater from a medical institution, who later sadly left debating for the world of potions and prescriptions.
The signature event every year was a debate between current students and past alumni. Miraculously, the college attracted famous people to come and be heckled by impudent young pupils. Admiration as much as amazement overwhelms me when I recall attacking with impunity in debates people like a Chief Minister of the state, later to attain cabinet rank in Delhi, and a high court judge, later to head the Supreme Court.
Apparently, traditions may take long to build but are easy to demolish. The halcyon days of debate and discussion ended swiftly when acrimony and violence overtook the safe, open airing of different views.
Years later I was invited to chair a debate in the college. It was in a plush but puny hall with barely thirty people in attendance. The debate was leaden and lackluster. I missed the fire and brimstone of the Presidency College that hadn’t yet become a staid university.