For any student heading overseas, adapting to the ways of a new world can be complicated and sometimes rather comical, says Farrukh Dhondy, reliving his days at Cambridge
I left India for the first time when I was 20 years old, travelling from Bombay (Mumbai now) to London to get to Cambridge, where I had a scholarship to study Physics. This was 1964, and international travel was a big deal, encompassing the idea – however fretful – of leaving friends, family and the teenage love of one’s life behind, starting anew and possibly swimming against the tide of an alien culture.
What was England going to be like? What were Cambridge and the college that had accepted me through air mail correspondence, remote testings and testimonials, going to be like? None of my family or friends had crossed this river Jordan and yet I was convinced that leaving Poona (now Pune) and going to the renowned university was akin to an entry into a promised land.
I had made no special effort to insulate myself against culture shock. I had read, but perhaps not critically digested, English literature ever since I could read, had picked up the succession of English kings and queens from a cursory knowledge of Shakespeare and had a firm-ish idea of Victorian England from Charles Dickens. Most significantly, I had leafed through magazines such as Woman and Home, to which my aunts subscribed, leaving me with the idea that Britain was not all lofty Victorian and Elizabethan constructions but also proud of pre-fab rows of houses built in the 1950s, in which women interested in knitting patterns and baking cakes lived.
I was, of course, flying Air India on which my scholarship had booked a one-way flight. It never occurred to anyone that there were other airlines that could convey one to London. Family and friends gathered at the airport with garlands and cameras.
I spent a week in London and then made my way to Liverpool Street station, to get to Cambridge on the appointed day. In my final years at college in Pune, following the street fashion of the time, I had grown a beard, let my hair grow down to my shoulders and dressed in ragged trousers or in kurta-pyjamas to look “aggressively intellectual” – a phrase I picked up from America’s Mad magazine. On strict and inviolable instructions from my father and the Head of the Scholarship foundation, I had cut my hair, shaved my beard and was dressed in a tweed jacket, broad woollen trousers and a wash-and-wear shirt. I felt absurd.
The train to Cambridge was full of male undergraduates. I was not only out of fashion, I was in some practical senses out of my depth, though not in any significantly bewildering way. On arrival at my college, I was told to see my tutor at noon. The train had been delayed and it was one o’clock already. I was in a sweat. Would they send me back to Mumbai for this unavoidable transgression? I was advised by the college porter to write my tutor a note. I spent money from my tight budget on note paper and an envelope, and painstakingly composed a note saying I had arrived and would contact “Mr Dewey” at his convenience. A few nerve-wracking hours later, he wrote back, saying, “Dear Dhondy, you may have arrived but the verb ‘to contact’ has not.”
On my second day in college, after the “bedder” – the cleaning lady who serviced the rooms – had been by, I looked for my pyjamas. They were gone! Had she stolen them? For two nights I kept looking for them and only on the third did I unwittingly displace my pillow and find them neatly folded under it – as is the pyjamaplacement convention.
The high point of my unfamiliarity in those first two weeks was going into the basement to load my washing into a machine – a contraption I had never encountered before. I had been told by my neighbour that I should buy a box of washing powder and pour it into the drawer as indicated. I did precisely that. Hours later, I saw an angry crowd gathered on the croquet lawn. The foam from the machine I had loaded, had filled the basement and overflowed. “Which idiot played this trick?” I didn’t own up. I passed poker-faced to my room. At three in the morning, I went down and, still fighting the foam, stealthily retrieved my clothes and rinsed them in the shower cubicle on our staircase. Adjustment meant selective imitation.
It became obvious that the life of the university was roughly divided into two groups – those who played hard and rowed boats in races, and those who, with a snobbish contempt for sport, wrote poetry and had ambitions to edit university literary magazines and join drama groups. Though a few undergraduates were comfortable doing both, I was only suited to the latter. I saved my allowance and bought myself a donkey jacket to try and fit in with the working class lads I had befriended. The salesman persuaded me to buy one with a fur collar and when I displayed it proudly, I was told – with some amusement – that it was the kind worn by salesmen. Such were the vicissitudes of adjustment!
The author is an India-born British writer and his latest book is Cambridge Company (Hachette Publishing). The views expressed in this article are his own