Entering a college campus fills most of us with nostalgia. It transports us to those five-odd years when filling ten MS Word documents with analysis and ‘research’ was the top thing on our to-worry-about list. But when I step out of the rickshaw to enter the sprawling campus of Somaiya College at Vidyavihar, I am lost in a mass of anxious students and even more anxious parents. Chaos and confusion rules, and most are checking and re-checking that ubiquitous folder holding their documents and marksheets to figure if they have everything they need. It’s that time of the year again.
In marked contrast is the spacious, air-conditioned office of Dr Vijay Joshi, principal, KJ Somaiya College of Science and Commerce. Everything is orderly and clean, even as our conversation is constantly interrupted by edgy students, a gathering of the anti-narcotics cell in the adjoining room waiting for the principal to show up, and a peon carrying a heap of papers for Dr Joshi to sign. I walk past the cushy sofas to take my seat opposite him. Every other minute, he reaches out with his right hand to ring a bell that ushers in the peon who then brings in those waiting in the corridor outside for him.
A boy sporting a tattoo on his neck and three girls walk in. They have all scored between 89 and 91 per cent. They got through the first merit list but were too late in paying their fees. “If you miss a train, will it come back?” Dr Joshi asks the apologetic trio in a way that doesn’t make them giggle. “Wait for the online results. If there is still place in the first merit list, I will get you the seats because you deserve them. If not, then I assure you that you will get admission in 12th standard, which is more important. That is my promise.” The students leave. They are just out of school and their gait reminds me of the first taste of freedom that comes with donating your school uniform.
It’s lightly surprising that a principal would take out so much time to answer personal queries. I begin to think it’s a one-off incident, but more students follow. One hails from Bhubaneshwar and his school will not issue a marksheet for another three months. He requests Dr Joshi to speak to his school principal over the phone, which Dr Joshi turns down, and asks for a written application instead. Next, two boys and an anxious mother have filled Commerce forms online, but now want to enroll in the Science stream. Another has scored too little to get into the Science stream. Dr Joshi is avuncular but firm.
“The sad part is that our system is over-regulated but under-governed,” he tells me between meeting a steady stream of students and teachers. “Fortunately, the Indian system still places respect in teachers. You can barge in to my office at any time to talk to me, and I take pride in dealing individually with students. After all, it’s a question of someone’s life.” This might come as a surprise to most of us who have spent our college lives avoiding the daunting figure of the Principal.
“In some colleges in south Mumbai, a degree is taken just for the sake of it. For many students here, it is their only escape to a better life,” he tells me while a peon leaves a large bundle of post on his table. He sighs. “This is another thing I do. After I have walked into the college campus and done my biometric attendance around 8 am, I take half an hour to talk to teachers to figure if everything is running smoothly. These days, it’s all about how many admissions have been completed, dealing with dejected students and keeping a watch on the entire process.”
With junior college admissions having gone online, the chaos has diminished to a great extent. But for the principal, an 11-hour-long workday continues. Apart from his daily workload, this is also the time of the year when relatives, agents, political parties, student wing members and local goons approach the authorites to ask, or sometimes demand, a favour.
“The best thing about the online process is that it’s almost transparent,” he explains. “But invariably, there will be someone who is related to the ‘sahib’, as they put it. They flash their cards and even bring in briefcases full of money. At such times, it helps to take the purist approach.” As a principal, Dr Joshi needs to maintain peace, but, at the same time, be firm about rules. “It’s important to understand how much infrastructure a college needs. We do feel agitated when people try to bribe us, and feel like retorting whether we are on sale. But not for a moment can we afford to lose our temper or make a decision that will work against us in the future.”
Then, there are cases of students who come in bandaged and limping to ask for favours, or whose grandparents have suddenly died. Once, a parent barged in demanding to know why his child did not get the HSC examination form. It turned out that his son had failed in the 11th grade, had been kicked out of the college and apparently ‘forgot’ to tell his parents. “But our real challenge at the moment is to see how many seats get cancelled and who they will go to. Invariably, people secure admission in a college and then cancel it when they get into a college higher up on their preference list,” says Dr Joshi.
Those hoping to get on to the minority merit list are shuffling their feet outside. It’s also up to the principal to decide whether those who are on the list but have problems with the school’s Leaving Certificate can secure admission, or whether the marks of those who excelled in sports in school, actually count.
It’s exhausting just listening to the million details Dr Joshi deals with, with only a stenographer at hand. I check my watch. It’s been more than an hour. Plus, I have almost taken up the entire chunk of the miniscule 10-minute lunch break Dr Joshi allows himself. I prepare to leave.