A home away from home

Feb 28, 2013, 07:49 IST | Asha Mahadevan

That's how past and present residents of MacKichan Hall at Girgaum Chowpatty describe Wilson College's boys-only hostel, which hits a 100 this year

For many Mumbaikars, MacKichan Hall at Girgaum Chowpatty is just one of the several buildings dating back to precolonial Mumbai that dot South Bombay. But for every boy who has ever lived in this hostel, MacKichan Hall is where he went through the rites of passage and transformed from teenager to young man.

MacKichan Hall is a heritage structure and its centenary falls this year. Pics/Sameer Markande

This year, the hostel completes 100 years of existence - as a banner hanging from the second floor proudly declares. In a special function earlier this month, current and past residents - who call themselves MacKichanites - shared their fondest memories of MacKichan Hall for a Centenary Souvenir magazine which was released by Governor K Sankaranarayanan.

The Indo-Gothic arches received a fresh coat of paint for the centenary celebrations

The Governor also released the book Dugald MacKichan: Scholar, Educationist, Missionary, which was edited by Shehernaz R Nalwalla, associate professor and vice-principal, Wilson College. The book is a collection of information related to Dr MacKichan, who raised the funds, applied for a lease from the local authorities and founded the hostel under the same management that oversees Wilson College.

(l-r) Keval Pandya, Thanshing WS, S K Ngaihte, Mazi Zimik, Richard Zilkar and Unmeelan Sinha
(l-r) Keval Pandya, Thanshing WS, S K Ngaihte, Mazi Zimik, Richard Zilkar and Unmeelan Sinha

While colleges celebrating centenaries are heard of, it is rare for a college hostel to achieve this milestone. “That’s because there are very few college hostels that are so old, in fact there are few colleges under University of Mumbai that have hostels,” says Nalwalla.

Joseph Varghese and his wife Mallika
Joseph Varghese and his wife Mallika with the bust of the founder Dr Dugald MacKichan. Pic Courtesy/Mackichanite Sushant Singh

In 1913, the hostel was the need of the hour, says Wilson College Principal Dr V J Sirwaiya. “Imagine our society at that time, the state of education. People had to come to Mumbai or Pune to study. We had students from all strata of society, not only from all parts of the country but from all parts of the world. There were a large chunk of Africans and Mauritians. It (building the hostel) was done purely for philanthropy,” he explains.

The antique winding staircase
The antique winding staircase

The building is constructed in the shape of an E, with each arm being one wing. It was designed by Joseph Hall. Dr Mohan David, who was the warden from 1968 to 1995 and the former head of the history department, Wilson College, says, “The architecture is Indo-Gothic, it’s a simple structure with arches. The style was prevalent in the 19th century.” The ground floor has three large rooms that were meant to be recreation rooms. Over the years, they became a science lab and even a dining hall.

Shehernaz Nalwalla
Shehernaz Nalwalla takes a peek at the book Dugald MacKichan: Scholar, z, Missionary, which she edited

The building was named after MacKichan on the request of the students and alumni of Wilson College. Dr H J Taylor, who was the warden from 1929-1954 recalled in the Golden Jubilee Souvenir that a plot between Wilson College and Malabar Hill was first considered as a possible site for the hostel. “But it was thought that the extensive sea view, and the attractions of the main road might distract the students from the serious purpose of study, and so the present site was chosen. No doubt the difference of cost was also a factor.”

Dr V J Sirwaiya
Dr V J Sirwaiya

The building that now stands is the original one, Sirwaiya adds, except for a few internal changes that were done after the requisite permissions were granted, since MacKichan Hall is a heritage structure. Most of the changes such as plastering and painting were undertaken in the last few months to mark the centenary. But there is one change that took place in 1988 that MacKichanite Mrityunjay Kumar remembers vividly. Kumar spent 19 years at the hostel - first as a student, then as an assistant warden - from 1985 to 2004.

Faisal Khan
Faisal Khan

“We had a lot of freedom though we had to be responsible students,” he recalls. “There was a sense of belonging. When anyone left the Hall after graduating, they would leave behind their furnishings for the next person who would occupy the room.” One item that everyone considered precious was a table fan.

“There were no fans in our rooms and only a few of us had table fans. During the Hall’s 75th year celebrations, we organised a fund-raising concert in which Rock Machine - now known as Indus Creed - performed. The band also released their album at the concert. We put up posters and banners advertising the concert all on our own. We got a good response. The money we raised, we used it to install ceiling fans in all the rooms.”

Cost control was of huge importance, especially in the hostel mess. The boys were in charge of procuring good quality ingredients at low prices. The monthly bill was divided among all the residents. Kumar still remembers haggling for vegetables. “It made me a good negotiatior. Even now when it comes to keeping costs of my shows low, that experience helps me,” says Kumar, who is into media production. The boys run the canteen even today, explains Keval Pandya, the general secretary of the managing committee of the hostel.

Short of the actual cooking and serving, they do everything else, including deciding the menu, he says. That’s not the only tradition that's being kept alive at MacKichan Hall. Every year, the hostel organises cultural activities and sports competitions for its residents, in order to make them well-rounded individuals, says Joseph Varghese, the current warden.

Unmeelan Sinha, a First Year Bachelor of Mass Media (FYBMM) student who is originally from Darjeeling, explains, “We have Annual Day, Sports Day and other cultural activities. We practise a lot for each one.” S K Ngaihte, an FYBA student from Shillong says, “I like that it is compulsory for us to participate in the programmes and functions, especially the singing competition.”

Adds Ron Bezbaruah, an FYBMM student from Guwahati, “It’s the first time I am staying at a hostel and it has helped me grow as an individual. Recently, I sang and played the guitar on stage here for the first time in my life. Since I knew the people in the audience, there was no fear. It makes it easier when I participate in college festivals.” The bulding’s Gothic architecture fills him with a sense of awe. “It’s beautiful the way they’ve maintained it for 100 years,” he says while Sinha adds he feels a sense of history, thinking of those who have stayed in his room over the years.

No one may know their names, but what is for certain is that Sinha’s room has been inhabited by a diverse population over the years. The demographics have changed but the diversity remains. Kumar recalls, “In the 1980s and 1990s, we had lots of middle-class students and foreign students from Mauritius, Thailand and African contries.”

Agrees Varghese, “After the foreigners, we had a large number of students from the Northeastern states. Now even they have begun to decline. We also had a large number of Gujarati students but now we have more from the interiors of Maharashtra - Nashik, Bhiwandi, Amravati, Sangli and such.

That is because good educational institutions are coming up in all states in the country, which is a healthy sign.” This has also resulted in changes in the hostel’s mess. Yashvant Vayim, a member of the mess staff for the past 40 years has witnessed the changes. “Food used to be only vegetarian earlier, with several Gujarati dishes, but now it is a lot of Maharashtrian food, including non-vegetarian dishes,” he says.

The residents are totally in favour of this diversity. Thanshing WS, a TYBA student from Manipur has spent three years at the Hall and says, “It’s a good experience. I got to meet people from all over the country and make friends.” Mazi Zimik, also from Manipur, says, “I chose Wilson college because of the hostel. It’s been a good experience as mostly outstation people come here.”

Faisal Khan, a TYBMS student, has spent five years at the hostel. Originally from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, he says, “People come here from different states. I have learned how to interact with them and I know I have a brighter future because of that.” There is also religious diversity and Pandya takes great pride that, “we celebrate all the festivals including Diwali, Ramzan Id and Christmas.”

All of them are united in their love for MacKichan Hall. “We have freedom while maintaining rules. You feel at home,” says Thanshing, and Ngaihte agrees with him. “It’s my home away from home. I’ll cry when I have to leave at the end of this academic year,” says Khan. “We are like a family,” says Richard Zilkar, an FYBMM student from Hyderabad. “If we a have a problem with someone, we tell them, and sometimes even seniors step in to solve disputes.”

Of course, it is not all hunky dory. The lack of internet access, the rule of washing one’s own clothes, the lack of variety in food are some things the boys can be heard grumbling about. The tradition they seem to find most irksome is the 9:30pm deadline. MacKichanites are not allowed to stay out beyond that time on weekdays and beyond 12:30 am on weekends, without prior permission. “Yes, we have got requests for extending the deadline but we don’t think it is healthy for the boys to be out beyond that time,” says Varghese. “Parents of the residents are happy about the deadline. Even alumni are proud of it.”

Varghese may be unbending on this rule but he admits being the warden for the past 13 years has taught him to relax some of his other rules, such as giving mischievous boys a second chance and counselling them. “It’s been a very rewarding time in my life, a learning experience,” he says. Sirwaiya says the five years he was the warden of the hostel were “the happiest time of my life.” He sums up the MacKichan Hall experience echoing Dr Taylor’s words: “It is not a building, it is a living organism.”

Ragging ‘n’ girls
Says the warden’s wife, Mallika Varghese, “We are very strict that ragging should not happen. The local guardians and parents sign an undertaking to that effect during the admission process.” Unmeelan Sinha says, “Ragging is a childish act. We don’t do it.”

Girls are not allowed in any room except for a couple on the ground floor where they can interact with the boys and work on projects. Says Mallika, “When they go out with girls, we tell them gently to concentrate on their studies. They know it is for their own good. When we first moved in to the apartment here, we wondered how it will be as our daughter was the only girl in the entire building. But we never had any problem at all, not even a passing comment.”

Freedom movement
Dr David recalls, “During the Independence movement, one resident was arrested for anti-British activities. Dr McKenzie, who was then the principal of Wilson College, met him in the jail and comforted him that the institution was with him. During the 1942 movement, some students were printing seditious material secretly in one of the rooms. When Dr Taylor found out about it, he asked them to remove it but didn’t take any action against them.” 

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