There were four students lounging in front of the TV. I introduced myself to them, and started recounting stories of my days at St.John's. It turned out that one of the students was the editor of the student mag, and she asked me if I could write down my memories in an article for the same mag. I promised to do so, but didn't promise any date for sending in the article. In the meantime I've been twice emailed by Anjana Ferns, asking me for an article. That's how these memories are appearing here. (My memories, however could make several articles).
Let me begin with that Rec Room. In the early 70s, TV was just making its appearance in India; and the students did not as yet have a TV. So in the evenings many of them would either recreate in their rooms or in the nearby restaurants and bars. One day, in an informal chat with some members of the hostel committee, I suggested that it would be good to have a Rec Room, simply but tastefully fitted out, where the students could hang around after supper instead of going to the cheap joints around Madivala. The idea caught on, the hostel committee thought it an excellent idea; the warden (Dr. Marshall) and Assistant Warden (Dr. Ravi Narayan) fully concurred. But -where was the space and where was the money to do up the room?
That's where the chaplain, yours truly, came to the rescue. The space? There was this roomy annexe at one end of the dining hall, whose only pur-pose seemed to be a spacious passageway to the washrooms at the other end. Why not convert that space into a rec room? And so the idea began to take shape. There were two mushroom-Iike structures in the annexe, which were originally meant to be drinking-water fountains (as per the idea of the German architects of the complex), but nobody ever made use of them for that purpose. If those structures were filled in with cement and levelled off on top, and a few bar stools placed around them, they could make ideal contact spots for the students after supper, add a few low chairs around small tables in the corners, a small 'bar' also with bar stools to one side (where now, I think, the TV is placed); a few potted planted here and there; and - voila - there you have it.
And what would the students be doing there, some asked. Well, provide them with a few indoor games - draughts, chess, carroms, cards; get a decent music system and some jazz tapes; a second-hand fridge to store soft drinks and, yes, beer. One of the professors had quite a sophisticated cassette player and was prepare to give it away for a song; another had a serviceable fridge lying around the house, since she had bought a more modern one. But what about the rest of the money to do up the room?
In those days, each student had to pay Rs. 5 per month as "chapel fee". This was meant to cover the expenses of the student chapel and also to pay the chaplains salary (Rs. 5000/- per month, if I remember well). Now, the chapel expenses were not such a big amount - a small sum for the wine and hosts used at daily mass. And there were about 300 students. So over the years, a tidy balance had accumulated in the Chapel Fund. I began negotiations with the college administration. At first there were some objections to using that money for a Rec Room. I argued that a good Rec Room for college students was an important complement to the Adoration Room (chapel). It took some persuading, but the idea finally got through.
And one day the Rec. Room was officially opened. The mushroom tables with bar stools around them proved a big hit - ideal to huddle around for a game of cards, or just to lounge and vent your spleen on some professor or the other. The 'bar' was a novelty in the setting, very simply fitted out but looking like a real bar. No hot drinks, of course, but you could get chilled soft drinks and beer and a variety of snacks. (If you wanted headier stuff, you had to find your own way to the crummy joints around Madivala).
And how was the Rec Room managed? Purely along business lines. Every six months or so there was a bidding from managing agents. Any group of students could bid for running the rec room and the highest bidder would get it. Of course there were conditions stipulated by the hostel committee- all related to making the place attractive enough for the students. But the taker could make as much profit as he could in the way he ran the bar and the disco. The bidding price he paid was used by the hostel committee for the general upkeep of the centre - a repair here, a coat of paint there, a new picture as adornment..
The idea worked wonderfully. The rec room became a centre of much joy, mirth and spirited give-and-take in discussions. The room was also let-out to class-groups (only) for their annual or bi-annual evening get-together -- of course, for a price! Their staff members often attended these, and that was good advertisement for the idea of a rec room.
I would often spend some time there after evening mass and supper. I was usually offered a chilled beer for which someone else paid; but, at times, it was craftily suggested that I offer the rounds. It was a wonderful time to be a student chaplain in that atmosphere and, believe it or not, it was in the Rec. Room that I made my most crucial contacts with students in need of help.
Sitting around and chatting, sipping a Limca or a beer, one or the other would come over and perch himself on a stool next to mine, and pose a tricky question. My priestly antennae would go up and bristle, and conversationally I would suggest "Why not come and talk it over with me some evening in my home"... (I lived in St. Anthony's Friary, just down the road). That's how Ranjit (name has been changed), who was on drugs and desperate, came to see me one day. But that will do for another story, in another issue.
Fr.Fidelis D'lima, ofm.
St. Louis Friary
P.O., 517 408 A.P