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My College Days in Bombay

By Mahadev Desai

My parents emigrated to Dar-es-salaam, Tanganyika from Bombay for better prospects. I was born there and when I was nine, my parents moved to Nairobi, Kenya where I completed High School. There were no colleges in Nairobi at the time so majority of the students went to India for further studies. As my dad was from Bombay, and he had earned BA (Hons) from Elphinstone College he was familiar with Bombay colleges. I wanted to study economics and Accounts, so he got me admitted into the iconic and prestigious Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics. I was fortunate to get a small bursary to help me pay my fees. Majority of students from Kenya went to India for further studies as there were no colleges at the time.


Steamer was the popular mode of transport. It took about eleven days to travel from Mombasa to Bombay. My dad came to the Mombasa port to bid farewell to my two school friends Bipin and Rajni Patel (names changed) who were admitted to Wilson College in Bombay. Bipin and Rajni were travelling by second class whereas I was to travel deck class. For a few days I felt seasick and homesick. My friends and I passed time by playing carom, table tennis, and cards, and listening to devotional songs or watching a movie. The deck class food was so but we supplemented it with homemade snacks we carried with us. After eleven days, it was sheer joy to see Bombay’s skyline coming closer. I had a month before commencing my college studies which I used to get acquainted with the big city. Bombay was full of energy and a vibrant happening city. My college was next to Sir J.J.School of Art opposite Victoria Terminus (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus) in Fort area. And my hostel was in Manek House near Kemp’s Corner, Malabar Hill. I duly paid my fees and moved into the hostel.


It was a three storey building with a wooden staircase. A kitchen cum dining room, a Student’s Common Room and a small telephone booth near the entrance on the ground floor. The resident professor and his family lived on the top floor. One small room had a table-tennis table. The hostel had about sixty male students from different parts of India and a few from overseas as well. I shared my room with three other students. Each student was provided with a bed, a small table and chair and a small bookcase. Each floor had common bathrooms and toilets. The students were served tea in their rooms in the morning and lunches and dinners in the dining room. Weekday’s food was simple. Desert was provided on Sundays and during big festivals. I had to get used to early lunches around ten a.m. and rush to either take a BEST red bus, or take a five minute walk to famous Gowalia Tank Maidan, where Mahatma Gandhi issued the Quit India speech on 8 August 1942 decreeing that the British must leave India immediately or else mass agitations would take place), for a slow but cheap tram ride, or walk a further half mile to Grant Road Station for a train ride to the college. I tried different modes depending on the time at my disposal. Bus or train took only up to a certain point and then I had to take a quick fairly long walk to the college! It took a while to get used to big classes of both male and female students.

A month after opening, I took part in College Cricket Team selection practice and I was picked for the College team! I was passionate about cricket and spent lot of my college days either practicing or playing cricket. Cricket helped me make many friends in College and hostel and helped me visit different places in Bombay and neighboring. In Kenya, I had played cricket on matting pitches but in Bombay I had to learn to play on turf pitches. Kerry Packer’s Night cricket had not arrived then. No limited over matches either! I cut many afternoon classes in order to attend practice sessions on Bombay’s iconic spacious Oval maidan. Inter-College Competition was fought fiercely and I had the good fortune to play against some of the Test cricketers like Manjrekar, Umrigar, Nari Contractor to name a few. Our coach compelled us to watch visiting Test teams from West Indies, Pakistan, Australia, play against India at the Brabourne Stadium, to understand the nuances of the game. Time flew with classes, terminal and annual exams. and long summer vacations. I enjoyed my hostel life.

Kamala Nehru Park was within walking distance of my hostel so many evening after early dinner, my friends and I walked to the park and from there admired the ‘Queen’s necklace’ resembling a string of pearls on Marine Drive below. Sometimes we took leisurely stroll along the three mile Marine Drive, with a lovely view of the Arabian Sea from Nariman Point munching roasted peanuts to Chowpatty (to try Bhel puri!). On some weekends my cousin, who lived in Andheri) and I went to Juhu Beach for a stroll. With my cricket- friends I often went to watch Hollywood and Bollywood movies at the Eros, Liberty and Regal cinemas among others. Movies of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, were my favorites! The Student’s Common Room usually was deserted except when a Test Match was on or when we wanted to listen to top Hindi songs broadcast weekly on Radio Ceylon’s popular Binaca Geetmala program.I enjoyed watching Inter-College Dramas. I once attended All India Mango exhibition which exhibited many varieties of mangoes and various products made from the fruit. Some evenings I visited YMCA where I played table tennis and also borrowed books to read. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan was also close by so I went there to watch plays, hear talks and discourses and enjoy musical concerts. During holidays I visited my uncle’s family in Andheri and my sister-in-law’s family in Dadar, Bombay. They were very helpful to me in settling down and in making me feel less homesick.  We had no TV in the hostel or cell-phones. I could not afford long-distance calls o the only way my father and I communicated were by monthly letters.

During first summer vacation, one of our Professors organized a tour to North India. I joined the group and we visited Gwalior, Indore, Delhi, etc. In Delhi we were invited to American and Chinese Embassies. The trip was a rich cultural experience for me.
I was a member of Overseas Students Association (OSA). OSA arranged picnics to Elephanta Caves, Lonavala and Matheran, and summer trip to Sri Lanka. It had also organized Sports Competition with OSA in Pune. The event was at the Ferguson College. I was selected to play in table-tennis competition. I met my Nairobi schoolmates who were studying in Ferguson College.

I won an Essay Competition held in the hostel. I wrote on ‘The Spirit of Adventure’. My prize was The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde! I also won Table-Tennis tournament ad couple of other prizes on the College’s Annual Sports Day.
During the second summer vacation, I travelled from Bombay to Mombasa and back to Bombay by ship to be with my family in Nairobi and also did a temporary job in a bank to gain some office experience.
During the third summer vacation our cricket team played matches in Bombay and also against teams in neighboring Kolhapur, Sangli, Solapur, etc.

I enjoyed playing cricket but neglected my studies and failed in my B.Com exam. It was very kind of the College to let me stay in the hostel for six more months. I applied myself and just managed to earn my B.Com degree ! Tears welled up in my eyes as my ship began its voyage to Mombasa. The four and half years of carefree, independent and adventurous life were over. But I will treasure the happy memories forever and always.