The Taj, Ratatouille & MPC: A Tribute To My Alma Mater
This write-up is in commemoration of Platinum Jubilee celebrations of MPC College being held in Baripada on January 5-7
Is there anything in common between The Taj Hotel in Mumbai and Maharaja Purna Chandra (MPC) College in Baripada? Or for that matter between the cartoon animation movie Ratatouille and MPC College?
The dullest and the most deluded person on earth would dismiss it as a non-question. The person of average intelligence would shrug off the question with an impatient wave of his hand, saying comparison is done among comparables, not non-comparables. Time could have been a basis of comparison in a case like this. But here not even such sweet coincidence by happenstance is in evidence: The Taj was opened on 16 December 1903. MPC College saw the light of day on 12 July 1948. And Ratatouille is a cult Walt Disney classic from 2007.
Yet the three entities widely separated in species, size, stature and function as they may be, can be said to have something in common. Coming to The Taj and the MPC first, both the institutions owe their origins to an incident of ignominious exclusion from the high table of privilege elsewhere and a consequent act of nationalistic self-assertion at home. Jamshedji Nusserwanji Tata founded The Taj after he was denied admission to a posh hotel in Europe in that turn-of-the-century climate rife with colonial racial arrogance of the imperial white civilization. He vowed to set up a hotel which would be India’s answer to the West in the line of top-rated hospitality. The rest, as they say, was history.
A similar act of denial of admission to erstwhile Ravenshaw College to two higher education aspirants from Mayurbhanj stirred up the national pride of the ex-princely state, leading to the setting up of MPC College. The two students in question were Basant Kumar Dash of Bahalda and Prafulla Chandra Panda of Baripada, who, on being denied admission, drew the attention of Maharaja Pratap Chandra Bhanja Deo and the Prime Minister Sarat Chandra Das to the sad plight of higher education in the princely state. The king reportedly vowed to establish a college in Mayurbhanj within two weeks. And so was born MPC College on 12 July 1948. This is an aspect of the forgotten history of the college that is worthy of recall at a time when the college has completed seventy five years of its existence and is marking it with a grand celebration in Baripada spread over three days starting 5 January 2024.
What about the connection between the cult Walt Disney classic Ratatouille and MPC College? It is nothing other than the sporadically existent, but barely noticed and rarely highlighted brotherhood of pygmies. Perhaps the account that follows will show the parallel.
In the cartoon animation movie Ratatouille an ordinary rat named Remy sets out to become a great chef, inspired by a maxim from an unusual cook book by the late master chef of Paris, Gusteau. The maxim is this: ‘anyone can cook.’ To realise his dream Remy has not only to work hard, which he does, and, which is kind of easy. But what is not so easy for him to handle is the toxic social prejudice against the lowly and the meek touted by the cultural sophisticates and their chief ideologue Anton Ego, the fierce critic whose reviews make or mar a career or a reputation in Paris. In the film’s climactic moment Remy serves the diners assembled in Gusteau’s restaurant a dish called ratatouille. It is a simple peasant dish, but one that is cooked with the right ingredients in their right proportions and with real élan. He wins the hearts of all, Anton Ego included. In the review that Ego publishes in a leading Parisian broadsheet the next day not only is the birth of a great Parisian chef announced but also the rules of creativity are redefined. Ego acknowledges the truth of Gusteau’s democratising maxim ‘anyone can cook.’ Going a step further, he declares: ‘Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.’
MPC College, my alma mater, stands testimony to both of the above declarations. It is that ‘non-descript nowhere place’ that has taught life skills to hundreds and thousands of its alumni and produced excellence in all spheres. Facts speak for themselves. As I write, three of the college’s alumni, two belonging to my batch (1973-1977) and another one two batches my junior, occupy the highest office in the land in their respective fields – atomic energy, engineering, and archeology – and are persons of national and international visibility. But this is only one of the many visible tips of the colossal iceberg of MPC’s splendid harvest over the past seventy five years.
The Ratatouille reference is significant because the movie is nothing if not an allegory of the perpetual battle that an ordinary person must fight against privilege—and here The Taj-like origins of the college is relevant too—for the sake of a dignified survival. In the American context, where the movie was produced, the film speaks eloquently of the value of an ordinary education , say of the kind you get in a state-funded school or college, in contrast to the one you get in an elite institution, say an Ivy League college such as Harvard or Yale. In the context of Odisha the ordinary-elite division is as much a reality as it is in the US and the UK, although it may not necessarily express itself in the form of a distinction between a state-funded college or university and a private college or university. But no one who has gone to school in Odisha can claim to be innocent about where glamour resides. To give just one example, Ravenshaw has held its sesquicentennial. MPC College has just arrived at the half way mark. So the inevitable conclusion is drawn: MPC has a long way to go before it can come into the reckoning. Time, however, has not been the only oppressor. Pedigree has joined time in being our oppressor too.
How often during our college days haven’t we heard of the glory of Ravenshaw College, of what we have missed by not being there? How often haven’t we been told that the best teachers of Odisha are at Ravenshaw and the ones at MPC, or any other relatively newer and peripheral college for that matter, are their pale reflections? How often haven’t we been asked – with a chuckle – if MPC could boast of a Sadashib Mishra (Economics) or a Bidhu Bhusan Das (English), or a K S R Murthy (Physics) or an Altaf Hussian (History)? I hope to be taken in the right spirit here, for I don’t mean to denigrate Ravenshaw or any other institution of learning. But in the same breath I want to remember Gusteau’s mantra and, by adapting it to our situation, say out loud ‘anyone can teach.’ Yes, anyone provided they can put their minds to it.
The teachers who taught us at MPC College certainly epitomised this entrepreneurial spirit. I have written elaborately elsewhere about how the English teachers of the two great institutions of Baripada, MKC and MPC, made me fall in love with English. I will not reproduce the details here. Suffice it to recall the two key principles of good English prose that my teachers inculcated in me from an early age. These are ‘glue’ and ‘grace’, meaning the ‘glue’ of grammar to make words connect with each other in a logical sequence, and, that mysterious or mystical alchemy by which words become shiny, radiant and effulgent, something, which for lack of a better word, I call ‘grace.’ These are mutually antithetical qualities of English, or for that matter any language, which my English teachers at MKC and MPC taught me to hold in balance every time a sentence needed to be crafted.
It is ironical that in the short CV of a person, meant to project him/her for the outside world, often the latest academic credential is highlighted. It thus happens that the CV of Dr. Ajit Mohanty, the current Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, India shows him as being educated at the University of Bombay while keeping silent about his B.Sc. in Physics from MPC and his M.Sc. in Physics from Ravenshaw. By the same token my short CV will probably pronounce me to the world in terms of my Ph.D. from England and publications with Oxford University Press, Penguin Random House, and Yoda-Simon & Schuster. But the journey began nearly half a century ago in Rooms 38, 73—yes, I was a reluctant Science student, to begin with—55, 55-A and 56 of the majestic building we called the ‘Rajbati.’ It was in those rooms that the clay was formed and kneaded into shape, much in the same way it happened with every alumnus of the college.
(The writer is a former professor and head of the department of English, Utkal University and a translator)