I went to France as a student. Now I’d choose Kolkata

One student from England has already enrolled in an Indian university - and you can bet that many more will follow in future

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The Independent Online

I’d been spending the day at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University. After a three-hour creative writing workshop with some incredibly impressive students, I was talking over the university’s history and current direction with Rimi Chatterjee, an English professor. “You know,” I said, “I can see the day when you’re going to be seeing applications from British students to come and do an undergraduate degree here.” “Oh, you’re too late for that,” she said, smiling. “We’ve got an English undergraduate in his first year here. He’s called John.”

Now that undergraduate fees in the UK are at £9,000 a year, it’s understandable that prospective students are looking around for alternatives. American universities are still more expensive, but a lot of people are thinking about European degrees. The Netherlands starts to provide a popular alternative, as tuition can sometimes be in English. If you were interested in cheap tuition plus maximum quality, Germany would be a good idea – but you need to learn German, which seems to put off that generation.

So why not India? Jadavpur’s English language degree programmes charge between $2,000 and $5,000 a year to foreign students. The intellectual standard is high – it’s currently rated as the 31st best university in India out of more than 500. (I can’t help sharing that one of its near competitors, in the Punjab, is called the Lovely Professional University.) It’s got an amiably competitive atmosphere quite unlike the traditional Indian universities, with their addiction to deference and respect. And Kolkata is one of the great student-party cities of the world. Look at it frankly: which would you rather do? Go there, or spend £27,000 to get a 2.2 and three years in, ooh, Luton?

Changing times

The world is changing so much, and so fast. You can either join in with it, or be left behind. In America, the electorate was 87 per cent white as recently as 1992; by the 2016 election, it will be less than 70 per cent. When I was at school, there was never more than one black kid or Asian kid in any class at school; my parents knew one Asian family who lived near us. A generation before, it was worth commenting when an English visitor to the Festival of Britain saw a single black man there. It’s all changed. The world has come to us, and we are going to want to go to the world.

I can’t help thinking of the difference between the experience of that English undergraduate who decided to do his English degree in Kolkata, and the experiences of my generation. I went to France when I was a student, once, and it was a real adventure. I heard of rich kids who went to Asia, but it wasn’t normal. You thought of it as a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and a holiday, not a meaningful engagement with the culture.

Kolkata is the first place I ever went to in India, but I was 30. I fell in love with it immediately. It was so long ago that the only cars on the street were Ambassadors, the snub-nosed versions of Morris Oxfords, and the city was still called Calcutta. There was a huge book-reading, café-going, argumentative culture. Still is. But the difference is that the internet has transformed what people can read. Back then, it was genuinely very hard for keen readers to keep up with the classics, let alone anything new or Western media. That inconvenience placed brakes on the culture that are now disappearing. When ebooks take hold of the Indian market in both English and Indian-language books, the transformation in the world’s intellectual life will be colossal.

Kolkata’s got an image problem in the West, as indeed does much of India. Its social problems and infrastructure challenges are still immense, even though things may be improving. Kolkata’s traffic, previously a nightmare, has improved a lot in the past couple of years. The number of indigents has fallen from the crowds who besieged every Westerner when I first went there, largely because of ambitious social rehabilitation projects. Now, this country seems like the future.

Journeys to India

Its economic growth has slowed to a mere 5.5 per cent; the top rate of income tax is only 30 per cent. In recent years, a new phenomenon has emerged, of British citizens moving to India to take advantage of the potential for growth, and a standard of living in which even quite ordinary people can live in a good degree of comfort, and even stretch to employing servants. The journalist Rajini Vaidyanathan, who has written about this reversal of migration, says that it is largely limited to British citizens of subcontinental ancestry at present. She observes a case in which a British-born entrepreneur has moved back to the India of his forefathers, and now, in an interesting example of “reverse remittance”, sends some of his Mumbai salary back to help pay for the family home in Essex.

I went for a walk in the afternoon round the Kolkata lake where the gentry has always taken its pleasure, underneath a great arcade of trees, half strangled with competing figs. A big Englishman is still of interest in Kolkata, and they stared with that characteristic lack of restraint.

There was one of the lake’s characters, a hippie-like salesman of cha; there was a romantic foursome, wooing; there were six pink‑clad matrons sitting together and fanning themselves, worrying about a mugging that had taken place at the lake a week before. “Over there,” Professor Chatterjee said, “that’s where the gay men meet up. Perhaps a little bit later than this.” Some kind of puja was happening on the far side of the lake; a group of the professor’s students stopped her to josh and natter. Around us, the great mix of Indian society was expressing itself.

The English student who decided to come to Kolkata to do his degree has made an exciting decision which I hope works out for him. He won’t be the last. If I were 18 now, and thinking about the direction of my life, I would want to be here, where the future is taking shape.