Saturday, April 16, 2016

A first-of-its-kind conference experience

Right from the word go, everything spun off the track at the conference.  The organizers had booked me on a train which arrived at midnight. A huge family got into my cabin with a whole load of luggage and kids, dropped them – the luggage as well as the kids – all around me and debated for a good one hour in the thick of night how the cargo should be strategically arranged. When the job was done, the 2-tier cabin was a virtual luggage van with the bodies of the family, sprawled all over the luggage, adding a touch of animation to the luggage. I lay sleepless until I got off at 8 o’clock in the morning.

At the railway station, the pick-up arrangement failed. After a half-hour agonizing wait and several phone calls, a doleful-looking English professor from the university arrived at 8.30. Evidently, he liked neither chauffeuring nor English; and the conference seemed the last thing on his mind.

I was worried sick. I had been invited to play two crucial roles at the international conference the English Department was organizing – as a guest of honour at the inaugural ceremony, which was scheduled to start at 9.30 in the morning, and as a plenary speaker later in the day. And I had barely twenty-five minutes to shave, wash, change and have breakfast.

When the first three were accomplished, it was 9.25. Deciding to skip breakfast, I called the conference secretary and said I was ready. ‘Sir, please wait,’ he said. ‘Once I hear that the Chancellor has left for the conference venue, I’ll come and pick you up myself. Before that, I’ll call you.’ Or, something to that effect: the English language and the English teachers in the university seem to be poles apart.

It was 10. There was no call. I called the organizing secretary and asked him whether I could go to the conference venue. He said, ‘Oh, no, sir. I must come and pick you up myself. I’m waiting for a call from the Chancellor’s office. I’ll get back to you.’

The time was 11 now. The stomach growled a protest. ‘Shut up!’ I said. ‘I’m in no mood to think about creature comforts; I may have to leave anytime now.’ I called a fellow plenary speaker staying in a different room on the same floor in the guest house. She said she had made several calls and got the same reply as I did.

To cut a long story short, when, at last, I was led into the conference venue at 12 o’clock, the inaugural ceremony had been over – without the guest of honour! The head of the department of English was proposing a vote of thanks in unhearable English.

My immediate impulse was to walk out on the conference, registering a protest. Inviting a senior professor and a well-known conference/seminar leader as a guest of honour and keeping him away from the ceremony where he was to play the role he had been invited to play was a grievous insult, not just a faux pas. That it was done by a university which was cocking-a-hoop about its having been ranked No. 1 among institutions of its kind made it even more grievous. Resisting the impulse to walk out on the conference, I stayed on and listened to the keynote speech by a professor from a reputable university. It was a drivel – a scripted drivel which he was reading out with some difficulty.

In the afternoon, I decided not to be part of the conference anymore. The conference, I said to the organizers, could do without me. The university authorities were apologetic, and tried to persuade me to stay on, but I left.

I had a rough time on the ten-hour-long return journey by bus; it was tougher than the outward journey amid loads of luggage and kids. But it was not half so bad as the rough deal at the conference which sticks out like a sore thumb in my three-decade-long history of attending and leading professional development programmes.