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.


  1. Sir, I think there is nothing wrong in mentioning the name of the university, after all they need to be exposed so that they might take the minimum care next time. This time it was you, next time someone else. silent sufferers cant make the change in our society, only those who protest in the loudest voice can.

    1. Why smear an entire university for failures in just one department? In terms of infrastructure and the number of students (23,000) and teachers (over 3000), the university is grand. And it seems to be doing very good work. But, it is sad that the professors of English in the university -- the ones I listened to -- sound awful when they speak English. What is even more sad is the disorderliness and deshabille I have described in my post.

      There is another compelling reason: worse things have happened in some of my own institutions, and I haven't named them.

  2. Sir,I witnessed the same sort of experience of a professor ,from NIRD,who had been to our university for a national seminar.Not one but many of the universities are as same as you said,sir.

    1. I agree with you. In one of the institutions where I served, almost everything -- suggesting a topic for a UGC-sponsored seminar in a non-English department, drafting a proposal for funding from the UGC, designing the seminar brochure, identifying themes and sub-themes for presentations, etc. -- was done by me. I was also expected to make a plenary presentation at the seminar for which I prepared for about a month. Just a day before the seminar, the organizing secretary created a situation to ensure my being away from the seminar altogether. Later, I got the paper published in a reputable international journal. But, that was different from the kind of experience I had in the university -- hence the title, 'A first-of-its-kind conference experience.'