The road outside the Manipal University campus. (Photo by Kelly)
If Kerala calls itself God’s own country, Manipal must be God’s hideaway cabin where He retreats to relax and spend quiet weekends.
It is calm and green and tucked away, and not so easy to reach since the closest airport, Mangalore, is nearly two hours drive away. It has a railway station and buses to nearby cities. Manipal, I am told, is a suburb of Udupi. It has a population of 30, 000. Wikipedia says Manipal used to be a barren hill with a few trees. In 1953, Dr TMA Pai started the Kasturba Medical College. Manipal is today a thriving university town, and one of the most cosmopolitan centers with students and faculty from many parts of the world. The Medical college became a part of the university which has a Life Sciences Center, the Center for Philosophy and Humanities, and the Northeast Study Center which is attached to the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, among others. The university keeps growing year by year, and continues to add on more centers.
Manipal University offers residencies for writers and artists. At present there is a sculptor working on a project. My period of writer’s residency has been a fruitful, inspiring, and energizing period. My office overlooks the Mann-palla, the mud-lake from which Manipal derives its anglicized name. Today it is a tranquil body of water close to the Philosophy and Humanities Center lined with coconut trees and inviting benches. Beyond it is the ocean, or more appropriately, the Arabian Sea. Around midday when the southern sun is beating down on the brick and ochre buildings, reminding one of Kamala Das’s poem on Malabar and dark eyed people, a lilting breeze blows in from the ocean and revives jaded workers. It is just bliss to sit on one of the hard benches and let the oceanic wind refresh and rejuvenate you.
The Center has a Heritage village adjoining it with traditionally built houses. The Heritage village was the life’s work of one man who transported the old houses to save them from destruction. Carefully preserved with their mud floors and mud walls, the heritage village is a wonderful throwback to a time when life was simpler. And that is one of the factors that is still visible in the university town. Though the International hostels and Medical Center are housed in modern high-rise buildings, the Philosophy and Humanities Center reflects the traditional architecture of the area with a grass covered courtyard in front and wide porch areas covering the whole length of the first floor. There is a visible effort to retain the architectural designs that are native to Manipal and Udupi. The result is houses that are cool and comfortable to work in and suited to the near tropical climate of the place. It is such an important factor as even in January the mercury climbs to 31 degrees Celsius.
Being a student town, there are many advantages. Prices in restaurants are very affordable. Auto rides are never more than 30 rupees and the locals eagerly talk to new faces in English. Shops return change in one-rupee coins and not in sweets as we do at home. Workers are in their places at nine in the morning if not earlier, and they work all day, going home after five pm. Makes you wonder what happened here?
I think what happened is that people did not try to live beyond their means. Giving something back to the society apparently mattered more to them than what they could get out of it. Single Individuals dared to embrace their dreams and even if they did not see it fully functional in their lifetime, they were able to gift excellent institutions to the children who inhabited their future. Today Manipal is sought out by many from all over India, and from other countries. The Malaysian government has an agreement with Manipal University whereby students from Malaysia can come and receive the quality education offered here. Campus life is healthy and conducive to studies. Students are highly motivated to work, and they confide that they do not wish to leave Manipal at the end of their courses. What a lesson for visitors to take away. If even one person cares, he can leave behind a tremendous legacy. What a model for the rest of India!
On my last day at Manipal University, I woke up with one thought: I had not seen any beggars during my twelve days’ stay. I had to find out, so I asked my hostess, writer and educationist, Dr Gayathri Prabhu, if there really were no beggars in the city. She smiled indulgently and said, ‘There are about four or five women, wives of migrant workers.’ She added that the area was quite prosperous and there were no local beggars. ‘Students are not a good lot to beg from,’ her husband explained, ‘They just might beg back!’