Sojourn in Williamstown
A Joy Forever
Williamstown, close to the Berkshire Mountains in North-West Massachusetts, was a four-hour journey by road from New York. I travelled there on September 8, 1965 on a fellowship for a year to the Center for Development Economics at Williams College. With family at home, my mind was heavy with the thought of the India- Pakistan war, which had broken out two days before. In the next few days, however, I was cheered-up by the warmth and friendliness of the people and the beauty of this small college town, which the tour operators called "a beautiful village". Beautiful it was no doubt, with large trees of purple and orange foliage in the fall. These turned white in the winter, as they remained covered by heavy snow that did not melt for many months.
The town's only 'business' was the Williams College, a top private college with only 2,000 students even today. Though strictly not in the so-called 'Ivy League' like Harvard and Yale, Williams had the distinction of being called a 'potted Ivy'. Williamstown had the academic community and support staff of the college, but not many other residents. The sprawling college campus was most of the town, which had only one street, called the Main Street, a few shops for essentials and a Post Office. To go to a movie or a restaurant, one had to go four miles or more towards North Adams, an old and dying textile town.
In 1985, after exactly 20 years, I went back to Williamstown, this time from Washington to admit my son, Asif, to Williams College. There he earned an undergraduate degree, majoring in history and economics. Even today, my son and I retain in our minds wonderful memories of Williamstown. Asif, now a father of two little sons, hopes that at least one, if not both, would go to Williams.
The college and the town got their names from a British Army officer, Colonel Ephraim Williams, who had left a small bequest to establish a liberal arts college in the area. He laid down two preconditions. One required the New York State to cede the area, which was adjoining the state of Massachusetts to the latter. The other required the town and the college to be named after him. It took several years to fulfill these conditions. The Williams College, one of the oldest colleges in USA, was established in 1793, after the Colonel's death. When we were there in 1965-66, it was an all-boys college. It became co-educational in 1970.
The Center for Development Economics, which provided a master's programme, was located at the Cluett House. We lived, dined and had our classes there. This mansion was a gift to the college by the Peabody family, who made the Arrow shirts; these shirts were very popular at the time. About two miles away from the campus, it had a big yard behind, with large trees all around. Every year since 1962, when the Center opened its doors, central bankers, civil servants and university teachers of a few years' seniority went there from the developing world. One or two persons from Pakistan and since 1971, Bangladesh, were invariably included. In our group, we had about 20 fellows from various third world and Latin American countries, including India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Yugoslavia, Chile and Mexico.
Many of our professors, like Paul Clark and Henry Bruton, had served as advisers in developing countries, had written books and were famous. Renowned scholars from other institutions and countries were invited to give seminars at our Centre. These included Hollis Chenary, Hla Myint and Dudley Sears. It was a most rewarding programme. In addition to a degree, we acquired knowledge and insights about the development process directly from first-rate authorities and from interaction with other fellows. We also attended many of the interesting debates, lectures and performances at the college campus. Once, Henry Kissinger came to speak about his strategic vision of America and the world. The college had a very good library and a fine arts museum with an excellent collection of impressionist paintings.
Other small colleges in the New England area, some of them girls' colleges like Smith's and Mount Holyoke, were within about 50 miles. Amherst and Harvard/MIT in Boston were not far away. We used to visit these institutions during the weekends and college breaks. The journey to Boston by road involved negotiating the perilous Horse Shoe bend in the Mohawk Mountains. The college had provided us with a microbus, which we drove, often at midnight in search of snacks in fast food places a few miles away. In nearby Vermont State, there were ski resorts. In the winter, we would go on the slopes there with rented gear and had a lot of fun. We also tried ice-skating in the college's facilities. Our Yugoslav friend, Branco, bought a second-hand car and gave us a ride during the Christmas holiday to New York. It was cold and heavily snowing. Branco, who drove the car 'Kamikaze' style, told us that it was the only way to cope with such adverse weather and road conditions! My Ethiopian friend Paulos and I managed to sit on the back seat, which had no upholstery. The springs were broken, uneven, and hurting us. We covered the seat somehow with an old blanket. It was an adventure to remember.
Ida Compton, wife of a professor of chemistry at the college, was the Center's secretary. She was like an elder sister and guardian to us for a year. Sweet and compassionate, she felt our needs and tried, with the help of the Center's Director, to fulfill these as much as possible. She would sometimes organise parties at the Center, both indoor and outdoor. She would arrange invitations for us to people's homes in small groups of two for lunches and dinners, particularly during thanksgiving and Christmas. We would go to the local radio station and churches and speak about our countries and religion.
Once, a poet living in a nearby village invited us to her cottage. It was for an afternoon of drinks and poetry in the midst of hills and rivulets. Ida, a poetry lover herself, Paulos and I went. The hostess read some of her poems in a deep sonorous voice. Indeed, it was a divine experience. For a few hours, lying on the ground with deer lurking in the trees behind, we were transported to another world of sheer intellect and beauty.
All in all, the sojourn in Williamstown was truly enlightening and a joy forever.
Azizul Jalil writes from Washington.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005