Meera Banerjee: a tribute
By Arun Maharajan (’99 E&I)
Prof. Meera Banerjee, ex-faculty, BITS, Pilani and chief warden of Meera Bhawan, passed into the ages on January 30, 2008. She was a role model and idol to many BITSians. Arun presents a compilation of thoughts and memories of some BITSian women on an iconic personality, an edifice of an era.
Meera Banerjee, MBans as she was fondly known by the MBites was an amazing person. She has been one of the few persons I looked up to in my life. I have always admired her for her charisma, boldness and the command she had over the girls, riding her cycle at her age. You name it, I admired it.
“If the 11 PM to 6 AM rule had to be enforced within Meera Bhawan, it could have been possible only with her vigilance. Being so far away from home, she was family to us. She knew exactly when to be mellow and when to be strict - just like our parents. She had to take care of hundreds of us …that’s a huge number. She was respected not just because she was the warden, but because she was much more than that to many of us at Meera Bhawan. She was a friend and a guide in the true sense. She was always there for the girls whatever the time of the day. Her care and warmth made us feel secure at times of crisis.
“One of my funniest experiences happened in our psenti-sem when my wingies and I were busy ragging freshers. Being psenti-semites we just wanted to ‘interact’ with the gals as we didn’t want to graduate of BITS without being able to ask someone’s ‘intro’. It was almost half past eleven and nearing midnight. We were busy ‘interacting’ with one of the freshers when she started crying. To make matters worse, we got the news that MBans was on her rounds. So we had to make sure that those girls leave before she was in our wing.
Everything went smoothly and we managed to send the girls back in time. The next day MBans enquired casually of us, that she had heard a lot of complaints about freshers being ragged by residents of our block. You should have seen our faces then! We replied, “We will surely find out and let you know, ma'am!” She was so confident that we wouldn’t be the ones ragging them and wanted our help. After this we never ragged anyone!
“I am sure each and every MBite would have had their special moments with MBans. There will be none who hasn’t felt her presence. Her loss is incomparable and no one can fill that void. The Meera in Meera Bhavan has left us forever for her heavenly abode. “May her soul rest in peace.”
“Back in 1986, when we entered Pilani with some trepidation, we were told that Mrs. Banerjee was an institution. She had an air of maternal strength about her that made us feel secure, and a distance that kept us in our places! We never hobnobbed with her, like the matron down our wing. We only caught glimpses of her or interacted briefly for rare late night permissions. We knew she was behind a lot of what went on at Meera Bhawan, smoothly and quietly and yet we rarely saw her walk in her resplendent saris, a lady of stature who held herself straight with more than her posture but also with her self-esteem and courage of conviction.
“I was the first lady MASCON (Stuccan) at the 1989-90 Interface and needed permission to stay out late a couple of times. When I went to her with this background she was encouraging with the kind of half smile that was bestowed upon me but yet, it made me feel like I had triumphed at a battlefield without shedding any blood.
“It is strange that even with such little interaction, no confidences shared, I do feel like somebody symbolic has left us. Somebody who reminded us of our carefree, halcyon days, who kept us in check and indulged us only a wee bit. A few years back I lost my batch mate PS Reddy who was with me as my MMS batch mate at BITS, later at IIFT and then at Stamford, CT, making dosas at my house and discussing his plans for the future. It was a big blow. I knew him personally and MBans from a distance but both losses are acute. One because of what PS meant to us and one because of what Mrs. Banerjee meant to everybody at Pilani especially BITSian women.
“And I can't help but feel the sweet sorrow of somebody who watches things go by. I am reminded of the poem ‘I feel like one who treads along some banquet hall deserted, whose lights are dead, whose garlands fled, and all, but she departed.’
“This makes me want to get back in touch with the precious lot whom I take for granted… my gang at Pilani and a couple of Professors who meant the world to me.”
“I didn't get to meet Mrs. Banerjee much in my first year. That's usually when the girls are just learning the ropes and trying largely stay to out of trouble. Like many other MBites, most of my vivid memories of her will be of standing at her office with a hurriedly scribbled and forged letter in hand, waiting for that little extra freedom to stay out, and our ticket to the Pilani 'nightlife'.
“I recall my first when she looked at me suspiciously, thoroughly convinced that I was trying to pull a fast one on her. I was requesting for my wingie and I to stay up late to practice with the Mime Club, something no girl had done in years. After a long explanation she let us off, still hesitant, only believing us when we appeared on stage with motley of boys. The next time we went up to her, she smiled and told us how much fun it was to see girls do mime. “Her office has seen me several times, with all sorts of requests for late nights, over night Khetri trips, department trips, bills to be passed, MB-nite accounts. It's funny how we all used to scribble down permission letters 'from our parents' at the last minute and crease it so that she would let us go and see the world beyond Pilani. We thought we were smart to outwit her. Now, many years and more wisdom later, we know that she wasn't fooled a tiny bit. She just let us believe she was. ”
“It was just before the Union Council elections in 2002. I had filed my nomination for the post of President. Amongst various arguments offered for or against the merit of a woman president, my candidacy was being questioned on account of the fact that I wouldn’t be able to step out of the hostel (Meera Bhawan) after 11pm. With trepidation, I decided to meet MBans to see if she could help me find a way around this issue.
“While she was disappointed in not being informed of my nomination, her mood quickly turned to one of pride and excitement. I vividly remember seeing her take off her glasses, gaze back into the history of Meera Bhawan, reflecting on all the progress/achievements made by girls. She passionately expressed her belief in the ability of all girls and a strong desire to see them take on leadership responsibilities in the BITS student community. Such heartfelt support from a Chief-warden and senior faculty member, at such a crucial time, meant a lot to me. As I broached the 11 pm issue with new confidence, MBans, without a moment's hesitation, was more than happy to sign a sheet of paper assuring that I would have permission whenever necessary to work outside of Meera Bhawan and be accessible at all times. This kind of backing was unprecedented.
“When I returned to MB after the results were announced, I was shocked to see MBans out there celebrating with a large group of girls. I was overwhelmed to see that she took immense personal pride in my victory. The sound of cheer filled the air and we were on the verge of a spontaneous procession when there was a momentary pause - the crowd looked into MBans eyes almost as if seeking permission for what we were about to collectively do. “I remember MBans, almost as if she were flagging off a team on an important expedition, giving her approval – go girls go! On our return, MBans had organized for a special cake (enough to feed all the residents of Meera Bhawan) in the celebration of this victory. Once again, as the candles were blown, MBans wished the girls of Meera Bhawan, every success. Her confidence and desire to see girls succeed in all forays on campus was touching. She will be missed. ”
“As I reached the gates of Meera Bhawan, the fear of hostels gripped me tight. That was the first time I was going to be away from my home, my parents and all my close friends. As we (my roommate Rugs and I) retired to our room, we heard about the warden's visits in the night. Upon hearing the word "warden", I imagined a person who usually appears in many movies. I didn't really understand a warden's job till I saw Mrs. Banerjee.
“It struck us that you cannot look into her eyes for a long while, that constant gaze just makes you nervous. She was an epitome of power and terror for all the MBites. Her rules were strict. I cannot imagine another person who can be like her!
“I remember the times when we used to go for trips to Jaipur. We had to, after showing letters of acceptance from parents, literally beg her to allow us. We had to do this for a week and constantly follow her around, before she let us go.
“During APOGEE, there was work to do on the backdrops and the so-called assoc meetings lasted till 12 in the night. My friend Geetha and I got caught by MBans once with a bunch of first year girls outside the gates of Meera Bhawan. I was in my third year then. Till that point, I had never skipped the 11 o clock deadline. My heart raced and mind was not able to conjure up anything convincing to tell her. After a series of scolding, we were let in. These are among some of my cherished memories.
“The manner in which she used to ride her bicycle even at her age, solve our wing fights…the strict look in her eyes...her soft hearted nature... the times when we played holi in our wing and accidentally sprayed colours on her... how she always lent an ear to our problems and found a solution. BITS is not going to be the same anymore without her.
“There was an interesting incident, we were in our second year and were just ‘intro-ing’ two first yearites. There were eleven of us in a single room along with those first yearites. As we were talking to them, one of them broke out crying. We grew panicky when we heard shouts announcing that MBans and Meenakshi Raman were coming on their rounds. We could not say anything that would stop the fresher from crying. As she entered the room in which all of us were literally blinking, the scene so appeared as if we were torturing the poor girl to death! It definitely needed some explanation. The first yearite saved us, explaining that she came to our wing for a timetable help. MBans wanted to know why 11 of us had to prepare the timetable for one person! You should have seen the look on our faces.
“I regret not taking a photo with such a great person who lives in the hearts of all the MBites. May her soul rest in peace. ”
“She was the very warp and woof of Meera Bhawan. Both the warden and the bhawan bore witness to generations of girls blooming into confident young women. My own reminiscences of life at BITS are full of so many fond memories of Meera Bhawan that I was scared to take the nostalgic trip down memory lane when I started this writing. My earliest recollection is from the very first day that I arrived at Meera Bhawan. I had finished unpacking my suitcase and was still absorbing my situation. I found someone to talk to outside my room and we took a short walk to the BITS cooperative. On the way one talk led to another and she told me about the girl in the adjacent wing whose dad had requested the warden that his daughter’s room be changed and she put up with roommates who spoke the same language. The warden apparently had promptly taken that parent to task rebuking him for his lack of understanding of the campus’ diversity. “She is a very strict lady – Meera Banerjee. There is no messing around with her!” my new found friend told me. From day one I was awed by her. She was an extremely candid disciplinarian with a soft side that only a few people got to see. To be frank I was afraid of her for most of my first year. My first real encounter with “MBans” as we fondly called her was when she called me out from a group of frightened first-year girls and told me that there was no reason for us to be scared. Ragging in any form was forbidden on campus and we should report to her immediately should any one trouble us. Her confidence and poise were enough to assure us that we were in safe hands!
“During my second year I would often accompany seniors from Meera Bhawan to ask for late night permission. For readers who are wondering what this is, we had a late night limit of 11 PM by which time all girls were expected to be back inside Meera Bhawan. Should there be any reason to stay out till late, we could take late night permission and be out till 12:00 AM (hurray!). Under the appearance of a martinet, Meera Banerjee was a calm, rational person. She had a deep understanding of all clubs and activities and could easily evaluate when there was real need and when we were simply having some fun. She had seen the fabric of life change at Meera Bhawan over the years while she was there and would frequently tell us interesting tales of the past! How in the old days, for movie screenings, girls were led to the theatre in a line and would sit in the upper balcony which was exclusively reserved for them. This was a far cry from the mad dash we made on our bicycles for the movies and the catcalls during the screenings! One day she found us baking a cake in the mess for a friend in Ashok Bhawan and remarked how girls earlier would knit sweaters for guys! Sweaters! We were in splits!
“All through the third year and fourth year we got to see different facets of Meera Banerjee’s personality. Towards the time when I finished my B.E. there were over 900 girls residing in Meera Bhawan. Every day was eventful. She handled all emergencies with incredible valour, patience and care. Occasionally she would give us a glimpse of her personal life too. How she came to Pilani as a young bride and made Pilani her home. How she went on to get her Ph.D. and eventually start teaching and become such an integral part of BITS. I did not know many women of her age who had such fortitude and perseverance to pursue a career and reach such heights at the time when most women’s roles were limited within the four walls of their homes! When we finished our education and passed out of BITS, we all carried a piece of her within us. She was a teacher, friend and mother to us. The last time I met her was when I was leaving BITS. She was as usual radiant and full of energy. We talked about her plans after retirement, about my future career and how quickly the last four years had gone by. That’s how I will always remember her – smiling, reposeful and full of hope for the future. ”