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Canteens, College, and Conversations: In the Era of Zoom Calls, Nostalgia Hits

What did the DU students miss out on as college went virtual? Chole Bhature, theatre, movies, and much more!

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It was the winter of 2008, and I had struck a shady deal with the most important person in the Delhi University’s (DU's) North Campus – the cook who ran the women’s PG (paying guest) canteen.

Onion prices were through the roof that month, and suddenly my plate of chole bhature in the canteen was without raw onions. My emotional outburst about the importance of this missing accompaniment, and my protests led me nowhere.

I was a second-year student of history at Miranda House across the road, and in no mood to give up. So, a “deal” was worked out.

I, a 19-year-old with limited pocket money, would slip in Rs 20 to the cook, and he would buy two onions (to be used for a week) just for me. He would slice them up daily, away from the greedy gaze of other students, and then hide them under the two fluffy bhaturas on my plate.
What did the DU students miss out on as college went virtual? Chole Bhature, theatre, movies, and much more!

I struck a shady deal with the most important person in the Delhi University’s North Campus – the cook who ran the women’s PG canteen.

(Illustration: Chetan Bhakuni/The Quint)

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It was a clandestine affair that went on for more than two weeks. Years later, I would chuckle at the thought of this well-executed operation. When I repeat this story to college friends over a drink or few, it always leads us to more such silly memories.

Online Classes Carry On

A few months ago, however, this memory came to me with a tinge of sadness.

College had officially begun but the campus bore a deserted look second year in a row. There were no students sitting on the bench at the famous Miranda House back gate, none walking towards the metro station, hardly any huddled under the tree at the Delhi School of Economics, none rehearsing their street play, and nobody wolfing down Maggi at Tom Uncle’s.

The students were at home, behind laptop and mobile phone screens, watching their teachers and classmates in a neat collage of tiny squares. They were not in a canteen striking deals over chole bhature.

In 2020, when the pandemic struck, school and college classes were suspended, and then moved online. We told ourselves it will be a short, temporary move. How can anyone finish even a single semester entirely online?

For that batch, it is going to be two years soon.

Ego Clashes, Fights, Pranks...  

Outside the classroom, a different world awaited us, and sometimes we had to take long train and bus journeys to get there. In 2006, “The Ariels,” the Miranda House theatre group reached BITS Pilani, almost 200 km away from Delhi, to participate in their annual festival that sees students from all over the country.

When I sat in that bus with my “dram-soc” friends, little did I know what awaited us – haunting peacock calls at 4 am, a bathtub filled with stagnant water, cheap vodka in a plastic bottle, late night guitar sessions near a statue with friends and strangers, and a dance floor.

At the festival, my best friend and I also pulled off a prank that was talked about for weeks. Three late evenings in a row, we would hide behind a tree, and wait for people to walk past or ride past us, and just as they would approach the tree, she would appear like a ghost – hair till her chin, a black garment, and a Scary Movie-inspired walk. Some fell, scared out of their wits, others turned around and zipped away. There were no streetlights on that stretch.

After day one of pulling this off, we overheard a conversation over breakfast at a dhaba on campus that there was a ghost scaring people an evening ago. We were mini celebrities and only we knew that.

The festival at BITS Pilani also acquainted my dram soc friends with my ability to sleep anywhere, even in the auditorium in the middle of a performance, with a giant speaker right next to me.

The theatre production we took to the festival, however, was quite the opposite of the experiences we had there. It was a strong adaption of a story on “half-widows,” of a war-torn country, of a village with no men, of women who don’t know if their husbands, fathers and sons are alive. I played a greedy, manipulative soldier – a despicable creature, really. I watched in awe as my dram-soc friends played complex characters, week after week, festival after festival.

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While you can teach online, is it possible to truly extract the joy of theatre on Zoom? Our rehearsals were tough. Egos clashed, fights happened, classes were missed, and some days, the characters just didn’t work out. Yet, I look back fondly at my time on stage.

Let's Talk Protests – and Movies

My colleague, older to me by a few years, and a graduate from the DU’s Hansraj College – yes, that college with the famous 'Lovers' Point' – narrated a similar story of her time in the drama society. She acted in the Indian adaptation of Eve Ensler’s hugely popular The Vagina Monologues, and remembers lugging heavy furniture from North Campus to South Campus every time they had a performance. I am jealous that her group got to practise at Lovers' Point or next to the basketball court, where the tall boys were always dribbling.

As we exchanged stories, I realised that even though years and decades apart, a lot of our memories are similar. A senior editor told me about how during the fresher’s debate, he was “ordered” by his seniors to cycle to Azadpur Mandi and return with a sack of rotten tomatoes. “Two hours later, I was pelted by the same rotten tomatoes (and eggs) on the Rudra Lawns at the debate,” he said.

A lot of these stories had already been turned into films. In 1981, Sidharth, Omi, and Jomo – the DU trio with a long-standing cigarette khaata with Lallan Miyaan, and eyes on Miss Chamko – brought to life North Campus in the form of Chashme Baddoor. The Sai Paranjape classic, which I first watched when I was in school in the mid-2000s, was the DU life template I had imagined for myself. Apart from this, there were numerous stories of the DU in the ‘80s that aunts and uncles narrated that added to the template. These were borrowed memories from a vibrant college life.

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What did the DU students miss out on as college went virtual? Chole Bhature, theatre, movies, and much more!

Mid-college breaks in 2008.

(Illustration: Chetan Bhakuni/The Quint)

Talking of movies, in 2008, Singh is Kinng released amid much fanfare, and a friend from another DU college bought 12 tickets for Day 1 matinee show. We bunked our classes and reached the cinema hall. Every single person in the hall danced to the songs, many on top of their chairs. Closer inspection told me that most were college students. I am no longer in touch with this friend but that was an afternoon I will never forget.

Twenty years before this afternoon, the senior editor, also a student of DU, watched Madhuri Dixit’s Tezaab at Amba cinema hall near the Malkaganj ghanta-ghar in 1988. “The hall was full of students goings totally nuts, dancing in the aisles to Ek Do Teen,” he told me. This is the beauty of memory, some days you can just swap it, and it feels like your own.

Nothing prepares you for what college is truly like – you confront your privilege and cocooned upbringing, you understand the value of protests, and the importance of diversity. What I learnt outside the classroom and away from the books in college was life-altering.

I got lessons on friendship from the man who sold banta outside our college, and I learnt the power of protest from a classmate who stood up against a teacher, and another classmate who kept us abreast with any protest outside the vice-chancellor’s (VC's) office.

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My colleague told me how she marched to the VC’s office with a group of students, scaled the walls and demanded that campus be made safe for women – a fight that students in the DU continue. Her most prized possession from those days is a photo of the protesters, including her, that was published in The Hindu. That day, she says, she learnt the need to protest.

What did the DU students miss out on as college went virtual? Chole Bhature, theatre, movies, and much more!

The power of protests.

(Illustration: Chetan Bhakuni/The Quint)

These are not lessons that can be imparted via Zoom classes or quick texts. The pandemic has snatched away from young students the joy of discovering college life in person. I spent three years with great abandon in the DU – late night rehearsals, sleeping in the auditorium, finding adventure in an abandoned building in Vijay Nagar, and hitching a ride on a cart to buy cigarettes from a shop far away.

Many afternoons spent at the lawns of Delhi School of Economics seemed monotonous at the time. Summer afternoons seemed slow, winter passed by quickly, and monsoon was tricky with water up to our calves.

An Inexplicable Loss for the Students

Students now spend all seasons behind the screen, unable to explore the university and its many spots – the Tibetan Dhaba at Majnu Ka Tila, Sam’s Bar at Paharganj, the stealth monkeys that rule the ridge near Hindu Rao hospital, the lake in Model Town, and chicken curry in a basement in Connaught Place.

I found friendships that will last a lifetime, even when the friends are continents and cities apart. Once a year when we meet, a segment of time is spent recycling the same stories, reminiscing about simpler times when all we had were Nokia phones and no WhatsApp.

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While at no point do I advocate putting students at risk of COVID-19 by making them attend college in person, this college experience behind mobile screens sounds isolating and daunting.

With a new variant playing tricks with us at the end of a depressing year, my hopes that students will step inside colleges and universities in 2022 is a bit shaken again. I am filled with dread about the memories that will unfold a decade later, of stories that will begin with “Do you remember that Zoom class?”

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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