There would be rows of eateries on either side of a narrow lane right in front of Patna College. After hours of uninterrupted classes on one hot summer day, I rushed to one of them to grab lunch. By the time I was through, though, I realised I had entered the ‘wrong’ restaurant.
I discovered that the religious persuasion of the person running the eatery was different from mine.
That triggered a sharp reaction within, forcing me to run straight to the nearby Ganga. I vomited out whatever I had eaten and took a dip in the river to rid myself of the ‘sin’ committed moments ago.
A Bag Full of Sanskar
The incident pretty much sums up what I was then: a sanskari, upper-caste Bihari with a very long list of what and where to eat, who to interact with and befriend, how to react when faced with “adversity” and how to shun everything that seemed different.
My only exposure to “the other” till that time was through the well-produced but very affordable Raduga Publications books published in the erstwhile USSR. But they were books, bejan (lifeless) and beasar (ineffective). Certainly not enough to make a dent on what I was and what I stood for back then.
That was the baggage I proudly carried when I landed in Delhi University, with all my sanskar intact, 25 years ago. The first few days were shocking to my senses – girls and boys talking freely, teachers joking with students, women not “properly dressed”, fellow students openly talking about ‘night outs’. Smoking and drinking too were not uncommon.
And the very first night in Delhi University’s hostel Jubilee Hall itself was a sort of a shocker. In the middle of the night, I woke up to find that two groups were openly fighting using swords and kattas!
One of the boys got badly injured in the incident (he happens to be a professor in a DU college now). I found out later that he was a fitness freak and bizarrely, this was the reason he was attacked! The rival group felt he was trying to act “smart”. “Smart banega to pitayee khayega,” it told us triumphantly.
The (D)econstructing (U)niversity
All these shocking and awe-inspiring events were perhaps intended to shake me up.
A dress rehearsal of sorts so that the university could embrace me and give me a character completely its own.
What was to follow was nothing less than a paradigm shift for me. That is when I learnt to deal with and respect differences: That the ‘drinking-smoking, night-out’ types have a similar mental make-up to mine and there is nothing superior or inferior about that. That the Bengali or ‘Madrasi’ types are as cool as the coolest ones from other places.
That religion is a private affair which unites and should never be deployed to divide. That deshdroh or deshbhakti are artificial constructs whose meanings keep changing in different contexts.
Inquiry, scepticism, questioning what is presented and passed off as the only truth, and the ability to engage with what seem like totally different points of view – these are some of the things DU taught me.
Bring Back the Liberalism
This learning would not have been possible if I had not lived those ideas with fellow students and teachers. The fact that a Bihari, with all his idiosyncrasies, was accepted as one of their own was liberating. That teachers were not contemptuous despite my below-par skills in the language frequently used in classes and everyday conversation gave me the much-needed confidence I so craved for.
DU taught me that leftist, rightist and centrist views can all co-exist but need not be imposed. I was allowed the freedom to think and do things my way and still be part of the larger group. For nearly four years on the DU campus, three years as a student and one year as a resident, I lived those ideas. It is entirely my fault that I may have retained just a fraction of that. But that is besides the point.
The DU of my dreams was a liberal and balanced institution, and never an extremist one. A living example of unity in the midst of diversity. The ABVP, NSUI, SFI and AISA existed even then. They would hold dharnas, take out marches and win student body elections. But they could never impact the core of what DU stood for.
What has happened in the last few days has somewhat dented that vision. But the vibrancy that I had witnessed during my days at DU cannot disappear in one go. It is going to fight back. The likes of Gurmehar Kaur give me hope that all is not lost. That hiccups are temporary and that the equilibrium is likely to be restored sooner than later.