Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Summer of Freedom

Amidst the chorus of angry voices and echoes of violent clashes at Ramjas College, one cannot help but draw parallels between the current situation and the incident that took place last year at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). The Indian political landscape has once again heated up. Once again a place of knowledge and learning has turned into a battleground. Stones have become grenades that shatter an uneasy peace, blood the ink with which another ugly chapter will be written in India's history. Free speech has become toxic, corroding into caustic, hateful rhetoric. Politicians have released polarising statements that serve only to add more fuel to an already explosive situation, and impassioned voices on TV, newspapers, and social media are once again screaming their opinions at anyone and everyone within earshot. 

One thing will remain different, however. Last year, two people at Telegram - I and my partner-in-crime, Abhyudaya Shrivastava - tried to move past our biases and gauge, first-hand, the mood and opinion of those most affected by the incident, and the most involved in it: the students. We wanted to gain a more objective perspective on the entire issue. What for, we know not, but we cared for the truth, for integrity. We never held any illusions about the value of our opinions, and in any case, by the time we'd started on our bumbling investigative journalistic endeavour, the storm had already blown over. There was something more recent, more sensational to talk about. 

I still share this today with you. What for, I know not. Perhaps I seek to make up for the fact that there will not be another such piece on the latest tragedy. Twelve months on, I care just a little less.

“Kashmir ki aazaadi tak, jang rahegi, jang rahegi!” – with these words, the Schrödinger’s Cat that was the Kashmir issue once again leapt out of the proverbial bag and put Jawaharlal Nehru University firmly on the radar of the Indian population. All of a sudden, JNU became the buzzword for each and every group, fringe or otherwise, in the political arena. While some groups tried to assert the righteousness of their cause by taking stock of the trashcans on a daily basis, others – not wanting to be left out – raised a hue and cry over rising censorship and the death of democracy, even as they freely gave interviews on primetime television and published columns in leading magazines and dailies for a good recompense. But with the print and electronic media going full-throttle to paint the story one hue or the other in order to drive the maximum mileage, any curious, impartial observer could not help but wonder – what the hell actually happened?

We were such impartial onlookers, and we did wonder if what was being portrayed was really what was happening. But we dared not ask any questions then, even if we tried to talk about it in hushed tones. After all, it is a well known fact that in a fight between two ideologies, it is those that tread the middle ground who end up suffering the most. So we stayed silent and watched the drama unfold, talking in tones more hushed than before. In time, the storm blew over, the debate lost steam and the public found something more trending to talk about. We, too, consigned JNU and all the questions associated with it to the backs of our minds.

But curiosity has killed many a cat. Ruminating one night over the deeper mysteries of life, such as where to get good food at 12 AM, we spotted the dread name again in the list of popular night-time haunts for students and young professionals. An initial hesitation caused by a healthy regard for our skins was soon overcome by inquisitiveness and, more importantly, hunger. We donned our helmets, wrote our wills, prayed to whatever gods were still up and set out for a trip to the place that seemed to be perennially demanding freedom, if popular media was to be believed. Our cats meowed softly after us.

We nervously joked about going undercover into the ‘antinational’ heartland of Delhi on our way to the campus. By the time we had reached halfway, we were seriously questioning the life choices that had set us upon the path. This, after all, was the place which was reputed to have made Manmohan Singh, then the Honourable Prime Minister of the Republic of India and the topper in the list of Indian VVIPs, step out of his car and enter as an academician. One look at our non-VIP motorcycle, and we knew that getting thrashed for our transgression was going to be the least of our concerns. But it was too late to make any changes to the plan now; turning back or going to a different venue would have meant the loss of precious night hours. The romance of the dark, which is often barely a whiff upon the breeze, would have evaporated with the faintest of glimmers of dawn. And so we sped past the police barricades, past the drunks and the homeless sleeping peacefully on the footpath, and continued on to our destination.

We weren’t going unprepared, though. Having known the names of a couple of hostels on campus, we’d quickly allotted ourselves two which sounded the least suspicious in order to escape any surface inquiry. This minor safety precaution didn’t help prevent our hearts from beating at a very furious pace, which only seemed to increase as the distance to the campus grew shorter. With our heads throbbing inside our helmets like a badly out-of-tune drum set, we turned into the campus.

And passed right in. No one challenged our entry, no one checked us for microphones or spy cameras, and no one asked us to prove our identities to ensure we weren’t government agents in disguise. For a rebel stronghold, it wasn’t very strongly held. It was almost disappointing to get in without a glitch after the tension that we had worked up for ourselves. At that moment, we would have almost welcomed a beating just to have our expectations fulfilled.

The momentary disorientation that followed our highly unanticipated successful entry also drew our attention to another salient fact – we hadn’t planned it beyond this point. With no idea what to do next, we decided to refocus on our original mission – finding something to eat. We slowed down the bike, looking this way and that, to find something that resembled an eatery. A couple of lights twinkled invitingly on our right through a dense copse of trees, drawing us to them like moths to a candle. We turned right, only to reach a building that appeared forbidding, abandoned and thoroughly locked. ‘Health Centre’, read the board above it in a big font. We wondered why students would flock near a health centre at one in the night before the inevitable conclusion hit us right in the teeth – free condoms! The rumours were true after all! The campus, renowned for its profligacy, wantonness and perversity, had probably led to the creation of an underground black-market nexus that helped students ‘protect’ themselves during their night-time shenanigans. Hoping to catch degenerates in the act, we walked towards the centre of all the activity.

Real life has a way of gloriously failing to live up to our expectations. We always hold out hope for one last eye contact while turning away from an ex; always hope to cross the magical barrier of thirty having attempted questions barely worth 25. The wife, beaten and abused every night by her drunkard husband, always holds on to the hope that things will be better tomorrow, while the husband who knows his wife is cheating on him with a colleague always hopes to never find out. But things often don’t happen as we wish they would – there is no last glance back, no divine intervention to make us pass that exam, no sudden conversions of heart, no fading away of the truth just because we’ve ignored it.

And so it was with us that night. For the second time in the space of a couple of minutes, we were disappointed that our worst fears hadn’t come true.

The ‘crowd’, if it could be called that, was milling around a small canteen which had Ganga Dhaba painted in white on its blue shutters. To our right were a couple of randomly strewn rocks which were serving the dual purpose of table and stools, while on our left were people queuing up for chai, lassi, fruit juice and that most frowned upon food item, Maggi, which was being served at a very capitalist price of INR 25. Walking towards the eatery, we were aware of the stark contrast we presented to the rest of the picture. In a sea of T-shirts, shorts, kurtas and capris, we stood out like a couple of sore thumbs in our almost-formal attires and the baggage we carried. The one on our back held our laptops, the one in our mind, prejudice.

We ordered some chai, tried to fit in and failed. The students there didn’t seem to mind us, though. There was tea, there was conversation, there was camaraderie, all framed against the backdrop of the subtle sound of an aeroplane flying overhead from time to time and no one peeking at their phones every two seconds. At 2 in the night, JNU defied normal circadian rhythms; autorickshaws ferried on the campus roads nonchalantly, while people strolled around as if they were on an early evening walk. An ice-cream cart parked near the dhaba was reaping rich dividends for his business acumen. The place bore an eerie resemblance to a regular marketplace.

We finished our tea and fished out the dregs of tea leaves, which the tea stall owner generously did not charge us for, and decided to talk to students. Eager as we were to hear the story of the revolution, straight from the mouth of the horse that went nay, we quickly settled on a bearded guy who was sitting having his tea and bread-omelette in isolation.

“Excuse me. Can we have a moment of your time?”

The nonchalance with which he said ‘no’ was almost disturbing, underlining why the place was reputed for not playing by the societal rules of etiquette and politeness. Or maybe he just hadn’t taken well to being interrupted during his midnight snack. Feeling like a news channel, and not a very good one at that, we gently edged away from the solitary eater to find someone else we could bug to satiate our inquisitiveness.

Our second target was also sitting alone. We went up to him, asked for permission to disturb him and – when he obliged – shook hands and introduced ourselves. He was an outsider, just like us, who was visiting a friend, unlike us. As there was nothing of import that he could tell us, we made small talk about the insects and the humidity till his friend joined us, a plate of aloo-parantha in each hand. It took some effort to prise our gaze away from the plate, as it did in getting him to open up. He looked at us with mistrust initially, but when you live in JNU and are under the constant, unflinching scrutiny of the world, being on your guard with outsiders probably becomes a second nature. Our genuine faces and mostly-honest questions made him open up soon enough, though. He, as a science student, revealed his ignorance of what went on behind the closed doors of the Arts and Humanities departments, but staunchly denied any allegation of brainwashing, forcefulness or sexually-charged pagan initiation rituals. Not here, he had said, not as long as I’ve seen it, although he did look disappointed about the last bit.

With the number of topics that could be discussed without arousing suspicion fast running out, we thanked him and took his leave. Looking around, we zeroed in on what appeared like a political science student. He fit the stereotype in quite well – he was wearing a kurta the most vibrant shade of purple, sported a stubble which could pass for a beard in just the right lighting and at a great distance, and looked as if he could be plotting the next political revolution. Giddy with happiness at finally spotting a real JNUite, we made our way towards him.

But the night, for us, seemed to be filled with anti-climaxes. Instead of an ideological radical, the guy turned out to be a harmless molecular biology student in disguise. A quick chat with him revealed that he also found the campus extremely liberal and accepting. He told us how anyone could run in the campus elections, how teachers didn’t bully students into attending classes and how pupils attended lectures not to give their attendance a boost, but for the love of learning. His enthusiastic discourse left us wondering why JNU was failing to live up to its social media status as the hotbed of dissension and protest, but we hid our disappointment behind a very polite smile and headed on our way. Maybe it was our approach, we told ourselves; we were yet to find a single student belonging to either Arts or Humanities.

Two girls sat in the shadows at a table nearby, chatting amongst themselves, suddenly stopped talking and looked in our direction. This acknowledgement of our existence was probably precipitated by the fact that we had been standing and staring at them for around a minute, looking away only to whisper something in each other’s ears intermittently. A realisation that we were treading dangerous territory slowly dawned on us. We were, after all, rank outsiders visiting a campus not our own, located in a city where nightlife for girls usually comprised of molestations, eve-teasing and stalking – if they were lucky.

With our choices limited between running to the bike and making a quick getaway and approaching them to clear any misapprehensions, we – much to our own surprise – chose the latter. They eyed us with suspicion, probably thinking us idiots who had lost their way into the campus, but gradually warmed up as we asked various questions about their lives on campus. They were both PhD students in Hindi, as close a match as we could hope to get under the circumstances, but refused to conform to our ideas of a typical JNUite despite speaking quite passionately about freedom on the campus, the fact that no one can force anyone to attend rallies or campaigns and the amazing library on campus, which they probably would have walked us to had we but asked. But we didn’t. We now knew what we came for. We had learned enough of the enemy.

As we made one last trip to the counter at the dhaba and ordered nimbu-paani, we realised we were walking more confidently, smiling more often and laughing more freely. Maybe it was just the cathartic experience of overcoming our inhibitions; maybe it was the knowledge of being proven wrong in the most wonderful of manners. Or maybe it was just the ambience of the place which had accepted us, as we were, without asking any questions. We found no sloganeering, no demonstrations asking for freedom, no angry rhetoric. Was what we learned the truth? Maybe, maybe not. We couldn’t speak for everyone, but to us, JNU appeared just like any other college campus. With one last look around, we threw the disposable cups in dustbins still devoid of three thousand condoms and made our way to where we’d parked the bike. In the distance, lights of the dhaba twinkled enticingly through the copse of trees, drawing more moths to the flame. As it always had.

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