A Kind of Excellence

These are thoughts that I presented to a meeting of the Staff Council at the request of Rev Thampu, who wanted me to speak on the idea of excellence in St Stephen’s College. I wanted to put them down in a more cogent way especially at this moment when the University at large, and College itself, are in a state of transition. I’m not sure what excellence means, but there are things about College which, over the last 32 years here as student and faculty, I value. We all often come across alumni who feel there was nothing of value here: this attitude that ‘I learned nothing in College – I did Cafe Honours, ha ha’ – is most often repeated by those who have done well academically internationally. Their success is attributed to their world class education outside India and, I suppose, their native genius. Maybe these people are right, and they learnt nothing. Speaking for myself, however, I think that I got a real education here: like many of us, I too, have been there, in those world class institutions, and returned, so we all have a point of comparison.

It is not only that I remember individual teachers, or lectures, or texts, or that some of these are etched in my mind; but that I had teachers who taught me how to think; and in conversation with whom, I figured out what to think. In the English department, at least, we took for granted that our lectures would be of a certain standard. They were, for the most part, and those that weren’t, were the exception. But my peers and I gained something more than that in our classrooms, I think. For instance, I value how my education linked the outside world to the classroom: Rev Thampu’s introductory lecture on Macbeth when we had just returned to college after the ’84 riots; Trivedi’s tutorials that went from 1.40 till 3.30 because Hardy and Dickens took us to so many places other than Victorian England, and who encouraged us to bring out a literary magazine (150 copies, cyclostyled, hand distributed) even while telling us that it was OK if it died an untimely death; Dr. Rao’s understanding of Yeats, that he connected with Auden and socialism and the India of the 80s and death and the importance of certain kinds of knowledge; Arjun Mahey and the way in which he pushed King Lear into a comprehensive world view; Madhu Dubey and the way in which she both pushed us and protected us through  our angst ridden existentialist crisis brought about by Becket and Eliot; Sharma Sa’ab and the way in which he brought Keats into our minds as lived experience; Suvir Kaul’s reminding us (as M.Phil students) that the real education was the one that was carried out of the classroom and into intellectual conversations over coffee.

Many of our teachers treated us as intellectual equals, albeit at an educational disadvantage. At Dept seminars, faculty members read papers alongside students. I remember being invited to a talk by a faculty member on a subject where he knew I specifically disagreed with him, because “victory is sweeter when the opponent is worthy”.

I value the rigour that my teachers demanded from us, in the demands they made on us. How, after getting a series of ignominious grades in my tutes for Trivedi, I finally scored a whopping 7.5/10, and when I sighed in relief and said “ finally”, he said to me – “For me too! I’ve been so frustrated with the marks you’ve been getting. Finally, for me too!” Dr Rao, and the almost palpable annoyance that emanated from his terse comments in the margins of my assignments, until he finally sought a separate hour apart from our tute time in which to discuss a paper on Tennyson, and the first thing he said was “I can see how immersed you are in your Tennyson”! AN Kaul, who tore apart an M.Phil paper he thought was actually publication worthy, because it was so badly written. And I’ll never forget what he said to me when I pleaded that I just couldn’t find the words I wanted. He said that ineffective writing was a sign of clumsy thinking. If you can’t write it, you don’t know what you want to say. These are people and moments that have made me into the academic I am today. And the teacher I am: today, when I am frustrated with my students, I tell them how my class did badly in our second year after doing really well in our first; and we came into our first class in third year, with Dr Rao, expecting sympathy, and got a stern lecture from him instead. Possibly in response to our stricken faces, he explained to us that he was a teacher only because we were students; and he could be a good teacher only if we were good students. Most students don’t understand this as undergrads, or ever, perhaps, unless they take to the teaching profession, but it is a symbiotic relationship that has value only if it is accorded it.

I wonder whether this relationship is something that is valued today. When students demand marks as their right, and try and pass off plagiarized material as their own; when our students are defined as ‘consumers’ and ‘clients’, or we are called ‘stakeholders’, as if this was a for profit private company, these relationships are redefined and, in the process, so is our understanding of ourselves as teachers and students.

I think all this fostered a very unique relationship amongst students. We pushed each other too. We learnt to listen with care to people we didn’t like, and tear apart the arguments of dear friends. (I remember Dr Rao commenting on this once, when my best friend tore into my paper on Tolstoy’s theory of Art in a third year seminar.) There was the higher purpose of intellectual enquiry. We learnt this also from the fact that, apart from classes and tutorials, we had weekly seminars in which students read papers on things connected to, but not specifically in, the syllabus, and that the entire faculty of the English dept attended each one. The discussions sparked by students and faculty often led us students to texts and ideas that we would never have had access to without these seminars. We tried to institute this tradition when we became faculty, with very good success. It stopped when the numbers of classes and tutorials and the numbers of students per tutorial, etc, became such an issue of accounting and controversy and debate, and we have slowly lost ground to this unfortunate new trend. We have lost, in large measure, this academic and intellectual time that students and faculty invested in the pursuit of their subject and in each other. My biggest regret today as a Stephanian and as a faculty member, is the loss of the tutorial space to this number game. When I think of excellence and what set Stephen’s apart from other colleges, there is no doubt in my mind that it was our tutorials that raised us head and shoulders above everyone else. The hours of extra time prompted by tutorials that we spent with individual students, and the emphasis we laid on writing continuously, and grading strictly. As recently as three years ago, students have come to our MA programme purely on the grounds that in Stephen’s, MA tutes happened and were taken seriously. I cannot underline the loss enough: the difference between excellence and mediocrity lies in our tutorial system.

As a student, perhaps the most valuable thing St. Stephen’s gave me was the courage to challenge anyone and anything as long as the challenge was courteous. To be educated was to question, especially authority. And I think that faculty and admin alike took us seriously. Our opinions were asked when temporary teachers were up for rehiring; whether we thought things should be organized differently; or if we thought something or someone was unfair. Consequently, there was a kind of trust that was fostered between faculty and students – not always, not by everyone, of course  – but enough so that we recognized it when we saw it and valued it. I think that this is why practical joke week and some of the pranks played were possible at all. Students today are slack jawed with disbelief when you tell them the stuff that students have pulled on faculty in the past.

The question of excellence in St Stephen’s College is, and has always been, tainted with the accusation of elitism. Much of this charge flies in the face of facts, and does a real disservice in rendering invisible all those who study here who do not have an ‘elitist’ accent, or come from the ‘right’ schools, or wear the right clothes, or whatever it is that this hold-all term of abuse implies. College was never the playground of the rich and famous; it was and is, mostly middle class. Middle class Lutyens, maybe, but therein lies another sociological phenomenon which explains why a certain address leads to high academic performance, but which does not, therefore, imply that gaining admission to an institution on the basis of that performance, is elitism in itself. When I came into college one of the things that my seniors and faculty dinned into our heads was that all that talk about us being elitist and English wallahs was nonsense. We were raised on stories of the generation that upped and followed JP to work with the poor in Bihar; we were taken on dharnas with Dilip Simeon; we were told about Bunker Roy; the students union routinely went out every year and worked in flood relief camps around the country. The social commitments of Stephanians over the decades was something that we were all made aware of and were proud of. I don’t know if that is true today.

I do know that when we came into College I was roundly taken to task for not being able to speak fluent Bhojpuri. My Hindi was fluent, as was the Hindi of most of my contemporaries, but they would ask me – kaisi Bihari ho? Bhojpuri nahin bolti?! We were self-aware enough to see ourselves as the stereotype of the privileged in India, and to fight against it. We had the charge of ‘snob’ flung at us too often to not be more self-reflexive, although it is only later that I learnt to recognize that there are all kinds of snobs and that they are everywhere. Similarly, it was taken for granted that our peers were good academically: the question we all had to answer was – what else do you do? Whether it was playing basketball, or being in the Shakesoc, or playing an instrument, or even simply having a decent grip on general knowledge and the arts: this was what defined us, not our marks. This, I am glad to see, is something that survives. The energy generated by various societies and their activities seems to draw students into it vortex, and if some students use this as fluff to fill up their CVs with, it doesn’t detract from the very real storm of activity that fills these corridors.

We were never elitist in the way that we were accused of being, and I loved the way the College boundaries were also porous – we went wherever we wanted and, whoever wanted to, came into College. Today I see this shut gate that I have militated against for years and it bothers me that we are truly insulated now. Not only does no-one come in, we don’t go out. There was a time when Stephanians went out and won every prize there was to win. This is no longer true. We have our own festivals and we compete with ourselves. My batch (class of 86) started Harmony. We started it as an intra-college ice-breaker at the end of first term for freshers to get to know their seniors. But Winterfest was the grand finale of festivals in this University and others, including AIIMS and IIT-D, and the world and its cousin came to compete here. It saddens me that even though Harmony has long since become inter-college, it is hardly on the same level as Winterfest or other inter-college festival competitions.

There is a way in which we are snobs, though: I see it in the way we take some things for granted here without even knowing it. That, to me, is a better definition of true elitism than the shorthand for abuse that we usually hear. I remember an incident at my very first job – an ad hoc at Miranda House, for three weeks – when, to cut a long and traumatic story short, a Stephanian teaching there delivered the final blow in a long anti-Stephen’s tirade conducted by several faculty, by saying that we were so snobbish that we paid an extra ten rupees on our term bills for the upkeep of our lawns. And I remember saying even then, thank god for the fact that we had lawns we could actually sit on. Things have changed today, but back then, apart from Kirori Mal, you could barely walk past the grounds of other colleges much less sit on the grass. But it makes me think that one of the things we take for granted here are our physical surroundings, and I now feel that this is the most undervalued of our many virtues. We take for granted that our corridors don’t smell, that our floors are clean, that our windows are not cracked, that our desks are dust free and that our lawns can be sat upon, as can our terraces, both of which I have sat on as student and faculty, for classes held in the winter sun. And this is not because we are elitist and rich; this is because we have a cleaning staff that actually does its job.

We take our office staff for granted. A brief visit to most other colleges in DU will show you what a luxury that is. We take for granted that they are efficient, and will smile and help you out with whatever problem you bring to them, howsoever odd or trifling. I know I have run to Usha, to Sabia, to Vasantha and Alka and Samuel, to Nasir ud’din and Mukesh and Mishraji, with all sorts of things. As students, Ismail Sa’ab was our solution for everything, even as Robert Sa’ab was for earlier generations. Alumni come back to visit College as much to see Bhaiyan and Mohan and Rohtas as anyone or anything else. And we learnt this unthinking respect and love for our non-teaching staff from older students and from faculty. This is a College that hosts a Rudra Dinner, in honour of its non-teaching staff. In this country, this is a habit of mind that is perhaps the most valuable education possible.

We take each other for granted too. I once applied for a job to the Arts Faculty, mostly to prove to myself that I was here because I wanted to be and not out of middle-aged inertia. I didn’t get the job, but by the time I went for the interview, I realized what a horrible prospect it would have been. I recognised how much I valued the Staff Room space: the fact that you can walk in here and you have historians, philosophers, physicists, sanskritists, mathematicians, and economists to converse with. Some of my most treasured conversations have been about western classical music, military manouvers and the difference between football hooligans and cricket hooligans, the merits and demerits of medical guinea pigs, becoming middle aged, being single, back pain, the Chandler Wobble and the virtues of learning a new language at fifty, spiders in the hills where trekkers from College go – anything and everything. These conversations that we have across disciplines and departments, engaging the myriad interests of a well-read, intellectually active faculty, this is a rare thing. I think I speak for all of us – there is a richness to intellectual and other conversations here that we take for granted, and we shouldn’t.

In this sense, and in spite of various political and other differences, College has been a safe zone for faculty and for students in many ways. Students, especially, know that they can wear clothes here that they would not wear, perhaps, outside the College gates; express themselves in ways that they would not feel safe doing elsewhere. I know that recent years have seen many – and necessary – confrontations between students fighting for their rights and administration erring on the side of caution and conservatism. Occasionally this confrontation has become ugly and this is regretful. But students have done it anyway, and that is the truly valuable thing. In all this, I think that we need to work harder at making College a more effective safe zone rather than a microcosm of the prejudices and discriminations outside its gates. I know that, personally, I have had the confidence to walk into successive principal’s offices – Dr Wilson and Rev Thampu – and speak my mind. Much of the time this involves a great deal of ranting on my part. I don’t know how many people do this – I know of a few – or how many feel safe doing it. The fact that I could do this is testament to the strength of the Principal, and the College, not to my own. As of now, though, we still have a Principal’s office that we can walk into at any time. There are colleges where you need to seek an appointment with the Principal, sometimes weeks in advance. In fancy universities abroad, ranked high on various lists, any given faculty member has office hours once a week, and good luck to students who want to meet them at any other time. Our students here take for granted that they can engage a faculty member at any time that we are not physically in a classroom, call us when they don’t see us, email us, speak with us. When we think in terms of being a community, accessibility is fundamental to our sense of that sharing of ourselves with each other.

In many ways, a huge part of what I value most about College comes from the College Choir. Viju James revived it in my second year as an undergrad, and for decades since then, I have sung in, trained, and conducted the St Stephen’s College Choir. I’ve written about this elsewhere and I certainly talk about it as often as I can, because it embodied all that was best about College to me. The unthinking secularity amidst the Christian traditions and teachings, the seamless coming together of students and faculty, the pursuit of excellence, the beauty of College premises, the engagement in non-academic pursuits. All that and something indefinable, perhaps a residue of the music.

In recent years, there have been a good many articles and such about the many things that ail this college: foreign students tell us how boring they find the lecture format, women students explain how patriarchy and sexism are built into the very structure, non-Stephanians continue to write about how elitist and snobbish we are, and so on. Much of this is true and needs to be said. We have our colossal blunders and glaring mistakes, which are pointed out for us as they should be, although perhaps with less smugness and gloating. We have our shining successes and they are applauded as they should be, although people tend to take them for granted and ignore them more often than not. But, in this conversation with the Staff Council, what I thought was worth reflecting on was the unsung and uncelebrated: the faculty member, student, or non-teaching staff that quietly go about their day, doing what needs to be done to the best of their ability, taking pains over grading endless tutorials, spending a few extra hours in the library for a student presentation, working overtime to erect stage structures for conferences and performances, giving the corridor one last sweep, fixing a piping hot glass of tea with adrak for faculty members who commute over an hour to get to a winter morning 8.40 on time – too early for the café to be officially open.

That last, particularly, and much else, will never help us get onto any list, but it has its own value, its own kind of excellence.


10 thoughts on “A Kind of Excellence

  1. toymango

    Thank you Ma’am for writing this. There’s a certain diabolical quality to the tirades against College, including, regrettably, by some insiders in positions of power. I never got this whole ‘elitism’ charge. I know it for a fact that had College been truly ‘elitist’ – in the sense of being exclusive – I, a small-town boy with heavily accented English and a heavily lower-middle-class view of the world, could never have gotten admission in Mr Mahey’s hallowed department, let alone a room in Res under the tutelage of the peerless Dr Baker. Yes, there was always a culture of excellence, a relentless push to be your best self, which you have articulated so movingly. In fact at its core this culture of excellence was the antipode of elitism. It sought to elevate everyone it touched, and everyone who cared, not a select few with the right surname.


    1. This is exactly my point, and I am so glad to see you say this. There are hundreds of students every year who do not qualify for this odd term ‘elite’ and yet it remains a convenient term of abuse for Stephanians across the spectrum and over the ages. It is very annoying and something that really needs to be contradicted again and again.
      Meanwhile, both Mahey and Baker remain the quintessential Stephanians for me too 🙂
      I wish there was some way to make your response more public!


  2. Sunil Issar

    Brilliantly written with great insight and really took me back to a stress free St.Stephen’s of the 80’s. One observation, Harmony as an intra-college festival was the creation of the SUS 1986-87 which was my final year and your first one in MA 🙂


    1. ah, thanks for the correction, Sunil! I wonder why 86 seems stuck in my head as the date of the first Harmony. Age…
      And also – feel free to add to the piece. I wrote largely from the english dept perspective, but the History dept was very distinguished in our time. Guha, Sarkar, Upinder Singh, – and my personal favourite, whose classes I actually attended – Shivshankar Menon, Baker: quite a line up. Although I think that your unique contribution to my college memories would be the smoke rings during Merry Wives!
      lots of love 🙂


      1. Amitabha Pande

        Shivshankar Menon never taught at St.Stephen’s unless this is a different one from our former NSA. We were contemporaries (he was a year junior to me) and he joined the IFS in 1972.

        This is a brilliant piece and I think you and I are very much on the same page on almost all issues. Yes, the ‘elitism’ charge is a bogus one and comes out either on account of a vulgar variety of abstracted social guilt (often from Stephanians themselves) or those lefties who like their sociology served easy. Even in the heydays of the raj of the Macaulay putras the diversity of the student population- caste, class, community, region- was extraordinary.

        The only thing I would like to emphasize a little more is on the quality of peer group interaction. Our maximum learning occurred because we had our own distinctive reputations of eclecticism to protect vis a vis our peers. Brij Tankha ( elder brother of Vijay Tanks h/o of Upinder) and I decided to mug up (by heart, as they say) the Encyclopedia Britannica (we had no Google search) so that our knowledge could rightly be called encyclopedic. As a 16 year old fresher, Brijeshwar Singh could recite passages from Ralph Roister Doister- a play most people three times his age had never even heard of. Nirupam Sen (he retired as our PR in the UN) could recall at will any poem he had ever read and you could recite to him a part of the poem anytime from any where and he would complete the rest of it. Anand Doraiswami, knew the names of every street, every lane, every landmark place in Delhi, including lanes tucked away in some obscure corner of Deputyganj, quite apart from having broken every debating record there was or the BSc Physics (Honours) record since the inception of Delhi University. Anand Doraiswami also held a record of walking the longest while pissing ( a record I broke) and wanted the news of this record breaking to be circulated instantly as it was more important to him than breaking the Physics record. That intensity of peer group interaction I have not experienced anywhere else- not in Manchester University which I went to later, not in the IAS and not in any close knit organization I ever worked.


      2. This Shivshankar Menon was the son of the then foreign Secy Menon and most definitely taught – I’ve attended his classes 🙂
        Thanks for adding these details, Amitabha: as you can see, this was a speech made within a certain context in the staff council, so I’ve mentioned this aspect briefly – good to have it filled out in such minutiae! Meanwhile, feel free to share the piece; I feel these things which we once took for granted, now need to be said.


  3. Lovely, Giti.
    Your note matters not merely as a record of what once was – for, as you acknowledge, others may not have had your experience – but as an idea of the space that all institutions should be.


    1. Thanks, Keval. There has been so much written about College lately, none of it good, or even true, that I felt this needed to be said – even if only for the record. The steady destruction of the univ saddens me so much these days, and it needs any kind of preservation it can get: even this. I was thinking that one of the things worth recording was the number of Stephanians who went into education, higher education, and especially DU.


  4. Prabir Jha

    Well said Giti!!! The most memorable and life shaping days were those 5 years. We all may have become big names in our various lines but College remains bigger in our hearts and minds.


    1. Thank you, Prabir 🙂 and please feel free to add your own thoughts and memories. I really feel this needs to be done – not just for ourselves, but for College, for the univ as a whole, and especially for current and future students who need to have a sense of the best that College can be. We will always hear of what’s bad and wrong anyway.


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