And we speak of things that matter … A remembrance of conversations past

Conversations with Dr Baker sometimes lasted an entire day – or at least, this was the case once every year, when he paid his annual visit to my home, wherever it was. He would arrive mid-morning, by bus (and later by train to Gurgaon), refusing offers of rides. Through a pre-lunch coffee, lunch, and evening tea, there was never a dearth of things to say, issues to discuss, the odd bit of gossip, disagreements to be thought through, information and concerns shared. Except for a brief post-lunch nap, he spoke animatedly, laughed out loud, poked fun at me (although he once had to assure me that he always laughed with me, never at me!) and included my family – parents and siblings, and later, husband and kids – in all of it. When out of town, he wrote letters – not terse folded blue ones, but several fountain-penned sheets, in the old, Victorian, style of chatty, informational, personal, communication. Occasionally, small notes appeared in my pigeon-hole in the staff room.

In second term, he would redecorate his rooms, with bright red and yellow rugs that held the glow of the slanted winter sun. For such an austere personality, this was such a delightful concession to warmth and surroundings. Then he would painstakingly prepare coffee for you, putting together ingredients from an array of little tins on the table near the wall. How much sugar, how much coffee, he would ask, and then smile if you asked him for more water and less milk, talking gently the whole time. If you asked me to characterize College in a few snapshots, this would be one of them; Dr Baker quietly poking fun at Dwivedi Sa’ab, chortling while Dwivedi, his eyes twinkling, would jab back, as only the oldest and most comfortable of friends do.

And both so genuinely interested in conversation; the details probed, the meanings of things teased out, the contexts, historical, social, philosophical, laid out and examined. How you felt about something, what you thought, what kind of experience this was – all this was brought out by questions and observations. What street was that again, that you mentioned – where the woman was singing arias while walking out of the subway? Do you think that the Manhattan of the twenties was … and how did that student appear when you said that … and isn’t it interesting that the title of Thakur originated in …. Conversations with these two historians, so vastly different in personality, were such a feast. Dr Baker would acknowledge my disagreements with him gravely, looking thoughtfully into a far corner of the staff room – usually at the entrance, since we most often sat in the corner right of the pigeonholes, where the heater was – and nod, consider the points made, and respond – or promise to respond when he had thought it over a bit. Dwivedi Sa’ab, on the other hand, lived for the disagreements, often making an outrageous statement only to get a good argument going, his impish smile betraying the good-humoured pinch of salt with which he took everything, the eyes crinkling with the joy of battle. So many, many times, a quick stroll to the café for tea with him in the middle of the day would spark the weary brain into new life and I would often stride into my next class with some little snippet of information or quirky quote fresh from our conversation.

Tea-time conversations with Dr Nagpaul used to be like that; usually with the cryptic crossword between us, Beethoven’s symphony scores and how many chips per-head would the afternoon tea need were dissected with equal precision. I can only assume that others more fortunate than me have those conversations with him now. Dr Harsh Kumar usually came in after lunch, and it seems like a lifetime ago, but it has only been twelve, long, years, since those lovely, meditative, informative, quietly humourous, conversations stopped. The elegance with which scripture and music, poetry and culture were thought through is a rare and wonderful thing. Sharma Sa’ab passed on all-too-soon after he brought me into the staff room but conversations with him had begun well before that – not just in Room S or in the corridors but in the staff room itself, on one memorable occasion. Thrown out of class and still angry, I fetched up at the staff room entrance in search of him. He listened sympathetically and then took me to the dhaba for a nimbu-pani of absolution. Mathur Sa’ab’s turn of phrase and perceptive understanding of character were delivered almost as footnotes, his self-deprecating laugh infectious, his sure grasp of the influence of Stephanians past on our collective ethos always a revelation. Humour, irreverence, wit, knowledge, personal concern – how swiftly these became a given; how attentively a point of view was listened to, how thoughtfully responded, what a wealth of insight and information was brought to any discussion, howsoever frivolous or weighty – I wonder at these now.

Now when ideas can so quickly become ‘issues’ and issues become so high definition that discussion is disagreement and disagreement is anger and anger is silence. My earliest understanding of the importance of being able to converse with anyone and everyone are of my parents obliging us kids – my earliest memory of this is at the age of 6 – to come and greet guests, sit with each, talk. Each guest was introduced to us by name and any one other thing that might help us relate to them – profession, interest, hobby, relationship, where they lived – and then we, in turn, were introduced to the guest. My dad – or mom – would tell them our names and something interesting about us. That is how the 6 year old girl and the adult guest entered into a conversation as equals, interested in each other and in communicating with each other. There are no uninteresting things, we were always told: only uninterested people. Maybe that is why I still believe in the inherent value of speaking with and meeting people.

It occurs to me that memories are our conversations with the past; and perhaps our conversations with the dead are the voices that we continue to hear for a lifetime. The many women, older and younger, whose voices have filled my years in College, are, thankfully, still alive and strong. A remembrance of conversations past with Dr. Baker makes me ever more grateful for those that I continue to have with these women and men, who help me refine and rethink my own ideas, challenge my preconceptions and add their wisdom to mine, shake me with laughter, and allow me to weep with them. May it be many years yet before they live only in my head.


No Dues

(For Naomi, who walked the last mile with me)


It took some doing.
Room to room, some
Much frequented, some
I’d never seen. The Estate
Office, for instance, being
So close to the Ladies, you
Would think, on any one
Of the many days I
Slept, bathed, re-adjusted
Myself in the midst of
Classes, commutes, pangs
Of hunger, horror,
Exhaustion. You
Would think the Estate
Office would have fallen
In my way. But they
Were the most reluctant
To sign off on the steps – millions –
That my feet walked, treading
Their real estate. Of what use
But in this one room: ‘No Dues’.

The Library, where I sit
Forever in an attitude of
Years ago – they forgot the year.
They fixed it but I sit there still
Like a reader the years refuse
To budge: ‘No Dues’.
And for the many ways and
Many days in which they fed me
The walk from the Café
To the Mess merely led me
To affectionate cooking crews:
‘No Dues’.

But the corridors did not sign
And the rooms I passed ignored
The paper I clutched. Mine
Was the eye that took in
The tiles, the bricks, stored
With years, the voices, the
Faces I feared to look in,
That I would not let go
Which I would not let loose;
What would they sign? ‘No Dues’?

What manner of reckoning requires
Such an accounting of desires?
Would the Chapel where I still
Take off my shoes, produce a bill
With ‘No Dues’? The terraces,
Which elevated our poems and views,
Let me hop back in? ‘No Dues’?
What manner of debt persists
What coinage still resists
What piece of paper insists
That I fall for this elaborate ruse
And leave this place with no dues?

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.