Moulded in JNU: what does the campus mean for an Indian woman like me

Sasmita AKhtar

Sasmita Akhtar

July 1992, I apprehensively stepped into a totally new world- the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. I had been selected in the entrance exam for the M.A programme in Sociology. I did not know a single soul in this walled campus with thousands of students. Fortunately, two of my class-mates from Ravenshaw College, Cuttack, had also been selected. One of them, Somogyan, knew an Odia girl, Aradhna, in the Ganga Hostel. I was assured by Somogyan that Aradhna wouldn’t mind taking me as a guest as well. “Is it possible?” I still wondered. That is the way it happens in JNU I was assured. Rightly so, Aradhna let us hijack her tiny corner. Monalisa, the other class-mate simply joined us as a matter of right. Despite our efforts against it, Aradhna’s scrupulously done room ended in an unavoidable mess. Three indefinite guests yet Aradhna showed no visible signs of agitation. My first lesson learnt- altruism! Innumerable seniors continue to give shelter to unknown Freshers awaiting hostel allotment.

Then came the first big event- the “Freshers Welcome”. Neither of us carried a party dress so we again went begging to the seniors. I don’t know if the tradition continues but then only saree was considered the preferred outfit for every gala event in the campus. The seniors were not only gracious enough to lend their expensive, perhaps even close to their heart exclusive sarees but also helped us wrap them. It was at this welcome party that we got to know more about our class fellows as each one came forward to introduce themselves. That happened to be an unforgettable day in my life as I met Shamim Akhtar, now my husband, for the first time that morning.

I soon discovered JNU was only a second home as the majority of students hailed from Odisha, Bengal and Bihar. Secondly, most of them belonged to different strata of the middle class thus, no case of identity crises. The bus used to be our desirable mode of transport; we thronged the flea market in Janpath and Sorojini Nagar with immense pleasure; none of us felt embarrassed watching the latest Hollywood flicks shifting with discomfort in the front rows at Priya cinema, literally developing a crick in the neck; several students worked part-time to earn that extra buck; borrowing money citing ones bankruptcy was not uncommon; even the dhabas served a normal tea and a milk tea with a 50 paisa difference- every penny was worth; we thus learnt value for money.(Despite the fact that till then we were never accused of misusing the tax payer’s money)

The class-room dispensed another capsule of surprise. The authoritative student-teacher relationship was amiss here. The professors were strangely accessible and friendly. You could enter or leave the class without permission, you could carry your coffee into the class and you were not required to address the professors as sir/mam! I still remember the shocked expressions of my batch-mates when Prof. M.N.Panini informed the class, “You can call me Panini”. Of course no one dared to do so for the first two semesters. Most of us still continued with sir/mam in our small town way till the end. Another liberty at the Centre was the open-book test. So, nobody actually demanded respect, they command it in their own way.

Freedom at the Centre was no match with the freedom outside it. No hostel timings and no campus timings- entry open round the clock- even for the girls! But it was totally on to you as to how you handled such unbounded liberty. Handling unrestrained liberty with responsibility is what you learn here, even if it has to be the hard way. No eve-teasing, no ragging, be what you like, do what you like, wear what you like- in short be yourself. In the confines of a patriarchal society this was indeed a heaven for the girls.

The boys may have felt a little tied down at times as indulgence in any unruly, even mildly violent act called for disciplinary action through General Body Meetings (GBM). Protest against all kinds of issues, including national and international, was exhibited through peaceful torch marches and to fight for your own right you took resort to signature campaigns. Be it ecstatic campaigning during the elections or the much awaited memorable presidential debate, things always seemed to be under control here. “Enjoy when you can and endure what you must,” was the mantra. End-sem, mid-sem, term-paper and tutorials were all dealt with without missing out on late night parties, first day first show at Priya’s, routine romantics walks to the East Gate, part-time jobs and simultaneous preparations for UGC, the Civil Services and other entrance exams!

Cultural festivities were not given amiss either. Holi with traditional bhang and its “Mahachat” competition, Saraswati and Ganesh puja at Teflas, the exotic biryani and seewaiyan in the hostel mess on Eid , to a great extent did away with the nostalgia of being away from home. Another event which transformed the looks of girls and guys completely was the hostel nites. Chaotic dirty rooms went in for complete make-over and borrowing of clothes and accessories touched new heights!

In a campus equally prone to frivolity, I think the level of commitment and rate of successful marriages between steady couples is significant. My marriage has been much hyped and talked about. Why I need to mention it? Because I think it is a case of extreme liberty handled with great responsibility. Despite the erring advice of many we did not elope. Everybody was apprehensive and rightly so. The marriage between a Brahmin girl from an orthodox family and a Muslim boy from the hot-bed of Bihar was definitely unthinkable. I had only two pre-conditions for marriage- no marriage without the blessings of both parents and no marrying a jobless man. Shamim too thought the same but added another difficult clause- no conversion to Islam either. Still the marriage happened.

Sitting on the cemented benches at the Godavari dhaba, intermittently sipping endless cups of tea, Shamim and I, fantasized a certain kind of future and today when we see bits and pieces of it coming true the freshness of the campus life fails to leave us.

Today when the draconian system is trying to crush us for speaking against harassment, discrimination and injustice, in service and in the neighborhood, it has no idea that once baptized in the fire called JNU, we may become a victim of injustice but cannot stop ourselves from questioning and resisting it. You may instigate us, poke us and connive against us but we will answer you in the strongest form of non-violent restraint via talks, marches, mass mobilization and most importantly, through writings.

As I see thousands of students protesting against the saffronisation of the nation I realize the strength infused into me by my alma mater. I feel rejuvenated with the realization….once a JNUite always a JNUite. The strength and the fervor gets ingrained in you for life.

Sasmita S. Akhtar
CSSS of SSS (1992-94 MA),
Publisher Nishcam Publication