They are almost extinct now. Probably, a tad better than Rahul Gandhi’s Congress tally in recently concluded Delhi Assembly elections. But there was a time, they symbolised hope and intimate dreams to change the world. Gut-wrenching poetry, heart-warming songs came from them. And India swore by its friendship with Soviet Russia. Decades ago, when I was a wide-eyed young student of JNU, a bastion of left politics, I was madly in love with one of those unique species called ‘Comrades’. So, on this Valentine’s Day, I am taking a journey down the memory lane of those beautiful years when ‘left’ mattered more than the right (though Right is ruling the country now). Till very recently, I took love (man-woman) very seriously. Now, I am almost enlightened … part Sufi, part Buddhist, part minimalist, I see now life with a twisted eye. However, Here’s to you, comrade. For old time’s sake.
An… I address him by this name when I write to him. So, let us stick to this name. In JNU, if you throw a stone, it will hit one comrade or another. I don’t know why I was drawn to this comrade. There is no logic to love.I m not dwelling on this.
His room (unlike other hostel rooms) had no bed. Not that the hostel authorities didn’t provide him one. They gave him one but that was honorably put on the balcony so that the visiting comrades from different parts of the country will have more floor space to stretch their legs and arms. The room at any given time had more than four people. On very few occasions, the room was locked. He could be anywhere but his room was 24X7 open for fellow comrades. Modi’s Vibrant Gujarat talked of ‘atithi devo bhav’ in glowing terms but the comrades practised it with all sincerity much before it became a pure marketing gimmick.
If you were very lucky (that happened very rarely), you could find a water bottle in his room. I was very happy when I spotted a plastic water jug once in his room but then it vanished in no time. In JNU, the ‘special’ tea made by the hostel mess staff in the early morning was the best (it was mostly meant for their consumption). There were days when our comrade used to get the ‘special’ tea for me too. You see comrades have a natural talent for finding a solution even in extreme situations (for nothing they talked about class annihilation). Thinking about having a tea/coffee mug in our comrade’s room is like expecting United States of America to go slow on giving moral lectures to the whole world on racial equality, human rights and religion tolerance. But being an organic ‘jugaadu’, he always managed to get tea in a steel glass (borrowed from some friend or the other). Even decades after, it’s that endearing image of having chai in a steel glass that brings a smile on my face.
Our comrade never had enough money during those ‘student’ years but he always travelled in an auto (which was a luxury then). I remember one Sunday morning when I went to his hostel room, he was selling old newspapers to the kabadiwallah (a national ‘Sunday activity’ in India which also generates income). Suddenly, I found out that some issues of the Hindi magazine called ‘Saptahik’ (if I remember correctly) containing his articles were also up for sale, I screamed “No, don’t do it. Your articles are there” but it fell on deaf ears. But he did treat me to a very nice dinner, thanks to all the money he got that day after selling newspapers and magazines.
On a very romantic rainy evening, with great enthusiasm I made coffee for him and with equal difficulty I managed to find a big flask from one of the girls in my hostel. As usual, there were many ‘revolutionaries’ in his room and after having my coffee, one of them looked at me and said, “Deepikaji, waike hi aap bahut accha chai banate hai (Deepikaji, you actually make very good tea).” I wish I had an AK 47 with me that night. He survived and here I am telling the story with a tinge of affection.
On another occasion, when I was soaking in love and affection, I bought a shirt for our comrade. It really looked good on him. And in less than 48 hours, I saw another lanky comrade wearing that shirt and happily sipping tea in the JNU’s much popular Ganga dhaba. I must say, I was really heart-broken that day. I was young then with a sense of possession. Now, I have evolved.
Yes, we did exchange some letters mostly during vacations. His letters read like Marx’s ‘Communist Manifesto.’ Even then it was a joy to just read anything in his hand-writing (you know that silly thing called love which makes everything feel so beautiful).
There was one occasion when three of us (the comrade, me and Sanjay) were supposed to write a research proposal for an NGO. The deadline was nearing and our comrade was absconding. So, in utter desperation, Sanjay and me went to his room. The room was dark and as expected four/five people were sleeping. Sanjay kept on telling, “Hello, hello… where’s An?” There was no response for almost 10 minutes. And then out of sheer frustration, Sanjay shouted, “Comrade, comrade..” It worked like magic and suddenly one of them got up and told us, “We have no idea where’s he. As the room was open, we came and slept.” We called off our search operation and the next morning, our comrade somehow appeared on the scene and as we were very angry, he did the major chunk of the work.
Epilogue: The comrade is still a very much part of my life. No, I didn’t marry him. He is no longer dreaming of an armed revolution. He has changed for the better — a better human being, a more compassionate thinker, far more democratic than what he was. He has become worldly-wise though I am afraid he still can’t indulge in small talk. His e-mails now read like the ones written by one human being to another. The letters exchanged between us contain the collage of images of changing India. I wish, we could publish them in future. These wonderful narratives are precious to the understanding of love, life and most importantly India.
I love him a lot — in myriad ways. If you ask me to define the relationship and put a name to it, I just can’t do it. Both of us are now married and charting our own journeys in life. A lot of credit also goes to our respective spouses for understanding and respecting the space we share. In those heady years of love, longing and a passion for changing the world, he had lovely mop of curly hair. Today, he has lost much of that adorable mop and I still don’t tie my curly hair much to his disappointment (like my dad, he always wanted me to tie my hair. But I never listened to both of them).
I have lots of respect for his superb razor-sharp mind. Whenever I am in ethical crisis, dilemma or trauma, I always turn to him for healing. Friends often ask me how have we managed to keep this connection alive all these years? I guess, the answer is respect for each other. Both of us have deep love and appreciation for Gandhiji and the wonderful diverse, fascinating land called India. And we laugh a lot together (of course, I have a better sense of humor than him. But he’s improving with every passing day). We still talk to each other for hours and hours — the conversation ranges from identity, love, gender, food, India to Gandhi. Whether it’s the counting day of Delhi Elections or the day of brutal Peshawar attack, my first call has always been to him (even if it means an expensive ISD call). I tease him now, “Thank God, I didn’t marry you. Otherwise, I would have ended up as a divorcee.” He laughs and says, “You would have written three brilliant books.”
We have never celebrated the Valentine’s Day (you know we are not just those petty bourgeoisie kind). But this note is just a warm narrative to remind me of those lovely years which give me so much of strength in good times, tough times and sad times. Comrade, this is for JNU, life and us.
(Tea figures a lot in our conversations. Over skype, sitting in different continents, on many days we share a cup of tea. The tea cup here sits prettily on a coaster gifted by him. No matter how tough life is, a cup of Earl Grey tea makes it a lil better).