Of JNU, Emptiness and Azadi

(Yes, I love JNU. If I have to choose something that changed my life and changed the way I see life around me, then it has to be JNU. There’s a JNU in the way I see/love India, its rich diversity, pluralism. There’s a JNU in the way I listen to music, the food I eat and relish, the films I love watching, the way I love people of this land and the way I feel for India’s marginalized communities.  

No, I am not a card holding member of any Communist party. I never was one and will never be one.  I cherish the dreams and imagination of a free, diverse, egalitarian, liberal India. I will fight for your right to say though I might not agree with what you say. And yes, I pay my taxes.  I also enjoy my Macbook Air and I start my day with a cup of Earl Grey tea.)  

‘I am feeling so empty,” I told over phone to my friend who lives in Dubai.  I have never felt so empty before. For the last 2O odd days, I have led a life marked by deep anguish, emptiness and pain. I tried earlier to pen my thoughts but I just couldn’t. Today, I sit down, look back and make a note of myriad thoughts that crossed my mind in the last few weeks. Sometimes at the break of dawn, sometimes in the darkness of night. I am using the symbol of hashtags to express myself because we now live in the ‘banal’ times of hashtags.

#  It was a February late night when before sleeping, I scrolled down the notifications on my Facebook .  I came across a post from a friend (ironically she lives in Nagpur) which mentioned #shutdownjnu. I was too tired to delve into the details. I left it there to sleep.

#  After  JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on charges of sedition, I listened to his speech to understand what he spoke. Yes, he ripped apart the BJP-RSS politics in that speech but I didn’t find it at all anti-national. And being a student activist in JNU in the 90s, I have heard far more scathing speeches. I loved that line in Kanhaiya’s speech, “What are universities for? To critically challenge, the society’s ‘common conscience.” Yes, we need universities to encourage a society to think, question and dissect. A nation is not made of computers, smart phones or tablets. A nation is made of men, women and children who think, imagine, love, debate, discuss. There’s no uniform software.

# Just a day after his arrest, the onslaught of hate speeches on social media happened. Prime Time TV studios felt like war zones. The talks of JNU students being ‘prostitutes/call girls/anti-nationals’ dominated the public space. I put a post on my Facebook timeline celebrating the ethos of JNU and an idea called India. The so-called ‘friends’ came up with choicest abuses. They showed the ugly face of aggression through their comments, personal messages.

# As a social sciences student, I am really curious to understand how do these people harbor so much of hatred, venom, violence within themselves. How do they live, work, sleep and raise children with so much of aggression, violence wthin them?  Yes, they have this AK 47 called Facebook and Twitter accounts and they think they can engage in mindless violence without rhyme or reason.

#   What’s nation? What’s the Idea of India? What’s imagination of a nation? Can a nation exist without imagination? Who makes a nation? These are the questions that have always fascinated me. Where does my cook who can’t now afford a bowl of her favourite Gujarati khatti mithi dal (Thanks to arhar dal being so expensive) figure in this idea of nation?  What about the rivers, forests, mountains and valleys that make this nation so beautiful and the way we are abusing them, destroying them in the name of development?  And who will decide what’s nationalism? Who will define how Indian am I? Will the central government (whether it’s a BJP/Congress/any coalition) decide what is nationalism? Will these governments put a stamp on my love and idea of my nation?

#  How will we thrive as a nation, as a society if our young minds are not engaged in debate/discussion? Why are we so scared of young minds? How will we arrive as a society if our young minds don’t think out of the box? Why are we scared of dream catchers, rebels, thinkers, philosophers, poets, artists? Aren’t ideas/cultures/narratives all about evolving? Where does critical thinking figure in our political/social/cultural narratives? Who are these people who are jumping into conclusions without even discussing?

#   I am not even talking about doctored videos, fake voices. I am not talking about somebody offering Rs 5 lakh for cutting off Kanhaiya’s tongue? Or posters offering Rs 11 lakh to anybody who will shoot Kanhaiya. And who were these masked people shouting slogans in JNU? Why can’t our state machinery/apparatus put a face and name to them?

#  Three of my close friends have lived a life of ‘the other’ in this country. My soul sister is from Manipur and she lived in Delhi for more than 15 years. All through her Delhi years, she was seen as a ‘Nepali’. But never as an Indian. House owners in mainstream India shut doors on her face when she went to pay the deposit money because they couldn’t possibly give the house on rent to a Chinese/Nepali/Chinky. Her face became her greatest enemy. She became ‘the other’ in her own country.  My friend ‘M’ is a Kashmiri Pandit who has lost her home in the valley. She mourns the loss of her beautiful land which now hides behind a veil of pain, anguish. Her voice chokes when she talks of her Kashmir yet she says she feels a sense of joy and warmth when she meets an elderly Kashmiri Muslim woman in a phiran in Delhi. She says time has stood still for her as she can’t connect with today’s Kashmir. Another close friend who’s a Muslim feels like an outsider in the land he loves dearly and warmly. His young daughter was traumatized for days when she was called a ‘Pakistani’ in the school.  I can’t understand urban India’s obsession with Pakistan. Pakistan is not my benchmark so far as the ethos and imagination of a nation is considered. I am sure many will agree with me.  Why should I celebrate a monolithic nation?  India with its vibrant democracy, multi-culturalism, diversity is closest to my heart.

#  Post his release on conditional bail, Kanhaiya Kumar became a prime-time hero thanks to his earthy, fiery, witty speech.  His speech appeared as front page lead in many newspapers. In the times of 24×7 channels and social media, he suddenly became the flavor of the day. ‘Azadi’ became the word of the season. For some, spring suddenly felt more enticing, more young, more beautiful. Was his speech a ground-breaking one which would go down in history?  I will suggest restraint. Let us not go overboard. As a student of JNU (in the 90s), I have heard equally soul-stirring, fiery, political speeches by young student leaders. There were no 24×7 channel television then to beam those speeches across the nation. There were no twitter trending hashtags then. Let us not become a desperate nation looking for momentary heroes or anti-heroes. Let us look at the larger canvas of nation building. Let us think of a nation that gives a fabulous world class education and medical facilities to its poor and marginalized. I liked it when Kanhaiya said in one of his TV interviews, “Speeches alone don’t make for political leadership.” The struggle has to go on. And the toughness of the struggle ahead will decide who is what.  The struggle ahead will separate the wheat from the chaff.

Let truth prevail. Let our young and old minds celebrate ‘azadi’.  Let the young think, imagine, feel and work for those who still can’t afford to study in this beautiful institute of learning in the last range of Arravalis.

And there was no one left

“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.”  Martin Niemoller

protest

(Every morning I wake up and thank my parents for sending me to study in the bougainvillea laced beautiful campus of JNU. It was an act of great kindness on their part. They were not rich but they never compromised on spending money on providing quality education to their daughters. My parents could have asked me to study in Odisha and saved the money for themselves. But they let me explore a whole new intellectual, creative and absolutely fascinating world. JNU changed the way I listen to music, watch films, understand life, society, art, identity and most importantly India. It taught me the importance of dissent and protest.It taught me to celebrate diversity, pluralism and secularism.

My friend asks me not to be too vocal against Hindu fundamentalists on Twitter. She loves me. I think of this beautiful poem written in bold red color on a thick black paper and pasted on one of the walls of JNU.  I know the poem by heart.

We are living in tough times. The voices of dissent need to be loud in the times we are living in. If we don’t protest, who will then? What kind of narratives will we be leaving for our daughters, sons, nieces and nephews? )


Comrade, this is for you

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.

TEA

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).