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India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University - impossible hopes & innermost desires | Avijit Ghosh

1 August 2013

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The Times of India

JNU: Magical boulevard of impossible hopes & innermost desires

Avijit Ghosh

August 1, 2013

NEW DELHI: They say, JNU is all about Marx. For many small-town and non-public school boys like me, it was also about Freud.

In the mid-1980s when I landed in the campus from a small-town in south Bihar, everything - the passionate posters screaming ’Down with US Imperialism’, the cyclostyled pamphlets at the breakfast table expressing solidarity with Nicaragua’s Leftist president, Daniel Ortega, the bookstore owner in Kamal complex who looked like Engels and stocked Marxist literature, indeed every lecture and prescribed textbook of history - pointed Leftwards.

Most small-town boys like me adjusted slowly to this new ideological climate. But it was tougher negotiating the changes that a place like JNU potentially promised in our social life. Who even in his most improbable dreams would have envisaged living in a common hostel for boys and girls as Jhelum was in the 1980s with both sexes sharing the mess and the common room? For many, it was a curiously, schizophrenic situation. In classrooms, dhabas, canteens, library, everywhere on the campus, you had proximity to hundreds of attractive girls without either having the confidence or the social tools to converse or engage with any of them.

Many of us resented the smart city boys, their polished accent and poise, their ability to talk to a girl looking into their eyes and not stray downwards, to be able to ask them out for a triple sundae at the Nirula’s near Priya, a rundown single-screen theatre then.

The sight of guys sneaking into hostel rooms with their girlfriends, young couples slipping into the dark, anonymous corners of a comfortable rock late night, bred resentment and fed repression for those without a partner and desperately seeking one. One senior social science student would wait for hours outside the Godavari hostel for a particular girl student who had caught his fancy. He spent months doing just that without ever talking to her and sunk into a deep depression that required psychiatric attention. Several others having failed in their attempts to find love lost interest in career and life.

Like the male protagonist in ’Raanjhanaa’, taking rejection was tough for most of us who came from semi-feudal backgrounds where patriarchy ruled. We were just not socially conditioned or mentally prepared to face such a situation.

Coming from a social background where women were always neatly categorized into wife/mother/sister, it took us time to understand that every girl who laughs at your joke may not be willing to be a girlfriend. Decoding signals of behaviour takes time, especially if two individuals belong to different backgrounds. It was, as if, we had suddenly leaped from one world to another.

In this backdrop, politics was a route to socialising for quite a few. Being member of a political party immediately gave you access and a valid reason to chat up a girl. You always had a good chance to score if you were in politics. At least it was an appropriate and socially sanctioned way of getting an introduction.

Small-town girls who became friends told me that JNU gave them the real rush of freedom. From a situation where you seldom left home unescorted even during day time to being able to sit at the dhaba alone with friends or take a walk on the wild side of the campus with your boyfriend, if you had one, it was like living on another planet. There is no greater freedom than the freedom to choose your life. And this freedom was so intoxicating; it lifted most of them to become an improved version of themselves.

Some relationships between a small-town boy and girl collapsed because the former insisted on fitting his girl to the categories that he felt comfortable with. Yet, the number of small-town boys and girls (sometimes from cosmopolitan cities too) who fell in love and got married was incredibly high. Most of these marriages cut across caste and community. Some even overcame the ultimate social barrier, class. It was, in its own way, a silent social change. These girls chose their partners, their jobs; overall, their own life; something pretty radical for the 1980s. For them, JNU was like a magical boulevard where impossible hopes and innermost desires came true.

But to generalize about JNU would be inaccurate. Like truth, JNU has many versions. All I can say is, this is mine.


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