I had around 74.6 per cent marks when I came to Delhi in 2003 to apply for college courses. 75 per cent was the cut-off at most places to even take the test (yes, I sure am glad I finished school as long back as I did and escaped the current day rat race young people get forced into). When in the sixth grade, I had been told there was a course where all you had to do was read novels. I had waited for years before I could get rid of maths and science in class 11 to opt for humanities. After that, I had been waiting to come to college and woo English Literature with single-minded devotion. I had secretly resolved to study literature through correspondence instead of choosing a subject I 'did not mind'.
As it turned out, I didn't have to go for a 'back up' option. Unlike in other colleges, the English department of Miranda House, Delhi University, allowed candidates to take their test if they had 65 per cent. When clearing the test got me both a college and a hostel seat there, I could tell that this was going to be a relationship where we understood each other.
I didn't find popular stereotypes about big city institutions to be true — either in the college or in the hostel — where your clothes or your accent were more important than what you did. And there was so much to do, apart from classes you didn't want to miss: Super(hyper?)active societies, protests, festivals, inter-college presentations, sports . . . everything laced with the camaraderie of brilliant women (peers, seniors, teachers and other staff members) who inspired and supported us. In my first few months in college, when someone asked me if I felt homesick, I realised I never got the time to. It was also my first time in a women’s only institution. But, if anything, I only felt more comfortable and confident here.
One of the most vibrant sites of this solidarity was my own department. There wasn't a better place to be. From the very beginning, we were taken seriously. So, I started taking myself seriously. We were called “ladies”, not girls. If we scored low on a test, there wasn't anger or scorn, there was concern. I remember one of my test papers where I hadn’t answered some questions and my teacher had written, “why”. I imagined her frown in worry over what I had done, and I wasn't wrong because that is what I witnessed when I met her to discuss the test. This one time I had missed a test, and when my teacher rescheduled it she said I was allowed to sit in an empty classroom and finish writing even without supervision because she trusted me enough not to cheat. I started doing more because my teachers believed I was capable of it. I spoke to my teachers about my problems and angst. We watched films together, in the college seminar room, in theatres, and their homes.
Some of us once bunked class for the heck of it, because it was one of those 'cool' things you had to check-off your list before you exited college. Later, we kept bugging other classmates to brief us about what had happened in those classes, hoping we hadn’t missed another discussion around Uppity Women of Medieval Times, or a heated debate on why there is no such thing as true love. But most importantly, we were pushed to think for ourselves, as one of our teachers said when advising us about our assignments, “If I want to know what the critic thinks, I’ll buy his book.”
Those years spoilt us because after we passed out we looked for similar spaces outside but couldn't find them. I cry each time I watch Mona Lisa Smile because the passion with which Julia Roberts keeps coming up with new interests and challenges for her students, going much beyond the syllabus and the classroom, makes me miss my own faculty. Because before college, we women were aware of gender discrimination. But our teachers gave us the tools to articulate that injustice, and the confidence to fight it.
Now when I go to college I walk with my stomach drawn in and my breath held. If I am taking a friend along and I point to a place where we used to rehearse or eat lunch, it leaves me feeling unsettled because I am not able to describe it properly. Because yes, that happened . . . but then, there was that too . . . and it came to mean that . . . and also something else . . . and how can I make someone else see all this or explain to them when they were not even there.
We carry our Miranda within us and if it won't have us back maybe we'll create some of our own. Something's gotta give.
First published in DailyO, 28 Oct 2018.