Monday, 29 October 2018

Life as we knew it: How my three years in college shaped me into the person I am

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.

Monday, 22 October 2018

My grandfather’s English princess

Meghan Markle’s wedding this year seemed to be an inexhaustible source of articles — celebratory and controversial alike — in the media. But my own thoughts keep floating back to another member of the family whose birthday passed, relatively quietly, in the month of July.

At a book fair, hugging five coffee table books close to my chest, I teared up in gratitude and nostalgia, breathing in their sepia scent. The reason I could buy all of those hardbound editions, offered to me at a great discount, was because not many readers cared for these books on Princess Diana’s life and death — not as my grandfather, my Nana, did.

I had seen my father get such books from England. My grandfather would pore over them intently like a geographer traces the fine lines of a map, charting the route of his next expedition. As I hovered around the exclusive smell of the gloss finish, he would trace for me Diana’s lineage. I was less interested in the family tree and more interested in the affable charm of the princess, as radiant and widespread as the faraway foreign greens framed in our living room, simultaneously creating assurance and aspiration. Admiring Diana’s signature style, for once my short hair didn’t seem like such a bad thing. I became a blazer-skirt loyalist, influenced by her wardrobe, and royally ignored anyone who laughed at me for having worn the two-piece amidst lehengas and salwars on my uncle’s wedding.

Thus, Nana infected me with his penchant for all things British, to the extent that when I joined a publishing house that spelled ‘realise’ with an ‘-ize’, I had a hard time converting.

I wasn’t always a Anglophile, though. Back from college for a vacation at home, I was a hot beaker bubbling with my newfound knowledge. I smirked at Nana's colonial hangover and at what I called his obsession with the British royalty. He wasn’t bothered and I continued to send him similar books from Delhi. My little cousins groaned when I talked to them over the phone, grumbling that Nana would get hold of them and ask them to memorise the entire line of kings and queens.

I did not tell Nana that despite my critique of what my friend Elsie Bryant calls the “British Empire State of Mind”, I still held a secret fascination for the English teacup and other Old Blighty curios, Dorothy Parker’s little things that no one needs. It was just something I learnt to keep to myself, so it did not interfere with my engagement with proletarian politics.

When I was going to Brussels and told Nana that I also intended to visit Paris and Amsterdam, he asked me to forget all that and just go to London and buy myself a nice coat. I told him I couldn’t afford the visa fee for his favoured country, let alone the place. What I did try was introducing a Brit friend to Nana so that he could glean more information about the country and its famed family through my friend’s experiential learning. The conversation came to an awkward halt and Nana went back to his newspaper when he found it too much work to discern the friend’s accent.

The questions I used to pose to Nana as a child gradually made way for the interventions I had to make when he treated Nani, my grandmother, with his patriarchal high-handedness. He would talk of Manusmriti and its approval of gender hierarchies, partially to provoke me, and I would condemn it, so upset at times that I would leave the room before the argument could escalate.

In the middle of all this, Diana remained undisturbed between us, an inviolable presence that would make us rein in our egos. I did not want to read up on her too much — her fanpages apart — lest I should find something disturbing. I would tell myself that it was her and not monarchy I was rooting for, and that I need not do a critical examination because I wasn’t required to vote for her.

When Nana visited me this time and got engrossed in the books, I lingered for the pleasure of seeing him engage with something other than his usual worldly worries. After some time, he looked up, to say: “You know she was hurt by those close to her; she wasn’t happy.” I nodded quietly, choosing to refrain from talking about the complexity of relationships, and Nana did not express his well-known disapproval of divorce. For the sake of the princess, in that moment, we agreed to a truce.

First published in thREAD, The Hindu, 22 October 2018.

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