A tense moment at the immigration office:
“You know madam, actually JNU is considered the hotbed of Communism in this country.”
Communist as the popular synonym for people who are nuisance for the ruling system.
Around the time that I am sitting there, smiling innocently, a JNU-led protest is starting in central Delhi to mark the one-year anniversary of the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD student at the University of Hyderabad who killed himself, some say, due to institutional caste-based discrimination and harassment.
The police starts rounding up all the students not protected by the European whiteness of their faces and at the FRRO office in Southern Delhi the officer signs my immigration papers with a resigned sigh.
He would not appreciate me speaking my mind: that despite the omnipresent bearded face of Karl Marx the most communist thing on JNU campus is the cumbersome state bureaucracy permeating every corner of it, marked by a level of inefficiency that makes the Soviet bureaucratic apparatus seem like a well-oiled machine.
“State bureaucracy is the biggest point of inertia in Indian society,” says one professor, elegant and eloquent in her pink sari, with her myriad of degrees and awards. “A degenerate hole of Kafkaesque terror,” say I, with none of her patience.
During the registration period students scuttle from office to office in varying states of exasperation, collecting a signature here, a stamp there, hitting a dead end more often than not. The papers, signed in a specific sequence by mysterious entities whose offices are most often empty and padlocked, are photocopied in triplicate and further submitted in two offices where a surly ashen-faced clerk unceremoniously chucks the hard-earned form onto a teetering pile of papers. Information is entered into a giant thick ledger, timid requests for information are met with scowls and a slew of contradictory information. We burn the third copy of our form as offering to the gods, sprinkling the ashes under the third step of the administrative building on a full moon while chanting “Hare Krishna Hare Ram” in hopes that the Lord smiles upon us and lets us register without further incident.
This might not be exactly what happened, but it’s what I remember.
In room 1:
“Ma’am, you also need the signature of the Chairperson and the Dean.”
“The paper says Chairperson or Dean.” It’s Friday and while I might be able to get one of the signatures today, trying to collect two would push the procedure over into the next week, a thought too nauseating to contemplate.
“Yes, Chairperson and Dean.”
“???” (A silent stare as I imagine myself strangling the man, screaming “I’ve already had a long morning of indifferent incompetence at the immigration office and a full day of classes, don’t you DARE send me on another unnecessary goose-chase!!!” His face is slowly turning a satisfying hue of blue.)
“Is that the Dean’s office?”
“No. Room 5”
At room 5:
“Excuse me, I was sent here to collect a signature to register my classes.”
“Go to room 1.”
“I was just in room 1, they sent me here.”
“No no, not here. Room 1.”
“I was just in room 1, they sent me to room 5.”
I refuse to move, putting on my best politely confused face. The trick to getting things done is to make yourself enough of an inconvenience that helping you make the next step in your quest becomes easier than ignoring you.
A sigh, a screeching chair, and she gets up, gesturing me to follow her to room 1. She is friendly but indifferent – she’s seen me many times over the past week as I was sent there with countless university and immigration forms in a carefully choreographed performance of futility. She’s a cog in a giant uncomprehending machine and it’s not her job to care.
She marches me back to room 1 and flings some rapid-fire Hindi at TweedleDee and TweedleDum who, after a quick exchange, admit that I might not need another signature after all. TweedleDee collects the original papers, scribbles something and orders me to make two copies, return one to him and submit the other at my department.
At yet another office (past the Xerox shop in the basement, past the cafeteria and with one last detour in room 1) the secretary looks through my papers. She’s a young girl on the lowest rung of the bureaucratic ladder, tasked with placating the desperate masses on the quest for signatures, stamps, transcripts, forms and other paraphernalia of student life. Friendly, but helpless and unhelpful in the grand scheme of things.
“What do you want me to do with this?”
“Well… file it somewhere, I suppose? I was told to submit it here. To register my classes.”
“But you don’t have the signature of the Chairperson.”
“I was told I don’t need the signature of the chairperson.”
“You have to go to room 5.”
“I’ve just been to room 5. They say the form is fine as it is.”
“Maybe you can go to room 5 to check?”
And round and round we go on the merry-go-round. It’s not her job to care.
In class a professor says, without irony: “Some 19th century thinkers saw the rationalization of society through bureaucracy as the path to progress.”
I stifle a hysterical laugh as Weber turns in his grave.
Jawaharlal Nehru University, named after India’s first Prime Minister, is many things to many people: the best university in India, a liberal utopia, a hotbed of communism. The campus, over a thousand acres of parkland populated by peacocks, nilgai antelope, spoiled mongrel dogs and gangs of greedy squirrels, is a world away from the loud, nerve-fraying Delhi life. There is less traffic and more silence and space than one would have thought possible in a city of 25 million souls, winding paths shaded by ancient trees leading to red-brick faculty buildings and outdoor dhabas serving mouth-watering Indian food. Yet what at first looks like a forest hippie commune steeped in shanti and chai has a hardened political core that has found its mission in disrupting the narrative of New India, in pulling back the rug and protesting, sometimes very loudly and always very publicly, the deep societal fault lines that have been swept underneath.
Founded in 1969, the university carries on the political fervour and activism of the times. The Hindu iconography omnipresent elsewhere in northern India has here been replaced by political murals calling attention to the injustices visited upon the Kashmiris, Palestinians, women, Muslims, Dalits (“untouchables”) and Adivasis (indigenous people), and injustices doled out by the university administration, debated and fought over as heatedly as though JNU were a nation onto itself.
Their abstract demands for tolerance and equality are rooted in a violent Indian reality – the face most often seen on posters these days is that of Najeeb Ahmad, a Muslim student who, after having been beaten by Hindu-nationalist students, went missing in mid-October. Four months later, he has still not been found.
What some see as a commitment to political debate and democracy others frown upon as anti-national scheming and inflammatory rhetoric. Some call them brave. Others call them traitors. The administration, its policies increasingly at odds with the students’ and faculty’s commitment to democracy and tolerance, places large flowerpots on the stairs to prevent further mass protest in front of the Administration building, confusingly referred to in Indian English as Ad-Block. Every now and then a student activist is arrested for sedition, sparking a new cycle of protests.
Puzzlingly, no protests have yet been mounted highlighting the government’s poor management of Delhi’s pollution.
Even in our green oasis there is no escaping the fact that we are living in the most polluted city in the world. The toxic winter air, its smog layer thick enough to be seen from space, creeps into the woodlands, into the classrooms, tickling our noses and strangling our lungs. My first week in the city I developed the hacking cough of a lifelong smoker and was convinced that I will need an iron lung by the time midterm exams come around. A month in I barely notice it anymore – whether my lungs have adapted or simply given up is hard to tell.
The campus is an oasis, but it’s no escape. It is India in miniature, with some seven thousand students from all over India and abroad, home to all of the country’s contradictions and contrasts.
In conversations around campus English, the lingua franca, is intertwined with Hindi, Guajarati, Punjabi, Tibetan, Chinese, Thai, Korean, Pashto and countless other languages and dialects.
The student’s preferred mode of transport beyond campus is Uber, a couple of taps on the phone conjuring up a driver, while the man in charge of making our student cards glues each of our passport photos into a thick exercise book, its pages roughly divided into columns with hand-drawn lines. Next to our photos we write the required information – name, date of birth, department – while he roughly crops the second photo with a pair of rounded children’s scissors and glues it to a stamped card. His office is a school desk in a makeshift warehouse, with gravel underfoot and old broken furniture stored in the far corner.
In one class we study the issues of contemporary international economy with one of the world’s leading developmental economists while in another a sociology professor evokes astrology as a factor in personality development. A straight-laced man decided to do an MA in sociology after five years in banking, a burly boy admits to pursuing a degree only because an accident squashed his dream of playing cricket for the national team, a wild-haired Keralan is interested in “sociology as a martial art.”
Here left-wing socialism is the order of the day, but no amount of Maxist quotes can change the fact that India’s fast economic growth is fuelled by a whole-hearted embrace of neoliberal capitalism. Once out of the western gate we are only a death-defying highway crossing away from a string of gleaming shopping malls where pictures of smiling blonde girls sell surfing shorts and cheap jeans made in Bangladesh and Pakistan. On Thursdays bars offer free watered-down cocktails to their female clientele and the cinema screens LaLaLand for those craving tipsy escapism. TGI Fridays delivers on campus for those sick of thalis and dosas and low-flying planes landing at the nearby Indira Ghandi International Airport disturb the acrobatic serenity of free yoga classes offered at the university’s sports complex.
A month after my arrival I am slowly getting settled into the rhythm of things. Given time the mind can accommodate even the most jarring of juxtapositions and these days my main concern – having accepted the foul air, the murderous bureaucracy and the sadistic end-of-semester exam period that will surely finish me off – is the complete and unapologetic lack of coffee on campus as I struggle to transition to a chai-fuelled student life.
It is Monday now, and our classes have again been cancelled due to a student strike, the fourth one in just as many weeks. I go to the ramshackle red-brick library instead, equal parts frustrating and fascinating in its disarray, and spend the morning trying to decode the meaning of such captivating sentences as “The first term in the decomposition is the weighted sum of productivity growth within individual sectors, where the weights are the employment share of each sector at the beginning of the period.”
With my brain well and truly scrambled I leave the library via the canteen where I grab a cup of spicy hot chai. I walk past posters announcing cultural events, seminars, lecture series, the Dalai Lama’s visit in Delhi; past the students handing out leaflets on the day’s strike; past the large pack of spoiled campus dogs dozing in the sun; past the students having lunch under dusty-leafed trees and past those on hunger strike in front of the administrative building. Outlines of bodies have been drawn onto the ground. The 9th of February is nearing, the one-year anniversary of the mass protests that brought the university to a stand-still in 2016.
I return to Shipra, a girl’s hostel on the west side of campus, which is my home for the duration of the semester. The accommodation is simple, with bucket showers in the communal bathrooms and a bare minimum of privacy. I share my room with two classmates and the paper-thin walls turning to mesh a meter under the ceiling mean that conversations can be held between rooms without having to raise one’s voice. Even so, it feels like home.
The rent – a paltry 80 euros for the entire semester – includes one third of a room, a basic bed frame, a table and a chair. A couple of visits to Munirka market nearby get you a handmade mattress and blanket, pillow, shelves, clothesline and pegs, a broom, a wastebasket. Our nesting instincts take over and we invest in a colourful handmade carpet, some mugs, tiffin boxes and an electric kettle. The mattress costs roughly as much as a tall Starbucks Latte, all the assorted bit and bobs a pack of chewing gum each.
Having spent the past semester at the edge of bankruptcy, I in Buenos Aires and my room-mates in Cape Town, we bask in the feeling of being able to afford things, yet having money in the bank is not quite the same as having it in the wallet. We arrived in India only months after the government suddenly nullified 86% of India’s currency in a bid to cripple the country’s corruption, tax evasion and black market. Whether demonetization will have its desired effect in the long run remains to be seen, but the first effect felt by regular citizens was a severe lack of cash. An hour-long queue in front of an ATM is a wonderful and rare sight to behold, because it means that the ATM has cash in it – for the time being at least. While the situation is improving now finding an ATM that both has cash and is also willing to dispense it is still a cause for celebration.
I can already tell that this will be both the most exhausting and most interesting semester of my studies, a heady mix of academia, politics and culture spiced with that inherent Indian unpredictability that can be a blessing or a curse, depending on one’s mood and blood sugar levels. I’m enjoying my days here, the week mostly revolving around studies, writing and food, the weekends spent reading for class, revisiting my favourite corners of the city or discovering new ones.
My allegiance is less to the Communist Manifesto than to the growing pile of books by my bed, full of volumes penned by my own gurus: Arundhati Roy, Amartya Sen, Shashi Tharoor.
Let them have the surly German – for the time being I am happy to stay in India, in body and mind.
At least until the cobras come out.