Delhi University, or DU as it is popularly known, has been called a microcosm of the Republic of India. Meenakshi Gopinath, the distinguished Lady Shri Ram College alumnus who went on to become its principal, attributes this analogy to DU’s former Vice Chancellor Deepak Nayyar. Not many will dispute this description.
‘Delhi University – Celebrating 100 Glorious Years’ is an attempt to capture the essence of DU and the vibrancy and culture that permeates the mind and spirit of its students and teaching faculty. The danger of compiling an anthology on this 100-year-old university with just 14 contributors is that you risk missing out on prominent names associated with the institution.
So one’s first action upon picking up the book is to impulsively scan the index to see who are the contributors. There are some surprise inclusions and some disappointing misses. But it is only when you have gone through each of the 14 contributions that you want to credit Hardeep S Puri for good picks. The compilation not only brings out the main virtues of this great institution but also encapsulates the eclectic diversity of DU.
The foreword is by none other than Amitabh Bachchan and that brought a smile to this reviewer’s face not just because of the thespian’s stature but due to the happy coincidence that we both studied at Kirori Mal College.
Bachchan is modest enough to admit that his years at DU were an ‘academic embarrassment’ for him and that he was reluctant to do this piece but gave in due to the persistence of Puri. He pays tribute to Frank Thakurdas, the legendary professor who mentored the theatre club — The Players — as the first person to compliment him on his acting prowess.
In a way, the foreword sets the tone for all that follows. You get to know about the university, and the life on its two campuses through the contributors’ personal experiences and anecdotes.
One can’t talk about DU without mentioning U-specials, those dedicated DTC buses that carted students to the campus. It used to be like a commune in motion. The Chief Justice of India, Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud, an alumnus of St Stephen’s and Law Faculty, talks, rather nostalgically, of the arterial bus route numbers 210, 220, and 240 that took one from the campus to the then DTC hub at Central Secretariat.
Talking of DTC, another interesting essay is by filmmaker Imtiaz Ali, an alumnus of Hindu College. His piece captures all the action outside the classes at DU. His description of the cute arrogance with which students travelled in DTC buses in those days, brazenly saying “student” when the conductor demanded a ticket is so true.
The manner in which the history of DU, its inception and evolution through the British years to now unfolds is interestingly layered. Dinesh Singh, himself a student of DU who went on to be its Vice Chancellor, takes one through the times of Gandhiji and his interactions with students at St Stephen’s.
One is amazed to learn that the draft for the call for non-cooperation was prepared at the residence of Sushil Kumar Rudra, the then principal of St Stephen’s. Singh’s succinct portrayal of Sir Maurice Gwyer, who despite having no academic credentials was appointed the VC of DU makes for an interesting read. From 1938 to 1950 Gwyer transformed the university and it was his vision and leadership that gave a distinct identity to DU and a direction for the future.
Sanjeev Sanyal, author and a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, an alumnus of Shri Ram College of Commerce, SRCC, adds more to the shaping up of DU and its interesting history.
Since he is relatively younger than the other contributors, he talks of the transition visible in infrastructure and the budgets of the cultural festivals of colleges under DU. Not surprisingly he brings Modi’s speech at SRCC before the 2014 elections in his essay and labels it as the one that launched a campaign that propelled the then CM of Gujarat to becoming PM.
Well, one can’t really keep politics out of the narrative when talking about DU. Sanyal and the other SRCC alumnus, Rajan Karanjawala, ensure we get a taste of campus politics through their stories about the late Arun Jaitley who was the president of the Delhi University Student’s Union. Jaitley led one of the first protest meetings in India against the Emergency.
Sanyal’s senior colleague on the Economic Advisory Council to the PM, Bibek Debroy, an alumnus of Delhi School of Economics, describes the feeling of supremacy that Stephenians had and how they carried themselves as a different ‘crowd’ from students from other DU colleges.
The age-old rivalry between Stephen’s and Hindu is out in the open in the essays by Shashi Tharoor and Hardeep S Puri. The latter, an accomplished debater in his student days, talks with great pride about leading Hindu College to victory in Mukharji Memorial Debate for three years in a row. And then we have Tharoor making it a point to mention how he, as a freshman, managed to win against the formidable Puri who was then pursuing his PG!
Tharoor also recollects an amusing anecdote during his time at Stephens when a distinguished former student, an IFS officer, came over to address students at his alma mater.
Knowing that most students in the audience were IAS aspirants, the speaker told them a most discouraging fact — that if they succeeded in cracking the civil services, they would be taking orders from the ‘dregs of the society — the politicians’! That IFS officer was none other than Natwar Singh!
All the contributors are super-achievers and the writing is light and engrossing. There are essays by Arnab Goswami and Kiren Rijiju though they do not reveal as much as the others on life at the campus. The piece by PayTM founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma, a Delhi College of Engineering alumnus, is written with a lot of heart and is full of gratitude.
You also have one college drop-out here in the form of novelist, and co-founder of the Jaipur Literature Festival — Namita Ghokhale, who did not finish her course at JMC.
Her tale on how she got enchanted with Indian language writings and opted for an elective course on Modern Indian Literature which finally became the raison d'être for her dropping out of college makes for interesting reading. As do the essays by two other accomplished ladies — Meenakshi Gopinath and Lakshmi Puri — both alumni of Lady Shri Ram College.
Lakshmi Puri was the youngest entrant into IFS and served as an ambassador and at the UN in her illustrious career. Her essay takes the reader back to the early seventies when women were still being ‘urged to wage a million mutinies every day to assert their equal rights’. Her piece is provocative and inspiring at the same time.
Meenakshi Gopinath’s take on public universities sums it up beautifully well. She does not consider such institutions as transactional hubs of teaching and learning. For her universities such as DU are social institutions that animate a new reality and establish the terms of civilised engagement in democratic citizenship.
Sad that it is from the same campus that we now hear reports of film screenings being stopped and dissenting voices being muffled. Hopefully, even this would pass.
And an anthology such as ‘ Delhi University — Celebrating 100 Glorious Years’ will remind students and teachers all across the country to debate, dissent and yet respect differences of opinion and grow together.
(The reviewer — a brand consultant — is an alumnus of Kirori Mal College, and also writes a blog called State of Delhi)
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