Friday, July 22, 2016

A Cast of Characters (excerpts from an ongoing memoir)



I was writing on the blackboard in Room 27, Hindu College, Delhi University, when there was a knock on the door. It was a man called Rajiv Lochan, not the artist, not the historian, but a Sociology student from JNU, who wanted five minutes of my time. He quickly told me, in the corridor, in a few sentences, that he wanted to compile a book of memories about JNU, and would I write for him? He seemed very young, for such a difficult task, but that’s the amazing thing about JNU, it produces mavericks and gives them confidence beyond the common imagination. I called my essay “The Years” but then Rajiv requested that I change the title to “The Days”, while he appropriated The Years as the name of the book of essays on JNU. Virginia Woolf would have been pleased.
Not long after, I went for an interview for a job to JNU, and was delighted when I got it, a Readership at Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences. Dipankar Gupta and T.K. Oommen, who usually never agreed on many issues, had agreed to take me on as a faculty member. The confirmation of my appointment was held in Chandigarh, according to Prof Mrinal Miri, (who was publisher of a book I had written for IIAS Shimla,) so that any disputes regarding my appointment could be held at bay. I just shrugged, since for me, being back at JNU  as faculty had been a dream for twenty years. While I had friends in Hindu College, every alumnus dreams of  returning to JNU as if it were not a mother, but a lover.  The iconic sage,Agasthya ,too, according to legend, was happy in these  low range Arravali hills before leaving for  South India. Being married to the job was a given. My husband was not happy at all when he heard I had applied to JNU. He knew that as long as I was in Hindu College, I would write, teach, run home in time for the children’s school bus. Our life together would be unhampered. Now, a parallel existence would be our fate. I didn’t think about it, I just presumed we would all manage, and live happily ever after.
My teachers were happy to see me back. Prof K.L Sharma said, “ Ah yes, the girl who could take down every word in class and reproduce them in the final exam.” I blanched. What a horrible reputation, but yes, it was true. Eye, mind , hand and pen co-ordination were unusually good, and most likely the teachers’ words were returned to them in pristine fashion, but who would admit to it? The things we do as students, our teachers always remember. My first experience was to be shown to my office, room 22, which had so many cobwebs and was so disgusting, that I took a step back and thought, “Mrs Havisham!” but then it was cleaned up, Dipankar got me a disused table which was lying  in the sun and rain, but yet undamaged, outside in the open yard in front of my room.  I put up, in usual housewifely fashion, books, pictures, dust collectors, and soon, the room was truly livable in, and I proceeded to write many books on the once discarded table. One of the first books that came out from Room 22 was Structure and Transformation, an edited work, where I got all the people who had taught me interesting things, to write for me. They were from four different universities, and it took me ages to collate it, with lots of disjunctions, since putting together such a motley crew was hard. K.L Sharma handed me three long essays, and said “I don’t have time to write an essay for you, but if there is anything you like, you are most welcome.” So I studiously hammered  and collaged and pinned sections together of the three copious works, abstracting as I went along. It took me ages. Satish Saberwal agreed to write up his lectures to us in  1978 in the optional course I took with him and so nine case studies were presented schematically, which must have taken him the same time and labour but together, Sharma and Saberwal gave us interesting vignettes of caste and mobility. Shiv and I were not on talking terms, since I had chosen career over him, so I took an essay I really liked because he had promised to give it to me before the Long March and the Long Silence. Unlike the other essays which I standardised for uniformity, I left that one alone, and it appears in that collection as a stand alone text.
Teaching was strenuous. My teachers thought me capable, and immediately, on arrival, gave me a compulsory Mphil to teach, and like a book end in the afternoon, I had to handle  the introductory sociology course to Language students.  Personally, I thought the Elders  were totally mad.  I was 39 years old, I had three daughters, who went to school, and the youngest and the middle went to crèche as well. Their opinion however was that,  since I had taught for thirteen years in Hindu College, and as J.S Gandhi put it, “You had a great deal of teaching experience.” Dipankar was clear that everyone should be teaching three courses a year, and went about with a form and a checklist, to find out who did not. So Methodology of the Social Sciences, Introductory Sociological Themes or Basic Concepts and Comparitive Theories in Gender was my lot in the first year of teaching. It was interesting, fun, meaningful. It was everything I had wanted, but the costs on the family were huge. My eldest became responsible for collecting the two younger siblings from different  crèches after school. Since she was only 13 at that time, it was annoying and too much of a responsibility, heating their food and settling them into their homework. Suman, my maid, not finding me at home in the afternoons, dropped all the breakables at home and so dusting became a task which proved to be risk prone for the children. Shiv returned home earlier than me, from CSDS on the collective bus which came back to the residential office cooperative, and could be seen at 7.30 pm, looking irate, holding a weeping child, or catatonically watching tv with them, while wanting to get back to his writing. It was all quite a mess.
Soon after, the exhaustion levels caught up with me, and I started to break bones, by falling off flat surfaces and even ones. My husband began to escape to office, as the tv crews had started looking out for him, and the invitations to travel abroad were consecutively coming in. On one occasion, Sucheta Mahajan and I had taken our children to Lodi gardens together, and since I had just come out of plaster for three broken bones in my right arm, we were celebrating this, with pastries and an outing. I was so delighted to be out in the park with the kids, that I came down an incline with a pastry box in my hand, and fell, breaking six bones, with my hand stuck into my wrist in the most alarming fashion. We went to the bone setting clinic which had fixed my other arm just three weeks previously, and the doctor wanted to admit me with anaesthesia, but I said “No, the kids have school tomorrow, and I have to go to work.” So he gritted his teeth, and pulled my hand out from its self enforced groove. I was in plaster again, this time my left arm, but since it was winter holidays we went to Chennai, and it was not as hard as the previous accident, since I had previous experience of being single handed and appropriate clothing and skills.
JNU was always magical for me. To touch its ground was to be healed, to be happy, and the students were so wonderful, and still are, that I was dazzled. Shiv  had started travelling non stop, and going to office on week ends as well, and soon, the invitations to speak  were so plentiful, that he just boarded planes in continuity, with loyal friends and conference mates in tow. I understood that it was a situation which was fait accomplice. I would not give up JNU, he would not give up the success, and it’s symbols which included absorption into corporate academics, though as a young man  in the late seventies,he had been so much against projects and multinational funding. We were not judgemental of each other, though both of us felt deeply, that the loss to the family because of our career choices were tragic in themselves. When I told him that I wanted to shift out with the girls to become a warden at a hostel in JNU, he looked aghast, and said “But I wash all your clothes, and I pack the kids’ food, and drop it at the crèche, what more can I do , and I send the clothes for ironing, and do the shopping every morning, and see the kids to the bus stop, and I help them with their homework, and phone every evening to see what they need for crafts class.” All in one breath, and as a memory list of good husbanding, perfectly true. But then, after this plaintive plea, he went off to England, and was not seen or heard from, as was customary among jhola carrying academics in the corporate funded international rat race. I packed the books which I needed, the clothes, and the children, called a truck and went off to JNU. When he came back from his tour, he came to JNU and stared bleakly at me, but we fell into the whirl of our mutual obsessive workplaces, and didn’t look back.
Becoming warden of Ganga was an amazing experience. I was in charge of three daughters of my own, and three hundred daughters of others. Those three hundred who were residents never stopped ringing my bell at all hours of day and night. It was really perplexing. I thought, first,  they were over-dependent on us wardens because they didn’t have a life of their own. But it was  more than bizarre. One night, a total  hulk of a man student, and an equally well built woman student, both in the Phd programme rang my bell at mid night, saying they were married, and she was a resident of Ganga, but she often stayed the night at his hostel, but the men students were troubling them, and could I intervene at the men’s hostel? Then there was the  case of the young woman who rang the bell at 8 am, on a winter morning, and when I opened the door, she presented a crisp masala dosa on a plate, with the cook standing nervously behind her. “So?” I asked in taciturn fashion. “Open it, Ma’am.” So I flipped the dosa open, and saw a fat green chilly. “So?”  The cook explained it was not a chilly, but a caterpillar that had fallen through the chimney. Another time, a woman rang the bell irate because they had not got eggs in the morning. I asked the cooks why not, when I went to do the rounds, and they said laughing, “One day a week sandwiches are the rule.” What a learning experience. It was endless. They would ring my bell if they had lost the key to their rooms, they would ring it if they did not have ten rupees to pay for some fine, they would just want to see me in the afternoon for no known reason.  My mother came to live with me, but then, the  school buses were being targeted by terrorists, so she was 84  years old and got quite frightened. The children were in three different schools, as their father had the grandiose idea that they should not be growing up in each other’s shadow, so I was attending parent teacher meetings and my appearance as a single parent was very visible. From being “looked after” as a  companionate wife for twenty years,  I became responsible for  everyone, including a very vulnerable old mother, who had locked up her Kerala residence and come to be with  me and the children. There were 900 students in the vicinity, (two men’s hostels adjacent to Ganga where we lived) so she actually enjoyed it, including the eager calls and cries of the men students, as they waited for the loved ones they courted so assiduously. Some of them parked their motorcycles downstairs, and the beautiful Rapunzels would comb their hair  on their balconies, and carry on desultory conversations, above my bed room, at all hours of day and night. When Jhelum Night happened, or festivals and fairs pertaining to student elections, Holi or demonstrations, or carnivals of food and rollicking, the walls of my bedroom would actually shake from the voltage of the megaphones. When Meera, my eldest had her 10th board exams, we had to ship her to friends’ houses, in Dakshinapuram, since February to April the sociability level of JNU students is noticeably higher than other times.
 Unfortunately, I  had a very serious cerebral stroke in October of 2000 which changed all our lives. I was quite maimed by it, but slowly recovered with L-dopa and cortesone treatment for ten days  at Apollo Hospital,  and the attention of excellent physicians, and in time there was no sign of the stroke, which initially  had a scarring facial paralyses to go with it. The Centre gave me six months as “non-teaching semester” since the clerk at administration said sabbatical was only for those who had taught seven years.  Dipankar said in a very kind way, that I.P Desai never left his campus, and the world came to see him, so it would be the same for me, even if I never travelled. He had tea with me most mornings till he developed a clot, several years later,  in his leg from too much airplane travelling, and found teaching three courses a year beyond his physical capability, which is sometimes a function of time and endless committee meetings and selection board responsibilities of older faculty. Two decades previously, when I was a  research student at Delhi University, working with Veena Das,  Andre Beteille had said to me sonorously one morning when our paths crossed, “Lecturers lecture, Readers read, and Professors Profess.” Both he, and T.K, Oommen in JNU have always maintained that  they prioritised teaching over travelling in their active years in the University.
I continued to teach my three courses a year, and to write and publish. My healing was not rapid, it was slow and steady.  I continued with my duties as hostel warden thanks to the really wonderful support staff whom we had. The Manager of the  Ganga hostel was a retired army havildar with a very neat writing,  who drove in on his scooter from Gurgaon every morning, and who was paid, in 1999, very low wages a month, for his onerous duties.  I was never able to solve some of the mysteries of of JNU, but they were probably generated by the UGC since when VC Asis Datta  paid the cooks 10,000 rupees a month as he said they worked very hard, the bureaucratic backlash was huge. So the student audit  for daily wage workers, on behalf of JNUSU, was a typical revolutionary act for which I was always grateful.
 I asked Asis Datta for a house on VC quota a year after I had the stroke, because ABVP students took a procession through my house since I was chief warden and did not permit out of quota accommodation. ABVP students wanted  to be on par with AISA, who had an age old adda in Ganga.  Since rooms were allocated on the bases of an administration prepared list, (and not on the whims of political parties,) by refusing to give in to the political cadre, my action brought daily protests, and I thought I should look out for myself  as an academic and the children’s future. Asis Datta gave me a  neat little house in Poorvanchal,  though committee members said since I had recovered from my stroke, why should I be accommodated out of turn? I lived there happily for ten years, though unfortunately my mother who was 86 had to go to an old age home in Kerala, because she could not climb stairs and the clerks in administration said, “Madam, rules are rules, you have to live in Poorvanchal for two years atleast.” The children were distraught when Mum left because she had put me on my feet, after my illness, and every morning, she was always ready with breakfast, missing notebooks, and the lost belt or the vanished socks, triumphantly producing them as morning anxiety built up before  the school bus turned up at 7 am. The parents of children at the bus stop became my support group, and all of them were eminent scholars and writers, so in a way, the children grew up in a commune of intellectuals who safeguarded them. I can never forget Avijit Sen turning up in his red bulb ambassador to pick up Meera from her exam on his way to the Planning Commission, but I had also turned up in an auto rickshaw, and he said irritably, because he was probably late on his deputation work “But Jayati told you I would pick her up.” Neeladri Bhattacharya and Chitra Joshi, Praveen and Smita, Ashwani Deshpande, Chitra Harshvardhan, the Rathis, so many who just picked up the younger siblings and took them to sports day and other functions, while I took class, walked home, refused cakes and celebrations and fried foods, and read in bed.  I owe the benediction of keeping my job equally to my friends, Ratna and Mani, who were  almost local guardians to  me and my children, and my visits to Ramanasrmam twice a year, and to my homeopath and confidante Mohammad Qasim, every month, and to my yoga teacher Ajay Shastri, who worked in some underpaid capacity in the JNU sports stadium, but was friend, philosopher and physician to so many of us.
My teachers were in the first decade of the 21st century beginning to retire. One by one, with grand farewells and acknowledgement of 25 to 38 years of service they went on to do other interesting things, and have alternative careers as catalysts of the state and the Sociological Association. We had eight departures during the years 1997 to 2011, and were fourteen teachers for many years, so the  work load was huge. Each one of us, who remained and graduated to be Elders ourselvers, were responsible for 12 to 20 Phd students at any given time. After seven years of waiting in the threshold when T.K Oommen retired in 2004, I got the Classical Thinkers Course to teach, and it was a great moment, since that was what I liked best as a course. I also taught Historical Method in Sociology, a paper which our teachers Yogendra Singh and T.K Oommen had passed as an optional Mphil course, many decades ago when they founded the department. I   taught Gender Studies, Sociology of Religion and Modes of Cultural Analyses.  One year, I taught Economy and Society, since my former teacher  M.N. Panini wanted to go for a stint abroad, and it was tough, but  by chance I was blessed with a class which had ten students from Presidency College that year, so everything took a natural Marxist turn towards understanding the market and consumption.
The students were always scintillating, respectful and hardworking and continue to be. Even if I had personally missed the Marxist boat, though my father was a card carrying Marxist in the 1950s, and now the Ambedkarite one, no one taxed me about it, as writing was a form of practice for me. I learnt a great deal from the students, both the M. A as well as the researchers. They came with their hopes and aspirations, some had four years, others seven in JNU, to fulfil their ambitions. I helped them as best as I could, since my mentor Leela Dube, who was my colleague at NMML in 1989 to 1993, had instilled in me a certain tenderness toward younger scholars by her own behaviour to those of us who were perhaps thirty or forty years younger than her, but were treated as equals. My JNU teachers were also very much around, and both Y Singh and T.K. Oommen brought to the Centre their grandeur and their memories. They made the Centre seem like a legacy, and though they were growing older, they kept up the momentum of conference appearances by saying something new everytime they were on the platform.
When a phalanx of women first joined in the 90s, beginning with Patricia Uberoi, the old guard were a little hesitant about our polemical perspectives as feminists. The stance that “gender neutrality was value neutrality” was slowly whittled away by the presence of so many of us who were recruited in that decade, who brought the intense strands of anthropology, feminism and dalit experiences. Our teachers adapted very fast, and distilled these into their own teaching curricula. Nandu Ram had been a very steadfast voice since the late 70s of the crucial interventionist method of secular dalit interpretations. He would begin his first M.A class to newcomers  by saying, “Is it possible that humans can be born from the feet or the mouth?” As Dean of School of Social Sciences in 2011  before he retired, his term coincided with my chairpersonship of CSSS. He was meticulous with ledgers and records. The Ambedkar Chair which never found an occupant after his departure had been vitalised by his experience as an intellectual  who knew hundreds of people whom he networked with and invited to his conferences.
 All our teachers in CSSS gave us the feeling that the inviolability of work was the only refuge. We really knew nothing about them personally, and Nandu Ram often complained that the generation, ( which is today the “old generation”) never bothered to drop by to the Professors rooms  and chat. We just did not have the time and to tell the truth, nor did they as they were famous intellectuals constantly writing or managing the Sociological Association. We were busy with duties at home and at work, and had no social skills. Just getting past the details of the day’s work was exhausting. Our teachers had wives who ran the house, paid the phone bill,  and left them free to read, write and travel. We were run off our feet with doing both, chores at home and work, whether men or women. To admit to this, may be politically incorrect, but then, that’s the Sociological imperative, for Feminists, to speak of the hidden.
When I joined in 1997, the faculty meetings were like football matches. The men raised their voices, there were contestational spaces, and if the women intervened they would shout louder to drown out our voices. It would get quite noisy, and on one occasion when the different opinions became a site of public display, Nandu Ram almost wept because of the lack of courtesies. What our teachers managed very well, and which we are not yet perfect with, was the façade. They had huge differences among themselves, and they were open about it in faculty meetings. At public occasions and in the corridors, they would greet each other with politeness and yes, affection. It’s a tribute to these courtly manners that  we, the middle generation, tried to keep up appearances but the relationships were much more brittle, given the general climate of distress and psychological turmoil in the city in which we lived in. However, the students were never pawns in the display of differences, and the ability to keep the Centre cohesive depended on the sophistication of our cultural abilities to hide our feelings. Centre for the Study of Social Systems was always run on the smooth, oiled and natural bureaucratic abilities of our teachers. The managerial administrative staff was always very supportive and even if there was the natural turn over of secretaries and Administrative Officers, the spine remained constant, allowing for both memory and filing cabinets to be in synchrony.
We can only thank the Fates for their generosity in keeping the “just balance”, as Simone Weil called  it, and when CSSS was ranked as one of the best Sociology departments in the world, it seemed a chance but opportune moment to thank our teachers, across the different universities in India and abroad, all still alive   and working, innovating and thinking, though edging into their seventies and eighties.
Susan Visvanathan

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