Agreed — the title is disgusting. Please do not let it put you off, though. This is not some ‘read, wince, and throw’ book by a young, hormonally-charged and grammatically-challenged writer about his pathetic love life, but an extremely wicked satirical novel about life on a college campus. In case ‘college campus’ cues young, hormonally-charged and grammatically-challenged students, wrong again: this book is mainly about the trials and tribulations of the faculty. The ghastly title, by the way, is derived from an inside-joke in the novel.
Set in the English Department of a sprawling university in Pune known as the Oxford of the East, we meet the most idiosyncratic faculty ever. They are not in tune with each other, nor are they in tune with the saffron flag that flutters on top of the main building every day. Their hatred is mainly directed at each other.
The Head of Department (HOD) Professor Tiwari is your typical political animal: “He ingratiated himself with three successive vice-chancellors and secured his position by ousting his predecessor, Professor Prasannarajan, from the department.” To add to Professor Tiwari’s dubious charms, he had “never found any reserved category candidate suitable, nor did he want them anywhere near him.” What ensues is a sort of game of musical chairs where the two non-ST & SC professors he appoints to the reserved posts are shunted around frequently, much to their chagrin.
There’s staid Dr Saxena, only a few years younger than Professor Tiwari, who is permanently disgruntled because he believes he is better qualified to be the Head of Department, and also because he cannot be a permanent employee. Gay Dr Marzban who studied at the original Oxford of the West is equally horrified that he cannot get permanent employee status in the Oxford of the East. Both live in a permanent state of SNAFU (Situation Normal: All F***** Up), but it’s a relatively calm SNAFU, till the Maharashtra government wakes up and sends a stern letter to the VC: “It has been observed that some departments in your university, viz., the Department of English, have been leaving posts reserved for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes unfilled, or have been filling them up with open category candidates.”
Professor Tiwari rises to the ultimatum and offers a reserved post to a former student and gold medallist at the university, Ankit Jadhav: “24 hours later, Ankit Jadhav sat across Professor Tiwari in his cabin and sipped coffee. The news that the job he was being offered was a scheduled-caste job upset him. His mission in life was to free himself of his caste identity that stuck to him like spat-out chewing gum. ‘Sir, isn’t it unfair that I should occupy a scheduled-caste post when I have suffered no discrimination whatsoever in my life? My father, as you know, was a civil servant, and I have had a privileged childhood.’” Professor Tiwari manages to persuade him to be practical, and Jadhav turns out to be one of the finest faculty members despite his complete lack of interest in Dalit literature. This disinterest causes a riot-like situation, and introduces one of the most delightful characters in the book: the aggressive Sachin Mane, a reporter with Lokmat. We meet Mane repeatedly and with great joy each time.
The next SC-ST candidate to be appointed, Baban Borde, dislikes English medium students, picks fights, and is not terribly well read either. “When asked if George Eliot was a man or a woman, he said George was a man’s name, as in George Fernandes, and so George Eliot was obviously a man.” While the selection committee wants to reject him, the state government representative on the committee has the last word: “So long as he is qualified on paper,” the babu said, chewing paan, “he must be appointed.”
Life in the Oxford of the East is packed with seminars, field trips, hunger strikes, Dr Marzban’s sexcapades, Professor Tiwari’s pursuit of Mrs Veronica D’Costa, wars between student union leaders, burning of effigies, occasional cries of outrage from Dr Urmila Rele the resident feminazi and director of the Women’s Studies Centre, and interference from the government. Things reach a head when a faculty member is charged with the SC-ST atrocity act, another is charged with being a homosexual, and yet another is charged with sexual harassment, but things eventually work out. This is about normal life in a university, after all.
This book is an enjoyable read, no matter which side of the reservation divide you’re on. Rao’s quick and colourful character sketches are delicious, as is the satire. Why wait for a rainy day to read it?
Rupa Gulab is a freelance writer and the author of Girl Alone, Chip of the Old Blockhead and The Great Depression of the 40s...