Few Indian universities have as much character and exact the nostalgia that Jawaharlal Nehru University, or JNU as it is referred to, does, and its debut as a place of ideas in Indian fiction is timely. Earlier this year, Delhi’s JNU had been the epicentre of a media blitz, with trenches drawn on both side of a heated debate: does a campus like JNU encourage the development of politically involved citizens or is it a breeding ground for anti-nationalist propagandists? That so many of its alumni hold important posts in the IAS, in academia, even in the media and politics, makes the question important. Interestingly enough, Up Campus, Down Campus, journalist Avijit Ghosh’s semi-autobiographical novel is located in the cozy aftermath of the 1983 JNU student unrest. Others may have ended up in jail cells while agitating for their democratic rights, however, the provincial hero of this fictional account arrives with only his impending IAS exams, and the duties of an solitary son to aged parents, on his mind. The loosely constructed plot follows Anirban Roy’s rite of passage from innocence to experience in the years spent earning his postgraduate degree on the legendary campus.
Anirban’s “small-town” mentality and felt inferiority amongst the new types of people he encounters is well delineated. When quizzed as to whether he hails from Bihar, he replies, “Yes. Why? Do I smell of Bihar?” Up Campus, Down Campus is a paean to the diversity of JNU and the fresher’s awe of its culture dominates the novel. The reader is taken on a tour of the diverse student population and the regional allegiances they form for things as far ranging as selecting political parties or pickles at the canteen. Then there’s the swish set that waft in from urban Delhi, the jhola-toting propagandists of various political causes, not to mention that entirely alien type: un-chaperoned girls with opinions. There’s enough richness here to be mined. Student elections are just around the corner when the story opens. Unfortunately, Anirban Roy’s conversations with the representatives of various student political bodies quickly become tedious for the fastidiousness of their detail.
Acronyms pop up like magic mushrooms when fellow student Jack Tiwary chats with Anirban hoping to win him over to his cause: AISF, CPI, DRSO, NSUI, ABVP, FT, SFI, to name some. We are told, perhaps by way of apology, that, “pontificating on politics was the ultimate rush, the stiffest hard-on”. Which leads into another big theme of the novel: erotic campus capers. For what is memorable to Anirban is the way Jack has “a sexy arm candy like Namita in tow”. Who true to form may have been “in (Jack’s) arms and silent all the while”, but “suddenly purred like an impatient cat”. This casual chauvinism is illustrative of Anirban’s much avowed sheltered life in the hinterlands; it’s no wonder that he cannot tear his eyes away from the “bumps” on a girl’s chest. No surprise, again, that a “hippie” girl who beckons him is seated in a way that provokes him, “her legs were wide apart, as if anticipating coitus”.
Anirban has much to learn and there’s some inherent humour in his awkwardness around girls. Except, this blatant sexism is rampant and rife all through the book and is portrayed as such a joyful, shared male hobby that it gets stereotypical and wearying. “Every guy he knew was much like him. Each of them loved discussing the girls in class, dissecting their anatomies.” There are, of course, pithy and colourful idioms of conventional wisdom to set the tone for a timeless misogyny, “…in bed there are two kinds of girls: cold and bold like a whore.” Anirban, as is established every few pages, is a regular Joe, “…a normal, sex-starved 21-year old post-graduate student,” who winningly enough, “always resisted the urge to grab” a woman in the bus even if it means he is left with a “half smile and a full-erection”.
A month later, however, after an erotic encounter on the bus, he concludes, “The devilish driver, too, was probably getting an erection listening to the squeals and yelps of the schoolgirls and aunties while he swerved around the roundabouts at high speed.” As for that steamy hostel sex that has been hinted at all through the book, Anirban eventually finds an interesting girl and what follows might well nominate the author for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Anirban’s lady love also “meows” in bed, and he throws off her T-shirt, “as if it was infected with some virus”. And soon enough, “they were treating each other’s lips like tangy nimboo achaar”. It sounds like a happy ending, but there are more lessons to be learned here. Much like the Delhi buses he rides on, this episodic book bumps its hero along from encounter to encounter. It is almost a surprise when Anirban grows as a character; he empathises with his parents, develops self-respect, and learns to look women in the eye.
An epilogue dated 10 years later suggests he has revisited his aspirations. This contrasts with the sloppily uttered generalisations that weigh the book down. For Anirban to compare JNU to “whorehouses” for being, “prone to late-night raids”, for canteen plates is puzzling. Or still later, he muses, “Living in JNU is like being in love in middle-age”. It is hard to find credible his claim that he has understood and made his experience here his own. The reader is left puzzling over why coarse depictions of raging hormones, and lazy generalisations were in the driving seat of what might have been an authentic and interesting tour of an extraordinary time and place.
Karishma Attari is author of I See You and Don’t Look Down...