It was only at a slow and melodic pace that the JNU phenomenon called Doing My PhD revealed itself. You could see them dotted all over the campus, students Doing Their PhD… as they agreed to have a fourth cup of tea at the dhaba; conducted lavish romances on tree-lined lanes; sat in the library with UPSC study notes; explained to their Professors how ill their mother had been; argued furiously over the reservation policy, wrote pamphlets on fascism taking over the campus; or moved from hangover to intoxication with just a bun-omelette in between.
“Does it take seven years to do a PhD”, asked a wide-eyed non-JNU innocent addressing the question to Rahul, who was at that precise point on his 1st bun-omlette, 3rd tea, 4th romance, and 17th pamphlet. She addressed the question to him, quite correctly, since he was in his seventh year if you included his M Phil phase, and was utilizing the happy facility of a year’s special extension. “Does it take seven years to do a PhD”? “No”, Rahul answered with his usual gravity and exactitude, “ but it takes seven years to not do the PhD”.
I had seen some of the Not Doing close at hand. I’m sadly unable to give a first-hand account of Not Doing my own PhD since I had utilized the two years given to me for an MA in Not Doing the MA itself. So that had put paid to that. But the fascinating methods of my friends that I was privileged to observe were worth recording.
For Raju, for example, it meant buying prodigious quantities of assorted stationery and files in pink and green, in which he would Organise My Notes. When the inspiration took him, he would snatch a fresh file, a dark sketch pen and a ruler, neatly write his name on the top right corner, neatly inscribe the topic in the centre, underline it with the help of the ruler, and say NOTES in brackets beneath. Before getting on with it, however, he would be struck by the fact that since his dissertation had a contemporaneous relevance, he had thought of collecting newspaper clippings too. He would rub his hands in satisfaction – the newspaper reports were the most important resource of the lot. He would now pull out a different coloured file, write “newpaper clippings” on it, underline with a ruler and, as a considered afterthought , write his name on top.
At this point it would become obvious to him that a riot of heterogeneous news clippings in one file would be eventually catastrophic ; no work could proceed till he had made several files for different sub-topics. He would mentally recount the number of sub-topics (what a thesis this was going to be, though!) He would count the number of unused files left, and tally them with the sub-topics. The files would fall short.
It didn’t exactly feel right to start work until all the necessary tools for organizing that work were in place. He would thoughtfully pull at his beard as he compared the time it would take to walk to the stationery shop and the time left for lunch. It was inevitably too close to lunch and the project was postponed to tomorrow (there being an important dharna in the evening).
Years after I left the university, I kept meeting its PhD students in the nearby markets of Munirka or Ber Sarai. There I would be, my head full of salary complications or grocery lists, and on the horizon would emerge some just-about remembered face. Guilty at having forgotten his name, I would smile with emphasized enthusiasm and ask “kaise hain”? His answer would assume that the entire world shared the speaker’s context and concern. In just the tone you would use to reply, “Buss… badhiya hain”, or “Buss… chal raha hai”, he would say “Buss… submit kar rahe hain”.
And I would go back home happy with my phool gobhi and toilet cleaner, like someone having unexpectedly been given comfort food in a foreign land.