For unsuspecting newcomers to the university, the mysterious terminologies of the left were laid out like a minefield-with-a-social-conscience. It felt like everyone but you knew what Dialectical Materialism, False Consciousness, Hegemony, and – of course – Lumpen Proletariat meant. When occasion demanded, the practiced ones could even take the sibilance available in Superstructure and deploy it with hissy venom in the entirely non-sibilant Comprador Bourgeoisie.
I used to mostly feel like a tiny shred of pickled carrot in a plate full of hefty aloo paranthas. But PK was a big help amid the heavy artillery, explaining to well-meaning seniors who suggested that he read Capital Volume 3: “See, I haven’t read Marx, Marx hasn’t read me, we are equal”. On the other hand, it wasn’t easy to take any such line with people like Raghav, who could take a trembling, malnourished statement like “Sorry, I can’t lend you my pen because I’m using it”; single-handedly attack himself with it; counter-attack with an emotional pitch on private property and state; and demolish you with that most terrifying of epithets: Bourgeoise!
Many of us worked fairly hard at not being bourgeoise. I, for instance, wore lungis and bathroom slippers, and read books while walking about on the campus roads (this is less dangerous than it sounds because it was a mostly vehicle-free campus). Those who date their peptic ulcers or falling hair to seeing me in that avatar some two decades back would be pleased to know that they were thoroughly avenged several years later.
At a film festival I was introduced to an erstwhile JNU student whom I didn’t know. But he clearly knew me. “I remember Zugghi”, he announced sorrowfully, his Malayali accent entirely unaffected by the vodka he was holding in a Limca bottle. “When I zaw her 10 yearz back, zee was reading.”Pause for a while as he looked at his feet. “In a buz”, he clarified. Pause as he rocked on his heels. Then, looking at the festival brochure in my hand, he said with a defeated sadness that still haunts me, “zee is ztill reading”.
(For the record, he then firmly grabbed a passing intellectual, caught hold of a fleeting Malayali cinematographer, introduced them to each other in two crisp sentences, stepped back in a marvel of wobbly decisiveness and commanded: “Have dialogue!”)
On full moon nights, the university resonated with legends of our senior non-bourgeoise worthies. Back in the 80s, one of them had painted on the wall of his hostel room: “The theory of Communism may be summed up in the single sentence: abolition of private property”. Having looked at it long enough he decided – as political parties of the day often threatened – to take ‘direct action’. This consisted of taking pillows, books, ashtrays and sundry such objects from his first-floor room and throwing them to the well-populated depths below.
His roommate arrived to find his undeniably private property – socks, diaries, chappals – raining down like the quality of mercy, as a mess worker gathered them and put them to one side. The boggled roommate then had to conduct a simultaneous dialogue, shouting up at his friend (“Throw away your private property, not mine!” “No, no! All property must be destroyed”…), and expostulating with the mess worker (‘Sir, shall I take this bed sheet then?” “No, put it down, its mine”…).
The feeling of community and fellow traveler-dom that was generated amid all this was an act of constantly unfolding beauty. When Shom finished his PhD (remember the one it took 7 years to not do?) his friend and batchmate, who was clearly taking even the 8th year to not do, came by in the evening in a thrall of emotion. “You did it man”, he said, embracing Shom in a warm and liquid hug. “I did it”, Shom agreed, “I did it for both of us” (he, on his celebratory 3rd peg, was moist if not commensurately liquid). “You did it for both of us”, agreed the friend, his words muffled since he was kissing Shom’s ear profoundly. He then proceeded to kiss Shom 17 times, knocked off his specs in an expansive gesture, lay down on the floor and peacefully went to sleep. Shom still gets extremely sentimental when he remembers the episode…