Proposal to reserve DU seats for residents misunderstands the city that is all cities at once.
As you take a left into Chhatra Marg, the trees are a bit taller, the buildings more red. The first banta-shops make their appearance. Banta, you learn, is the beverage of choice here, at least when the sun is high. This place has its own geography, marked out by names that may or may not be found on a map. For food, you will need to go to Kamla Nagar. For jelly and cutlet, the D School canteen. For xeroxes or printouts, head to the shops near Patel Chest. Delhi University North Campus is its own country, rimmed by the Ridge on one side and the busy Mall Road on the other. Before the metro came, autos could take you to south Delhi for a princely sum of eighty rupees. Outstation students preferred to stay on campus on most weekends. Confined to this small corner of the world, they adapted and then evolved. They developed new gills, plumage, colouring. They became DU citizens.
It may not be a citizenship recognised by the Aam Aadmi Party, whose government now speaks of reserving DU seats for Delhi residents. Or for that matter by the Congress and the BJP, which had proposed similar policies earlier. There are no papers to show for it or a civic agenda that it needs fulfilled. The university has its student elections, but that is not where this citizenship defines itself either. Although it comes in various political colours — leftwing, rightwing, feminist, chauvinist, ironic, Pink Floyd, don’t know. As students pour in from all parts of the country, this citizenship is also veined with different memories of home. For thousands of students who become DU citizens, it is a sense of living in a city that is all cities at once. It is a capacious identity, though it inhabits the radius of a few miles.
But for most, it has not been a citizenship won easily. I, for one, arrived in Delhi in a contingent from Kolkata. Having survived two rounds of selection, I looked on Delhi with something of the Conquistador’s relish. This New World may be mad, bad and dangerous to know but it would be mine. Encountered in novels and in travelogues, remembered from a brief childhood holiday, Delhi was half city, half idea. But like the MCD bulldozers that would soon rip through the city, Delhi systematically demolished all assumptions you made about it. I had been warned at the admission interview itself. After listening to my extemporised gush about everyday moments in the city, one of my interrogators had fixed a weary eye on me. You came to college to be divested of such romantic notions, he said. By the end of my first month in college I would be divested of most notions, romantic or otherwise. DU cheerfully shredded all the opinions you had gathered in your 18-year-old life, stripped away all familiar associations, made you forget everything you knew. That was step one of naturalisation.
As you recollected yourself, you learnt to speak a new language. Some of it was the usual college dialect — for instance, people could be described as arbit or shady, lending or throwing angle. Some of it consisted of the local names for nearby places. I also picked up some handy north Indian — chant, kanj, bhav — all of it suitably belligerent. Then there was that word of unknown provenance but immense versatility, vella, which was noun, verb and adjective all rolled into one. But colleges all over the country have their own dialects, inflected with strong regional associations.
This rich DU patois held something more. My class of about 30 students included Bengalis, Punjabis, Haryanvis, Ahomiyas, a Tibetan, a Chinese-Punjabi, a Bengali-Malayali, a Pahari-Malayali, a UP-ite-Nepali, a Rajasthani, among others. Students from other departments added to this varied list. I also lived with a very chatty Tamil, two other Bengalis and a long-suffering Malayali. Naturally, this meant we could all gather a fruity collection of cuss words in various languages. But it also meant that we learnt to speak a language of difference — difference as a source of laughter, a source of ease, a way to start the conversation. Often, it was our differences that interested us in each other. So it became a language that extended our set of references. Mine, for one, stretched to include Malayali naming customs, Coorgi funerals and wedding rituals in Karnal. I also came to know the gossip in about five cities across the country. These stories entered a shared folklore that would help us strike roots in a new place.
If we did not quite belong to the city, we found a place for ourselves in that corner of it. Yet maybe it was only in the national capital that all these stories and identities could share space and grow meshed together. For us, it was neutral ground that did not belong to any particular region. At the same time, the life of the capital has always seemed connected to events in other parts of the country; they are not just stories happening elsewhere. We seemed to contract that sense of immediacy.
To study in Delhi University, then, is to be demolished and made again. It is to be filled with other lives and places. Maybe it was also where I formed my idea of citizenship, that it is not just a collection of demands or even always about my own immediate concerns. For me, citizenship, or the state of belonging to a larger entity, has to begin with an imaginative empathy with memories and experiences outside my own.