Book: Up Campus, Down Campus, The Adventures of Anirban Roy in JNU
Author: Avijit Ghosh
Publication: Speaking Tiger Books
Price: Rs 299
Towards the end of Up Campus Down Campus, two parted lovers exchange letters. Both conclude by writing that they “miss JNU”. But to Anirban Roy, the novel’s central character, this sentiment is not about nostalgia. “I think we should resist the temptation of looking at our days as better than these. The truth is we are all conditioned by the times we live in. These are different times. How can students be the same as us,” he writes to Purnima, 10 years after they broke up and went their separate ways.
Nostalgia is a difficult sentiment to overcome, especially if one looks at the past fondly. The book has a lot to do with the negotiation between nostalgia for the 1980s in JNU and a heartfelt affection for the university. Writer Avijit Ghosh was an alumnus of the university. Is there a bit of Anirban in him too, trying to reason with his emotions?
Anirban had arrived on the campus in the late 1980s, an awkward 21-year old from Bihar focussed on clearing the civil services. The tumult of the university upsets his focus, even as he is loathe to admitting that. Though not a political animal, Anirban cannot escape being drawn to the campus politics. But he resists the overwhelmingly leftist ethos of the university. “Where is the dictatorship of the proletariat that Marx envisaged? Can you see it anywhere in the Soviet Union or in the satellite cities of eastern Europe. What you see everywhere is the dictatorship of the party and its elites. If you are a member of the Communist Party, you are the biggest social and political elite of all. But if you are not, you are doomed,” Jack Tiwary the ideologue of the Free Thinkers — a party whose name is a straight giveaway of its political inclinations — tells him. The sermon leaves a deep impression on Anirban and Jack becomes a mentor of sorts to him.
Civil services takes a backseat as the Mandal commission, caste politics and elections make their way into Anirban’s life. He hates the term papers, but delights in writing about the tele serial Tamas and communal politics. He contributes to discussions on Maradona and nods awkwardly when the topic turns to African writers.
And then, the apolitical Anirban, who had till then voted four times as a bogus voter in elections in Bihar, gets “bullied” into contesting elections. “Canvassing during elections gives you the legitimate right to chat up any girl, shake her hand,” hostel mate Sharad’s words stay with him as he works on his campaign. The small town boy has another reason to confront his awkwardness with girls. Is there sexism in the ways in which he deals with his discomfiture? Is Anirban’s slavishness to his senses mitigated only by the moral science teaching he received in school? Or is Anirban a stereotype of a small-town boy at a liberal university? Perhaps, all of this. There will be many who studied in JNU, and elsewhere perhaps, who will find a bit of themselves in Anirban. But the world of the novel is quintessentially male-centric.
Purnima is the only real counter to this inequality. Assertive, sexually demanding and politically at odds with Anirban, she arrives too late and leaves too early. The affair is doomed in the aftermath of the Mandal agitation. Ten years later, Purnima has given up her PhD, found her calling as an art director for Bollywood potboilers, and monogamous relations are not in her scheme of things. Anirban is married and a history teacher in Bastar. They have desultory feelings for each other — and for JNU.