Most residential universities in India are usually considered to be alternative spaces, both connected and disconnected from the cacophonous rhythms of greater society. Jawaharlal Nehru University, however, exists almost as an alternate universe, especially in the imagination of those who are only slightly acquainted with it. Such an imagined land might as well be the abode of idle lotus eaters, or the dwelling place of ferocious sexual fiends, with a propensity for red meat with their alcohol, and a fervent dedication to various modes of family planning. Sandwiched between the realms of fanciful imagination and mundane reality, the Jawaharlal Nehru University exists almost proverbially, like the folk song, it never was new, and it never gets old.
Friends who come to visit me from outside the campus are always pleasantly surprised by the air of antiquity which the university seems to be surrounded by. The red-brick structures, the crookedly growing trees, the occasional neelgai chewing its cud without a care in the world, all these make the campus a living embodiment of a bygone age. Like a dinosaur which has outlived the mass extinction of its kind, the campus cherishes its isolation and seems to spurn the advances of those who promise it progress and development. Like the dinosaur it is, it understands that progress and extinction make good bedfellows; while the future may mourn the loss of what is past, it is only the dead past which can grieve for itself.
The first room I was allotted was in Jhelum hostel. My roommate was a middle aged man who lived there with his elder brother; the room itself was decorated excessively with pictures of a young, bearded Khomeini. He looked down upon me from all angles, keeping a stern eye on my activities. There was a Khomeini on the cupboard wall, a Khomeini above the door slats, a Khomeini peeping in between flowers, and even a Khomeini concealed behind a poster of Gandhi with child.
While the room was shabby enough for my liking, it was the balcony which was the main attraction. From it one could see the dusty expanse called the Jhelum lawns, and even the main road. Right below it was the dwelling place of the Jhelum dhobi and his several children. Across the lane was the tank, and parked right next to it was the mysterious green Ambassador whose number plate read quite terrifyingly, DIE 1 in dark, bold letters. DIE 1, as I came to know it, would be my silent companion every time I came out to stand in my balcony and observe the slowly moving world around me.
It was old, without doubt, but like a scion of a once royal house, it bore its royalty with pride. Though it was subject to the vagaries of sun and rain, its colour was still a deep and proud green, testament to its superior origin as compared to the vehicles of today. On sunny days it would seem as if DIE 1 was enjoying the sunshine, its dark green coat almost gleaming with warmth and health. When it rained, it would acquire a sullen air, its colour reflecting its displeasure with the weather, as a puddle of water slowly collected on its roof. An untidy tree had taken the liberty of resting its trunk on DIE 1’s side; the Ambassador bore it with what seemed to be injured equanimity.
For over a year, whenever I was alone and in my room, I would step outside onto my balcony and address my thoughts to this ancient car. Its immovability and placid visage were all the response I needed. Like a living fossil, DIE 1 stood there impassive, uncaring that its time was gone, blissfully unaware that it ought to make way for the new, oblivious even to the passage of time itself. In a way, DIE 1 embodied for me the very soul of the campus with its stolid persistence, its rigid fixity, its inability to understand the very concept of motion. I always believed that it would stay rooted to its spot forever, unable to move or adapt itself to the modern world.
But one day, I saw a few men attempting to repair DIE 1. They pulled down the crooked tree which had nestled itself on the front side door, they hammered away at the engine, they opened up the windows and the doors. They had come to take it away, and I watched them attempting to bring its engine back to life. It was quite surprising how quickly it responded to their attempts; in under a minute the engine was humming contentedly and the mechanics were able to back it out of the space it had occupied for countless aeons, turn it in the direction of the main road and take it bumping across Jhelum lawns.
In that moment, when I saw DIE 1 finally move, I imagined how it would be like to see it on the streets of Delhi. A majestic sight it would be, indeed, with its deep green paint, its black cloth covered roof, and the number-plate which would strike fear into the hearts of evildoers. This principle of movement had long been concealed by both DIE 1 and the university campus for so long that all had assumed that they were both not just immobile but fossils which needed burial.
Yet on the 18th of February, the day when the university came to the streets of Delhi, I kept my eyes open, not to protect myself from vicious attacks by nationalist forces, but in the hopes of catching a glimpse of that ancient old car, silently following us; as dinosaurs once again roamed the earth and sought restitution for values and voices which had hitherto been forgotten in the name of progress.