Journalist and three-time author Avijit Ghosh did not write Up Campus Down Campus, a fictionalised account of his years in Jawaharlal Nehru University, to cash in on the vicarious interest in the university ever since a bunch of students was accused of anti-national activities. Nor could he have known that his novel would be launched the same week as the autobiography of Kanhaiya Kumar. His intentions are not political, though he could not have steered clear of the subject, for even the trees on campus inhale bidi smoke, marijuana and Charms cigarettes — and exhale politics.
The protagonist Anirban Roy is from Bihar, a perfect example of a bundle of insecurities and sexual fantasies and inferiority complex that is typical of small-town students in the first few months, till they understand that this is a haven compared to the “small-town prisons they come from”. His encounters with women have an authentic feel, with their clumsiness, unexpectedness and heartbreak.
For those who studied in JNU in the 1980s, this is not just a trip down nostalgia lane but an expose on its ‘pseudo’ character. The subject is treated light-heartedly but one can’t escape the label if civil service aspirants hide their yearning to join the Establishment while fooling professors about their rebellion against the system. For instance, scrutinising the faces of marchers in a rally to support Palestine, Anirban notes that “the placards were being carried by a couple of attractive cadres freshly drfter into Communism with stardust in their eyes.” He saw the disdain for failure concealing a desire for Ford Foundation scholarships, never mind the ubiquitous slogan “Free Mandela!’
Alumni of that period tend to think the ‘golden days’ ended abruptly in 1983, when a vice chancellor was gheraoed, students were arrested en masse and the hostels evacuated. But the exposition of campus politics is a bit of a revelation. Ghosh bravely busts the myth that the Students Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of the CPI(M), was all about ideology and idealism. He tells you how the SFI manipulated regional vote banks and worked like a cosy club to get scholarships for party loyalists. Nevertheless, “If an election was JNU’s grand social event, the presidential debate was its showstopper, the prom night of the campus.” That ethos endures.
The novel recalls the late lamented Free Thinkers (FTs), now reduced to naught on campus. FT Jaikishen alias Jack tells Anirban, “We think, evaluate and judge everything on the basis of rationality. In the SFI, you don’t think for yourself. The party decides everything for you. You are just a mindless cog in a monster wheel.”
Humour pervades the storytelling. Sample 1: “Anirban listened in awe. To him, Jack was Vivekanand, Churchil and Osho wrapped into one. For a moment, he imagined himself swapping places with Jack: lecturing newbies with a sexy arm candy like Namita in tow.” Sample 2: “If you had done your PhD on a topic like India-Mongolia relations and its changing pattern in the emerging global scenario, think tanks weren’t exactly going to throttle each other to get you on their rolls…”
There are puns that make you Lol, like a description of kissing “both in public and pubic places.”
Memorable characters, with their eccentricities keep the narrative flowing, their socio-economic backgrounds always kept in mind, just as the professors taught us do. The OBC girl who ditches her lover because of his opposition to Mandal is just one of them. Seductive Leftist groupies are described in delightful detail, so are various couplings, whether at Parthasarathy Rock or in hostel rooms. Azadi of a more primeval kind.