The Nineties was the decade that set the tone for changes we see in India today. Whether in our cricket team or in politics or media, there was a great churn.
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I joined Delhi University at the most politically volatile time. I had just completed my Class 12 from Kendriya Vidyalaya Jabalpur. My father was in the Army, and I spent most of my school years in different parts of the country, growing up in an army environment. The extended family of my parents was involved in politics in Assam, but as a student growing up in cantonments, and focused almost entirely on competitive exams and the all-important board exam results, I hadn’t known much of politics, leave alone seen it at close quarters.
It was 1990. The Mandal Commission agitation grew on both the North and South campuses. At Hindu College, we prided ourselves on being actively involved in matters concerning the nation, and politics was heavy in the air. I remember being caught in a swathe of students protesting from Kranti Chowk near Ramjas College to the gates of St Stephens, which had been shut and chained to keep the college out of the political protests. The Hindu College campus was the centre of many meetings, and it was a heady feeling in those first few months on campus. Coming straight out of the insulation of home to the politics and air of dissidence on North Campus was exciting.
That summer, I decided to move in as a resident. Unable to secure a hostel seat, I joined my uncle who was then pursuing his master’s in applied Geology in the Jubilee Hall Hostel. When it became apparent that a first-year under-graduate was out of place in a post-graduate hostel, I joined a “mess” of students from Assam living in Bhai Parmanand Colony, on the other side of the road from Kingsway Camp. They say college is about many things, and the whole college experience is measured in academic and extra-curricular achievements. But if you ask me, that first year in BP Colony changed my entire approach to life.
For the first time, I met students, civil service aspirants, fellow youngsters from all parts of India, from all socio-economic strata, some brilliant, some tenacious, some desperate, some unsure of their career ambitions and some, as always is the case, just hanging around. But it was this range of friends and conversations, that changed my perspective to life. Being at the Kendriya Vidyalaya before college taught me the dangers of public-school elitism because I realized that true merit often emerged where ambitions were fired in the government school environment. The tremendously competitive atmosphere at the KV far outstripped the manicured setting of a public school. Every fight for every top position, rank, or prize in the KV was ten times fiercer than I had experienced earlier in a missionary school. There was contempt for privilege, and respect for sheer ability.
Hindu College and Delhi University was for me an extension of that liberating competition of the Kendriya Vidyalaya setting. From being the best in my class, I was now among peers who, academically and in my chosen side career of debating, seemed better than me. My subject, Sociology Honours, had seemed an easy entry into the UPSC preparation, but I found the diversity of the discipline baffling and tough to handle, with its emphasis on Sociological Theory on the one hand and field trips by the amazing Professor PD Khera, to villages in Haryana, on the other. I lost almost all the debates I participated in during first year, a humbling experience that probably enriched me more than I thought it did at that time. The only singular achievement I think in my first year was getting featured in page three of the Hindustan Times getting group ragged by friendly seniors on campus, a clipping I cut and kept with pride for long.
But in those days walking back from Hindu College via Hudson Lines through Mukherjee Nagar and BP Colony, the desire to win through merit and hard work and perseverance was instilled in me. I had no choice really. Topping the college was the only way to get a hostel seat, and it was pretty much a make-or-break for me. Hindu College taught me tenacity, I soaked in the atmosphere of intense effort that I saw on campus and in the hostel. Truly, I had never seen students sweat it out as much as at Hindu College, and besides that easy-going attitude during college hours, were 12-hour stretches of study from afternoon to post midnight. Hindu College was an oasis of UPSC and CAT rank holders, and university toppers, and I was determined to stand somewhere close to their reflected glory. The college library, with its high ceilings providing natural air conditioning was where I spent more than 10 hours each day. Motivation levels grew in conversations with friends from humble backgrounds, and hearing about their aspirations and stories. It was transformative for me at a personal level. A cliché that I hold as a life lesson, that there is no substitute to hard work and struggle.
The Hindu College Hostel life has been the breeziest period of my life. The range of interests that sprouted in every corner of the hostel was fabulous and I made the most eclectic group of friends. Saket Shukla, pursuing Statistics Hons, now one of Delhi’s top corporate lawyers, then the most relaxed dude on the right flank. Deepak Ashish Kaul, whose addiction to ghazals only matched his unstoppable first-class grades in History Honours, Gautam Sawhney of Eco Hons who built a reputation for calling out my last name across the flank, and Rohit Sarma of English Honours, who introduced me to Tom Petty, Roger Waters, my first cigarette, and the importance of realizing that you had to “make it” after 3rd year. I remember Rohit (Dou as we called him) coming into my hostel room (Room 88, double sharing) one night and explaining in all seriousness that we had to “crack” the competitive exams and “get somewhere” after the degree.
These were great friends I am in touch with even today, and there was one thing common to all of them, and in fact across the hostel. The intensity of effort, and the joy in competing. We often spoke about how we had more “fire in our belly” than those in the insulated corridors of the college next door. And without trying to be judgmental, our life stories after college have largely matched that college presumption. Hindu College and Delhi University built in me a practical approach to life, where all of us more or less concluded that privilege in youth was recipe for disaster in life in later years. Little did we know that around us the country was also changing rapidly, economic liberalization had just hit and the element of “hunger” that we felt in us, was also the mood of the country. The country was hungry for growth, and so were we.
College ended abruptly. The last four months of third year were of slogging all day and marching down the ridge at 2 am to have “anda paranthas” outside Hindu Rao Hospital. I don’t know what exactly it was in those anda paranthas, but the folklore around them made me believe that their nightly consumption would put you in a good consideration to top the college and university. I was broadly in that range, and so would rarely skip an opportunity. Besides, I had got through a wildcard application to do my master’s at Oxford, and the offer was conditional to my final year grades, so there was no sparing of effort. I just wanted to get the unconditional offer, even through I knew that the chances of getting through a full scholarship weren’t high (the scholarships office for all top UK scholarships was in the college next door). A seat in the Delhi School of Economics was more or less assured, and I was considering a serious shot at the Civil Services in 1994/1995.
I was completely shocked to see my name among those selected for the Felix Scholarship, in the notice board outside the Rhodes Scholarship Office at St Stephens sometime around June 1993. I had never travelled abroad, and the thought of studying abroad made me cancel all B-School and MBA plans. I gave myself a treat of a rickshaw ride to Kamala Nagar and called my father. I told him they would even pay for an Air India return ticket.
Two months later, with 150 pounds in foreign currency, a new suit stitched in Guwahati, and with my friends Dou and Deepak giving me a royal send-off, I became the first person in my family to travel abroad for a higher education to Oxford.
But truth be told, I learnt much more at Delhi University than I did at Oxford or later, at Cambridge. The biggest lesson of all was the necessity of conflict and competition between those whose families were leftovers of privileged settings during most of the 20th century, and the possibility of changing that to a more meritocratic setting in the 21st century. We were the students in the Nineties, and if you see the career and professional profile of those who dominate as professionals, entrepreneurs, legal luminaries, and even the creative arts, you will find many who are first-generation leaders in their own right. The Nineties was the decade that set the tone for the changes we see in India today. Whether in our cricket team or in politics or the media, there has been a great churn where privilege has been replaced by sheer merit. And I am proud to say that my generation at Delhi University has led that Churn. It is a Churn necessary to take India to greatness. And I have no doubt that Delhi University and the college I am proud to call my own, Hindu College, will lead the way in that Churn for the creation of a New India.