My time at St. Stephen’s College

by apoorvmat

Ever since I wrote about my time at Joka, I’ve been asking myself if I would ever write about my time at St. Stephen’s (my college) or at Mayo (my school).

Mayo was 17 years of my life. I was just a few months old when my Dad started teaching there, and we moved to live within the school’s campus. I left Mayo after passing my class 12 (senior school) exams. What sort of a blog-entry would summarize my time at that place? It would probably be a book of some kind – but then I’m not even close to writing a book. And who’d read it anyway? ‘Distinctly slow and risk-free exertions of an introvert in an all-boys school’ is not a title that is likely to fly off the shelves.

My time at St. Stephen’s College, on the other hand, is something that I could indeed write a blog-post about. Three years of my life were spent there. It was the first time I lived away from home. It was my transition from adolescence to adulthood. It was where I would meet my life partner. It would also come to represent a time in life that I look back with fondness – but I am not immensely proud of.

I fell in love with Stephen’s on my first visit. It was the vibe. I wrote several rough drafts to come up with a good answer to ‘Why do you want to study at St. Stephen’s College?’ – the trickiest part of the application form. I was really proud of the extremely clichéd final version! I surprised myself at the interview – Stephen’s being the only college to hold interviews for applicants – and could answer almost all of Dr. Agarwal’s trick questions. The HOD, “Mathur Saab”, was pleased, and a few days later I was offered admission to the BA (H) Maths course.

I started college a few weeks later than the rest because first I was at home trying to recover from a fractured wrist, and then had to wait a couple of weeks to get a room in the Rez (residence, hostel). In the very first week of my stay in the residence, I was introduced to what was going to be a defining feature of my three years. Since I was from Mayo, I couldn’t be ragged. It was an unwritten rule of the Rez that Mayoites had a position of privilege and weren’t going to be ragged. While I was pleased that I didn’t have to go through all the nonsense associated with things like the Blacksmith song, it also meant that I had almost no interaction with the others in my block. Most people – seniors and classmates – looked at me with a touch of suspicion. This meant that in my first year I mostly hung out with other Mayoites. All of us eating fried eggs in the café (integral part of the identity!), going to the mess as a group of 15 for Dinner, and then everyone together for the late-night show at Amba (a movie theatre nearby). It was like being part of a secret cult of some kind which others (at best) did not understand or (at worst) just hated!

So I was Mayo “crowd”. There were several other cliques. Some examples would be:

–          The “dhaba crowd”: Kids from private schools that would gather around the dhaba for a ‘sutta’ (cigarette), ‘nimbu’ (nimbu pani / fresh lemonade) or a ‘sam’ (samosa) before their South-Delhi-bound car-pool left. They were more or less completely oblivious to the existence of all others.

–          The “café crowd”: Intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals who would freely share their substantial knowledge over a ‘mince’ (mince cutlet) in the café. There was some overlap with the dhaba crowd (not without dangerous consequences!).

–          The “corridor crowd”: Mildly academically oriented, but violently active in extra-curricular activities like the Planning Forum (PF) and the Social Service League (SSL). This group morphed into the “front-lawns crowd” during winters.

–          The “science dhaba crowd”: A black box for most ‘artsies’, the ‘sciencies’ mainly operated in their own geographical territory within the college campus. It was like a semi-sovereign state within the larger nation-state! The coolest among the ‘sciencies’ huddled at the little dhaba next to the basketball court.

–          The “Rez crowd”: Not a very sharply defined group, this was a collection of people of influence. Individuals that lived in the Rez but were opinion leaders for Rezzies and day-scholars.

–          The “Dayski crowd”: Not one group – but a collective term for Day Scholars. Thought of as lesser beings by the Rezzies.

I saw an obsession with collective identity. Those that tried to bring forth their individual identity were either resented, or laughed at.

The other prominent theme in first year was that I was really awkward around women. I was from an all-boys school, and I’d had very limited interaction with girls before joining college. This meant that either I made no sense when girls were around, or I was blurting out things that I thought were cool but were actually quite nasty. I told a pretty girl in my class that she looked like a vamp when she changed her hairdo. I think back now and realize how hurtful that must have been for her. At the time, though, it didn’t occur to me.

My second year was more of the same except that I had really started struggling with my studies. My first-year result was below-par, but things got really out-of-hand in the second year. I was blaming it on everything else. I’d go – “the courses are too theoretical”, or “I’m never going to use this s*it”, or (the worst) “I have no time for this!”

This was a change for me. I had thought of myself as quite achievement-oriented until then, and now I was in this comfort zone where I was telling myself “It’s OK – I am good enough already.” I was slipping into what many at the time called “paid vacation” mode, implying that college for some was nothing but a three-year holiday sponsored by their parents. On the bright side, I was finally making friends outside of the Mayo crowd.

The movie Rangeela released that year. I watched it eleven times in the movie theatres! I related quite deeply to the whole fear-of-rejection thing that Aamir’s character deals with. I loved the soundtrack, and I thought Urmila Matondkar acted and looked fabulous in the movie! After each “viewing”, I’d sit around with friends in the Rez and dissect the movie from every angle.

That was also the year I was involved with the Commonwealth Society of India Students’ Wing. Easily the most random and hilarious thing on campus! CSI was run by Dr. Vinod Chowdhury (VC) as the staff advisor. (Those that have had a chance to interact with him will also recognize that he probably merits a separate blog-post just for himself.) CSI was a DU society (don’t ask how) rather than a St. Stephen’s society. So, once every couple of months, about 20-30 of us went to one of the Commonwealth embassies in Chanakyapuri for high-tea.

These events had a pattern. A welcome address by the Deputy High Commissioner was followed by high-tea (what an amazing opportunity for some free [fancy] food!). Then, one of the boys (never a girl) who didn’t particularly back his public speaking skills was thrown into the deep end to deliver the vote of thanks. So everything ended on a very happy note! CSI ran as what I would call a Whimocracy. All decisions were based on VC’s whims and fancies. One day someone is Secretary-General, the next day they are out. One day you’re God, the next day you’re off the bus (sometimes literally!).

In the third year, I stood for elections for the President of the Students’ Union Society. This has to stand out as the most embarrassing time of my three years. A big mistake! I had no vision, no plan and really no leadership skills. I thought I was cool, and could be cooler if I was President. I was only thinking about myself. When I look back, there were so many people that supported and campaigned for me. I should be apologizing to them. I am really sorry! I was disrespectful and arrogant, and I hope I find an opportunity to make up for it at some point.

On a much brighter note, I met Amrita for the first time just before Harmony – our annual college festival. I was planning to skip Harmony and go home for my birthday. But in the end I stayed on because I wanted to spend time with her. We’d spend the afternoons talking – but sometimes I had to leave early to study for the CAT (admission test for MBA). That was tough!

Oh and I made it to the final of Mr. Harmony – the last round was based on ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’. One of the other male contestants made a sexist joke about a popular girl in college so he couldn’t have won, and the other – rumor had it – was deeply in love right about that time and that hindered his performance. And so I was the winner J

I have described the last few days of college in my post about Joka so I will not repeat that here.

All in all, I look back at my time at St. Stephen’s with feelings of fondness, embarrassment and guilt. Not a period of time that I am particularly proud of. I am grateful for the St. Stephen’s “stamp” for that has enabled a lot for me. But I could have made so much more of my time there and I didn’t.

What did I give back to college? Absolutely nothing.