The Death of the JNU Stereotype


The Death of the JNU Stereotype

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

In college, a decade or so ago, this writer and his friends owned this one really cool (for its time) device. It was quite primitive, not too advanced, and would often malfunction. It was heavy, yet we still carried it around everywhere in our backpacks, even if that meant throwing away and burning all our course books (LOL books). This was a time when the Internet hadn’t yet been invented by Steve Jobs and Barack Obama, and there was a certain hipster pride attached to the ownership of this thing since not everyone had it. It was called a Sense of Humour (SoH).

The SoH was finally rendered obsolete recently, after the shameful scenes that went down, first at JNU, and then in its aftermath. See, at the time, using certain settings on our device, we used to do this archaic thing called stereotyping. It was cheap, sometimes harmless, sometimes malicious – always a lot of fun. We would usually steer clear of religion (because that brings unnecessary drama), race/communalism (because we weren’t rightwing nutjobs), gender (because we identified as feminists, and because we were afraid of getting beaten up by feminists), and each other’s mums (because this is still Delhi I’m talking about). Everything else was fair game. So there was this holier-than-thou, full-of-itself, pompous, self-righteous pain-in-the-ass university called Jawaharlal Nehru University. We were aware of, even quite awed by, this university’s pedigree and distinction, of the far-reaching impact it had and continues to have. We even wanted to study International Relations there.

But its students used to be insufferable, and we felt they needed to be brought down a peg or two. We were underachieving Delhi University students, and these JNU nutters were getting off nightly on fantasies of changing the world. No nihilism, no disaffected irony, no obfuscation, nothing. Nonsense. So, like Batman, we decided to hand out some vigilante justice by mocking JNU students – using previously established cultural tropes – behind their backs (of course).

First was the smell. They were obviously so busy making the world a better place that they had no time to bathe. Then there was the black flag – they even slept clutching one in their fists, just in case. You tell them it’s 4.45 pm when it’s actually 4.38 pm, you get a black flag waved in your face. You tell them you like twirly pasta more than penne. Black flag. Taurean? Black flag. Bought black shoes? Black flag. Lipton over Tata Tea Premium? Black flag.

We’d laugh about how these bums would spend all day drinking chai and smoking rolled cigarettes and ganja. That they’d get cabbaged on Contessa XXX rum at Parthasarathy Rocks (“You don’t know PSR, you imbecile?”) and discuss how Marx’s beard used to shed gravitas.

Their physical appearance was the standard journo-liberal arts stereotype: sadsack expression; kurta, torn and tattered; excess eye-goop make-up; delightfully retro chappals; sober, rustic colours; jholas; tie-dye prints; unshaven and dishevelled (razors and combs were banned on campus); and so forth. Then there was the heart that bled like none before or since. Justice was paramount; equality and egalitarianism, lefty principles of the individual and the collective, all mattered more than life itself. (We were sort-of privileged kids not quite apprised of such concepts at the time, so we pointed and laughed at things that didn’t quite match our narrow worldview.)

We’d laugh about how these bums would spend all day drinking chai and smoking rolled cigarettes and ganja. That they’d get cabbaged on Contessa XXX rum at Parthasarathy Rocks (“You don’t know PSR, you imbecile?”) and discuss how Marx’s beard used to shed gravitas. How they’d spend a decade at JNU just so they could avoid the real world, living in self-contained delusions, paying 20 bucks a month for rent, and maybe a little more for (good) food on campus. How they’d graduate and their parents would tell them, “Chal, chal, enough social work and activism. Now get a real job at an MNC, OK?”

It wasn’t true (mostly) and it wasn’t especially clever – Mitch Hedberg we were so not – it was slightly mean at times, but ultimately innocuous. We were amusing ourselves. And then, that fragile balance was upset. National this and anti-national that. Pakistan, patriotism, slogans, politics, arrests, beatings, Ingsoc, comrades, Newspeak, thoughtcrimes, Big Brother, telescreens, O’Brien, blah, blah. And it all became too real. No longer could I direct an ironic chuckle at fervid student enthusiasm, because the issue became far bigger. I was either With Them or Against Them. The convenient middle ground, that cozy little spot at the top of the fence, had been turned into a battlefield, a disputed territory decimated by war, lootings, thuggery, Twitter zealotry, and outrage.

So here we are now, unable to take a single thing with levity. All we can do is pick sides. And, while my political ideology starts and ends with the letter Z, with a few more Zs thrown in between, I can’t help but retire my casual mockery directed at faceless JNU slackers. Because I now am in a position where I side with them, where I admire and respect them unanimously, inertia be damned. Nothing’s going to change, of course, so all we can do is have a clean conscience and mourn the demise of the Sense of Humour. Such a shame.