Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Jubilee Joy

(Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

In the Picture, l to r: Twerps/Kumar, Baggy and Kit-Kat of Eng Hons Sec A, 1980-83.

Last year, 2005, was a double jubilee for some of us. As LSR turned fifty, we, who first entered its gates in 1980, could recall happily that it was all of 25 years since we joined college. Five of us from English Honours (Sec A) 1980-1983, got together in Delhi after many years and made a trip to LSR in the blazing heat of a June afternoon. The university admissions were on, and we knew we'd have to make another trip to meet friends and faculty. For the time being, it was enough to say hello to the well-loved buildings, to chant the college prayer in front of the auditorium, and to run on to the lawn. We ran, as we did 25 years ago, because that lawn always made us so happy.

Possibly an earlier generation had had its thoughts shaped by a coffee house. For us, it was the lawn. We spent every moment of our free time there. The 'teachers' on the lawn were our seniors and friends. Our gang would engage in serious or utterly ridiculous debates on topics of diverse nature. There were occasional musicians with guitars, putting in some serious practice between classes. There were 'SPICMACAY types' who went around advertising afternoon 'baithaks'. My first lessons in singing seconds were on the lawn.

There were demonstrations on 'How to Divest Yourself of Irksome Inner Garments Unobtrusively in Public if The Winter Afternoon Sun Gets Too Warm'. There were serious Eco Honours types who waited on the lawn until the Reading Room opened at 2.30 p.m. They were not always serious about everything. Some of them were always good for a rendition of 'Chapel of Love' with seconds. I wonder now why we chose that maudlin 60s number for our lawn and 'special' (we sang it on the bus as well) anthem. It probably started off as a parody in the first place. (One of the things that shocked me when I visited Delhi last year was the discovery that there are hardly any 'U'specials running now.) Sometimes there'd be a game of Scrabble, and the Hindi Subsi class for which we had ostensibly stayed back would be forgotten completely.

The lawns taught us acceptance in a big way. No one, just no one, could be elitist. If they were, they just didn't have any friends. And in our youthful arrogance, if sometimes we showed off, we were first ignored, and then firmly made to shut up.

We were like children in a garden. There were a few unhappy souls in the college -- impossible as it sounds -- and these people were absolutely disgusted with our lack of dignity. It didnt bother us. We never let go of our childhood, except in our Discussions on Life. They were often very intense and always left us in need of sustenance. Some eight or nine of us would pull out 20 paise each to buy a community masala dosa from the canteen. One bite to each contributor, and one for Subramaniam, the canteen dog, thus named because of his very obvious love of dosas. Whether we were dayskis or hostellers, we were always ready to eat, and eternally short of cash. The Canteen, as it was known then, had a pretty limited menu, and the food wasn't always great. Yet, we were always ready to eat there, especially when someone else paid. Some people actually talked of doing Canteen Honours.

Irreverence was a way of life with us. I think (Sangeeta) Kumar/Twerps summed it up succinctly when we were musing together about our days, 'We were so attitude-less!' The teachers accepted this irreverence even if it exasperated them at times. On occasion it was actively encouraged as a source of creativity. It was understood that irreverence was not the same as disrespect. I guess they knew that we knew where to draw the line.

We would wait mercilessly for the editors of the weekly wallpaper to pin up their offerings on the main notice board. They, poor things, waited until there was an afternoon lull in the corridors, but we lurked, pens uncapped and ready, to add our comments to every piece of writing in the space provided for feedback. 'Spellingses' we once wrote, 'ar hiley orriginle and inspyring.' I don't think we had any intention of being nasty. We were just celebrating the freedom of expression. Even today, I'd say that's the biggest thing LSR has given me; the urge for self-expression.

We did conform to some things, and the fashion code was one of them. Youth always conforms to its own norms. Our designer wear came from Janpath or from the State Emporiums. FilmSoc types wore paintbrushes through their artistically twisted 'jooras'. Serious academic types wore jeans, with oversized men's shirts which must have belonged to their fathers and hawaii chappals, and they carried jholas and registers and had pens tucked into their knotted hair. Ethnic was in: pretty cotton skirts were teamed with Kolhapuri chappals, payals and danglers in the ears. Interestingly, the make-up look of the day was the no-make up or the natural look. It was symptomatic of the spirit within that was free -- especially free of artifice.

What could embody that spirit better than the 'Fresher of the Year' competition? It wasn't a Miss LSR contest. The young women of LSR were wise beyond their years. Instead of saying anything about beauty or brains, and without resorting to trite phrases like 'woman of substance', they just held a contest where participants were given a free rein. In our year, the theme was 'Your Favourite Character from Fiction'. Not one of the participants saw it as a chance to 'dress up'. The girls were remarkably original and outrageously hilarious. Shalini Subbarao chose to be Jughead, and, in the manner of true actors who strove for verisimilitude, tearfully chomped her way through a burger filled with nothing but sliced onions -- the only filling the canteen could provide at 2.30, when the contest was held!

The following year, the theme was The Age of Punk. I remember Promilla Puri expressing her anguish to our class over the choice of something that sounded so decadent. And yet, no objection was voiced by any member of the staff. The girls had decided on a theme, and they could go ahead with it.

I also remember a couple of freshers coming to us and asking if we had any feathers to loan them: they had chosen to interpret Punk as 'Pankh', the Hindi word for feathers, and they were planning to go as birds!The winner that year, Meenakshi Rishi, symbolised the uninhibited, freethinking and wildly imaginative LSR girl. She turned up on stage in a dhoti and shirt, a huge twisted turban, a curly moustache, and carrying a solidlathi. There was a blanket thrown over her shoulder. She said she was the official representative of P.U.N.K., or 'Phaltoos Under territories of Nangia and Karnal'!!

Twenty-five years ago, the Silver Jubilee celebrations were held. There was excitement in college from Day One of the academic year. Princi, Dr.S.M. Luthra, wanted everything to be perfect. Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister, was to be the Chief Guest. On the first day of rehearsals, Uma, my friend and fellow Students' Union member and I were dispatched by SML to 'Call Meenu'. The college President Minu Dhand was sitting with SML, so we correctly interpreted that to mean that we were to go to the staff quarters, where Meenakshi Gopinath, lecturer in Political science, who was then on study leave, lived.

As we walked there, Uma told me how her mother, herself a senior lecturer in the University, had always said that 'young Meenakshi' would one day become the Principal of LSR. And Meenakshi has been the Principal for over seventeen years now.

We rang the doorbell and felt a little foolish saying, 'Ma'am, Dr.Luthra sent us.' Ms Gopinath smiled and asked us in. The house was fragrant with sandalwood and tastefully decorated with little pieces from Kerala. Meenakshi herself was dressed in a Kerala mundu. She came back with us and took charge immediately. She was competence itself: it took her less than two days to train a choir to chant Sanskrit shlokas. She split them into five sections and positioned them at different places and elevations in the audi. The effect was quite awe-inspiring and the acoustics were amazing.

SML knew how to get the best out of people. She couldnt be bothered with appearances. To use Kumar's words again, she was 'totally Attitude-less'. We were probably more deeply influenced by her than we realised then. There was a child like quality in her, an impulsiveness that was so endearing, and this complete enjoyment in everything that she did. No wonder we could be so free and fun loving ourselves; the Princi herself was so happy to be in LSR! She loved a good laugh. Someone did a take on her one College Day. The sari, the hair-do, and the Punjabi accent, the 'Thought for the Day' which she read out on Monday mornings at assembly: everything. I can't forget the look of pride (in the performer) and sheer enjoyment on SML's face as she watched.

She admitted to pampering our batch because we were young enough, she said, to have been her grandchildren! I wish SML had lived to be a part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations. She would have loved it if the Principal had sent a couple of Students
Union members round to 'call Dr.Luthra'.

Are We Dead Meat to the Media?

A PIA plane carrying forty-five people crashed yesterday and there were no survivors. Along with reports of the tragedy, we have another set of gory photographs appearing in the leading dailies. Pictures of charred bodies, barely recognizable as human beings after the fire has consumed them. Worse, there are pictures of body parts. Death by fire must be incredibly tortuous and painful. Whenever we hear of accidental death we tend to put ourselves in the place of the victims. This could happen to us, too, because it could happen to anyone, we think. The utter helplessness of the victims is disturbing. And what the victims' families have to undergo during the process of identification preys on the mind. We don’t need photographic reminders of the horror of untimely and accidental death. But this horror is laid bare to the public repeatedly by our print media and television networks. Why?

Can you imagine the impact on little children who see these images on television or in newspapers and magazines? Wont they have nightmares? The images are enough to disturb the peace of the strongest minded. In the interests of gathering fodder for news, and in competing with rivals to be the first with breaking news, is not the media losing sight of basic human decency? Is this sympathy for the victims? Or is this voyeurism and violation of the worst kind? Is nothing sacred or inviolate any longer? Apparently not. We are just dead meat for the media.

The dailies and television networks, which carry these pictures, have no right to divest the accident victims of dignity in death by publishing pictures of charred, broken and mangled bodies. They may be bodies today, but they were loved ones yesterday. I ask you to recall with what ruthless regularity we see pictures of dead bodies of terrorists, criminals or their victims--alas, equal in death--which are blood soaked, mangled, gruesome and horrific.

Death is the ultimate reality in life and there is no true wisdom without accepting this fact. On the one hand, people today seem to be obsessed with the idea of fighting death as the natural end to life. It is as if we want to seek a cure for death. In many cases, the elderly long for death as that natural conclusion to life's labours; a long wished for and well earned sleep. Today's life prolonging therapies offer an extension of life, but they do little enough to alleviate physical and mental suffering. Death is natural, whether it comes suddenly or expectedly. We have to learn to accept death as a fact of life, but that doesn’t mean that we become blasé or brutal about it, either. We must pay the dead the respect due to them.

We cannot permit this violence of the lens to continue. I appeal earnestly to all who think alike to join me and to use their influence where possible. There must be some moral code, some ethical guidelines that our editors and television programmers must follow.