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     Jul 23, 2005
Passage to Stephania
Interesting Times in India: A Short Decade at St Stephen's College
byDaniel O'Connor

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

St Stephen's College, Delhi, possesses a peerless aura that defies easy description. Its complex amalgam of myth-making, achievement, presumptuousness and brilliance has spawned a unique subculture labelled Stephania. Practically everyone initiated into the "Stephanian Way of Life" has experienced that magic-potion feeling of giddy importance in the scheme of things. Anglican priest Daniel O'Connor's memoir of a critical decade spent in the college adumbrates the core values that make St Stephen's an unparalleled institution.

Historian Narayani Gupta's foreword rates this book as a welcome addition to studies of post-colonial India and places it as a sequel to Francis Monk's classic, History of St Stephen's College (1935). Reconstructed from newspaper cuttings and regular letters home to the United Kingdom, it is a view from the college lens of Indian developments from 1963 to 1972, a period of uncertainties, tensions and fears concurring with worldwide social irruptions. Naxalite excitements in Stephen's were "nothing compared with what was going on at Presidency College and in Calcutta [but still] noteworthy in a most prestigious institution in the capital". (Preface)

Newly married O'Connor was appointed chaplain and English lecturer at Stephen's by the Cambridge Mission in 1963. Job interviewers described the college as "the Christ Church of India", alluding to Oxonian snobbery and elitism. One old India hand, however, "assured me that all such Christian colleges were full of communists". (p 8) Arriving in India, the O'Connors found St Stephen's "a continuous revelation and participation in a multi-layered conversation of cultures and identities". (p 11) The unfailing "bowled over" bug bit them on first sight of the college's magnificent building.

O'Connor's early students were "Midnight's Children", part of an optimistic Nehruvian generation showing little indication of the anger, frustration and disappointments to come. Patience, courtesy, good humor and indifferent dressing were the core traits. Institutional loyalty, the cement for legend, was "extraordinarily powerful". Staff members like Mohammad Amin and Brijraj Singh had long-term attachments, making "a life's work of their college appointment". (p 16) Multiple pluralities flourished, thanks to the steady inflow of international and Indian students of different religious persuasions and class backgrounds. The absence of women students at that time "seriously diminished the all-male institution". (p 23) Public services were the ideal career Stephanians aspired after, besides gracing the United Nations, International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Rhodes Scholarships were plentiful.

Principal Satish Sircar was a fatherly figure whose career got grievously marred towards the end by rivalry with dean William Rajpal. Shifting staff loyalties in this power struggle proved to be a "lacerating experience". (p 30) The BA Pass course was handled carelessly and its students were a "muted group", unlike the confident and articulate culture of the honors batches. English was the primary language on campus, although Bishop Westcott, founder of the Cambridge Mission to Delhi, envisaged Stephen's as a vernacular project. Hindu and Muslim students had a pronounced blankness about the Christian referential background of literature. Yet, exceptionally stimulating teaching led students to break new ground in Indian novel writing in English. From the decade of the O'Connors came Jayabrato Chatterjee, Gopal Gandhi, Anurag Mathur, Ramesh Menon, Vijay Singh and Allan Sealy. Subaltern studies historians Gyan Pandey and Shahid Amin were undergraduates then, and so were economists Montek Ahluwalia, Deepak Nayyar and Prabhat Patnaik.

High-standard college dramatics baptized fine actors like Roshan Seth, Benjamin Gilani and Kabir Bedi. Social Service League activities were a "measure of the extraordinary civil society that Stephen's was". (p 51) A bevy of public figures visited college for talks - Fatima Meer, Krishna Menon, Annadurai, Minoo Masani, Chester Bowles, Ruth Jhabwala, Percival Spear, Malcolm Muggeridge and Nirad Chaudhary. When guest speakers were old boys, Stephanians' pride redoubled.

The O'Connors discovered Delhi on a Lambretta scooter, riding through the relatively uncrowded and unpolluted city. They witnessed removal of British-era emblems and memorials, despite ambivalence among local people and the grumbling of erstwhile royals whose privy purses were canceled by Indira Gandhi. Recurring food shortages, rationing and fluctuating prices harried the public, while the O'Connors parried a potentially deadly burglary by knife-toting intruders. Jana Sangh leader L K Advani agitated in vain to get canned beef banned, a demand eventually implemented by the Congress Party in 1969. Winter deaths among Delhi's poorest resulted in night shelters set up by the same authorities that enforced slum relocations sadistically.

Travels across north India offered more insights. Simla was "in between occupations. The tin gods of the Raj had departed and the Indian bourgeoisie had hardly begun to arrive." (p 92) The handful of British who stayed on there waxed nostalgic about empire. An "occasional hazard" of holidaying in Nainital was "an encounter with Morarji Desai on one of his strolls". In Manali, the O'Connors met Stephanians from the hiking club and survived landslides.

Securing work permits as Christian priests became harder in the late 1860s, inter alia due to the "go home missionary" outcry of the Hindu right. Delhi churches "exhibited the cultural diversities and hybridities of the city itself", (p 143) confusing their sense of identity. As college chaplain, O'Connor adapted to the Indian environment, whereas his contemporary clerics were reluctantly moving to acknowledge non-Christian prophets and seers. There was never any expectation of producing converts in the college. Narrow, sectarian doctrines were at odds with the ethos of Stephen's. The morning assembly of students, diminishing but numinous, used to draw on all religious traditions. Tagore's Gitanjali and Aurobindo's Savitri were perused. On the birth centenary of C F Andrews in 1971, the greatest anti-colonial missionary who taught at Stephen's for 10 years, Harsh Kumar, edited a festschrift volume of The Stephanian and Marjorie Sykes, Deenabandhu's biographer, delivered the Andrews Memorial Lecture.

In national politics, Lal Bahadur Shastri briefly continued Nehru's legacy of decency. His modest son told interviewers while seeking admission to Stephen's that his father "worked for the government". (p 165) Mrs Gandhi was unlucky to inherit the cumulative crises of rural distress, linguistic disputes and communal conflict. From the college perspective, educated unemployment and the demoralized higher education system were ticking dynamites. The period of 1966-67 ushered in violent student disruptions and strikes across the country. In Delhi, political parties cultivated dubious student leaders for sabotage actions, but Stephen's characteristically kept its distasteful distance.

Involvement in relief work for the Bihar famine was a life-changing experience for Stephanians. Bunker Roy went on to set up the innovative "Barefoot College" in Rajasthan. Others, like Arvind Narayan Das, Dilip Simeon and Rabindra Ray joined the Spring Thunder of Naxalism. Though most Stephanians were marginal to the process of radicalization (Dawa Norbu composed a reality-check about communist terror in his native Tibet), the college played a disproportionately key part in the movement.

In 1970, student union president Deepak Vohra was hospitalized for opposing the 30-35 "true believers" who took to the gun and went underground. Many of them were arrested and jailed in different parts of the country. Middle-class Stephanian Naxals were influenced by Delhi School of Economics intellectuals and Professor Joan Robinson of Cambridge. Students also met young industrial workers, learned their songs and shared their woes. Topics in the college Enquirer and Stephanian of those days were Marxism, Vietnam and Gandhi's betrayal of the landless. Graffiti below the college cross read: "China's path is our path." Plots to burn the library and bomb the chapel were reported. Lecture-room blackboards carried slogans like "Reactionary Teachers, We Will Have Your Skin for Shoes for the Poor."

O'Connor's own position was not neutral in this whirlwind. Liberation theology, the Bible's bias to the poor and interpretation of Christ as a revolutionary motivated his sympathy and assistance to stalked students. China's reactionary attitude during the Bangladesh war, its opening to Richard Nixon in 1972, and the JVP's demolition in Sri Lanka disintegrated the Naxal high crest. Many college Maoists abandoned ideology and "returned to normal", though some continued in a more mature strain. What the whole fracas illustrated was that humanistic Stephanians never demeaned those living on their beam's ends as hoi polloi.

Gopal Gandhi's cadenced afterword glorifies Stephen's "ability to receive and give a clean punch", prioritization of the mental over all other attributes, hearing of dissident viewpoints and remaining unruffled in the face of others' numerical strength. I must add that the college, in sync with times and often avant garde, is most special for knowing its overall significance in the context of India's destiny.

Interesting Times in India: A Short Decade at St Stephen's College by Daniel O'Connor. Penguin Books, New Delhi, June 2005. ISBN: 0-14-303345-X. Price: Rs 295 (US$6.8) , 234 pages.

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