Capital Institution – Memories of Stephania
On St Stephen’s, Delhi’s most prestigious college.
[By Shashi Tharoor; the picture was taken when Mr Tharoor had just won the elections for the Presidency of St Stephen’s in 1974.]
The Delhi Walla’s invitation to look back on my years at St Stephen’s College raises one awkward consideration at the very outset. After all, what does the very name “St Stephen’s” convey to outsiders?
Let’s face it: to non-Stephanians, the term “St Stephen’s” conjures up three overlapping concepts, none of which is meant to be flattering — elitism, Anglophilia and deracination. One is obliged to confront this stereotype head on.
When I was given the rare privilege of delivering the 125th Anniversary Golden Jubilee Lecture at the College (the 100th anniversary had featured another old boy, Pakistan’s then President Zia ul-Haq), I was able to take for granted that few in the audience (which included serving and former Cabinet Ministers, Ambassadors and Generals, not to mention the assorted CEOs and cricket stars) would contest that there is a spirit that can be called Stephanian: most of us had spent three or five years living in and celebrating it.
Stephania was both an ethos and a condition to which we aspired. Elitism was part of it, but by no means the whole. In any case “Mission College”’s elitism was still elitism in an Indian context, albeit one shaped, like so many Indian institutions, by a colonial legacy.
There is no denying that the aim of the Cambridge Brotherhood in founding St Stephen’s in 1881 was to produce more obedient subjects to serve Her Britannic Majesty; their idea of constructive missionary activity was to bring the intellectual and social atmosphere of Camside to the dry dustplains of Delhi. Improbably enough, they succeeded, and the resultant hybrid outlasted the Raj.
The St Stephen’s I knew in the early 1970s was an institution whose students sustained a Shakespeare Society and a Criterion Club, and organised Union Debates on such subjects as “In the opinion of this House the opinion of this House does not matter”. We staged plays and wrote poetry, ran India’s only faculty-sanctioned Practical Joke Competition (in memory of P.G. Wodehouse’s irrepressible Lord Ickenham), and invented the “Winter Festival” of collegiate cultural competition, which was imitated at universities across the country.
If that sounds deplorably effete, we invariably reached the annual inter-college cricket final, and turned up in large numbers to cheer the Stephanian cricketers on to their accustomed victory. (One of my few worthwhile innovations as President of the Union, aside from improving the mess food, was to supply throat lozenges free of charge to the more raucous of our cheerleaders at the cricket final. I am told this is one more Stephanian tradition that, along with our cricket team, has bitten the dust.)
We maintained a careful distinction between the Junior Common Room and the Senior Combination Room, and allowed the world’s only non-Cantabridgian “gyps” to serve our meals and make our beds. And if the punts never came to the Jamuna, the puns flowed on the pages of Kooler Talk (known to Stephanians as “KT”, or “Katie”) and the cyclostyled Spice (whose typing mistakes were deliberate, and deliberately hilarious.)
This was the St Stephen’s I knew, and none of us who lived and breathed the Stephanian air saw any alien affectation in it. For one thing, St Stephen’s also embraced the Hindi movies at Kamla Nagar, the trips to Sukhiya’s dhaba and the chowchow at TibMon (as the Tibetan Monastery was called); the nocturnal Informal Discussion Group saw articulate discussion of political issues, and the Social Service League actually went out and performed social service; and even for the “pseuds”, the height of career aspiration was the IAS, not some firang multinational.
The Stephanian could hardly be deracinated and still manage to bloom. It was against Indian targets that the Stephanian set his goals, and by Indian assumptions that he sought to attain them. (Feminists, please do not object to my pronouns: I only knew St Stephen’s before its co-edification.)
At the same time St Stephen’s was, astonishingly for a college in Delhi, insulated to a remarkable extent from the prejudices of middle-class Indian life. It mattered little where you were from, which Indian language you spoke at home, what version of religious faith you espoused.
When I joined College in 1972 from Calcutta, the son of a Keralite newspaper executive, I did not have to worry about fitting in: we were all minorities at St Stephen’s, and all part of one eclectic polychrome culture. Five of the preceding ten Union Presidents had been non-Delhiite non-Hindus (four Muslims and a Christian), and they had all been fairly elected against candidates from the “majority” community.
But at St Stephen’s religion and region were not the distinctions that mattered: what counted was whether you were “in residence” or a “dayski” (day-scholar), a “science type” or a “DramSoc type”, a sportsman or a univ topper (or best of all, both). Caste and creed were no bar, but these other categories determined your share of the Stephanian experience.
This blurring of conventional distinctions was a crucial element of Stephania. “Sparing” with the more congenial of your comrades in residence — though it could leave you with a near-fatal faith in coffee, conversation and crosswords as ends in themselves — was manifestly more important than attending classes.
And in any case, you learned as much from approachable faculty members – like David Baker, Mohammed Amin, Ranjit Bhatia, P.S. Dwivedi, Vinod Choudhury and others too numerous to mention — outside the classroom as inside it. (It was at one of Amin Sahib’s Mediaeval History lectures that he memorably translated the words inscribed above the stage in the College Hall – Jesus said, “I am the Light of the World” – as “Jesus ne kahan, main Noor Jehan hoon“.)
Being ragged outside the back gate of Miranda House, having a late coffee in your block tutor’s room, hearing outrageous (and largely apocryphal) tales about recent Stephanians who were no longer around to contradict them, seeing your name punned with in KT, were all integral parts of the Stephanian culture, and of the ways in which this culture was transmitted to each successive batch of Stephanians.
Three years is, of course, a small — and decreasing — proportion of my life, but my three years at St Stephen’s marked me for all the years to follow. Partly, this was because I joined College a few months after my sixteenth birthday and left it a few months after my nineteenth, so that I was at St Stephen’s at an age when any experience would have had a lasting effect.
But equally vital was the institution itself, its atmosphere and history, its student body and teaching staff, its sense of itself and how that sense was communicated to each individual character in the Stephanian story.
Too many Indian colleges are places for lectures, rote-learning, memorising, regurgitation; St Stephen’s encouraged random reading, individual note-taking, personal tutorials, extra-curricular development. Elsewhere you learned to answer the questions, at College to question the answers. Some of
us went further, and questioned the questions.
Standing at the College on the 125th birthday of St Stephen’s, I remembered the values the college had taught me, in the classroom and outside it. St Stephen’s influenced me fundamentally, gave me my basic faith in all-inclusive, multi-spirited, free-thinking cultures, helped shape my mind and define my sense of myself in relation to the world, and so, inevitably, influenced what I have done later in life — as a man, as a United Nations official, and as a writer.
Stephania encouraged the development of qualities that would stand me in good stead in each of these activities.
So when I look back at College today, I celebrate the secularism, the pan-Indian outlook, the well-rounded education, the eclectic social interests, the questioning spirit and the meritocratic culture that are the vital ingredients of the Stephanian ethos.
These are what the idea of Stephania contributes to the idea of India I have described in my books and speeches around the world. The moment any of these ingredients is removed, St Stephen’s will no longer be St Stephen’s.
[The author is the Chairman of Dubai-based Afras Ventures and former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, he was the official candidate of India for the succession to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2006.]