The very name “St. Stephen’s” has come to stand for two very different sets of associations. Stephanians still wax eloquent about the uniqueness of their alma mater; but to non-Stephanians, “St Stephen’s” all too often conjures up three overlapping concepts, none of which is meant to be flattering – elitism, Anglophilia and deracination. In responding to the Editor’s request to evoke what St.Stephen’s means to me, it is probably essential that I confront this stereotype head on.
I have always been proud to speak of the Stephanian spirit: indeed, I spent three years (1972-75) 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. St Stephen’s in the early 1970s was an institution whose students sustained a Shakespeare Society and a Criterion Club, organized Union Debates on such subjects as “In the opinion of this House the opinion of this House does not matter”, staged plays and wrote poetry, ran India’s only faculty-sanctioned Practical Joke Competition (in memory of P.G. Wodehouse’s irrepressible Lord Ickenham), invented the “Winter Festival” of collegiate cultural competition which was imitated at universities across the country, invariably reached the annual inter-college cricket final (and turned up in large numbers to cheer the Stephanian cricketers on to their accustomed victory), 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 their meals and make their beds. And if the punts never came to the Jamuna, the puns flowed on the pages of Kooler Talk 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 Serice 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 wee 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 — thought 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 and Mohammed Amin outside the classroom as inside it.1) 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 yeas 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, memorizing, 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.
So yes, Editor, St Stephen’s influenced me fundamentally, gave me my basic faith in all-inclusive, multanimous, 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. Those who use the term ‘Stephanian” (largely, I might add, with pejorative intent) to include notions of elitism, privilege, irreverence, flippant wit, and deracination from the Indian mainstream, wherever that may flow, are simply wrong. They do not know, or deliberately overlook, the secularism, the pan-Indian outlook, the well-rounded education, the electic social interests, the questioning spirit and the meritocratic culture that are equally vital ingredients of the Stephanian ethos.
In November 1999, nearly a quarter-century after I graduated, I returned to St Stephen’s to address the Informal Discussion Group. I had heard rumblings from some old-timers about the decline in the College’s intellectual standards; it was said that the atmosphere of College had changed, allegedly as a result of the switch to co-education, with its new emphasis on academic results pure and simple – at the expense of, rather than as an accompaniment to, creative and non-exam related endeavours. I arrived fearing that I would find not just a generation gap, but a collegiate culture that I would be unable to recognize. Instead I found a hundred students spilling out of the staff room, perched on window sills, squatting on the floor, a healthy proportion of them women; and I received questions both probing and stimulating, well-informed and well-articulated, yet posed with a decorous politeness that was largely absent in my own raucously irreverent (and all-male) era. It is clearly not time to write the obituary of Stephania. If anything, in St Stephen’s second century, the ethos has flowered to a point us old-timers may not ourselves have managed to attain.
Shashi Tharoor studied History in College in the early 70s. He has been working with the United Nations for the last 22 years and is the author of the critically acclaimed ‘The Great Indian Novel’, ‘Show Business’ and ‘The Five Dollar Smile’.