This is the tale of a troubled but rewarding chapter of my life. The year was 1972. I was 16, and among the youngest in my class when I passed of out of Mater Dei Convent in December 1971. Our school was often referred to as ‘Matar Dahi Convent’; it was conventional and strict, but I have happy
memories of it.

I had received and admit to Miranda House, Lady Shriram College (LSR) as well as the recently established Jesus and Mary College in Chanakyapuri (St Stephens College only opened its doors to women students in 1975). I was strangely drawn to the peace and quiet of Jesus and Mary College, to the birdsong and the banks of bougainvillea, and the large, well-lit library. The college was affiliated to the South Campus.

Several of my school friends enrolled there, as did I. Little did I know or imagine the deep impact this decision would leave on the rest of my life.

It was exhilarating to be young and full of hope. So many adventures awaited all of us. We were not so world-weary as today’s generation. Books. Films. Travel. Boys. There was so much to learn, so much to look forward to. Some snapshots from memory: sashaying down a makeshift ramp and tripping over my cotton sari as I was crowned First Runner-up in the Miss JMC Contest. Catching the Ladies Special to the college, with a bus load of happy, giggling, carefree girls. The library, where I was always the first to find my perch. The teachers – a brilliant and committed lot. Muriel Wasi, Shobhana
Bhattacharjee, Malashri Lal, and so many others, opening our eyes to the wonders of focused literary appreciation.

Looking back so many years later, I recall the sense of calm, of expectancy, of vast expanse. Brisk mornings, golden afternoons. I wanted to study philology, and become an academic. It was all planned out, meant to unroll as smoothly as a red carpet. If I didn’t meet the man of my dreams by the time I was 27, I would have an arranged marriage. Twenty-seven felt impossibly old, over the hill – I was still just sixteen.

We often wore saris, me and my friends, not because we had to, but because we loved the texture and drape of the cotton. It was the ‘Guddi’ look, inspired by the young Jaya Bhaduri. The default mode was bell bottoms, favoured by both boys and girls. The boys usually sported side-burns, and lived in a haze of idealism. They smoked and smoked up a lot, and talked of Keynesian economics and strummed at guitars. I had a group of friends who were boys – not quite boyfriends – in St Stephens.

Delhi University seemed a different universe, with a different pace, a different vocabulary.

There was the iconic Kooler Talk, with its sometimes – indecipherable jokes. The boys from Hindu and SRCC were distinct in their vocabulary, their attitudes, and through so many other intangible markers. The Miranda House girls were different too, more “cool”, more radical, and more independent than we JMC types. As for the girls from Lady Shri Ram College, the LSR girls – they were on another level altogether in their determination and focus. Looking back, I reflect on how each college had such a distinctive identity, each reflecting the personalities and dedication of their distinct and distinguished faculty who invested so much of themselves in the teaching profession.

The year is now 1973. I was older but not really much wiser. I was 17, and wading my way through exciting discoveries and hurtful betrayals. I came second in the University in English Literature that year, and it felt good. I was in awe of Shakespeare, and enchanted by Dickens, but the sheen of English Literature was wearing off. It seemed distanced in its vocabulary and subtext from the life around me.

I had encountered the plays of Mohan Rakesh, seen them enacted at the AIFACS theatre which was not far from where I lived. I was deeply impacted by Ghasiram Kotwal, by Vijay Tendulkar, performed in Hindi. I had seen Tughlaq by Girish Karnad being staged against the magnificent ramparts of Purana Qila, with the legendary actor Manohar Singh playing the lead. I discovered the literary power of my mother tongue, sensed the creative excitement as contemporary writers, playwrights and actors reinterpreted their times.

The college elections were to be held. The vice-president was elected from amongst the second-year students, while the president was from the third year. I decided to stand for vice-president, and to my surprise, was elected unopposed.

My dear friend Louise Fernandes, a year senior to me and who was also studying English Literature, was elected as president. Later, Louise starred in a college production of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, with Salman Khurshid from St Stephen’s college in the male lead as Professor Higgins. It was a delightfully staged play with an even more delightful aftermath. Louise and Salman fell in love, and were married some years later.

That was also the year I met Rajiv Gokhale, the person I was to marry when I turned eighteen. He had successfully evaded classes at SRCC and was due to graduate soon. He would pick me up after college, and I would spend time with him learning about photography and films. We would argue about UFOs
and aliens. He was a believer; I was not. We planned to set up a magazine together, and I had my first introduction to publishing by simply jumping into the deep end.

We got married in the summer of 1974. I was 18, he was twenty. My father-in-law, HR Gokhale, was the Law Minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. Mother Aquinas, the stern Kerala nun who was principal of Jesus and Mary college, did not approve of my decision. She had asked to be introduced to Rajiv. When they met, the chemistry was not good. They had gotten into an argument about Class Four Employees who were on strike and picketing outside the college at the time.

I still dreamt of studying Comparative Philology, of learning Sanskrit and Latin, and excavating the roots and words and the sources from where they derived their meanings.

But life had other plans, as did a strangely disposed nun in Jesus and Mary College. In my third year of college, disillusioned by the Anglo-centric Eng Lit curriculum, I decided to opt for a new option that DU was offering, in MIL (Modern Indian Literature) where I could study selected contemporary Hindi writers. The course was offered as an alternative to the paper on Chaucer and Olde English, and sounded infinitely more alluring.

Nobody I knew had actually taken the option, but it all seemed straightforward enough. I would prepare for paper 8B on my own, and informed Dr Malashri Lal – the teacher who taught us Chaucer– of my decision.

I had to study the course myself, and could not mark myself present or get attendance for the hours spent in the library. The Principal, Mother Aquinas must have been aware of my decision, but did not comment on it at that time. However, while filling in the examination form, I was summoned to her office to be told that I could not sit for the examination for paper 8B as I had not been taught it. The days that followed were full of further shocks. The Principal held back over a hundred students, refusing to accept their medical certificates or their reasons for absence. I too fell into this category because of my having opted for the alternative paper.

Chaos and crisis have followed me through my life, often leading to unexpected and even positive outcomes. Looking back today, almost fifty years later, I realise that the Principal’s decision was possibly the most pivotal challenge I ever faced.

In the months that followed, my dreams of academia, of becoming Dr Namita Gokhale, were forever shattered. I was led instead on another path altogether. The students who had been held back met up with my sister-in-law, Sunanda Bhandare, a popular and distinguished lawyer who was later to become a judge of the Delhi High Court. It was clear that Mother Aquinas was not going to relent from her stand, and Sunanda advised that they should seek relief from the courts. She would represent them pro bono.

Arun Jaitley, the President of the Students Union of Delhi University, argued on our behalf. KumKum Khanna And Ors Vs The Mother Aquinas And Ors was to become a much-cited case on the issue of academic freedom and discipline.

The Delhi High Court was still situated in Patiala House in those days. I remember the palpable excitement that rippled through the courtroom as it filled up with a bevy of chattering girls. Justices VS Deshpande and Yogeshwar Dayal gave a patient and sympathetic hearing to our case as they pondered whether the principal of a private college recognised by the University was justified in being bound by her own administrative policy.

The court directed the Principal to give a special hearing to several of the petitioners. In my case, they ruled “We, therefore, set aside the order of detention against the petitioner and direct the Principal to give her a hearing”. I had also made a representation to the Vice Chancellor and the Academic Council to consider my situation, as the matter of paper 8B was outside the jurisdiction of the Principal.

We were given permission to appear in the examination. I enjoyed answering the question paper, which I remember had some incisive questions on Vaishali Ki Nagarvadhu by Acharya Chatursen Shastri as well as the plays of Mohan Rakesh. But, despite giving the examination, the results were never declared.

As a minority institution, Jesus and Mary College could be advised by the Delhi High Court but was not bound to follow the advice. Mother Aquinas failed to follow up the nudge from the courts, and refused to exercise the discretion vested with her to officially clear us, even though the court had allowed us to sit for the examination.

In the meanwhile, the Emergency had been declared. Arun Jaitley, who had advised me to appeal to the Vice Chancellor and the Students Council, had gone underground. I decided then to forget about formal education, and live and learn on my own terms in the real world. I didn’t return to Jesus and Mary College to repeat the year, as many of my friends and classmates did. I was to remain a student all my life, learning where and what I could, but my days in Delhi University were over.

Life is full of ironies. Mother Aquinas was called to Rome, but decided to leave the Church some years later. I wonder if she ever realised what an impact she had on the course my life was to take, before she renounced her vocation. Life is also cyclical. I have co-edited two books with Dr Malashri Lal, and co-authored a play with her. Of all my teachers in JMC, I had been closest to her.

Our lives followed very different trajectories; hers a distinguished academic career, mine an up-and-down life of trials and travails, challenges and triumphs. Our love of literature held us together, and the journey we began in a bougainvillea-covered campus has continued, in unexpected directions, as
often happens in the journey of life.

So much for Comparative Philology and my dreams of academia. I realise now that the most important lessons are learnt outside the classroom. Instead of returning to college, I set up a film magazine called Super where I learnt the fundamentals of publishing on the job. If I had graduated, as I so desperately wanted to, I may never have begun my writing career in 1984 with Paro: Dreams of Passion, my debut novel which broke all the rules, adopting a rebellious streak that I perhaps picked up in the University.

Another of my novels, The Book of Shadows has a dramatic and tragic opening interlude set in JMC, the same college that rejected me. I have had the privilege of continuing my passion for the Indian languages and their literatures by showcasing them at the Jaipur Literature Festival, of which I am the co-founder and co-director. Life has come full circle.

I am not a graduate and I am proud of it. I studied in Delhi University and I am proud of that too. My two daughters are also alumni of Delhi University, and I am proud of that too. I consider it one of the most grounded, generous and liberal institutions anywhere.

Excerpted with permission from Delhi University: Celebrating 100 Glorious Years, edited by Hardeep S Puri, Rupa Publications.