Somewhere near the Vice-Chancellor’s office, 2 am, we were searching for the famous bun-omelet outside what students call Patel Chest, the institute for respiratory sciences. A fried egg sprinkled with masala on buttered toast. The bun-omelet stand is where you go when the liquor store has closed and, too drunk for conversation, the craving for food sets in. As a foreign student at St Stephen’s College, a Friday night proceeded in two stages: drink in a dingy Paharganj pub, lighting one cigarette after another, and wind up in North Delhi, face-full of grease and sweat. On the wide campus avenues, throughout the night, policemen toting old British rifles hold barricades set up to check for intoxicated drivers. They never stop us students when we are passing by in my friend’s Tata Nano. Reckless driving is less important for the police than checking the nightly demonstrations against the Four-Year Undergraduate Program.

I arrived at the Delhi University-affiliated St Stephen’s College via Brown University for a six-month study abroad program in 2013. Perhaps because of my dark skin tone and taste for faded guayabera shirts (both the result of a mixed Caribbean heritage), the first day I entered St Stephen’s redbrick corridors I was mistaken for an incoming freshman or fucch – the derogatory term used by senior students when ordering juniors to do menial tasks, like bringing tea or running out to buy cigarettes (harder than it sounds since tobacco is banned on university premises). Amid anti-ragging posters, a lacklustre crew of economics majors approached me beside the cafeteria. Their attempts at ragging were mild compared to the initiation rituals common to the Greek fraternity culture endemic on American college campuses. There, it’s forced keg stands and naked marathon runs at midnight. They just asked me a few uncomfortable high school-ish questions (“which girls do you find cute?”) and, once bored, moved on to interrogate the next fucch. I had passed the first test toward becoming a Stephanian. For better or worse, out of sheer boredom (and dengue fever), I did not show up enough later on to complete the process.

Located in Rhode Island, Brown is a liberal arts school, boundary-pushing enough to provoke the inchoate rage of conservative Fox News demagogue Bill O’Reilly. Every couple of months he runs a smug segment on Brown – our annual “Nude Week” and “Sex Power God” parties stand out as especially offensive to the outdated sensibilities of The O’Reilly Factor fan-base. The administration at St Stephen’s, which outlawed students from wearing shorts on campus, would probably find common ground with Christian hardliners in the United States. Not long into the semester, I quickly discovered that displaying my leg hair is an act of moral failure subject to a sermon from officials on the “shorts patrol” beat.

I cannot say that I expected to have a great time. From afar, I had a vague inkling that St Stephen’s years of intellectual eminence live on merely through nostalgic essays and novels written by famous alumni such as Amitav Ghosh, Dilip Simeon and Ramachandra Guha. Yet, I wanted to gauge for myself the Indian undergraduate experience beyond the standard op-ed critique of rote learning and the generic “angry/lazy youth” portrayal I had seen of college students in Bollywood films. More than half of Rang De Basanti, for example, is a garbled medley of panoramic shots that show wayward teens careening in jeeps around New Delhi, DSLR camera in hand. There had to be something more. Thus, as a (sometimes stoned) participant-observer, I began an amateur ethnographic journey to better understand how higher education (and those who receive it) plays out in a place like St Stephen’s. There was, of course, an official academic pretext – the stuff required to fill the lines of a glossy A4-size transcript back home.

Most of my energy was spent simply trying to figure out what the hell was going on. For several months, I sat through monotonous lectures on South Asian history (both ancient and Mughal). Classmates, from start to finish, copied the professor’s fifty-minute monologue word for word into notebooks covered with pastoral imagery – birds in migration, bulbous cloud formations or wide-open prairie fields lashed by wind. Whoever designed this notebook franchise must have foreseen the students’ need for escapism from an utterly boring and depraved educational system.

Showing up late for class is relatively acceptable at Brown. For some, like myself (a slacker minority), it becomes habitual. This might result, at worst, in a passive aggressive email telling you to get your act together. Otherwise, stumbling into a lecture hall, dazed and confused, doesn’t demand an explanation. Not so in the missionary halls of St Stephen’s. One irritable teacher kicked me out of her classroom at least once a week. Failing to reach class within the five-minute grace period results in what I call the confessional treatment. You are forced to atone for the grave sin of tardiness by telling the rest of the class why you were late. Such attempts at discipline are more valued in the classroom than learning and intellectual stimulation.

The corporate beeline

The institution is only part of the problem. The concerns of classmates, perhaps due to the resume-enhancing St Stephen’s tag, rarely went beyond how to secure a corporate sponsor for the next bogus debate tournament or model United Nations conference. Nescafe’s posters of steaming coffee cups hanging over event boards are enough to boost the ego of Stephanians who take to the podium. For them, St Stephen’s is merely a waiting room that will lead them to corporate jobs. A month into the semester, my attendance record at St Stephen's dropped dramatically. Staying at home to read about Akbar’s religious policy gave me the same insight as going to a history class on Mughal India. St Stephen’s added little to what I could learn by myself.

During my brief time under the new Four Year Undergraduate Programme or FYUP – a bizarre curricular reform to add an extra year and dumb down course content – I swam aimlessly through an existential crisis, believing myself to be a substandard student. Unwilling to plagiarise past papers, I refused to mindlessly scribble piles of fact on an exam sheet. The dictates of the FYUP unsettled my ingrained notions of what education should be. I’m used to critical analysis, writing essays that use evidence to build an original argument. There’s no fun in simply re-writing a textbook or answering questions so basic they would be at home on a 7th grade syllabus. Nonetheless, a steady hash regiment helped. Everyday, out in a wooded area behind St Stephen’s known colloquially as the Ridge, much like the FYUP’s eventual fate, our dissatisfaction went up in smoke.

One of the few positive things I can say about St Stephen’s is that, unlike the American undergraduate experience, personal interaction with professors is not limited to the thirty minutes or less office-hours tradition. Over several bottles of Old Monk, during a St Stephen's department party, I once sat listening to my philosophy professor. In between explaining the intricacies of Mahayana Buddhist thought, white wine in hand, he played classic Hindi songs on YouTube. Outside the lecture hall, or in fancy receptions, there are few spaces where American professors mingle with their students. The US liberal arts model succeeds because of the strength of the institution. St Stephen’s works due to the effort of a handful of charismatic teachers.