I returned to my department on September 1 after a year-long sabbatical . The half a kilometre walk from my home to the Delhi University faculty gave a very strange feeling. It was an emptiness which enveloped me. No rapid namastes, no half nods, no hurried smiles, no fleeting looks. There was only the sound of my sandals, a lonely trek on overgrown grass and a pavement strewn with leaves – but no human smells.

It was the intermingling of smells and colours that always made the daily walk to the faculty interesting. As I approached the department office, my eyes suddenly turned to the left: a huge vacant class room. No students on the window sills, no one half-bent with ears strained to catch the sound emanating from the packed classroom of Hany Babu teaching his students. It is a memory of that fullness that suddenly enters the flesh of your heart like a thorn. With that aching feeling, I went and signed my joining letter.

­­A year has gone. What do I have to report to my university about this leave that I had taken from classroom teaching? “Does your phone have a memory card, sir?” the young police officer had asked politely. I do not know anything about the machine. He delved into it, opened it and told me in a reassuring tone, “ Your phone does not have memory card, Sir!”

But does that mean I don’t have any memories?

A wall of bodies

The memory of fullness. Of the street outside the Jamia Millia Islamia. Of December 16, 2019. The third month of my sabbatical. Was is it in some distant past that my cab turned from the Holy Family Hospital towards the Jamia Millia Islamia? The walls of students on both sides of the street, the air trembling with the rage emanating from that collection of young bodies. December 16. A live wall of young bodies pressing each other. My driver panicked. For him it was an angry crowd. For me a turbulent sea of humanity. He could not be faulted. He does not know these students. I am in a profession that requires me to keep trying to know them. And yet we cannot be sure. But I knew that I would be safe in this illusion of chaos.

The students did not obstruct vehicles. I stepped out of the cab and stood with them. Some from them came close and offered to take me inside the campus. Broken pieces of glass were spread all over, blood stains. And then I met young men with bandaged hands. One could sense the injury that their hearts had suffered.

“It was not the blows of lathis that hurt us, the communal abuses the police hurled at us were more hurtful,” one of them said. Swollen eyes, broken arms but firm voice. I tried to understand. Were they angry? The matter-of-fact reporting of what had been done to them sounded as if they were recalling a lesson from the last class they had attended. They were learning and then lost their poise, I thought. Suddenly I realised the cruelty of this feeling.

A protest against the new citizenship law outside the Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi on December 22. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Memories, more of them. Crisscrossing the long corridor of the Shaheen Bagh Metro station, I hear hellos, namaskars: young women and men and many who are neither men nor women, students. I regret that I do not know them individually. Then suddenly I encounter a stream of flames, a silent river flowing in the snake-like lane of Shaheen Bagh. I follow them and find that I have become one of them. I remember my poet Muktibodh. His epic poem Andhere Mein (In The Dark). I feel as if I am the narrator of the poem following his people carrying the flame of reason and sensibility in their palms. As part of the procession, I reach Shaheen Bagh.

Memories, more memories. Of burnt vehicles and devastated houses and shops and vandalised mosques. In the labyrinth of Mustafabad, Shiv Vihar, Khajooree Khas. Tales of burnings and looting and killings. I keep listening. Taking out notebook to record all of it looks like humiliating them. I try to store them in the motherboard of my mind. Would it be able to hold so much pain, agony, insult, anger? Would I be able to retrieve all this from this storehouse of memory.

And I see familiar young faces. They must be from my university or from the other universities in town. With notebooks but also carrying rice, pulses, vegetables, medicines, clothes for the people displaced by the violence. They are young hearts, too young to absorb this inhumanity and yet they have taken a plunge in this ocean of agony. I have not taught them any of this. I have never met them in any of my classrooms. And yet I feel so proud. I want to shout out, “Here are our young hearts and minds, fellow citizens! They have educated themselves well. Our universities are doing well my country women and men! They are producing ‘Hamdard’ human beings!”

Out of syllabus?

Is this all out of syllabus? Not a co-curricular activity? Not even part of the Scouts and NCC and NSS? What are these students doing here when the classes are in full swing and they are in the middle of their semester?

What were the students doing creating reading corners and activity centres at different Shaheen Baghs? What were our young women students doing in the dusty Seelampur and Chand Bagh and Kardam Puri, away from their campuses and hostels? What had taken them, these liberated young women to meet the traditional home maker women living in these areas? What was that? Were they being student-like when they were doing this?

I am checking the non-existent memory card in my mind. I reach out to Premchand, the teacher. And he looks at me from afar. There is a gap of 84 years between him and me. I ask him, tell me my master, should I, a teacher on leave to create resources to advance the cause of knowledge, be here? Should these students be here?

Students protest against arbitrary detentions at the police headquarters in Delhi. Credit: Vijayta Lalwani

Premchand admonishes me. Your universities are but factories which keep churning out certificates and degrees. You put a great value to that and take fat salaries. He then tells me about two convocation addresses delivered by two eminent personalities at two different universities.

Premchand is surprised to learn about the content of the convocation address that the scientist Sir CV Raman delivered at the Allahabad University. Raman advises the graduates that it was not the duty of the universities to accelerate the revolution and transformation of the society. It is rather to put a brake on this process.

Premchand does not hide his disagreement with Raman. He says that our revolution is to rediscover our lost soul. The revolution is an expression of our desire to reject competitive selfishness of nations and establish the values of cooperation and empathy.

The philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan is on a different plane however. Premchand is so excited with his speech that he almost reproduces the whole of his address. Contrary to the stand of the scientist, the philosopher likens the students to a burning torch. A burning torch is generally considered to be dangerous. But it can also destroy everything that is superfluous, dead and deadening. It has lighted the paths of many movements and revolutions and stirred the souls of generations.

Radhakrishnan says that those who fear the social, economic and political movements that this burning torch ignites and inspires should keep themselves away from the universities.

A torch of empathy, equality and justice burnt bright this year and fired the imagination of hundreds and thousands of our youth. What if their mouths were muzzled and faces bloodied, what if their bodies are not free? We can feel their souls soaring high, crossing the high walls of the prisons. While walking back from the department I hear them: are you dear teacher still willing to teach us Premchand?

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.