This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Ishita Blest. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

How Different Societies Of St. Stephen’s Improved My Understanding Of Indian Culture

More from Ishita Blest

“St. Stephen’s College endeavours to be a miniature India, reflecting its unity-in-diversity. The College has an all-India, all-religious texture and has students as well as teachers from every state and union territory….” reads the college prospectus.

And it’s true. When I joined college, I met people from everywhere; people with stories to tell from their land. The residence policy is such that people from areas far and wide stay together, and interact. Living on campus was an experience that exposed me to the cultural vastness that inhabits India. I had an indiscriminate supply of banana chips straight from Kerala, had the privilege to taste the honey filled sondesh from Kolkata; and I had the best biryani and kebabs from the kitchen of a house in Karol Bagh. I came across a whole array of pickles in the mess; be it prawn, beef, fish pickle or coconut powder. I heard stories, along with nostalgic sighs, which ran my imagination to the beaches of Kerala, the hills of Dehradun, the tea plantations in Assam, a village in Siliguri, the valley of Kashmir, constantly building up mental pictures from the words used to describe their homelands.

I’d often come across a group of people talking in a language I couldn’t understand. Soon enough, I started decoding the syntax of Bengali, which bore similarity to Hindi; and learnt handful words of Malayalam, which I would aimlessly throw when two friends interacted in the language I found so hard to decipher. And that is how we mingled; little by little as apprehensions of meeting new people started fading away, we delved deeper into each others’ lives and learned a lot from first-hand accounts of our friends.

We exchanged ideas. I heard Juvaria vehemently expressing her angst over the political instability in Kashmir; I heard her, defending her will to sport a hijab when the others called it a symbol of oppression. I heard Yvonne, my Anglo-Indian friend grappling with the question of her descent (and pronunciation of her name) with the curious ones. I heard how my roommate’s family had to migrate to another city when riots against Christians broke out in Orissa. While taking a walk with a friend, I was astounded when I learnt he was from Kerala, and mindlessly exclaimed, “But, you don’t look like one!” Very calmly he told me how discriminatory I was being. Many times, people came up to me and asked me if I was a south Indian (mostly taking such a guess turns out to be right in our college), perhaps my complexion made them wonder. Amidst all these checks, we received for our preconceived notions about people, one thing struck me immensely.

I had often heard how people from the North East are extremely cliquish; the way I had heard how the ‘Mallus’ had formed their own cult around a ‘Mallu don’. When I found myself living amongst them, I found the reasons why this was the case; eventually, I saw both the processes happening: formation of cliques, and also a collapse of them.

An illustration by my classmate, perhaps best delineates the cause-effect relationship of the ‘clique-formation’ phenomenon:

stephen's college illustration

stephen's college illustration 2

stephen's college illustration 3

Yvonne, who visited Manipur this summer, mentions in her anecdote: “I was fortunate to chance upon an opportunity to visit a classmate’s home in Manipur this summer which was an experience worth a lifetime. The hills, wild ponies and the beauty of the country-side have the power to capture one’s heart eternally. The underdevelopment in this region is a glaring truth and people are aware of education being their only saving grace. They often cheerfully referred to me as a ‘mayang’, which means mainland Indian. The very existence of this word brought alive the pain of isolation existent in this region. On leaving Manipur, I wondered if I’d ever return to find it developed and changed, and if it were to be so, would it be at the cost of its breath-taking natural beauty.”

In my first academic year, I saw the formation of a North-East Society in our college, created with the aim to introduce the culture of North Eastern region to the ‘mayangs’; a gap which cannot be bridged by land alone, but by cultural values and ideas. With the mess lawns beautifully decorated, a gong arranged for, the members of the North East Society draped in their traditional attire, all set to showcase the richness of their tradition amongst us. The sounding of the gong declared the inaugural ceremony open, followed by Gorkhali dance, Tangkul tribal folk song, Angami song amongst other things. Towards the end of the ceremony, almost everyone joined in, dancing together, hand in hand. With it, words denoting separation, such as ‘mayangs’ didn’t matter. Later, exclusive food from the North Eastern region was served in the mess, including delicious momos. And guess what? They were served steaming hot.

Earlier in early September, almost two months into college, Keralites were all charged up, pulling clueless newbies like me to lend them a hand, and happily, we obliged. What I vividly remember is the soft evening sun casting its last rays of the day and lending a mild tangerine tinge to the purple, white, orange flowers and green leaves, untidily heaped up in the corners of the college corridors; the sound of an unknown tongue befuddling and intriguing me altogether.

Onam was here! I cherish the memory of sitting in circles and pulling out flower petals, hearing stories from my pals from ‘back home’ about the rigorous preparation it takes to welcome back the mythical king, Mahabali. Then there was music (of which I could make no head or tail of) which my friends sang word for word and danced along too. (Thudakam Mangalyam, to name my personal favourite).

The next day, you couldn’t have guessed Stephens was a college located in Delhi. We were dressed up in the traditional off-white sarees, and in ‘mundus‘, the pookalam looked beautiful, cultural events were lined up: Be it the dances, or tug of war, and of course, the Onam lunch. At the end of the day, I felt so much more educated about a distant culture, that I wrote an article about it.

Besides just these, our college has a Punjabi Literary Society, (which jazzed up Lohri celebrations in college) and The Bengali Literary Society (renowned for its lunch, and the society board which reads “Bring your Bong along”). The best part is, you don’t have to belong to a particular land to be a part of such societies. They already consider you one of them. The relentless willingness to teach and learn is so effortlessly interwoven, that it results in a vibrant atmosphere of cultural exchange.

The purpose of formation of societies as such can perhaps be best understood in Mary Robinette Kowal’s words. “It’s not about adding diversity for the sake of diversity; it’s about subtracting homogeneity for the sake of realism.”

Comic strip credits: Jessica Jakoinao, St. Stephen’s College
Featured image source: Prato9x/Flickr

Take campus conversations to the next level. Become a YKA Campus Correspondent today! Sign up here.

You can also subscribe to the Campus Watch Newsletter, here.

You must be to comment.

More from Ishita Blest

Similar Posts

By Sas3 Tranimal

By Kanan Gupta

By Sushil Kuwar

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below