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

Posted on August 17, 2016 in Art, Culture-Vulture

“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

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