Born into a very religious family, religion and religious teachings were taught to me as a way of life. The teaching was spoon-fed to me right from childhood. The notion that you can’t question God’s words, rulings, and commandments no matter what, and I believed in all of this and was a practising Muslim. With these teachings being my worldview, I was indeed an automaton to faith. But faith had somehow been more of fear of God’s punishment to me than love for God. And I guess that was the first undoing. I had internalised and normalised all kinds of things and never thought of anything as unjust and repressive. Education in school and higher secondary was yet another training for being automatons and machines in the system, of being – a utility, never questioning, never trying to look at the world from any other perspective, never questioning the ways of seeing. The end product was, very exclusively exam oriented approach, well, almost mugging up and scoring good in the exams which would bring in a good job and add to one’s privileges.
After coming to Delhi and getting enrolled in Ramjas College, the real journey of immense breakthroughs started in my life. My course was an honors in English Literature and my professors introduced me to critical thinking, critical inquiry into social sciences, and I got introduced to different worldviews. In the initial days in my classes, I learnt about ideas I had never thought of or imagined before. The first lecture with Debraj Mookherjee was also one that would stay with me forever. He said we needed to question everything, starting from what we were taught in schools. Lectures with Vinita Chandra started with disbelief from my side, getting scandalised after hearing different notions about gender and sexuality and thinking of them as too radical. Vinita ma’am answered all my questions with utmost patience and never lost her calm to the most regressive defences I showed. I was a homophobe, yes.
Gender in religion slowly started making me very uncomfortable. Questions of choice, will, agency, assertion, wanting representation in all fields of life, visibility in public and political spaces, right to religion or no religion, right to privacy – all these ideas started burgeoning in my personal space.
Conflicting worldviews existing side by side got my mind messier than ever. Questions started piling up, nobody happened to satisfy me with their answers. On the other hand, there were answers in logic, rationality and looking at things from a material point of view rather than ideological. The pull of rationality was strong indeed, but my faith was no less stronger then. A year of questions, insomnia, rapidly losing weight, mind being impossibly active and thinking all the time, mental fatigue and anxiety followed.
Looking at religion critically, I realised that religion would make “us” and “them” of humans in the definition itself, that is where my problems with it started. The first writing tutorial with Vinita Chandra was to analyse John Lennon’s “Imagine” (the lyrics). I’d never heard or read that before. Imagine there’s no religion, nothing to kill or die for. Imagine all the people, living for today. I started imagining, and it wasn’t as difficult as it seemed.
But the process and my journey weren’t all too easy. It was the hardest time for my mental health. My entire worldview was collapsing, and it was a very difficult time. I couldn’t give up so easily on my faith. Somehow I held it very dearly despite the fear, and I had had a hardcore religious upbringing. I had thousands of questions in my mind. I started asking difficult questions about religion at home for the first time. I started reading books about Islam. From Islamic Religious Dawah scholars to modern day criticisms of Islam, I devoured it all. I wanted my answers. I was still waiting for them in religion and not outside. I watched YouTube videos of new age scholars, of converts to Islam to understand why were so many people converting to my faith.
At home, I was made to watch Peace TV (Islamic Dawah Channel) more than ever. In my home, Peace TV had been like bread and water. My parents got quite worried about me, got me Tafseer Ibn Katheer (elaborate Quranic explanations in thick hardbound – 10 volumes.) I read 3 to 4 volumes.
I would run after teachers right after the lectures and would also catch them over the phone later. They introduced me to such intriguing ideas which didn’t let me sleep at night, how could I leave them alone? The history department at Ramjas History was my second home. I learned as much from it as from my own department. Mukul Mangalik was the man with so much passion for whatever he believed in, for teaching, for new ideas, for the ‘Republic of Imagination’ that I fell in love with him. He taught students to look beyond all kinds of identities and dare to have the imagination of a world where people will be equal, and no kinds of barriers divide them. One heck of a romantic, a dreamer, a believer in people, he was. I was so enchanted by this man that I used to sneak in his classes and recorded some of his lectures and even transcribed them. He would encourage students to talk to him over chai, over lunch in D School, anytime, anywhere. Mukul had been a student of JNU in the best days of JNU. He’d tell us the principles JNU was founded on and the dreams and vision of the university.
He’d always say university means a universe where you’ve got to discuss everything under the sun. So some of these exceptional professors hardly gave two hoots about the syllabus. They taught us to think, question and doubt everything, even them and their worldviews (they would often say that). Teachers were like our friends. Some of them insisted we call them by their names instead of using sirs and ma’ams. They said the terms were hierarchical and colonial and they didn’t like being addressed by them. At first, it was very difficult to call them by their names. Later, we got used to it. They were guides, mentors, friends, pillars and sometimes, during a personal crisis, even our therapists. Slowly it started feeling like a family, only one which wouldn’t dictate what to do and ask for obedience but the one which urged us to think.
I made friends from different departments and also outside the university, joined the gender forum, other democratic solidarity forums for students and had conversations with different people, people from left student parties on different issues. Endless conversations, chai on footpaths, breakfast, and iced tea in D School and seminars. Some friends from SFI were the ones who made me realise how everything is political, the definition of politics was not restricted to just party politics.
The history department provided us space for more ideas. Guest lectures and seminars organised by Mukul Mangalik were the most insightful of all. Dilip Simeon gave lectures on communalism and secularism. Personal anecdotes and the ideas they were introducing us to, along with stories of the cultures of protest in Ramjas’ history were brought alive in time I spent with these people. All these were catalysts. I was inspired and impressed beyond measure.
The history department festivals were the best time of the year. Our family would work together. Organising these festivals helped us imagine and see that equality was possible among people. I had friends from different religions, castes, classes, places, different departments, with different eating habits, and I loved them without thinking about any of these identities. Hierarchies were dissolving with such exceptional professors by our side. The world suddenly seemed a better place. I knew this was a privileged space in many senses, but in comparison to the stories of my Kashmiri Muslim friends studying sciences in North Campus, I never ever got discriminated because I was a Muslim, and a Kashmiri. I indeed was living in a utopia which I’d realise more after coming out of this little space I’d been in.
The seminars in the English department on gender, sexuality, postcolonialism, further ushered in new ideas that felt too radical initially. But professors always remained tolerant and receptive to all kinds of responses, comments, and observations. I got to attend all kinds of seminars, events, festivals, public meetings and understood the importance of freedom to accessibility and mobility. Freedom of navigating through all the spaces, in, around and outside the university helped me realise how important public spaces, freedom, mobility, and access, was in our personal and political growth, especially, as women. Otherwise, we will remain repressed, will think of flying as an illness and never even realise that we are being denied any of our basic fundamental rights to live and exist without fear, intimidation, and coercion.
My course introduced me to political criticism of literature. We analysed Genesis sociologically and politically, and that also sprung new questions regarding the basic tenants of religion. There was so much to the world and knowledge and education outside my shell, my bubble and I would never see if I had insisted on covering the lid of my mind with dogma and not open it and let new ideas enter.
Every day was a day of conflicts, questions, dilemmas and eventually learning, unlearning and relearning. The years slowly and gradually helped my mind to settle, gave me answers, made me aware of my rights, conscious of my privileges, helped in my political progression, made me understand power dynamics and equations at play everywhere and helped me give up irrational fear. It felt liberating. Poststructuralism made me realise how it is absolutely okay to not have answers in absolutes, in black and white, that we need not search for conclusions all the time. Cultural studies helped me see everything as a text, so nothing escapes doubt and critical inquiry, won’t ever believe in anything without doubting and questioning.
During the JNU episode, I followed everything that happened. I read every single piece that was written about the struggle. I came to know of JNU’s history of student movements and the principles JNU was founded on. JNU had stood for education beyond the utilitarian definitions of scoring good marks, getting a job, added to your own privilege, climbing up the social ladder and never caring about equal opportunities and representation for others. I made friends in JNU, had the most insightful conversations with them.
This was the real learning for me: asking questions, interrogating and challenging all kinds of authority, equal education and opportunities for all, equal representation, the absence of discrimination, violence, fear, intimidation despite different identities. Being aware of one’s rights and constantly demanding them. ‘Cultures Of Protest’ (which was also the name of our seminar which was vandalised by the ABVP) gave meaning to my life. Cultures of dissent and protest gave meaning to me more than anything else before.
I didn’t learn to replace one ‘absolute’ worldview with the next, I learned the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn and question everything. I learned that we have the freedom to agree, disagree and to entertain ideas without having to agree with them.
After graduating and finding myself lost in the ‘real’ world, like an outcast, especially when I call people out for being insensitive to the issues of caste, class, gender, race, and they giving religion as an excuse for their misbehavior or bigoted ideas especially on gender, I am called all kinds of things.
In this year’s history fest, I go to Vinita and ask her, “Ramjas was a bubble, wasn’t it? I have seen the real world. It is nothing like we had imagined.” She replied, quietly murmuring in my ear (in typical Vinita tone): “Let no one tell you it was a bubble. Aren’t you the real world?”