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All about St Stephen's

St. Stephen's College has inspired extreme emotions over the years, ranging from devotion to hostility.

india Updated: Sep 24, 2006 18:06 IST

St. Stephen's College: A History
Author: Ashok Jaitly
Publisher: Roli Books
Price: Rs.395

St. Stephen's College, which celebrated its 125th anniversary early this year, has inspired extreme emotions over the years, ranging from pure unadulterated devotion, verging on the religious, to undisguised resentment, even hostility.

The texture and intensity of emotions expressed depended on whether one was lucky enough to be the chosen few who passed through its hallowed precincts or an outsider bemoaning one's outcast fate.

Elitist, insular, self-obsessed "cynical brilliant undergraduates hyped up by their gonads and their wit" disporting crater-size chips on their shoulders - this is how the demonology contrived by Stephen's baiters conjured them.

But such stereotype-mongering simply does not square with the all-too-real achievements of Stephanians in just about every field, be it academics, politics, bureaucracy, literature, sports or the world of entertainment and showbiz, argues Ashok Jaitly in his St. Stephen's College: A History.

A passionate believer in Stephania - it is not simply a college, but a state of mind and feeling, the author would have us believe - Jaitly takes a critical look at the myths clustered around the 'College with the capital C', as its alumni fondly call it, by delving deep into inspirations and concerns that powered the college over the last 125 years.

Jaitly, a former bureaucrat and old student, relentlessly interrogates a popular charge levelled against the college that its students inhabited some kind of blessed isle cut off from the currents of political and social change around them.

In his book, which is divided into three sections - 'The Making of the College', 'Institutions within an Institution' and 'Beyond the College Walls' - the author cites numerous examples from the early years of the 20th century to more recent history to show that the college was radical in its deeper impulses than just a haven for status quo-ists.

The author's account of the struggles of the college to define itself in relation to seminal moments in the history of a nation like the freedom movement, the partition and the Mandal agitation of the 90's is full of revelations and little-known facts.

Not many, for instance, know that "Mahatma Gandhi, or plain Mr Gandhi as he was then" came to St. Stephen's early in 1915 soon after returning from Natal in South Africa or that the house of then principal Sushil Kumar Rudra became a rendezvous spot for iconic nationalist leaders like Rabindranath Tagore, Madan Mohan Malviya, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Surendranath Banerjee.

Or that Rabindranath Tagore completed his English translation of Gitanjali at Rudra's house.

It was the same radical impulse that fired the imagination of some students in the heydays of the Naxalite uprising who left the college suddenly and dramatically - "studies, belongings, everything" - to express their solidarity with the poor and the dispossessed.

Critics would still say that a few radical swallows do not a revolutionary summer make, but then it's sometimes hard to dismantle thick walls of prejudice with mere reasoning.

In short, what makes the college special is its "eclectic, polychrome culture," in the words of Shashi Tharoor, a Stephanian, and an aspirant for the post of UN secretary general, that provides space to just about every possible type - bureaucrat, writer, artist, thinker, revolutionary and rebel without a cause - to express themselves and achieve their full potential.

Jaitly had wanted to write a "fun history" of the college, but has ended up writing a serious, probing and passionate book - not that it doesn't have its fun moments - that locates St. Stephen's so-called elitism and exclusive-ism in the social and historical context and illuminates in great detail why the college inspires such fanatical devotion among its alumni.