It is easy and convenient to become insular, to narrow it down from the world to nation to state to religion to community to neighbourhood and, ultimately, to one’s own backyard. You can then make a hammer throw of your garbage bag and fling it over the wall in the firm belief that nothing exists beyond those four walls and that your refuse will be gobbled up by a void. It is perhaps more difficult to journey the other way, to expand head and heart enough to accommodate the ‘other’. But when you do, there is a whole exciting world out there with a plenitude of sounds and smells.
Unfortunately, in educational institutions today, they seem to be sniffing the air to indict and ostracise. ‘What’s cooking?’ they ask.
At one time most college and university hostel corridors in Chandigarh were filled with the aroma of Thai food cooking in the rooms. After the last swirl to the Thai curry, the kerosene stove would quickly be extinguished and hidden away behind a bucket filled with to-do laundry on the balcony and the spices pushed deep into the lowest shelf of the clothes cupboard. It was meant to be surreptitious activity dodging the eye of authority, however, the smells that wafted out from under closed doors were an easy give away. But then a sniff in the air cannot become concrete proof of culpability. And in any case, the breezes of Chandigarh gently picked up the appetizing aromas from the corridors and carried them away to the gods. There were so many Thai students in the two hostels of Government College for Women, Sector 11, that the Thai New Year was celebrated in the central quadrangle of the Arts Hostel. Students from Zimbabwe and Mauritius were part of the festivities.
Of course, the presence or absence of foreign students was a result of the funding policies in their home countries, but there was a colourful pageant of different nationalities that marched through the portals of the many educational institutions in the city. Once the Thais had gone, it was the Kenyans and Nigerians who came in large numbers. They lived in rented rooms with their music filling the neighbourhood well into the odd hours of the night, the harmony occasionally disturbed by an unrepressed verbal duel. Their teams played animated football on the university grounds and stood around discussing the game in the university market, quite at home in an alien milieu. Their numbers were enough to form football teams and have arguments about victory and defeat. That was also the time when the fate of Chandigarh was in dispute, with both Punjab and Haryana laying claim to it. And the joke doing the rounds was that you might as well give the city to the Africans and so confound the quarrel between the two states!
The University and ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) would jointly organise an annual function for foreign students. In 1990, more than a 1,000 students from 14 countries had brought their traditional dances and music to the university stage. It was in the 90s that a large number of Sri Lankan and Afghan students came into the city. And one popular figure at most university functions was Sayeed Tora. He played the mandolin at all the hostel functions to which he was always a special invitee. Everyone knew him as the Afghan with the mandolin and there was always a clamour for him. The kabulliwala had come and had been happily absorbed into the social fabric, which has since become unyielding.