‘My admission was a miracle, possible only in JNU’

Print edition : March 18, 2016

During my one-year stay at the University of Roorkee (now IITR), where I had joined the B.E. (Mechanical Engineering) stream in 1971, I realised that my heart was not in the study of science although I was, and still am, very fond of mathematics and physics. As I had already passed BSc (Part I) before going to Roorkee, I went back to my town, Najibabad, situated in the foothills of Garhwal in Bijnor district of western Uttar Pradesh (U.P.), to finish the degree, which used to be a two-year course in those days. I had made up my mind to do an M.A. in either political science or history, although I knew nothing about these disciplines.

It was by sheer chance that in June 1973 I spotted a newspaper advertisement inviting applications for the M.A. course in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), whose name I had never heard before. However, as it offered a to-and-fro second-class railway ticket to appear for an interview and the possibility of a merit-cum-means scholarship, I promptly responded and opted for an M.A. in Ancient Indian History.

On the day of the interview, I reached the JNU old campus nearly two hours late, as not many autorickshaw drivers knew where it was. I was sent to a waiting room where a group of boys and girls was discussing history in English.

I found out that there were only 20 seats and nearly 80 applicants had been interviewed in the previous four days. Ours was the last batch of interviewees. As I could hardly speak English and had never studied history, I obviously stood no chance. I went to the office of the Centre for Historical Studies to claim my train fare but was told that I could get it only after appearing for the interview. So, I went in when my name was called out. As I had no hopes, there was no possibility of getting disappointed. I was blissfully unaware of the names of the past or present historians or their works. This ignorance made me absolutely fearless. The interview board was chaired by Romila Thapar and, if I can recall correctly, its other members included Suvira Jaiswal, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Muzaffar Alam, Majid Siddiqui and B.D. Chattopadhyaya. But, I knew absolutely nothing about them.

Just as Romila Thapar began to ask me a question, I said that I had two requests to make. As my application form made it clear, I had never studied history. So, I should not be asked questions about which battle took place in which year. Moreover, I came from a small U.P. town where nobody spoke English. Therefore, I would answer in Hindi. My requests were met with a stunned silence that lasted for at least 30 seconds and was shattered by a loud burst of laughter. Since I had no hopes of getting admission and wanted only my train fare, it made no impression on me.

However, to save an impossible situation, Romila Thapar asked me if that was so, why I wanted to study history. I gave some vague replies and spoke in Hindi. She asked me what I was reading those days. A few days ago, I had bought a book titled Issues in Western Philosophy and had started reading it without understanding much. So, I mentioned it. With a pride that only a teenager can have, I also said that I was a Hindi poet. This attracted the attention of Suvira Jaiswal, who asked me about Hindi literature. Then the others posed general questions relating to history. The interview lasted nearly 40 minutes. I emerged from the room happy because now I could claim my train fare.

It came as a major shock to me when I was informed that I had got admission. Much later I realised that it could happen only because the faculty appreciated the value of interdisciplinary approach, placed a great deal of emphasis on helping those who, like me, had been adversely affected because of their circumstances, and felt genuinely responsible towards society at large.

My admission was nothing short of a miracle. Such miracles were possible only in JNU.

Kuldeep Kumar