By Soham Dey (UG ‘23)
A few weeks ago, Professor Orijit Sen, the author of what is recognized as India’s first graphic novel, had come to the Ashokan campus to give a lecture about some of his works. After the lecture, another student and I ended up accompanying him to Dosai. The first thing he asked us, sitting down on a ledge in front of Dosai, was this: “Before anything else, tell me, is there anywhere I can smoke?”
My friend and I gave each other sad glances and he told Orijit about the now defunct Smoking Room , and that now he should just smoke wherever he liked, as long as he did it discreetly. Taking out his tobacco and rolling paper, Orijit spoke about how upsetting he found this, expressing that every other college he had been to had had some sort of a space where students could just go and smoke. And he was right; it is quite sad for a college campus, especially one like Ashoka which boasts of its liberal reputation, to not have a single space like that.
The SR was many things: it was a place to party, to catch a smoke between classes, to show off to your friends in other colleges, to read poetry, to complain about theory, and a place to leave your mark on campus behind. But most importantly, in all of these cases, the SR was a student space–and when the rest of your campus looks like ours does, that counts for a lot.
The Ashokan campus reeks of corporate commercialism. From our HDFC library to our Kamala Bajaj Residence Hall, all our structures bear the names of their sponsors loudly; not even the trees are spared. We even tend to use the names of corporations as shorthand for classrooms and other spaces on campus (“Is there a performance at Reddy’s tonight?”/ “I’m heading to Genpact for my 10:10”). Add to this the amount of regulated maintenance administered to make sure our precious, sponsored campus is kept clean, which brings a sense of controlled artificiality. While I’m not complaining about the facilities we have, from its aesthetics alone our campus often does not feel like a space inhabited by young, living, breathing, thinking college students.
The one space on campus that stood in complete contrast to this artificiality was the SR. Smoke in the air, cracked red bricks, old benches, a dirty floor laden with cigarette butts, graffiti ranging from obscene to literary (or both) littering the walls and with ambiguous legality; the SR felt like a refreshing break from the rest of campus. It was organic, and you could tell it was a student generated space that was left relatively unmoderated by the administration. Although still regularly monitored, the SR felt like the only place on campus sustained, inhabited and decorated by students themselves. The last of those three is particularly important: the SR’s graffiti was one of the major characteristics that made it a student space. Unlike the rest of our pristine campus, the walls of the SR were free to be expressed upon in whatever way students liked. The SR was a symbol of student expression and (to some degree) student autonomy.
As is made evident by Orijit Sen’s disappointment, spaces to smoke and paint are perhaps just as important to a college’s culture as, say, its sports facilities are. The administration’s tolerance for the SR displayed a respect for this fact. It also treated the student body with a sort of mature respect; it showed that the administration recognised the students as adults, in a way. Student spaces will crop up regardless of the administration’s decisions; the chai ki tapri right outside campus seems to be slowly inheriting the SR’s legacy. Recognizing that and allowing a space like the SR to exist on campus was, to put it plainly, pretty cool. At least that’s what I thought when I first entered the SR in the Monsoon semester last year; and I think Orijit Sen would have agreed had he been able to roll his tobacco there.
I do not intend to pass judgment on the administration’s decision or place morality on the legality of the SR and the substances that flowed through it every week. However, I think the power to look away is a potent one, and the administration’s decision to stop exercising it is significant. The decision was taken completely unilaterally, and a student space was left demolished without any student input. In the end, this may reflect a loss of the respect between the administration and the student body, and consequently a shifting attitude towards the student body and their activities on campus in general.