“Those among us who happen to have the space offer it for the evening,” said the Judge. “This is my third time as the host.” There was certainly no dearth of space. The lawns of the Judge’s residence—in the heart of Lutyen’s Delhi—were the size of a football field or two. The occasion was the Senior Stephanians Annual Party and to be invited, you had to have graduated from the St. Stephen’s College in Delhi University 50 years ago or earlier. It was a large gathering and the big lawn soon filled up with old, elderly and youthful St. Stephen’s alumni, accompanied in most cases by their wives. The swell of conversation soon eclipsed the elevator music version of golden oldies wafting out of unseen speakers.
Some famous Stephanians
“You are from the press,” said a wife with wistful eyes and red lipstick who was a Miranda House alumnus herself. “Our college is not very far from St. Stephen’s. My husband is over there. He was fine cricketer in college and a Ranji captain,” she motioned towards the bar. “There was this girl from some paper last year. Kept asking us all kinds of questions about how we had met our husbands. Was it an arranged marriage or love marriage? Wonder if any of that ever got published?” I smiled in response; I had meant to ask her the same things but changed my mind.
A shade less pleasant was the exchange with a mildly lost gent who had a manic gleam in his eyes. Maybe it was the alcohol. He too wrote for papers and magazines he announced, taking puffs from a cigarette—its blackened tip indicating that had been lit at some point—and then asked me how old I was. I told him.
“Are you married?”
“No, I am not,” I said, smiling.
“Why?” He was incredulous. Then switching to Hindi, he asked me something—let’s say, related to my manhood—that I thought was rather below the belt and unbecoming of a Stephanian. I continued to smile blankly, pretending his query had gone unheard in all that loud conviviality. He quickly added that I must send him my “bio-data” and a photograph of myself.
“Why?” It was my turn to be incredulous.
“Because, I am a matchmaker. Now, note down my address.”
I duly noted it down on a paper napkin.
I was not the only representative of the fourth estate; there were a couple of hacks and, more prominently, a couple of young ladies with TV cameras in tow. One of them was not very happy and she had no qualms about making her unhappiness known to anyone within 25ft of her. “There is not one famous person here,” she was telling a man. “Now how do I do a live telecast!”
“I never made any such promise,” he offered weakly.
“Don’t lie. Shall I show you the SMS you sent me? You said Kapil Sibal would be here. Where is Kapil Sibal?”
Soon enough, the Veteran Actor made his entrance, rescuing the evening for the TV ladies. There he was catching up with his college mates one minute and—lo and behold—suddenly he and his friend were bathed in the harsh glow of the TV lights, all eyes upon them. Seasoned pro that he was, he kept on conversing as if there were no lights, no cameras, no TV crew. A little later, he was interviewed by the young lady, who found more succour in the form of the Recently Retired Auto CEO—lean, trim, dressed in black and looking positively dapper as he puffed away at a cigar. Later, he was accosted by a fellow Stephanian. “I want to tell you this. I bought this Baleno five years back,” said the man. “What a fine car! It is still running perfectly. Why did you have to discontinue it?” The ex-CEO responded with silence and some barely perceptible head movement. The fellow Stephanian continued undaunted. “And the SX4? What kind of a car is it? It looks…terrible.” And so it went on for a bit until the CEO managed to sidle away.
The evening wore on, and I found the Judge sitting at the centre of a pavilion with sofas, bolsters and tables which had been erected at a slight elevation. He looked too young to be a judge, though there was something about his bearing that marked him as an Important Man. (Another judge I spoke to that evening—both, his father and daughter were also Stephanians—was so completely unassuming, I forgot for a moment that I was in Delhi.) From where he sat, the Judge could survey the whole gathering and seemed very content. He was tucking into his dinner with evident relish and asked me to sit next to him.
“It’s about values,” he said, recalling his college days. “In 1963, Lal Bahadur Shastri was the Prime Minister and his son Anil was studying with us. He had no choice but to take the official car to college everyday for security reasons. But he got off the car some distance away from the college gate and walked the rest of the way. Can you imagine anyone doing that today?” As he was narrating this, a waiter came up to us and stood, silent and slightly hunched, with a basket of assorted rotis and naans. He made the barest of motions to catch the Judge’s eye, with no evident success. He kept standing there, then surmised that no more rotis were required and withdrew.
Another prominent alumnus, whom I’ll call Disillusioned, also had something to say about values and his alma mater while he nursed his drink. “I am actually grateful to our parents for the kind of vision and values they had which made them steer us towards St. Stephen’s,” he said. That must have set off a train of thought. “You know, in India we are taught to obey our parents and respect our elders,” he then said and looked at me. “What do you make of that?”
“It excludes so much,” he said, answering his own question. “It actually promotes tribalism.” He seemed to ponder over what he had just said. “Stephen’s certainly taught us the right values. Though…” His voice trailed off and then he motioned at the crowd, “I’m sure there are some bribe takers among these IAS officers and government servants.” He slowly turned his gaze, looking past me. “That man over there, two tables behind you. He was an IAS officer; retired at a very high position. Nice guy, good friend of mine. But people say he used to take a lot of money.”
A friend of his joined us and updated him on his current vocation. “We were misled, R______,” he went on, with some fervour. “I have come to realize so late, money is the only good! All our lives we have looked up to Gandhi, Nehru… We were misled. Money is the only good.”
“Over time, I have to admit, I have developed respect for Gandhi and Nehru,” Disillusioned countered. His friend did not look convinced.
It was late, the party had thinned out and we proceeded to leave. On our way out, another friend of Disillusioned reminisced about how when he was in the St Stephen’s tennis team, it lost the Inter College championship after a gap of 20-25 years. This, he recounted, after he had pulled off a miracle by defeating the Junior national champ who was representing Ramjas College. “The champ choked, you see,” he said. “And, I actually beat him! Now our victory was certain.” But then in the next match, it was his team-mate’s turn to choke and the rival college prevailed. He told us all this at some length, with his wife by his side, interjecting and correcting little details from long ago.
Sports was a big part of this generation’s youth. Talk of cricket, hockey and tennis in college seemed far removed from today’s gadget and gizmos. It is something when the old speak to you as a peer—there is a generosity of spirit, willingness to share, and, usually, an absence of any motive. Encountering such transparency is humbling.
The Senior Stephanians Annual Party took place on 28 March.