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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Letter from... the judge of an inter-college story-writing competition

A peek into the thoughts of young college students in Mumbai, gleaned from, well, an inter-college story-writing competition

Once upon a time, back when blogging was still a thing in India, there were certain perks to being a blogger of some repute. For instance, you got invitations to TEDx events, free copies of books to review, the occasional discount ticket to a college festival or concert, the odd writing gig covering an event such as the Kala Ghoda Festival, and even several free boxes of herbal teas. (I suspect I miss the free herbal teas the most.) 

And of course, there were also all those invitations to judge or moderate things at college festivals. These I enjoyed very much. Partly because it gave one a sense of importance that was incommensurate with one’s real fame or fortune. And partly because it gave me a chance to go back to college campuses and partake in that spirit of excitement and limitless possibilities that are banned, if not expressly illegal, in the workplace.

Thus many years ago, I think eight or nine, I was invited to judge a short fiction competition at a college in Mumbai. I leave the exact details out for reasons of privacy. I vaguely recall being doubly thrilled by the fact that it was a girls' college. I landed up at the college one afternoon, was welcomed with a glass of lemon juice, and then ushered into a quiet classroom, where a stack of entries awaited marking. Two hours later I was given a souvenir of some sort and escorted off the premises. And then I went back to work.

I did this two or three years in a row. And then one of the organizers, I think, graduated and went to another college, which then invited me to judge their own short story contest. And this I have continued to do for several years now. Each year some student office-bearer of some sort sends me an email asking if I could judge this year’s entries. I reply saying of course. And then they send me a packet of documents by email, including anonymized entries, a marking sheets, rules, suggested guidelines and so on. It is all thoroughly professional. They give me one deadline, which I always miss. And then a second one that I usually manage to meet.

And I must say that I enjoy this annual ritual very much indeed. Each year I think: "Oh no! I forgot to read those stories! God, it will be so painful!" And each year I read those stories and have a delightful time of it.

But it is only in the last year or two that I have realized how interesting these stories are. Not so much for their content, but for the light they shine into the minds and mental make-up of the kind of people who send entries. These entries are all by undergraduate students, all of them who live in or around Mumbai and most of whom seem to be women.

So what is on the minds of these writers?

Loneliness is ubiquitous in these stories. Rarely do friends appear in these stories. And when they do, rarely do these friends play essential parts. Instead, these stories all mainly feature young people who are trying to cope with issues by themselves. They all seem to want to reach out for help. But something seems to hold them back. Families, on the other hand, are much more common apparitions. But there is rarely genuine warmth or intimacy in depictions of family life and familial affection.

(Another manifestation of the distance they feel from the people around them, I think, is how much the writers seem to struggle with the idea of poverty. Poverty often features in these stories, but always as a caricature. As if the writers care for the poor, but have only understood the poor as they are depicted in Bollywood films. It is really quite fascinating and perplexing.)

Thus it should not be surprising that a second major theme is the problematic nature of love. Love is often portrayed in these stories as some deep, dark, confusing mystery. Something that is out there but cannot be trusted. Something that only has a minimal probability of "working". Relationships in these stories are rarely happy. Many, many stories deal with women who have to grapple with terrible love lives. Or women who fall in love but then have this love wrenched out of them. So many women in these stories suffer great misfortune purely because they choose to embrace love in some form. Love, for these writers, is deeply problematic, something that can only end badly.

All of which means that the protagonists in these stories seem to live lives with minimal trust. Everything around them seems capable of betrayal. The live life on tenterhooks, knowing that at any moment their lonely, complicated lives is going to get upended by something they have taken for granted. 

It often makes for quite unsettling reading. I often wonder how much this is a reflection of the isolation and coldness these young people feel as they live and work in their urban environments, and how much authenticity there really is in their relationships with the people around them.

But does this mean all the stories are just sad, bleak little works? Not at all. And this is the strange thing; there is a strong sense of optimism in most of these stories. The feeling that good things will happen, and that good things will happen to good people. That there is a sense of karmic justice to life. Not now… but soon.

Of course, often this justice takes place overseas—as if India is still a hard place to get your rightful due. And the overseas is, once again, depicted with a tremendous lack of subtlety, as if everything they know of the rest of the world comes from textbooks or TV shows.

Thus all the men are Edwards, and all the women are Elizabeths, and the weather is always snowy. And yet even as good things happen to good people overseas, the writers often include a sense of guilt in the protagonist. The characters are troubled by their own admiration of the foreign. They feel that they are betraying India… but what choice do they have? Do they not deserve love and happiness?

Given that these stories are from a particular slice of youth, from a particular section of society, in a particular city in India, one must not extrapolate this to all youth or even all urban youth. But I get the sense that many young people live lives that are governed by a relatively standard set of values and conditions: loneliness, lovelessness, fear, caution, an awkward patriotism, a wishful optimism… but never joy.

It makes for good stories. But does it make for a good life? I am afraid not. Perhaps things will change in next year’s entries.

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend. 

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