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This institution's snob value is worth it.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
One morning, tired of wandering in tombs, forts, bookshops, malls, I went to a college campus instead. Not just to any college. St Stephen's, in north Delhi, is a glass bubble fantasy. It's the south Delhi of Delhi University. Snobbish.
Here's no noise, no dust. Just trees, hedged pathways, redbrick structures and English-speaking kids, rumored to be some of the country's brightest. (Wikipedia has a list of 'distinguished' Stephanians.)
Here you may think you are in a century-old English garrison. Not true. The building is as new as New Delhi, constructed during the 40s. Don't be disappointed. Keep wandering aimlessly. At St Stephen's, unlike other colleges in Delhi, anyone can go in, stroll around, and lie down on the grass.
Yes, even walk down the corridors. No problem. But don't stare at the classroom windows. Lectures maybe on.
However, if there is an empty hall, step in. The vacant benches and the portraits of dead professors make the surroundings as silent as a... well, tomb (!). If that's not spooky enough, try this: at the grounds is an old well, now locked inside a rounded structure. Peer through the dusty window and you will find stairs going down. Spooky.
Hurry down to the college chapel, circa 1952. Potted flowers guard its heavy wooden doors. Tiptoe in. If you're as lucky as me, you might find a beautiful girl reading a novel. Else you may read yours.
By now you may be feeling hungry.
The college has a mess for its hostel students. Yet I sneaked in. What a sight! Ceiling fans, framed portraits, and bearers laying out the tables. A special elevated dining area for teachers. The scene was straight out of Harry Potter's Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. However, being a muggle, not a Stephanian, I was shooed out.
So I walked down to the college canteen... oohps, sorry! At St Stephen's, there's no canteen. But café. I've never been to Calcutta coffeehouses but they must be like this one. Wicker chairs, ageing stewards, bone china plates, and forks 'n' knives. Bilkul English. No self-service, no samosas.
While I waited for buttered toasts (Rs 5), 'mince' (potato patty, Rs 10) and scrambled egg (Rs 7), Shraddha Shah, a Stephanian, started chatting to me. "It's not about the food here," she warned. "Here, you spent hours reading a novel and no one asks you to leave."
Lovely, but the food, too, was not bad. (So what if the mince was cold and the coffee too sweet.)
And did I mention there's a site for another kind of nourishment? The auditorium gallery, nicknamed Passion Corridor, lies in front of the teachers' room. It is often used, I'm told, by romantic couples to 'make out', but "only in the evening when the teachers' room is closed and it's dark."
Luckier still are the hostel students – residents in Stephen's-speak - who get to live in this bubble. But please don't grudge these 'resis'. A few years of debate, drama, dancing, literature, sex and then they would be out in the real world. Let them have their fun for now.
The beautiful chapel...
...and a girl inside
More girls outside
The silent lecture hall
The covered well
No mess in the mess
The cafe society
More cafe people
Shh, she's reading
Shh, they're playing
Shh, they're listening
The passion corridor