COVID-19: On Missing the Warmth of Campus Life

On a particularly boring summer evening, flipping thoughtlessly through TV channels, I chanced upon Bittu and Shruti (Ranveer Singh and Anushka Sharma in Band Baaja Baaraat) devouring bread pakora and making ‘binness’ plans. This chance encounter induced a sudden bout of nostalgia, taking me back to the red walls of Delhi University’s Hansraj College – my alma mater.

I have munched on many such bread pakoras while ruminating over big life plans with a bunch of friends under the same tree – as if someone told the director Maneesh Sharma about an integral part of my life and he projected it on the big screen (or so the cine fanatic in me would like to believe). Such is the allure of campus life that it has incited the curiosity of writers, filmmakers and playwrights time and again, successfully stirring emotions within those who have left it behind and those who are yet to experience it in all its vivacity.

My college memories are dotted with instances such as this: exploring the North campus, meeting new people, making friends and learning some crucial life lessons in the process. Looking back I can say with conviction that it wasn’t just the four walls of the classroom that shaped me into the person I am today but an elaborate campus life that offered endless opportunities of self-development and more importantly, self-discovery.

No wonder the news of universities moving online due to COVID-19 stunned me rather unpleasantly. After a slew of universities abroad, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay on June 25 went public with its decision to run the remaining semester online. Other IITs are expected to follow suit. At a time when the world is reeling under the impact of a pandemic, the immediacy of such decisions is not hard to understand. But the subtext is disappointing to say the least because virtual classes, no matter how meticulous, will always fall short of matching the marvels of the campus life.

For most students, college life is the first encounter with the outside world – something which you can only enjoy beyond the glaze of the computer screens. Personally, I transgressed a fairly conservative social milieu when I entered DU as a shy teenager. Over the years, I not only shrugged off the shyness but also entered into a heady phase of discovering the world as if I got a new pair of eyes to experience life.

Also read: How COVID-19 Stole My Last Semester of College at JNU

In expanding my curve of individual associations, I understood the forces — the machinations of caste, class, sexuality and gender — that dictate the society. Lazing on the lawns beneath the winter sun, I wrestled with the great questions of life. Sauntering between Arts Faculty and Hindu College, I experienced the pangs of first heartbreak. It was on campus that I experienced the high of bunking a class and the euphoria of watching my favourite singer perform on campus.

The campus offered me my first brush with politics during the electrifying election season. Had I not become friends with a girl from a part of the country I hadn’t heard of earlier, I would have never enjoyed sitaphal sabzi like the way I do today. I entered college with the naiveté of a teenager and walked out of it as an ambitious young woman, with a new perspective to see the world wider and nuanced.

In addition to the peer bonding, university experience is so much about the warm bonds that one inadvertently forms with the faculty. The absence of the campus also means a lack of easy accessibility to professors who help students, in unexpected ways, navigate through treacherous experiences that are a part and parcel of university life. The amount of emotional labour that teachers put in over and above their jobs is criminally underrated.

As an outstation student all through my undergrad and postgrad years, I have lost count on the number of times my professors helped me skit through a difficult situation which seemed nothing less than life-altering at that point. A lot of these wonderful professors, with their decade-long experience, may not be very tech savvy. Having spent years teaching in a classroom setting, it would take them some time to get used to the new medium of instruction. This would unfortunately deprive several students of anecdotes that teachers share in passing, making the learning experience so much more fulfilling.

The days I spent in college are vivid in my memory, a testimony to how much I value the experience. A big part of college life is about understanding cultures and communities far from your own. It is about leaving your comfort zone to take on challenges life throws at you. It is about stumbling and finding your grip, about failing and succeeding, of letting in and letting go – things a computer screen can never substitute for. Indeed, of the many casualties of COVID-19, campus life would be on the top of my list, a collateral damage which would unfortunately change college life forever!

Harshita Murarka is a communications professional currently associated with a UK-based firm. She has an inclination towards arts, culture and Hindi cinema which leads to occasional stints in writing. A lover of stories, you can find her on Instagram @nectar_in_a_sieve and Twitter @HarshitaMurarka

Featured image credit: Flickr/British High Commission New Delhi