Indian Campus Novels Before Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone: What Not to Do at IITs took the Indian readership and publication market by storm. There can be many speculations as to why it happened. It can be assumed that after globalisation in the last decade, the mindset of the 21st-century middle-class audience was ripe to receive a book that talked about everyday woes without delving deeper into it. It was recognition without introspection. The novel breaks the barrier between high culture and low culture, it caters to the middle class without snobbery and elitism.
Upon looking back into the past, it can be said that the genre of novels itself was a break from elitism. It was the genre of the middle class, talking about everyday things such as mannerism, propriety, and more, as well as adventures. Novels provided validation for the middle-class reality as well as a dollop of escapism. The sub-genres of novels are innumerable and amidst these, one is campus fiction.
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The Graves of Academe (1952) by Mary McCarthy marks the beginning of campus novels in America followed by many such novels across the West. The main characteristic of such novels is that it is set within the grounds of a university, college or school. It features caricatures of professors and a satire on academic life. It began with the professor being the narrator as well as the protagonist of the novel, often dwelling in the loneliness of one’s mind. David Lodge is a renowned campus fiction writer in the UK. However, it is interesting to note that he differentiates campus novels from varsity novels, the ones based in Oxbridge, and are more student-oriented. Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin (1955) is also seen as an early example of a campus novel.
Campus novels also explore the themes of exploitation and victimization in the academy as opposed to the idea of educational institutions being a sacred space of higher learning and preparing students to enter the ‘real’ world. It explores various aspects of student-teacher relationships while also indulging in their personal lives. These novels are set in campus but are not limited to it. When student-oriented, the novels also focus on the coming of age (aka bildungsroman) as the students learn to navigate their lives.
In India, campus novels date back to 1937 when R.K. Narayan’s Bachelor of Arts was published. It is partially set in the academic environment before moving on to navigate the protagonist’s personal life. A similar case can be drawn from Narayan’s The English Teacher (1945). In this we see a sincere, enthusiastic, and sensitive teacher, Krishna who is also a very affectionate parent. Upon the death of his wife, he is drawn into melancholy and his daughter becomes his reason for survival.
These texts mark the earliest stages of campus novels in India followed by some more but were not widely received as certain novels of the 21st century. They weren’t entirely set in the campus setting either. Before the 1980s, Sudhin N. Ghose published The Vermillion Boat and The Flame of Forest. The former focused on the romantic life of its protagonist while the later focused on teachers who measure their academic excellence by being present in front of the Vice Chancellor of the university rather than actually teaching.
Atom and the Serpent: A Novel of Campus Life in India Today (1982) by Prema Nandakumar is seen as the first fully-fledged Indian campus novel. It focuses completely on the activities of academicians on campus. Meena Alexander in Nampally Road (1991) narrates the story from a woman’s point of view. The book focuses on a foreign-returned Mira, professor of English, faced with political turbulence on campus. She is deeply moved and eventually turns into an activist which reconstructs her ways of teaching. She teaches with political and social awareness.
Anurag Mathur published The Inscrutable Americans (1991). It tells the story of Gopal who moves to America for his education. It is extremely comical as Gopal tries to balance his Brahminic values and instructions from his mother while being introduced to the American ways of living. It charts the story of one year that he spends in a small-town university in the US. Ranga Rao published The Drunk Tantra in 1994. This text satirises the role and involvement of politics in university. It showcases how promotions take place based on contacts rather than merit. It shows the life of a person who is not so efficient at teaching but makes his way up the success ladder to the position of the principal.
Finally, Shakuntala Bharvani wrote about the life of a widow in search of companionship in Lost Direction (1996). The protagonist is a Reader in English. The narration dives deep into her childhood through stories and folktales, the past and the present, the falling standards of academia. The author brings together this story with satire and humour, not only for the campus life but also for the Indian society at large.
This list is not exhaustive. There are other books like The Long, Long Days by P.M. Nithyanandan, Rama Sarma’s The Farewell Party, In Custody by Anita Desai, Mircales Happen by D.R. Sharma, The Serpent and the Rope by Raja Rao, etc. It cannot be denied that Chetan Bhagat put together the life of the esteemed institution on the paper but campus novels do not start with him in India. He might have popularized the genre but there have been many books before his time that talk about various aspects of life at campus.
This Article is written by Akankshya