As I was handed my passport containing my Indian student visa the embassy official told me that I was going to a fake university. She said that the one that I had listed was not on their register of legitimate universities. Ashoka University – the university that I am attending – is 7 years’ young in its establishment. In a country whose universities are well known and have gained veteran status, I thought that perhaps the register simply had not been updated. I had provided her with offer letters and other supporting documentation so I didn’t understand how she had arrived at this conclusion and more so, why she seemed so smug about it. As I stood there, delighted in having the visa in my hand but simultaneously trying to process this information, I wondered, could I have been hood-winked? In this age of fake news, nothing is concrete. And the real question to be asked is; why on earth had she issued the visa in the first place if she had red-flagged its authenticity? Embassy of India in Dublin, this one is on you.
On the plane journey over, I ran through the possibilities. I had written a detailed online application, I had one phone interview and a subsequent Skype interview a few months’ later in lieu of an in-person interview but hey, last minute flights from Ireland to India don’t grow on trees. I had received countless emails from the university, electronic offer letters, campus tour invitations and payment receipts. There was a dedicated Facebook and Whatsapp group with 250 prospective fellows. A tiny niggle in the back of my mind said surely this couldn’t be a hoax, and if it was – it would be a pretty elaborate one at that. I got off the plane at New Delhi airport, slightly delirious from lack of sleep and excitement, slightly worried that I may be on a fruitless journey to the promised land.
Meghana, a fellow and my future roommate, kindly collected me from the airport and fed me full of packed mango and cheese sandwiches. Her father drove us the 30 minutes to the campus. We pulled up to the destination and there it was.
An empty plot of land.
*Pauses for dramatic effect*
Part of this is true – Ashoka IS a plot of land, pretty much its own self-contained compound manned 24/7 by security guards but thankfully, not an empty one. Based in Harayana, Sonepat, it is about an hour and a half journey away from Delhi centre itself. Its red brick towers stretch up in to the skies and its pavements weave in and around the campus. My nerves calmed. Clearly Ashoka was not fake news. Meghana conducted an impromptu campus visit, showing me around the common areas, the state of the art gym facilities and “The Mess”- the canteen where we will be eating all of our meals.
The campus is truly spectacular with vast open spaces and thoughtful tailoring to encourage interactive participation. That said, there are parts of it still under construction and can be a bit of an eye and ear sore but they are well camouflaged. In true Indian fashion, the female and male hostels are segregated although in true Ashoka fashion, they’ve liberalized the strict rules prohibiting men and women from being in each other’s dorms, subsequent to some timing restrictions. Alcohol and cigarettes are prohibited on campus but as they say, where there is a will there is a way. We were shown our rooms which are sparse in comparison to the surrounding buildings but are equipped with everything we need – two single beds, two desks and good storage. I spent half an hour untangling cactus bunting (priorities, right?) that had been gifted to me by a knowledgeable friend and we erected it and bonded over our mutual love of cacti. Next stop is to invest in some spectacular succulents to decorate our room. We spotted some people arriving with their parents and their luggage in tow, or more so, their luggage and their parents in tow. I noticed one girl wearing a “Smash the Patriarchy” necklace and I breathed a sigh of relief that I was amongst my tribe.
The Young India Fellowship is a one-year intensive multidisciplinary programme in liberal arts. When you tell people that you are studying liberal arts in India, people seem to have these crazy notions that you have upped sticks to join a hippy commune to finger paint. Liberal arts is a pick n’ mix bag of modules aimed to give you a broader education and make you a more understanding, knowledgeable and wholesome individual. In a country so obsessed with track courses, such as engineering, liberal arts seems to be a very new and often not very welcome concept. There were quite a few helicopter parents attending orientation looking at the dean with pleading eyes as if to say ‘Why couldn’t my son/daughter just have continued on a set career path instead of segwaying in to liberal arts?’ There are eight semesters, six weeks a piece and each semester consists of two pre-ordained core modules and two elective modules. You “bid” on the modules you like – anything from women and gender studies, to mathematics, to history, to international relations – allocating values to the modules that you want to do the most. The courses are instructed by a range of professors, both based in Ashoka and on visitation from other universities but all with extremely impressive profiles. Everyone at YIF has an undergraduate in something, be it engineering, law, literature, computer science and business management to name but a few. I have searched high and low to find a programme of its kind and have come up empty. It is not often that you get to collaborate with people who have not been conditioned to think like you and have come from vastly different jurisdictions and cultures. This is what makes YIF different. I have finally escaped the echo chamber of law and am now in an arena of different opinion, training and skill-set. This is in equal parts invigorating and intimidating. I am sure as the year goes by and the fellows become my friends it will be even more rewarding.
The food has been brilliant so far and this is coming from a non-Indian pallet. I have eaten my weight in rice and dal and cucumber. Considering how things go, I may involuntarily become a passive vegetarian for the year. Although Ashoka does serve meat, they serve it upstairs from the general eating area and when a girl’s got to eat, is the effort really worth it?
Thursday was spent getting hooked in to the interwebs and registering our biometrics for fingerprinting for class attendance. I kid you not. I joked with the administrator that I will have to figure out a way to cut off my finger to give it to someone if I intended to miss class. He laughed. I don’t think he realized how serious I was about this statement.
We’ve been lectured in all the nitty-gritty administrative aspects of college and campus living. Now, the real fun begins – ice breaker sessions with the other fellows. One creative leadership session gave me all the feels – I had gained a greater insight in to the lives, pasts and identity make-up of some of my fellows but couldn’t help but feel extremely exposed and vulnerable myself.
1. Ashoka is not fake news;
2. The Indian embassy in Dublin has some serious soul-searching to do;
3. Return trips from Ireland to India do not grow on trees;
4. Passive vegetarian-ism is a thing.
I am now accepting suggestions on how to circumvent biometric readings. Please provide a brief PowerPoint presentation of your findings. No idea is too outrageous.
That’s all for now – you’ve read it here first, coming live from Ashoka University.
Thank you for giving me your brain juices for the short time it took to read this,