An Interview with
Dr. Simi Malhotra,
Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi
Wafa: When and how did your association with JNU begin? Where did you graduate from and what made you think of coming to JNU for further studies?
Simi Malhotra: I joined JNU in the year 1997 when I took admission in the MA English Programme at Centre of Linguistics and English (CLE), School of Languages (that was exactly how the centre and the school were called then). After completing my BA English (Hons.) from Gargi College, University of Delhi (DU), I had the option of either continuing my MA at DU or to make a switch to JNU. Needless to say, I chose JNU. Having decided to pursue a career in academics, JNU was the obvious choice for me.
I completed my MA in 1999 and took admission to the integrated M.Phil/Ph.D programme at CLE. After completing my M.Phil. coursework I went in for the direct Ph.D. option, and got awarded my doctoral degree in 2004.
Lakshmi: What were your first impressions about this University?
Simi Malhotra: Having grown up on a campus next door, JNU was a sea-change from IIT. I remember the summer of 1997, the bougainvillea-lined road which led one from the main gate to the ad-block, the general wilderness which enveloped you, the graffiti on the red brick buildings, co-students at stalls outside the ad-block trying to help new entrants like me with the admissions process, the multi-coloured folios which had to be filled in quintuplicate and dropped at different places on campus, and the very helpful JNU administrative staff especially Rawatji at CLE. All this was followed by a heady discovery of caves and classes, rocks and books, dhabas and paper presentations, slogans and end semester exams. JNU unfolded a whole new universe of thinking, of being ...
Wafa: How would you describe your years at JNU?
Simi Malhotra: My years at JNU ... my years at CLE from MA to Ph.D., to be more specific ... were probably the most significant years of my life. The rigour and yet the flexibility of the academic programme at JNU, the interdisciplinary ethic, the accomplished faculty, the co-students who came from all over the country and occasionally from other parts of the world, the atmosphere of discussion and debate, were all very important in framing my academic base. Besides, and possibly more importantly, the larger academic culture in JNU compelled one to engage with competing ideas not just with respect to one's own discipline but also about society, politics, culture, and all these were very significant in framing one's orientation. The freedom of thought, expression, and being that JNU offers is incomparable. No wonder JNU is not just another University but a whole Universe. I was once told that you may step out of JNU but JNU never steps out of you, and I do think that nothing rings truer than that.
Lakshmi: How has JNU shaped your perception in relation to your profession?
Simi Malhotra: Apart from what I said above about JNU having been extremely important in forming my academic base, my general orientation, and perspective, JNU also taught me much about the craft of teaching. My teachers at JNU have contributed immensely not just to my understanding of the discipline but also to my approach to the profession of teaching. My Ph.D supervisors (Prof H S Gill and Prof Franson Manjali) truly nurtured me. They have been my guides, philosophers and friends and I cherish my association with them dearly. All my teachers at CLE have been examples for me and have contributed towards my becoming a teacher in their own way. As a teacher today, I adopt/adapt a mixture of what I learnt from each of them. Besides, they also taught me what it entails to be an academic and have continued to inspire me with their work and selves over the years.
Wafa: How would you describe JNU academic culture in contrast with the other universities you've been to?
Simi Malhotra: As stated earlier, I went to DU for my undergraduate degree and switched to JNU for further studies. Thereafter I went on to teach at DU and now I am at Jamia Millia Islamia. I am thus in a position to compare these three universities.
The academic culture in JNU is different from the other universities I have been to in so far as the students are the most important contributors to its vibrancy. Not only does JNU attract the best students from all across the country but it also offers one of the enriching experience of dealing with diversity in a very immediate and tangible way. The students play a very important role in JNU: they are partners in administrative bodies such as SFCs, they are the ones who run cultural clubs on campus, they manage students' affairs, be it in hostels or as the students' union, etc.
I think the most important element of JNU's academic culture that would set it in contrast with other universities is (or, sadly, was) its students' union elections, and for a generation to miss out on this experience of what was probably the biggest carnival in the world, I would say, is a loss which is immeasurable. On a more serious note, JNU elections were an integral part of being a student on campus, which kept the academic culture of debate and discussion alive on campus, and not to experience the same now for more than three years is a huge pity. I think,once again, students comprise the single most important contributor to what makes JNU different.
Also the culture of discussion and debate, of seminars and public meetings, of free exchange between faculty members and students keep the academic community of JNU alive and engaged. The flexibility and rigour of the academic programme offer ample opportunities for students to immerse themselves in all kinds of intellectual pursuits and follow different paths. The residential campus with its distinct community life, its unique culture, is life-altering for anyone who has been through JNU. The student' marches, the festival of holi, post dinner meetings, the wild-life, ganga dhaba, hostel nights ... are all landmarks in a student's life, and part of the unique academic culture of JNU. All this and more make JNU a special place and I think no place offers such a stimulating and rich experience as JNU does.
Lakshmi: Which aspect of JNU did you love the most when you were a student here? Any particular memories that you would like to share?
Simi Malhotra: Even though there are several competing memories, but I think I remember my MA days with the greatest fondness: the discussions with classmates, debates which went beyond classrooms, lazy lunches at the SIS canteen, sojourns into the forest, many seminars and post-seminar parties ... countless memories ... Besides, all the many enchanted afternoons and evenings that I spent at Prof Gill's house at 1313 Poorvanchal are possibly some of the best days of my life.
Wafa: What message would you like to give to the present JNU student community?
Simi Malhotra: What message can I give to JNU students? Nothing, I guess ... except that they must realize how fortunate they are to be part of JNU and they must make the most of being on campus. The years that they are spending here will possibly prove to be the most significant years of their life, and they must realise to the fullest the worth of what they are currently going through.