I like this genre of campus novel simply because it’s about campuses. I also like this genre because it’s somewhat dominated by Professors of English. And finally, I like this genre because I’ve written a short campus novel. These are enough reasons for liking a genre, I suppose.
A campus is a closed world. The word ‘campus’ denotes a self-sufficient educational premise. Whenever, the world is closed, there are possibilities of ‘intrigue’, ‘suspense’, ‘politics’, ‘romance’ and even ‘injustice’ there. This is an interesting genre indeed where the narcissistic instincts of Professors find full satisfaction. Write about yourself; read about yourself; get the attention. But, as we’ll see in the course of this lecture, there’s a lot more to the campus novel than just narcissism.
Campus defines you. This one is like this and that one is like that. People know what to expect. Sadly enough, professors know for sure that people don’t change. Theoretically, professors ought to know that people do and can change because it’s their job to mould and change generations for the better. But it doesn’t happen much.
For example, injustice in a closed world becomes unbearable. There’s a wide variety in this group. There’re novels written from the perspective of the faculty. There’re novels written strictly from the point of view of the students; like Chetan Bhagat’s ‘Five Point Someone’. And then there are novels simmering with sarcasm, and pain pointing the anomalies of the system. Elaine Showalter writes beautifully: ‘…what appeals to me most in academic fiction is its seriousness, even sadness. Perhaps we professors turn to satire because academic life has so much pain, so many lives wasted or destroyed. On the spelling corrector of my computer, when I click on English, the alternative that comes up is Anguish. Like the suburbs, the campus can be the site of the pastoral, or the fantasy of pastoral- the refuge, the ivory tower. But also like the suburbs, it is the site of those perennials of the literary imagination John Updike names as ‘discontent, conflict, waste, sorrow, fear’. (Showalter: What I Read and What I Read For)
The very fact that a top critical brain like Showalter has been hooked to this genre speaks of its worth. ‘The Masters’ (1951) by C. P. Snow, ‘The Groves of Academe’ (1952) by Mary MacCarthy, ‘Lucky Jim’ (1954) by Kingsley Amis, ‘Pnin’ (1957) by Nabokov, ‘Eating People is Wrong’ (1959) by Malcolm Bradbury, ‘Changing Places’ (1975), ‘Small World’ (1984), ‘Nice Work’ (1988), ‘Thinks…’ (2001) by David Lodge, and ‘Disgrace’ (1999) by J.M. Coetzee are some of the outstanding campus novels.
In the Indian scenario, ‘The Long Long Days’ ( 1960) by P.M. Niyyanandan, ‘The Truth (Almost) About Bharat’ (1991) by Kavery Nambisan, ‘The Awakening: A Novella in Rhyme’ (1993), by Rita Joshi, ‘Corridors of Knowledge’ (2008) by M.K. Naik, ‘The Farewell Party’ (1971) by M.V. Rama Sarma, ‘Campus-A Novel’ (2002) by K.L. Kamal, ‘Atom and the Serpent’ (1982) by Prema Nandakumar, ‘Miracles Happen’ (1985) by D.R. Sharma, ‘The Drunk Tantra’ (1994) by Ranga Rao, ‘The Higher Education of Geetika Mehendiratta’ (1993) by Anuradha Marwah Roy, ‘Goodbye to Elsa’ (1974) by Saros Cowasjee, ‘The Narrator- A Novel’(1995) by Makrand Paranjape, ‘Five Point Someone’ by Chetan Bhagat and ‘University Memoirs’ (2013) by Shubha Tiwari can be sited as some examples.
In the educational scene, sometimes the gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ is so big that it justifies an insider’s laugh or tears or both. The routine is repetitive and perhaps that’s the reason why we have so many stereotypes on campuses. ‘The Winking Sir’, ‘the Singing Madam, ‘the out-of-the-class-looking Sir’, ‘The chalk thrower’, ‘The late-comer’, ‘the always laughing Sir’ – the list is endless.
Campus defines you. This one is like this and that one is like that. People know what to expect. Sadly enough, professors know for sure that people don’t change. Theoretically, professors ought to know that people do and can change because it’s their job to mould and change generations for the better. But it doesn’t happen much. Most of the times, professors philosophize and conclude and that’s it. Through their knowledge and wisdom, they’d immediately know whether the student is on track or is off track. Off track students don’t stand much chance with professors because professors know that once ‘off track’ is off track forever. The train is running on track, fine; it’ll reach its destination but once it has derailed, there’s hardly any chance. This is quite tragic because life has the capacity to surprise you; if of course you’re ready to be surprised. Moreover, life has several tracks and a train can run on any one of them or even change tracks and still run successfully. But professors do develop fatalistic tendencies, which are not good for them, nor is it for students or society in general.
Well, this word ‘campus’ was first used for Princeton University during the early decades of the eighteenth century. It was then called College of New Jersey. In west, we have a very robust tradition of campus novel. David Lodge deserves some detailed mention. He has written a number of campus novels in very healthy, happy and humorous style.
‘Changing Places’ is a tale of faculty exchange program. One English professor moves to America, Berkley campus and one American professor moves to England, Birmingham campus. The English professor, Philip Swallow is a boring person. He is a solid family man. The American professor, Morris Zapp is flamboyant, funny and naturally, lecherous. Lodge lovingly treats his characters showing us worlds of sexual escapades, marriages and lots of foolishness all the way. Dodge has a distinct nature of laughing at cheating husbands and life-enjoying students. The English professor undergoes complete metamorphoses and becomes a raging lover and his beloved is none other than the American professor’s daughter by his first marriage. The American professor, on his part has dutifully fallen in love with wife of the English professor. The field has been leveled. One with another’s daughter and the other with one’s wife- it’s a lovable world. In the last chapter, they all discuss different possible combinations and permutations of their relationships. The novel is simply good.
‘Nice Work’ by Lodge is about an adhoc lady teacher, Robyn who has to undergo a project at an industrial unit because she is a specialist in industrial novel, apart from her interest in feminism. She watches life from a different perspective. Here again, it’s about changing places. She watches forty five year old Vic Wilcox. Inevitably, the two fall in love. Despite, Vic’s wife and Robyn’s boyfriend, the contradictory forcers of English Department and industry attract each other and the miracle of changing places works.
When ‘Small World’ came in 1984, many professors complained that after reading this novel, their wives didn’t allow them to go to seminars, conferences and workshops. Everybody came to know as to what happens at seminar- love affairs bloom; new relationships are born; old ones die and so it goes on. Lodge’s last campus novel ‘Thinks…’ is a bit serious in tone. This is also a witty novel where the director of the institute, Ralph is attracted towards the visiting novelist, Helen. There’s mutual attraction. But the devastating turn of events prove what Ralph always used to say, ‘we can never know for certain what another person is thinking.’
No one can miss J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’ while discussing campus novel. It’s a must read for every professor. It really shakes your conscience. David Lurie is a divorced college professor. He’s out and out chauvinistic. He forces his student to have sex with him. Once the scandal breaks out, he’s thrown out of the college. He is remorseless. He feels no sympathy for the students. He rather thinks that he has a right to do what he did. His world-view is extremely ego-centric. He goes on to live with his daughter.
The poetic justice or we call the divine justice has its way. His daughter faces a similar situation where after forced sex, she gets pregnant. Now, the offender is living the life of the victimized. He sees the world through the eyes of the used and the abused. He lives life in reverse. The author allows subliminal space to his protagonist. David learns to live life differently. He develops a new perspective. As is said, life teaches him a lesson.
In India, the most famous campus novel is undoubtedly Chetan Bhagat’s ‘Five Point Someone’. It describes the heavy, rigorous schedule of IIT students. It also brings out the unchanging, archaic attitudes of the faculty. In India, even great institutions have this problem of not saying good things about others. Students are hardly encouraged to do new things. Mugging is encouraged. In between we have hilarious moments when the protagonist has an affair with the daughter of the professor. Life and psychology of students, their pranks, adventures are wonderfully described. I find Bhagat to be a natural story-teller. He communicates effortlessly. He gets across smoothly. The very fact that this book is loved by so many students proves that he has touched the aching spot somewhere.
If we look at recent history, ‘The Long, Long Days’ by P. M. Nityanandan, shows how values of students have changed over the decades. Although all buoyancy of students’ days is well depicted, nevertheless, regard for teachers and name of the institutions concern students. We can see that those were the days of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. Another novel, ‘The Truth (Almost) about Bharat’ is about an accident or we may say misadventure of a medical student named Bharat. During a strike, when little remains in individual hands and mob fury takes over, this student Bharat throws a stone and it hit a watchman Shaffaruddin and injures him critically. Bharat runs away and roams around India. The novel is about those experiences.
‘The Awakening’ by Rita Joshi is written in verse. A Cambridge returned Lecturer finds herself in midst of Indian corruption, chauvinism and she decides to deal with it. The novel is positive in approach. ‘Corridors of Knowledge’ is a chronology of the educational journey of Madhav Rao. It also throws light on corruption in institutions of learning. ‘The Farewell Party’ by M.V. Rama Sarma describes the pain of an honest teacher. Superseding is always a matter of grave tension to faculty in India. The protagonist goes to a rural university, finds peace there and goes on to spiritual ways. ‘Campus’ by K.L. Kamal is about an ambitious Vice-Chancellor, Chandrakant who wants to raise the standard of his university. He faces tough opposition by local politicians who do not let the VC do anything outstanding. He faces strikes and subterfuge. He somehow manages things and makes people see his point of view.
‘Atom and the Serpent’ by Prema Nandakumar is a tribute to Machiavellian Vice-Chancellors. The Vc D.K. Adhyaksha knows every secret of the varsity. He uses them carefully . He finally goes to where he belongs- politics. ‘Miracles Happen’ by D.R. Sharma is a story of a weak Vice-Chancellor who turns even a good university into a sick one. These novels are an attempt to highlight the malfunctioning of the campuses. ‘The Drunken Tantra’ by Ranga Rao shows how cheats rise in the academic profession in our country and how good people are surpassed. Many Indian campus novels like ‘The Higher Education of Geetika Mehendiratta’, ‘The Narrator’, and ‘Goodbye to Elsa’ describe the journey of the protagonist from a student to a teacher. The circle comes full. A student becomes a professor.
My own novel, ‘University Memoirs’ is available online. I’m certainly not in a position to access its worth. But one thing is certain that I wrote the story because it compelled me to come out. My twenty five years in the university system did not let me rest. I didn’t write so that someone may compliment me that I write well. Of course, recognition is a good thing and it gives you a good feeling. But ‘University Memoirs’ just had to come out from me. That’s all that I can say about it.
Overall, it’s a very positive, honest genre. A campus becomes one’s life. Campuses deserve fictionalization. Literature, after all, depicts life. Campuses as part of the world should be described in novels. Life within campuses is a slice of the larger life outside.
This lecture was delivered at Academic Staff College, GG Central University, Bilaspur, Chhatisgarh, India on 13th March 2013
Related Books and Websites:
Elaine Showalter. 2005. Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and its Discontents. London: OUP. ISBN 0-19-928332- X.
Edemariam. Who’s afraid of the campus novel? Guardian. 2 Oct 2004.
P.M. Nityanandan. 1960. The Long Long Days. Madras: Orient Longman.
Kavery Nambisan.1991. The Truth (Almost) about Bharat. New Delhi: Penguin.
Rita Joshi. 1993. The Awakening-A novella in rhyme. New Delhi: UBS.
M.K. Naik. 2008. Corridors of Knowledge. Gulbarga: Jiwe Publication.
M.V. Rama Sarma.1971. The Farewell Party. Hyderabad: Orient Academy.
K.L. Kamal. 2002. Campus - A novel. Jaipur: University Book House.
Prema Nandakumar. 1982. Atom and the Serpent. Madras: Affiliated East-West Press.
D.R. Sharma. 1985. Miracles Happen. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
Ranga Rao. 1994. The Drunk Tantra. New Delhi: Penguin.
Anuradha Marwah Roy. 1993. The Higher Education of Geetika Mehendiratta. New Delhi: Orient Longman.
Saros Cowasjee. 1974. Goodbye to ElsaToronto: New Press.
Makarand Paranjape. 1995. The Narrator - A Novel. New Delhi: Rupa &Co.
Cheatn Bhagat. 2004. Five Point Someone. New Delhi : Rupa &Co.
Shubha Tiwari. University Memoirs. 2013. www.boloji.com