I LOVE PUNE because there’s a warm sense of familiarity wherever I am in this city. And, its educational context mainstreams diversity and acceptance
There’s something unique about being in academia. Your performance in your job depends on how much you read and research. Scholarship drives academic pursuits. It’s food for the intellect. Intellect (at the risk of oversimplification), however, can be soulful only when it is able to share and engage. And that is why, teaching and engaging with students is the core of the academic profession. Teachers may age but they do not grow old, for year after year they encounter younger, more energetic people. My academic journey is around 13 years now, yet the experiences I have been able to soak in will last me a lifetime. What is interesting is how certain contexts add on to these experiences. And in my case, the context that I refer to is this city and its vibrant academic spaces.
I don’t want to call Pune as the Oxford of the East. I think we do great injustice to the concept of individual identity by looking at everything with the West as a point of reference. Please do not get me wrong. I am not espousing any patriotism. I am simply trying to look at this city as an independent academic space which is neither a copy nor a replica of the hegemonic sentinels of Western educational institutions. For a city which was the metaphor for cultural enlightenment during the struggle for independence, it was indeed the most interesting progression to evolve as such a significant centre for educational pursuits.
When I came to Pune in 2009, I admit, I did not understand the part this city would play in my journey as an academic. I teach at a private university here and I completed my doctorate from a state university here. If not complete, I’d refer to this experience as holistic. For someone who came from up- North, this city has come to represent her karmabhoomi. While on this road, I earned colleagues, friends, students, student friends and also students as colleagues. What’s interesting is that there’s a warm sense of familiarity wherever I am in this city. College buildings and student crowds in most pockets of the city keep cementing this relationship.
Pune attracts students from across India and also outside India. I am most certain that I have not come across such a large number of Asian and African students in other Indian cities that have also developed as education hotspots. I do not claim that there is a complete absence of regional prejudices but I have definitely experienced much higher tolerance levels. This city’s educational context mainstreams diversity and acceptance. Talk to students (and I talk to so many) and they tell you how the city becomes so difficult to leave once they complete their education. It’s not always about what they learnt and trained in; it’s many times about what their context offered in terms of human values. And in the case of Pune, the student-friendly organic character of the city earns it fans and in many cases, future citizens as well!
The city was known for engineering, medicine and management education. It still is and will continue to be. However, the surge in humanities and liberal arts education has lent a distinct dimension to this city’s personality. The culture of curiousity and argument that these streams instill in students resonates at so many levels with this city’s ethos. The city of Pune and the various educational institutions that it houses are perfect analogies for each other; both defined by the ideas of diversity, versatility and an independent core.
More institutes are being set up in the city, which means more students will come here. It’s definitely a welcome development, but fraught with challenges. The city’s infrastructural growth has to keep pace with this expansion. And that’s where the complications lie. Students thrive in open spaces. Education nurtures in open spaces. And these spaces are both intellectual and physical. The challenge for this city therefore is to not stifle any of these spaces. However, this subject requires another discussion and may be one more column.
I should have begun with disclaimer. Nevertheless I will conclude with it. As an individual, I do not have emotional ties with concepts like regions and geographic spaces. I have my favourite holiday destinations, of course. It’s because they help me make quick decisions during my vacations.
So whatever I have written so far should not be misunderstood as my unconditional love for this city. I do not love cities. I love spaces. Powerful, independent and open spaces. And that is what this city offers to me and many others like me, who have to come to call it home. In the novel, ‘Everything Beautiful Began After’, British writer Simon Van Booy says, ““For those who are lost, there will always be cities that feel like home.” I do not think I was lost before, but I definitely found something very significant after coming to Pune.