The Poetry and Music of Ganga Dhaba: Vignettes from the Life of a Tea Shack

The whistle of kettles, hiss of hot water on cold glasses, the sizzle of bread pakoras, and invigorating music and poetry. Whether Ganga Dhaba at JNU remains or not, the deep feeling will not be gone writes poet Nabina Das with recollections from her student days.

 

Prologue

Once upon a time there was a Ganga Dhaba inside the sprawling Jawaharlal Nehru University campus. It reverberated with music, chatter, songs, and discussion. Students – sometimes visitors, staff and teachers – would gather there every day. It was a Mecca with the sacred Kaaba of the little tea place. All that happened in the area around the dhaba was human voices and laughter, tinkle of tea cups and glasses, sometimes a candle light march, and really cool slogans such as: “Awaaz do, hum ek hain (Raise your voices, we are one )!”

The sauntering figure of poet Rama Shankar Yadav, or only Vidrohi (rebel) to everyone, who lived and died on the campus, embraces the spirit of the place even today:

 

This body did not burn by itself; someone set it on fire.

These bones are not just strewn around; someone scattered them.

This fire did not flicker on its own; someone lit it up.

This war did not begin spontaneously; someone started it. (I am your poet: Translated by Dibyajyoti Sarma)

 

Whether Ganga Dhaba remains or not, the deep feeling will not be gone. JNU has this phoenix-like quality of rising above the ashes. And those that know it cherish the following vignettes.

7 a.m. Oct 2

The keekar and babul trees shake their heads and revel in the number of dew drops gathered overnight. In JNU’s tough stony terrain, this is a luxury. Summer was not kind, monsoons cooled things down and now, there’s countdown towards a lovely mellow autumn. Ganga Dhaba, right across the women’s hostel named Ganga (most JNU hostels are named after rivers or hills) has opened its shutters just a bit. Nothing is available now. Someone is gurgling and spitting behind the little dhaba. Could be Sunil, or Chhotu, or Badhka.

Although a holiday, several carrying backpacks and jholas are seen ant-lining towards the library. Some wait for bus number 615 at the Ganga bus stop. Also, the shuttle 666 has arrived, late on a holiday. Ganga Dhaba begins the day in clangs and bangs: behind the tea place, vessels, kettles, skillets and sundry other things start getting scrubbed and scoured.

“Ishwar Allah tero naam sab ko sanmati de bhagwan…” a plaintive tune rises. It is Gandhi Jayanti and there’s a morning “pheri” going around the campus.

Monami Basu, assistant professor, Kamala Nehru College, has been here several times, at different times of the day. She has memories mainly of adda, the sit-down chats among friends. But “adda is now seditious activity,” she says. “What possible anti-national activity can happen in Ganga Dhaba which cannot happen in Tanku’s chaiwala or IIT bridge paranthawala… what possible dissent can build up in Ganga Dhaba which cannot build up in people’s homes…what possible ideas can take shape in Ganga Dhaba, which cannot germinate in a student’s mind…what revolution can brew in Ganga Dhaba that cannot take form in people’s hearts?” She demands to know.

12 noon, May 30, summer vacation approaching

Sunil tunes in the battered transistor radio and pipes up the volume: “Yeh mausam aya hai kitne salon mein… (it’s been long we’ve had such a lovely season…).” Chhotu or Ramu or Badhka has organized the cheap porcelain teacups and the little glasses on one side of the platforms inside the little dhaba, a mere cubicle. Badhka is nodding his head to the radio beats and kneading a rather large bowl of atta dough. Aloo paratha, anda paratha to be made on limited orders. Ramu, meanwhile, quickly takes stock of bread, eggs, potatoes, peas, masalas, frying oil, tea dust and such stuff. Nothing special. Every evening they make aloo bondas, omelettes, bread pakoras, boiled eggs, etc. Students are always hungry. They have to eat even after they’ve eaten dinner at the mess. Or before. Or much later. At midnight. Sunil yells at Ramu and Badhka squabbling about something. “You ungratefuls don’t let me listen!” The radio sings: “Chalte chalte mere yeh geet yaad rakhna kabhi alvida na kehna (remember my song while you are on the move, do not say goodbye…). For Sunil this is high emotion. He’s homesick. “Let’s have lunch.” All three huddle together and eat rotis and watery potato curry. The sun scorching down now, they will soon rest inside the dhaba. Business starts late afternoon to pick up at sundown.

Priyamvada Gopal, who teaches in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, has had much of her “political education and intellectual life, and many of my happiest memories including demanding nimpubani (lemonade) at 1.am” at the legendary Ganga Dhaba. “It’s where students meet to talk ideas and politics, argue, laugh raucously, tell foolish jokes, disagree, on Hegel, recite Ghalib, and play the guitar.”

9 p.m., Dec 6

Tu zinda hai ke zindagi ki

jeet par yakeen kar

agar kahin hai swarg toh

utaar laa zameen par… (Free tr.: Say you’re alive, say you believe in life’s winning streak, say you’ll bring heaven on earth, if there’s one somewhere…)

Chorus in the air and Ganga Dhaba is buzzing. People drinking tea silently, loudly. Smoking cigarettes passing hand to hand silently, anxiously. Mouths breaking into songs and slogans with controlled rage and overflowing emotions. Meanwhile, more news trickling in. The rightwing Sangh Parivar – its violently communal kar sevaks or volunteers – has demolished the Babri Masjid that day. The rest of Delhi is tense. JNU is throbbing like a starfish out of the waves. But the waves are rising. They can crash any time. Ganga Dhaba sizzles with the sound of kettles boiling, omelettes cooking, oily bread pakoras frying, and questions and rage and protest traveling lip to lip. Jugnu, the highly popular campus theater group is singing another much loved Parcham number:

Bol ari o dharti bol

raj singhasan damadol… (Free tr.: Come sing O earth, come see the throne shaking in its fall…)

Rajesh Jha, director, All India Radio, recalls the way it was on Dec 6, 1992. Babri Masjid was demolished in the day. Jugnu had organised a day-long fast and lecture programme on the Jhelum lawns, next to Ganga Hostel. During dinner in the hostel, there was palpable tension, anger too against what happened in Ayodhya. “We came to the Ganga Dhaba around 9. A few of us sipped our tea in silence on the mini cement pillars that served as the sitting table for us… Five or six students gathered there and started raising slogans against the demolition of the Babri Masjid. We continued shouting slogans and within a few minutes students started emerging from behind the tea stall, from the scattered cement stools, from this nook and that corner of Ganga Dhaba.” A huge procession marched from Ganga Dhaba to Poorvanchal Hostel, the other edge of the university. “It was probably the first spontaneous demonstration against the Babri Masjid demolition and probably among the biggest demonstrations in the history of JNU.” Apparently, many closet supporters of the demolition were later heard saying that it was frightening how so many students gathered so quickly. The issue was indeed historic but Ganga Dhaba worked as the glue. “It was the anecdotal ‘public space’ of Habermas that gave birth not just to vigorous debates on issues ranging from philosophy to the deteriorating food in the hostel to double locking of our rooms for delay in payment of mess bill, but to some real actions as well,” says Jha. It was the mythical arena that reflected the soul of JNU and the real space which stands to be dismantled today because it does not meet the tender requirements of the university, a heavy blow to all those who spent far more time at Ganga Dhaba than the class room or library and never regretted that they missed out learning from the experience of life that JNU offered.

Past midnight, sometime really late, a winter month

Ganga Dhaba doesn’t close even this late at night in biting cold, remarks a casual visitor. He sips the utterly sweet and over-boiled “milak tea” (milk-tea sans milk, really). Perhaps tries complaining about a slight lipstick smudge on the cup’s edge but gives up. Why is he here though? To meet a friend who had invited him for a hostel meeting on atrocities somewhere in the backwaters. Bihar or Odisha or Manipur. Somewhere. He got late in coming and now he’s a little nervous watching the crowd filing out of Jhelum Hostel, across the lawn of the same name. Some of the girls and boys squat on Jhelum Lawns. A girl starts playing a mouth organ. They clap. A sky-rending tune of Guantanamera … /Guajira Guantanamera …(a peasant woman from Guantánamo), the famous revolutionary Cuban-Spanish song, rises up from a male voice, and more join in. A tall bearded kurta-clad student wrapped in a Bhagalpuri shawl stands up gesturing to his friends in encouragement. Then they come towards the little cement blocks scattered all around the dhaba serving as seats. “Chandrashekhar,” calls out a fellow student to the handsome bearded one. “Come let’s finish planning for our Siwan trip. Hey, Chandu!” Tea, bread-omelettes, whitened coffee (instant mix in dry milk powder) rustle up. Bonhomie and politics mix for flavor.

Amit Sengupta, journalist and writer, is a poet at heart. “If an idea can make you ill, it can also liberate. It was this great synthesis of the radical and the romantic which turned the Ganga Dhaba into a moon-lit tide, night after night, even when it was a moonless night. The workers were and still are buddies. If you had no money they would share their simple food, the tea would be as sweet as sudden love and enduring friendships, and the smoke of tobacco would always promise a new contradiction, a new dialectical movement, a new zone of intellectual political possibility,” he says. “And songs, on guitar, and with our rough voices, in chorus, would rise like an opera with no finale. JNU without Ganga Dhaba is like Moscow without the Red Square.”

With so much life-affirming romanticism as well as correct sense of foreboding, Gorakh Pande, another iconic poet of the campus who walked among the rocks and cement blocks of Ganga Dhaba before taking his own life, had warned about the system:

What way the winds blow, I can understand

Why we show our backs to it, I can understand

I understand the meaning of blood

The value of money I understand

What is for and what is against, I can understand

I even understand this

We are scared to be able to understand, and remain silent. (The Song of the Sensible; Tr. by Amitabh Bachchan)

 

Such a song can only make more voices sing. The whistle of kettles, hiss of hot water on cold glasses, the sizzle of bread pakoras, and invigorating music and poetry from the voices at Ganga Dhaba. The sensible shall then know where not to step in with brute force.

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