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A university campus as a multi-species city within a city

Published onNov 20, 2023
A university campus as a multi-species city within a city
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This article focuses on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus in New-Delhi as a shared living space by a heterogeneous group of humans, animals, and plants. The architecture, the material infrastructure, and the nature-given shapes of campus space influence the interactions between humans and beyond. The aim of this article is to show the everyday connections between people living on campus and other forms of life and how their dwelling practices are linked to each other. The everyday coexistence with species other than humans in the city challenges the human-centered focus in urban design and at the same time has the potential to build bridges between people who otherwise would hardly talk to each other.

I am starting this article in the same way, I began my days during my last field trip to Delhi a little more than a year ago with a visit to the ‘Dhaba behind Tapti’, famous for tasty and favourable priced parathas and delicious chai. The ‘Dhaba behind Tapti’ or the ‘Paratha-place behind Tapti’ is located on the edge of the JNU campus in New Delhi. Only about a hundred meters away from Nelson Mandela Marg, the street which separates the campus from the city on the west side. The physical closeness of the extensive street stands in contrast to the imagination of the endlessness of the jungle1 that stretches across campus. The Dhaba merges into the wilderness with no recognizable boundary. Roughly flattened stones placed in a circle around a slightly larger rock serve as seating around the rock table. Here, not only humans are having their breakfast. Squirrels and birds of all kinds are perching close by, waiting for a human to drop some food, be inattentive for a few seconds or voluntarily share their food with them. On some mornings, a peacock or a nilgai would leave the darkness of the forest for a few moments. The three rabbits that the worker/owner of the Dhaba cares for munch on some grass at some distance. According to the owner, they always return to him in the evening, and the dogs and other wandering animals "let them live in peace".

Morning Scene at the Dhaba behind Tapti

Starting with a morning scene at the Dhaba, which is named or referred to based on location, I want to discuss how nature influences and shapes everyday life on campus. In times of global climate crises, market-driven construction, lack of building land and an increasing polarization within the Indian society and, therefore, also within neighbourhoods and student bodies, the question of living (well) together becomes essential. In this article, I want to zoom into a particular place in Delhi – the JNU campus – and aim to understand how nature influences how the residential students of JNU relate to the campus as their "home". I will discuss the JNU campus as a shared living space by a heterogeneous group of humans, animals, and plants. The architecture, the material infrastructure, and the nature-given shapes of campus space influence the interactions between humans and beyond. Here, I understand the campus of JNU as a multi-species city within a city

The multi-species concept focuses on how human life is entangled with other forms of life and how they influence each other through their everyday encounters (Haraway, 2013). In her article “Architects designing for multispecies cohabitation” Nadja-Christina Schneider presents different examples of multi-species cohabitations and shared-habits in human and non-human co-existence (Schneider, 2023). At the Dhaba, the interactions, movements and conversations between humans are very much influenced by the presence of the always hungry and wily birds and squirrels. For example, temporarily placing your plate with a half-eaten paratha on a stranger's rock table while picking up freshly boiled chai is common. As will be shown in the following, non-human life on campus influences everyday life and how students relate to the campus.

What is JNU?

Screenshot of JNU and Neighborhoods

(Google Maps)

JNU has been a symbolic place since its foundation in 1966. It is a publicly funded residential university located in South Delhi. The campus is situated on the southern ridge of the Aravali Hills and, therefore, is home to several species of wildlife. Busy streets separate the rectangular campus, which is surrounded by a brick wall, from the neighbourhoods around it.

JNU was created with the idea of a university that was "truly Indian", "relevant", and "excellent" (Kidwai, 2017), and that reflects India in its full diversity. The low tuition fees (200 rupee per semester), a well-thought-out quota system, interdisciplinary teaching, largely informal student-teacher relations, and the deliberate mixing of students from different backgrounds made JNU a desirable space for many students.  

Much has been written and spoken about JNU, especially since 2016. Many academics mentioned its "uniqueness and excellence", its "anti-establish campus culture", and its "left-wing political activism". And a lot has been said and written (often on social media) about, how JNU is promoting "anti-national" and "immoral behaviour" and how it is a "danger" to young aspiring students and the nation at large, which turned the name of the university to a generic label (see Azad, Nair, Singh, Roy et al., 2016; Singh & Dasgupta, 2019 and others). I am not going to repeat any of those accusations here.

The narrative of JNU as “anti-national” became very popular in 2016 and has massively influenced students' everyday lives on and off campus.2 According to Nandini Sundar and Gowhar Fazili, in India the period since the BJP came to power in 2014, “has seen an unprecedented assault on academic freedom as well as on academics(Sundar & Fazili, 2020). Implemented restrictions by the government and Vice Chancellors are changing possibilities of learning inside and outside the classrooms. Yet it is learning outside the classroom that many academics point out as an important essence of the idea of an ideal university (see Apoorvanand, 2018; Pathania, 2018; Bhattacharya, 2018 and others). The question of how critical of the government one is allowed to be is one of the many questions that are dividing not only the society but also the student body of JNU. As I have presented elsewhere, some students self-censor to avoid danger. As a result, some students no longer speak to each other. The campus of JNU is going through a visible transition which is linked to different ideas of what understanding of a university JNU should represent (Schnieder-Krüger, 2022).

In sum, JNU represents different ideas in different contexts, and the negotiation processes on its meaning affect the campus in multiple ways. Central to this negotiation process is the question of who owns and talks for JNU. There have been many attempts to capture the essence of JNU, trying to describe and point out what JNU really is and means…. but it seems impossible to do so without oversimplifying. This article does not aim to illuminate all aspects of JNU or the diverse perspectives on this university. Rather, I want to add a new angle and complicate things even more.

Living in Nature

Nature is a part of the campus that does not have a (human) voice but still owns most square meters of the campus. Perhaps it is an only element that has not been changed, even though it is in constant movement and never stands still.3  It dominates many square meters of the campus, which are not accessible to humans - at least not officially. Even though its space is limited and its spread is interrupted by roads and buildings, it is not trimmed or laid out for "human use" per se. Unlike the campuses of other universities (,but also parks within the city). This is particularly interesting in the context of the discourse on the need for green campuses in connection with the global climate crisis. Further, this represents different ideas of a green campus. As mentioned, the JNU campus was built in the Aravali Hills, which means that some of the trees and rock formations have a longer history than the campus itself.

Hilal Alkan writes on how plants are a part of homemaking. In her ongoing research, Alkan is exploring the connection between migrants from Turkey and the plants they nurture. Her investigation aims to reveal the significance of multi-species relationships in shaping the sense of home among migrants. She points out that her “research participants’ relationships with plants are laden with memories, affects and longings(Alkan 2023). However, unlike Alkan’s research, students do not bring plants with them when they come to campus. Rather, the plants that have been present for generations provide a place that becomes a temporary "home" for many students. They shape the aesthetics of the place, create an intimacy, and preserve and evoke memories of their present and bygone dwellers.

This article highlights the impact of nature on how students imagine the campus as home and a green island within a city. Following, I will elaborate on how human and non-human life is entangled every day. 

View from a Hostel Roof

(…) right now, we are sitting here (in a hostel room). I don't know if your record can capture the sound of the birds. (…) So, when you're staying on campus, you don't feel like it's different. But as soon as you go home, you go outside the campus for a week and realize that something is missing. Right? (…) The nature is one of the reasons that this academic life used to excite you. (…) you can sit in the forest and think about stuff (…) Obviously very romanticized motion or whatever. But still, if you are in nature, it is a very different kind of vibe. Although I think now everyone has easy access to the Internet, it feels like you are connected to the outside world as well. As you would be at any other place. But this nature thing wouldn't be there. 

X.Y. Sep. 2022, JNU Campus4

The quote above is from a Ph.D. student of JNU who has been living on and off the JNU campus since 2014. Although the campus of JNU is connected to the city and its neighbourhoods in many ways, the visible, audible, smellable, and tangible landscape changes at the gates. If you enter the campus through the main entrance, you will be on a long road surrounded by blooming trees. The green will be sprinkled with yellow, pink, magenta, or purple, depending on the season. While passing the gate, you leave behind the sound and smell of the endless traffic and surround yourself with chirping and twittering. The "different vibe" nature provides is a sense of calmness and peace to all the living beings around. Listing to the sounds of birds’ while being in your room underlines the presence of non-human life. Interestingly, the Internet connects this space "to the outside world" for the interviewee. 

As referred to in the quote above, nature is considered a part of the academic life. I want to suggest that the conscious or unconscious being, thinking and observing nature daily, should be viewed as a learning experience outside the classroom. In the same interview, X.Y. also speaks about "coming back home (to JNU)" after spending some time with his parents. For him, being back "home" starts at the main gate. During my stays on campus, I observed that many students referred to the campus as “home”, not primarily to the rooms or hostels they lived in.5

As Vipul Jhingta illustrates, a lot of thought went into making JNU a unique place to live:

The designs of the residential complex reflect an intent towards community living and diversity. Kukreja’s image of hostel blocks is sketched with sensitivity to the undulating terrain of the site, the sectional view of the rooms with various residents going about their ways, and the court where male and female students are seen interacting, with some vegetation and trees. This was a powerful statement reflecting the proposed life of a world-class university, coming up in India in the 1970s. (Jhingta, 2020:56)?

The architect of JNU, C. P. Kukreja, who won the competition for the campus master plan, designed a facility that preserved the natural landforms and integrated green spaces. Landscaping was crucial in making the seemingly inhospitable environment friendlier and aesthetically pleasing. Environmental considerations were also considered to make the building energy efficient and cost-effective (Jhingta, 2020)

As Mudit Trivedi describes in his chapter "Landscape Stories: The Archaeological Past and presents of the JNU Campus", the natural elements, along with the untouched landscapes amidst urban development, contribute to the overall ambience of the campus. Concrete paths and infrastructure projects shape the movement and activities of individuals on campus. The interplay between spatial design, material landscapes, and cultural dynamics influences the rhythms of daily life for JNU's inhabitants. Overall, the materiality of JNU, encompassing archaeological remains, architectural elements, and everyday objects, weaves a past and present narrative. It informs the experiences, practices, and interactions of individuals within the campus, reflecting the inseparable connection between material environments and the daily lives of its occupants (Trivedi, 2020).

While the material campus has been visibly changed in recent years, for example, by removing the political wallpapers that used to be an integral part of the JNU aesthetic or the installation of new statues6, the spaces covered by the jungle mainly remained untouched. Moreover, they provide countless secret spots and shield its inhabitants from the city's noise, hectic and smoke. Spaces like the ‘Dhaba behind Tapti’ are many. 

 There used to be so many places - like secret places - on campus. And my seniors would have even more memories than me. But people from my batch also have so many memories. (…) So many places were there on campus. Now everything is lit up at night, especially. But I remember spending an uncountable number of nights literally lying down in the middle of the road with my friends and just talking and stuff like that. Now when you see that - if the same thing happening - everything is in the light, so it feels different. It's like you're in a city.

X.Y. Sep. 2022, JNU Campus

The quote describes how the introduction of streetlights took away the street as a secret space. Interestingly, the interviewee compares the new situation with a feeling of being in the city. As Foucault describes, light is a strategic element to disciple bodies (Foucault, 1978). The light, introduced by the administration in the name of safety, does not only affect students who want to lie down on the streets in the dark. Since the lights got introduced, there has been an increase in accidents, between motorcycles and nilgays. Further, the glaring light makes it impossible for the human eye to see movement in the jungle next to the paths, so many students walk on the streets instead of the sidewalks at night to avoid snakes or scorpions. The impact of the light goes beyond just lighting up the dark.7

Sharing, Caring and Biting

Human-Mobility-Map of JNU

The map documents the ways/streets that are (officially) accessible for humans. Besides these paths, other living beings navigate their everyday life through that space in many more ways. Animals pass the masterplan of the built environment. 

On the campus, human and non-human life is entangled in many ways, besides just sharing or stealing each other's breakfast. The animals are neither wild nor pets, but have different levels of in-between. This is also reflected in the care relations. Especially the species generally more associated with domestic animals, like cats and dogs, are the grateful recipients of community love. They are often associated of belonging to a hostel. Their presence follows a rhythm aligned with the students' everyday practices, who give them food, attention, and cuddles. On the other hand, there movements are not controlled or limited by a human. On a personal note, while the presence of dogs in Delhi frightened me, the dogs on campus always embodied serenity and calmness. But the human-dog relationship went beyond just food and cuddles. As a dear friend told me: "In JNU, everyone who needs one has access to a therapy dog".

Dogs of JNU

Following a Cat through the Hostel

Further, JNUs cats’ cross boundaries between semi-public (campus) and semi-private spaces (hostel rooms), as they stray around the corridors entering the rooms of different students. Especially in summers, many students leave their room doors open – for air circulation and (at least in some cases) in the hope of welcoming a bypassing cat. In some cases, cat-love is stronger than political differences, for example usually antagonistic students have been observed becoming comrades when faced with the question of 'how to deal with the cats in the mess’.

But nature is not always just bloomy, fluffy, and comfortable. Also, the relationship between the animals and humans is not always harmonious. For instance, the visually handicapped students have a difficult relationship to the roaming dogs and face most dog-bites. One possible reason for this could be that these students carry a stick, and the dogs may therefore mistake them for attackers.

As mentioned above snakes and scorpions inhabit the campus as well. Just like the cats, they ignore the human-made separation between indoors and outdoors.8 They are unwanted guests in the hostels and represent a constant danger to the humans around. Their presence and the frequency of unwanted collisions is related to weather conditions and seasons. During the monsoon season, for example, snakes are a constant sight. Again, nature influences how people navigate the campus at different times.

And then there are the most loathed creatures on campus – bed bugs and mosquitos. Facing these pesky creatures is an experience shared by all JNU students, who stayed on campus sooner or later. As I was told, student union elections were won with promises to get rid of bed bugs. Although unappreciated by many students, these creatures are an integral part of the campus ecosystem.

Some concluding thoughts…

As new buildings, lights and other infrastructure projects are currently added or re-built on campus, we should pay attention to how these changes not only influence human life, but also beyond. The plants on campus are the silent witnesses of constant change throughout the years. The trees are not only providing shadow and making the campus of JNU to one of the most bearable outside spots in Delhi during the endless summers, but are an essential element through which students connect to the campus as home.

The discussions between students surrounding animals on campus are intriguing because, to some extent, they deviate from the typical political divisions usually seen in debates (such as left, right, Ambedkarites, feminists, rural/urban, regionalism, linguistic expression, and so forth). If we understand living (well) together in plurality as a counter-tactic to the increasing polarization and separation within Indian society and the city, JNU is a crucial example. Further, this short contribution wants to start a conversation about how living together beyond humans can be understood as an essential part of the university experience outside the classroom. Love and hate for certain co-existing species as well as the experiences living with them create shared perspectives, insides, and memories among students. Community care connects humans and non-humans but also to the space they inhabit. It further influences everyday life in terms of time, space and movement. The shared caring love can potentially overcome social barriers and lower the mistrust among students. For example, conversations between humans often begin over the presence or absence of an animal. Or based on protecting each other’s breakfast from the little winged thieves.

  

 Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Nadja-Christina Schneider, Arshi Javaid, Hilal Alkan and Julia Strutz as well as my colleague and friend Sarthak Bhatia for their fantastic feedback and valuable comments on the draft version.


This article is part of the collection “Dwelling Together. Urban Housing, Neighborliness and Multilocal Homemaking”. To read the other contributions to this collection, click here.
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