Winter Flagbearers: Delhi Cold and JNU Food Festival

JNU holds its multi-national food festival in the midst of a Delhi winter that is not very cold

Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal
[This article originally appeared on the Op-Ed page of the Kathmandu Post today. See it here as it appeared on the paper.]

The hottest news in Delhi is the absence of cold. “Who stole Delhi’s winter?” asked the Times of India the other day and went on to conclude that “winter has cheated Delhiites this season.”

It was widely reported in December that the month entered record books as the second warmest in 108 years. January — traditionally the coldest month in Delhi — too has been freakishly warm with as many as 20 days out of 28 having recorded above average minimum temperatures, wrote the paper. The average minimum temperature of the Indian capital for the first 28 days of January was 8.9 degrees celsius.

Before I came to Delhi almost three months ago people had warned me in Kathmandu about the extreme weather conditions in the Indian capital. “Flying crows fall on the ground in summer heat,” one well-wisher had cautioned me. “And people die because of cold. Delhi has a very different kind of cold: treacherous and dangerous.”

I didn’t want to take any chances. After all, I was coming to Delhi to write, among other things, about cold not to die from it. I stuffed all of my warm clothes into my suitcase, including the down jacket that had kept me very warm at Kangla Pass in Manang, which stands at 5200 metres above sea level. The weight of the luggage exceeded the limit but the guys at Druk Air were kind enough not to charge me for the excess. With my jackets and sweaters neatly put inside the wardrobe in my Delhi apartment, I patiently waited for the cold. I wanted to face it.

“So how’s the cold in Delhi?” friends in Kathmandu asked in some of those chat sessions on Gtalk.

“Well, it’s not very cold, but it might yet become terrible as the winter isn’t completely over yet,” I kept replying throughout the months of December and January.

“Bring your jackets,” I instructed some of my colleagues who were coming to Delhi. “It’s not very cold at the moment but you never know.” The cold here is treacherous, I lectured.

At the beginning of January I took out the down jacket and inspected it for several minutes. I will need your service soon, I told the jacket and, for a second or two, I thought of putting it on right away. But it was still warm. The cold worthy of wearing a down jacket never came. (Or, at least, hasn’t come yet.) I wonder whether I am not feeling very cold because I come from the Himalayan republic. But it seems I am not the only one to wonder about the absence of cold in Delhi. “The notorious Delhi chill has been absent, except for a brief spell of four-five days, leaving the city residents wondering whether their heavy woolens would be needed at all this year,” noted the Times of India.

Winter is the season of Momos in Kathmandu. It is in Delhi too. Momos are sold everywhere — from the streets of Delhi to the university campus — and, as I have found, almost all Momowallas are from different parts of Nepal.

A Nepali scholar leads the Foreign Student Association (FSA) of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of the prestigious educational institutions of the Indian capital. That is why, I think, the Nepali stall at the international food festival organized inside the vast university campus last week was the most attractive of all the stalls. Apart from the distinct national flag of Nepal, and Momos, Sel Roti and Lamb Tass, the presence of curio items and Buddha statue added extra curiosity among the revelers. Nepali ambassador to India, Dr. Durgesh Man Singh, was the chief guest.

The research oriented postgraduate university has about 5500 students. Around five hundred of them are non-Indians and represent 55 countries. Koreans are in clear majority with the population of 55 while Nepalis compete with Iranians for the second position with about 45 students from each country. Students from 25 countries were enthusiastic enough to prepare food — with little bit of help and cooperation from their respective embassies perhaps — to serve in the festival.

Established in 1969 by the Indian government, the university has the Nehruvian objectives of promoting the study of principles of “national integration, social justice, secularism, the democratic way of life, international understanding and scientific approach” in solving the problems of society. The JNU campus, says the university website, is a microcosm of the Indian nation, drawing students from every nook and corner of the country and from every group and stratum of society. Another objective was to make it a premier institution of higher learning for students of the so-called Third World countries. The presence of foreign students and those from different parts of India make the university atmosphere multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-lingual. One can witness heated discussions on various topics of international importance in the dhabas and teashops — one of them is called 24/7 — inside the university campus.

For instance, the recent Israeli action against Hamas in Gaza generated intense debate between American and Iranian students — the former supported the action while the later deplored it. Much of such debates are but plain intellectual stimulations that spark emotions and usually end in handshakes. Students from other countries not only listen but also mediate.

The ‘coldness’ between Americans and Iranians surfaced in the September elections of the FSA that saw a Nepali emerge victorious. Dinesh Prasain, a Nepali human rights activist who is pursuing a PhD in JNU, defeated an American candidate to get elected the president of FSA.

As evident from the Dhaba discourse, the atmosphere inside the campus is very political. Nationalistic fervour is always at a high pitch. Anything that hurts the pride of their nation draws strong reaction. When the flag of a participating country in the food festival goes on missing, now, that’s really a serious matter.

A publicity poster of the food festival that was supposed to carry the flags of all participating countries somehow missed the Palestinian flag. The Palestinians became very angry and, according to Prasain, challenged the FSA by saying that they would distribute their food for free at the festival to protest against the offence. The organizers then hastily added the Palestinian flag on the poster which brought back smiles to the Palestinian faces.

“Sorry about the flag thing the other day,” said Prasain when he came across a student from the Palestine stall.

“It’s okay,” said the woman touching Prasain’s elbow. “Take it easy.”

Even as they differ vastly regarding their world views, all students were unanimous in tasting the food. The stalls were all crowded to capacity by the foodies.

(The writer is the New Delhi bureau chief of The Kathmandu Post.)