It was while pursuing M.A. English in St. Stephen’s College, Ashok Vajpeyi decided to write in his mother tongue
I came to this college only for my M.A, in English (1960-62), so the sense of belonging to the college more seriously did not occur in my case. Only the tutorials and residence was in the college, the classes used to be held in the University.
That apart, I had come from a small town. I graduated from Sagar University, a big shock for me was that I was not used to speaking so much English, I spoke mostly in Hindi. I did my schooling and B.A. in Hindi medium. But by the time I came here I had already exposed my mind to writers like Rilke, Pablo Neruda, to Kafka, Albert Camus and Paul Valery and so on. I was quite deeply interested in world literature, which as a young writer I had sort of imbibed. So when I came here I found that my classmates had studied in Doon School, Scindia School, Mayo College and all that. Since they had studied in English medium throughout, they knew everything about English literature. I knew more about world literature and that gave me a bit of confidence and that’s how the transition, in a certain sense, started.
There used to be a librarian who used to tell me a joke about Girija Shankar Bajpai. He was an ICS officer, the first High Commissioner of India after Independence and the joke was that he was once going on a London street and inadvertently or by mistake an Englishman bumped into him and profusely apologised, but he was not pacified, a) he was a Bajpai – they are all arrogant, without exceptions, some of them are talented, b) he was an ICS officer and c) he was the first Indian High Commissioner in London, so this was arrogance raised to power three.In exasperation he said, “Don’t you know that I am Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai”. By that time the Englishman had enough and he reacted, “I don’t know what pie you are, but if you don’t behave on a London street I’m going to make a mince pie out of you.”
Those days we were not co-educational, so we used to get girls from Miranda House, they used to come as actresses for our Shakespearean productions and also for love I think. Stephanians were remarkably elegant and also quite remarkably arrogant.
But being here I got the chance of watching, deepening and expanding my levels of cultural literacy, I used to run away from the college to attend classical music concerts, go to art galleries, dance recitals and things like that. Many a times it used to get very late, so I had to arrange for my dinner outside, and I must say that my fellow residents, used to take care of it. I mean they would sometimes go to Kamla Nagar and sell raddi or beer bottles.
Incidentally I had my first ever drink in my life sitting in the bushes of the Stephanian playground near Kashmere Gate. At that time we could buy only beer, other drinks were not readily available.
The dining hall used to be a horror in particular, I became a non-vegetarian by accident I was a stubborn vegetarian at home. On the first day I entered the dining room for lunch and I occupied the first available space on the table, I didn’t want to be noticed finding where vegetarian and non-vegetarian is because that meant that I would be spotted out as a fresher. So I sat on a table which turned out to be the non-vegetarian table. Again for the fear of being noticed, I took whatever was available and I started liking it.
One of the things that used to intrigue me was that they would say that the dining tables of our college were exact replicas of the King’s College dining tables, I thought that must be a matter of shame rather than adulation.
But all said and done it made a very deep impact on me, in the sense that while there, studying English literature and living in this highly imitative English atmosphere, I very firmly decided to write in my own mother tongue. I have been asked this question later by BBC etc., “How is it that you never write in English?” I said I never spent my childhood in English and I never dream in English.”