Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Earning of Respect

The summonses from the Director’s office weren’t ever entirely unexpected and yet, when they did arrive, those summoned put up shocked countenances nonetheless. One or two burst into tears even, genuine, for although they were aware exactly how it would all play out in the end, there was always the lurking fear that this could be that occasion when Neo chooses the other door. They would then spend the rest of the evening plotting how best forgiveness could be asked for when they were presented before the Director next morning. Those that had cried earlier were usually chosen as the spokespersons; sympathy was most likely to be won by the soft and the unmanly.

It happened every year. The sophomores, basking in their newfound seniority, sat atop the hostel wall, their legs wafting cockily below them, and watched the stream of new arrivals enter the hostel, a parent or two in tow. Some of the parents, usually fathers, greeted them cheerily and asked after the amenities their progeny would have at their disposal in the hostel. These fathers were then duly offered lengthy insights that eventually ended at the tea & snack joint round the corner. ‘We’ll take good care of your son, uncle, you don’t worry at all’, they were told. The new students continued to trickle in for a while and by the time the last of the parents abandoned their child to the vagaries of Dhule, more than a month had passed by. That was when the clarion call was sounded and the newbies were asked to gather on the hostel’s roof for a round of introductions.

The rules were simple and scant. The seniors, sophomores and beyond, would need to be addressed as Sir. Only formals could be worn. At all times, including in bed. Formals would include socks and boots too, except in bed, where the boots could be taken off. In a senior’s presence, their gazes could not meander above the third button of their own shirts. They would complete the seniors’ projects and assignments for them and do whatever else was asked of them at any point. The rest of the night was spent in various festivities; the newly inducted kids, generally unclothed, catered to their Sirs many requests, most of which were of a distinctly, although only mildly, homoerotic nature. One of the favourites over the years was getting one of the kids to pick up a pen or pencil from the floor with his buttocks, exposed of course, without using his limbs. Nobody had ever actually found success in doing so, which was the point, since nonperformance led to more severe punishment.

This continued for a couple of months, each night. On weekends, when everybody was more drunk than usual, several groups convened in one or the other seniors’ private apartments, outside the hostel and therefore, outside the immediate reaches of the warden. Kaushik too, not drunk but eager to pay it forward, having earned his badge the previous year, was among them. And pay it forward, he certainly did. He hadn’t read The Marquis De Sade then, but when he did, he was confident that the great man would have approved.

In time, the inevitable happened. One of the kids wept and whimpered into a phone and the voice carried through miles of metal and fiber to his shocked parents, who, in turn, wept and whimpered into the ears of the college authorities. The boy, one of Kaushik and his group’s victims, was called to the Director’s office. He named as many people as he knew the names of. And thus, the Director’s summonses. Kaushik’s name, it was found, had not been announced. He grinned from ear to ear and explained to the others that it would all be fine.

It began as it always did. The Director raged and fumed and spoke to their parents. He informed them that their sons were being rusticated, a somewhat inappropriate term to use since it could hardly get more rustic than Dhule. Some of the accused, a markedly larger number than the previous day’s, began to weep openly. ‘Won’t happen again, won’t happen again’, they sobbed. The Director remained firm, for he was supposed to on the first day, and asked them to leave his office and pack their suitcases. They needn’t attend lectures, he added.

That evening, the mood in the hostel was sombre. A first year kid even whistled his way to the toilet. Towards midnight, the hostel warden asked the beleaguered gentlemen to his office. There, he informed them that he was ashamed of them and such a thing had been unheard of in his regime before this. A little later, he asked the accuser to be brought to him and when he did, he asked the rest to apologize. They did as they were told. The warden’s voice softened. He told them he would talk to the Director the next morning and see if something could be done to save their careers. They thanked him profusely.

The Director acceded on the third day. They were all called to his office again. He too did not wish to see such bright careers brought to premature ends, he said, but they could not completely escape punishment. And so, the best way, he continued, would be for them to be paid back in the same vein. They were all made to stand just inside the entrance to the college for the entire day, in the heat, without shirts and with their arms raised above them.

What embarrassed them was how filthy their undershirts were. The girls passed by them, wrinkling their noses and giggling to each other. A few, with commendable oversight, had omitted wearing an undershirt and shaved their underarms and were, therefore, decidedly less embarrassed. Their friends, on their way to the lecture halls and back, waved to them and cracked jokes. Kaushik cracked a joke or two too and they glared at him so hard, he asked them if they wanted something to drink. They said yes. A few minutes later, Kaushik and a few others, returned with packets of wafers, aerated soft drinks and mineral water. The professors and other staff allowed them to finish most of it before asking them to stop the nonsense and take the punishment seriously.

In a couple of hours, when they couldn’t keep their arms aloft any longer and the heat wet their pants with sweat, the Director called them again. They fell at his feet, exhausted, and asked for mercy. The Director launched into another half hour monologue, which they all nodded thoughtfully through. By evening, all was well again.

Later that night, the first year students were summoned to the hostel roof again and the essential concepts of solidarity and unity were explained to them. They wouldn’t be ragged anymore, they were promised, but in return, they would have to continue to wear formals and address the seniors as Sir.

By the end of the semester, the only rule that remained, and would remain through the next three years, was the form of address.

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