It has been a long time, St Stephen’s College is craving controversy

I had begun to wonder, even to worry. What’s gone wrong?

 |  6-minute read |   17-02-2017
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Should I congratulate my successor, John Varghese, for keeping St Stephen’s College free from controversies for a whole year?

That, he has.

This could point to two possibilities (a) he is extraordinarily tactful and dexterous in warding off controversies or (b) he is not doing anything significant, but cooling himself in the hot seat. I am in no position to settle the ambiguity in favour of either of the two possibilities, having cut myself off wholly from the college wef the date of my retirement.

I chose to do so, mainly to not oblige John. I did not want to lend him my unrivalled genius in improvising controversies ex nihilo (or, out of nothing, the way God is believed to have created the cosmos). Let him, I said to myself, cook the controversies he needs to keep himself alive. Why let him fly on my wings?

The college has always been a boring place. You don’t believe this? Well, let me give you a clue.

In the four decades that I have known St Stephen’s, the students (in Stephanian lingo, junior members) have crafted, sustained and handed down their own resources and raw materials  for entertainment. They fall mostly in two categories.

(a) Anecdotal, often fanciful exploits. I need only to refer briefly to a few illustrative examples. An episode that could be trusted to unfailingly thrill a Stephanian is that of a couple of daredevils venturing to hang ladies’ lingerie on the iconic cross atop the academic block. In the robust sub-culture that thrives furtively in Stephania, this is tantamount to conquering the Everest and raising the national tricolour on the summit.

Whether or not this happened is actually immaterial. It is handed down as a quintessential folklore from generation to generation. Smuggling in lady scholars from Miranda House, prior to 1975, when the college became co-educational, fooling (at risk, which is important) the watchful alertness of residence administration, is yet another.

Raiding the café - the Stephanian lingo for canteen - at midnight and emerging heroically (perforce through the ventilator) with the golden fleece of half a dozen andaas (eggs) is a third. The list can go on.

It is unnecessary. What is necessary is to note the general principle, which John needs to mind, that an event is only as important, shocking, paltry or banal as it is made out to be in the specially improvised context. Helping yourself to a few eggs in the small hours of the night, without paying for it, can be dismissed, otherwise, as petty theft. So seen, the forking, flashing streak of heroism vanishes like a pageantry among the clouds.

students-embed_021717055235.jpg What the students need is palliative care. 

(b) The second category is – well, it’s a no-brainer - sexual escapades, obscenity and, of late, pornography, courtesy the generosity of the net. You are not deemed a thoroughbred Stephanian unless (i) you have lived in residence (what is elsewhere called "hostel") and (ii) you have learned by rote “Blacksmith’s Song", which, I am given to understand, is outright indecent. Its furtive transmission is a million times more cherished than its lyrical merit, which is bathetic. Homosexuality and lesbianism are part of this package, which is where the ANGA video, reportedly gone viral, comes in.

He who takes all of these with dead earnestness is a fool of the first waters. At this stage of their life, college students say and do things, not because they feel strongly about it or are impelled by imperious convictions, but because they fall in love with the idea of their daring to venture with such stuff. It amounts to under-privilege to them to count themselves out of the charmed circle whose solidarity can be sustained only with stuff such as this.

Surely, you don’t have to, as men, take a pledge in the heady ambience of an unlit, moonless night to “philander with men”. Just as you don’t take vows and pledges to masturbate, for example. The context is, if anything, far more arousing than the projected offence (if it is assumed to be one). Why take a pledge, and do it at night, unless you believe you are doing something outrageous? The pledge, seen in perspective, is the most abject endorsement of the ultimacy of orthodox sexual mores.

I am to blame, I must admit, for all of these. In the few years that I was principal, I managed, with generous help from a few of my colleagues and the media scribes in active collusion with them, to generate a steady supply of excitement in the form of nationally reported controversies. It stands to logic that any heady experience, repeated over time, becomes a habit. All habits generate cravings.

One year is a long, long time! Especially when it comes to putting up with cravings. And what a sterile, peaceful year it has been. I had begun to wonder, even to worry. What’s gone wrong? Has St Stephen’s got used to the banality of mere routine?

Well, mercifully, no! The students, who have suffered in silence this unusual, unnatural serenity for too long, are now feeling the pinch. The craving is breaking out. They propose to treat their maladies. That’s the meaning, my masters, of this pledge.

My sympathies are entirely with the students, nee junior members. Their principal is not obliging them. How long do you expect them to live deprived?

There is, however, a problem that even John needs to address. There is a gigantic portion of boredom in college life. Nothing happens. Well, the days are filled with events of various kinds. Mistake not this, with actions which are far more than events. Action is significant. Introducing or illumining something new, something significant, is its hallmark. St Stephen’s is far too sterile to be significant. Something needs to be done about it.

Rather than see this as a discipline issue - and repeat the mistakes I committed - John should enter into a purposive partnership with the students. He needs to play doctor to them. Healing happens only through partnerships. What the students need is palliative care. The chronic ailment of boredom is too crushing, nearly maddening, to be endured for long.

When young men get together and vow to philander with each other, they are not issuing threats. They are only weeping on each other’s shoulders. Their plight is similar to that of TS Eliot’s lady typist in The Wasteland. Her nerves frayed with boredom and banality, she threatens her husband - a vegetable of a man - to tousle her hair, storm out of her house and to run on the streets “with my hair down, so”!

Clouds gather over the far distant Himavant.

Shanti, Shanti, Shanti hi”!

Also read: I, Valson Thampu, blame the teachers of St Stephen's College for academic rot

Writer

Valson Thampu Valson Thampu

The writer is former principal of St Stephen's College, Delhi and former member of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions (NCMEI).

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