Sunday, October 08, 2006


Sujit Saraf

The writer is a California-based filmmaker and playwright whose first novel, The Peacock Throne, is due next year. He studied at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, between 1987 and ’92

I went to IIT Delhi in 1987. I was a small-town boy from Bihar, intimidated by tall buildings and the steady stream of traffic. Even now, after the Internet and all that, I meet people in my town who, when told about my college, respond: iti? Ek hamaare yahaan bhi hai.

When I arrived at my hostel on the IIT campus, I found a notice posted in the lobby, saying: ‘Ragging is banned in the Institute’. I had come with horrible stories of ragging in mind, told by friends, relatives and well-wishers. My father, whose knowledge of college life was 30 years out of date, wrote me to say that I was to ‘take care to avoid rigging in IIT’. I remember he misspelt the word, and he seemed to think my participation was voluntary.

I entered my hostel and was given my room. Ten minutes later, I was on my knees with a leash around my neck, reciting the hostel pledge, which granted every senior the right to f*** me in the arse, then break it into eight thousand pieces, mash some into bharta, and feed the rest to the hostel warden’s dogs.

It sounds funny now, even to me.

We did many things in that one month that now appear harmless and amusing. We stood on benches in the dining hall and recited the national anthem; we crawled on all fours and barked like dogs; we brought cigarettes and Campa Cola for our seniors; we cleaned their rooms; we dropped our trousers so they could measure our penises; we formed human trains — each car holding the penis of the car in front — and whistled our way through hostel corridors; we simulated orgies; stripped naked; then wore underpants over our trousers to turn ourselves into comic book phantoms.

After so many years, I can list all these forms of ‘ragging’ dispassionately, but no one should be misled. Brutality and oppression remain just that, no matter the name used for them. Who were these seniors, and why did they humiliate us so? They seemed powerful then, but they were boys like us, older by a year or two or three. They had once endured similar humiliations. Their seniority in the hostel gave them, for the first time in their lives, power over other human beings — power to command fear, to subjugate and humiliate. They exercised this power with abandon, and they had developed countless theories — from the facetious to the philosophical — to support their sadism. Ragging forces you to stay up late, they said, and this is useful when preparing for difficult examinations. Ragging brings the freshman — or the fachcha — into intimate contact with peers and seniors, and this turns the hostel into a home. Ragging helps the freshman lose his inhibitions. And finally, ragging teaches you humility. It prepares you for the ‘real’ world. Presumably, if you are insulted a sufficient number of times in college, you acquire the virtue of patience, and when your boss insults you in the real world, like a well-trained dog you will not bark and lose your job. Instead, you will wag your tail, look the other way, and pretend the abuse was meant for someone else. Our seniors proclaimed — and some actually believed — that this was wisdom acquired through age and experience, and they were now anxious to pass it down to us. Many were genuinely surprised that we were not grateful for the favour.

As time passed, so did memories of our humiliation. Six months later, ragging was merely an amusing episode. Twelve months later, we felt it was our duty to prepare the next batch for life. We ragged them ferociously, and were genuinely surprised that they were not grateful. I launched a ‘stop ragging’ campaign that died quickly when neither my batchmates nor the freshmen showed enthusiasm. My batchmates now had happy memories of their own initiation. For freshmen, it was easier to ‘get it over with’ than be ostracised for the rest of their stay on campus. When they were led on leashes, some had ingratiating smiles on their faces.

Everyone was wrong. I was supposed to come closer to my peers after our mutual penis-measuring ceremony. Shared humiliation was supposed to draw us close together. Instead it shut us into shells and ruined our first forays into adulthood. Now, having travelled the world and passed through many stages in life, I have never found any use for the education my seniors gave me. But, of course, they had no inkling of the real world themselves. They were newly pubescent boys who fancied themselves to be men. Their lesson of life came down to the scrutiny of the shrivelled-up penis of a modest teenager brought up by conservative parents, standing naked amidst ten soulless boys, his trousers wrapped about his ankles. Ragging is a case study for Freud, nothing more.

IIT had a disciplinary committee of professors — we called it disco — who policed ragging by making surprise visits to hostels. Their white Maruti van was announced well in advance by a freshman posted at the entrance, so the wise professors might find a senior giving freshmen an innocent tutorial on IIT life. The disco spent much time in meetings and consumed many cups of chai. Its function was to manage ragging — not stop it — and to prevent incidents from ballooning into ‘cases’. Like all committees it was inept, so we had one or two cases every year, which resulted in the expulsion of those who ‘overstepped the bounds’, after which everyone was satisfied that something had been done.

Even if faculty and students were sincere about stopping ragging, it is unlikely they will succeed. I remember how we sniggered at lectures on ethics. Years later, when I was as an assistant professor at IIT, I asked my freshmen students how I could help them escape ragging. There’s no such thing nowadays, they said with straight faces.

There is little or no ragging on American college campuses. By this I do not mean that Indians have a monopoly on brutality. One of my friends at Berkeley nearly died during a vodka-drinking hazing ritual in his fraternity. But most students do not become members of fraternities. For them, the very concept of ragging is unknown. In my dormitory at Berkeley, newcomers went on an overnight retreat with seniors, had coffee-socials, played racquetball and watched football games together. Humiliation was not a requirement for breaking the ice.

Why does this not happen in Indian colleges? The answer perhaps lies outside the campus. American college students are adults, and are treated as such. They do not spring up with a ‘Sir’ when professors walk in, they are encouraged to argue and protest. Many are already in their twenties and most have to earn or borrow for their education, unlike Indian boys who have been dispatched to college by loving parents on a cushion of money and support.

A college campus cannot exist outside the system that enfolds it. Many of the frustrations that a boy expresses through ragging are brought from the world outside. Given a chance to release those feelings, he will. You cannot expel every senior who humiliates a freshman. However, if Indian students were shown the respect due to adults, they may begin to find ragging juvenile. For instance, there remains no reason in the 21zzz century to segregate voting-age adults by sex. Boys and girls should live in the same hostels, come and go as they please and enjoy every privilege an adult is entitled to. Should they break the law, they’ll receive punishment. This may create conditions that make ragging seem quaint and allow it to wither away by itself.

Oct 14 , 2006

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