Cane and able

Reverend Thampu, who spent many months attempting to beat some sense of “Christian virtue” into me (to no avail, I might add), finally concluded there was no chance of me making it past the pearly gates. “You, young lady, will stand within touching distance of St. Peter and then down you’ll go to the fiery pit,” he’d snarled at me. (I don’t remember what I’d replied but I may have been a bit of a brat and quoted Mae West to him.) Years later, I’m forced to acknowledge, the old reverend may have been on to something. Because this afternoon, when I first heard about poor Rouvanjit Rawal, my first reaction was to imagine all my friends who are La Martiniere alumni and stick my tongue out at them. For years, they’ve sniggered and said that the place that I studied in during my Kolkata years wasn’t really a school but Kolkata’s attempt at creating a Beverly Hills 90210. Yeah well, at least my school isn’t in the news for having caned a kid who went on to kill himself.

Then again, if we’d gone around setting off stink bombs in school like Rouvan did, maybe we would have been caned too. A day after his caning, Rouvan hung himself. The media is horrified that one of the country’s best schools practices caning, which is curious since it’s common knowledge that our premiere educational institutions have a long tradition of inflicting unholy trauma upon the young. Rarely do students emerge out of boarding schools like Doon and Lawrence School in Sanawar without being sodomised and/or a lasting injury. Of course, most of this is the result of student activity – like a friend being flung to the floor and suffering a slip disc (Doon) or another who was made to lick a row of shoes clean (Sanawar) – rather than formal attempts at discipline.

The news about Rouvan hit the tv channels this afternoon and ever since, I’m told that Facebook has been struck by a deluge of sputtering La Martiniere alumni. There are calls to arms, pleas that the school flag continues to fly high and other messages, all of which are incoherent. I’m not sure the senders are incoherent with rage. I think they’re just shocked that anyone believes a boy committed suicide as a result of being caned. Because, apparently, pretty much every boy in La Martiniere has been caned at least once. Some teachers were known to be “slightly sadistic” as one ex-student put it but most of my friends believe when boys were caned, they totally deserved it. One remembers a classmate who would unzip and drop a few drops of urine on to the teacher’s desk before every Bengali class. Caning did stop the peeing, I’m told. Another actually grins when he remembers the teacher who caned him. None of them committed suicide. In fact, the ones who did contemplate ending their lives were the teachers. It is said there are only three ways to survive La Martinere for Boys: alcoholism, suicide or migrating to Australia. Meanwhile, the current principal of La Martiniere for Boys has hit upon a brilliant way to quieten things. He has gone on record saying he didn’t know caning was banned. Problem solved. The poor man didn’t know the law. That the practice of caning is cruel and inhuman is tangential. In pre-Rouvan La Martiniere for Boys, he’d probably have been caned if he’d said something this idiotic in a classroom.

What I find morbidly hilarious is that there’s talk of bringing the judiciary in on Rouvan’s case. The judiciary that couldn’t find anyone guilty in the Roop Kanwar case, that decided 2 years was fitting for those responsible for the Union Carbide disaster. It’s being argued that the judiciary should get involved because the school drove Rouvan to suicide. However, not that I’m a fan of either caning or La Martiniere, there’s no way to prove that the caning is actually connected to Rouvan’s suicide. If La Martiniere can be held responsible for Rouvan’s death, then the panel of IIT-JEE examiners should be considered accountable for all the people who kill themselves because they didn’t secure high enough scores in these notoriously and traumatically difficult examinations.

“Excellence comes at a cost,” said a friend and La Martiniere alumnus. “We became the people we are – reasonably educated, articulate and presentable – because of our schooling.” The fact that he thinks caning isn’t “a particularly bad thing” is perhaps not the best advertisement for what La Martinere inculcated in him. However, there is perhaps something to be said for my friend’s point that there is more to be gleaned about Rouvan from the fact that he thought stink bombs belonged in classrooms than from him being caned.

5 thoughts on “Cane and able”

  1. For a child to contemplate suicide, he must feel absolutely trapped.
    I can’t help wondering if Rouvanjit had people in his family whom he could go to and feel safe in expressing how terrified he felt at school.
    I think any form of corporal punishment is terrible and I don’t believe the principal’s habit of caning should go unchecked but there are deeper issues that everyone who’s raising children – at home & at school must think about: does the child have the space to be heard, for his/her feelings be acknowledged and taken seriously?
    Forget the principal, It doesn’t sound like Rouvan had any faith in *anyone* to come to his aid.

  2. The whole matter is terribly tragic. But as with so many things, I’m not sure that going ballistic about the school’s punishment policies is actually constructive. I was appalled to hear that La Martiniere canes its students (and has for years, apparently) and while that certainly needs addressing, I’d say it’s a separate issue from the fact that a 13-year-old actually contemplated suicide.

    I don’t think it’s particularly unusual for teenagers to contemplate suicide. To progress beyond contemplation, however, shows some serious issues that no one seems to have noticed. Like you said, there’s a huge responsibility that the parents bear in this case and I can’t help wondering if they’re not hollering about the school so that they don’t have to own up to how they failed their son.

  3. I hate to sound too American here, but was this boy psychologically disturbed or disabled somehow? Sexual abuse involved? I agree that the parents are responsible for their child’s conduct (and happiness), but the principal clearly failed to open any dialogue on the issue.

  4. I have two friends from LMB. They’re both very, very different people, but they both speak only fondly of LMB. In college, we’ve had big, group discussions about the “awesomeness of LMB”, and how it’s “made them what they are now”. I’ve never really liked what I heard about the school: both friends tell me about the ridiculous pranks they’ve pulled, and the crap that they got upto in school. To me, it sounds like a school for snobs, that creates snobs out of people who may not be snobs when they enter the school.

    But I’ve never heard of this ugly part of the school, only about the fun parts. My friends have done mostly innocent, harmless stuff in school. They’ve never mentioned caning. Is it really that rampant? I’ll have to ask. Because if it is, even the students are hiding it, probably because they know no one’s going to accept a school that bloody CANES its students as good.

    And anyway, if the school has such an idiot as the principal (who claims to not have known that caning is illegal), how good can the school be?? I mean, seriously! Even if he actually didn’t know that it’s illegal, isn’t it common humanity to know that it’s wrong?

    I have something to say to my friends now, when they give me more crap about how awesome LMB is.

  5. DP, good to see you here. :) And I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s impossible to know if it was sexual abuse but quite obviously, the boy was extremely disturbed. There’s no way anyone goes ahead and hangs themselves otherwise. And the fact that he felt this desperate shows that the support system that should have been his family failed him.

    Sumedha, hellew. Thank you for reading all those earlier posts and the comments. I went to a La Martiniere reunion a few years ago. It had a cowboy theme; you could buy cowboy hats and there were 4 sad, scrawny horses tethered to the main field. Occasionally, drunk “old boys” rode them and hollered. I rest my case, so far as its excellence is concerned. :-D In all seriousness, of course the school has an illustrious past. That’s what has let people turn a blind eye to less acceptable practices. But then, this school isn’t alone in terms of less-than-respectable activities. Our system of education system has some serious problems.

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