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.