In late August of 1968, Dada (my elder bro) was going back for his second year in Engineering at IIT-Kharagpur (an Indian version of an Ivy League university), when he decided to take me along for a week, to watch the fun thing known in India as ‘ragging’. We arrived at his hostel, the Azad Hall, a day early and Dada immediately set about organizing a reception committee for the newcomers who would be coming in the next day.
When the first taxi arrived, brother dear and his goons were at the front porch, a bunch of T-Rexes, waiting for the leaf-eating arcusauruses coming in.
A wimpy, nerdish, shrimp of a guy got off the taxi and shuddered, closely followed by an even more apprehensive mother. The front of his pants did look a bit wet but then I may have been mistaken.
Dada stepped forward and spoke with the nerd’s mother. “Ah, there you are, Mashima, hope you had a pleasant journey. Hey Poritosh, Ajay, pick up the luggage please” then, turning to the shrimp,” What do they call you, Bhai?”
“N.n.n.n.Nimai”, the boy stuttered. Though he must have been 17, he looked much younger, with his baby face and frail build. A faint shadow had just begun to form above his upper lip. Come to think of it, on second thoughts, his pants did begin looking soiled.
“Nimai….Nimai…ah, what a wonderful name,” Dada expanded,” My late chotokaka was also Nimai. Poor guy, fell while stealing mangoes, broke his legs and was never the same after that. Amazing how people change after they break their legs”. The monologue sank in.
And then Dada turned to the mom and said, “Mashima, Nimai is in good hands.” My brother pointed to Manjeet, a 6ft carnivore in 2nd yr, mining and metallurgy. Manjeet stepped up, grabbed the teenage nerd’s arm and propelled him forward, disappearing through the hostel entrance.
“These sweetmeats…and bananas…I..he forgot them.” Mommy dearest stammered, holding out a plastic bag. Ten sets of green reptilian eyes gleamed. The sweets were already on their way down ten elementary canals that were larger than the Sagittarius-A. “Now, don’t you fret, Mashima. We’ll make certain he has every one of the bananas. In fact, Prasenjeet here will personally pop them into his mouth.” He gestured toward a shrewish guy, with larger than normal canine teeth, 2nd year, civil engineering.
Evil glint no longer necessary, my brother was radiating malice by now, like some radio-active isotope.
Mashima said,”I think I’ll…maybe…go have a look around his room…you know.”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary, Mashima. We have his room all done up and ready. Don’t we, Bambi?” He turned to a baby-faced reincarnation of Heinrich Himmler in 3rd year computer science. “And besides, the taxi meter is running and you might miss your train back.”
Mommy decided not to push it. “OK then, Baba, if you say so. I..I’m so relieved he’s in such good hands.” her voice, uncertain, tapered off and she got into the taxi, looking forlornly back at the hostel entrance as if Nimai would appear magically and she’d be able to give him a final parting hug.
The driver put the jalopy in gear and as it lurched forward, my brother shouted,” We’ll make sure he writes, every Saturday…er…won’t we, Ghanada?” This time he turned toward an emaciated, hawk-like specimen, 4th year mechanical engineering, who grinned back, baring teeth stained with nicotine from those harsh Charminar cigarettes.
The day was a blur. Hapless young freshers trooped in with their parents, naked terror in their eyes. Dada paced up and down the hostel front porch, slapping a wooden ruler against his thigh like a riding crop and barking orders to his minions, like a sturmbannfuhrer of the Totenkopfen. After all the new arrivals were in, registered and shown to their rooms, Dada took me with him on a tour of the freshers’ rooms, to check on them.
Nimai’s was the last room we entered. The room was in darkness except for a shaft of light slanting in from the corridor outside. The first thing that struck me was the plastic bag of sweets and bananas. It was lying on the bare study table, unopened. Nimai was sitting on the edge of the bare cot, looking down at the floor, trying to come to terms with a new life, one that he would begin to learn to live, on his own, away from his loved ones.
As we entered, he avoided looking directly at us, his eyes were brimming. Suddenly I felt sorry his mother wasn’t able to give him a parting hug. Dada must have felt the same way, for he stepped forward and sat down next to the boy, snaked an arm over his shoulders and gently rocked him as his tears started rolling down and sobs shook his frail frame.
“This is life,” Dada said,” It seems like just yesterday that I came in, like you, a fresher. And now? I’m having a ball ragging you guys. You will too, next year. Ragging is good, it helps break the ice between us and you rookies. Besides, it toughens you up, turns you into a real man. Trust me. Now go and wash up. The mess will open in another half hour.”
That week was every bit the kind of fun that Dada had promised when we had left home. At supper, there were two freshers who were made to crawl up on all fours and raise their heads and cry woof! Woof! And Dada and the others would throw them a piece of a chapatti, while two others stood in a corner on one leg while we ate and guffawed.
Five years later, I did pretty much the same, at IIT-Madras, though it was a bit more subdued. South Indian students have always been by nature timid, bookish and generally non-physical (even the seniors) and ragging there was more mental than physical.
In most Indian colleges those days, the ragging lasted around fifteen days, at the end of which there would be a freshers’ welcome dinner and it would be over. The next morning we would all be pals, like nothing had ever happened.
Ragging in 1960s India was tame, quite unlike what it is today. It is much more violent now, both psychologically as well as physically. There are helplines and legislation but one or two deaths on an average per year from ragging inflicted wounds or suicide are almost a given, especially in those private, donation-driven institutions where almost all of the students are sons of the rich and powerful who consider themselves as being above the law.
Today, freshers are tormented with unspeakable brutality that has left many either dead or permanently maimed. Flogging, being pushed off the rooftops of hostels, gang-sodomy, slashing with knives, being forced to drink urine and toilet-bowl water or being dropped off in the middle of a busy thoroughfare completely naked, are just a few instances of what ragging in India has turned out to be.
This is a macabre ritual, one that serves no real purpose of any kind, except to quench some sort of blood lust of the seniors. Instead of ‘beaking the ice’ and the ‘toughening up’ as my bro put it to Nimai, making ragging sound like something that is even healthy, like a vaccination of sorts, all that we have seen is a trail of corpses and disabled human beings all across India.
Another strong reason behind ragging is our failure to inculcate in our kids a feeling of respect for people from different backgrounds. Intolerance, along religious and caste lines, is bred at home and when youths go to college, the bigotry manifests itself through ragging. If you are a member of a minority community in a private college in India, the chances are high that the ragging shall be particularly harsh on you.
Psychologists have connected ragging with Stockholm Syndrome, a psychologically debilitating condition that overcomes a person in a hostage or captive situation. Perceiving himself to be completely under the tormentor’s spell, with no hope of escape, the victim desperately grasps at even the tiniest show of kindness, developing an empathy toward the tormentor.
Having first been ragged and having myself given back in kind when I was a senior, I have personally experienced the Stockholm Syndrome mindset from both sides of the torture. I recall clearly how my seniors would first degrade and debase me, making me clean out their rooms, wash their clothes and polish their shoes and then when they had had enough, they let a little kindness slip in – they took me out to the chai shop outside the Velacherry Gate for tea and biscuits and assured me that if I needed help with assignments or notes, I could go to them.
Then, snack time over and back in their room, it was the same rough stuff once again, as if the little break-time didn’t happen. A few more repetitions and I was literally eating out of their hands. It never occurred to me to go to the hostel warden or even the cops.
Ragging is a variation of the hazing that goes on in Fraternity and Sorority houses in American universities. I said – variation – because hazing is sadism in the guise of an initiation into a fraternity or sorority house, whereas ragging does not make any pretenses about the sheer pleasure in raw sadism. And then, while hazing in American varsities has a tradition that goes back to the 19th century, ragging in India came of age and claimed it’s first death only in the early 1990s.
Ragging is a wanton mindset. Just as gang-rape is.