Saturday, July 28, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

A dangerous twist to a harmless practice
by Khushwant Singh

TRUE to our national character, we pick up the silliest customs of the West and give them an oriental twist. Among the harmless are celebrating birthdays with birthday cakes, with candles and singing "Happy birthday to you", attending New Year’s Eve parties, getting drunk and singing ‘auld long syne’. A later addition is celebrating St Valentine’s Day by sending cards declaring love and inserting ads in newspapers carrying amorous messages. However alien and silly they be in the Indian setting, they are harmless. Ragging new entrants in colleges is not. It was borrowed from England where new boys joining schools were taken over by seniors as fags and asked to do menial jobs like polishing their shoes and ironing their clothes. At times youngsters were also subjected to buggery. Some of the practice was carried to colleges. Ragging in all its forms vanished from English schools and colleges a century ago. We Indians took it up and continue to indulge in it with sadistic zeal. In my days in the two Indian colleges I went to, it seldom went beyond quietly affixing placards reading ‘I am a first year fool’ on backs of new entrants or making them sing and dance. In hostels, they were often subjected to humiliations like forcing them to strip, masturbate and even satiate the lust of seniors. The victims often suffered trauma and were mentally maimed for life. College authorities usually turned a blind eye to these happenings and explained them as harmless ways of rubbing edges off newcomers. It took many tragic incidents for them to realise these were far from harmless — at times ragging induced victims to take their own lives. After one such incident when an engineering student of IIT Kharagpur committed suicide in 1991(the deceased’s father filed a petition), ragging was made a cognizable offence, punishable with a fine of Rs 25000 and three years of rigorous imprisonment. The University Grant Commission formulated rules which included expulsion from college to put down this unwholesome custom.

No escape from pain and sorrow
July 21, 2001
A penny for Jagjit Chohan
July 14, 2001
The importance of bathing
July 7, 2001
An astral encounter
June 30, 2001
Footloose with Ghalib
June 23, 2001
Sangam of religions
June 16, 2001
What makes a man great?
June 9, 2001
Malgudi no more
May 26, 2001
Call of the papeeha
May 19, 2001
Exporting erotica to France
May 12, 2001
Celebrating old age
May 5, 2001
Guru-chela parampara
April 28, 2001
What the world owes to Jainism
April 21, 2001
Exercising the mind with books
April 14, 2001
The great Maharaja of Punjab
April 7, 2001
Storm in a chat show
March 31, 2001

It came as a surprise to me that the practice of ragging is as common in girls colleges as it is in boys and takes equally sadistic forms, at times leading to suicides. I should have thought a simple word of warning by the Principal to all his students at the time of admissions that anyone caught ragging would be immediately expelled from college hostels would be enough. Apparently not. So the police has to be summoned and arrests made in centres of learning.

By the time I joined college in England in 1934, the word ragging had disappeared from university vocabulary. On the contrary, new entrants were taken over by older students to be shown round the college and hostels, told of extra-curricular activities in which they could participate. It was a most cordial welcome. About the only roughing up that took place once a year was by gangs of students from one college raiding the rival college and robbing or disfiguring its emblem. My college emblem was Leo, a red lion fixed above the entrance gate. The emblem of the London School of Economics was Phineas with a long beard. Kings’ College boys would suddenly storm into LSE, carry of Phineas and cut off his beard before returning it. A few days later LSE boys would raid Kings’ College, carry of Leo and return it after removing its testicles.

Why write poetry?

Poetry is the greatest form of literature because it is more evocative than the best prose or fiction. It is closer to music than any other form of writing. It also does not need great erudition to write it because it springs from the heart and not the brain. Most school children start composing rhyming verses while still at school: it is rarely any good but is admired by loving parents and spinster aunts. Poetry has few buyers and publishers do not risk their money on publishing poetry books. Most people who have to read a certain amount of poetry at school and college do not do so in later life.

Editors of journals do not take poetry seriously. Few newspapers that care to publish it use it as space-fillers. The only real outlets for aspiring poets are poetry magazines; India has hardly any worth mentioning. In this dismal scene, most Indian poets publish their works at their own expense through what are known as Vanity Publishers. There are quite a few of them in our country. They charge their authors enormous amounts to let them see their names in print, have no distribution system and reviewers take no notice of them because their books are not available in bookstores. I glance at some which are sent to me but rarely bother about them. Most of them are puerile outpourings of juveniles in rhyme with lines cut to different sizes to pass off as poetry.

One such was Simantini (Boundless) by Priyasi (Minerva) which landed on my table a few days ago. I read the first poem, then the second, the third and then the entire collection. The themes are love, disenchantment and the wretched lot of women.

For two square meals,

a roof on her head

and some respectability

What she did not get?

A lifetime of subjugation,

Slavery, abuse and force,

Glorious edifications.

Wife, mother, maid,

Drudgery, monotony,


When a person expects to fulfil her life’s aspirations through relationship with another, disenchantment is bound to follow:

In the

pregnant moments

of our thoughts,

so much was said.

The finality

of the


I love you,

killed something of it.

The more times

we say,

the more it falls


So much love,

so few words.

When all has been said

So much will remain unsaid

So come, my love

let us not cage

our love,

in the straight-jacket

of words.

Let the eloquence

of wordlessness,

speak for itself.

Let’s just love

and leave the rest.

More will be said,

When nothing

is said.

The book says absolutely nothing about the poetess. She is reluctant to talk about her private life. I could extract no more than that she was born in Lucknow 46 years ago, her father was an officer in the Indian Air Force. She went to different schools where her father was posted, took her Master’s degree from Delhi and has held jobs in the public and the private sector. She lives in Delhi with her husband and two daughters. She has a collection of poems in Hindi and is planning to write a novel.