Thursday, July 1, 2010

Pritish Nandy's article

Some days back we were shocked out of our dinner time reverie by the news item that a Class 8 school boy in Kolkata has committed suicide, allegedly because he was caned as a punishment in school. Here is an article, I dont know the source, it came as a forward, by Pritish Nandy which sums up what many of us thought.

Learning starts with irreverence
Pritish Nandy, 14 June 2010, 09:42 AM IST

La Martiniere was the only school I ever went to. I joined it at 3 and passed out completing my Senior Cambridge. This is the school currently in the news because a student hung himself after the Principal caned him reportedly for not doing his homework. Corporal punishment is always a silly idea. It achieves little, hurts a lot. Depending on which part of your anatomy gets the stick. In our time it was the posterior, and as we all padded that well in advance with notebooks and towels, the Principal (who swung the cane) would first instruct us to drop our pants.

No, I wasn’t caned for not doing homework. In our time, students were far more irreverent. Not doing homework was the least of our transgressions. But the ecology of schools was so different then that even when we were punished, we took it easily in our stride. Studying was never a big deal. Learning was. And the real things I learnt out there were either on the rugby field or in the boxing ring and, yes, I made a few friends who have stayed on for life. That’s what schools were about in those days and La Martiniere was a fine example. It was there that I learnt music, theatre, swimming, writing, waltzing, carpentry and how to smoke grass. Geography I learnt much later while travelling the world. Poetry I found after I unlearnt Shakespeare. History I picked up from the movies. But the subject I hated the most, maths, is the one I love today thanks to Martin Gardner who taught me the art of artfully resolving any complex mathematical problem.

Caning was commonplace then. No one gave it a second thought. If anything, your classmates saw you as a hero if you got whacked. Like the time the watchman caught me climbing down the waterpipe at night from the Girls School dorm next door. A sudden burst of pigeons from the corner of a ledge woke him up and almost killed me. Another time I was caned for scribbling love notes with strong sexual undercurrents to my junior school teacher, Miss Martin. I was also whacked for helping a friend during an exam. The notes in his underwear had fallen off. The hardest whack I got was for writing an essay which questioned the existence of God and said that if I had a choice I would rather go with Madhubala. Yet I was let off with a warning when they found me, at a social, waltzing with a girl not where the others were, but behind the Tech School in the dark, under the starry skies. My school tie was off. So was her shirt.

Yes, we were punished for many reasons. But we never felt humiliated. We went back and did the same things again, just making sure we were not caught. Caning was like a badge of honour. We were heroes every time the Principal (Mr Chalk and Mr Vyse, the two fine men who wielded the cane on our bottoms) announced our names sternly at the morning service and called us to his office. We knew what that meant. But it never embarrassed us. In fact, I took bets on how many whacks I would get. Three was the max. I always got away with one. I suspect we were caned only because the Principal felt it was his duty to do so. It was an intrinsic part of the Coming of Age ritual. There was no viciousness there. Nor a mistaken belief that caning would make better young men out of us.

Today, the entire ecology of schools has changed. The charming irreverence that made our years there such great fun has all but vanished. What we have instead is a strange combination of fear and stress. The love, the warmth, the humour, the camaraderie that was an intrinsic part of our growing up years has gone. Everything is judged purely by academic performance, the marks students get. It’s an edgy, competitive scenario where you perform or perish. Everyone’s under great pressure. When I got a first division, I remember how disappointed I was. It was not what I wanted in life. I would have much rather run off with Mr Vyse’s charming daughter, the lovely Suzette who danced like a dream and won every race at the school sports. But no, she was not mine to be. She finished school, married an Anglo Indian boy and vanished into the Great Outback.

It’s this ecological breakdown that makes corporal punishment look even uglier. When a young boy in Class VIII kills himself for being caned it can only mean one thing: A total breakdown of communication between him and the world around him. School is not where you go just to get some good grades. It’s a place where you grow up, make friends, learn a few sports, discover yourself and the world around you. And if someone whacks you once in a while, you take it in your stride. There’s a whole world out there to be conquered. You can’t give that up so easily.


Breakdown of communication:
That must be it. Parents, most of all, need to be aware of this bane, in their busy schedules and dawn to night jobs. Children need to be TALKED TO. To be UNDERSTOOD from their viewpoint, not yours. Most of all, in all spheres of life, in every problem, the most important cause is lack of communication.

The one thought that kept troubling me for days is that, I was caned too. So many times, one lost count. I was hit on my thigh with "double scales"- two scales joined together to make the sting worse. I was hit on my knuckles for not doing homework. I was made to stand in the sun for hours for not bringing my exam admit card. I was made to do sit ups for shouting in class. I was made to stand outside class for talking.

I showed the scale marks to all and sundry, with pride, like being 'the marked', or 'the chosen one'. We all laughed about how the angle of the scale affected the knuckles, which hit harder, the face or the edge. We winked at each other while standing outside class. My legs hurt for days after the sit ups but I carried it like a badge of honour. And when a couple of my friends fainted, standing in the sun, we ran to get water and fanned them, and cursed the school and our principal, Sister Andrea, and compared her devilish treatments to the other angelic Sisters... but we did not think it was the end of our lives.

Failing in exams were not the end of our lives, we just picked up and moved on... sometimes a few beatings/scoldings later. But the message was clear, nothing is a personal agenda against me or you or anyone... its the SYSTEM. And the system aims to make us "persons" in this way, and we just survive this bit.

School was fun. School was where we had our best times, our best friends, our bonds for a lifetime. School was were we did well in some tests and failed some, but it did not matter. We had exam fever too... we woke nights to make notes and solve trigonometry problems. I did so badly in my 10th standard exams that I actually thought life had ended. But it didnt.

We are good at certain things. We are not good at others. Its better that parents keep an open channel of communication with their kids, and put this into their minds.


  1. such a well written article, really resonates with our memories and take-aways from those halcyon days, so true, you got punished, you moved on. Our kids will have a very different environment, for better or worse, only time will tell... lets keep doing our bit to keep them happy and childlike!

  2. This article has very beautifully articulated thought with a strong message. We don’t need to teach our kids to deal with failures, stress, humiliation, embarrassment rather keep the communication channel open. We need to be a better listener to understand things from their point of view.