A Strike and a Bardism
The slave revolt shook Rome to its foundations. The brutal empire deployed the cream of its army under its most ruthless general Licinus Crassus.... and in a vicious battle fought at night against a regiment personally led by Crassus, Spartacus was killed. Without his leadership, the rebels scattered and were slaughtered to a man. Such was the tragic end to the noblest and purest revolution in the whole of Human history.... The struggle to achieve a just and happy world without haves and have-nots continues to this day. And in the hearts of those brave men and women engaged in that struggle, the spirit of Spartacus shall live on.
That was from a volume on 'Spartacus' brought out in Malayalam back in 1979 for the consumption of primary schoolers(*)
Here, we recover a more modest narrative - an eyewitness account of a student agitation from a long time ago. The narrator: a young techie who had taken a break from the IT industry to teach at a newly started 'Self-Financing' engineering college in Kerala. Note: dozens of such colleges opened across the state in 2002 when the Government relaxed some laws. The college in this narrative is now a 'leading' institution and shall not be named. The techie turned lecturer too will remain anonymous. Over to him.
I joined **** college on its very inaugural day in late 2002. From the outset, I knew I won't be able to stay very long. The lecturers were a rabidly exploited lot. Some of the rules weren't even Draconian. To give an example: there was no casual leave and if someone had to be absent for a day for any reason - ill-health, bereavement, whatever - he would be summarily fined 1/20th of his monthly salary. Overseeing the repression was a so-called Director-Academic, an 'eminent retired academician' in his sixties whose main job seemed to be to make sure the staff were kept under constant pressure. He had no teaching to do and generally floated around the place 'ensuring discipline and performance'. In hindsight, his primary focus was on getting rid of some of the younger teachers - that included me - so that he could bring in his old chums who were about to retire from state-run colleges. His pet strategy was to shout at and otherwise ill-treat the younger lecturers in front of students; at least twice he publicly read me the riot act for letting students go out of the class room to drink water (I bit my teeth hard and put up with the crap). Ah, yes, the students, there were just about 200 of them. Just out of school, they were a confused lot, somewhat overawed by being first year students at a professional college. And there were no seniors to put them through their paces...
It took but about a couple of months for matters to come to a head. One mid-morning two youngsters came up to me saying they had just been suspended by the director and told to bring their parents from home. One of them had been 'caught' talking to a girl in the college lobby and the other trying to borrow a pen from another girl.
I asked them "Did you explain your side of the story?".
One of them said: "No, he kept shouting at us. "I wont tolerate indiscipline!", "This no place for you to flirt around!" and so on"
"About time someone told the old one this college is not his father-in-law's property!" muttered the other student.
"Relax guys! Don't get angry. It doesn't help." I mumbled..." Talk to your parents..."
"Look here Sir!" they were on fire. "our parents are paying big money to educate us; and some of it goes as that old bugger's wages!" and they stormed off.
When I got back from lunch, every single student from the college was sitting silently on the steps of the main building. I approached them with some curiosity when a couple of them came forward running and said: "Sir, Its a strike! We are protesting the suspensions!"
I was dismayed: "Guys, don't strike and all. you might get into big trouble..."
- "Don't you worry about us. We need the old .... to be straightened out!"
- "Don't say such things. Just get back to your class rooms"
- "No way sir! And you teachers please stay out of this. We don't want you to be victimized!"
I shrugged and slunk away.
For the rest of the afternoon, we watched from our office window as some of the local trustees managing the place approached the students and argued vigorously with them. There was plenty of finger wagging. No classes were held. The director wasn't to be seen. Later, some of us lecturers got to meet up with some student 'leaders'.
"The chief (of the trust owning the college) will come visiting tomorrow" they said. "we need to make him understand the situation!"
A colleague of mine suggested:"You guys write up whatever issues you have - make it very polite, please - and submit it to the chief. And if there is any discussion, show respect!"
"Sure sir. We only want the suspensions to be revoked and for the director to behave better with us and with you people, the lecturers!"
I said: "Hello, don't worry about the lecturers. Please focus on *your* issues!"
"We will see Sir! But we don't like it when he screams at you people in public!"
Next morning, the students were seen standing in tense groups in front of the main building. We lecturers had just got together in our office when the Chief marched in. "You know what happened? The whole of yesterday night, the parents of these poor and silly students were calling me up and apologizing... "My son is just a teenager Sir. Please pardon him. He wont ever get into politics; he was persuaded, tricked into joining this stupid protest by some lecturers!...." So, you fellows just note. I know you, you and you (pointing at some of us in individually) are behind this. Some of the parents even named you and ... you and asked me to get rid of such vermin, ungrateful scum! Eating up our money and biting the hand that feeds you... Okay, quick march and ask the students to assemble. Let me meet them all. And you... and you... just run along and pull some chairs and tables. You ought to be treated like coolies!" and he stormed off.
The furniture was soon in place and the meeting began. The chief, director and some trustees sat, the students stood facing them, in silent expectation. We, the lecturer-coolies, stood to one side. The chief took out what appeared to be a petition from the students and scanned it for a while. And presently he spoke, addressing the students.
"Dear students! First of all, you are a smart bunch. This petition is very well-written and and we appreciate that very much. Yes, we want to compliment you, both me and this brilliant scholar, your director here (students look puzzled).. We are old enough to be your grandfathers and wish the best for you.... (a pause) But,... we are immensely saddened by what happened yesterday - the way you have reacted. But you are our children, the hope of tomorrow. And we know you were misled and made to misunderstand this great academician's concern for you as tyranny by some elements (a contemptuous wave of the hand in our direction). And let me tell you the director has only your well-being in mind when he corrects you or scolds you. And after hearing from your parents, we have decided not to pursue any disciplinary action against any student (he pauses; a murmur of pleasant surprise and relief spreads among the students; the director is silent and wears a benign smile).
But, please note this is only in generous acknowledgement of your youth and because your parents pleaded on your behalf. You should respect your parents. Your parents have put their faith in this institution and the institution respects and trusts this man... And yes, you have written in this petition about the director scolding some lecturers. He only corrects them when they commit mistakes. He is totally committed to discipline. Let me remind these people (another wave at us) in front of you that they ought to behave and... be grateful to the money they are getting paid from the fees paid by you, our students. At least they should not manipulate you to settle cheap scores with the director or the management. And if someone here thinks he has worked in the industry and knows a trick or two, he can go back to where he can play those stupid tricks....
And we shall resume classes immediately. Thank you my dear boys and girls. I am always happy to meet you and listen to you. So is our director (another smile from the great man). You will always get the best from us. And I assure you, this is only the beginning. We will soon recruit for you some real teachers, really good teachers who will mold you into proper engineers; study well, do well..."
And thus came to an end what was probably the first student strike ever to happen (early in 2003) at Kerala's *leading* self-financing colleges. Now, half a generation of 'service' later, following the tragic death of a student, there is huge public outcry about these institutions - unscrupulous managements, suffering students.... It is as if a major battle has been joined; but, to my knowledge, no voice representing the teachers has made itself heard above the sound and fury.
In front of the Azhakiyakavu' temple at Palluruthy near Cochin is a quadrangular pond. At its center stands a colossal sculpture of a fowl-like bird. Here is a three quarters view:
Here is how the bird looks from behind:
The fowl is supposed to be a guardian deity. I am told several children drowned in the pond and after the bird was put up, no accident has happened. Curiously, the sculpture also embodies a famous phrase from Othello: "the beast with two back(side)s".
(*)In its apotheosis of Spartacus, we see Communist mythology at its punchiest.