marginal resolve

Nihal Sahu

Debts of Gratitude

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A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,

  • Churchgoing, by Philip Larkin

Marcus Aurelius begins Book 1 of Mediations by listing things, events, and lessons for which he is thankful. This includes help he received, lessons from his fellow men, and events of fate.

Take, for example, the below passage on not being a grammar nazi:

From Alexander the grammarian: not to leap on mistakes, or captiously interrupt when anyone makes an error of vocabulary, syntax, or pronunciation, but neatly to introduce the correct form of that particular expression by way of answer, confirmation, or discussion of the matter itself rather than its phrasing — or by some other such felicitous prompting.

Or, for something far more essential:

From my [adoptive] father: gentleness, and an immovable adherence to decisions made after full consideration...

This is an important task, and one that few of us actually perform. So, I’m asking everyone reading right now, to perform this essential task, and in doing so, pass on some lessons to the rest of us as well. Yet, posting life lessons in the comment section of a blog is sermonizing at best and pointless at worst. This is where Model UN comes in.

Model United Nations, also known as Model UN or MUN, is an educational simulation and/or academic activity in which students can learn about diplomacy, international relations, and the United Nations.

When you have learnt so much from a format and a field which has given you so much, and has made you who you are, I believe there is an obligation to give something back. Lets get something straight. Model UN is not the goal, has no value as of itself, and is an educational tool. It becomes irrelevant when you acquire the skills and have the experiences you set out to have. But you keep MUNing because there are skills we never knew mattered, but which did eventually. Some of us may never make it to the big league of hushed tones, reverence, and regional awe, as with so many whose names you know. Yet, you will at least have learned what we set out to learn.

What, then, will we learn? Well, for instance:

You will have learnt to speak with limited time, clearly and concisely, with force, without rambling, with feeling, without pomposity or grandeur, in a coherent order, for a particular purpose. You will have learnt the enormous importance of details: grammar, semicolons, procedure, rules. You will have learnt how to agree with opponents without losing ground and to disagree with allies without losing trust. You will have learnt the enormous power of a smile, a friendly demeanour, and a helping hand will have in guiding a first-timer. You will have learnt how to cope with failure, how to lose gracefully, and do these things equally well whether or not you deserved to fail.

Having been partially successful in learning some of these things, I’m going to emulate Aurelius and list some things I’ve learnt from people I'm proud to have been acquainted with. I'll also refrain from quoting the absolute giants of the circuit who I don't know personally. These include the likes of Ashwin Shanbagh, Brahadeesh Srinivasan, and the like(not many of the like exist). Just the experience of watching them debate and perform has been enormously instructive, and those experiences cannot be condensed to brief paragraphs as I do below.

From Sandra the Sex-Gen: how to hold a stance and adhere unwaveringly to decisions made; the importance of detail and nuance; how to be honest; how to get along with people whom you don't like; how to get along better with those whom you do like; how to organise; to read patiently and carefully; how to research.

From Hafis the Orator: the importance of thinking before speaking; to speak slowly and limit the number of points you include in every speech(Note: I've recieved this advice from so many people that I don't even remember all of them. They know who they are.)

From KK, the best resolution-drafter in the seven kingdoms: some inkling of how to write a good resolution; the importance of detail; the importance of choosing words with care and never using them loosely or indiscriminately;

There are so many more, and they names I've mentioned here are just because they are the first to have come to mind. Acknowledging the entirety of my debts would require far more than this medium allows.

I do have one favour to ask of you. In the Facebook comments below, you can tag those from who you have learnt and acknowledge your own debts of Model UN gratitude, and ask them to do the same. This will let the rest of the people reading this learn from your experiences, and to remind all of us of what we are, in the end. A community. A varied one, full of idiosyncrasy, arrogance, and foolish posturing. Not a game but an educational sport. The equivalent of intellectual football, and as in all sport, the torch must be passed, and we must learn from the old as well as the new.

Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

  • Churchgoing, Philip Larkin

On Both Sides of St. Thomas

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“But before we face experience, that miserable enemy, let us have some more innocence, just for a while.”

― Martin Amis, Experience: A Memoir

When St. Thomas School in Trivandrum decided to initiate disciplinary proceedings that they would take all the way to the High Court, all because an amorous teenage couple decided to hug in public, they became the enemy of both innocence and experience. The previous sentence, as pompous and unforgiving as it may sound, should have led you to a conclusion: the school is the enemy and the students are hapless victims who are being prosecuted by a philistine, loveless and humourless administration for the unforgivable sin of a chaste hug.

If you thought that, you would be wrong. While I do believe that the administration at St. Thomas is humourless, loveless, vindictive, and philistine, they are acting neither illegally nor incorrectly. Schools have the authority to establish rules that they believe necessary. They reserve the right to suspend students who are in violation of these rules. They reserve the right, upon grievous violation or obscenity, to expel those students.

Most schools, however, are not St. Thomas. This is a good thing. Most schools would have let this slide. Most schools would have let the boy off with a warning, after extracting a profuse, pathetic apology. After extracting such an apology, St. Thomas School, like the devil welcoming a newcomer to an eternity of Hell, said: “We’re only getting started.

The school began and kept going: From Disciplinary hearings, public shaming, and violations of privacy to suspension, expulsion, and a High Court case. At every point where the average school would have been understanding, merciful, and savvy, St. Thomas decided to be unyielding, vindictive, and cruel.

Background

The High Court opinion is probably the best account of what happened. If you haven’t yet read Justice Chaly’s judgement, do so now. I can find no fault with it(logical, readable, clear) except evasion and judicial cowardice. Regardless, most of you will be loath to read an arcane judicial opinion. I have tried to summarise the case below with some brief commentary.

Disclaimer: Please note that I refer only to the judicial opinion and the affidavits provided by both parties as quoted in the opinion. I make no comment on the veracity of the claims. I doubt any substantial falsehood by the parties, in the affidavits would affect the outcome of the case, or change my opinion on the issue.

The boy hugged the girl in public, in front of a few teachers and friends. When a sentence starts this way, it seems fairy-tale like. You also know that romantic teenage fairy-tales, in Kerala, cannot end well. A teacher reported them. In a letter to the court and the disciplinary committee, the teacher states that “she was shocked to see the incident, and that she has not experienced any such public display of affection.” From her tone, it’s quite obvious that the teacher is not likely to have ever witnessed or been subject to a private display of affection either.

The teachers summoned the parents, reprimanded the students, and constituted a disciplinary committee. A few days later, using the Indian schoolteacher's equivalent of espionage, they discovered(read: obtained) compromising photographs of them on their private Instagram account(which were also put on record both in the disciplinary committee and the High Court. This was probably illegal and certainly unethical.)

The boy was expelled. The school was then served with an interim order from the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights(KESCPCR) instructing the school to readmit the boy. St. Thomas, instead of quietly readmitting a student who had done nothing uncharacteristic of an adolescent boy, took the matter to the High Court of Kerala. Notwithstanding the vindictiveness they displayed in the matter, the school had a strong case. They contended that the statutory powers of the KESCPCR did not extend to issuing interim orders.

How, then, did the boy defend himself?

First, the girl was his friend and had just completed her recital of a song. The hug was apparently out of sheer humility, respect, and congratulatory elation. (Please note that I’m paraphrasing and simplifying the counter-affidavit presented by the boy’s father, and not autopsying a hug of my own accord. ) In addition, there was no ‘evil’ intention or other design on his part.

Second, they had immediately apologised and promised not to repeat their behaviour. The class teacher did not budge, which seems characteristic of a grudge against the boy.

Third, the boy’s parents had gone through the ‘ignominius’ disciplinary proceedings, because they didn’t want a protracted fight with the school authorities, and anticipating that he would be allowed to attend classes after the Onam examinations.

Justice Chaly uses the phrase ‘the fag end’ here to convey that the boy is nearing the end of his school life. Ironically, in an environment as closeted, segregated, and unnatural as St. Thomas, fagging and buggery might just end up to be the student’s last resort. But it didn’t end there.

They were again summoned, to be shown images of their son and the girl in question, in various compromising positions. These photos were obtained, after taxing efforts by the teachers, from his private Instagram account. He also contends that the school had obtained the photographs illegally, after a schoolteacher's version of what passes for hacking. He further contends that there was nothing obscene in the images themselves. He also accused the school of taking screenshots of the image and using them to blackmail and tarnish him in the school and the society. Regardless, the school has decided to expel him.

It is with admirable dexterity that Justice Chaly decided on a verdict. Bypassing the issue of how the images were obtained, not bothering to set standards for what may pass as obscenity in similar cases or create a precedent in case law for the disciplinary standards of institutions, and subtly dodging the matter of how the Instagram images were obtained and if that was legal, the Justice’s solution is to narrowly focus on this case and this case alone.

He ruled that, after a thorough reading of the statute, the KESCPCR did not have the authority to issue interim orders, and that its powers were only recommendatory in nature. In addition, he states that the Principal of the school is the “guardian of the school, who is vested with powers to take necessary action to maintain the discipline and morality in the school, which cannot be interfered or tinkered with…” One recommendation to the Justice, if I may be so bold. In a matter where a student has hugged another, the Hon'ble Justice should try to refrain from citing cases where a college student beat up a teacher, and in another, cheated during an examination. Someone might think you’re going a bit overboard. He also recommends that the school, while in his opinion is absolutely absolved of any wrongdoing so far, be merciful towards the student and perhaps readmit him to the school after paying a fine of some sort. He quashed the interim order, and ruled in favour of St. Thomas, on the basis of his interpretation of the powers of the KESCPCR, and not on a moral ground. He did the right thing.

This judgement does not seem correct, on its face. It also ignores a number of things. There are additional allegations by both students which aren’t discussed in sufficient detail, but which have made no difference to the outcome of the case. Both students have outlined these allegations in an interview to The News Minute(names changed in all quotes).

Speaking to TNM, Rahul’s father described his experience: “We were taken to the secretary’s room and I was shocked at the way he behaved with my son. He abused him and accused me of not knowing how to bring up a boy.”

“He called my son a ‘Vithukala’ (bull in heat), many other abusive words were showered on him. He told me to kill my son rather than bringing him up this way,” recalled the father.

According to the father, the secretary also said that Rahul should be punished like a godman who had recently been in the news. (He was alluding to the seer who was castrated in Thiruvananthapuram.)

In a comment, St. Thomas clarified its stance:

Rajan Varghese, Secretary of the Mar Thoma Educational Society, told TNM, “Such undisciplined actions will not be allowed in a prestigious institution like ours. Boys and girls are not allowed to hug in the school premises, it is against the discipline and decorum of our institution. What about discipline? No colleges or schools in Kerala would allow such actions not just our institution,” said Rajan.

The girl spoke to TNW as well, and made a number of allegations.

“He spoke badly of my family for bringing me up the way I am. The Secretary asked me how I could behave this way being a girl. I do not find the pictures objectionable or obscene the way they do, a lot of teenagers like me have such pictures on social media. They don’t understand our generation. And the pictures were on my private account, how could they hack my account?” asks Gayatri.

The Secretary of the Mar Thoma Educational Society, Gayatri claims, asked her to speak against Rahul to save herself.

“The Secretary asked me to write a letter against Rahul, and promised I could get myself out of this tangle if I did. He made me write that Rahul forced the hug on me, and that it wasn’t mutual. He told me that if I did so, I could avoid expulsion and get back to school,” Gayatri alleges.

Now, the thing does appear to be slightly more nuanced. There seems to be wrongdoing on the part of the school, simply beyond the usual stick-up-the-butt. I find some aspects of this testimony more believable than others, and I also disregard the grand statements in TNM’s article about how the girl is a model student and wishes to help society. None of this is relevant. None of this is at issue.

What is visible in the testimony, if it is believable, is a moral stand; not a legal one. Two students are beseeching their communities, their school, and the courts to do what is right, what is just, what is progressive, and what is human. To forgive and to forget.

But the right thing in law is not always just or progressive or even remotely human. As Justice Scalia remarked in National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley: “The operation was a success, but the patient died.' What such a procedure is to medicine, the Court's opinion in this case is to law.” That is how it is supposed to work. The fault here lies not in the courts for its judgement, or in the students involved (though they have hardly been paragons of decorum), but the humourless stance of the school in persisting ad nauseam to the detriment of its students, its city, and its state. I do not blame the teacher for reporting a violation of school rules, but the administration and the rest of the faculty for not knowing when to stop. Knowing when and where to stop is something both St. Thomas and its much-maligned students would do well to learn.

In this seven-course-meal of unyielding ignorance, the most remarkable part of the entire controversy is not — though they are quite remarkable, in their own right — that a school would expel a boy for hugging a girl, or that it would unethically trawl through a private Instagram account to gather evidence of amorous(or evil, in the judicial parlance) history between them, or even that a school would go to the High Court of Kerala just for the right to expel the boy in question.

No, The most remarkable part is the response of the students from STCS. I cannot speak for the school, nor of the entire studentry, but the general impression seems to be that the students of St. Thomas are not rebelling against the establishment, nor condemning the decision, nor remaining silent, as you might expect from students afraid of further disciplinary action. They seem to be wholly in support of the school and the odious, vengeful, egoistic manner in which it has conducted itself. In the manner of monarchists and establishment-supporting nonagenarians everywhere, the students of St. Thomas stand by their school.

I spoke to some of these students. I’ll also try to refrain from using any personal information from the insidious networks of gossip that circulate in St. Thomas(children can be inexplicably mean.) You may have heard the things I have: the students involved were obviously dating; their actions were not as quite as chaste as a congratulatory hug, and closer to a back-cellar snogfest; the Instagram account in question was pretty obscene.

If you’re going to fall for any of this, or think that it changes things in the slightest, you would be exactly as intelligent and discerning as a student at St. Thomas, and that is not a compliment. None of this would make the slightest difference to the case or to the manner in which the school has pursued its old-testament policy of egoistic, unyielding, short-sighted, petty, vindictive action against students who had tendered apologies for what would be in most schools, quietly ignored or brushed under the rug. What St. Thomas lacked in this instance is exactly what they accuse their suspended students of not having: shame.

Friday Longreads

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  1. The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama

    In his crystalline April 2015 piece, Tom Junod indicts the Obama Presidency and specifically, its drone program, with a failure uncharacteristic of the former President: foresight. When Junod wrote the following words, he did not know that an oversized cheetos-based growth would be sitting in the Oval Office.

    But here's something simpler, and more human. You have made sure that you will not be the only Lethal President. You have made sure that your successor in the White House will also be a Lethal President, as well as someone somewhere else in the world.

    What if the next Lethal President is not as good and as honorable as you? What if he is actually cruel or bloodthirsty?

    What if he turns out to be — like you, Mr. President — just a man?

  2. Inside Trump's Cruel Campaign Against The USDA's Scientists by Michael Lewis

    Michael Lewis has always been excellent at explaining systems. But excellent, is only the baseline for Vanity Fair. Lewis has an almost uncanny ability to connect, as Malcolm Gladwell put it, 'his characters with their work.' As Lewis explores the unwieldy and deeply moral organisation chart of the US Department of Agriculture, he leaves us with a sense not only of bureaucracy, science, and an almost idealistic commitment to goals, but also sentiment for bureaucrats and the federal government, which is, to say the least, not easy.

    Zaidi marveled at how hard it was for Americans to see the source of their society’s strength. People who came to the United States from other countries had this one advantage: they didn’t take it for granted. “The immigrant journey has a time compression to it,” he said. “Within a generation you’re able to see how the rungs of the ladder of opportunity are laid out in front of you, and you can see the hands that pull you up. You see people pull you up and you say, O.K., I’ve got to do the same thing for other people.

    “I came up that ladder of opportunity, but even I didn’t know the names of the government programs that made up the ladder itself. Growing up, what was obvious to me was the kindness of community members. But government was less visible. You need to work really hard to appreciate it.”

    And who wants to do that?

Twitter's 300: How To Avoid Distraction

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Twitter is free from peer-pressure. Unless you're one of the privileged few whose *following* lists are subject to analysis, no one cares who you follow. A month ago, I deleted Twitter because I couldn't keep up with the 300 or so people I was following. As with the battle of Thermopylae, 300 is more than it seems.

300, including respectable magazines and newspapers in the dusk of their relevance, desperately re-posting links and neon-sign images.

300, including organizations tweeting events and campaigns, press releases and damage control, statistics I can't do anything about and petitions that will come to nothing.

300, including a President of the United States who repels you and transfixes you in your seat with his repulsiveness as you watch with horrified satisfaction the tragedy porn that is the unraveling of the state of a union.

300, including titans and deplorables, newsmen and fake-news, and every single voice I want to agree with or rebut, with either unqualified approbation or knowing derision, on brand, it comes with the box, I'll have fries with that, thank you.

Redemption

To escape the 300 and their depredations, you need rules. Good sense and rules allow me to curate a Twitter feed I can sift through every morning.

Follow people, not organizations. I love Vox. But I don't follow them. Instead, I follow Ezra Klein, their editor-at-large, and the host of some of my favorite podcasts. He reliably retweets anything noteworthy, along with his own observations about Vox's publications. Wherever possible, follow journalists and not newspapers. Follow people, not organizations.

Poem: Money

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Money walks around me in circles;
I try not to give away what I have,
For what salesmen make me want.

But they surround me,
with purple lace, and books,
Large apartments, unfurnished nooks.
With their pleading eyes,
and their daily sadness.
I try not to let them down.

They want me to buy things,
high heels, kettles,
and new tires,
Bowling pins, and electric fire.

I pay the gods who decide my fate,
and then the restauranteur for what I ate.
A trainer, then, to keep me fit,
And cigarettes that patches don't help me quit:
I pay them all:
to kill me
and to keep me alive.
Doctors prohibit my early end;
They have to send me bills,
So does the Government.

Money gives me moments,
they are fleeting but true.

My wise friend shouts:
“Burn paper money, you fool,”
That I will gladly do.

These moments, they are fleeting,
But yet they are true.
As true as you and true as me,
Or was it you?
The moment gives me whiplash,
permit me to turn the corner,
stretch and bend,
and swerve right to avoid the end.

But even ending is only just,
Perhaps we would like forever for us,
Immortal hydras chained to roots,
cursed with wanderlust.

Money is what they have
and what I want.
The men and women, come and go:
Talking, like Prufrock, in a farther room,
Talking of stocks, and talking of bonds,
Talking of precious rocks, and expensive haunts,
Talking of money, and Michelangelo.

Poem: There To Die

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I wrote this over Whatsapp, which is the worst focused-writing app ever devised. Every line of the poem was sent as a standalone text message, unedited and unadorned. I am sure this is visible. You may feel the rough edges and fallacies on your palate, reader. You will feel them, when you walk around a ruined and infested fountain, weeping and cursing and thinking of the dead.

Her voice was the swirling sky,
and her eyes were starry nights.
Her story was a fantastic lie,
and she showed me love atop the Golan Heights.

She turned over and sighed,
and turned out the lights.

My voice was rocky ground,
with shattered bone,
I found my mind with a bloodhound,
scavenging alone.
She picked me up unwound the knots,
in the back of my mind.

I may really have lied,
I betray my own kind.
None of this is mine.
None of this is owned.

And then I asked her,
among the works of days and hands,
what sins and sorrows
had led her to find my outstretched hand.

She said, she had told a lie, sold exotic furs,
lied and cheated, hurled a curse
and land and land and land.

The sea is open, and I am free.
At the helm of my destiny.
Alone, and I ignore the shore.

A lone tree beckons, and I murmur
"Not today. I must tender to a festering sore.
I must take care of the herd. I must write down
the truths that I have heard"
"I must walk among the the crowds, and speak in a voice of thunder

I must walk with kings and gods,
and tear nations asunder.
I must be cold with hate,
and I must tender to my grudges
It must not get too late, I cannot wait for spring bloom or golden midges.

And then she called, and I followed.
I grew old, and my living room halls
were legend, hallowed.
I sold the sea, and blotted out the sun.
Set the price of tea, and shook gunpowder
out of gun.
I bought this happy isle, under a swirling sky.
Recanted all my lies, and lay there with her.
there to die.

The Foliage And The Roots

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We weren’t this short sighted back then. India used to listen to those who saw ahead, who saw beyond the immediate foliage and the leaves to note the patterns in the roots. Those men and women are still here, pushing agendas, pulling at the weed that threatens to choke out our democracy. We don’t notice or care.

What we see and talk about is the foliage and nothing else. What is relevant is the meme, the moment. It is no wonder that a sexually deprived nation with a small-prick complex is desperate for satisfaction. That’s what Twitter, for example, gives us. Satisfaction. That lingering feeling of churning hate at the bottom of your belly can now be projectile vomited at someone. The dissent of the patriot: that weird love at the center of the Indian Experiment, can be excised with a witty comment.

This has been the curse, not just of our nation, but of every nation in this weird age. To badly paraphrase Chaplin in the The Great Dictator: "We say too much and feel too little."

We are content, on Indian Twitter, with expressing our discontent without doing anything about it. Satisfied with expressing our dissatisfaction. Befuddled and Stupefied by the intricacies of our politics, we stick to repeating our platitudes. One for the right. One for the left.