Sunday, May 30, 2010


A tragic news item today brought back some memories. A girl studying in an engineering college in Kelambakkam near Chennai was spotted by the college chairman (who happened to also be her relative) sitting next to a boy and - horrors - talking to him. He scolded her, whereupon she went to her hostel room and committed suicide by hanging herself.

The memory this brought back was of attending a summer school at IIT Madras in 1976. In those days, IIT's were nasty, forbidding places (at least the ones in Madras and Delhi). The organiser of our National Science Talent summer school, whom I'll call Prof. R, was a rude, obnoxious and overbearing person. Beyond all this, he had an obsession -- that boys and girls should not mingle under any circumstances. We were ordered to sit in separate halves of the class. This was unexpected and quite bizarre at least for those of us who had come from Bombay. We already knew our batchmates and since we had never received any warning about the dangers of opposite-sex fraternisation, we simply treated them as fellow students with a reckless disregard for gender.

Now what I remember particularly about Prof. R. is that his obsession for gender separation appeared to coincide with an obsession for one of the girls in the class. He would constantly try to talk to her, alone, and warn her about the dangers of fraternising with boys.

Cut to about six or seven years ago and a similar incident took place in Bombay. At this time no one (certainly in Bombay) would dare suggest that students be physically separated by gender in class. This is what happened instead: I was informed by a senior institute administrator that a certain girl was illegally staying in a boy's room in the hostel, that he (the administrator) had information that her modesty was in danger, and that in his view the authorities should raid the hostel room and "rescue" her. The entire story sounded to me quite fabricated. How did he have advance information about what was to happen to her? Apparently from a friend of the girl's parents. I then met this "family friend" who told me he had known the girl since she was a child, that she had fallen into "bad company", and that we needed to save her before something terrible happened. But to me, his tone betrayed a very questionable obsession about the girl.

The next step turned out pretty simple - I located the girl, gave her a very abbreviated version of the story and asked her if she was in any sort of trouble. She smiled brightly and said she wasn't, and that the boy she was visiting (not staying with) was her fiancé. They were soon to get married, their parents had met each other etc etc. She couldn't imagine what the problem was. Wishing I didn't have to do this, I had her call her father on my mobile and he confirmed her story. So what was this family friend getting all worked up about? (remember he had nearly brought about a raid to "rescue" her!) The young lady revealed a plausible reason. On her arrival in Bombay she had initially stayed with him (he lived alone) and had soon begun to feel uncomfortable with the way he looked at her and questioned her closely about her activities. So she moved out to her own lodgings. The "family friend" did not take this well and the above story was the result.

Back to the story I started with. Apparently the chairman of this engineering college in Kelambakkam discovered the girl was hanging out with boys when he surveyed CCTV footage of the students. I don't want to speculate on why he was surveying this footage and beyond the newspaper report I know nothing about this case, which presumably will be investigated. Let's hope it bears no analogy with the two cases I've described above.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

Good post. I generally associated this boys-stay-away-from-girls attitude with the Jeppiaar colleges but it seems they're not unique. About your story, two things struck me:

1. Did the girl's "family friend" really think he'd get very far by referring to students at one of India's premier science institutes as "bad company"?

2. Did you really "have" to call her parents? Once you figured that it's all above board, both of them are adults, and no institute rules were broken, surely the matter ends there. Whether the families approve or not is not really your concern. Of course, I realise that India is more complicated than that, so it probably was a good idea to call her parents, since she was comfortable with it.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Rahul: Can't answer 1 - the person did not come across as totally sane. About 2, you are perfectly right, but as I recall she offered to have me talk to her parents and I was happy to accept the offer since it could, and did, decisively clear up everything. But had the parents been hostile, I (unlike the great Indian police force, khap panchayats, Naveen Jindal etc) would have fully supported her rights as a plain simple adult human being.

Vivek Malewar said...

That just reminds me of this post from Chennai Metblogs long time back. Do read.

Also, on a lighter side - (also from above post)

vbalki said...

Hilarious post (though that doesn't detract from the seriousness of the issue). I was aware of the 1976 IITM story. The man ("Prof. R") was, to put it mildly, a disgrace to his designation and profession. The story has a little epilogue. In 1981, shortly after I joined IITM, along came a new batch of NTS scholars on a summer visit. The gray eminence once again laid down the law to the kids. Among other things, I learnt that he admonished them for having asked me to give them a talk. I gave the talk anyway, in my office, so he couldn't do much about it, but he threatened to withhold their NTS stipends. After a couple of such provocations, I was wondering what to do, when I ran into a senior physicist in the corridor outside my office. I described the goings-on to him, expecting him to have a good laugh and forget about it. But it turned out that he had actually been sent by NCERT to find out what was going on! My report was duly corroborated by him and promptly conveyed to Delhi. And that was the very last time Prof R. got to deal with NTS scholars.