School Days…

I sometimes wonder if Foucault had gone to school in India if he would not have written his opus on punishment on the school rather than the prison. Anyone who has gone to school in India will tell you there is no institution that combines discipline and punishment in quite the same way as school. Everyone has tales to tell.

I went to military and central government schools for most of my life. I was lucky. The most I suffered was rulers on knuckles and palms, mild lashings on the back of the thighs and calves. There was one teacher who delighted in pinching you with her nails on the upper arm and pulling your hair. But I was a girl. The boys got much much worse. And my friends who went to Jesuit all boys schools tell truly horrific tales.  Of being made to roll into fetal balls on the floor to be kicked across the class by the chemistry teacher. Of being slammed on the back of the hands till blood flowed, of being made to stand in the sun in games period with no water till they fainted. Another friend, who is left-handed, had pencils placed between each finger which the teachers would then twist in a macabre pedagogic ritual to ‘teach’ her to write with her right hand.

We eventually moved to Delhi and I transferred to a ‘progressive’ school where corporal punishment for the most part was rare. There was still one maths teacher, though, whose classes were elaborate orgies of humiliation and in which the boys were routinely slapped around. Some nights ago a friend was recounting school day-nightmares. We commiserated and shook our heads knowingly. A friend who went to school in the west was horrified. We weren’t. None of it sounded strange. Everyone has stories like this. In every generation. If my father got a rupee for each time he was caned he would be a millionaire many times over. They differ in degree, not really in kind.

I never told my parents. I don’t know anyone who did. You didn’t tell your parents these things. You just dealt with it. You shrugged it off, no one thought it a big deal. It was a rite of passage. This is what school was. Children don’t tell, and for the most part, no one really cares. But then as I said I was lucky. Many many children are not. And on the rare occasions when the media wakes up it is when a child dies. Or when children commit suicide. And it happens with chilling regularity. But the spectacular incidents are only visible extremities [actual physical life-threatening (and sometimes life extinguishing) violence] of a system of terror that is school. It becomes unacceptable when a child dies, or is seriously injured. But that children need to be disciplined with physical violence is not really a problem. There are no annals of the routine humiliation and psychic abuse that is vested on children every day.

I don’t mean to tar all teachers with the same brush. I am sure there are millions of dedicated gentle wonderful teachers who solider on in a country which neither recognizes nor prizes nor praises a job which is low paid and comes with few perks. I know because I had the immense good fortune and privilege of being taught by many of them. For the scary monster Math teacher, there was often the fairy godmother English teacher. But for every one light that glimmers on the horizon of that vast dark sea that is school, there are legions of individuals who can only be described as psychotic sadistic despots who preside over classrooms in the manner of the chief warden of a torture chamber.

How else do you describe the teacher who hit 11 year old Shanno Khan over the head and then made her stand in the sun for two hours with bricks on her back for failing to recite the English alphabet? Shanno died. Or the teacher who brutally beat Divya Pandey for not wearing the correct uniform? She died too. Or Ojaswi Khanna who lost hearing in his left ear because a teacher slapped him for forgetting to bring a compass to class.

And like everything in this country going to school is deeply class inflected. If your  parents can afford elite schools chances are you will escape the worst of it. If your parents are poor and  scraping together everything they earn to give their children an education, that child is rendered utterly defenseless in the most terrifying way. At the mercy of a wrecked government school system or then at the mercy of private schools where children from poor backgrounds bear the brunt of the institutional violence that knows

School is, paradoxically, the only institution I can think of which naturalizes a complete asymmetry between transgression and punishment. The vast majority of sins which invite retribution in school would seem ludicrous in any other context. Talking in class, passing notes, not doing homework, failing a test, smoking in the bathroom, not paying attention during morning prayer, not wearing correct uniform, kissing a boy/girl, ‘back chat’, ‘talking back’, ‘acting smart’ – an endless list of minor ‘misdeeds’. Teachers punish children for ‘infringements’ of school discipline, and teachers punish children for their failure as teachers.  But this Foucault and Kafka tell us – in absolute law there is absolute asymmetry.

In his account of torture in the classical penal system, Foucault describes what would appear to us as a judicial absurdity – the use of torture not only as punishment but also as part of the investigative procedure to extract a confession. In Foucault’s account this contradiction only appears as such in a legal system premised on a prior innocence. In the classical penal system guilt did not emerge as the end product of investigation, an overturning i.e. of an assumed innocence. One was a priori guilty. A suspicion meant first degree guilt. Guilt, was a composite state that was built up little by little through various gradated procedures. Thus torture was both a punishment as well as part of investigation. Confession, which is the necessary supplement to written investigation, is extracted under judicial torture. Torture is not a defect or a barbaric relic, it is rather part of this complex penal system of necessary supplementarity between accusation and investigation, secrecy and public spectacle. The tortured body of the accused functioned as the site where judicial truth was produced, through pain. And so if the tortured body could bear up to pain with enough fortitude the magistrate was forced to drop the charges. If not, then the procedural torture culminated, and formed part, of the eventual indictment.

This sounds an awful lot like school to me.

“Hold out your hand. Did you smoke? Thwack!
No Sir.
You liar. I saw you. Did you smoke?
No Sir.
Don’t lie to me. Your hand is shaking. Because you are smoking. Did you smoke?
No Sir.

The production of judicial truth was thus a joust, but who was this a joust between? The right to punish formed part of the absolute right of the sovereign, the law represented the will of the sovereign, and thus any transgression of the law was an attack on the person of the sovereign.

“You rascal, bastard. Go to the principal’s office. You think you can do whatever you please in this school? I will show who is boss, etc etc.”

The public spectacle of the scaffold served the function of representing the awesome and absolute power of the sovereign arrayed against the diminished, broken, tortured body of the transgressor. The transgression of law is a challenge to the awesome power of the king and sovereignty can be reconstituted only through a radical multiplication, an enormous asymmetry between transgression and punishment. And so in absolute law there is absolute punishment. So blows for talking, slaps for wrong answers, death for not knowing the English alphabet.

In ‘The Penal Colony’, Kafka’s short story in which a machine slowly carves the law onto the body of the accused, all spacing between accusation, transgression and punishment collapses and the gap between Law as universal prohibition and particular transgression is closed in an ultimate symmetry – the ‘punishment’ for all transgression is death, and there is no procedure. Within Kafka’s logic there is no need for the prisoner to know the particularities of his transgression, or even, that a transgression has occurred. The radical particularity of a body in pain which is outside all symbolization (who can describe what it is to be hit for nothing), signifies the radical universality of Law —where no distinction exists between accusation and guilt, particular transgression and universal prohibition. For millions of children in India school is Kafka’s nightmarish penal colony come to life – every day, day after day. Going to school in India is an exercise in abjectness – of being subject to absolute, totalitarian, untrammeled power, where the teacher enjoys complete unquestioned authority over you.

There has recently been much introspection in the public domain and media about the insane pressures of the board exams that claim the lives of thousands of children every year. Everyone from Amir Khan to Kapil Sibal have contributed their two bits on the travails of the educational system. And in response the 10th class board exam has been scrapped, help lines have been set up, schools and parents are encouraged to seek the services of counsellors etc. So suicide is a psychological problem to be dealt with by teams of doctors and counselors. Much of this is, not surprisingly, a conversation restricted to elite schools, to the complete elision of any recognition of class and social hierarchy which Sunalini has written about on Kafila before. But nonetheless, a conversation about the terrors of the education system has begun. But what of the routinized violence that millions of children are subjected to everyday?

Stories of school abound in ‘Swami and his Friends’, RK Narayanan’s delightful tales of childhood set in the fictional town of Malgudi. A favourite is the one about Swami’s hyperbolic complaints about the prospective brutalities of a teacher as an excuse for skipping school. As his descriptions get more and more lurid, his father gets more and more enraged and eventually pens a stern letter of complaint to the principal. Swami is stuck. His teacher now begins to appear as a wrongly accused innocent in his eyes, but what can he do, he will get thrashed by his father if he doesn’t submit the letter. And so he enacts a series of absurd performances in order to invite punishment so he can justify to himself his father’s complaint. Once his teacher has finally caned him, Swami rushes off to the principles office to deliver his father’s letter, only to find the principal has left for the day. He goes home and his father, contemptuous of Swami’s cowardice, tears up the letter. Swami is punished, and there is now no recourse. A certain fortitude and humour is required to survive school.

There is one thing though that school paradoxically achieves, despite itself. No one who goes to school harbours any illusions about the benevolence of institutions. School reveals the dark violence at the heart of all regulatory institutions. Every cliche about power is true you learn- school teaches you that authority is hateful, that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, that the way to survive the system is to not invest in it, to not defer, to be suspicious, to be wary, to ‘kindly adjust’, to be ‘chaalu’, to learn to scam the system, to not valorize procedure, to not buy any bullshit about ‘honour’, to rely on ‘public assistance’, to protect your friends. It teaches you cruelty is infectious and to be on guard lest it take hold in you. It teaches you that hierarchy is real. It hopefully teaches you that since you know what it feels like to be terrified and abject and powerless, perhaps you are a little more alive to terror and abjectness and powerless-ness in the world. You can of course learn other lessons – authority is alluring, proximity to power pays, fascism is fun, cruelty is seductive. To which I look and say,’There, but for the grace of god, am I.’

Or then, coupled with the

‘daily crush between siblings, immigrant neighbours, the morning fight over the water supply, the 7 am virar-churchgate local, the impossibly expensive new jeans at the saturday bazaar, the apathetic teacher at his government school, the girl on the train who never looks back and yaaaaarrrr, somehow making it to the Oberoi Mall in Goregaon by 6 pm so he can get a glimpse of the impossible – Salman Khan on a promo visit for Veer; and the parent who lives in the same daily crush’

it breaks you.

Long ago Rudyard Kipling asked us to consider ifs  – confidence, humility, honour, patience, courage, honesty – all the virtues that school supposedly beats into children. So did Lindsay Anderson. Imagine If:

3 thoughts on “School Days…”

  1. The article brought alive all the memories I had about my school days or rather hostel days. School was a reprieve from the tyranny of the hostel owner/incharge whom everyone called ‘UNCLE’. The punishment at school always seemed little in comparison to what we had at the hostel. We all felt free at school and the result was the school responded negatively to our way of freedom as children. It was a cycle which never stopped and no one changed-the complaints from the school when their punishments failed to stop us or the torture at the hostel. But unlike what you wrote we all complained about all these to our parents and believe me every child had to tell the same thing about what their parents told them-‘that was the right way or the only way to teach us and make us better and successful people in the future’.

    What is even more interesting is that some of my friends who were with me at the hostel still think that ‘it’ was the right way to teach. Now that is the power of ‘that’ kind of education that has been on their minds. Strangely, until I started doing theatre and started to teach drama I also agreed with them to a certain extent. But what brought me to a change in my understanding about teaching was what I call ‘de-education’ and the use of ‘drama’ to understand subjects in my workshops to become a drama teacher. ‘Theatre also taught me about ‘characters’ and understanding them. This lead to the understanding that every child is different and one has to factor that while teaching children. Before this understanding, it never occured to me that children have different learning abilities and you can’t treat everyone as the same.

    Looking back, I feel the fault doesn’t lie with my friends but with the way we are conditioned in our society. People think as they are taught and the problem with our education has been that it doesn’t teach us to think but to follow. The education system definitely has become obsolete and it is ‘de-education’ of teachers what we require. This reminds me of ‘Naseeruddin Shah talking about his N.S.D days at a Jashn-e-bachpan event. He said that though he had so much interest in the subject but the teachers taught it in such a boring way that after a point he gave up and started bunking classes. He then went on to say that for him a good teacher is one who makes a subject ‘fun’ to learn. Drama taught me that subjects can be fun to understand.

    Wishing all the child terror camps come to an end in the country. Even now sometimes ‘Uncle’ comes in my dreams and I wake up terrified and sweating.


  2. Always pertinent, as memory and therefore, negotiation.
    Reminded me of the recent book ‘The Penguin Book of Schooldays’, edited by a friend, Palash Krishna Mehrotra.


  3. Very important, thought-provoking writing, Aarti. I had an uncannily similar school biography as yours. First Kendriya Vidyalayas and government schools in remote towns and then a public school in Delhi towards the end. In retrospect I can never decide which was more terrifying – the whimsical, utterly arbitrary rewards and punishments of my provincial teachers, or the genteel discursive disciplinary power of the public school, where every transgression of mine ended in a trip to the counsellor or the home room teacher, painfully listening to how I may be from a broken home, or seek the attention of male classmates because my parents didn’t hug me enough. All this backed up by the power of Knowledge and Class and Privilege.
    Phew! Memories one has to repress to survive huh? Thanks so much for working through them for all of us.


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