Like all Kolkata stories, this one begins with an anecdote. It was a balmy afternoon sometime in 2004. I was in my third year of college. A hush descended in the corridors of St Xavier’s College. The kind of hush that meant one of the “Fathers” was on his surprise patrolling duty. The holy pantheon of fathers, who were in charge of most administrative duties, famous for their strict demeanour and ability to spot erring students from afar. I had finished my quota of classes that day, but there was an event at the auditorium that called for compulsory attendance. Hoping to dodge it, I made a quick dash for the front gate of the college, not knowing that my path was to be apprehended by the dreaded Father. Before I could even realise what was happening, I was slapped. For what seemed like an eternity, but was probably a few seconds, I just stood there. My cheeks burning. A 21-year-old me, not believing that I had been just subjected to corporal punishment in my dream college.
I felt the singe of that slap again, almost 20 years later, when I read the account of a former professor of St Xavier’s University who was “forced” to tender her resignation following complaints from a parent over her “objectionable” photographs on Instagram. In her police complaint, the woman said: “It is a mystery to me how the university accessed those pictures. I felt so distressed and humiliated at that moment that I couldn’t bear to examine the rest of the pictures. I was in a meeting where my private pictures were being circulated among people unknown to me, without my consent. The only way in which such Instagram stories can be accessed by other parties is by hacking or if someone took screenshots of the pictures when they had been posted and subsequently circulated them…”
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t ever compare the humiliation that she claims she was subjected to with my few minutes of embarrassment. But I could feel vicarious shame. The kind that oppressive, toxic institutions make you feel so easily.
So, I called up a few of my batchmates, mostly women, and asked them about our days there. And we all seemed to agree on one thing — it was toxic. It was toxic for a not-yet-out gay man like me, it was even more toxic for young women like them. Within months of our first year, two of my female batchmates were sent back home for wearing “sleeveless tops”. Then there were the random classroom visits, when fathers would walk into ongoing classes and pick out students who weren’t dressed right.
Why didn’t we object, why did we accept all this, we asked ourselves. We didn’t need to. We knew the answer.
That’s how oppression works. We were primed to see them as beatific strict father figures who had our best interests at heart. And to be fair, in many instances, they were helpful. But only when you toed the line. And of course, you had to avoid sleeveless tops at any cost.
We were also led to believe, by our parents, our peers and society in general, that this is part of a good upbringing. To have the sword of moral-policing hanging over our neck at all times.
And as a friend, who is also a professor in a reputed institution, so empathetically pointed out, women’s bodies are always regulated in educational spheres. Government school teachers in Bengal needed to go through decade-long litigation (from the 1990s to 2004) to wear salwar kameez in school. Another reputed college in Kolkata, Asutosh College, had a principal’s diktat against women wearing jeans in the 1990s. Earlier this year, teachers from Bengal were shamed for dancing at a picnic.
According to the woman, a writ petition against the university authorities will be filed at the court concerned by next week. Something tells me the Fathers won’t take things lying down.