I had submitted this as an anonymous piece to our college magazine at the beginning of this month. It doesn’t seem likely they’ll publish it, so I’m sharing it here. I believe what I have to say has become all the more relevant over the last week after complaints of ragging from the current first-year batch became a serious issue on campus. It’s unbelievable that a large chunk of the student community does not want to end this culture, despite all that has happened. What I have written here is only the tip of the iceberg as it’s too personal an account and students have recounted far worse incidents. To think of it now, I have been very apologetic in this piece when I had no need to be. It’s only now, when someone has finally complained, that I feel I haven’t been silly myself. That just goes to show how much we normalize these issues. However, I’m not editing it further – I’m too tired. I hope everyone will nonetheless try to grasp what I feel is the larger issue at hand.
Note: “Positive Interaction” or “PI” is a euphemism for ragging.
Dear Enthusiastic Senior…
I just finished the first year, and now that there’s a new batch coming in, freshly minted seniors have emerged from the woodwork to find and ‘positively interact’ with unsuspecting first years. I would like to leave a note here about how I experienced PI as someone with social anxiety and why I think it should stop. I am almost sure that I won’t be able to convince anyone. But as someone with a mental health condition, I wish to be listened to with the seriousness it warrants and not be made to feel like I’m blowing a juvenile issue out of proportion.
I feel that conventional, popular culture notions of social anxiety might detract from my point, so it would be better if you all read this without prior judgment. A lot of what I’m going to say might sound familiar since many others before me have talked about how PI makes some people uncomfortable, and how walking away is easier said than done. But one thing everyone reading this should keep in mind is that however similar it sounds, my experience differed vastly from that of neurotypical people and it was far worse for me than you can imagine. I wasn’t one of those people who got ragged badly, I did not even attend most PI sessions. Yet, the little that I experienced killed any hope I had left for myself. The only way to make people like me feel included is to end PI altogether.
The fact that I was forced into a social situation when I was too lost to even pull off a one-on-one conversation felt cruel, to say the least. Yes, waiting outside Himalaya to pounce on first years returning from the Academic Block counts as forcing people into a social situation. Banging on their doors at night does as well. Amalgamating into NLS would have been very difficult for me even without PI, the whole process just made it worse and all the more exhausting. There must have been a lot of others who had at least some difficulty socializing when they first came to NLS. But I am talking about a condition I have had for a long time now and to the extent that not all of these people had a disorder as such, my case needs to be distinguished. Mental health deserves a larger discourse and doing away with things like PI is something law school can do to this end.
The senior-junior power dynamic, of course, added to the hostility I felt. The little things about PI poked at my already low self-esteem. The lack of warmth created by this power dynamic is sought to be compensated by well-meaning seniors who come to ‘save’ you from PI. What I feel in such circumstances is not fear. Discomfort is the word that my counsellor and I use. The fact that they read my emotions as fear, pointed out to me that I looked “really scared and conscious”. Their efforts to console me made things worse. For one, I felt so very infantilized. It felt like I had no control over my personality. It frustrated me that I couldn’t tell them that I was not scared and the real issue was that the situation had triggered my anxiety.
I’m also wary of a growing sense of alienation from so much I care about. I cannot ally with anything while feeling so excluded myself. Over the last year, I have seen people talk about caste, feminism, queer issues in NLS and I have watched with awe. It pains me that however passionate I am, I cannot be as participative in this community as I would like to be. That film screening I did not attend, the QA’s support group meetings I missed. Things would have been this way even without PI but a lack of interest in what I have to say about it makes me feel like my condition is being dismissed. And that makes me lose all hope that I’ll ever fit in anywhere.
PI can be really sexist too. Like Gautam Bhatia hinted at an AOW (Alliance of Oversensitive Women) conference, asking someone their ‘top 5’ can be sexist. There is also this instance from the scavenger hunt where the tallest, thinnest girls in our group were chosen to be auctioned off as part of a challenge. Now, that’s a clear case of objectification. Why I can’t choose to ignore this aspect of PI is because patriarchy intersects with my condition. Take, for instance, being asked to pole dance. I wasn’t asked to do it but the prospect of it frightened me more because of my discomfort with my body. And surely, this discomfort is not a product of my social anxiety solely, but also of the patriarchy and its constructs.
Caste too, has perhaps played a role in moulding my condition. Growing up as a Shudra and non-vegetarian in the midst of Tamil-Brahmin families, I always felt a nameless kind of loneliness when I thought of how my mother never became a part of their inner circle even though she was on good terms with the other mothers. I closely associate my anxiety with this feeling. When you conduct a PI session, this is the kind of history you might poke at, albeit unknowingly.
Now that I think of it, a lot of what passes off as PI might even qualify as sexual harassment. Perhaps people who thought the same felt discouraged to complain because they’re constantly told that it’s “just PI”. That aside, it is common knowledge that every kind of bullying goes on during PI. Force feeding alcohol is problematic too. It’s a sad fact that the student community tends to be dismissive of people who come forward and complain. It’s time we stopped taking these issues so lightly.
I have been met with “it’s worse in other colleges” every time I have tried to explain my situation to other people. I won’t contest that, but I believe a change is possible here of all places. I have missed out on so much as a first-year student due to my condition. I know this much that I’m not making an unreasonable demand. Moreover, it would pain me no end to see another person like me go through the same.
A lot of you might still think I am being silly but what I am going through is very real, at least for me. I suggest that you come up with fresher, FRIENDLIER ideas for interaction with the new batch if you really must interact so much. It might be a fun power trip, but you never know how you’re affecting another person. CulComm also needs to ensure that the scavenger hunt doesn’t turn out to be a series of PI sessions. The ‘ice-breaking session’ felt like a token act after the nightmare that was the scavenger hunt.
My suggestions come in light of the fact that there’s a new batch here and I want this to be a better place for them than it was for me. Writing this was the least I could do. Having said that, I might as well remind everyone that mental health is integral to any discussion on academic and extra-curricular life and there’s no denying it.