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The pearly gates of St Stephen's

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Mani Shankar Aiyar ought not to be held personally responsible for the remarks he made against Ajay Maken or Hans Raj College.

This is because in so doing, he was only upholding a lofty tradition of his alma mater. And if there's anything that comes naturally to those who pass through the portals of St Stephen's College, it is respecting tradition - the most precious of which is keeping arm's length distance from those around it. More than any other institution in India, St. Stephen's has mastered the art of distinguishing itself from the hoi polloi any which way it can. Thus a Stephanian never says hostel for residence, attendant or bearer for gyp, canteen for cafê and only asks "Are you from college ?" to know if you're a Stephanian. Replying "which college?" gives you away because college only refers to the college. Stephanians pride themselves in appropriating expressions and giving them a twist - a whole new meaning. The term 'mission college' had obviously to do with the well-meaning intentions of those who started the institution. But the arrogant irony with which the term is used by its students could never have been imagined by its founders. The master stroke however, known only to insiders is not to refer to Hindu College by name.

It must always be "the college across the street" as if to name it would demean the speaker. Of such sophistication is the Stephanian made!

I learnt this in my first week at this institution. The then Principal, S C Sircar, took our class for a subsidiary subject. The first day he met us he emphasised that the difference between school and college was that we used files in college and not note books.

We were then asked to bring file covers with loose sheets from the next class. Needless to say, most students didn't take this with the seriousness intended, because there were note-books at every desk the next day. This sophisticated Stephanian, who prided himself on his ability to stand erect with the thumb of his left hand in his blazer crest pocket, a la Oxbridge, went into an apoplectic fit, started to froth from the mouth, went from desk to desk, picked up one note-book after another and flung it against the wall even as he screamed "If you don't learn to do as you're told, you may as well go to the college across the street". I was to hear this expression a lot during the years that followed this very special introduction to St. Stephen's. During the many years I spent there I was repeatedly told not to forget that this institution was special - much more so than any other one in India.

It is this affliction that haunts the otherwise erudite men (men - primarily) who pass through the corridors of this college. The Mani Shankar Aiyars, the Shashi Tharoors, the Natwar Singhs, the Kapil Sibals and even the Ram Guhas never fail to remind the world that this is indeed a special college (but then which institution isn't to its alumni?). In doing so, many of them take recourse not merely to its strengths but to the fact that it is inherently superior to the institutions around it primarily because of its ability to speak better English, though this itself is now a claim that could well be disputed. But since Stephanians never tire of boasting of their pedigree, one needs to ask why this has to be repeated so often? Is there perhaps a lurking fear that they are actually mere mortals and that perhaps the only way to get some reflected glory is by praising Stephen's and running down other institutions?

In this, Stephanians are no different from others. At one level there is perhaps not too much to distinguish human beings from one another. But the thought of being ordinary doesn't reside too easily in us. More so, if we have already sensed a lack somewhere deep inside us. So we create or emphasise 'small' or minor' differences so that we may seem to be different if not better than others. Since ultimately we start to measure ourselves in terms of these subtle differences, we bond in some groups and hate others. This is akin to what Freud called the 'narcissism of minor differences'.

In Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud says, "It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness". Cohesion within a community becomes easier when there are objects outside on whom our aggression can be heaped.
Seen this way all snobbery becomes slightly easier to understand. It can be seen as a compromise of logic and mindless loyalty that allows social groups to bond regardless of the sometimes very sharp differences which separate them. The targeting of other groups then becomes an inevitable corollary. While Stephania may seem like a particularly noxious version of it, partly because it is so high profile, the fact is that we practise our own versions of snobbery sometimes in subtle and sometimes in not-so-subtle ways. Almost all shelter we take within the concept of 'people like us' (and this term is all-encompassing !) is an attempt to create common cause with one group for the purpose of running down another. Snobbery thus not only serves to keep our aggression under control but also allows us to bolster our all too fragile selves by hiding behind the facade of sameness of one group or another.

Stephanians, in spite of all their differences, find it easy to stick together because they are united in their common contempt for the world around them. This allows them to mask the aggressiveness which would normally have been let loose at those who are stronger than them as well as the sinking feeling that perhaps they are actually redundant. Mani Shankar Aiyar obviously found it extremely difficult to make the Congress high command see his point of view on so many matters. It was thus easier to target Ajay Maken, not for his politics or his stand vis-a-vis Aiyar but for his poor command over the English language! The Congress party should be grateful that the aggression of its disgruntled Stephanians like Aiyar is turned towards the colleges in the vicinity of St Stephen's otherwise it would have had to find ways more aggressive ways to cope with them.

Reader's opinion (4)

Anthony VeliyilSep 25th, 2011 at 13:56 PM

Who is Charles?, the article was written by Pankaj Butalia??

Prerna VijayeniSep 23rd, 2011 at 15:00 PM

Very well written. Hats off!

Renuka Sep 22nd, 2011 at 13:48 PM

Charles, you sound like a d-bag who most definitely was part of the 'College club'!

Well written article.

Charles Sep 18th, 2011 at 11:26 AM

Did you not get into any of the 'college' clubs - you sound awfully slighted.

 
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