Select Page
Politics in Loyola

Politics in Loyola

The Jesuit saying “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man” does not apply to the political man. Our political beliefs, I feel, are shaped and re-shaped till we are a couple of years into our adult working lives. Yet, can we forget the politics at school and the traces it left on us?

Protest by students in Kerala; Source: The Hindu on the web

A few weeks ago, Ashok Mathew (1995) reminded me of Loyola’s reputation as a place that had classes even when other schools were closed for bandh or hartal. Indeed, as schoolgoers, our most celebrated political encounters were on bandh days. In case the previous day had ended with only a lingering rumour of the impending bandh/hartal, the suspense would have been carried over to the day’s morning newspapers and radio news. And even if a government official had announced a holiday for schools, there would be anxious parents and hopeful kids who asked, “But is it a holiday for Loyola?”. After all, the Jesuits were known for combing through an announcement and coming up with clarifications like “It says holiday for city schools. Our school is not inside the city. It is a working day for Loyola.”

The Jesuits were proud of successfully resisting bandhs/hartals and when talking to students, would add it — along with “punctuality” and “merit-based admissions” — to the mystique of Loyola. The anti-bandh sentiment of Loyolites seems partly rooted in this culture of resistance (to resistance) which we grew up in. So, when Cheru Cherian John (1995) narrates a Kerala bandh to his classmates in a business school, I see Loyola in it as much as I see Wharton. Similarly, when my classmate joins the anti-bandh caravan with his comments, I find him carrying a satchel from school.

The Jesuits in our school were anti-Communist (who can forget Fr Pulickal’s potshots at the communist leaders, especially E.K. Nayanar?) and there was no Leftist teacher let loose on the students. So, instead of fair or serious discussions of communism and socialism, we got only caricatures. The school did not sensitise us to the struggles of the poor, or of the castes and religions discriminated against in India.

I say these not to attack teachers or Loyola but to point out that the school left us in the safe tents of Kerala’s anti-communist, secular, middle-class politics — a terrain marked by political apathy, than intervention. Even those Loyolites who later dabbled in college campus politics on an SFI platform may not be able to identify any strong and genuine political streak in themselves. Perhaps, the lone exception is Joy Elamon (1978), who took to pro-poor politics seriously, and in whose case Loyola would be the last to claim credit.

For sure, being political is not just about affiliating oneself to a political party. The school inculcated in us values like fairness, honesty, dignity of labour and concern for the poor — all of which define the contours of our worldviews, including our politics. And in everyday encounters, faced with choices, we reveal our preferences and our politics.

When a lady is harrassed at the bus-stop, a Loyolite is likely to watch inactively, or move away. It is unlikely that he will step in or gather a crowd to stop the injustice. The Loyolite will avoid such a political act in a public space, if he can. This apathy, I believe, stems from the school’s fostering of obedience and acceptance as virtues, and questioning and protest as inappropriate.

For like any “good, Christian school”, Loyola was free from campus politics. The gate was always closed to political student organisations like the SFI and KSU; this ensured that no students’ issues entered the campus from outside. Strikes by students were unheard of, and when Loyolites left the school and entered colleges (where strikes were common), they nostalgically wrote letters praising the no-strike atmosphere of Loyola. Recently, I came across one such letter in a school magazine of the early 1980s.

Within its walls too, on issues specific to Loyola, the school discouraged voicing of opinions in public. The English newsletter LENS and the school Assembly unique to Loyola were platforms that could have been used for pamphleteering or political speeches.

Loyola School's Assembly steps

But in the Loyola of the 1980s, the fear of suspension and dismissal was so high that few dared to question any action by the authorities. Each batch may have had its school Assembly or farewell Assembly where a student boldly aired his disapproval of something that had happened. For example, in our farewell Assembly in January 1991, one friend lamented Loyola’s razing down of the beloved “jungle” to make way for a stadium. But such Assemblies with local political content were rare.

Every year, there was only one major election in Loyola for students: to choose the school leader. In the elections from 1985-1990, the SSLC vs ICSE spirit ran high and students voted along SSLC/ICSE lines. Since crude identity politics played itself out, I would classify the elections of those years as mildly political. Otherwise, elections were essentially popularity contests, not issue-based political battles. After all, the school leader was not really involved in the running of the school. I hear that these days, teachers too vote in the election of the school leader.

In many such ways, as Loyola protected us from having to take sides or join in a common cause, it also distanced us from the rough and tumble of politics. If today we are establishmentarians and loyalists in our workplaces, the “discipline culture” of Loyola probably has something to with it.

Invisibly too, the school might have shaped our political attitudes, as for instance through the textbooks we studied. In Brown Man’s Burden, Amar D. Dhinsa writes about studying Ricky Ticky Tavi in the Radiant Reader

This story was written by Rudyard Kipling an English writer. It was an English perspective on India. We were taught to identify with the English family rather than with the snake. In actual fact, the cobra is the ‘normal’ element in India and the English family was the ‘abnormal’ element. Therefore we were being taught to identify with the outsider. We were being educated to see our country through imperial eyes, to see Indianness as the other.

I would not go so far as to accuse the priests and teachers at Loyola of choosing “imperialist” stories and texts to shape our young minds. Such influence on our worldwiew flowed unknowingly, I believe.

Was Loyola of the 1990s and 2000s different politically? I do not know. My guess is that politics is still a dirty word in that part of the world.

While the school seems to have thus shaped our politics visibly and invisibly, it would be unfair not to acknowledge others. If we are anti-bandh and anti-hartal today, the credit should largely go to Kerala’s political parties and their student outfits, whose terror tactics have devalued democratic forms of protest. For our “let-us-not-get-involved” political apathy, who can deny that Loyola fostered only what our families practised and desired. As we moved away from Loyola, we might have become more aware of political issues, but our busy workspaces keep us distant from political action, as much as Loyola did. If we are anti-communist, it is also because we watched the decline and decay of communism in the 1980s and 1990s, and grew up when neo-liberalism was on the ascent. And then, of course, there are the hard knocks we have endured alone, starting with having to pay a bribe at a government office.

When it comes to politics, we have learnt more from life, than from Loyola.

Loyola’s Harappa

Have you seen an ancient site built for old boys of Loyola School? There is one at block 7744 in the Acropolis suburb of Athens. Ten years after the site was built, I dug up the place and here’s what I found.

Long long ago, circa 1996, Geocities.com was one of the most popular websites. It was also among the first webhosting services that allowed users to host webpages free-of-cost. If you wanted to build a site at Geocities, they would first ask you to pick a neighbourhood (“SiliconValley” for tech-related websites, “Hollywood” for entertainment-related websites). And just as your postal address carried your neighbourhood’s name, your web address too would.

It was in this world of Geocities that Mathew Joseph Pongonthara (1976), the school leader of his batch, decided to build a “cyberhome” for schoolmates. He appears to have been inspired by the other Loyola in his life — Loyola College, Chennai — whose old boys had set up an alumni website the previous year, and on which, Mathew had posted a comment.

The Loyola College alumni website was at Geocities, in the neighbourhood for education-related websites (“Athens”), on block 6166. Mathew built his school’s website in the same neighbourhood, but a few blocks away, in 7744. By the time Mathew decided to establish our school’s online presence, owners were required to choose a suburb too. Mathew chose “Acropolis” inside Athens.

Thus the two Loyola websites had strikingly similar addresses.
http://www.geocities.com/athens/6166/loyola.html
http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/7744/LOYOLA.HTM

If you look under the hood — the source code of the school’s page — you will see that Mathew did not envisage the school’s webpage to be vanilla white. He seems to have wanted the same background design as his personal website. But the school site ended up having a plain, white background.

The Loyola College alumni website existed as early as July 1996 and has survived to this day. The school website appears to have come later — in August 1997 — but was not updated after October 1997.

The school site mentions a reunion held in the US; perhaps the idea of setting up the website was discussed in that reunion. To find out, this month I began my search for Mathew and a couple of old boys who might have attended that reunion (in 1997?), but efforts so far have drawn a blank. Webpages tell me that when Mathew is offline, he is in Canada. If Mathew or his friends read this, let us get in touch and fill the gaps in the story of Loyola’s rise on the internet. At loyolites.com, we love the past as much as the future.

Defining Father Pulickal

This article by G. Mahadevan (1987) was originally published in the NOBLES alumni e-newsletter of December 2002. It is republished here as part of the 9th anniversary series of posts on Fr Pulickal. – Ashok

by G. MAHADEVAN

A bearing that evoked respect, a beard that brooked no insolence, a laughter that was infectious and a twinkle in the eye that was unmatched. Those of us who were fortunate enough to have known Father Mathew Pulickal can well be excused for talking about him in superlatives. After all he was one who taught us that life is as often about the superlative, as it is about the positive and the comparative.

It is difficult to define such a man: he was not just a priest, he was not just another of those jolly old men…do you get my drift? You can only go on saying he was not this, not that, and yet never lay your finger on what he was — in its entirety. Of one thing I am sure. Mathew Pulickal, the man, was never ashamed of his human frailties (Oh boy, was he fond of jalebis…and was he a diabetic!). He was also fond of a ‘good un’ as much as any of us imps around him. In short, he loved life as it is.

I can go on like this. But in one sense it is wrong to speak of Fr. Pulickal in the past tense. Yes, the man is gone. But, whatever he stood for, lives through all of us, doesn’t it? It must be fun having him up there.

G. Mahadevan (1987) is Principal Correspondent and Deputy City Editor of The Hindu newspaper in Trivandrum. At Loyola, he was Assistant School Leader.

(c) G. Mahadevan, 2002. Reprinted here with the permission of the copyright holder.