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The Club(bed)

Today, an LSE alumna’s e-mail landed in my Inbox. It spoke of an online petition by LSE and SOAS alumni disassociating those colleges from Varun Gandhi’s recent hate speech. What struck me was how institutions and fellow alumni rush to claim an alumnus as one of their own when the celebrity alumnus wins a Nobel Prize, but take another route when the celebrity sinks in infamy.

Unlike LSE, Loyola has few high-achievers among its alumni. (For a desperate catalogue, see the Wikipedia entry on notable alumni.) And the school itself isn’t ultra-savvy at riding the alumni horse. Probably the school doesn’t believe in the sport. But it is partly also because the school doesn’t have an institutionalised, well-oiled old boys’ network system to spot an alumnus doing interesting work, or one who is in the news. The school is out of touch with many old boys who studied in the 1970s and 1980s, and left Trivandrum. A few individuals, like Fr Manipadam and Joseph Uncle, are more enterprising, smarter and hence more up-to-date than the LOBA database.

But guys, take heart. Just because we are bad at marketing our alumni doesn’t mean that we are bad at everything. We are as good as LSE or Harvard, when it comes to alumni who are in the news for the wrong reasons. Our silence is so deafening that nobody can hear whether the celebrity studied at Loyola or not. I am referring to the curious case of Himaval Maheswari Bhadrananda, who was in the news last year for brandishing a gun in a police station in Kerala, after he was alleged to be a “fake swami”. Mathrubhumi newspaper reported that he studied in Loyola, but my efforts to find classmates who could confirm it failed. Maybe he studied, maybe he didn’t.

One of the dilemmas in running this blog is whether I should write about a notorious person, and add to his misery. Is it not better to focus on the honey in my ARChive, instead of stinging like a bee? So, I shall end with an anecdote that will instead sting the majority. About Loyola and Loyolites, it tells us more than Himaval Bhadrananda.

I do not recall the venue, date or time of this incident. And for obvious reasons, I am not mentioning the names of people involved (even though I remember who said what). A few years ago, at a LOBA session ahead of that year’s annual general body meeting, a discussion emerged on whether old boy Mr A should be informed. Mr B, a heavyweight in the alumni Association, insisted that Mr A shouldn’t be sent the notification or invited because Mr A had been implicated in a case of financial fraud once.

A few old boys asked: Was Mr A implicated or only accused? If he has finished serving his punishment, why should we punish him further by ostracising him? In any case, how does all this affect whether he should be informed of the meeting? Doesn’t every member have a right to be informed?

Mr B stood his ground and carried the day by saying, “The old boys’ meet is a social occasion where we participate with our families. In Trivandrum society, we have a certain standing. If crooks like him attend, we cannot come with our families. It will also reflect badly on the Association.”

[Himaval news clip — Hat tip: Sandeep K (1994)]

Was Loyola really different?

In the 1980s, a popular claim was that Loyola School was different from other schools. Whenever a Loyolite was quizzed by friends or relatives as to why his school did not secure ranks in the public exam, he would typically reply: schools like Holy Angels’ Convent prepare students for the public examination; Loyola’s emphasis is on extra-curricular activities, and not merely acquisition of textbook knowledge.

How true was this claim?

Those who claimed so (including me) had limited information about other schools in Trivandrum, to make an honest and thorough comparison. If we were tested on this–say, if asked to list out the extra-curricular activities in any three city schools–all of us would have failed. But ignorance did not prevent us from asserting that Loyola was different because of its extra-curricular thrust.

I believe that we students were parroting the words of our teachers and parents. Their own belief was probably rooted in knowledge of other schools (via neighbours, colleagues or relatives). But it is also probable that they took cue from the Jesuits who ran Loyola and cultivated an image of a “different” school.

The Jesuits were not being dishonest. Loyola did have several platforms for literary and artistic activities inside and outside the classroom. There were a weekly period called “Literary Association”, a youth festival, the wallpaper LENS, debates or quizzes each term, and so on. The school also encouraged students to participate in inter-school competitions. In addition, there were squads for cleaning classrooms, social service and similar non-literary or non-artistic work.The Jesuits and the teachers put in a lot of effort to organise these activities in the school. None will question their sincerity or doubt their dedication.

But was Loyola different?

Those who studied in other schools can tell us whether such activities were common in their schools or, as we believed, unique to Loyola. My guess is that various schools had different extra-curricular activities. If English elocution was a prestigious event in Loyola, it might have been kathaprasangam in school x and mohiniyattom in school y. Accordingly, Loyola fared reasonably well in the state ICSE schools’ meet (where the events were similar to what Loyola hosted), but rarely made a mark in the state SSLC schools’ youth festival. If Loyola was different, it was in the kind of activities that the school hosted.

Loyola of the 1980s was different from other schools also in terms of facilities. Loyola had better infrastructure than other schools. Well-equipped classrooms (good desks and benches), different courts for various sports and games, sporting equipment, sound systems, closed auditiorium–few schools in Trivandrum could boast all of these. The infrastructure helped in hosting a range of extra-curricular activities and strengthened the popular claim.

We had the hardware, but was Loyola different in terms of the software?

Look at the approach, for instance. If the popular claim is to be believed, the activities should have been co-curricular, if not part of the curriculum in this school. But at Loyola, every activity was called “extra-curricular”, i.e. beyond the curriculum, as if the curriculum did not demand any such activity.

In the few cases that art formed part of the curriculum, it was taught unimaginatively. There was a weekly music class (till around class 7). There was a weekly painting class (in the lower classes of the junior school, if I remember correctly). And there was a weekly moral science class (till standard 10). For a school that believed it was different, there was hardly anything different in the way Loyola treated such subjects or activity.

We got many platforms to sing, but Loyola did not teach us how to sing, or what music was. I doubt whether any Loyolite learnt music at Loyola, despite ritually chanting songs every week for seven years. All of us could have been exposed to different genres of music, right? (In these days of CDs, mp3 downloads and an audio-visual room, is it too much to expect Loyola to have music appreciation classes?)

Yes, we could paint in the annual youth festival, but were we taught how to paint? I am not expecting Loyola to make every child a Picasso, but at least: (a) tell us why this Picasso chap is great; and (b) show us a few tricks and techniques to draw. Pick up a basic book on drawing and you will realise the opportunities missed.

Some of you will argue that the situation was the same in other schools. Maybe. But that is exactly what I am asking: was Loyola really different?