Gabriel Rockhill On Never Dying

Over at the New York Times’ The Stone, in ‘Why We Never DieGabriel Rockhill writes:

Our existence has numerous dimensions, and they each live according to different times. The biological stratum…is in certain ways a long process of demise — we are all dying all the time, just at different rhythms. Far from being an ultimate horizon beyond the bend, death is a constitutive feature of the unfolding of biological life….I am confronting my death each day that I live.

Moreover, the physical dimension of existence clearly persists beyond any biological threshold, as the material components of our bodies mix and mingle in different ways with the cosmos. The artifacts that we have produced also persevere, which can range from our physical imprint on the world to objects we have made or writings like this one. There is, as well, a psychosocial dimension that survives our biological withdrawal, which is visible in the impact that we have had…on all of the people around us. In living, we trace a wake in the world.

[O]ur physical, artifactual and psychosocial lives….intertwine and merge with the broader world out of which we are woven….Authentic existence is perhaps less about boldly confronting the inevitable reality of our own finitude than about recognizing and cultivating the multiple dimensions of our lives….They carry on in the physical world, in the material and cultural vestiges we leave, as well as in the psychological and social effects we have on those around us.

I’m fond of saying that my parents ‘live on,’ that they are ‘still alive to me.’ By this I do not mean that my parents are biologically manifest in this world. Nor am I ‘merely’ speaking metaphorically; rather, I think I’m deploying ‘alive,’ and ‘live’ in ways that are sensitive to the multiple meanings and dimensions of our existence that Rockhill is alluding to. One way in which I understood this dimension is based on a experience I had during my boarding school years. In those days, I missed my mother terribly; I was away from home for nine months. One day, while walking through campus, I looked up to see one of the glorious sunsets that my campus’ mountainous location facilitated; as I admired the exquisite display put on my for enjoyment, I suddenly felt comforted by the fact that the same sun shone down on my mother, hundreds of miles away at my home. At that moment, the physical distance between the two of us felt insignificant; my mother was not ‘biologically’ or ‘physically’ present, but she was present in other ways. In memory, in thought, in a placement in my life that could only be described by the word ‘presence.’ She was no longer a ghost without substance. That perception of her presence in my life has not changed with her death: she influences my actions and thoughts; she informs my various decisions, moral and political; she serves as inspiration and moral guidepost. Her letters to my father, the books she read; these continue to inform me of who she was and the life she lived. My memories of her animate my relationships with my wife and my daughter; they provide me guidance in those vital spheres. My evaluative sense of myself is often based in large part on reconciling her perceptions of me with my perceptions of myself. I could, with little difficulty, make similar assessments of the presence of my father in my life.

My parents are not non-existent; they are biologically dead, but they are not ‘artifactually’ or ‘psychosocially’ so.

Prisons And Boarding Schools: The Informer Phenomenon

I’ve made note here, on this blog, on some interesting similarities between prisons and boarding schools: the discipline, the regulation of time, the uniforms, the social dynamics. Yet another similarity may be found in the ubiquity of informers: moles, spies, double-agents, leakers, snitches–call them what you will–conduits for the passage for information to administrative and disciplinary authorities on inmate (student) activity.

In my boarding school, where discipline was enforced by schoolboys themselves–the so-called ‘prefects,’ drawn from the ranks of the graduating class, the ‘sixth-form‘–informers were feared and despised alike (as they always are.) Complaints and mutterings about heavy-handed punishment–perhaps via the dreaded punishment drills–all too often, and mysteriously enough, found their way to the ear of the prefects concerned, and reprisals and crackdowns against those who had dared question authority quickly followed. The identities of the informers remained artfully hidden: they never informed carelessly enough to allow their cover to be blown;  “there were only three of us present when we talked about X; you and I were punished, so the informer must be Y.” Instead, these informers only informed when they were sure they had enough obfuscatory cover. (Shades of crypto crackers not making it too obvious that a particular cipher had been cracked by not acting too expeditiously or efficiently on the revealed information.) On one occasion, a large group of students in a classroom made some bitter comments among themselves on how some prefects had been a little too heavy-handed in their dishing out of corporal punishment during punishment drills; a day later, two of the students in that group found themselves dragged out of a basketball game and forced to perform a particularly exacting drill supplemented with occasional slaps to their faces and the back of their heads. (The informer’s most valuable reward–over and above any material benefit–was to be free of the worst of these disciplinary crackdowns.)

My post today is prompted by the note on self-policing in response to pervasive surveillance that I posted over the weekend; the methods change, the effects are the same. For of course, all too soon, we, the inmates, suspected each other to varying degrees and the quality of our conversations and interactions suffered as a result; we were not sure what would be reckoned as subversive or offensive. Planning for illegal activities like sneaking off for a smoke was obviously problematic, but what about saying something rude about a prefect or a teacher? Better to be safe than sorry; better to zip it.

The informers’ cover was not perfect, of course, and sometimes, by dint of informal detective work, a pattern of sorts of emerge, and a suspect or two would be identified. Reprisals against them were brutal; they came at the end of the year, when all scores were to be settled. Sometimes these consisted of beatings on campus; sometimes these took place off-campus. If this sounds horrifying, it should be. But then, so was the system of penal discipline imposed on the students in the first place.

‘Orange Is The New Black’ And Boarding Schools

As I make my way through the second season of Orange Is The New Black, Netflix’s original series based on Piper Kerman‘s memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison about her experiences at FCI Danbury, a minimum-security federal prison, I’m struck again by how much of the prison experience reminds me of my days–two academic years in all–at a boarding school. In saying this, I do not mean to, even for a second, minimize the hardships of the incarcerated, but rather, to point out how boarding schools create conditions analogous at one level to that of jails. Both are similarly inspired by confused notions of discipline and order; both show what happens when humans are confined and regulated by these.

It is all here: the correctional managerial staff i.e., the faculty; the supervisors and guards i.e., the prefects (drawn from the senior graduating class, thus forming a layer between us and school administration); and the inmates i.e., the students. We were subjected to regulation and discipline from on high, from our waking moments to ‘lights out’; we were subjected to arbitrary, often harsh disciplining from prefects (this included the usual ‘six of the best’ and punishment drills); we had fixed meal-times; our uniforms were prescribed and monitored; we could not walk with both hands in our trouser pockets; we could not complain about the food (the food parcels we were sent from home were quickly consumed by our ‘friends); we had limited allowances that we spent at the ‘commissary’; we could not meet our parents except at prescribed times and places (because my family was away in a distant city, I did not meet or talk to my mother for nine months); ‘sickbay’ was a refuge and relief; our every hour was planned and regulated. Some thirty-four years after I left my boarding school, I can still effortlessly regenerate the daily time-table for a school day, right down to the hours.

But the most interesting parallel for me is visible in the personal and social dynamics. Boarding schools, like jails, featured miniature societies, complete with their own pecking orders and hierarchies on the ‘inside.’ There were bullies and master manipulators–like ‘Red‘–who ruled the roost; they were feared and revered and resented in equal measure. There were weak ones–‘freaks’ and ‘weirdos’–who were subjected to bullying and abuse. If you were smart, you sought out and found protection quickly. Some manipulators–like ‘Pennsatucky‘–ruled over mini-groups; their hold over these was–like that of ‘King Rat‘ in James Clavell‘s novel by the same name–a contingent matter, dependent on them being able to continually spin their web of control. The weak quickly came under such influence. Scores were settled by violence and intimidation; sometimes you were cornered in bathrooms, sometimes in a deserted dorm; when a fight broke out, no one intervened till a prefect showed up. And no one, ever, ever, complained about a beating.

When the academic year ended, discipline was relaxed for the last day or so–teachers left campus, prefects gave up the pretense of policing. More scores were settled, more brawls broke out; the buses to take us to train stations and airports for our journeys back home could not arrive soon enough.

And when I got back home, I kept the ‘best stories’ to myself. Folks back home ‘wouldn’t understand’; you had to be on the ‘inside.’ I could write a book about it all; someday, I will.

On School Libraries – I

The first school library I can remember using was during my sixth grade. I had transferred schools after the fifth grade, and perhaps because of the trauma of losing my favorite school teacher, some memories of those first five school years seem to have been obliterated. Including the ones about libraries.

My new school’s library had the standard furnishings: some open shelves, some books in shelves with glass doors (its collections were all hardcover), long reading tables, vertical stands for reading newspapers, and most prominently, the librarian, a stern-faced older gentleman who sat at a centrally located desk and peered out suspiciously from behind a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles at the grimy schoolboys and schoolgirls that filed in for their library class period. (He was the first to remind me that ‘my reputation’ preceded me; my brother studied in the same school and was well-known to him; thus did my determination to find an alternate locale to flourish in receive its first impetus.)

The library’s holdings were modest, obviously, compared to the other two libraries my parents were members of, and to which I, as a consequence, also enjoyed access: the British Council Library and the US Information Service Library. Still, it had its charms: I had my own library card, not a dependent’s; its collections of Indian magazines were unique; and of course, the library period, once a week, came as blessed relief from the onerous demands of the remaining seven class periods of the day. When it was over, and the bell rang, signalling our return back to our classrooms, I would reluctantly drag myself away from whichever reference book I had taken down from the shelves to peruse.

The library code of hushed silence was rather rigorously enforced, and more importantly, observed in those days; my abiding memory of the library period are the sounds of rustling pages, creaking fans and the occasional scrape of the chair pushed back by a reader going for seconds.

Among my various borrowings in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades–the three years that I spent in that school–I can only remember one: a compendium of photographs selected from one of India’s leading news magazines of the time: The Illustrated Weekly. I do not why this title was not in the reference section but I wasn’t about to turn down this particular gift horse. I took the tome home and spent hours poring over its black and white photographs. Among them, two shocking images from the 1971 war with Pakistan still persist in my mind’s eye: a young boy with his guts torn out by shrapnel and the reprisal bayoneting of razakars in a Dacca public square by Bengali militia (after the Pakistani Army surrender). 

I was a conscientious library patron; I never returned books late. (That nasty habit only reared its head once I began graduate school.) There was little chance I would, of course; I was a reasonably fast reader and I was eager to get on with the next borrowing, which would only be possible once I had returned the previous one.

I was a day student, and not a boarder, so my contact with the library was limited to that single period during the week. My relationship with libraries would change dramatically when I transferred in the ninth grade to a boarding school, a very different one in many respects.

On that experience, more anon.

Of Prefects and Punishment Drills

In my ninth and tenth grades, I attended boarding school in India. Like many boarding schools of its type, it incorporated the disciplinary mechanism of the prefect: senior schoolboys placed in charge of those junior to them, armed with the rule book, and cricket bats and hockey sticks with which to hand out six of the best. And the punishment drill. They, and we, the subjects of their not-so-benign rule, called these ‘PDs’.

A PD was an exercise routine designed and implemented on the fly by those who administered it; it felt like a boot-camp workout, a candidate for inclusion in Hell Week, a lung-busting, muscle-burning series of movements that had only one objective in mind: to exhaust you till you could no longer perform it correctly. The contours of a PD were determined by the fiendish imagination of the prefect(s) in charge of the PD: they dreamed up the sequence of exercises–perhaps a series of duck walks across the length of a football field, followed by running up a flight stairs, and then a series of pushups with legs on an elevated platform, followed by…you get the picture.

No normal human being could perform these movements without muscle failure setting in eventually. When it did, you were reprimanded and punished more: perhaps by a ‘shot’, a smack on your backside with a cricket bat or a hockey stick. If you were lucky, the prefect wouldn’t swing too hard. If you weren’t, you were hit hard enough to bring tears to your eyes and a patch of skin that smarted so fiercely that sitting down on a wooden chair became a painful experience.

A PD was handed out for violations of the school’s disciplinary code: perhaps talking during prep, or wearing the wrong uniform, or smoking cigarettes, or something else altogether. It began with a peremptory command to change into sports uniform–shorts, sneakers, short-sleeved shirts–in two minutes and report to the prefect. Some prefects never administered PDs. Yet others loved to, and their drills acquired a reputation all of their own. These were young men who loved to punish and seemed to derive a sadistic pleasure from it; the PD was invented for them.

More often than not, a PD was conducted at night.  Perhaps those who conducted them had figured out a long time ago that darkness and cold always made the PD more intimidating. Its venues were various: sometimes a football field, sometimes the school’s quadrangle, sometimes a paved road. It didn’t matter. Physical pain and discomfort could be inflicted anywhere.

I suffered many PDs in my two years in my boarding school; there was little chance I would escape its distinct ‘pleasures’ during my tenure there. Sometimes I was swept up in a prefect’s dragnet; sometimes I was part of a select bunch of miscreants picked out for chastisement. I grew to fear the sensation of my body giving way, collapsing from the abuse sent its way. I learned to ‘cheat’ on a PD, to perform it in a way that protected me.

I do not know if I ever became more ‘disciplined’; I do know I grew to despise those who so casually inflicted such misery on those weaker than them.