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God is dead: St Stephen's Principal fails to be humbled by ideals greater than himself

Anna Verghese | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:51 IST

Let's play a game.

Skim through the following Facebook post. It'll be worth your while.

What emotion was invoked in you?

a) Anger & sadness- at the heartlessness of those words. And the stupidity.

b) Overwhelming support for everything that was written in that post.

c) Couldn't care a rat's ass.

If you picked:

a) Congrats you have a heart!

b) You believe you know what's right. Except you don't. Sure, it's debatable.

c) Ummm... maybe Amazon sells a conscience too.


So here's the thing, St Stephen's College is making headlines again. Rather its Principal Rev. Valson Thampu is. As always. That the gentleman quite enjoys the attention, is the only possible conclusion one can draw from these shenanigans.

Read: St. Stephen's principal Thampu accused by DUTA president of 'personal vendetta'

Why else would the head of such a large institution, devote more time to maintaining his social media presence and picking fights, rather than running the college. Not just run it, but spend time to really listen to students and the changing needs of that young community.

RIP Rohtas

The latest fiasco involves the death of the campus dhaba owner Rohtas, and a memorial service that resulted in drama that could feed an entire episode of some low-budget television show.

Every student that passed the hallowed halls of St Stephen's can testify that Rohtas was integral to their existence. His father Sukhia, started that modest dhaba about 70 years ago, and Rohtas took over the shop after his demise. Generations of Stephanians and visitors to the college have been fed a fulfilling amount of samosas, rolls and nimbu pani. Conversation, advice and some hearty teasing from Rohtas was always a side-dish, whether you ordered it or not.

Rohtas, a man who was more than the samosas & nimbu pani he sold

And that was the beauty of the dhaba and the "dhaba tree" beside it, which made for a great place to park the derrieres of tired and vela students.

I too was once a part of that college experience. I've had the honour of meeting and knowing Rohtas and conversing with him in my broken-Hindi. He had nicknames for us all. He christened me Surpanakha. God alone and Rohtas know why! My friends were given new avatars too- Raavan, Ram, Sita.

So when we heard that the old man had passed away, it really broke our hearts. It felt like the end of era, the snuffing of a candle that had lit so many memories.

Back to the Principal's post

This "venerable friend" of Rev. Thampu questions why a samosa-wallah is so important. To him I ask this- why not?

Why does it baffle you both and any other opposers-of-humanity, that a man who sells food should be any less loved, than the former Bursar Mr KM Mathew (God rest his soul).

And why is so much ill being spoken of the dead? Why is a comparison being made of their value quotient?

They both served the college in their own right. They both did the best they could with the circumstances they lived with. Why are we questioning this?

Also read: The fascinating story of two Stephanians executed a century ago

To the people who knew him, the news of Mr Mathew's death brought grief too. He was a kind and gentle soul and he will be missed.

The parent of a current student equated the absence of excessive students at Mr Mathew's memorial to their "contempt for academics."

Really? Please explain that logic to me.

Also, given the rich history and unique pranks that have been played out in that college, it would be heavily disappointing if students today had no better imagination on how to display their contempt for academics -- if that is indeed what they were trying to do.

Stomach versus studies

Why is the Principal embarrassed about the attention Rohtas' death has received? The same love is shown by us all to the bhaiyas that run the Cafe. It has nothing to do with students prioritising their stomachs over studies. (Though let's be honest, it is impossible to pay attention to a lecture while your tummy growls.)

The Principal's assumption that simply because the students pay for the samosas, it is business and there needs to be no further adulation, is a misguided idea. By that logic, the students also paid their college fees. They paid to be taught. So why should they as students, feel any attachment or admiration for their professors?

Let's take this argument to the Church, because the Principal wears its Cloth. Jesus was a carpenter to start with. Surely he wasn't doing it for free. Does the Rev. Thampu dismiss Christ's humble beginnings then? Or that of the Disciples, who were mostly fishermen? Is a fisherman more important than a samosa- seller, or a Bursar?

The dhaba has always held a special place & will continue to do so.

The dhaba has always held a special place & will continue to do so.

Shouldn't we take pride in the fact that Rohtas mattered to students? That as a community the students acknowledged another human being, with all his flaws. Isn't that what unconditional love is?

Hyperbole is thy name dear Reverend

With reference to this apparent gate-crashing by Ramachandra Guha, Arvind Subramanian and others, it amazes me that this could not have been handled in a fashion more becoming of a man of God, which the Principal claims to be.

Read more: Devansh Mehta on St Stephen's principal Thampu, the missing character certificate, and Columbia dreams

Why is there so much hostility and bitterness? Is this ego fight meant to set a good example to the students? And what exactly is the Principal risking by allowing some well-meaning alumni to enter college, to pay their respects to a man they loved?

It makes no sense.

These are all administrative hiccups that could easily have been ironed out. No need for such a dramatic outburst on social media really.

If Rev. Thampu believes that the alumni are "cutting a sorry figure in public" and defaming the college, then I've got news- so is the Principal. More so actually.

That which ails the mind

Our mortality scares us. Even more, the possibility of slipping into oblivion.

And so we as humans do what we can to establish our existence.

Rev. Thampu is no different in this regard. From the moment he took over as Principal (which incidentally was the same year I joined college), he has attempted to enforce his brand of Stephania.

Also read: The anatomy of a liberal or the lobotomy of Chetan Bhagat?

But here's the thing, he vehemently believes his actions are right and justified. He has supporters. And then the rest vehemently believe he's wrong.

So where does that leave us?

Eugene Ionesco's play Rhinoceros comes to mind. (See Rev. Thampu, I did learn something in college, despite eating samosas.)

Ionesco dwells on the idea that the rejection of an ideology, is an ideology in itself. People have a right to choose what they do.

So does the Principal (well till the end of this month when he retires). And so do we, the alumni.

If that means we "gate-crash" to attend a humble memorial service. Then we will.

If it means we will talk highly of certain characters in our college life as opposed to others, then we will. Without any disrespect or tasteless rants online.

We get to choose who we love and respect. It's the same with any other college. It's the same with life. You can't demand these things.

Rev. Valson Thampu is worried that the Rohtas-lovers will be the doom of St Stephen's College.

He fails to realise that the legacy of the college matters to us samosa-lovers too. Because as students we were led to believe, "once a Stephanian, always a Stephanian." Personally, that doesn't stem from some elitist mindset. Rather, the comfort that comes from believing in something greater than ourselves.

So, Rev. Thampu, please understand that the "peddler of samosa" is as important as the peddler of knowledge. We need them both.

(The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.)

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First published: 9 February 2016, 8:52 IST