On a Stormy Course; In the hot-seat at St. Stephen’s

By : Dr. Zac Varghese

Author: Rev. Valson Thampu

Published by :Hachette India.

Pages 300+ xxvi.  To be released on November 8, 2017

This is the memoir of a man whom the Indian media loved to hate. He was christened ‘controversy’s child’. Everything about his tenure -events trivial and significant- became media fodder and over the 9 years he was principal of India’s most coveted institution -St. Stephen’s College, Delhi- an unmatched library of reportage accumulated, unequalled by any event or tenure in the history of higher education in India, developed and a great deal remains archived with the national print media.

Here is an instance of a personal Memoir also becoming a chronicle of the times. The author quotes Goethe in Chapter six to the effect that the usefulness of a biography is to understand human realities in a historical context. This is true of this book. It is a lucid narration of the struggles the author undertook in his academic and spiritual journey for providing excellence of education in India through St. Stephen’s college.

The task of a reviewer is to assess the effectiveness of an author’s treatment of a theme and to evaluate if he challenges the reader’s assumptions and dispositions, with the significance of the experiences he lays bare. A memoir is a sacrament in which experiences are broken and distributed to the reader through the litany of the printed word. The merit of a memoir is impeccable fidelity to facts. As one who followed, to some extent, the events strung together in this narrative, I am persuaded of its narratorial veracity. As for the author’s felicity with the art of writing, the reach and depth of his reading, and his capacity for philosophical reflection that makes even routine events unveil surprising depths, the reader does not have to be specially informed, as thousands of them have heard him and read his writings over the years.  

The author brings forty years of experiential wisdom to bear of the guided tour he offers through the blind alleys of higher education in India. The author advisedly puts the thematic and spiritual focus of his story on the illness of academia; and, in so doing, transcends what is painfully personal. He treats his experiences as a mirror held up to the cracked visage of Indian education and anatomizes, through first-hand experience, why the pursuit of excellence in education is as daunting as it has come to be. While reading the book, it is difficult to ignore the possibility that policy makers of Indian education are a major sector that the author addresses, albeit indirectly, in this book.

Predictably, the spotlight is on teachers; for they are the most crucial link in the educational chain. The core strength of our educational heritage, as most readers would recall from personal experiences, were teachers, our gurus, who left lasting impressions on us, not by their scholarship but by their humanness. The author, in the present narrative, marshals compelling evidence to make all of us worry as to how this asset has got degraded. St. Stephen’s becomes, in this context, a case study of how even the best of institutions are losing their foundational values and spiritual wholeness.

How does the author see himself in writing this book? Here are his words: “My situation, in writing the present account, is not unlike that of Prufrock’s Lazarus, “come back from the dead, to tell it all. . .  To me this is not only the story of a resurrection. The story is a resurrection. The past rises up through the word. What is not told dies. Word is the mirror we hold up to the truth we lived.” The reader cannot help wondering at the grim battle the author had to fight to “rebuild the broken walls” -to use a metaphor from the book of Nehemiah, which the author foregrounds- of a godly institution, the contemporary counterpart of the “City of God” in Nehemiah. It is amazing how little human realities have changed in three millennia. “I had to,” says the author, “work like Nehemiah and his team, with tools in one hand and swords in the other.”

The narrative of the book is greatly enhanced by the vast and varied experiences of the author who, apart from being on the faculty of St. Stephen’s, had served in the past also as a Member of the National Steering Committee on Curriculum Review -which crafted the National Curriculum Framework, 2005- and Member, National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions (2004-2007). Additionally, he had written extensively on various aspects and issues germane to education. So, what the reader is privileged to get through this book is, if you like, a ‘ring-side view’ of the realities that are, otherwise, swept under the carpet.

As the author states explicitly, his home-coming to education, years after he exited academia and abandoned himself to the wider world, was to find for himself answers to two questions: (a) Is it possible and feasible to keep educational administration wholly corruption-free? (b) How valid is the reigning dogma that commitment to social justice is incompatible with the pursuit of excellence in higher education? Or, to put it in biblical terms, is it possible to ‘preach the good news to the poor’ especially in institutions of prestige, which are coveted and cornered by the rich and the mighty?  Those interested in these questions will find reading this book a gripping and inspiring experience.

The book falls into two broad sections: the chronicling of events that one would have thought belonged to a thriller. This is followed by, in the last three chapters, incisive reflections on the light ‘hidden under the bushel’ as it were of the events recounted.  Administrators and policy makers in education will find the concluding chapters especially significant.

An important question may arise in our minds: did the author write this memoir as a ritual of self-exorcism or is he trying to get even with his erstwhile detractors? After a careful perusal of the book, I think he does neither. If he revisits his old wounds, it is only to share his near-death-experiences so as to shore up the sagging morale of those who struggle to harmonize the pressures and pulls of administration with ‘the still, small voice’ of their conscience.  The author exposes his soul to us in these pages and ends with a request: “This much I expect from you. Next time, when a fellow human being is chased in the jungle of your public sphere, to pipe entertainment into your living room, won’t you feel a little prick of unease, a slight twitch of memory, and refuse to be entertained; so that a creature committed to the education or health, or sanity, or humanity of your children does not have to scream. . .”

A striking feature of this book, the one I found especially enriching, is the author’s ability to see the personal and the particular in light of the universal and the general. What stands him in good stead in this is his eclectic scholarship and his ability to creatively draw from his readings to be able to weave a web of objectivity around what, otherwise, would have been narrowly personal.  

The work we do, the service we render, is the foremost medium of our self-expression, which is a measure of our freedom at work. Freedom is at once what is available to us in a given context, and how we negotiate the context and to what end. It is here that St. Paul’s exhortation to the Romans becomes so very relevant, ‘do not conform to the pattern of the world’ (Rom. 12:2) Why shouldn’t we conform? Because, conformity is the orbit of unfreedom. As Paul writes to Galatians, it is into freedom that Christ has called us. Do not slip back under the yoke of slavery (Gal. 5:1) The Son sets us free, as Jesus said, by empowering us to be free and fearless in being faithful to our calling in the workplace. Many are unsure and anxious as to what extent this is possible in our times. Read this book, if you are. Read this book, even if you are not. You will be spiritually rejuvenated to know how one man, pitted against an array of formidable forces, managed to stay faithful, trusting in God alone.

I sincerely recommend this book. I’m sure you will find reading it a powerful experience, as I have.

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