Talking to the Devil. Or N.S. Narayanaswamy, Warden, Tapti Hostel

I hinted at the end of the previous post at the possible dangers of reading (and reading into) private conversations of other people without bothering about context. Like I added in the update to the post, however, I sent my blogpost to one of the people involved and asked him if I had got anything wrong, if there was context I was missing. I must have been the only one to do this, because in the hour between my sending him the email and returning from lunch, he had sent me two replies on email, and had then actually tracked down my phone number and called me. We talked for slightly longer than half an hour then and a few times after.

Narayanaswamy, or Nari as he prefers to be called, is the warden of Tapti hostel. He isn’t one to shirk away from debate – you may remember that the last time I asked him for an explanation about some rule he made at Tapti, he copied the emails to the student council at Tapti. I commented at the time that he seemed to me to be genuinely interested in the welfare of his students, if a bit paternalistic. I was surprised, therefore, that he seemed to be proposing the most stringent of regulations to be imposed on hostelers.

First, and this is apparently the complaint brought up most often in the meeting with the Director at CLT: ‘Why are you telling students when to wake up? Do you really think everybody has to wake up every day at 6 am?’

“It was a small thing to be done once a week – somebody would knock on your door and clean your room”, Nari laughs. “I am surprised that this is what students have the biggest problem with. I grew up in a lower-middle-class family where I had to wake up at 3 am on most days because that was when water was supplied in my locality. 6 am to me is like the middle of the day… In any case, this was discussed in the hostel. Most freshers were happy with it; about 75% of second years and about 50% of third years were fine with it. The final-years kicked me out of their wing when I tried explaining myself to them, which was fine too…”

“I have a nephew who asks me to buzz off if I try and tell him that waking up early is good”, he adds.

So does he agree that values change with time, that trying to impose one generation’s morality – falling at elders’ feet, let’s say – on the next one is silly?

“All the mails are exhorting ourselves to put a system in place where students can live in peace, and we can administer the hostels, in a reliable way.  Most arguments were headed in the moral direction, and I showed them an analogy in that mail that this is a generation whose value system is different compared to, for example, mine. Such a basic difference of what is inculcated to kids since childhood. I wasn’t judging or moralizing.”

What about privacy? The emails paint a sinister picture of what he would do to students’ right to privacy. Does he really want even the notion of privacy to be abolished? He did say ‘the demand for privacy is a shocker’.

“Of course not… privacy is shocker, because we discussed this with HAS etc. and people were ignoring this point”, he says. “Forget everything else. Isn’t this battle for privacy in a public space ‘How much privacy can students – adolescents, let’s say – be given while still letting the guardian – the parent, the warden – know enough to know if the student is in trouble and needs help?’ I am not recommending surveillance, just open windows with a curtain. I am surprised that the student community has not protested proxy authentication.”

Why the open windows? What could they possibly achieve?

“…my suggestion is not [to] see what you are doing, it is a definite deterrent against putting up a noose at 12noon.”

It is a wonderful metaphor, ‘an open window with curtains’, but how exactly will they prevent a suicide? At this point, I feel like he is grasping for straws:

“[You] can imagine rigging a noose with semi-open windows. You need to start by closing the windows”.

I don’t really think IITM is going to bulldoze every window from every hostel room at the suggestion of one warden. But it is an interesting thought.

What he wants to achieve, he says, and has been working at for two years is to help students live their lives outside their rooms instead of being cooped up in front of a computer. He sent me to his blog, where he isn’t bound by the same constraints of brevity that email forces upon one. The nicest thing about what he says about setting up an ideal hostel is the nuance. Yes, he ultimately has to take a concrete stand and propose a solution which you may or may not agree with, but that doesn’t stop him from recognising the issues involved.

Well, if the aim is to ensure that people live social lives, aren’t the rules the institute has made barring women from men’s hostels after 9pm counter-productive? If the aim is to ensure that men learn to treat women like people first, shouldn’t the administration try and ensure that there is as much as possible of men and women talking to each other, and not say things like ‘prevention is better than cure’? If men learn to treat women as people first, wouldn’t that automatically solve the problem of violence against, and harassment of, women?

“I agree that the rules about women not being allowed in men’s hostels after 9pm are silly. Nobody should be told who their friends can be, or who they should spend time with or when or where. I am still trying to learn more about this, but unfortunately, it seems to me like nobody bothered to bring this issue up when they had a chance to talk to the Diro. The students were all too hung up about having to wake up at 6 am…”

At this point, he tells me he has to take my leave because the Director of IITM has summoned him to ask him why he is making people wake up at 6am.

This is actually not all of what Nari and I talked about. Ask me what Nari thinks about the council of wardens. Ask me what he thinks has to happen for the system as a whole to become more liberal. Ask me why he thinks IIT Madras is in danger of becoming irrelevant. In fact, go ahead and ask him. I am sure he would welcome open minded criticism – which is more than I can say for the rest of IITM’s administration.

Postscript: I also asked him what on Earth he has against bunjee-jumping. Well, he went and wrote about it after I asked him. Go read. He’s also written about privacy.

Disclaimer: Large chunks of the conversation above were written down from memory of phone conversations. I may have ended up putting words in Nari’s mouth, for better or worse. Everything here is only my impression of what Nari is like. I will obviously stick by my impression of him until proven wrong, but that’s no reason for you not to talk to him yourself and make up your own mind.

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11 thoughts on “Talking to the Devil. Or N.S. Narayanaswamy, Warden, Tapti Hostel”

  1. well he certainly didn’t ask the hostel junta. All he did was ask lsg during hostel night and enforced it on students. He doesn’t even care to sign our gbm expenses and we are rotting without washing machine and water dispensers in new wing.If he “thinks” he has so much “support” he could have made it optional for students. Open window with curtain doesn’t make sense.

  2. It’s fascinating. I’ve spoken to quite a few Tapti residents (2nd, 3rd and 4th years) and not one so far has told me that they were asked about the room cleaning. Also, if only a certain number of people were OK with the cleaning, why would one want to force it upon the entire hostel? Clearly, there’s a huge communication gap between the warden and the hostel residents. If he is as open minded as this blog suggests, then I don’t see why there needs to be so much of a fuss kicked up over this. One meet and this can be resolved, and other relevant issues can be taken up.

  3. Well, I guess anonymous comments should be disallowed. This could lead to something like the above. /|\
    And then get misquoted!

  4. I leave the question of the 6 am room-cleaning thing to Tapti’s residents and their warden. Arun has actually sent me transcripts of gtalk-chats between him and at least two people who didn’t know about the room-cleaning rule. Nari seems like the kind to take dissent in stride. I would suggest people talk to him.

    I’m pretty sure the Dean Students of IITM isn’t reading this blog and commenting on it. So I’ve taken the liberty of changing the name of the commenter above.

  5. ^Well they do know about it now :D. I think the only problem was that even if people were asked about it (and I am yet to talk to anyone who says they have or has a friend who says he was asked), the people who weren’t are annoyed that it’s compulsory for everyone.

  6. Our “general body meeting” in which washing machine and water dispenser were passed last(odd) sem is yet to be signed by him(It’s almost end of this sem). If he is so much “genuinely interested in welfare of student” he should have signed them. Our secs have gone to the extent of waiting outside his classes to be able to discuss with him.

  7. today morning, i was asked to open my windows or open the coveralls of them. When I asked why,he gave a shitty reason that people are not switching off the lights n fans.So,what will he do if people are not in the room and keep their rooms locked?Break them. chutiya warden – No offense

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