What mustn't and must be said and done in the aftermath of Hari's departure
June 4, 2021. The condolence meeting is underway on a virtual forum. Two hundred-odd students have joined in as the director eulogises Hari Prasath -- the student who bid adieu too soon. He cites the necessity to establish robust mechanisms to identify the cues leading up to unwarranted situations and how the institute is working to set up a committee in this regard. He underlines the brief rehash of Hari’s story with a cautionary remark: “As a community, as a society, we need to do something more.” The question to which we seek an answer, Prof. Rao says, is precisely the possibility of preventing the loss of life of the young members. The necessity of introspection outlines his aggrieved manner, a touch reassuring. Soon after his remembrance comes to an end, Prof. MR Ravi is tasked with translating his words in Tamil for the benefit of the native speakers in the meeting. The meeting ends in silence for the deceased.
Hari was, on the balance of bright and dull, a brighter student. Much to the envy of his friends, he would score more with littler investment -- an example of the textbook definition of ‘sharp and smart,’ besides being cooped up in his own world. Hrishabh, Hari’s roommate from first year, attests to his self-contained demeanour right throughout. “Hari was silent for the most part, so we assumed he enjoyed being alone. Even when I asked him to attend events, he preferred being with his laptop,” Hrishabh recalled. He enjoyed his solitude for one, except he reached out to people and attempted to befriend them. Two of Hari’s closest friends, Vasanth & Kishor, know better. They tell us how Hari was perhaps the only person in their group of five Tamilians who tried to intermingle, who didn’t show signs of breakdown when the rest of them suffered bouts of depression in their first year. The efforts notwithstanding, Delhi was still afar.
A near-buried fissure gained stimulus in the wake of the incident, as anecdotes after anecdotes hinted at isolatory experiences on the grounds of linguistic differences. Consider this: the conflict arises when the different thriving languages confront each other on a common ground, when Tamil meets Hindi meets proper English meets improper English meets Malayali meets Telugu meets anything else. The global order dictates we learn (proper) English, become better and better, even as we try to hold on to our native dialects. We code-switch all the time, finding ways and words to get the message across. What else matters? More importantly, what else should matter? It is then baffling and dismaying to listen to Vasanth’s narration of their group’s (and many others’) ordeal of communicating and connecting to their peers. While the onus falls on everyone to accommodate the other, institutional frameworks to ensure a common minimum understanding of the English-Hindi duo is necessary, now more than ever. Parallelly and more importantly, student bodies need to take up the mantle: BSW could start by tweaking its language mentorship program and widening its scope, BSP could start by providing greater space to the vernacular, SAC could work in tandem with the administration to work out boot camps for the freshman year. Hindi Samiti, Literary Club & Debating Club could aid their efforts. (All the ‘could start’ in the previous sentence must be read as ‘should start’ at the first place.)
That language barrier is a recurring problem in the institute cannot by any means be attributed as the driving force behind Hari’s actions, no. Upon asking his friends as to what they think lead to the unfortunate, they tell us it was a combination of multiple factors. The first visible signs of depression came somewhere around December 2019, when he revealed his state to Vasanth. Hari reached out to Your Dost for help, and the matter ceased to be discussed in future conversations. Vasanth told us that Hari was in touch with Your Dost intermittently, and he sounded and looked ‘fine.’ When the institute allowed students to onboard in the latter half of 2020, Hari persuaded his parents to let him go, itched as he was at the lack of privacy in his household in Thiruvarur, Tamil Nadu. The red flags and they seem red flags only now, were all over. Hari’s diet of cinema and books, his declining interest in academics seem ignored signs, more so when he did not appear for the entirety of the sixth semester and deleted his social media profiles. He sought professional help three months before the fateful night, and his friends turn agape when they mention it, for an adverse outcome in the presence of professional help is still inexplicable to them. We might never know what propelled him, but a reading of the red flags, even if it is in hindsight, is necessary. That institute could’ve monitored the situation better; having all the resources about Hari’s academic performance at its disposal is another facet, and perhaps necessitates effective preemptive mechanisms to oversee such anomalies. The cognizance needs to be taken at the earliest, proactively, and beyond and over the ambit of deans of student affairs and welfare, possibly at the end of academic departments. Questions about whether forums like YourDost are really a substitute for counselors on duty, knowing how overworked they are already too need to be raised foremost, and strategies to mitigate the overload devised. Student representatives could do well to be at the forefront in calling for a systemic change.
When the news of Hari’s demise reached us via a carefully drafted mail on the afternoon of June 1, a stream of ‘reactions’ and ‘opinions’ ensued, stirred by spurious stories of this-was-the-problem and culture-is-terrible-you-know. Most of our remarks that followed as a peer group were reactionary, feigning ignorance of the facts of the matter. Prof. Khera’s mail, the latest in the series of communication from the institute, underlines the necessity to exercise restraint in claiming authority over the casualties of any such incident immediately, for they not only fan a notion that may be inaccurate but appropriate the story in a light different from its own. The student community, without a doubt, could’ve responded cautiously. A more pressing concern, in either case, is to learn and improve from hereon, in that both the students and the administration (counselors included) pay heed to the need of the hour and find ways to navigate the woes that surround them. All their words must translate into actions, now.