Book 5 Ch.3: The Great Peasant Uprising
“This would never happen in another college. There’d be a revolt by now, a student uprising… ”.
Vimal was clearly getting annoyed with the obvious boredom of the situation. Personally, I wasn’t faring much better myself.
Lesser mortals from our class had chosen to use the free hours in third year engineering for more useful pursuits. The academic elites had sprinted to the mental sanctuary of the libraries. The plebeians had resorted to physical means of exhaustion — punching a leather sphere with a wooden spatula and then chasing it around the ground in sweltering heat.
Since I neither had the academic inclination nor the athletic ability, free hours were usually spent with a group of fellow philosophers discussing life, religion and why the acads and sports guys were losers.
Unfortunately that day Vichu, my chief co-philosopher, had chosen inconsequential alternatives like meeting up with family and eating home cooked meals than spend eight hours getting enlightened on engineering wisdom. And the others were far too busy drinking tea and forging life-long romantic relationships… Which left me and Vimal rather dangerously alone to ponder the lack of excitement.
The non-news of the day was that a couple of guys were scheduled for a some rather serious punishment because they were allegedly screaming obscenities at freshmen in the college bus.
There are certain parts of the world where “punishment” would mean being water boarded, guillotined, crucified or even expelled from the institution. Where we studied, it was more of ‘you can’t use the college bus for a week. And, to alleviate the inconvenience, we’ll give you class attendance for that week anyway…’
“But it’s the principle that I’m against.” Usually, conversations with Vimal did not make much sense. But a mixture of heat and boredom seemed to tie every word he spewed today into a logical jigsaw that would have made Aristotle shave his beard. “It’s not the consequences of the punishment that matters, but rather the belief of higher-ups that they can throw anything at us and we’d take it in a stride. Plus if we don’t rise up to defend Alex, who would?”
Vimal’s rhetoric was getting stronger by the minute. One of the six was apparently from our class, which made the whole issue even more personal. The fact that I hadn’t ever seen this Alex before in my three years of engineering seemed rather irrelevant. Vimal filled me in on the important things Alex had done for our honor — like win some inter collegiate sports competition or something like that. But the writing on the wall was clear from where I sat — after all, if we didn’t fight for Alex, who would!
The bored mind is like a free-radical, a wandering soul that desperately seeks out any object it can cling on to. And that day, six of our fellow comrades had been falsely accused of a hideous crime they did not commit. One of us had been punished by the evil overlord, and we felt our collective emotions rise up against the tyranny…
“We cannot take this sitting down”, I screamed. “Rebellion”, cried Vimal. “Rebellion”, I cried. And then we both sat down and started discussing whether we should walk the long route down to the libary and get some nice tea or take the closer route to the cafeteria and drink their horrible coffee.
Malcolm Gladwell describes three kinds of people needed to create a tipping point in any social revolution — Mavens, the subject matter experts; Salesmen, the charismatic guys who persuade others; and Connectors, the guys who know the guys who matter. The kind he doesn’t account for are the two guys sipping coffee of questionable quality in the cafeteria of an engineering college somewhere and quick-building an ethical framework to fuel their righteous anger.
The evening should have rolled by like any other before, with Vimal and I holding heated debates on the right and wrong, democracy, politics and government. And then proceeding to board the bus that would take us back home at 5pm. But the mysterious ways of fate and chance had a different plan for the day. And far away, through the blinding light of the cafeteria entrance, we noticed Donnie walking in…
Donnie was our Leader of the Masses. He was the voice of the voice-less, the face of the face-less, the leg of the leg-less. Donnie was a born leader — the light that guided our class through the valleys of darkness, the shepherd who showed us the way. When he was four years old, Donnie discovered the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Then he punched a glacier for ice cubes to cool his fine scotch. Now that’s an exaggeration because Donnie doesn’t need ice cubes. He’d swallow an entire bottle of whiskey neat and then chew the glass for finishers.
If Malcolm Gladwell had met him before he wrote his books, he’d have edited out the entire 300 pages and replaced them with the single word “Donnie”.
Early in our second semester, when the fresh to-be-engineers had just been sorted into our respective majors, a professor came around to each class asking for nominations for the Student Representative role. Donnie was the only guy who raised his hand, so we accepted him as our natural leader.
In the four semesters that followed, Donnie had taken on multiple important leadership roles… like rationing alcohol reserves during our “educational tours”, rationing alcohol reserves during our fun trips, and rationing alcohol reserves at other times, so he commanded a great deal of respect all around.
On either side of Donnie were his loyal lieutenants. To his right was FileMan. No one knew who FileMan really was, or what he did in college everyday, but he always walked around with a bulky box file under his arms so we assumed he did something rather important.
To Donnie’s left was The Puker — a really fun guy otherwise but who habitually regurgitated fluids that were neither purple nor green nor pink as a party trick.
The lieutenants had a side job of vehemently agreeing with everything that ever came out of Donnie’s mouth. As a result, Donnie was sure that he’d always have at least two more votes than the other guy in any conversation.
“They’re destroying Alex”, Vimal cried. “This is so wrong dude”, I joined in. “Someone needs to do something about this right now”, we both piped in together, carefully removing any possible indication that the someone would be us, or the something would be some genius suggestion we offered. Plausible deniability that’d have made CIA spies proud!
It took Donnie a couple of minutes to weigh the situation. Then he shook his head and shouted a chain of commands to the lieutenants. Calls were made to other student representatives, powerful people, guys of any passable influence or clout. The wheels of The Great Peasant Uprising had been set in motion…
“We’re in with whatever you say, Great Leader”. The representatives of the Computer Science majors were always allies we could count on, so that first part was kind of predictable. “But we have practical exams and record work to do”. The response from the electrical majors was just as expected as well… They didn’t get to be the creme-de-la-creme of engineering majors by bunking classes and not submitting lab records after all.
“Stop worrying about such trivialities. If we don’t show our unity now, everything we love and hold dear will be lost forever”. Anarchists have an interesting way of breaking through all logic and appealing to the core emotions beneath. But since it was working in our favor, we just stood back and enjoyed the show.
Anarchy is often imagined as a channel of chaos — the opposite of order and control. Yet anarchy without order is just a bunch of guys running in random directions, tiring out and sleeping in the last bench of the class.
The first moment of rebellion, in pure anarchist flavor, would have quite been its last. Two guys ran to the hostels to spread the news. Eight guys ran back to their class rooms. Three went to the labs because they still had pending record work. Five guys walked back into the cafeteria because that seemed like a rather good idea. We had about ten minutes before the busses departed for the day, and if Donnie hadn’t taken charge at that moment the uprising would have concluded with another round of coffee and biscuits. But take charge, he did.
“No one gets out of the college until our demands are met”. That single rousing statement was the war cry we all needed to hear. At that point, no one seemed to care what the demands were, or who was supposed to meet them in the first place. We suddenly had a common purpose, and we were going to fight for it!
“To the bus bays”, someone screamed. “Stop that bus from leaving”, another voice cried out. A few of us ran down to stop that first bus before it crossed the threshold of the gates. That bus, careening out at 5km/hr was the difference between freedom and enslavement, between our rights as individuals and the oppression of tyrants. Between the demands we never knew being met, and the struggles we never faced fizzling out…
The bus inched forward. Five of us cut across the undergrowth to get in front. The bus rolled closer. We looked around to ensure we weren’t the only five morons running forward — after all, we didn’t want to make headlines as the five kids who were mowed down by a bus with bad brakes. The bus was close enough to touch. Others were filing in behind us, so we got back to being the fearless rebels. In a moment of pure unreasonable impulse one of the anarchists placed his hand on the front grille of the bus to signal the driver to turn it off instead of scaring us with his idling antics. With the flawless maintenance standards that our college buses followed, that light tap with his palm was sufficient for one of the headlights to fall to the ground. This was property damage — there was no scope for peaceful dialog anymore.
“Why do we have to stay? We don’t care about this…”
“But one of us has been wronged, dishonored. Don’t you care about that?”
“Correction. One of you has been wronged. We’re not even from the engineering majors — why should we care?”
If convincing our fellow students was a pain, the Master’s guys threw a whole different plane of annoying indifference. These guys had already lived through an exciting life of Under Grad in Liberal Arts where, we were sure, they’d rubbed noses with mobsters, murderers and terrorists. They were here to enjoy the peace and quiet of a slow, retired life during their ‘Masters in Computer Stuff’ program.
“It’s not about them. It’s about you. It’s about your rights and freedom. Your individuality”.
“But we have our rights and freedom already. And both of that tells us we just want to go home”.
Sure, they had a fair point. But we weren’t going to let that poke holes in our revolution. “Just sit down and do your thing”.
Eventually, the retirees settled down on the grassy wastelands near the college entrance and started utilizing the opportunity to open up new channels of communication with their female comrades. And that’s the story of how approximately thirty six happy families today owe their existence to a bad cup of coffee and a broken headlight.
“These guys are my kids, my children”, the Crow said to the crowd of professors behind him. “Everybody, peacefully disperse now”.
The Crow taught one of our classes that semester. On the first day of class, he walked to an empty classroom. He peeked inside, walked across to the next class and peeked in there. Then he walked down to the department to verify his class schedules, confirmed the room, came back to the empty classroom and peeked in once more. Finally, about 45 minutes into an hour long class, he asked one of the 50 students sitting outside if they knew where the fifth semester classroom was. The student confirmed that this was it. The Crow walked into the empty room and admired the walls for another ten minutes before coming back out and asking the same student if he knew where all the kids in the class where. “That’s us”, the student said. And that’s the depth of love and dynamics we shared with this particular professor.
But in the months leading to the uprising, the Crow had identified the few students who would kill, maim, pillage and attend special classes to push their internal grades up. And he had directly addressed one of those.
The meek one stood up and slowly walked over to the front of the crowd directly towards the Crow. Rebellions are a lot like glass — just one tiny crack, and the whole thing falls apart. Probably a subconscious reason for all those glass windows broken in every riot.
The meek student, the kid who would sell his soul to devil for a tiny signature that said “Output Verified”, inched forward… and then he sat down. Not a word was spoken, but at that moment we could all see the waves thrashing against the cliffs, earthquakes, typhoons and the Crow’s entire world breaking into two…
Legend has it that to this day when the halls are empty and the staff are all huddled safely within the confines of their staff room, they still talk about the Crow and the student who broke that one single figment of power the professors once thought they had.
“Let me pass”, the electronics professor said in a tone that was more an unquestionable order. “Sorry sir, we can’t let you do that”, Sue said with unusual humility.
Professors from the Electronics departments were, as a rule, a bit off. It’s not that they had any lesser subject matter expertise than the subject matter demanded. Or that they were any less or more menacing than the others. Rather, in general they just seemed a bit… mentally unstable.
“Do you know who I am?”, he bellowed. This was getting interesting.
I’ve always pondered about the implication of that question. The answer itself not withstanding, it’s basically a yes/no question which means answering it would not account for more than 2 marks in an engineering examination. Want an engineering student to care for the question? With a neat labelled diagram state and explain the theory of Who I Am with a detailed explanation of how that applies to the current scenario (16 marks) would probably at least get the student to care…
“It doesn’t matter, sir. You still can’t go”. Sue stood his ground. The professor gaped in disbelief for a few seconds. Then he scowled and started getting visibly agitated at the insult.
“Do you want my tie here as well?”, he screamed as he pulled off his tie and threw it at Sue. We all just stood around, wondering how he made the connection there from a blockage to a strip tease. But the professor wasn’t done yet. “And do you want my socks?”. Someone had to intervene real soon to preserve his and our dignity.
“Get back inside, sir”, the Leader said. Even an Electronics professor knew not to throw garments at the Great Leader, so he went back into the college.
“I’m like your bloody pop man”, the registrar bellowed. Fear engulfed the sea of students in a slow wave, as the words he had just spoken passed from row to row of anarchists.
The registrar was not a man to be taken lightly. Although he never once spoke about it, his voice, tone and mannerisms betrayed his past — that he had once been in the army. Years of hushed conversations by the corridors and water-coolers had us all convinced that he had at least once killed an enemy by crushing his skull with his bare hands. He also spoke impeccable english, which made him even more intimidating.
“He’s a bloody pop”, someone whispered to the guys behind them.
“He just called our father bloody”, someone corrected them.
There was a scuffle in the last few rows with a bunch of guys restraining a visibly angry student. “How dare he call my father a Lolly Pop?!”
“Friends”. No matter what the occasion was, as a blanket rule Donnie always started his speeches with “Friends”. Sometimes, for those really solemn sessions, or when he got particularly emotional, he’d start with “Dear Friends”. But when you heard that word from Donnie, you grabbed a bucket of popcorn, took a seat and got ready for an inspiring hour long monologue.
“This is a great moment in the history of students everywhere”, the Leader continued. We were two hours into our Great Uprising, and the word floating around was that the bigwigs at the college had decided to cancel the punishment, and have a sit-in with us to negotiate our demands.
The cheers lasted for roughly fifteen minutes. Even the retirees showed their obvious pleasure in the idea of finally getting back home. And then, the uncomfortable questions started coming up…
“What are our demands, exactly?”
“That all this oppression and tyranny should stop”
“Alright. What oppression and tyranny?”
We had less than a half hour to collect some oppression and tyranny, and had no idea where to start.
“The food in the hostel is terrible”, one of the girls voiced out. “The boys hostel has way better food”.
“But all the buckets in our bathrooms are broken and they won’t replace them with new ones”, the boys added their come-back.
“The university exams are too hard”, came another vote. We were getting no where with this.
“A professor was rude to me”, a girl said. The leader must have felt that to be the closest we were going to get to any real problem, because he kind of caught up on that issue. “Who else was this professor rude to?”. A dozen hands shot up.
Now if we were going to get all angsty at a professor, this one wouldn’t have been my first choice. When you want to paint a villain to fight against, you want to draw him big and mean. You want to give him claws and a wicked laugh. You want him to stroke a black cat as he emotionlessly watches his victims wriggle and squirm in pain.
The one we’d chosen though was approximately three inches tall, which meant unless you bent down on your knees and squinted really hard, chances are you’d never have even seen him. He was about as intimidating as a puppy caught in the rain. And he had a nasal pitch which made even his meanest words sound rather cute.
But it wasn’t like we had a whole menu of oppressive factors to pick and choose from, so we decided to fly with this.
The round of negotiations went exactly as we might have expected. Wait, it didn’t. The oppressed girl started crying the moment we sat down with the bigwigs, so her point never got made. The second year student we had taken along for ‘fair representation’ made an excellent argument on the importance of internal grades. To which the college board said if he thought they was so critical, perhaps he should study for them.
The Leader made a couple of points about the general state of affairs, the world economy and the quality of the cafeteria food. The negotiators shrugged their shoulders and said perhaps they’d look into it.
The great victory of the negotiations, however, was that we wouldn’t have to rely on public transit to get back home at this late hour — the college would arrange for a limited number of buses to get us back to the city. Which was kind of ironic because if we hadn’t staged the Great Uprising in the first place, we’d have all had the buses to take us back as usual anyway. Three hours back!
But victory is victory, and another round of cheers were passed around.
“Dude we should boycott the sports day tomorrow”.
Apparently some of us were still not over our righteous anger. Apparently our college hosted an annual sports day as well.
“Didn’t we just prove our point?”, Sue asked. “They gave us what we demanded for. It wouldn’t be right to fight them again.”, Donnie added, always the voice of reason, rationality and righteousness.
“You know you don’t really have to go to the event, right? It’s free attendance.”
“This would never happen in another college. There’d be a revolt by now, a student uprising… ”, said Vimal. But his voice now seemed to lack the energy, enthusiasm or clear logical genius of the previous day.
The Great Peasant Uprising had finally been quelled.
This story is part of a running series about tales and non-incidents from my college life. If you liked this story, let me know by hearting this post… If you didn’t, let me know too!