Tuesday, April 17, 2007


For once, George W said it well:

"Schools should be places of safety and sanctuary and learning. When that sanctuary is violated the impact is felt in every American class and in every American community."

And that's what it's been. I personally have been feeling really uneasy since yesterday. Maybe it's in part because I grew up around a college campus, visiting Fergusson College regularly almost since I was born, with both my parents teaching there. College for me was synonymous with home and my parents. But the unease is also because of a general image that we have of college campuses, where peace is propagated and pure knowledge is disseminated. Most academics are gentle people, and this fact also adds to the feeling of loss. Part of the grief also comes from the fact that two Indians were killed in the massacre, although this grief is by no means exclusively reserved for our own. And of course, a major part of the despair comes from coming to grips with incomprehensibility, an inherently paradoxical task. The Holocaust still remains incomprehensible, but at least we know its dominant cause; the grotesque ideology of one man. But what happened yesterday really defies reason to a much larger extent. Who can we blame? And how do we make sure it doesn't happen again? When we are confronted with a tragedy, even blaming something or someone can provide solace, because that provides a way forward to prevent it from hapenning again. But it is very difficult to do both these things in light of this event.

Being a student and a grad student is a common culture that so many of us have experienced and are experiencing, and that cements the common feeling of pain like nothing else. All students without exception have tales to tell of how they cut classes, had secret crushes, survived on and made forays for departmental free food and the like, got into trouble more than once with authorities, and read PhDcomics. Even those for whom college was uneventful are many in number, thus still sharing a common heritage. College provides a shared experience for us like few other things in life. And just like some other common aspects of life like relationships, we all can feel deep inside what it means when such a tragedy befells college students. When my grandfather passed away two years ago, I found myself aimlessly wandering among the library stacks, probably to feel at home in my own personal sanctuary. Perhaps it gives me the feeling that whetever's in those shelves there provides a powerful source of hope to guide us from this moment on into the future. Strangely, I found myself doing the same thing yesterday, and that more than anything else made me realise the common thread of personal grief that ran through to me, even if to different extents and for different reasons.

The breaking point was when everybody was waiting for news about 26 year old Minal Panchal since yesterday, and today everybody's worst fears were concerned. Minal was an architecture student at Virginia Tech. Her Orkut profile is that of any person who loves and lives life, enjoying movies, long walks and old Hindi film songs. She seemed to be deeply interested in her work, and also in sustainability and in saving the environment. But of course we don't need to grieve for her because she was somebody special. We need to grieve for us because she was just like us, and I or you could have easily been in her place. Within two hours, almost 3,000 scraps (up to 15,000 now in 12 hours) have been written in her Orkut scrapbook; first they were of hope and prayers for her safety, then they were of despair and prayers for peace. Almost every one of these offers prayers and wishes for her soul to rest in peace. I was going to pen a line, then realised the futility because she would never read it, but then realised that if she can't, at least her friends and mother can, and went ahead anyway. I did not wish for peace for a soul that I don't believe exists, but all of us can wish for peace for those beings who are still alive. That is another common thread that runs through us; one does not need to believe in God to share in hopes and wishes.


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