By Paramie Jayakody –
I never intended to make this note public, and I hoped I would never have to. Shanilka, it may be too late for you, but I think you would have agreed that no one should go into the hell we went into uninformed.
To everyone reading this letter, all of you think the local Universities are the great shining beacons of promise for you, your sibling, your child, your friend. Let me dash your hopes at the very beginning and tell you, it’s not. Not at all. Dashing your hopes is very important because more than anything else, hope is what screws things up for you. You’ll see why when you read on.
The first day, you walk into uni (mine was Mora, so I’ll just tell you how it was like for me). You get amazed at how big it is, how spacious, how sprawling. You look at the map and see a medical center, a bookshop, food court, sports area, auditorium. It’s like a mini city. Life for four years here wouldn’t be bad at all, you think. After all, you look forward to it. You already talked to a friend who is also studying here, and they assured you that Mora was a rag free, friendly place.
You sit in the auditorium wearing a white blouse, surrounded by 200 other white blouses and shirts, receiving a welcome token from the senior batch. You listen to the welcomes given out by various members of the institute, boasting of the prowess of the university and how lucky we are to get selected into state universities. You listen to them say how mora is a rag free and peaceful place, and the seniors welcome you in a very friendly manner.
You finish day 1. You’re happy. You go to your new boarding place, which is within walking distance, and like that too. It’s nice, secluded, and private. It’ll be a haven for you if you need it, but you’re sure that’ll never happen.
Day 2 and 3 pass, orientation happening. The people are bunching together like quiet herds of sheep, with the female and male herds keeping a clear gap between the two. It’s all quiet, but its the first week. It’s okay. Day 4, the student union comes to talk. Mix up, they tell us. Wear skirts, they tell the few girls who are wearing trousers. They proceed to lay down rules, most reasonable, some not. They’re strict. They raise their voices. That’s the first sign you get that something isn’t right.
Lectures start from week 2. We’re supposed to go to breakfast, then lectures, make friends, finish lectures and go home. Don’t talk to the seniors, don’t go for sports, no extracurriculars, nothing else. Just that. How the hell do you make friends if you have no time to bond, you think.
The lectures start. It takes you all of one day to realize that out of the 3 hours of the lecture, 1-2 hours are spent on lecturing the students on non-subject related things, boasting about themselves, and boasting about the government university system.
Over the next few weeks, life falls into a boring routine. Wake up, get dressed, hate your skirt (in the boys case, hate the shirt and slacks), go to uni, have breakfast, go to class, lunch, go to class again, get a guy to take you home (cause we girls aren’t supposed to go alone) the long way, cause juniors aren’t allowed to use the back gate, the shorter route. You don’t make many friends other than the one other person who went to school with you, cause you don’t have time to talk to people, and you don’t want to be seen with one person too much because that is how they target you.
Week 4, the student union tells you that the senior batch is ready to meet you. Oh okay, you think, especially since you can now meet your friend. Not even 10 seconds after they come into the group, they start yelling at the whole batch, using vile filth that is only good enough for the gutters from which they probably crawled.
For the next two hours they proceed to terrorize the batch, picking out individuals and ripping into them for things like growing beards, not coming to uni at 7am for breakfast (even though lectures are at 8.30) not wearing a long enough skirt, not knowing who a random other batchmate is, for speaking in English and so on. By the time they leave, the whole batch is shaken, and half the girls are reduced to tears.
Your friend, who you looked forward to meeting, looks through you like you don’t exist. No rag, you realize, meant only that they wouldn’t touch you physically inside the campus.
After that, you live in terror. Cause they know exactly who you are, where you live, who lives close to you, where you come from, everything. Their eyes follow you every minute of every day and if you step out of line, they know, and not only you, the entire batch has to suffer the consequences at the next weekly meeting. The boarding was to be a haven, but they know where that is too, and they know if and when you walk out of it. They make a show of not doing anything to the girls at first. If a girl does anything wrong, the guys with her, or the batch reps, pay the price. And then at the next meeting, the entire batch gets yelled at because of that.
You have to know all 300 people in the batch, they say. All 300 numbers in the phone, their names, hometowns, parents names, occupations, schools, all of it should be in your head, they say. And every week, people stay up late into the night trying to remember, but consequently failing, and every week the yelling doesn’t let up. You know its an impossible task and they just want to yell at you anyway, but knowing doesn’t help anything.
Telling the family is almost not an option. They sent you here with hope and dreams, how could you tell them you don’t want to go there anymore? You hear the pride in their voices when they talk about you, and you don’t want to disappoint them.
And then, you feel it creeping in. The despair, as you slowly realize the dreams you had of having a life here, to live freely, of making your life better, were never going to come true. And with that realization, you start wondering if it’s even worth it. But it’s free, you convince yourself. You came here to not burden your parents with money for your higher education, you tell yourself. Its just four years. You can get through it. But night after night, you feel it crashing in your mind, and sometimes, you can’t remember when you were last happy. Every morning you dread waking up, until getting ready is simply a mechanical action to you.
As it gets worse, and you’re forced to stay late at uni, sometimes until 1 or 2 am, or go back to uni at unorthodox hours, you try to reach out to people. You reach out to people you haven’t spoken with in ages. They mock you, tell you you’ll never make it in local uni, tell you that you’re a stupid idiot for even trying and that you’re just weak. You get hurt. Talking about emotions doesn’t work, you think.
You speak more and more to people who seem to understand. And you find yourself going all the way to Colombo after lectures, just to meet people that don’t force you to be anything but yourself. Just to have an hour of time without the pressure in your head. Just to have some little time of peace. You’re desperate, because you feel so alone.
It doesn’t get better, it always keeps getting worse. You wonder why no one else doesn’t understand how fundamentally wrong this is. You go on a batch trip, instead of enjoying yourself, the batch reps are more concerned with breaking up the small groups of friends and putting on an act of ‘batch fit’ for the seniors. No one seems to realize how wrong it is. Isn’t a trip just to enjoy yourself?
You wonder why all the staff just turns a blind eye. Surely those people aren’t that stupid, right? But all they do is preach about ‘rag free Moratuwa’ and ignore the blatant bullying that happens just around the corner.
In early November, the torture was doubled. They still kept their hands off the girls, but started calling the guys away during the night, where they would take them to their boardings and rag them till 3 or 4 am. Since it was off campus premises, they got physical.
The girls weren’t supposed to know, but we noticed when the guys came to class moving gingerly. After that, every night was stressful, waiting for a message at 10 pm to say “Not tonight” so you could sleep till tomorrow. If not, you would be awake in the early morning hours, waiting to see if they got back okay, and seeing if your friends who lived in the boarding next to you needed anything.
You struggle to live, to keep your sanity. The thought of home, friends and family, is all that keeps you from jumping off the balcony, even when you end up there with no recollection of opening the doors. You struggle, you cope, but you’re not sure how long you can last.
You start skipping lectures. It’s not like you like them anyway. You feel at peace, all alone in your boarding room. You try to tell yourself that it’s okay, that it’s fine. You take a break, and after ages, go home for an entire week. Vacation starts.
But vacation wasn’t like you imagined. Home is stressing you out. You feel antisocial, introverted, not ready to mingle at all, and you have to deal with your family’s endless questions and pride, not realizing they sent you into hell.
You wonder, later, what was wrong with you? Why were you so weak that you weren’t even able to endure a few months of that? But what sealed the deal was, after vacation, when they said rag season is over, you walked into uni and saw the seniors watching you, saw your batchmates cringe, and you realized it was never going to end. We were already conditioned that way. You walk out after just one session, never intending to come back.
You dread telling your parents, but you finally gather your courage and do it. You try to explain how they torture your mind, not your body. You try to explain the constant pain and despair. You try, you fail, but they understand. You never set foot in Mora again. You don’t answer the phone, you simply try to forget it ever existed.
From my own experience, that is how it is. And my batch, my batch was a bunch of stupid cowards, like all the batches before us. Stupid for not realizing we could change things if we stood against them together. Cowards for not even thinking of that option. And bullies, for I’m sure they are now inflicting that same torture on the batch below us. Why can’t you ever learn?
And for that senior batch who terrorized us, and their seniors and their seniors, and everyone in this never-ending cycle, why did you do it? Did you get some sort of sick, twisted pleasure in watching the fear in our faces, watch all our hopes die? Did you enjoy crushing our spirits? Was it all just a game to you? Let me tell you this. I blame you. I blame you for going through the same thing in your year and not being man enough to stop the cycle. I blame you for not understanding that this is not okay. I blame you for knowingly stepping over the limit. You’re not building up our characters, you’re breaking them. I blame you for being classless, tasteless bullies. And most of all, I blame you for the nice civilized mask you present the world.
When I’m still told that I’m a disappointment for quitting a prestigious local uni, I blame you. When I’m reminded to go to my appointment with my counselor, I blame you. When even a light-hearted ribbing among friends makes me sick to my stomach, I blame you. When I dreaded starting going to a new uni so hard the first student union meeting made me ill for half a week, I blame you. When at my new, private university, I’m plagued with flashbacks and nightmares that leave me shaken, I blame you… And I always will.
Why everyone else is still okay, how they pretend university life is so great, how it all looks so amazing in their social media, I will never understand. But maybe they just didn’t have better moments in their lives to compare.
Shanilka, I am so so sorry, for what was done to you. I don’t know what you went through, and I’m sure mine doesn’t even compare. I had a family to go back to. I had other options. Or I convinced myself to make other options. I’m sorry that fate decided only one of could make it out of there (barely) alive. But as always, we live in Sri Lanka, where the public face matters more than dealing directly with issues.
Someone who tries, every day, to leave the past where it belongs.
Writer’s note: This is a response after a recent ragging related suicide was reported in local media. Shanilka Wijesinghe hung himself at his home in Kurunegala after several months of enduring mental and physical torture from his senior peers at the Diyagama campus of the University of Moratuwa. The writer, having attended said university (which boasts a rag free environment) and left, shares a similar experience. Shanilka was a first-year student at the time of his passing.