When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do Even if You're Swedish

N Sukumar

As Ramgopal approached Azad hostel after a late night of cramming in the library, he sensed something amiss. There seemed to be unusual activity at the entrance to the Hostel. He could see a bunch of boys punching something on the ground. As he came closer, he discovered to his shock that the object on the floor was a person, Ill-luck, a boy who stayed on the same floor as he.

“Arre, kya kar rahe ho, yaar?” cried Ramgopal in distress. “Ise kyon peet rahe ho?”

Arre Ramu, he has eaten chocolate, yaar!”replied his friend Bablu, who had been standing at the fringe of the crowd. “We found chocolate in his hostel room. You know it is forbidden in our culture and by our code of conduct.”

“No, it wasn’t chocolate, it was just coffee,” cried Ill-luck from the ground.

“That’s a lie” shouted someone from the back. “He wouldn’t let us enter the room at first, but we broke the latch and went in. Why would he try to stop us if he had nothing to hide?”

Suddenly there was a fresh commotion and Ramgopal could see another student being dragged out of the hostel by his feet. He recognized the boy as Swedish, the hapless Ill-luck’s half-brother and roommate.

“I wasn’t even in the room at the time,” lamented Swedish.

“So what?” Chhotumal spat back, straightening up for a moment from administering blows with his chappal to Ill-luck’s head. “The chocolate was found in their room. He must have known. This is an insult to our culture and all that we believe in.”

By now the crowd had been joined by a few girls from Indira hostel. One of them said thoughtfully, “They are not even of our culture. What kinds of names are Ill-luck and Swedish?”

Bablu explained, “They claim that their father named the elder brother Ill-luck because his mother died in childbirth. Thereafter their father remarried.

“But why Swedish?” asked Ramgopal.

“My real name is Swadesh,” the boy on the ground cried out. “My father was a jawaan, who fought in the Indo-Pak war. It was my schoolmates who started calling me Swedish because of my fair complexion.

Some students were already live-tweeting the incident, and comments from netizens had started pouring in. “Lynching at Jhanturam College” screamed a left-wing commentator, but most of the retweets were sympathetic to the prompt action taken by the Azad hostel students, realizing the gravity of the cultural insult.

@SillyFilly seemed to sum it up best with “When in Rome, you must do as Romans do, even if you’re Swedish.” This simple but elegant tweet caught the fancy of the net, and was retweeted over 15,000 times within the next three hours.

The next morning the college authorities clarified that possessing or even eating chocolate (even though culturally repugnant) was not against state law, and was not explicitly prohibited by the college code of conduct. This set off a storm of protest from parents, who demanded an immediate nation-wide ban on possession and consumption of chocolate. The DIG (CID) of the state made a visit to Azad hostel, in a convoy of a dozen police vehicles with sirens blaring, and seized all samples of the alleged chocolate from Ill-luck’s room. Investigating officers were sent to interrogate Ill-luck and Swedish in the hospital ICU. The confessions of the two boys were widely reported in the local press, and even picked up on national TV. A male nurse who claimed the two boys were tortured in the ICU was quietly dismissed by the hospital. Jhanturam College likewise lost no time in expelling Ill-luck and Swedish.

When analysis of the samples confiscated from Azad hostel revealed nothing but coffee, most netizens shrugged off the report. After all, the state lab had a well-known left-wing bias. @SillyFilly tweeted “Pinko coffee,” but most others simply ignored the development; it did not even make it onto internet.org. The police returned the remainder of the confiscated coffee to Ill-luck, who was still in ICU. Bablu seemed to think that this was more than enough compensation for any inconvenience the two boys might have experienced. Everyone went on with their lives, everyone with the exception of Ill-luck and Swedish. The college authorities went back to work on preparations for the grand inauguration of “Digital Jhanturam.”

It was a week after the incident. The monsoon rains had just stopped and a cool breeze wafted through the campus, cleansing the night air. Reflections of the hostel buildings shimmered in the puddles along the path. As Ramgopal walked back to Azad hostel from another late night at the library, he could not help feeling a sense of loss. He had barely known Ill-luck and Swedish; so why should this affect him so? But his sense of unease and innocence lost could not be shaken. It was as if some things would never be the same again. Is this what growing up was about, he wondered.

N. Sukumar (M. Sc. IIT Kanpur; Ph.D. Stony Brook) is a chemist, fine art photographer, and wilderness enthusiast, who has spent half his life in India and half in USA. He heads the Department of Chemistry and the Center for Informatics at SNU.


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