Requiem for a Dream
I started National Law School (hereinafter NLS or law school) when I was 17. I entered a college of 400 people (the LLMs and sundry researchers we deemed too irrelevant to measure) in a class of 80. I was told at the time that it was the most broad-based liberal arts program in the country. By a miracle, I left when I was 22, a year and some ago today. I left also with almost-80 people, but they were by no count the same 80.I know now that I was deceived, but only by a thin margin: India is not a country that trucks in the humanities. I found in law school standards both duplicitous and dangerous, as well as unkind to the likes of me. Even so, I can hardly deny that the average star in our firmament was obscenely bright; law school gathers oddities and outrages like so many moths to a flame. By the same counter, our douches are far douchier than your everyday college possesses, and far more of them exist than we will ever tell you.
A few years ago, two friends and I, tipsy on terrace-wine, postulated the existence of magic batches in law school, the batches that Shook Things Up. These batches come around every four years, we said, and ours was (naturally) the latest incarnation. I have very hazy memories of the reasons justifying this periodicity (almost certainly hokum) but to prove this was not a vanity project, we allocated the most dubious of credits to ourselves: as a batch, we had shed more batch-mates than any previously or (at the time) since. We were also the most enthused of.. intoxicants, but hush.
With that, onward and ho.
Cartoons courtesy Steve Brodner.
A note on law school failure
The NLS system involves taking 4 courses every trimester: 12 in the course of an academic year. ‘Passing’ in law school implies acquiring a ‘B’ grade, or 50-55/100 in the given subject. The highest grade, ‘O’ , involves scoring above 70 in the given subject. The 100 mark evaluation is broken down into project-viva marks (35), examination marks (60) and attendance marks (5).
Upon failure to reach the 50% cut-off, one is allowed a ‘repeat’ examination during the holidays between trimesters, making internships more difficult to sustain, vital though they are to one’s career. There is no provision to resubmit projects and thus raise one’s score, and creative teachers usually find those 35 marks the more effective way to regulate their students. A project-total of less than 15 spells doom for the best examinee. The highest exam marks awarded in NLS range in the mid-40s.
The schedule is this: two projects each month for the first two months of term, finals at the close; and, in the early years, midterms. Only in the final year could the exam be suspended at the teacher’s discretion in favour of ‘research’.
Passing is further contingent upon minimum 75% attendance, in the absence of which one fails automatically, without repeat reprieve. Medical leave entitles one to a further 10%. This latter failed state, also applicable to those who fail to make it up to 50 post-repeat, is known as a “carryover”. People are allowed three carryovers per year which they must make up in the following; if they gather more they are trickled down one batch. The same result obtains upon repeat-failing any single carryover (i.e. one can’t carry over a carryover).
The onerous attendance requirement is what makes a difficult schedule a punishing one, and stacks the cards against people with irregular timetables. Missing a month of class can, and does, tank a full year of exemplary behaviour. An alarming, and growing, statistic in law school is the number of people who “lose” more than one year (this is an intuitive claim with no research except for observation). Consequently, any batch in law school is a hardy, backstabbing band that travels together; a herd of folk continually trimmed of the weak, the exhausted, the unlucky, replaced by similarly worn seniors.
The one thing mildly interesting about academic life in national law school is project writing. Teaching is a shambles and course material is apportioned by an administration as fussy as a matron slick with illicit candy. Grading is, well, a joke. I was memorably failed in my final year because the teacher disapproved of my describing, in a paper on ‘transitional justice’, what the given society (Lebanon) was transitioning between and questioning how ‘transitions’ are measured and determined. But the papers rescued the education for me: every trimester, I found myself a canvas or two that threw up absorbing problems. Every so often, I was granted the rare clutch of three, and once, remarkably, four. Apart from teaching me a few things about research, the discipline provided a rhythm to my thought that my anarchic reading sorely lacked. On a reread of five years of slush, I find that I doubled back time and again, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes to score an easy 1000 words. Some themes-culpability, choice, communalism, flexibility, freedom, gender- echo across the years. ‘Justice’ I consulted never once.
A project begins when one is handed a ‘topic’- a phrase, a concept, a thought, a movement- and allowed as free rein as teacher and imagination allow. The usual project is about 5000 words, though beefy prospects impress teachers and butchers alike. Mine struggled valiantly to this goalpost, often flagging off at 4500 words, though they soar majestically on occasion. My last seminar paper sailed on for 15000 words of utter chaos.
The principle I followed in my monthly turnings-in was to find one thing interesting to read about and then jargon it up. Many projects, especially towards the close of law school life, were undertaken as psychological exercises- overblown diary entries- which is how I wound up with a seminar paper that was a manifesto and a tax paper about criminal jurisprudence.
I began college somewhat conservative (well, Palin is pushing it rather, on abortion I was always unwavering) and ended up somewhat radical. Such labels are useless for any practical purposes anyway- we are each of us a bag of causes, every one as winged and unhinged as the next. I might mock my stupidity as much as my cupidity today, but the wariness of conservatism will always remain.
I was angsty-miserable for most of that year, and quite happy to take things at face value, chomsky-inspired chunks in my first politics paper notwithstanding (they send stilettos as aid to Africa!). It is hard to observe the world accurately while obsessed with one’s navel. Unfortunately, setting the tone for my many mistakes, I botched my paper for the one true academic I faced all year, in Sociology I. Incoherent he might have been in class, but shabby Kannan had an astute eye for concepts. Sadly, personal obsessions led me down the path of ‘researching’ divorce, and the project is little more than poorly veiled rant.
Interesting projects this first year included two economics papers, one in which I deployed game theory to prove the WTO’s ‘rational’ bias for the first world. This was an insinuation that did not sit well with my professor, and I had somewhat liberally construed our ‘consultation’ while defining the contours of my paper. In a portent of things to come, I was skewered alongside half my batch. I didn’t recognise this at the time, of course, when such ill-considered pugnacity and intellectual blinkers baffled me. Having grown up a professor’s child and taught that academia was all about opening up one’s mind, I was sure that college was all that school could not be for lonesome me; yet here I was, facing men with portentous accents and popping veins.
The most profitable paper I wrote this year was probably for History I. It was little more than an appraisal of Collingwood and Jenkins, in response to the vast topic I was assigned — the history of western historiography (no really). Lost in a welter of detail and sect, I chose my lodestones, and my encounter left me utterly shaken. That, with my sociology II paper (on gender in literature) was the closest I came to a true education all year, unless one includes learning by painful experience how to plot the high/hangover ratio for most vices. They were incredibly clumsy papers; if you ever want to see me squirm, bring them up. But they taught me invaluable lessons, introduced me to new words and worlds, and the latter initiated my passionate affair with Said.
This was my best academic year, though it left me a carryover amongst its detritus. How I got that carryover is a long tale, but in precis: I detest constitutional law (vague frippery that devours a million pages) and I had a spell of jaundice. Moving on, the year was rich in a way that no later year would be: I might have been a better writer and subtler thinker in my fourth year (ha), but this was the last year with humanities in the curriculum. It was in my second and third politics courses that I first met postmodernism and cultural studies, while history II brought me to my long tango with communalism, the subaltern school, and the recognition that marxism was reconfigured alongside liberalism within the very heart of post-everything thought.
Even my law papers from this year display uncharacteristic latitude. We had teachers who took risks and rewarded the well considered leap of imagination. In family law, I studied incest in kinda-foucauldian sorta-anthropological terms; while my juris professor allowed me a foray into anarchism. Sadly, it was of the far right libertarian variety, which killed my enthusiasm for the stuff till I read the marvellous Spain essay in American Power and the New Mandarins last year. Easily the most ambitious of all was my two-trimester chase of choice, cause, and predisposition in criminal law. Criminal law was the best taught core course during my tenure at law school, and the inventive professor allowed his students to pursue whimsy as long as they could demonstrate effort. I wrote my first crim. paper on genetics and the choices it could demand of future criminal legislation, the second upon the impact a proven predisposition to violence might have upon a partial defence of “diminished responsibility” to murder.
Third year was once the most feared year of law school, courtesy two institutions. One was a rule that forbade students to carry over any subjects to fourth year, with default year loss in its stead. This terminal clause was discarded on popular protest during my second year, one of the few successes of student action in my time. It was stupendous, to be honest, that the brutal rule was pulled down, considering the timid and terrified student body, which huffed and puffed but got nary a house to fall. The decision was likely damage control by the powers-that-be to stem the growing tide of vagrants lost between batches. Anyway, the upshot was my class was the first mercifully unscathed by the rule.
The second stumbling block of the year was the legendary Shankara and his dreaded DPC (Drafting, Pleading, and Conveyancing) which had an epic exam and no project. Shankara was the most upstanding human being a louche like I is likely to meet. He played no favorites and took no hostages, but this only meant he was uniformly strict and DPC would be an unremitting nightmare of swot with the gentlest of men. He also taught two courses on Civil Procedure; we were spared one (I forget why) and had the pleasure of a quixotic prof whose passion for theory ensured we studied the philosophy of procedure and norm-creation, form and substance, for far longer than the dull procedural code. This did not serve us well in the later Shankara courses- it is hard to draft a plea when your memory of the first half of the civil code is semiotic theory and you’ve been taught the criminal code across three weeks of workshopping (another long story). For my purposes, though, it was a godsend.
My paper in that course was an attempt to distill the strangely upside down version of the law he had introduced to me, a reversal that grabbed all my barely-there opinions about legal systems and tossed them out the classroom window. It was a paper I had fun writing, and fun presenting, the only time that would happen in all of that tedious year. I also had fun writing my first corporate law paper, where I finally thrashed out my fascination with legal economics, proving to myself that the two systems were rendered fatuous by combination. I dissolved into a pool of misery while presenting, plaintively begging for questions to rescue me and focus my flailing brain, living out my worst public speaking nightmare (and I have plenty of those).
There were other interesting papers in third year: Criminal Procedure (Plea Bargaining) and Human Rights (Affirmative Action); yet my overwhelming memory from that year is dearly beloved Quirk, the magazine I let die. Quirk was a novel attempt within an institution so obsessed of the resume: a vast, chaotic literary collective that published a newsletter semi-regularly amidst all its bickering. It began in my first year, and while it was far too diffuse an institution to provide any careerist credit, we all knew there was one person who ran the whole show, who brought every issue together despite the incessant clamour. When he left, it fell to me to carry on the fragile organ, a task at which I proved intensely inept. This happened not by any grand means of legacy or election: I was the one person with the magic triumvirate of time, seniority (of sorts) and inclination. For third year is mooting year in law school, and most comrades were off conquering legal bastions I found only obtuse.
Partially, the misfit was temperamental: I am neither tactful (had you noticed?) nor sociable. I relied too much on a small circle of very busy people and brought down the work with the weight of my dreams. Quirk occupied every spare moment in a chaotic trimester, my first and only with five subjects: a terrible experience that shored up the never-again refrain during moments of repeat-misery later on. In my haste and naivete, I confronted people and situations best left alone. I fell, bewildered and headlong, into a relationship that turned up, fully formed, one unexpected morning. This last was the most disconcerting of all in that strange-straw trimester: I was out of one tangle and tentatively in another when I found myself caught up with a third. At the heart of the bathetic betrayal, however, was the harsh fact that I lacked the capacity to match my ambition- I didn’t measure up. I couldn’t balance law school, life, and quirk; to my selfish remorse, it was Quirk that gave. I managed to put out one issue, but overwhelmed and exhausted, she died and was never revived.
I have had more repeats than I care to count since that fatal trimester, but my failure at Quirk was the most shattering of them all.
Fourth year in law school was my most contrarian. Positivist profs provoked my obduracy, for I seem to have picked all the militant ones for my brand of hypo-theory, where I play jingle jangle juris with the most inoffensive subjects. In IPR, I dangled a media commons within the framework of a legal system content with private property for tangible goods. In International Law I argued against a formal/constitutional World Order (jus cogens, in lingua-IL). Worst of all was Tax Law I, where I followed the old choice-trail by arguing that ignorance should be a defence to most criminal laws (especially, and here is the tenuous link, tax-crimes). This garnered for me the lowest marks I ever received on a paper (they usually kept me afloat): a total of 13/35. It was a wonder I slipped past that grizzled tyrant, the most unreasonable and petty since eco-guy back in first year. I duly offered up two repeats, and yet I left the tax law courses less burned than the folk who lost two years to the bastard. The batch after mine concertedly bullied him out of law school before he ruined more lives in a fit of cussedness. I had other interesting projects: equal work for equal pay; trade unions, offshore oil rigs; which I enjoyed researching, but the structural formula for the average project was so overpowering I had to scarp any leads that aroused my curiosity. The ultimate papers were as hollow as my memory of them.
By this time, after all, the Five Step Project (see below) was a metronome firmly embedded into my brain.This year was a continuous spiral for me academically, firming up the pattern of repeats that I had fallen into by late third year. It concluded with a grand flourish: four repeats that providence helped me scrape through . Some of this was laziness, some more boredom, and a lot of it was defeat. I have never been as consistently demoralised as I was in that penultimate year of college. What was exhaustion in third year was building into something concrete and defensive, and this was the year my suspicions of law school hardened into hostility. I knew my five years gave me something I ought to treasure: time, more than any Indian undergrad is allowed. (I know, I know, lawyers are postgrads. I can’t say I’ve ever felt like one) I resented law school for not providing the width of vision that might allow one constructive use of it. Now college was well near over, I had no idea where I was heading and didn’t look likely to find out.
Fifth year is the law school heaven, the destination dreams are directed after they die. The system is lax, the timetable is loose-limbed, the teachers unclench. You mostly pick your courses, which I used to steer clear of all but compulsory exams. It was the closest we ever came to creative license and I had a gala time. I wrote manifestos and submitted lists as final papers and got away with it (just barely). The seminar I failed was personal animus allowed to turn vicious by my brouhaha; the prof. claimed I baited her in class and my Lebanon paper was indubitably incendiary. It was, shall we say, easily failed but not badly conceived, a frying pan I courted across the span of my law school life. It is unlikely I ever roused myself sufficiently to follow the insipid discussions, but I s’pose I did give off the insufferable whiff of finding her vastly amusing (well, she was) and law school profs are incapable of grasping genuine mirth.
Minor inconveniences aside, like such repeats, where I was forced to recant and recast, the whale of a time was unabated. This is changing for the less fortunate, as I discovered to excruciating effect at the end of that happy, corpulent year: the authorities lay out a long rope and then collect on every minor offence. Personally insulated by good fortune and timing, I watched from the sidelines while someone I loved was battered for five months, playing out a cruel endgame for a long sought degree. It leached all the happiness out of fifth year, that final trimester and the tortured two months between the end of class and graduation, but it left some wisdom behind, for which I suspect I must be grateful.
But I digress and back to the paper trail we go. One trimester I spent obsessed with world politics, the next with Indian, and the last I attempted a botched synthesis. I wrote a glorious paper on MN Roy, perhaps the only fully formed argument I ever presented in law school. Even my compulsory ethics project was neatly constructed, only slightly frivolous, and (I think) well received. I consistently sucked at exams, and by the fag-end I simply ceased to give a fuck. The repeat was probably me presenting a fait accompli to the poor prof (the long suffering recipient of my first trip down anarchism alley). Some of my obduracy survived, and told in the poor reception of my magnum opus in the last trimester to one of the teachers to whom it was sent. The other was more graceful- perhaps she felt sorry for me and how determined I was to drone on when I was so obviously floundering.
I gave up, in my pathetic crusade, the chance to write for the most brilliant professor I had met yet in law school- who made of tax something exciting and revolutionary where dull confusion prevailed. It was the most foolish thing I did in a foolish career, swept along by the tide of my Idea, ignoring the best advice I was likely to find on building ideas. I had taken on her course, feminist taxation, as my third, though technically I needed only two course credits in my final trimester. This was my only trimester taught entirely by women, and it was a last hurrah for the books.
In fifth year, I felt engorged by the speed and skill of the voices buccaneering my brain: I learnt more each month than in the four years previously, my variegated obsessions brought to sharp focus. I liked to think of my will I/won’t I third subject as a mutually beneficial con: seminar courses needed six students to be credible (four to be feasible) and I wanted to ensure she had her say. In turn, I was piqued by the materials and goaded by a vague foreboding that law school might turn around and declare I had failed some long-ago seminar frozen in pre-result statis.
As it turned out, she did far more good to me than I did her by securing the motley crew. When the school informed me in the final two weeks that I was in the clear and would have to choose which credit I wanted on my transcript, I foolishly chose the one more pertinent to the paper I wanted to write most. I attended, ironically, every class of feminist taxation and read every handout, the only time I had ever managed the feat. (Ok, so that was only because there were six people in class and it is hard to hide behind chairs. But I did enjoy them far more than IL-palooza the rest of that final trimester was, and I would have attended class had I dropped the course before I did). I don’t regret the grade, though the course I chose nearly failed me, while tax-lady was encouraging when I was developing my proposed paper for her. Besides, she gave everyone else in class (all five of them) fabulous grades. All the same, I have failed plenty and the B is my greatest ally. I do regret, deeply, the lost chance of a conversation with someone who pierced, so late in the game, all the walls I built against the law school professor.
A List For Today
The Five Step Project.
- Defining the problem involved within the confines of the law being studied. This was a task I often found well-nigh impossible, and it jinxed any ‘writing career’ I might have had within law school (for a law review or thusly). I usually solved my dilemma by meta-blah or pedantic detail. My papers thus alternate between dime-store juris and raging debates about singular clauses.
- Indian statute and case law. Boring, Boring, Boring. Oh god how boring. It boils down to locating 20,000 cases that say effectively the same thing and parsing minute distinctions between them. Evolutionary biologists might be riveted. I found the advantage of meta-blah to be that you got to evade this stage.
- Why Indian law is wrong. This is easy enough; Indian statutes and judgements are weird hybrid freaks with more leaks than the Titanic. Worst case, you say bad enforcement, but you can usually count on the courts and Parliament to provide enough fodder for thirty papers. Thin, or lazy, papers are usually well padded up at this stage.
- Rhapsodies to Anglo-American law, defined and distinguished, narrowly confined by research question. In the process, you lose all sense of how it fits together, the flavour of the legal system, akin to missing the woods for the bark on a tree. I can tell you no more about the structure of American law than can wiki, but I can wax eloquent on how it deals with maritime misrepresentation.
- ‘Recommendations’- Follow Anglo-American law! Blindly! Heedlessly! Evolve!