Practical lesson in law

An individual answering the roll call for up to three absentees was common.

Sixty years ago, I was studying first year in Law College, in the then Madras. College life was extremely informal and students’ approach to classes, at best, was laid back.

Attendance in class rarely crossed 25 per cent. An individual answering the roll call for up to three absentees was common, the authorities (barring the vice-principal occasionally) would turn a blind eye.

One person from outside Madras, whom I knew, returned to his native town after admission, to show up again only to pay the fees and get hall tickets for the examinations. None the worse for it, he had a long and lucrative legal practice afterwards! Barring the principal and vice-principal, who held full time appointments, the remaining teaching staff, who were part-time lecturers, taking time off  their profession as lawyers in the High Court next door, never looked up to see who answered the call. Nor were they bothered about the large number of empty seats. The principal’s and vice-principal’s classes were, however, near-full.

In the high-ceiling classroom of the stately building, rows of seats rising one behind the other in a gallery format, were held up by an elaborate wooden framework. There were three doorways opening into the corridor on one side, directly providing access to three rows each by climbing up the woodwork, instead of entering from the front in the full view of the lecturer. The principal never took roll call. The vice-principal occasionally skipped the call, announcing, not without a touch of humour, “Gentlemen in the corridor, I am not taking attendance,” upon which those waiting outside would walk away. If, instead, he started taking attendance, the woodwork resounded with the din of incoming footsteps pounding on it!

Even the vice-principal’s classes were not free from the proxy disease! I was once nearly caught red-handed. In our group of five boys, my name was fourth in the attendance roll. Normally, one of the other four would mark attendance for me as I was always late. The routine was to have a cup of coffee in a hotel across the road, followed by endless games of table tennis on the YMCA table till it was time to go home. But that day, for some reason, it fell to my lot to give attendance for all five. I could hear my heart beat as I braced for the task.

The first four calls including mine went off smoothly. At the fifth, the vice-principal called out a second time. I responded. Still suspicious, he ordered ‘Will Mr Subramanyam stand up?’ As I stood up, myriad thoughts rushed to mind. He had seen me once with my father whom he knew. If he remembered that meeting and called up father to report my cheating or, worse, rusticated me straightaway, where would I hide my face in shame? How would father, known for his integrity, feel?

After a few excruciating moments that seemed an eternity, the vice-principal moved on to the next name. Shaken badly, I swore to myself, “Never again!”

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