The Midnight Assemblies

“The night is dark and full of terrors” - Parents use phrases like these to put children to sleep and to curb their adorable natures and their inexhaustible reserves of energy, which enable them to run around, squealing in delight, until all hours of the night. On exiting childhood, most people discover the deception that their parents had engaged in. The second years living in the Nehru Hall at IIT Kharagpur had a remarkable experience: For them, the terrors returned and their parents were proved right. They were woken up at odd hours of the night, requested to demonstrate the skills they had learned in the common room and the dining hall and subject to a series of deranged meditations. These polite requests were unlike those that some might be accustomed to, as they were made by third-, fourth- and fifth-years who stood in the first-floor corridor and directed their voices downwards towards throngs of second-years who stood in neat rows on the playground. This was the final form that hazing at IIT Kharagpur, affectionately referred to by the euphemism, “Orientation Program”, or simply, O.P, assumed. I recount my experience of O.P. in this 4-part series. This is the fourth and final part, The Midnight Assemblies.

On a few days in September and October each year, a group of third years would go to the top floor of Nehru Hall at midnight and begin waking up all the second-years who lived there. An onlooker might ridicule these amateur explorers; why! Some might even go so far as to call them malevolent. Allow me to dispel that notion: They were not malevolent; in fact, their intentions were pure. They aimed to better the lives of the second years who had had the good fortune of being assigned to this particular hostel through education, education that the institution can’t (or won’t) provide.

A part of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty says that tired, poor and huddled masses yearn to breathe free. What about the masses who are already free? How can one awaken this yearning within them? These third-years had the answer: turn the free masses into tired, sleep-deprived and resentful masses, so that they might rediscover their freedom. Philosophers have oft-repeated that losing what you believe you are entitled to is the only way to understand it’s true value. Today, I go to sleep knowing that not a single deranged person out there can awaken me to serve a strange power trip. That expectation, which is taken for granted by most, was a luxury when I was in college.

On a night like this one, an unbiased observer would witness several third-year students walking with impunity through a floor full of sleeping second-years. The observer would see them banging loudly on doors and peering shamelessly through cracks in windows. The observer would notice them relishing their power and reveling in the authority that had been bestowed upon them by Nature1. They would be seen employing such innocuous strategies as entering uninvited into a room whose door had been left ajar, turning on the bright light or tapping sleepers on their shoulder in a not-totally-pleasant manner.

While the third-years performed their part in this exercise, they did not bother to hide their activities or “keep it down”. They feared no retribution. Unlike other hostels in India, the warden and the hall managers did not actually sleep in the hostel. They were probably asleep in their homes, dreaming about spending as little time as possible inside the hostel and ensuring that all of it was during the work-day2. The only remaining adults in the hostel at midnight were the security guards, tasked with keeping bad people out of the hostel. They did not have any responsibility for the activities of the people who were already in the hostel though, no matter how morally corrupt they were or could be.

The hostel’s security guards were curious adults nevertheless. As soon as they realized that what happened every year was happening this year as well, they would scurry around and make themselves scarce. This was due to a welling up of noble self-interest. “Do not meddle in that whose conclusion is unknown to you” were the words they repeated in prayer each night. No one knew how the night was going to turn out or where the activities might lead this year. So, it would be most unfortunate if one were not to have access to the vital weapon in the coward’s arsenal: Plausible deniability.

A strain of arbitrariness runs through this narrative: Why wake people up at midnight? Why not before? Why wake them up at all? What could be gotten from this deprivation of one’s own sleep and that of strangers who clearly wished to remain uneducated? The first 2 questions can be answered satisfactorily. While throughout the day, second-years went in and out of the hostel as they pleased, everyone returned to their rooms at night. Being used to sleeping in their own bed undisturbed, after a day full of activity, the second-years had underestimated the diligence of their preachers and tormentors, who would gladly give up a night of sleep, if it meant that they could get drunk on power.

After waking the second-years up, they would be lead down to the playground and asked to stand in neat rows. Once this part was complete, the third-years went about summoning the bishops who would deliver the day’s sermon. These consisted of some fourth- and fifth-years. The people who held the titles of “Hall President (HP)” and “Hall Vice President (VP)” were invariably present and jointly played the role of the Master of Ceremonies. These titles were lofty and meaningless to the real world, as the letters of the alphabet are meaningless to an infant. Nevertheless, the play-acting continued. An infant immensely enjoys playing with a building block in the shape of the letter A and fully grasps the meaning and purpose of that building block: gratification of her desire to have a good time. And so the person who called himself the “Hall President” believed that there was meaning in the title as it served his purpose: the realization of their fantasy of wielding power over people who would never voice their opinion and inconvenience him.

The first things that the bishops noticed were the minor misalignments in the assembly: someone who was not neatly lined up, someone else who was sleepy. They took pains to point the person out and put them in their place by extolling on the virtues of discipline. In this regard, they behaved like a drill sergeant who had said something incredibly stupid and was being teased by his subordinates. Feeling anger rise up in his throat, the drill sergeant is harsh with his subordinates for the next few days. It’s not a proportional revenge; it is the only thing he knows how to do. If the thought that he should try and not make a fool of himself in the future had entered his mind at all, he did not give it away.

After the assembly was perfect and everyone was in line, the bishops began their sermon. I am certain the reader will excuse me for not remembering the content due to the exceedingly drowsy state I found myself in during these occasions. As these were fifth-year students who had the time and willingness to preach from a first-floor balcony at 1 a.m., one can safely assume that the content was primarily non-academic. My faint memory does contain a few choice nuggets of knowledge, akin to the crude teachings of 20-minute TEDx talks. Admittedly, they will be of no value to competent adults who managed to stumble into a workplace with respectful coworkers.

I remember one astonishing detail clearly. A few of the sermons were blessed by the presence of an alumnus who used to live in this hostel: An adult who had returned from the real-world and was now standing at a balcony at 1 a.m., discoursing at 100s of second-years whom he felt an inexplicable connection with, despite being a complete stranger to them. “It doesn’t make any sense!”, some of you might be exclaiming. Well, I can only say that your passion for your living quarters did not match that of those who had returned back to IIT Kharagpur and were reliving their glorious college days, possibly wresting back the power they had held once-upon-a-time.

The sermon regularly lasted anywhere between an hour and 3 hours. It did eventually end, but the party was not over yet.

After this late-night / early-morning sermon, one of the rituals was a “Tempo Shout”. It involved the assembled sleep-deprived second-years getting together in a circle, getting ready to sing kumbaya and shouting things. With hoarse voices, a lot of resentment, little energy, and even less respect for the seniors gazing upon them wistfully from the first floor, these students shouted the things that they were told to shout. Even those participants who were determined to deal with everything that was happening as a mere joke, which they alone were in on, gave up and participated wholeheartedly.

Another post-sermon activity can be explained only through psychology, due to its puzzling nature and the warm reception it received among members of the congregation. After the sermon, the tormentors and the tormented walked to a dilapidated food stall at the entrance of the college arm-in-arm. This stall served food rich in carbohydrates (namely, Maggi). Seniors showed their magnanimity by buying these plates of food for the second years who had been up all night and could look forward to a wretched, sleep-deprived, confusing day, which was made better only by the knowledge that they had learned important life lessons which remained hidden from their well-rested friends who lived in other hostels.

With this, the priming process that began in the common room several weeks ago was finally complete. In 2014, O.P. at Nehru Hall was a resounding success.

Programming note: This is the fourth and final part of a 4-part series.

Post Date
The Curious Case of the Dweller Who Wouldn’t Move Out 10th May, 2021
The Sermon in the Common Room 11th May, 2021
Victorian-era Dining Hall Etiquette 12th May, 2021
The Midnight Assemblies 13th May, 2021

  1. For they were born 1 year before the second-years now being rudely awakened from their slumber. 

  2. The work-day for hostel workers in IIT Kharagpur began at 3 pm and ended at 5 pm.