Radical Objects

Radical Object: A Colonial Schoolboy’s Report Card

In 1946, Zamorin’s College in the city of Calicut in Southern India issued a report card to a young man named in the document as Vengalil R. Gopala Menon. All his life, colleagues and friends would call him by an abbreviation of this official name: VRG. The name follows a standard form for upper-caste men from Kerala. Vengalil is the name of the house or tharavadu to which he belonged; R, standing for ‘Raman’ is his father’s name, and Gopalan his given name, followed by his caste, Menon. This, however, was not the name by which his family knew him. They called him Venu, short for Venugopalan, his real given name, only part of which made it into the colonial record. I know all this because to me, this man of many names was Muthachchan – grandfather – a word much too big for my sister’s and my anglicised toddler tongues. So, we shortened it, visiting on him yet another (post)colonial invention: we called him Moo.

Moo passed away in 2017 after a long and quite colourful life. Two years later, his daughter Molly, my mother, gave me this report card. It had lived for decades in his rosewood wardrobe in a threadbare envelope along with a character certificate and a typing qualification also from 1946. The report card travelled with Moo from Calicut in the late 1940s, when he got a job in the Indian Railways. It stayed intact through at least six moves with my Ammamma (grandmother), and their three children to different cities in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. When Moo retired in 1988, the report card came with him to the small town of Cuddalore near Pondicherry. It then travelled to Chennai where the Menon grandparents moved in 2001, and it stayed there for a little over eighteen years. In 2011, an ID card for a computer literacy course joined the contents of the envelope. In January 2020, two and a half years after its custodian had passed on, I brought this record of my grandfather’s education to Oxford with me.

VRG’s report card

Educational credentials like report cards are quintessentially colonial documents. They are proofs of age and name for many – like Moo – who do not possess birth certificates. They also accord cultural capital, and shape social mobility through association with colonial institutions. Historically, scholars have shown that upper-caste Indians – like my grandfather’s family – sought to establish themselves as a professional middle-class in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, through education in schools established by the Colonial government and Missionary Societies. Simultaneously, the report-card suggests geographies of attachment that reveal the incapacity of colonial archives to encompass the subjectivities of their subjects.

Venugopalan began his school education at St Aloysius’s School in Vishakhapattinam on the East Coast of Southern India, moving subsequently to Calvé College in Pondicherry. His father, Raman Menon, worked for a shipping company and the family moved as the job required. Venugopalan’s education was in keeping with the family’s caste status and class ambitions. It was entirely in English, and its goal was to enable him to study at one of the British Indian State’s new public universities and enter the ranks of the Colonial bureaucracy. Zamorin’s College, where Venugopalan enrolled in the First Form in 1940, was to be the final step towards this.

Venugopalan’s report card from Zamorin’s College, is in many ways typical. It records and classifies development within a colonial episteme, confirming what other sources – such as missionaries’ reports, memoirs and school publications – tell us about colonial education. The curriculum prized reading and writing in English, over skills in regional language recitation and literature that had been central to early Modern education in Southern India. For each year, the state of Venugopalan’s handwriting is recorded. In the Fourth Form, we learn that his writing is ‘neat and well featured’; in the fifth and sixth, it is ‘fairly good’. The report card also participated in a biopolitical regime, recording bodily changes, and associating physical development with the attainment of both adulthood and binary gendered subjectivity. It also maps emotional development onto physical growth, specifying comments on the student’s ‘play habits’, ‘health habits’ and ‘sportsmanship habits’. Venugopalan is judged in the Fourth Form as having been ‘obedient and well disciplined.’ In the Fifth Form, he is ‘a perfect gentleman in play’ and in the sixth, he ‘respects the rules of games.’ The report card shows also that physical abilities were judged by gender, with boys performing running and jumping tasks, while girls were asked to hop and skip. Finally, Venugopalan’s height, weight and chest measurements are recorded each year, showing progressive physical development. These measuring exercises at school – which persisted into postcolonial India – were a key site for the institution of normative physical standards about the healthy modern body.

A leaf insert – the Transfer Certificate, issued in March 1947 – records the most significant detail of this school record, and Venugopalan’s eventual great shame: his failure in the Junior Intermediate Class examinations, for which he read Physics, Chemistry and the Natural Sciences. The record is prosaic simply noting ‘No’ in the column that asks if the student has qualified for promotion to a higher class. It is the anticlimactic end to a project of colonial ambition: one that would profoundly impact the man that I knew as Moo.

Though I never saw the report card while Moo was alive, it shadowed our life. It often came up in his story of why he never progressed to Officer status in the Southern Railway, where worked for four decades. It was the undercurrent in Moo’s defensiveness about the family’s economic struggles for many years, even as they never lacked for social connections. It was also a source of personal embarrassment to Moo, who was otherwise widely read and keen to take on friends and neighbours in theological, literary and political debates. The fact that his wife had done exceptionally well in her own high school examinations at nearby Providence Convent in Calicut, also chafed at him.

In 2011, Moo told a Census taker that he had a BA in English Literature: assuming in his eighties, the qualification he wanted to have. The interviewer asked for no proof, and his educational attainment was recorded as such. For the historian, this act of lying to the Census taker is profoundly subversive: unsettling the certitude of a key tool of colonial knowledge production. However, the conditions under which this act occurred tell us something about the significance of caste and class habitus to the social legitimacy of educational credentials in India. As an upper-caste man, living in a middle-class urban neighbourhood, Moo was not questioned on his false claim. On the other hand, Dalit and Adivasi graduates of universities are routinely treated with suspicion on the legitimacy of their educational qualifications. That same year, Moo also enrolled for a course in basic computer science. His inability to use the laptop and iPad his children had given to him and my Ammamma – which she used with ease to his annoyance – had opened the wound of his exam failure decades before. The infamous exam failure also featured in increasingly colourful stories that Moo told about his childhood, of whose certitude he himself was unsure in his later years. A particularly striking one has to do with a girl he had met around that time. Moo liked to say he paid very little attention in class that final year at school, as he spent all his time trying to sketch her face in his notebook.

Apocryphal stories and outright falsehoods that circulate in family lore and memory are indicative of attachments to particular forms of selfhood: in this case, that of a successful subject of colonial education. They jostle in the historical record, with the mistakes in recording that are prolific through the colonial archive. The report card’s failure to record his name correctly here finds resonance in Moo’s refusal of its authority. Indeed, the report card had another major error: it wrongly recorded Moo’s birthday as the 27th of May 1930. The story goes that young Venu, the sixth of nine children was taken to school on his first day by an older brother, who simply did not know his younger sibling’s real birthday: the 19th of April 1929. So, Moo was always officially a year younger than he really was. And ironically, the document that stood as proof of his name and birthday got neither correct.

VRG Menon spent a lifetime haunted by the power of this report card and attempting to use other forms of capital he had to compensate for it. But Venu – Moo – also dwelled in a world where the report card’s errors became a running joke, and, its incapacity to tell a full story, a site where the porosities in colonial authority were always evident.

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