Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Letters from Portugal: Lisboa in Ragtime

The month of September, that marks the beginning of the school year in Portugal, brings with it a costume change to the capital. It is as if the denizens of Rowling’s wizarding world have shed their inhibitions and have decided to walk openly among the mud-bloods; as if it were Lord Voldemort who had won the great battle and not Harry Potter. The reason for the costume change however is more prosaic, though given the associations with a kind of torture that this costume change accompanies, the Voldemort reference may not be entirely misplaced.

The costume change is effected by senior students in graduate courses, dressing in antiquated styles. The dress or traje includes trousers, waist-coat and a long jacket for me, and stockings, skirt, waist-coat and jacket for women, all of this in black, except for their shirt that is white. Above all of this, these students wrap a cape, once again black, that is either worn on one’s shoulders (and this is what really makes them look wizardly) or folded smartly over their forearm or shoulder.

The purpose of this dressing up is not linked to any curricular requirements. It is not a uniform that one must necessarily wear to attend a lecture. The purpose of this dress seems largely to enable one to mark oneself off from the caloiros, students who have recently joined the university, those we South Asia would call ‘freshers’. The point of this costume change then is extra-curricular, to facilitate what the Portuguese call Praxe and what South Asians would call ‘ragging’.

The change of dress may not be necessary to participate in praxe, but it does provide the senior students with a spectacular advantage, as dressed in their antiquated garb they line the freshers up and subject them to ridiculous, and sometimes unwelcome, tasks. As is ragging in South Asia, similarly in Portugal, praxe is the subject of some debate, many holding that the practice is quite undesirable, given the excesses that it can sometimes lead to. One of my first encounters with praxe, was graffiti on the walls of a university building that eloquently screamed, ‘Praxe Não!’ Others however, hold the usual defense for the practice, it allows for fresh entrants into the university system, a forge new bonds, not only with their fellow oppressed juniors, but also with the seniors who enjoy the brief opportunity to humiliate them. In addition to this, a part of the praxe tradition seems to be the allocations of a padrinho or god-parent, who walks the caloiro through the intricacies of life in university in the first couple of weeks. It is pointed out that very often, these students are persons who have only recently come into Lisbon from the rural areas from across the country, and this is a fine way to counter the anonymity they may experience. Indeed, all too often one sees the complete abandon with which some students participate in being praxe-d (?).

There are moments when one can has to marvel at the ingenuity of the senior students who devise the routines for the juniors. There was this one memorable routine whose theme seemed to be ‘Under the Sea’. Some of the caloiros were provided with flippers and scuba-diving gear, others made to hold up little fish motifs and wait by the traffic lights. As long as the pedestrian light was green, these students were made to ‘swim’ back and forth across either bank of the road, providing much mirth to the persons in vehicles awaiting their own green light.

Such acts of transgression of boundaries, from outside of the university or institute campus into the city, at traffic lights, metro stations, side-walks in the city present a stimuli that can be variously received. On the one hand it can be most annoying to have one’s travelling meditations interrupted by quite literally a horde of students, whistling, chanting, being screamed at, jumping all in unison inside the metro carriage. On the other hand however, there is something uniquely liberatory about using, and being able to use, the city as a stage on which to act out one’s ridiculous dramas. One imagines that this sort of spilling over goes that much further to also making the praxe these students engage in that much safer, than when hidden away in the dark corners of an institutional campus.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo 18 Sept 2011)

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