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Fear and Trembling: Ashoka and its Many, Many Epidemics

By Siya Sharma (UG ‘23)

As the second half of our much beloved, smog-choked monsoon smog typhoon of a monsoon semester rears its ugly head – it’s all too easy to mistake that vague 10 AM nausea and a debilitating migraine for ever-familiar academic anxiety. More likely than not, it isn’t. You’d best believe there is a veritable assortment of ambiguous sicknesses festering in the heinously high AQI, and raring to go. God knows we’ve all been burned once already – be it the native Ashokan food poisoning, some dubious flu variant conceived in Satan’s own windpipe, or if you’re especially fortunate, an obscure foot fungus (let this serve as your daily reminder to invest in thick-soled, stalwart rubber slippers to brave those shower floors, huh?) Haul together a campus-wide infestation of creepy-crawlies (which have generationally evolved to resist the righteous avenging power of fumigation), suspicious pools of stagnant unidentifiable liquids of varying hues, and pollution that could reasonably justify your smoking habit (what’s one cigarette when breathing this air is like smoking four a day?), and you’ve got wrought a nuclear reactor fire of disease that will leave nothing but the unconquerable Fuel zone fruit flies standing.

Campus isn’t big enough to offset its own (prodigious) capacity for contagion. With the recent influx of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshmen, our little microcosm’s population density ranges from one-square-foot-of-personal-space to academic-block-elevator-after-lunch-someone’s-hot-breath-is-burning-my-neck proportions. We’ve all suffered firsthand the nasal congestion and soaring fever that swept the campus about two weeks before midterm break – I, personally, don’t know anyone who didn’t come down with it. Round two looks promising – come November, Ashoka’s run-of-the-mill symphony of suppressed coughing is once again ringing out in the middle of classes spanning all departments and buildings. It’s all fun and games until you’re holding onto life solely through a refined cocktail of antihistamines, anti-inflammatory medication, and Fuelzone masala chai. The Ashokan academic rigor and our all-consuming smog form an amalgam that produces such a heightened susceptibility to illness that it is a biochemical marvel and a half–but that’s neither here nor there. As we batten down the hatches for this second wind, it might be worth exploring how this onslaught of ailments comes to be, and why it’s attacking us with renewed vigor this semester in particular.

Monsoon and fall each come with their sui generis seasonal flus – each strain curiously self-perpetuating. If you were to labor under the misperception that contracting the monsoon variant would inoculate you from the fall variant, you’ve got another thing coming. It isn’t the biological plausibility of contracting two excruciating (worse, inconvenient) illnesses within two to three weeks of each other that I’m calling into question, here – it’s the unprecedented scale at which it sweeps our campus. Attendance policies, so help me God, certainly do not help – three excused absences a semester that you have to cash in this early? What on Earth are you going to do, come finals week, when you inevitably have 6 submissions and not as many hours on your hands? The best you’ll wrangle out of your professors in the way of relaxed attendance limits is a perfunctory “Take care, get well soon! You have three absences for the semester, so don’t worry about it!”, which is just code for “Sucks to be you, kid. I’m not budging on this.” If (and honestly, when) you’re sick for a week twice a semester, you’re already over the limit. You’re skimping on a weighty participation grade, in the same breath. The crippling salvo of disease you had nothing to do with is now holding you academically hostage and demanding the loftiest ransom – having to show up for not one, but all your classes. I don’t want to live in that world. Jokes aside, students across campus are hauling themselves out of their sickbeds, and into academic buildings, where they will hack and mewl like a cellophane wrapper in a paper shredder. Quarantining, self-isolating has become impossible, given these stringent attendance policies, and living on campus alone necessitates entirely too much movement – to the mess, to get food, or to the laundry, for clean clothes. What’s the alternative? Going to the infirmary? Where they scarcely have six beds? Where they’re hopelessly short-staffed and haplessly overworked? Where they can’t administer an IV because you have “fragile veins”? Where they misdiagnose you with dengue when you have typhoid, or vice versa (despite there being conclusive blood tests for both these diseases)? Chance would be a fine thing. Enough has been said about the mess/TKS food for me to justifiably forgo writing about the appalling hygiene situation there, but honestly, don’t get me started. Now envision hordes of students falling over one another, cramped into a mess that is entirely too tiny to accommodate this many mouths to feed, practically lapping up each other’s bacteria. Is your throat itching yet?

The beginning of the monsoon semester bore witness to untenable levels of short-staffing in the residential halls, owing to which sanitation and hygiene took a major hit. As an RH-5 resident personally, I well and truly believe that I’ve developed an instinctual need to retch whenever I’m within five feet of any bathroom, ever. The first three weeks of this semester have inculcated in me the reflexive urge to dry-heave, because of the horrors I’ve beheld in the lavatory. How one sad, little bathroom stall can render in a full-grown adult such abject terror is between Ashoka and God. Ashoka has chosen to hold its resources, residentially and spatially, constant, in the face of a rapidly proliferating student body under its care – batch sizes are growing, but the resources in hand aren’t growing proportionally. Naturally, part of the issue at hand here is that Ashoka’s residential staff is woefully deficient when proportioned against a student body that is already larger than it can bear – and only growing bigger. But perhaps the more insidious, seedy underbelly to this is the sheer self-importance it takes to expect someone to be cleaning up after you all the time – why you would choose to make a mess of your own creation someone else’s problem is a question of entitlement and privilege both . Of course, there is only so much you can do, but every little bit counts. I cannot count the number of times I’ve happened upon a foul, frightful mess that completely eludes my comprehension – whether it be in the bathroom, the pantry, or right out in the open. These are shared spaces – they represent collective duty and responsibility as much as they represent a communal life. We owe something to one another, and more importantly, to the people who are generous enough to take painstaking ministrations to tidy our messes. They’re tired, and overworked, and yes, while that is an institutional problem of understaffing and therefore Ashoka’s fault, it’s our fault, too. Ashoka doesn’t exactly exist independently of us – we comprise it, too. In part. But a significant part. We aren’t helpless, and we can do our bit, however miniscule it may seem.

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