Professor Sarasu Esther Thomas, well known for her incredibly popular Family Law course, has the unique distinction of doing her LLB, LLM, and Ph.D. from NLS.
Beneath her soft-spoken demeanour, she hides a biting sense of humor which has largely contributed to the success of the Facebook page, ‘Heard in Law School’.
The interview was first published on Quirk on February 15, 2016.
Law School has gone through many changes since you’ve been here. What strikes you as most peculiar between now and then?
Probably the first is the campus because we moved from Central College to here. The others include growth of research centers which we did not have in the old campus. We had only CWL and LSC (which at that time was a research center). And the third is the more recent one, being the way a lot of decisions are made.
Earlier, it would be the entire community deciding. Even for a fee hike, you’d have the students, the teachers, the administration. Everyone would be a part of that discussion. Now that system is not there. These might not be the biggest but these are the three that come to mind.
Why did you choose to pursue your LLM and PhD here after your LLB? Especially since most LLBs here choose to go outside not just Law School but the country as well.
The thing is we needed teachers at that time. And though I did get admission elsewhere, Prof Menon felt that it was better that I stayed and studied here. Because we were really shorthanded at that time.
So I was doing my LLM and teaching simultaneously. I assisted Prof. Pillai in Corporate Law and taught Family Law. I was also the warden and faculty advisor to the SBA. I was also the internship coordinator. I would be working till 1:30 every night. (laughs).
Why did you decide to pick up teaching rather than the usual law school path of going to a firm, and why did choose to teach Family Law in particular?
Actually I liked Family Law and Corporate Law, to be very frank. So I started teaching both of them. But I always found Family Law more interesting, because Corporate Law didn’t really change from year to year. And Family Law was challenging to teach. Part of it was codified, part of it was uncodified. That was the challenging part.
I had never thought of teaching when I was in Law School. But I remember when I was in my third year, some of my teachers, that is Prof. Menon, who was the director at that time, Prof. Mitra, Prof. Vijaykumar, and a few others actually asked me together. They called me to the faculty room. All of them were there.
So first I thought I had done something wrong and then they asked me if I would consider teaching. But at that time I wanted to give the civil services one shot because I had promised my grandparents. So I said I’ll do that as soon as I write the exam.
So once I did give it a shot, I came back and spoke to Dr. Menon, and he said to come back and teach. So I joined back. It was in the third year that I actually thought about it. They said that I would make a very good teacher so why don’t I consider it. So then I did.
So the teachers were actively encouraging people to take up teaching?
I think so. I think they really wanted to have teachers to come or former students to come and teach. They approached two others but I don’t think they took up teaching. I’m not sure.
What is your favourite part of teaching here at Law School?
It would be taking class, I think. Especially when the class is in a good mood. I think the part I hate the most is the evaluation. Which any teacher will tell you, I think. But, apart from teaching, I also enjoy the research that we do and working on research issues, finding funding and all. It is very challenging.
We’ve always heard that student-faculty interaction used to be very different in the past. How has it changed over the years? Has it changed over the years?
Actually, Law School was so far away from everything else that we didn’t have any choice but to interact with each other, I think. But we had many events on campus and the events were always well-attended. So even if there was dinner in the hostel, everyone would come.
Or when there was a dandiya celebration, even Prof. Menon used to dance and do the dandiya. You don’t see those things happening now. We also used to probably talk more, but that’s not as important now because people are so much more connected to their school friends and everyone else that there are too many people for them to be in touch with.
So yeah, we were more close in many ways, I think, which does not happen now, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just reflective of the way that the world is today. We used to go on picnics together and fun stuff like that.
When did this shift start happening? When did it start happening that college events like Univ Week had only students?
I think it was gradual. Because earlier Univ Week used to be not just the students and teachers but also the administrative staff, their families, the teachers’ families, students’ families that were in Bangalore. It was more like a family thing. And I think it started changing because it kept being scheduled later and later.
When I was the SBA Faculty Advisor I insisted that it be in the afternoon, or evening so that administrative staff could attend but I don’t know how it is now. And also we sent out the invitation well in advance so that people could plan.
Now it’s like the day before, if you’re lucky. Or sometimes the day of the dinner, and we don’t even check the mail so regularly so we miss it. And the way that it used to be handled was we had more events on that day than committee reports so it made it more interesting.
Sometimes the team which won things would be asked to perform again so it was a really fun event. The best of the year kind of a thing. Which does not happen now, I think. It’s more of committee reports, and I’m sure they’re interesting to the committees, but it’s very boring for everyone else. The only fun events are things like quad parties which we didn’t have.
You didn’t have quad parties then?
We didn’t have quad parties, but we had hostel parties. Combined parties in the hostel. Things like that. In the mess. Not in the rooms. That was never allowed. But yeah. Even the New Year Party used to be on campus, obviously without alcohol and everything.
We didn’t have fifth years taking us to a farmhouse. We had a university party so everyone would come. Teachers would also come for that.
Currently, in Law School, mooting seems to be the prime activity people do. The most important things are mooting and debating. Was that always the case?
When I joined, you could join any committee you wanted because there was no limit and I remember the largest number of people from my batch opted to join the Legal Services Clinic. Two of us opted to join MCS and MCS then was all of four people. I was a good mooter. But I stopped after the third year.
So people said I wouldn’t get the medal and all but I didn’t really care. But the thing is that we put in a lot of effort to popularize mooting at that point of time, which is why it is popular and sometimes I’m not sure if we did the right thing.
I mean, I was enthusiastic about mooting, so I thought everyone else should be as well. But it wasn’t such a big deal. I mean, it was very hard to get people to moot and compete and get teams to go. But we did well in the first few moots, so that’s what made a difference, I think.
Were a lot of the hostel rules ever enforced? Because there are some that were clearly never enforced. Was there ever a time when stuff like loitering, or people not being allowed to leave their hostels after 8 pm enforced?
For a long time we had just one hostel for the girls, I remember, and at night they used to lock the door. Because you should remember where Nagarbhavi was, in the middle of nowhere.
So at night, the door was locked and you could not leave even if you wanted to. Room check used to be in the rooms, going and seeing if all the students were there and it used to be carried on for everyone and not just first years. Because there was a concern about safety.
It would also happen in the boys’ hostel but I’m not sure if they followed rules with the same rigor. Some committees did, and some didn’t. Of course, there were people who would find ways out.
That always happens. But I do remember that a bus used to come early in the morning and if we wanted to go, the hostel gate was closed so we used to just jump over the gate. And when Dr. Menon found out he was really angry. He came and blasted all the girls. But the thing is even though he did that we still used to jump over the gate. See, you had to catch the bus. So a lot of people did that.
It was the bus that would go to the city. There was one at 6 in the morning and the next was at 8:30 or later than that, actually. On the weekends. And there were no autos here, not even at the circle. And the buses weren’t very frequent.
Is there anything in Nagarbhavi right now that was there back then when you were studying here? Or is everything new?
I think Surya was there. And Amma’s was here opposite the gate. There was a person who used to run a chaat stall, but now he is there at the circle. He has a shop there now, and his cart is inside the shop. These people were there.
How did Seniors interact with juniors? Was there “positive interaction”?
They didn’t do anything. All the men tried to hit on all the women, which hasn’t changed. And things don’t change that much that drastically.
The seniors were always very nice. We were told at our interviews that ragging doesn’t happen. The parents weren’t really worried about ragging.
We did have a Talent Night kind of a thing, for the first years where everyone was forced to do something, regardless of if they had talent or not. We did not really have any positive interaction as we call it today.
What do you think of the expectations students have from college now that is has become famous and very well known?
You all have a better Family Law course, I can tell you that. (laughs) But it’s true. Now there are higher expectations of the students, that’s right. And the thing is that the teachers now are teaching fewer courses.
Earlier, some of them would teach two courses, or a group of three would teach two or three courses. That must have been hard for them. So definitely the expectations are different.
Do you see a difference in how students generally conduct themselves?
They are the same. I don’t think there’s any difference between then and now. I’ve been a student, so I know how people have fudged projects and everything. So it’s not something new that the present generation of students has discovered, as I keep telling my colleagues. Nor is romance new. So that’s the whole problem. Anything you look at, whether it’s drugs or sex or romance or whatever, I think earlier batches have been there, done that. So there’s really nothing new that you are doing. Sorry to say this.
That’s really good to know because we’re constantly told that we are a weird sort of generation.
That’s a judgement for other generations to make, right? My class was a small one. We had some 55 people and there are 9 couples who married each other in that batch. 18 people out of 55 who married each other and are still married. That couldn’t have happened without romance on campus.
Do you identify with the notion that people say that the standards of academics and research in Law School have reduced over the years?
I wouldn’t say it has reduced over the years but what has happened is that one thing we as teachers try to ensure is quality control. But the fact is that people have found ways of managing the system, getting grades which they don’t deserve. There’s this whole perception among teachers that people will go and get re-evaluations or whatever is available to them to change the marks and that may not be correct in every case.
All your rules which allow students to write old examinations again to get better grades is ridiculous. So anyone who can afford to pay and has some time off can work and get grades for something which the class finished some four years back.
But I think all these things started because students were having problems like I’m sure re-evaluation started because certain teachers were seen to be biased.
I have no problem with re-evaluation. The problem is when the person who is evaluating must be properly told what it is about. My papers are open book papers. The evaluators are not told it’s open book. They are just sent the papers and the key. I don’t know if they’re informed that is is open book, or even if they understand what it means.
I’ll have a higher standard. So there is a perception and I don’t think it’s only among teachers, but also alumni, which has led to this. Definitely the academic standards have fallen. There is no doubt about it. But that has happened only in the last few years. I don’t think it has been a constant.
Would you say the blame lies entirely with the students?
No, I don’t think so. But of course, if they can get an advantage for it you can’t blame them. But they ought to have the maturity to say no, one shouldn’t do this because it’s affecting the institution. Which we have not been able to do.
If there was a message you could give to students entering Law School, as an alumnus, not a professor, or as someone who has experienced student life here.
Oh god don’t make do this. I’d always tell students to work very hard, and not get stuck with watching movies on Shush or reading junk, but to interact with people and take part in as many activities as they can, because it’s just the only chance that they will get.
As the warden, what is your principle on rule enforcement?
I have to enforce the rules. You have to enforce the rules that have been given to you, and part of our rules are given to us by our executive council.
But I have been encouraging the SBA and the hostel committees to come up with a new set of rules that are acceptable. Completely radical rules won’t be acceptable, but bring something which shows that you have taken care of security issues which is what the EC is most concerned about.
Within that, we can have some way of taking those possible. There are also UGC rules, the no alcohol, no cigarettes anywhere in an academic institution. So those are things we can’t go against.
Has the student body’s role changed over the years? We have heard that the student body used to be more activist about things.
The student body is not a body anymore. In the sense that you all don’t really come together to do anything. It’s all either delegated to your representatives or most people don’t care. Earlier, people did. If anyone needed some fundraiser done, everyone would come together.
There was no question of not having a quorum at GBMs. Now you can’t have quorums at GBMs. There will be no political participation by students at any level. And also in terms of personal interaction. If somebody’s sick, hardly anyone goes to the hospital to see them.
Quirk is a Magazine run by an editorial team of a dozen undergraduate students of the National Law School of India University. We want Quirk to push the boundaries of discourse at NLS and the wider world around us by providing a platform for reasoned discussion on any matter of general importance. We hope that we can create a culture of incisive writing that asks pertinent questions about us, our institution, and the world around us and where we are all headed.
We had an idea of a magazine to examine the Law Schoolite and her take on world. We felt a great need to provide each other the space to engage in a meaningful and mature dialogue. All of us deeply discuss issues of concern within our small sub-communities, but there was no medium to enlarge their reach. Quirk hopes to be that medium where opinions are given to bring change, not stall them.