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Mirchandani '15: The myth of the Brown bubble

By the time I came to Brown, I was not a child who took everything her parents said at face value; to their dismay, I never really was.

“See Ria, this would never happen in America,” my father would tell me when I was younger, fuming at a taxi driver who had just run a red light and almost knocked over the helmetless family of five crammed onto a single motorcycle. This is a regular scene in India, where people almost outnumber trees and where many men value women less than cows.

India is a country of paradoxes, and the contradictions of this developing nation are ingrained in its identity. Even my father — in my opinion, the most upright, law-abiding man in South Mumbai — can be called out for his hypocrisy. He’s the type of person who would happily write a fat check for a piece of art, even if his driver, a commoner, could have used the same money to purchase essentials for his family, such as a stove. And that family of five — they might have skimped on buying helmets in order to joyfully blow a month’s earnings on celebrating one of the many birthdays of the many gods they believe in. Growing up in this environment, the question I asked was not “is it right to bribe?” but rather “how much?”

This is India, my country, where the existence of a law is relative to the size of your bank account. It is a homeland I did not choose, but it is mine nonetheless.

But alma maters are not like home countries; we at Brown had some agency over where we went to college — as we darn well should have. We did, after all, spend hours perfecting standardized test scores, taking the hardest classes our schools had to offer and, for many, spending a large sum of our parents’ hard-earned dough to be here.

I knew that America, despite its noble founding values, had its share of red light runners and non-conformists — even on our very own Thayer Street. I did, however, have higher expectations for Brown.

Money talked at Brown long before we started placing the hashtag in front of it. With the recent date-rape drug and sexual assault cases resulting in sanctions for Phi Kappa Psi, many were once again reminded of money’s vocality. Despite growing up surrounded by shocking wealth disparity, I did not truly realize the full breadth of wealth’s purchasing capacity. At Brown, I realized that it could buy you the privilege of living off campus even during your sophomore year. It could get you invited to select professors’ homes to schmooze over potential ways in which your father could fund their research, as I’ve observed. And, as some have accused, it may get you the privilege of escaping hearings that others would be subjected to.

I bought my metaphorical one-way ticket to the United States in December 2012, after a 23-year-old girl was raped on a bus while returning home from an 8 p.m. movie one Sunday evening in New Delhi. She was with her male friend. Not to imply that any kind of rape is anything but savage, but the brutality of this incident goes beyond human imagination. The victim has since had 95 percent of her intestines removed as a result. It took hours for passers-by to finally assist the victim, who had been abandoned, naked, by the roadside. There were protests and nationwide uproar. It took days for politicians to finally pass a statement and months for the trial to get underway.

It was my fault for thinking that, in light of the inhumanity of the situation, perhaps the hypocrisy that characterizes Indian politicians would not surface. Ironically enough, in a culture that worships over 23 Hindu goddesses, some politicians were quick to blame the woman for not submitting herself to the rapists as is expected of a woman, for not abiding by Indian culture and staying indoors after dark. BBC recently released a documentary containing interviews with the rapists and their lawyers, and within a few hours, the same politicians who had condemned rape as a “heinous crime” banned it under the pretext that it gave the wrong image of our country.

If this is what the real world had in store, I was in no rush to join it. Besides, my time at Brown had been a colorful one thus far. Here, I could run through the streets of the un-gated campus pretending to be the adult I was yet to become without fear because a blue light was always in sight. I could, and have, walked home from frat parties inebriated and alone because this is Brown, where students have enough respect for each other not to cut ahead the Blue Room sandwich line, no matter how long it may be. In this community of evolved thinkers, a basic respect for humans should be taken for granted.

And as the prospect of entering the real world approached, I began exploring ways to stay on at Brown for an extra semester. Many would ask, “Why do you want to stay in the Brown bubble?” I had come to the conclusion that this cocooned environment provided the most conducive environment for learning, which I wasn’t ready to stop doing.

My childhood discovery that Santa Claus did not exist was not half as painful as witnessing the slow unraveling of the Brown bubble myth, which my classmates and I experienced as the events of the recent date-rape drug and sexual assault cases have unfolded. It was shocking to learn that two students on our campus reported having symptoms that closely resembled the effects of date-rape drugs, though the lab results later came back inconclusive. And it was equally shocking to see the same institution that had only a year ago condemned the alleged sexual assault in the Lena Sclove case now find the student accused of sexual assault not responsible and not proceed to a hearing for the student accused of spiking a drink with GHB. While my sociology professor was preaching the demerits of economic inequality, somewhere on this campus, someone was perhaps walking away free of charge.

It all sounded too familiar, reminding me of India and its hypocrisy, which I had hoped to leave behind when coming to Brown. Yet for some strange reason, despite the morbidity and frequency of rape cases in India in any year versus on our campus, I had excused India — it is still an evolving country. When a documentary exposing the mindset of the rapists and lawyers involved in the 2012 Delhi case is released — India’s Daughter, 2015 — the Indian government throws a tantrum like an immature child and bans it. But Brown is an institution of higher learning with hand-selected scholars. While it was by chance that I was born into the Indian community, I chose to come to Brown.

In the past few weeks, the world outside the Van Wickle gates has blended with the world within, which is in the most ironic, depressing way exactly what I needed with two months left to graduation.

My fellow seniors who are feeling disappointed with the state in which they will be leaving Brown — cheer up! Brown has just done us the biggest favor. It has prepared us for the real world without us even realizing. It has proved that the “bubble” we so often complained about but secretly took comfort in never really existed. I won’t deny that I was looking forward to that bittersweet moment when I walked out of the Van Wickle gates, pulled out my metaphorical needle and burst the metaphorical bubble for good. The realization that the bubble may have never really existed has left me with a feeling that’s more bitter than sweet, yet so much more confident that I am prepared for the injustices that abound in the “real world.” In light of recent events on campus, how much worse could they get?

Money isn’t talking anymore, it’s screaming. Screaming loud enough to silence all victims, loud enough to justify any criminal offense. Screaming like it does in this hyper-mystified world beyond the Van Wickle gates. All we can do is listen, no matter which side of the gates we’re on.



Ria Mirchandani ’15 is clearly disillusioned by the world, both on and beyond College Hill. Tell her why she’s wrong (or not) at ria@brown.edu.



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