Dharun Ravi: What If?

I found out my freshman rooming assignment while on vacation with my family. I remember my grandmother reading the states out loud to me, over the phone, mangling the girls’ names with her Russian accent. With each state, my heart dropped lower into my stomach: Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and the Midwestern unknown of Michigan and Missouri. Moving into my three-bedroom, six-person Hurlbut suite three years ago, I was terrified.

Maybe that’s why it’s hard for me to feel anger at Dharun Ravi. On Monday, he was sentenced to 30 days in prison, a hefty fine, and 300 hours of community service for his role in the suicide of his roommate, Tyler Clementi. Of course, Ravi’s punishment isn’t actually for Clementi’s suicide—instead, it was for violation of privacy, bias, and some other minor charges. But both sides knew that the charges were only a cover for the death he couldn’t be charged for. And so, many are condemning the sentence he received as too light.

To be honest, I didn’t follow the case in the beginning. A combination of dismissal of the much-delayed realization and panic over the suicides of gay kids—an epidemic that had been going on for years without notice—and the seeming difference between this case and those of middle-school students bullied while administrators and parents turn their heads made me turn away.

It wasn’t until spring break, when the verdict was announced, that I tuned in. I read the New Yorker’s profile of the two roommates from a hostel’s computer, and I felt an instant pang of sympathy. Like Dharun, I had looked up my roommates’ Facebook profiles, occasionally cringing at what I found. Like Dharun, I instant-messaged friends, lamenting my predicament. Like Dharun, I was in possession of technology that enabled me to form opinions of my suitemates before even meeting them based on their self-representations on the web.

But what struck me most about The New Yorker’s profile was the other Tyler that Dharun had initially mistaken for Clementi. Tyler Picone, another incoming freshman, was openly gay and hyper-flamboyant. He didn’t match the shy, nerdy, introverted profile that Dharun had constructed for Clementi. When Ian Parker, the writer for The New Yorker, spoke with Picone for the piece, Picone laughed off the IM exchanges joking about his sexuality and suggested that had he been assigned to room with Dharun, they might’ve become friends. For the last two months, I haven’t been able to get that thought out of my head.

The summer before my freshman year, I zoomed in on the Bible quotes lining the “About Me” sections of my roommates from Texas and Tennessee. Up to that point, religiosity to that degree was for me embodied in the Chabad Jews I lied to about my Judaism when they asked me in the subway and hijab-clad friends from my Brooklyn high school. I was terrified, uncomfortable, and insecure, when encountered with this new form of religiosity that I perceived as personified in Jerry L. Falwell, probably more than Dharun was upon discovering Clementi. I couldn’t believe that my roommates might not believe in evolution.

Three years later, I have changed from the insecure freshman that I was when assigned to live with them. After cursing Harvard’s rooming assignments, I now count among my friends people with similar political and religious views to the girls I lived with. And so, reading about the case, I can’t help but think, “what if?”

What if Dharun hadn’t broadcast a live feed of his dorm room over Twitter? What if the Clementi’s male visitors hadn’t started to come over until later in the semester, or the following term? What if Dharun had a little time to settle down and feel more secure in himself before this happened, so that he didn’t feel need to need to pick apart his roommate in conversations with friends?

I don’t know if 30 days is a fitting sentence for Dharun, or if the “what if?” element should affect our perception of what happened in their Rutgers dorm room. But I know I’m glad he wasn’t sentenced to ten years. Re-reading the profile and remembering myself three years ago, I know that college has been a time of incredible growth for connecting with and accepting people who are in many ways different. Likewise, it has been a time of growth and a time to become more secure in my own beliefs and myself. And I like to think that, had that fateful day on the George Washington Bridge not happened, Dharun and Clementi might have become friendly. I like to think that, if they had lived together for a year, they would’ve both experienced the personal growth that college is meant to foster.

Katie R. Zavadski ’13, a Crimson news executive, is a comparative study of religion concentrator in Lowell House.