It’s three P.M. on a grey Tuesday, and Anjali Ramanathan is trying to pose naturally for a photoshoot. As naturally as one can while trying to exude determined but not unapproachable.
“This doesn’t come naturally to me at all, you know.”
The Thames ripples behind us. Rowers slice through the river, our photographer clicks away.
“Actually, let’s not do Christ Church behind us. It’s a bit bait.”
The considerations of a would-be student politician. A student, who, despite being a self-declared introvert, has been thrust to the very top of student politics. President of the Christ Church JCR, prospective candidate for the presidency of the Oxford Union — Ramanathan wants to run things.
Oxford’s seagulls screech. We introduce ourselves. Raised in a first-generation immigrant family in the California suburbs, Ramanathan wasn’t always outgoing. It was music and singing that familiarised her with crowds. School debating soon followed. And activism of course. Not the kind of big, fix-the-world activism; it was the local park. A legacy of redlining, use of the park was the exclusive prerogative of the rich, mostly white, neighbourhood next door. A campaign of protests, speeches and urban art followed. She likes to think that it was the reason the ACLU and NAACP sued the city. The park is now open to all.
With a mind set on a career in law, the transition to Oxford was a natural one. In the US, studying law is only possible after an undergraduate spent doing an unrelated subject. Here, papers in legal theory are available from the start. And the choice of Christ Church? Mostly because of the Law library and what she had read on The Student Room.
Telling these stories, the words tumble out. Upright and taut, her only movements are expressive gestures and the occasional smile. Speaking of her activism and the issues she cares about, she is a confident, practised storyteller. The waterfall is punctuated only by an occasional pause to catch a breath, and a quick glance to ensure that I’m still listening
“I’ve known that I’ve wanted to go into law for a long time. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to study for four years, other than law.”
We switch topics. The reason for this profile was, after all, the scandals ripping through Christ Church. Her tone changes. The college briefs her on these topics weekly, and the apprehension shows. Wanting to become president of the Christ Church JCR, she claims, was almost an afterthought. With a mom who made her lifelong friends the first day at Uni, Ramanathan says that her priority as a fresher was ensuring she ‘had a social life’. The JCR presidency really only occurred to her in Trinity. A friend from Christ Church, ‘Tati’, got her interested in student politics, both as a platform for change now and for success later. Anjali decided to run definitively only a few weeks before the vote.
The election was never close. Once she won, she became one of the public faces of a college embroiled in the most polarising faculty dispute in recent memory– one which only reached its conclusion last week Friday.
When did she find out, I want to know, how grave things were?
“I sat down after the election with the outgoing president. She told me that I don’t need to make it my business.”
Does it feel like your business?
Cautiously, she mentions reforms to college governance, aimed at ensuring that all those accused of sexual misconduct are held accountable in the same fashion. She notes that the Dean, with more power than anyone, is held accountable in a way different from any other member of the college. I parry that every investigation held by the college had cleared the dean. What more could they do? She pauses. This is a different Ramanathan. One who has to juggle interest groups, the pressures of a grand college, a critical student body. Apparently, that same JCR executive had to discuss her doing this article. She seems careful, unsure of speaking with the same ease about the opinions of others as she speaks about her own.
“I hope that this isn’t the focus of your profile.”
The Union came later. Starting off as Sponsorship and Press officer in MT21, she has seen one of the most meteoric ascents in recent society history. Elected Secretary – one of four officerial positions – after just eight weeks on committee, she is now seen by some as the frontrunner in the race to become president in MT22. But for what? In a university characterised by careerism, it seems a strange place for someone whose background is in activism. Ramanathan disagrees. According to her, the speakers you interview help determine the discourse in Oxford. She seems committed to making the Union more accessible, more relevant, more interesting. In an institution known for its obsession with itself, Ramanathan aims to ensure that its primary goal remains discussion and challenging opinions.
But, even as she expands on the campaign, she stays an enigma. Reservation marks her answers, and occasionally it feels as if she says what she thinks she should be saying. It doesn’t seem like inauthenticity, but perhaps a bit of awkwardness with her chosen extracurricular. There doesn’t seem to be much of the ease or gregarious charm that characterises some of her fellow ‘hacks’. I ask her whether she enjoys hacking; the answer is a harsh ‘no’ and a look that leaves no doubt as to what she thinks of my question.
We’re wrapping up. She speaks of the music she likes to unwind to (Jazz, the live album ‘Ella at Zardi’s), the events she enjoys (Lighting the christmas tree at Christ Church) and her relationship with her slate (‘Bar one, I didn’t meet any through the Union’ — They were friends before they were a team). The confidence returns. I ask about internships, she mentions a summer with the public defender’s office in Santa Clara. What kind of cases did she work on, I wonder?
Most lawyers opt for corporate law, where the money is. Few students, and fewer still at Oxford, spend summers working at an office which defends those who cannot afford a defence. This, clearly, is different. She speaks of still being in touch with those she met that summer, and attending a wedding of someone she worked with. I assume a colleague. She corrects me.
“Oh, he was a client.”
This client (respecting confidentiality she calls him ‘our guy’), a young man from a bad neighbourhood, was facing a 25-to-life sentence. I find it hard to hide my surprise. All this stuff about whether or not someone will vote in a Union election suddenly seems very small.
Involved in an altercation with another individual who had been harassing him, ‘our guy’ had hit him on the head with a concrete drainpipe, killing his harasser. Ramanathan’s team claimed self-defence. He was looking at spending the rest of his life in jail. Thanks to the efforts of the public defender’s office he got nine years for manslaughter instead. Before being taken to serve his sentence, ‘our guy’ decided to marry his long-term partner. Thankful for their work, he invited Ramanathan and the rest of the team. It was the celebration of a young couple, and a formative experience for Ramanathan as a young lawyer.
Finally, it seems as if the mask has come off. The many languages she speaks (English, Mandarin, Arabic, Tamil, Japanese), the two months she spent studying in Morocco, the countless hours spent doing vocal training for her jazz singing — she opens up about life beyond the Oxford bubble. It paints the picture of a hardworking, original, different student. It is a far cry from the caution that marked her early conversation.
Undoubtedly, there is some uncertainty in her speaking on governance, an unhappiness when discussing hacking, an awkwardness when she had to balance her opinion with her job. But rather than the artificiality one initially suspects, it suddenly seems grounded in earnestness. Either out of unwillingness or inability, she knows the rules of the glib student politics game, the superficial charm and easy promises, and refuses to play along. Perhaps that’s what makes her so good at it.
We’ve been chatting for a while. By now, both Cyril the photographer and the clouds are long gone. Left behind are a bright Oxford sky and a determined young Indian-American. Anjali Ramanathan wants to fix things. Not the world – at least not for now. Just our little corner of the country, the issues that matter to students.
It’s time to call it a day. She hesitates.
“I hope I didn’t do too badly.”
The considerations of the would-be student politician.
Image: Cyril Malík