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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Terror in Mumbai

I am not unaware of or insensitive to significant current events, though I might not often write about them here. In connection with the ongoing violent mess in Mumbai, I have commented at some length on Tanmoy's new blog (link provided in Blogs I often visit): please take a look.

P.S., Dec. 03: Sumitha Kurien has opened a good blog on this subject recently; visit

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Creating a 'knowledge society'!

Sam Pitroda (successful IT enterepreneur based in Chicago, one-time technology mission adviser to PM Rajiv Gandhi, credited with ushering in the ongoing telecom revolution in India, and currently, at Manmohan’s Singh’s behest, head of India’s National Knowledge Commission), has publicly regretted (as reported in The Statesman, 16th November, first page) that India is doing far too little to become a true-blue ‘knowledge economy’ and a leader of the world. And by way of proof, he has held up the following kind of data: that compared to the US and even China, India has pathetically few young people pursuing doctoral and post-doc research programs. He has also suggested a slew of measures to increase those numbers significantly over the next few years.

While having no quarrel with the facts or with Mr. Pitroda’s suggested reforms, I should like my readers (most of whom, I am sure, regard themselves as highly educated or in the process of so becoming) to think about the following posers:

1. Are doctorates very good indicators of who is knowledgeable and who is not any more? Bertrand Russell joked long ago about how American PhD scholars gaped at the erudition of mere master’s degree holders (such as himself) from Britain who came over to lecture them; many of us know that what passes for ‘research’ these days is mere re-dressing and regurgitation of old hat, with very little in the way of major new discoveries and novel ideas thrown in, or quite insignificant additions to the existing corpus of knowledge, no matter what the subject is, from physics to economics to literature (Sir J.J. Thomson got a doctorate for as momentous a discovery as that of the electron: these days people get PhDs for describing a hitherto overlooked step in the reproductive cycle of the hydra, or some slight tweak in game theory, or suggesting the 164th risk-factor for heart attacks, or that Shakespeare may have had gay leanings). And I hear from my college-going ex-students all the time how unintelligent, boring and utterly uninformed outside the narrow area of her specialisation the average PhD lecturer is these days: so much so that a hotshot math prof cannot help out her own 14 year old daughter with her geography or chemistry or English lessons, and has to look around desperately for tutors to make up for her shortcomings!... and haven’t some of the cleverest men of the 20th century been non-doctorates? (forget about titans like Ramanujan and Bill Gates; even Mr. Pitroda’s doctorate, I think, was given honoris causa!). On the other hand, I know for a fact that a lot of doctorates in my own state are so lacking in energy, enterprise and self-confidence that they eagerly sit for examinations to qualify as bank clerks and middle-school teachers. Is Mr. Pitroda juvenile enough to imagine that a nation can grow great on the shoulders of such pathetic ‘knowledgeable’ people?

2. What exactly does knowledge mean? What did Socrates or the Buddha know in comparison with, say, someone with a BTech in electronics or an MA in English?

3. Is knowledge only that which is saleable? In that case, of course, Shah Rukh Khan and Sachin and the average lawyer or surgeon and fashion model ‘knows’ infinitely more than a great art historian or astronomer can ever think of knowing, right?

4. Doesn’t a sincere and hardworking schoolteacher whose efforts not only made thousands literate and numerate, but got them interested in history and geography and biology and painting and music ‘know’ anything mentionable and valuable?

5. What kind of a ‘knowledge society’ is it that cannot produce ten Nobel Prize winners in 60 years? And where 'educated' people rarely buy books or visit libraries?

6. If we were so keen on creating a ‘knowledge society’, why do we reward our teachers so poorly at all levels, in cash as well as in social regard – so poorly that no modern Indian parent wants his son or daughter to choose to be a teacher?

7. I have always said that there is no better test of who knows how much than asking people to take an impromptu general quiz, and write an essay and speak in an intelligent, informed way for ten minutes on a topic chosen at random, and my entire teaching experience assures me that 95% of all the ‘educated’ adults I know would fail such a test miserably. This, also, bears thinking about.

8. What kind of knowledge is it that becomes obsolete in ten years? If we truly believe that life is precious, and all of Warren Buffett’s wealth will not bring back five minutes of our lives, are we sure we are investing our time well when we pursue such ‘knowledge’ (remember, when Ernest Rutherford was asked in his old age what he would do if he could live his life all over again, he said ‘collect more butterflies’!)

9. Why is this country’s newspapers full of stories about the worst sort of crimes consistently committed by ‘knowledgeable’ people – from peeing by the roadside to fighting in queues to killing female foetuses and abusing child labourers and spreading gossip and superstition?

10. Why did Tagore – not exactly an ignorant man himself – lament that the world needs good men far more than clever and learned ones?

Maybe it is too much to expect the likes of Mr. Pitroda to think so much, and of so many things, but is it the same with all my readers?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rashmoni: a dim, distant light

[This article was written in response to Tanmoy’s recent request, and stimulated by things I have been reading, including an article in The Sunday Statesman a couple of weeks ago]

‘Rani’ Rashmoni (born in 1793 – the very year that Lord Cornwallis established the modern form of zamindari in Bengal with the Act of Permanent Settlement – to a poor farming family), was married at the age of 11 to Babu Rajachandra Das, wealthy zamindar of Janbazar in Kolkata. I wonder how the match was made: maybe her fabled beauty helped, or maybe it was her extraordinary native intelligence. It is known that she had a most unusual appetite for education, and her husband, who started by tutoring her, came to be deeply impressed by her innate worldly wisdom and began to depend more and more on her counsel for managing and growing his vast business and properties (a kind of respect and reliance that would be rare to find even among ‘educated’ modern-day husbands, though I am not at all sure whether the wives or husbands are more to blame!). Her husband passed away when she was pushing forty, and she lived on for almost three more decades.

In an intensely male-dominated world, and in a Bengal that was virtually supine under the heel of a harsh and predatory British government, she lived a life of exemplary independence, shrewdness, charity and piety: very few people I meet have the depth of mind even to realize how incredible that combination is. Ably assisted by her devoted son-in-law Mathurbabu, she not only preserved and expanded her wealth, but, while making enormous philanthropic bequests to numerous deserving causes and risking the wrath of the government and her own material ruin again and again in the process (as when she bought up loads of East India Company shares dirt cheap during distress sales triggered by the terror of the 1857 mutiny – how proud George Soros and Warren Buffett would have been to know her!), she continued to live the simple, self-effacing, almost penurious life of the traditional Hindu widow (obviously out of deep personal conviction – I am reminded of Khushwant Singh’s reminiscences about his own grandmother – no mere cabal of Brahmin priests could have browbeaten a woman like that into it against her will): she did not need to live the useless, horrendously expensive, wild life of the page-three party-animal (so common in metropolitan circles in all lands and ages, from Babylon to New Delhi today) to prove to society that she was somebody. And of course, many learned elderly Bengalis will insist that her greatest work was discovering, employing, tolerating and encouraging the divine madman who came to be known as Sri Ramakrishna, who, through his great disciple Vivekananda and his mental disciple Subhas Bose, contributed in largest measure to bringing about whatever renaissance Bengal can boast about in the last thousand years (that even the memory, leave alone the pride in the truly great is gone is of course another story – those who have boasted of Sasanka and Atish Dipankar and Sri Chaitanya and Rammohun Roy and Tagore and Satyajit Ray have only Sourav Ganguly to cling to, and their only personal dream is that their sons might get a green card to settle in the USA. How much we have ‘progressed’ over the last three or four generations, indeed).

How many young, educated, ‘ambitious’ Bengalis today can even talk for five minutes about a figure like Rani Rashmoni, leave alone naming her as one of their ideals? How many of today’s young Bengali women between 15 and 40 will do it? Can they claim that they have ‘better’ ideals (if, indeed, they have any ideals worth the name at all) – because they are cleverer, more informed, more worldly-wise, more ‘liberated’ now? And in this context, this is to all my women (especially Bengali women) readers, who have the nagging suspicion that I do not ‘respect’ women enough: I do, but after having read this little essay, and then visiting what I wrote about Sudha Murthy a few months ago ('Wise and otherwise'...) and the blogpost titled ‘Those who love: book review’ about Abigail Adams that I wrote a year ago, can they not understand that though I try very hard to admire women, I have found pitifully few around me who live up to my expectations?

P.S.: …and I am not an incorrigible MCP. I was reading Krishna Basu’s article in a Bengali newspaper the other day (Shongbad Protidin, Nov. 15 2008), lamenting over how Indian women are still taught to be proud of the achievements, however small, of their menfolk – fathers, husbands and sons – while the majority of men still sneer at the idea that they could be proud of their women, too. My wife is in many ways a very quiet, reclusive, ‘ordinary’ woman, never likely to make it to the headlines, but I am immensely proud that she does not obsess over sarees, jewellery, makeup, and her daughter’s report card, that she has a mind to think with, that she reads a lot of books, gives a lot in charity, and has some serious spiritual concerns. I am looking forward to being proud of my daughter, too.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A warm thank you!

I have just visited this blog and found that 150-plus visitors have very kindly voted on my poll already, and more than a hundred have clicked on the option of ‘All of the above’ (there are 45 days left to vote still, so I shall keep expecting more). I am aware that people visit this blog from all over my town, and from many cities across India, and from Japan and New Zealand and Singapore and the US and maybe elsewhere too. It truly gives me a good feeling; to be able to sit in the comfort of my home and write as and when I please about whatever interests me, and know that I am being read by so many of very different ages and dispositions, so near and far. My pleasure would be greatly enhanced if I got more comments which could initiate long and exhilarating conversations in which many readers could join in. I also, once more, invite suggestions from all readers about what they want me to write on next: please send such requests as comments here itself, so that I can find all suggestions in one place, and attend to them one by one to the best of my ability.

My best wishes to all my readers and their loved ones. May we all become better friends with the passage of time!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hello, everybody!

I am really beginning to enjoy the blogging experience at last, having found and begun to make friends with some fellow spirits who can really write well, write pretty often, and always have a lot of interesting things to say. To those who are regular visitors to this blog, several requests, again:

1. Do please visit these blogs I have listed in 'Blogs I often visit': just scroll down the right sidebar and you will find the list.

2. Do engage us all in frequent and stimulating conversations - we'll all enjoy them.

3. Do hurry up and vote on my poll: I am dying to see how soon the number of those who voted 'All of the above' crosses one hundred.

4. Do enlist on the 'follower' roll. I have got thirty there till the moment of writing, but I know dozens more visit this blog pretty often - are they absent minded, or just feeling shy?

5. New visitors: don't go away after just visiting my home page. Scroll down to the bottom and click on 'older posts'. There are lots of them now, and a few are sure to catch your eye. I shall be glad to have comments/observations/experiences to share in connection with any post. Nothing here is irrelevant and out of date. (N.B.: I'd particularly like comments to appear on my 'earliest posts' - see my labels on the right hand sidebar - which, I fear, have not been read by many visitors who have come to know this blog recently).

To those blogwriters on my list of frequently-visited blogs who write well but too rarely - Abhirup, Arani, Ishani, Nishant, Sayantani, Shilpi, Shubhabrata, Sudipto, Suvro Sarkar - do please write more often, at least once a month.

In a world where so many nice people are lonely most of the time because they have hardly anybody sensible and decent to talk to, I shall consider myself privileged if I can bring a lot of such people together in animated interactions over all sorts of interesting subjects.

P.S., Nov. 15: There are only 47 days left before the poll closes!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

For a laugh...

Type 'Wise and otherwise' in the search bar to read my review of Sudha Murty's book, and particularly the comment I have written today!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Go, Obama, go!

All day long, in between attending to sundry household chores and doing what I do 340 days a year to make a living, I have been watching the TV and surfing the Net to follow the coverage of Barack Hussein Obama’s spectacular and epoch-making electoral victory.

While he has all my most earnest admiration and good wishes for his Presidency, here are a few things that I have been thinking about:

1. It is for no flimsy reason that America and the world are equally breathless today: the USA has at last made good on the most fundamental promise of the world’s first (and arguably grandest) written constitution, and on Lincoln’s ideal, and on Martin Luther King’s dream – and they couldn’t have found a better man to personify and energise the whole thing. They finally have a black man in the world’s most powerful office. I hope they have a woman there soon, too.

2. Obama’s campaign was the most expensive, the most intense, the most inclusive, and perhaps the longest that America has ever seen. On top of that, the man’s personal charisma has been truly awesome – in the original and not current grossly cheapened sense of the word (lots of normally staid and balanced people are now openly comparing him with JFK), and that has gone a very long way to swing the vote in a way that would have been unthinkable maybe even two decades ago (besides seeing a level of voter turnout that most pundits would have called unthinkable even a few weeks ago). One more proof, if proof was ever needed, that individuals matter, now as always in history.

3. As so many people have been pointing out, the President-elect, who has just announced that ‘change has come to America!’ will have an overflowing in-tray on his very first day in the Oval Office, and all of them problems of the stickiest and most urgent sort. He needs the whole world’s best wishes – if only because as things stand today, so much on the world depends on what happens to the US of A. I was listening to Barkha Dutt in Chicago talking about the enormous ‘burden of expectations’ on his shoulders, I have been listening to various experts gloomily warning that he has very few choices and very little room for manouevre, and very little time before the ecstatic dreams begin to sour, and Anand Mahindra the industrialist reminding everybody on NDTV that it will take incredible luck, talent, vision and energy to manage the intense racial (as well as rich-poor) polarisation that has happened in the process of this election – and no matter how much Obama himself or superstars like Oprah gush on TV that this is about all of America ('we are, and always will be, the United States of America'), and about change that everyone everywhere wants, there are very tough times ahead for the new President. The best thing going in his favour is that he seems to be so remarkably calm and unruffled and confident about what he is going to have to do. A man like that deserves the world’s best wishes, too.

4. I was much moved by the grace with which senator John McCain publicly conceded defeat. You need to be a truly big man, and it helps to live in a really nice society, to be able to do that sort of thing. I wish and pray that we Indians learn a few lessons about how to live public lives in high places from this example (I am reminded of how prime minister AB Vajpayee said after the terrorist attack on our Parliament house that where the leader of the Opposition – he meant Sonia Gandhi who had just rung him up – enquires anxiously after the PM’s health and safety, democracy is safe. I wish I could be so sure!)

5. I am as sure as any TV-expert that no big change is going to happen soon in connection with the US policy towards India. So if I am still so interested in this whole thing, it is because elite Indians love to talk about this country as the world’s biggest democracy, which therefore has 'natural and deep harmonies' with the way America thinks and acts. I hope a lot more of us reflect on how true that is!