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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ghastly heat

It is the last day of April. I’m sure that when the poet wrote ‘April is the cruellest month’ he had other things in mind, but for me – and for a lot of people I know – this has been the cruellest month so far, in a very crude physical sense, not just in this year but in a very long time span. Summer does not agree with me, and the summers where I live, right on the edge of India’s blistering, sweltering tropical heartland, have never been pleasant in living memory, but (and I recently discovered that this is not my personal feeling alone – the Weather Office has confirmed my subjective estimate) this has been the nastiest summer yet, although summer has supposedly just begun!

Most humans can live comfortably only within a very narrow temperature range – between 10 and 35 degrees Celsius (a little below body temperature, that is). Although some, through the ingrained habit of countless generations, can tolerate either greater cold or greater heat a little better than most, sub-zero or above 45-degree temperatures begin to kill if you are exposed to the elements for too long – that is a hard universal fact. Strong winds or extremely high humidity make things very considerably worse. This year I began to sense that things were getting abnormal by the end of March: not only was it unpleasantly hot already, but (at least in my town, and more or less all over south Bengal) there had not been any significant rainfall for six continuous months! Then April came, and the horror began.

Day after day after day, one woke up to find that it was already too warm for comfort by seven in the morning, and the sun, which hurt your eyes even then, began to blaze with pitiless fury by eight. By ten, the roads were empty – nobody went out unless he or she absolutely had to – and all you could see was the dogs panting and looking for a patch of shade. By mid-day the house started feeling like an oven, and the only people out on the road were using umbrellas, or at least caps, and those on motorcycles (except the mad few who seemed immune!) had big handkerchiefs wound tighly around their faces, and sunglasses to ward off the glare. If there was a wind, it raised little dust storms. The schoolchildren came home exhausted, red and puffed in the face, and started going down with the pox, the measles or heat fever right and left – until (recently) the authorities took heed and did the sensible thing; brought the school hours forward, and then started giving early vacations.

We cannot stay upstairs in my house in the afternoons, even with the cooler going full speed (its efficiency varies very greatly from day to day, depending on how dry or wet the outside air is). Downstairs, I sweat with the poor kids I teach – or feel as though I am on fire on days when it is absolutely dry, the whole skin one gigantic itch, which grows worse if you scratch. All I can do to feel better is to thank my stars over and over again that I don’t have to make a living outdoors or running around most of the time, as so many people do, from hawkers of all sorts to bus drivers and traffic constables and factory workers who toil before open furnaces and news reporters and even supposedly ‘successful’ people like busy doctors I know who always have to be on the move: they can keep their success, I don’t envy them! One must be thankful, too, for small mercies – at least, unlike in so many places in this same country, I don’t suffer from shortage of water (it’s only three or four cool baths every day that’s keeping me alive, and drinking lots of iced water, though that’s taking a toll on the throat…) or long daily power cuts. I know there are lots of Indians who’d tell me ‘You’re in heaven, what are you cribbing about?’ I’d like to be somewhere close to Nainital or Mussoorie now, only a little higher, a little away from the din and bustle.

One might imagine that the evenings would be better, once the sun has gone down. But wait – something weird begins to happen with the brick and cement houses we live in. The walls begin to give off heat or something, so if you are indoors, you feel you are being cooked. The only relief is outdoors: after nine, if there’s a good breeze (as there has been these last few days), and you can sit on a high roof (third floor is good, fifth or sixth much better) after a bath and wearing as little clothing as possible, you can start breathing comfortably again – but going down for dinner is a nightmare. I have grown weak and ease-loving: I have spent decades tossing and turning on a hot bed sticky and smelly with sweat until the wee hours brought a little fleeting bit of relief, but now I cannot go to bed without the air-conditioner on. If there’s ever a really serious cash crunch in summer time, I’d sell off every other gadget I have around the house before I get rid of the fridge and the ‘a/c’. I am dreaming of the day when I can install an airconditioner in my classroom too: I’d have done it already if the local power facility could give me a strong assurance that the line can bear the load.

Then you wake up and it’s hot already as soon as you turn off the a/c, and you open the windows and the sun hurts your eyes again, and it’s already unpleasant to draw the dusty, muggy, foul air into your lungs. Day after day after day. There hasn’t been one single thundershower this whole month to give us all a few hours of blessed relief. After one wild prediction about a coming cyclone which went wrong, the met. office has gone all coy, hedging its bets, talking only about how it expects an almost-normal, on-schedule monsoon – though that is almost six weeks away, and there’s the terrible month of May to be gone through first. Heaven help us all.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Un-Indian? Anti-India?

Some people – even well-intentioned ones – have expressed concern that they have been reading too many anti- (or un-) Indian tirades on this blog. Well, I ask them to read this blogpost again. I wrote it more than two years ago, expressing my dreams about the kind of India that I would like to see, and the prospects of those dreams coming true are fading before my eyes: if I lament that, does that make me un- or anti-Indian?

Forget about matters relating to high culture and things of the spirit (the sort of things that Rammohun Roy and Gandhi and Tagore thought the world should learn about from India): can we say that we are doing well even materially speaking? The last time I was in the US was 18 years ago, and I saw long rows of shelves in shopping malls stacked with all kinds of goods, from shampoo to dolls to cameras, made in Taiwan or China or Hongkong, and I remember telling people that I would like to come back to see that they had all been replaced by things made in India. And I would love to see lots of Indians getting Olympic golds and Nobel Prizes every time. And that India does not routinely feature as one of the poorest and most corrupt nations of the world. And that educated Indians drool over jobs with American MNCs no longer. In these 18 years, nothing has changed that can make me glad. What is the point in pretending that we are doing well, and finding excuses for not doing well, and getting angry with those who point out that we are not doing well? 

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Don't demonize Mayavati!

I write but rarely on purely political stuff, but this is election season, and this article in The Telegraph of the 16th April caught my eye. I remember hearing lots of people – including some very nice and well-informed people – lamenting or expressing horror at the prospect that Ms. Mayavati, maverick chief Minister of India’s most populous state, seems to be becoming more strident and confident about the chances of her becoming Prime Minister of India, if not this time round, then soon. Mukul Kesavan’s article should come as a very good rejoinder (and maybe even reassurance) to all of them!

Ms. Mayavati may be guilty of everything she is accused of – arrogant, ruthless, greedy, autocratic, crude, devious, sneaky and occasionally violent when it suits her. She is not even pretty to look at. But if these were criteria that seriously ruled out anybody from becoming PM in India, the vast majority of our MPs would be disqualified (as indeed they would be in most democratic countries of the world – politics is not for nice and gentle and seriously moralistic people, yet it is more socially necessary than almost every other profession, so it attracts the tough-hearted, flexible and ambitious everywhere!). She is not, by our elastic standards, uneducated (she holds LlB and B.Ed. degrees, and has been employed as a teacher). She is a very big income tax payer (if wikipedia has got its facts right) - not a common virtue among our politicians. She has now acquired as much experience at ruling vast masses as any other aspirant for the country’s top job can claim to have, and has done no worse a job than ten other CMs I could name. Numerous other people, blessed by high pedigree and privilege (a combination of high caste, big money and wide and powerful family connections) have come into politics only to display the same nasty characteristics she is accused of, in equal if not greater measure.

Our real complaint against her, I am sure, is our visceral hatred of a woman, and a Dalit (once called ‘untouchable’) woman at that, wielding power in what is supposed to be exclusively a man’s world, and frequently getting the better of lots of men at it. We have again and again forgiven, even applauded lots of male and high-caste, ‘cultured’ (“one of us”) politicians for all the sins that we want to crucify her for. And it is precisely for this reason that I shall root for her along with Mukul Kesavan, despite lamenting all her faults: if we were a slightly more civilized, slightly more honestly progressive society, we would cheer and celebrate Ms. Mayavati as the poster girl of Indian democracy – the woman who is embodying the secret, hardly ever articulated, highest aspirations of maybe two-thirds of the Indian population (if you add up all the poor people in India who are also Dalits, and most particularly all deprived and marginalized women, Dalit or otherwise). If that two-thirds can get together and vote singlemindedly for this cause, Mayavati should get the throne on behalf of all of them. That will be a social revolution to cap all social revolutions – the biggest blow to several thousand years of cruel, systematic, institutionalized, countrywide discrimination against the real deprived silent majority.

After that, we can only pray that she will be a better ruler than we had dared to hope. And that, Mayavati having shown the way, a far better, greater, grander specimen of humanity – someone like Joan of Arc, maybe? – will rise from the ranks of the great unwashed masses of India someday and follow in her footsteps to lead India into an age of glory. It is good to have big dreams, but it is better to give little ones a chance!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The demise of liberal education

… and talking about education and which way it is heading, here’s the musing of a one-time Yale University professor. It’s heavy going: casual and flighty readers are warned not to venture far into it!

I’d particularly want to draw the serious reader’s attention to expressions like “miseducation”, and “grade inflation” and “smart people who aren’t smart” and “entitled mediocrity” and “the ever-growing parastructure of tutors and test-prep courses and enrichment programs, the whole admissions frenzy and everything that leads up to and away from it” and the total neglect of the fact that there are lots of people who are not 'smart' in any of the commonly-used senses, but who nevertheless need, deserve and often demand our attention, concern and care (or else you get vast armies of feckless dropouts, millions living in wretched poverty, and dangerous rebels, including terrorists!... does that sound familiar?). Reflect on this line: “There’s a reason elite schools speak of training leaders, not thinkers – holders of power, not its critics.” Or this one: “being an intellectual is not the same as being smart. Being an intellectual means more than doing your homework.”

Think of how ominous this line is: “We are slouching, even at elite schools, toward a glorified form of vocational training.” And of what the senior student meant when he lamented “it’s hard to build your soul when everyone around you is trying to sell theirs.”

Think of why T.S. Eliot wrote several generations ago that we are (even in our best shrines of education) churning out vast numbers of ‘technological savages, intellectual brutes’. Reflect on why these young achievers and successes are simultaneously so busy and so lonely, so unable to connect with the world, so lacking in both understanding and empathy, so scared in spite of being so privileged and well provided for. And ponder for a while on the last paragraph of the essay.

Then turn your attention to the scenario in India, where things – even at the so-called best schools – are not only similar, but often vastly worse, because we long ago gave up even the pretence that we are aiming to produce strong and humane minds determined to change the world for the better, where nobody in any position of influence imagines that education could or ought to mean anything beyond a lucrative and on the whole easy-to-achieve career. Then think about what kind of future we are making for ourselves. A million Chandrababu Naidu-s and B.K. Ramalinga Rajus as our ‘leaders’? Could such an India hold together?

If anyone is interested, here is a link to what one great mind thought about the idea of a university in the mid-1800s. And yet another to what a very successful and forward-looking technocrat (not of the Nandan Nilekani breed, who cannot imagine greatness and worth beyond software programs and money in the bank) said about the idea of even a technical university in the mid 1900s!

Many thanks to Anshu Singh for sending me the link to the prof's essay. Anshu is that rare breed: an ex-IITian who observes, thinks and reads stuff beyond technical manuals and pulp magazines and bank passbooks. My hopes lie to a great extent with the likes of him.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Google at our service

Google is doing its bit - and knowing Google, I'll bet it's going to be quite a bit - to empower people at large with information to vote and to vote better in the coming general elections in India: see here

A few thoughts in this connection:

1. I'm glad that those who matter at Google recognise the importance of this event (they call it "the largest democratic event in human history"). Despite being nerds who are clever at math and programming and stuff, they have not lost sight of what really matters, of how information technology is just a fad if it is not employed to further real and deep human interests - such as choosing our governments wisely and well;

2. It makes me sad to think how little and how poorly India might use this wonderful facility they are offering. One part won't because they are too poor, too ignorant, too far outside the reach of the internet still. Another because - despite being 'educated' (in the current trivial sense, not in the sense that people like Socrates or Voltaire or Thomas Jefferson or Tagore understood it) - they are far more bothered about Grammy Awards and IPL cricket and what games they can download from the Net and how many idiots like themselves are scrapping them on orkut or Facebook! These are the types that the Roman emperors kept happy with bread and circuses. How little has changed in two thousand years...

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Maps... just musing

There's a little map at the bottom of the right-hand sidebar of this blog which shows where my readers are located. It gives me a quaint thrill to see how scattered they are all over the world. Indeed, there have been occasions when I have noticed that five or six people are reading simultaneously, and one is in Canada, another in New Zealand, a third in Italy and a fourth right next door in Asansol, West Bengal, India! A minute ago I noticed three little dots in three corners of Africa, and wondered who might be the folks who could be reading me from all those faraway places. I also reflected that it would be nice if some dots sprang up over Russia and the south American continent: those two being the only parts of the world from where nobody has visited this blog yet...