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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Summarizing Harry Potter

In recent years I have been re-reading and rewatching some great books and movies. So I read through the Mahabharata, Asimov’s Foundation series, all of the Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown books, the Don Camillo series, Gibbon's Decline and Fall, Tolstoy’s Resurrection, and some more (quite a lot more, actually, and there were always new books to read besides). This, even as I realize ever more deeply how right Khushwant Singh was when he wrote (then approaching his nineties) that as one grows older, one realizes how many people one need never have met, how many meetings one need  never have attended, how many books one need never have read. One must not only be lucky enough to be free to choose, but have the power of discrimination that allows one to choose wisely – a power that, sadly, is given to too few of us, or is lost too early in life.

And even with all the freedom that one wants and all the discrimination one needs, one must concede that life is too short to savour all its pleasures over and over. There are simply too many good books, for instance, that I will never have the time to read from cover to cover again. Shortly after the seventh Harry Potter book (The Deathly Hallows) came out, therefore, I read through the whole saga at one go, and determined to write down my own summaries of all seven books, so that I could at least have the pleasure of re-visiting them from time to time. My daughter, avid Potter fan that she is, helped me most ably from the start. Sometime last year, when I had reached the last book, the continuity of the project was broken for some now-obscure reason (we became ‘busy’ with other, more pressing things, I suppose, as most people do when they do not want to admit that they simply grew impatient and distracted…). I am happy to say that today we have picked up the threads again, owing to my daughter’s stern reminder, and the job will soon be complete – before the last movie (DH 2) comes out in July. And it will give us both, father and daughter, a great deal of satisfaction.

A civilized person needs to carry around a lot of books inside her head. It helps to refer back now and then to summaries that one has made for oneself. It is also a most delightful feeling that I no longer have to think that I did it for my daughter, because I did it with her.

Friday, June 17, 2011

College admissions: curiouser and curiouser...

There is a certain elite college in Delhi which specializes in teaching commerce (much abused among the engineering fraternity – please refer to 3 Idiots), and this year they have announced that their required ‘cut-off’ score for admission is (hold your breath, all those who are both still sane and haven’t been reading the papers) 100%!

Even the Union Minister in charge of education, Kapil Sibal, who is not exactly feted for being a highly rational person, has publicly said that the decision is ‘completely irrational’ (The Telegraph, June 16, first page). An old boy of mine who saw the principal of the said college on a TV show said the man tried to defend the decision by claiming that it applied only to non-commerce stream applicants (it so happens that one science student has scored an aggregate of 100% marks in this year’s CBSE plus-two level examinations); for commerce students, the cut-off is ‘only’ 97%. This decision has been taken, according to the said principal, because they have a policy of taking in only the ‘very best’.

Here are a few things I would like to say as a lifelong teacher who also happened to be a better than average student in his time:

1.   Do the ‘very best’ habitually go for higher academics (recall gentlemen called Tagore and Sachin Tendulkar and Vishwanathan Anand and Dhirubhai Ambani) at all?
2. Of those who do, since when did the ‘very best’ start going for commerce studies?
3.  As for colleges indulging in this farce of setting 94% or 97% as their cut-off requirement, when will it cease? Isn’t it an open secret that most of those who score such marks these days are only slightly better than duds (most secondary- and higher secondary level toppers, briefly but ecstatically celebrated in the media, are never thereafter heard of again, as I have personally checked for nearly three decades: at most they become faceless managers in banks or power plants, working 12-hour days for a pittance)? I can also personally vouch that of all the scores of my own pupils who have got 90%-plus marks in ICSE English this year, hardly a handful ever scored more than 70% in the tests I gave them in class, even objective-type tests when I called out the answers and they marked themselves! Since the boards grossly inflate their abilities (and egos), why not prick the balloon by telling the colleges to select them strictly on the basis of their scores in standardized entrance tests, the way the engineering and medical colleges (and some top-of-the-line liberal arts colleges, like St. Stephen’s in Delhi and Presidency in Kolkata) do?
4.   And what about the school and plus-two boards deciding to give marks more sensibly, so that one has to be really, really good (as it was in my day) to score an aggregate higher than 80%, and 90% meant sure-shot Nobel Prize material? Would such a decision hurt anybody but idle semi-literate middle class mothers whose whole existence pivots around boasting about their children’s examination prowess before other equally stupid females?

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Science contemporary style

This link to an article written by someone who ought to know the inside story of drug-development research should send shivers down many spines. Do read it slowly and mindfully right through.

My reflections:

1.      I know a little more about this than the man on the street, yet it gave me fresh nightmares.
2.      This is one reason why I steer clear of doctors and hospitals as far as I can, and never regret that I did not become a doctor myself.
3.      This is also why I have a (I believe healthy) disrespect for so-called science: meaning that I don’t swallow every kind of rubbish which is claimed to be the product of the ‘latest scientific research’.
4.      If this is the case in the USA, one can only imagine what the situation in India is like, where loyalties can be bought, and facts can be twisted to suit opinions convenient to the rich and powerful, so much more easily…

I shall be glad if, after reading the article through, some people want to engage in serious discussion on this issue – something that affects not just a few big business interests but all of us, in a very immediate and indispensable way.

P.S.: I have found that 'real' scientists are either quite ignorant of or disdainful of the subject called sociology of science.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Brief holiday

It was my half-yearly one week holiday, and I try to stay off the Net as much as I can during such times, hence the delay in posting.

It wasn’t much of a holiday actually: there was very mundane but essential work to attend to in the Big City, and it was sweltering hot all the time (though right now Durgapur is just as bad). Still, Kolkata did look a teeny-weeny bit cleaner and greener than usual – or was it my Didi-infatuated eyes playing tricks on me? And we got a bit of rain, though it did precious little to affect the weather for the better. Anything without air conditioning was a perfect nightmare, and whenever I feel like griping that God didn’t do enough for me, all I have to do to feel mightily better is remind myself I could have been a daily office-goer in Kolkata lifelong…

We took a two-day breather by scooting off to Diamond Harbour. It was a very nice hour-long drive from my in-laws’ place. Sagarika, the government tourist lodge, is located on a prime spot right on the waterfront. We took a liking to it immediately, although, expectedly, not everything was as spick and span as one would like, because the room was large and airy and slightly olde-worlde: I mean, very much on the generously expansive 1950s scale. One does not see such big bathrooms and enormous balconies in hotels these days, except in the five-star category. There wasn’t much activity on offer, but we were only looking for uninterrupted leisure, and we got it. The weather was just as muggy as in the city, but the waterfront was always breezy, and you could sit out on the river’s edge till nearly midnight if you wanted to, listening to the lapping of water on the shore and watching the lights of Haldia on the far bank, and following with your ears more than your eyes some small steamer or trawler throbbing away downriver in the dark. I dreamt how the first British ships had come up the same river more than 300 years ago to lay the foundations of empire, and also of how when I had last made a day-trip to the place, my entire expenses had not been more than a hundred rupees. To my daughter, they both sounded equally like fairy tales. Here is a link to some photographs that we took.

Back on the net, I am delighted to see that there have been so many comments on my last post (though, it goes without saying, I am always hungry for more), and that, without my noticing, the number of ‘followers’ has reached the 200 mark. Who was it, I wonder, the 200th one? I’d have loved to thank her or him personally.  (The few who left recently were no loss; they had enlisted themselves for a lark, I’m sure, and never really read what I wrote). I am looking forward to suggestions from serious readers again. And I do wish that more people would look up my other blog more frequently…