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Friday, August 05, 2011

A choice of icons

I read this very weird editorial in my newspaper yesterday. It says – quite justifiably – it is a pity that while we are going gaga publicly celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, we have chosen virtually to forget another great titan of yesteryear, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy, outstanding chemist, teacher extraordinary and pioneering Bengali entrepreneur. From which the editorial writer goes on to infer that it is clear Bengalis have chosen to put literature far above science, which itself ranks higher than entrepreneurship on their priority list, and that bodes great ill for Bengal. The editorial grimly ends on the warning note that Bengalis, having made their choice, ‘can continue to spout poetry amidst overwhelming squalor and demeaning poverty’.  

Correct me if I am wrong, but I found this an absolutely remarkable example of muddled thinking. Whenever did literatteurs as a tribe (leave alone Tagore) glorify squalor and poverty? Since when did being interested (or creative) in literature automatically indicate a contempt or apathy for science? Who says all Bengalis have forgotten P.C. Roy? He was never exactly a pop idol anyway, and the right sort of people certainly do remember him – on Tuesday, August 2nd, there was a lecture cum photo exhibition about him in one of the leading universities of the state. What should we have instead: yet one more meaningless public holiday or a jamboree IPL style? Which Bengali who knowledgeably adores Tagore has deliberately forgotten Roy? And where did the editorial writer meet Bengalis ‘spouting poetry’? I should have thought Bengali businessmen (I wouldn’t honour the majority of them with the tag of entrepreneur) were a far more common species these days! How does forgetting P.C. Roy prove that we are ‘devoted’ to Tagore? I have written about another truly brilliant Bengali, Rajshekhar Basu aka Parashuram on this blog earlier. He was equally at home with both science and literature: how many ‘cultured’ Bengalis remember him? Which country, now universally recognized as ‘advanced’, had to eschew literature and the arts in order to pursue science and entrepreneurship? 

As a teacher, I can testify from a  lifetime’s experience that Bengalis care as little for science as for literature or the arts, leave alone entrepreneurship. I can safely aver that in 98 out of every 100 Bengali families today, except perhaps the very rich and the very poor, parents are drilling it into the minds of their children that their only aim in life should be finding a reasonably safe, reasonably light, reasonably well-paid job which gives one some ‘social status’, meaning that they absolutely must cram a few dozen textbooks to become either salaried doctors or engineers (definitely not scientists, unless they fail the entrance tests at least once!), both Tagore and Roy be damned. The even sadder truth is that most of the children, even if bored to tears with their academic rat race, are quite convinced that their parents are right, have only their ‘welfare’ at heart. As I frequently tell my own pupils, in another twenty years’ time we shall not have competent teachers or judges or plumbers or carpenters at all, leave alone scientists and artists and writers: we must make do as well as we can with a whole country full of just doctors and engineers (besides plain crooks and salesmen of countless hues, including journalists and ad-copywriters). This is the ground reality: how does it pay to fool ourselves otherwise? With even the media spouting this kind of nonsense, hasn’t it become truly a case of the blind leading the blind?


Suvro Chatterjee said...

You can read Pathik Guha paying tribute and asking for a grand re-evaluation of the great man in today's Anandabazar Patrika:


Shilpi said...

Suvro da,

The first one is a stupid article. How does saying or thinking Tagore was great erode critical thinking? And is he saying that Tagore wasn't great or shouldn't be considered to be great? And saying that Tagore was great means that that's blind worshipping Tagore or what? And what does remembering Tagore have to do with forgetting Prafulla Chandra Roy? And honestly, he seems to know less about what Tagore did and was than even I do.

And what does he mean by throwing in that bit about C.P. Snow and the two cultures? He makes it quite plain that he doesn't think that the humanities has any value, and as for that last line, I don't even really know what he's getting at...is he saying that people should not read poetry or that poets should never write poems or that poets glorify poverty? It really is a stupid article.

I liked reading the second article. I read it very slowly and I had to make sense of it slowly....but it was a tribute worth reading. Maybe the writer who wrote that editorial would do well to read the second article by Pathik Guha.


Dipanwita Shome said...

This person’s writing is extremely callous both in style and in content. I feel tempted to write about both today.
“Bengalis love their icons. But they love one icon more than any other.”: What sort of a beginning is this? Did he really think that the art of writing short crisp sentences extended also to exposing one’s prime stupidity with crispness?
“Woe betide the person who dares to query the greatness of Tagore.”: Written merely for the sake of writing. I mean, should woe not betide such a person? I get his point about wanting to have other deserving achievers remembered and celebrated, but does he believe that this can come about only when the concerned populace pays lesser attention to Tagore?
This is the sense that comes through from the entire piece. The writer is unable to decide whether he wants someone less respected, or somebody else more remembered. He refuses to understand that there is a qualitative difference between an honest and informed critique and senseless vituperation and jabbering.

Dipanwita Shome said...

I will no longer pick out separate problems of style. I will only go on to say that the writer simply does not know how to write. His thinking is muddled, his logic is no logic worth the name (“This blind worship becomes dangerous not only because it erodes critical thinking but also because it leads, willy-nilly, to the belittling of other individuals who have also made enormous contributions to society or to spheres of learning.”: does he believe that the collective memory of an entire state is so befuddled with the overarching memory of one that it has gone to the exclusion of every other sort of memory possible? It is a free state and as you have said, Ray was been celebrated adequately on the concerned day. In order to exhibit that one remembers him, what does the writer want Bengalis to do? Declare a Science day? Celebrate IT entrants? Give awards to techies?), he is incapable of formulating a communicable idea and is completely incapable of formulating any idea somewhat formed, in readable language. He is so angry that he is befuddling himself and others even as he writes. I think he should go out and take a jog in order to let his steam out instead of letting it loose on paper that has to be bought out of an honest day’s work by most.

Dipanwita Shome said...

He is also extremely uninformed. He talks about his great memory of histories past, but does he have any idea that there were multiple men of “Science” in the past who held the idea dear that the sciences (meaning astronomy, mathematics, the health sciences) as part of the humanitas? Somebody should remind him that men of the letters, such as Swift and even the blameworthy Tagore have constantly written about the sciences. Somebody give the poor man a copy of Gulliver’s Travels. Does this person even know that Tagore wrote something called Bisshoporichoy in order to lure the young and recalcitrant to what he so pompously calls “Science”? What is science if not magic? What is science if not empiricism? Tagore’s Chhelebala is a case study on a sensitive little boy’s magical perception of things and phenomena around him. Had the contemporary Bengali actually read Tagore enough to be able to spout his poetry, s/he would have been far more inclined towards the sciences than s/he is today, instead of cramming for AIEEE or the IITs. Some entrepreneurship there. And, if we are going to waste precious time talking about entrepreneurship, who exactly does he think qualifies as being an entrepreneur? Can he name me one community in India that is truly entrepreneurial and blessed with the desire to be enlightened capitalists at least, instead of being simple bechus?
“…in the Bengalis’ list of priorities, literature stands way above science, while entrepreneurship is even lower than science.”: Oh, really?! I mean I am a student of literature with a mother who is an almost-graduate in Bangla and an engineer for a father. Even with one person in my family who was capable of lateral thinking, my sister and I had to fight very hard in order to take up humanities after ICSE. At least my sister could pacify my bereaved parent by saying that she was doing statistics and some sort of mathematics with the illicit Geography, but poor me, I am still fighting allegations of being illogical for having taken up literature (my sister still insists on referring to Tithonus as “tetanus”). Where does this man live? It is still doctor, engineer, at most lawyer (my father pleaded quite a bit and then tore the form up in anger) and of course, the civil services and I was forgetting, a paralyzingly numerical job at a bank.
And, what does he even mean by deriding the languages (He says nasty things about poetry. I was reading Golpoguchho only yesterday. It is probably because of the decency and love for the fellow man that it teaches, that I have not yet written this guy a stinker!)? The la purisima (Slang for “honest truth”. Found it on the internet!) about the piece is that here is nothing in it to make it readable. Probably he knew that too. No wonder, he too has resorted to language (needless “la nuit”, “Vive le”) in order to beguile readers into reading this piece of “ill-logic” and ignorant idiocy.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

My word, what a fusillade of comments, Dipanwita! Your irritation is perfectly justified and well-articulated, of course, but don't get so carried away...

A little learning is always a dangerous thing. The sub-editor who drafted that editorial was, I am willing to bet, a poor junior hack who had been told to do a job in a hurry by an almighty boss who had an axe to grind, and told to sound as learned as he could, so he made a desperate job of it. It wouldn't matter, as long as a) most readers read wisely, or, as is much more likely, b) most people don't read editorials at all. I wrote this blogpost in the off-chance that some people seriously take his words to heart, imagining that there is something valuable under the obvious nonsense!

One thing I'd like to add: it is actually insulting the memory of the likes of P.C. Roy to equate him with the almost illiterate coal-thieves-turned-building promoters who are often mistaken for entrepreneurs in today's Bengal.

Debarshi said...

Respected Sir,

Warm regards.The editorial is truly weird in both its outlook and erroneous conclusion..but,what startles me is the ingrained belief in our culture,that takes a sneak-peek out of this train of thought.Of course,one author does not represent the Bengali community in its entirety..but all the same,it is a good reflection of our society.I wholly agree with you when you purport that most Bengali people do not care a hoot about science/arts..and neither about their icons.If arts/science enables them to earn some quick bucks,then only is it important..then only can one be successful at one's career..such is the sad state of affairs today.More remarkably,now there is the notion..that true art is liable to be classed with 'nyakami'..(An oft used word among parents unable to appreciate the likes of great artists)..and science is classed with the tag..'chhele'tar matha khub saaf'..So,there you have it..Science rules the day,parents have their way..Every single Tom,Dick and Harry nowadays is an MBA or an engineer..I just wonder,how are the IT firms recruiting so many?!..If all of them turn up for work someday..the firm's office would resemble something akin to a distress-relief/flood-relief center..!

I await your views on the topic,Sir..

Please take good care of your health.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

I can't do better than to ask you to look up this book review, Debarshi:


The pathetic paucity of comments there should also tell you volumes about the attitude of the so-called educated population of this country towards anything that requires an exercise of mind, of independent, out-of-the-box thinking, thinking of a non-mathematical, non-mechanical, non-commercial kind...

Sayan Datta said...

Dear Suvro Sir,
The editorial is surely a classic example of messed up thinking. To infer that Bengalis rank literature higher than science from the fact that Bengalis have chosen to forget Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy defies logic. It is not surprising though, if one considers the fact that we are as much given to inanity and unreasonableness as a pompous show of eloquence. That is what the editorial, with all its vacuities amply demonstrates.

You are quite right in saying that we care as little for science as for the arts; and it does not have to do only with the youth harbouring ambitions of becoming doctors and engineers. Do you know that the latest fad is cosmology? Do you know how many of those I teach have told me that they want to become cosmologists, while in my four years of teaching (the sample space being somewhere between 150 to 250 students) I have probably known and taught only one who has some chance of doing anything worthwhile with science in the future? I have also learned that the youth is far too ignorant and impatient and arrogant to learn anything of lasting value. So few people understand that any creative undertaking, be it in science or the arts, has at least as much to do with grit and determination and prolonged struggle as with pure talent!

While I know that it is impossible to teach those who refuse to learn, I grapple with those who can (if they put their minds and hearts to it and dig in for a long, drawn out struggle) but who think that science can be learnt in a day. You know, there’s a certain coaching institute here in Kolkata whose advertisement goes – “Sanjay Sir’s magic teaching……Now Physics , Chemistry as easy as History, Geography……Become a scholar in just 10 months….” So much for the subtle sciences of Physics and Chemistry…
Sayan Datta

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Ah, Sayan, I know just what you mean: most of even so-called bright pupils these days want science served up like two-minute noodles (MCQ tests allow a lot of pinheads to give themselves airs that they have learnt a lot of science)! The recent craze hereabouts among kids in the 14-17 age group is 'astrophysics'. I personally know a lot of them, and I know that if I gave them a quiz on what astrophysics is all about, based on what little I know, most wouldn't score more than 10%... there was one such girl to whom I lent a highly readable book on Einstein's life and work (specifically written for teenagers), and she returned it without reading, apparently because she had found it both difficult and boring. She hasn't read a single book about or by a real scientist. Her exam results seem to say, though, that she is 'good at science', and I am sure to see her qualified as a doctor or engineer a few years down the line. I have forgotten more science than these people will ever learn: what is worse, they have never taken any real interest in it; what is worst, these are the types who are called 'talented' these days (though, admittedly, most of such talents end up as cybercoolies or fashion designers, glorified tailors, or the kind of 'journalist' who writes the kind of gibberish I have pointed out. But who's complaining?)

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,

After working in a newspaper office for an a year and three months, I find this not surprising at all. Editors are supposed to create 'story packages', content isn't that important any more. And it is always the poor interns/juniors who have to generate the most content. Often they have to as many stories as they can, so they take a short route: googling the content out, making a few changes and then even adding a fictional quote for a story. What's more harrowing is that they won't make an effort to learn or improve and would act as know-it-alls. (I have already planned to leave the job soon because I am not interested in selling such stupid stories any more and I feel it would be better if I go for writing meaningful stuff).
As for this article, it shows for itself that the one who wrote it is ignorant about what arts and science really mean. Be it arts or sciences, I think hardly few of us are curious enough to go into the depth of any subject. And that is why there are very few who are competent at their field.

Thanks and with regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Nothing like direct personal experience, Sayantika, right? If I had told you the very things you have said yourself after only a year's work experience, you might have not believed a word of it, or felt offended that I was discouraging you from this kind of career with a load of fiction!

The inner working of the media was bad enough in my time to disenchant me quickly, and I know for a fact that things have grown much worse since, especially with the cancerous growth of the visual/electronic thrill-a-minute version. It would not be a bad idea to go for a more serious, more honest career while you have time - teaching or civil service, for instance. Just keep in mind that these are not paradise either: the rot has gone deep here, too.

I had been expecting some people who have made careers in science to write in telling us what needs to be done to make India a really science-loving (rather than mall-babaji-Bollywood-IPL loving) country... you needn't hate history or literature to do good science, that's one thing for sure!

sayantika said...

Sorry Sir, I made a few typos. It should be 'in their fields', 'have to write', 'hardly any of us'. I typed in a hurry and was careless not to check the comment.

Thanks, Sayantika

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I should like to note in passing that some of my boys told me they had been sent recently from school to attend a quiz organized by some government sponsored committee set up to preserve the memory of P.C. Roy.

So obviously some people who know and care keep trying. Now if we the majority of even so-called 'educated' people want to remember only the Princess Diana and Michael Jackson types - or rather, nobody at all for very long - whose fault is it, those who still remember and revere Tagore?

santanu Chatterjee said...

ask ur students to go through lokkhir sondhanay by shankar. this was published in pujabarshiki desh during the year 1999-2000. 'btw suvroda rege jeona amar opor for using ur instead of your and stating btw instead of by the way'