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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bye bye, 2012...

It’s the 18th of December, and the year is rapidly drawing to a close. I was just as busy or lazy as I have been for ages, and yet the year has zipped by so fast that I can hardly believe my eyes when I look at the calendar and see that it’s time for my year-end holiday again. I have stepped into my fiftieth year; my daughter has grown up to finish secondary school, and in another ten years’ time I can definitely start thinking of myself as an old man, and acting accordingly, demanding from the world the consideration that old age can expect after having lived through decades of hard and continuous work and paid my dues. Even the government will start giving me the privileges legally due to a senior citizen, fancy that!

On the whole this has been a pretty uneventful year, not just for myself but for mankind as a whole (discounting the possibility that the world will be destroyed in three days’ time). Of course there have been the usual chills, thrills and spills, Olympics and terrorist attacks and continuing wars and celebrity hatches, matches and despatches, but little that would be remembered as major historical landmarks (do tell me if you think otherwise, referring to specific incidents that you consider world changing – only if you have a historical consciousness, of course, and don’t imagine that the launch of iPhone 5 too is a phenomenon worth noting). My generation is reaching the age when no news is likely to be good news, so I am glad that this was another year that passed quietly, smoothly, without too many and too nasty hiccups. And that I found a lot of time for myself, reading, watching movies, writing, chatting up old boys, walking and swimming and meditating…

In a comment on the first post of the year, I wrote “the rest of the story will be my daughter’s”. Well, my wife’s too, actually, because she’s building up her own career with gusto now. So as my daughter grows more independent and career oriented, and the family depends less and less on my income, I can look forward to easing up gradually, and turn my attention to doing things I love doing more. What I’d love to do most, of course, is what the place I live in has still not grown used to giving me on a large enough scale – mentoring and giving quality companionship to children and those not so young, rather than tutoring for this or that examination; something that I have always been good at and enjoyed hugely, something that I have always considered the best and most important part of my work as a teacher, something that is the essential thing, I believe, that the scores of young people who have been positively affected by my classes remember and miss and keep coming back for, when all the course material that I taught has been long forgotten, something that I have always done for a few people at a time, with and without payment, for ages now, something that I regard as my USP and know for a fact that precious few teachers can provide these days, at the kindergarten level or the university. Let’s see whether I can mould my services more and more into that shape with the passage of years, and whether there grows a sizeable enough market for it. That will be my next big adventure!

And with that I bow out for a while. This may quite possibly be the last post of this year.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

More science, less of everything else?

There are certain issues that keep exercising my mind all the time, and the face-off between science and the humanities happens to be one of them.

I should like the reader to go through the two links here; the first to a 2010 news item that I came across only recently, which tells about how a prominent Indian industrialist has donated a large sum of money to set up a liberal arts centre at Harvard University, his alma mater, the second, written by an ex-professor of English at Yale who first majored in science, and writes about how ideally studies in science and the humanities should complement one another – something that I have been insisting on for a long long time, and something that our leaders/educationists seem increasingly to be losing sight of. It is my (I believe very reasonable) fear that without that kind of well-rounded education, not only shall we stop producing mature, civilized citizens who can be equally good at parenting and teaching and ruling the nation at all levels from the municipality to the federal government, but even stop producing any real science at all, reducing ourselves instead to a country full of rude, ignorant, greedy, mentally unbalanced petty technicians of all kinds… hardly the sort of nation with any hope of a glorious future! Last night I heard an old boy – now in  a very renowned engineering college – saying that when he reads the newspaper in the canteen or in the hostel, his friends/roommates taunt him for it, calling him a ‘retired person’ with nothing ‘worthwhile’ to do, worthwhile in their book meaning getting drunk, watching smut on the net, chasing girls, zooming about on  bikes bought by their fathers or loitering in shopping malls, of course, not working in some lab or listening to a scholarly lecture or doing some part time job or writing music or anything like that…

Monday, December 03, 2012

Doth Google protest too much?

Vinton Cerf, one of the so-called ‘fathers of the internet’, senior VP and ‘Chief Internet Evangelist’ at Google, has written this article warning humanity at large about what he sees as a concerted effort by governments around the world to stop the net being free and open to all (he has also posted on the same subject on Google’s official blog). Now about this I am in two minds, not least because it seems to me to be yet another attempt (and by someone representing a very powerful private profit-making organization with its own axe to grind) to portray governments (and more generally, all forms of authority) as fundamentally hostile to human freedom and welfare.

When I think of all the enormous benefits that the internet has brought to mankind in just a little over two decades – not only all the new jobs and businesses it has spawned or enabled to grow big but miracles like email and Wikipedia and YouTube and blogging and online banking and ticketing etc etc – I agree almost without reservation (were it not for the ‘copy-paste’ culture it has encouraged among all sorts of people from schoolkids to post-doc scholars) that the internet has been a Good Thing on a gigantic scale, and I would most certainly like to see it keep growing and developing in myriad hitherto undreamed-of ways. However, when I hear of fears that governments are secretly hatching dark plans to hobble and enslave it, I cannot help wondering, for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, despite Mr. Cerf’s pretensions to historical wisdom (he is a techie, after all, however rich and famous), the fact remains that governments have neither always determinedly fought against progress nor generally succeeded – at least, not for long. To take just two examples from a vast range of choices available to any educated person, slavery could never have been abolished, nor measures of public hygiene for the masses (including everything from networks of regularly cleaned underground sewers to vaccination) would ever have been possible without large scale government support and involvement anywhere on earth: and no one in his right mind will argue that these were not major progressive steps in human development. Mr. Cerf writes correctly in the last lines that ‘within decades of Gutenberg’s creation, princes and priests moved to restrict the right to print books’; what he omits to mention is that they failed despite their best attempts, and the printed word managed to spread fast and wide enough to bring about events as momentous as the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Governments are nowhere and never all powerful; resolute people with clear aims and visions will find ways out of their muzzles and dragnets. Scare mongering of this sort, therefore, might be in the nature of dishonest hyperbole, and we should stop to wonder why it is being done, whose interest is being served in reality.

Mr. Cerf has also been careless enough to let slip his opinion that the inter-governmental organization called the ITU is not wholly a Bad Thing, since it has greatly helped the net to multiply quickly, smoothly and seamlessly through global cooperation; only, his gripe is that governments alone have a right to vote in it; ‘engineers, companies, and people that (sic) build and use it have no vote’. He may have a point there (though it is also true that engineers and companies are not traditionally asked to vote on the need to build bridges and cities, either – that kind of decision making has always been the preserve of governments, for the simple reason that nobody and nothing else has been found to represent the ‘general public interest’ better than governments do, all except the very worst of them anyway). So it may be okay to demand that the deliberations of this meeting being held today at Dubai be made public knowledge, and that governments do not take draconian measures without informing and consulting their respective peoples, but it is absurd to say that governments should not hold such meetings at all!

Then there is this matter of there being so many governments which block the services of Google and other companies either temporarily or permanently, and that being portrayed as a very Bad Thing. Sign the petition at once, don’t stop to think, the article and the blogpost are telling us with shrill urgency, otherwise the sky is going to fall on your head. It is at such times, when howling mobs instigated by wily and ruthless manipulators with hidden agendas call for bringing down all kinds of established standards, norms, conventions and institutions (the trials of Socrates and Joan of Arc, and the effect of Mark Antony’s speech at Julius Caesar’s funeral are telling cases in point) that people who value reason, balance and fairness need to hold on most tightly to their sanity and their own right of judgment, whether they are private individuals or people in positions of public power. Yes, okay, many governments do monitor, filter and even ban many kinds of content – so what? Doesn’t every sensible parent do it with their child’s range of internet access (and don’t give me the corny crap about adults being in general more mature and knowing what is good for them – remember that most adults would rather watch dancing girls or go to kitty parties than attend learned seminars, remember Auden’s apocryphal ‘unknown citizen’, who ‘held the proper opinions for the time of year/ when there was peace, he was for peace, when there was war, he went’; remember the inimitable Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister demonstrating with panache how ‘public opinion’ can be manufactured at will by any sufficiently cunning and powerful authority…)? Doesn’t Google do it itself (how many outside posts criticizing their policies have they put up on their own blog)? I know a little bit about my own country, and the kind of things our government has occasionally banned or blocked – personal abuse of high level politicians, for example, and vicious and completely irrational hate mongering websites vilifying certain religious communities, designed to raise tempers and provoke barbaric riots – have been found to be okay by most level-headed citizens; occasions when governments went too far have been quickly remedied (as with the recent Facebook incidents in Maharashtra and West Bengal), so where is the terrible urgency to remove all powers of supervision and censorship from the hands of governments?

As for the worry that several regimes want a ban on anonymous posts, I happen to hold very strong views in favour of it, from my own experience on the net, especially with blogging. Somebody on my  blog has sought to justify it on the grounds that a lot of people like to post anonymously – I hope I don’t have to belabour the point that that is one of the stupidest arguments in favour of doing or not doing something. My experience is that only ignorant and unreasonable people who want to abuse me out of pure personal spite (and know that very well themselves, and are therefore scared to expose themselves to the same kind of abuse!) as a rule feel the need to send anonymous comments to my blog: no friend needs it, and no civilized critic does, either. Blogger itself (a tool owned by Google) currently offers a facility to block anonymous comments, and I have availed myself of it after enduring for many years the ‘comments’ of vulgar cowards whose real problem was a lack of education coupled with envy and having very little work to do. No man who has a real opinion and courage of conviction, I shall maintain this to my dying day, will be afraid to put his name to it – Luther wasn’t and Gandhi wasn’t, I myself have never felt the need for it, and the ‘opinions’ of the faceless crowd should never be given an overblown importance, otherwise there is the end of competent government and decent social life. Besides, why doesn’t a writer who insists on the importance of ‘transparency’ to the net fail to notice the basic contradiction with the position that anonymous posting/commenting is okay? You can’t have your cake and eat it too, Mr. Cerf!

Concerning the fear that governments are planning to impose some kind of toll on content providers and other net users for reaching out to audiences beyond borders, well, what is so novel or wrong or traumatizing about the idea? Governments need money to make vast outlays on providing many kinds of services to people which the latter may imagine to be free – piped and chlorinated water to many homes in India, for example – and so they try to impose tolls and taxes. People speaking for vast corporates like Google are usually committed to the ideology of the ‘free’ market when it suits them (where, ironically, all things should be priced for them to be produced and distributed ‘efficiently’); when it doesn’t, they scream blue murder. People pay computer hardware- and software manufacturers and internet service providers for accessing the internet, so why shouldn’t they also pay a little to governments which protect them (as with anti-cyber crime laws)? The fact that most net users have gotten used to accessing virtually everything on the net for free (except porn – for which millions pay gladly, a very telling point) is not an argument to justify that this should go on forever, else the net is doomed. Speaking for myself, I am quite willing to pay a toll for net usage of the kind which I find useful, so long as it is small and fair, in the sense that I willingly pay tolls for the use of the national highways, but find it objectionable that someone driving a small hatchback is required to pay as much as someone driving a top of the line BMW.

And finally, look at the cartoon on top of the article. One banner says ‘Fear me, I am free’.Talk about mindlessness having a field day. These are the same people who want to be free of the fear of government. I don’t want to rub it in, but what kind of ugly-minded pinhead can say that since everybody has a right to be free, someone needs to fear him so that he can be free of fear? For the reader who finds that flying over his head, here’s something simpler to think about: if you found an alligator or a tiger on the road holding up a sign like that, wouldn’t you ring at once for someone to come rushing and put the beast in a cage? Remember, then, that humans can be far more annoying and dangerous than any dumb animal…

Thursday, November 08, 2012

New minister, old hat

Sunday’s newspapers gave wide coverage to the expensive religious fanfare with which the new Union minister, M.M. Pallam Raju, entered office very recently. Not only was absolutely everything rearranged on the advice of ‘vaastu experts’ but everything from the priest to the laddoos was specially flown in from Tirupati, so as to ensure that the Lord Himself would look benignly upon the new incumbent and give him a long and trouble-free tenure in the high profile Ministry for Human Resource Development (which looks after everything educational, from the anganwadi schools to the IITs and IIMs, among other things). Just as a matter of fact, Mr. Raju is a very young man by conventional standards in politics – a mere fifty – and he is both an electronics engineer and holder of a ‘phoren’ MBA to boot.

My observations:

So far as outlook on life is concerned, if you call this superstition, an engineer cum MBA these days obviously comes from the same cultural level as any coal thief in Ranigunj who quit school after failing class 8 twice on smelling the money. You have got to judge a man by things other than the degrees he has, the office he holds and the car he drives – a point I have underscored again and again. Which of these differentiated Tagore from any lala in Burra Bazaar – or any ‘successful’ pickpocket for that matter?

I can only wonder what kind of educational future India has under the stewardship of men like these. Are we going to produce Satyajit Rays and Subhas Boses and  C.V. Ramans by the thousands now, or an endless stream of cybercoolies, shopping mall supervisors, credit card salesmen calling themselves ‘business executives’, factory foremen, low grade journos and hotel receptionists who get very angry whenever they are told that if they consider themselves ‘successful’, they must by the same token admit that that apocryphal coal mafia don is fifty times more so?

It is a pity, too, that there were intellectual giants like Humayun Kabir and Triguna Sen in the same position in the early days of the republic, working under the guidance of no less a mind than Jawaharlal Nehru, a man who was in close intellectual touch with literally the finest minds in the world, from Einstein to Tagore, from Joan Robinson to Vikram Sarabhai (everything from the IITs to the Lalit Kala Akademi was set up in those halcyon years). How far we have ‘progressed’ in the last sixty years, indeed.

Finally, in defence of the likes of Pallam Raju (and his one-time predecessor Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, a physicist who wanted to introduce regular courses on astrology in all leading universities), maybe it is better on the whole to believe in things like God than in Lady Gaga, iPad apps, credit cards, massage parlours and shopping malls, after all! (see my post titled ‘Post modern enlightenment’, alongwith with Suvro Sarkar’s witty comment on it). At least thinking of God tries to lift you up from the muck, while these trappings of contemporary ‘civilization’ only push you down deeper into it…until every moron with a third-rate college degree, a Rs. 30,000-a-month job, endless time to waste and a ‘smart’ phone with an internet connection thinks he can ‘debate’ with people immeasurably his intellectual and moral superiors simply by spouting a few words of abuse, drunken rickshawwallah style!

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Festival time meetings

Well, sometimes there’s cause for cheer, too. A lot of old boys come to look me up at pujo-time; this year was no exception. Among them, two gave me particular reason to feel buoyed up: one, an engineer freshly graduated from one of the IITs who has just lost his father and got into a demanding but decent job far away from home; the other, going up to the final year in medical college, and glad to share a bit of his new-found knowledge with old Sir. Since my opinion of the average doctor and engineer (those who have been graduating after 1990, in particular-) is well known, I am glad to say I find these boys to be refreshingly different from the herd.

I watch these young folks as they grow up from kids into adults, and I have always found the slow yet dramatic transformation startling, both when they grow up into nasties and when they become adults I can be proud of. To start with, both these boys have always known, of course, that Sir has nothing against studying science and going in for medicine or engineering – it is the false socio-psychological baggage (a mix of petty greed, vanity, pretension, opportunism, vulgar language and lack of respect for both learning and hard work) that usually goes with it that turns me off – so they have never had a problem communicating with me, whether by phone or over the net or face to face. What I found good about these two (and indeed always appreciate it whenever I find it) was that they could speak so freely yet without arrogance or irreverence, that they  had so much to talk about, that they had their feet firmly planted on the ground (in the sense of knowing perfectly well about the pros and cons of their chosen careers and also how silly it is to put on airs), that they could laugh at their own follies and shortcomings, that they were going through life so self-possessed, caring little for what others said about them, as any mature man should. They were not the typically avaricious, mall-hopping pub-crawling girl -leering sort, they read books, they are entirely agreed that a man cannot be judged by his car or a woman by her looks, they have genuine hobbies to pursue – cooking with one, karate and painting with the other – they talked of taking responsibility at home and the workplace, they showed a glad eagerness to help me out with little problems I happened to mention. The one regaled me with stories about office politics and what he is learning by consorting with illiterate but highly skilled workers, the other told me how much harm contemporary ‘educated’ parents are doing to their children, medically speaking, by bringing them up like hothouse plants. On the whole it was evident that they enjoyed spending a couple of hours with me as much as I did hosting them; and I shall be glad to see and hear from them again and again.

It goes without saying that I wish them all the best in life, and I am glad that some like them are growing into new adults, although it makes me feel very bad to think how much more numerous the scum is, and how the lives of good people such as these are sure to be troubled by them. Still, it’s a blessed thought that the country goes on producing a few of the better types too, despite all the damage that average parents and teachers and friends try to do to their psyches all through the formative years. And hearing them fondly recollect so many things I said to them in class years ago, I feel comforted to think that all that work has not gone wholly in vain…

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Market societies?

There  are two kinds of people I most admire: those who have done some good to the world (even if in a very humble capacity – I don’t always think of great scientists, artists, philosophers and statesmen; a helpful neighbour fits the bill perfectly), and those who cannot perhaps boast of as much, but have lived quiet, contented lives without envying or harming anybody. I am lucky to have met a few and heard of a lot of both types: which is why I neither believe that living an utterly empty, selfish, materialistic, noisy life is necessary nor that it is a healthy moral choice, and at my age it doesn’t matter how many people believe things to the contrary, I just know that they are both wrong and foolish, as they will find out to their chagrin sooner or later.

Life has always been hard, especially for the simple, humble and good – no wonder they have always needed strong characters, and it has always helped to believe that their proper rewards wait in heaven. But, though I do not look at the past with rose-tinted glasses, it does seem to me that in some ways at least, life and living is being made harder for them of late, and one reason for it is that money is increasingly becoming the measure of all things, including pride, dignity and happiness. And I think my consternation counts for something, for unlike overly idealistic people of the religious or communist varieties, I have always held that money and the pursuit of it is – or ought to be – one of the healthy, important and necessary pursuits of life if one wants to live well (this incidentally agrees with the ancient Hindu idea of the four main aims of life, dharma, artha, kaama and moksha). It is also a fact that the pursuit of material wealth has been the primary occupation of a lot of people everywhere since the dawn of civilization, whether you look at ancient Egypt or India or China or Phoenicia or Rome. So what is new? This essay, which actually reviews a book, raises some very important issues that are truly new, and I can add a few things of my own.

First of all, the essayist says, to have a market economy (merely a useful tool) is not the same thing as to become a market society, where everything is up for sale to the highest bidder – and we are becoming increasingly too dumb to even realize that there is a vital difference. Then he goes on to offer proof that this is actually happening, and is not merely a gloomy philosopher’s apprehension any more: people are being paid, and are expecting to be paid, for literally everything – from reading books to standing in queues to renting out their wombs for babies and foreheads as billboards (indeed, for many years parents have been asking me naam lekhate koto lagbe? How much must we pay to enroll our ward’s name for your tuition?). The cynics used to say once upon a time things like ‘Every man has his price’ and ‘He’ll sell his mother if the price is right’: things like that are becoming more and more a description of contemporary reality (I have written about these things before). Next he goes on to point out that this is bound to make society more and more unfair (increasingly everyone will be assessed only by ability to pay rather than any genuine love of or talent for something – can’t we think of such things happening all around us, and not just in the USA? Think of anything you like, from admission to engineering college to buying up judges, politicians and ministers to young people ‘preferring’ to become fashion models rather than artists or scientists) as well as corrupt: no society which monetizes all human transactions can help being corrupt, because people are bound to grow used to getting everything from good marks in exams to favourable judgments in court to sleeping partners for a monetary price, and the only people who will get hurt will be those who either cannot or do not want to pay – unfortunately or otherwise, always the vast majority of the population everywhere! And that cannot be a wise formula for securing long-term social peace and stability, even in the domestic hearth. To take but one instance, men my age do not, cannot like the feeling that they only exist as ATMs for their wives and daughters, yet I have direct evidence that far too many are being forced into such a miserable condition by prevailing circumstances...

Some lines in the essay are particularly thought-provoking. Only by reintroducing ultimate questions about our purpose, nature, and fulfillment could we successfully evaluate the ethics of human enhancement…These aren’t merely economic questions; they are moral and political questions…The problem with our politics is not too much moral argument but too little. Our politics is overheated because it is mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content… we need to reason together, in public, about how to value the social goods we prize… From a political perspective, Sandel’s concern about the market intruding where it doesn’t belong is most likely to be embraced by today’s left, as today’s right has largely become unreserved market(s) enthusiasts. This is a shame, as an older – and healthier – conservatism did have a greater appreciation for the limits of markets…in the process, civil society is crowded out. Rebuilding non-market non-state institutions of civil society is the task going forward.”

This article was written in the contemporary American context, but to those who can see and think, it sounds uncannily like India too, both the problem and the necessary solution. Only, I fear, the culture of thinking one’s way through the big issues (and not the petty ones like whether we should buy more smartphones and build more shopping malls and drink more beer or rum) is more nearly extinct in India than it is in America, if my sources are right. And this is truly sad, because despite much going against her, India did have a reputation of being a thinking society for a long, long time. Especially so Bengal. Which is why it hurts me so much to hear from ‘educated’ Bengali youths that only your income matters, though I happen to earn much more than most fresh IIT graduates do, and the proprietors of Subhas Sweets in Benachity or Kanta Cloth Stores in Durgapur Bazaar earn 20 to 30 times more, yet they have never claimed to be human beings of a higher order…and these youths, heaven help us, are going to be the parents, teachers and leaders in the 2020s and 30s! 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

It's been a happy birthday!

Oops... I know it's terribly early to write a new post after what I wrote as a postscript only yesterday, but (and I did say I shall write whenever the urge grips me strongly!) this is 17th October, and though it is just another birthday, it would be churlish of me not to acknowledge publicly the fact that I have been literally inundated with birthday wishes via telephone, sms, cards and even impromptu celebrations arranged at home here by my current pupils. I was struck forcefully once more by the thought that it is probably because so many people make such an unabashed song and dance about me - a kind of recognition that so many hanker for and so few get - that those who have never got to know me or like me well find it too galling to swallow, and that in turn explains why they boil over with invective and abuse when they talk about me elsewhere, and naturally cannot think of anything nice and decent to say to my face. 

Anyway, on such a cheery day, it is a waste of time to even recollect that scum exists. Once more, a most hearty and grateful thanks to so many people, young and not so young, near and far away, who kindly took the time out to say 'Happy birthday' and warm the cockles of my heart. God bless you all.

P.S.: Moments after putting up this post I discovered that Arani Banerjee has written about me on his blog. Not too many people either can or will do that. Thanks, Arani. You have made my day.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Eyebrows raised very high

Nearly seven hundred visits since I put up the last post. There are a few new comments on my daughter's post, for which I wish to say thanks. There have been virtually none on the other two, despite my request. I am wondering more and more what sort of people keep visiting my blog, and why.

P.S., October 16: There, that's another week gone by, and another 400-plus visits too, and not a single comment on any post yet. Either people are having trouble sending comments (though I cannot for the life of me figure out what sort of trouble they might have - they can even email me to tell me about it!), or they cannot think of anything to say on anything at all that I write, or they are simply too busy or too lazy to exert themselves; though why there should still be hundreds of visits every week in that case, God alone knows... In any case, here's a decision I have taken. Already there is a large corpus of writing on this blog: those who are merely keen to visit and read up old posts without commenting are welcome to carry on; I'm not taking the blog off the net (yet). But there will be a big slowdown in writing future posts. All these years I have been writing regularly, methodically, assiduously, as I do everything else; from now onwards, I shall write much more sparingly, only when I feel a strong urge. And maybe if and when a considerable number of new comments come in. No point in working so hard when the audience insists on impersonating a dumb wall (this was one of the reasons why I quit journalism in favour of teaching long ago, and at least in those days I was paid for writing, however little). Those who want can go back to the two earliest posts I wrote here, where I explained why I was starting a blog. That might also go some way to explain why I am now growing weary...

Monday, October 01, 2012

Other people's writing

There are three blogposts that I want my readers to go through, and, if possible, comment upon.

The first is an issue raised by my daughter in her latest blogpost. I myself have written on this subject before, I am both a teacher and parent myself, I broadly agree with her views (in the formation of which I have had no little influence), and I should very much like to hear what others have to say about it.

The second is the latest post on Sayan and Rashmi’s blog. Surely, unless all our readers want to brand themselves as utterly mindless, a lot of people ought to have much to say about it.

And finally, this post on the website titled The Public Discourse. Does it, in your opinion (assuming you understand what it says), rightly describe the way the world is going?

Nice post, short and sweet, isn’t it?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Chanakya's Chant

This year has given me some really good reading of new Indian writers in English spinning yarns on quintessentially Indian themes, and writing well. This book is the latest in the broad genre of historical fiction that I have just tackled, and I am very upbeat about it. I finished reading it in a single day, and that is already saying something. Given both my work schedule and the background of reading that I have, not one book in a hundred can grip me so firmly these days.

This book, like those of Nagarkar, Tripathi and Liddle that I have mentioned approvingly earlier on this blog (and also like Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies), is an imaginative recreation of part of our hoary and glamorous past – in this case, the saga of how the worldly-wise sage Chanakya destroyed the Nandas of Magadha and united almost the whole of India for the first time in recorded history under one emperor, his brilliant and devoted protégé Chandragupta Maurya, in the late 4th century BC. But where it deviates from the others is in telling two parallel stories – the ancient one constantly alternating with a modern-day version, where a wily, ruthless, farseeing, personally humble but politically über ambitious mentor’s machinations, exactly in old Chanakya’s style, ultimately put his most promising disciple on the throne – read the prime minister’s chair – in New Delhi. The closest comparison I could recall is Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel

Sanghi has done quite a bit of research – hugely aided by the internet! His language is less adolescent than Tripathi’s, though in my opinion it is still quite unnecessarily bespattered with coarse expletives and slang which serve no literary purpose. But there are flashes of intelligent wit and lots of allusion which would appeal to the educated reader (if such a sub-species still exists). He has put so many smart aphorisms in the mouths of his two gurus, borrowed from every kind of famous source, Napoleon to Mao ze Dong, Al Capone to Yes Minister, that he just might have been sued, if only he had not taken the trouble to acknowledge his sources.

Some loose ends remain. I shall mention just one – how did Gangasagar Mishra die so soon of old age and disease while his much older one time patron Agarwal-ji was still going strong? But I shall not play the spoiler; let the reader find out more for himself. I guarantee that will not diminish his enjoyment of the book.

I am glad that the book simultaneously reasserts two eternal truths about politics: that it is the last refuge of scoundrels, and also that it can be the noblest profession. It also clearly shows how big business and high politics make cosy bedfellows – so much for naïve folks who think that businessmen are ‘good’ people and only politicos are bad. Besides, it is delightful to see that so many contemporary young people are working hard to give the lie to the stupid canard that history is not ‘cool’. A time will come soon, I am hoping, when only chimps and engineers will think that way…

Sanghi has written only three books yet, and already I can draw not-absurd comparisons with masters like Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum and Jeffrey Archer. I think he has a glorious future in writing. And to think he balances a life of ‘entrepreneur by day and author by night’, an MBA too! More power to his elbow. May he give inspiration to many of my old boys. And may the Indian publishing industry now go all out to make our writers celebrities worldwide, so that a day might soon come when the most talented of them can make very paying careers out of writing alone, and be shining beacon lights to youngsters growing up in their shadow.

The Chanakya legend, by the way, has a very special appeal for me, because I have in vain looked for a worthy disciple like Chandragupta all my life, and now given up, for my pupils, I have now accepted, have no big ambitions at all.

Many thanks to young Hindol Bose for having lent me this book to read.

[Chanakya’s Chant, by Ashwin Sanghi, Westland Ltd 2010, pp 448, Rs. 195, ISBN 978-93-80658-67-4, Rs. 140 on flipkart]

Friday, September 14, 2012

Teachers' Day and after

To start off, hearty thanks to all those who sent me cards by post and electronically, and sms to say  ‘Happy Teachers’ Day’. Too many to thank individually, so forgive me. I want you all to look up my blog anyway.

I have been reflecting over this blogging experience, and wondering how long I should keep at it. I am a teacher, and a thinking man, and that is what I shall remain till the end of my days. Writing publicly, that’s something else again. As I have said before, I started writing blogs on request at age 43 to extend my classroom over the net worldwide, and make the best possible use of that classroom – to share, classic Bengali adda fashion (not the roadside thek variety-), my thoughts on all kinds of subjects with as wide a range of people as possible, and engage the best of them in lively discussions which could perchance entertain while mutually enriching minds. It’s about the only thing that I do free of charge for people outside my immediate family, except for occasionally donating blood. I have been writing for more than six years at a stretch – those who were graduating from high school then are finishing university now; those then in college are working and married! – and have written more than 300 posts on this blog itself, besides nearly 200 on the other one. By any yardstick that’s a rich harvest for anyone who is interested in reading. The page views counter has crossed the 130,000 mark, I get almost 3000 visits a month on average (nearly 40,000 in just the last year), there are 270-odd ‘members’ of this blog, and most posts here are commented upon upto a dozen times at least: some have attracted more than 50 comments. A good enough record for most blog writers; indeed, many would be envious (there are countless blogs which don’t get a thousand visits and thirty comments in a whole year, yet sheer vanity and idleness keep the writers hammering away! Also, a lot of people, especially juveniles, give up what started as a lark after the first year or so). Still, there are reasons why I am not as happy as I could be. Let me list them for myself:

·      There are obviously hundreds of readers who refuse to become members that I may know – why?
·      There are also hundreds of readers who will simply never comment, even to ask a question or say thanks.
·     I have lately had to shut out scum who comment only to say ‘I hate you’ in various ways, and can obviously neither read nor understand what I write, so no sensible comment can be expected from them: why on earth do they visit at all?
·    Too many old posts are too quickly and permanently forgotten, whereas serious readers should be looking them up frequently and commenting again and again, seeing new significance in them in the light of their own growing experience of life. As I have said before, little here dates – seeing that I don’t write about the launch of smart phones.
·      I do write on virtually every subject under the sun except smut and shopping and cricket and partying: are those the only things most people are interested in, then?
·      Every year, at the time of leaving, scores of pupils promise that they are going to keep in touch, and agree that the blogs would be the best option, since I cannot keep individually in touch with so many via email and phone, but most of them simply fade away with time! 
·     The kind of excuses that people come up with for not following my blogs regularly are exasperating, to put it mildly: while the youngsters say “Mommy doesn’t allow me to use the net”, working people say they either don’t have a good connection at home or they are ‘too tired’ at the end of a long day…come on, if you were truly interested, such excuses would never even crop up in your mind! And yet so many of them, when they call or visit, insist that I believe they often think about me, and find it sad that I have forgotten them. People can’t accept that they make themselves forgettable!
·       There are those who take many months to reply to emails of mine, but when they write, they expect me to reply attentively, affectionately and adequately within a day or two. Of course, they themselves are too busy, all of them, and I am the only man they know who has all the time in the world. Many of these people, I happen to know, also loudly lament on many forums that people are falling out of touch!

No point in lengthening that list, though I could.

I also sometimes think of my erstwhile colleagues at St. Xavier’s Durgapur. Believe it or not, some of them once upon a time said publicly that they liked and admired and even respected me for various reasons. Ever since I quit, however, they have somehow found it ‘inconvenient’ to look me up, yet they have gone around assuring one another and everybody they know that I am an unsocial person! Also, they would say they have simply been ‘too busy’ working, shopping, doing chores, attending parties, saving, travelling, raising children, getting medical attention… the sort of things I do all the time, too, the only difference between me and them lying in the fact that I do not make a big deal out of these mundane things, nor think that one is human if one cannot simultaneously live a rich life of the mind. Most of them never had minds anyway, but of a few I had had some hope once upon a time. One, I hear, is growing old and infirm; hasn’t he still realized that I happen to be one of the very few human beings who ever really liked and to some extent respected him, and does he relish the thought that he would die without ever seeing me again? Does he reflect sometimes, in lonely moments, on what has happened to the memory of Fathers Gilson and Wautier and Wavreil? Do the illusions of the world still hold him back so strongly? And he’s just one of the many people whose shadows come back sometimes…

Of course, that school was only a part of my life. There have been lots of other experiences of the sort that people who directly became schoolteachers after graduating from college and never did anything else all their lives cannot possibly imagine – other places and people, other encounters, other realizations (can people without any experience of life outside the classroom ever become real teachers? I have never stopped wondering. Instructors, sure, but teachers?). Ghosts sometimes come out of the past, and some even say “I am so sorry I wasted so many precious years staying away because I didn’t understand you”. With a few of them relations are patched up; with most, alas, it is too late. It’s happened even to members of my own native family. People should think hard before deciding to fall out of touch… there is an email i.d. given on this blog for those who would like to communicate privately. Use it, today! I recently wrote to someone who had called himself my friend for many years, just to make sure it isn’t true that I don’t give people second chances; his reply assures me that he doesn’t want anything of the kind. I tried the same a couple of years ago with a sister whom I had raised like my own child – there are still people around who are living testimony to this claim – saying ‘I still love you as much as ever’, and she didn’t even bother to reply. If you are their type, okay, but let it never be said that any relationship was spoilt for want of trying on my part. That would be the only regret I don’t want to die with. Otherwise, after all, people just come and go, and so will I…

On Monday, in the course of the same day, even while taking the normal round of classes, I counselled people three separate times: a mother and son who had just lost the man of the house, two young girls who had quarrelled badly and were now feeling terrible about it yet didn’t know how to make up, and an elderly gentleman who was very worried about what his son was doing. All of them basically needed words of comfort and reassurance, tidings of good cheer. So easy to say, but it is evident that most people don’t find it anywhere, certainly not from doctors, lawyers, engineers and most teachers, else they wouldn’t have come to me. One very important purpose of writing my blogs was to share the same sort of comfort, cheer, reassurance and spirit of exhilarating freedom with a lot of people, and considering that my blogs are visited so frequently, it is evident that many people do find some use for them. So why won’t they let me know? Is there a chance that they have reason to be ashamed or scared?

One piece of news before I sign off for now: after 24 continuous years, I have stopped taking in plus-two level (classes 11 and 12) pupils this year, as I stopped teaching college goers many years ago. Those who have good memories of those classes may want to know why. In any case, as a result, starting November, at least for a couple of months, I am going to have Sundays off – after having worked seven days a week at a stretch for nearly two decades. I wonder how much I’ll enjoy it, though…

Sunday, September 09, 2012

A riot of Calibans

The subtitle of this article is ‘Why can’t scholars write more clearly?’ The author has pointed out some reasons already, but I should like to add a few more. a) Most people are not taught these days that it is important to write well, nor what good writing means, b) a lot of language teachers are themselves confused, and imagine that jargon, prolixity and opaqueness are actually marks of ‘good-’, meaning learned writing (the disease starts being spread in high school, I have discovered), c) a lot of people in academia secretly know that what they are writing, expressed in plain English, would be little more than blah, so they are desperate to cover it up (‘If you cannot convince, confuse’!), d) In the world outside academia, there is a kind of negative snobbery at work here, assisted by vastness of numbers – I am proud of the fact that I cannot write good English (or Hindi or Mandarin or French for that matter), since that puts me on par with my friends on Facebook, and we are the world, aren’t we? e) Most engineer-turned-MBA types understand little more by communication beyond quarrelling with spouses, haggling with shopkeepers and displaying charts, maps, tables and diagrams on Powerpoint, for which you really do not need more than elementary-school language skills anyway (most of these types find reading P.G. Wodehouse too challenging, think Richard Dawkins is an intellectual, and would break their teeth on Bertrand Russell…) 

When it comes to Caliban proper, that’s another story. I have taught The Tempest, so I know a little better than the average man what this writer is talking about, and I must confess I am in two minds. Prospero did disdain Caliban from the beginning, and used him like a slave: his hatred and contempt might have intensified after Caliban tried to rape his daughter, but maybe the post colonialist scholars are right, C was just trying to pay him back in the only coin he knew. How much P really exerted himself to make C a better human being remains an open question: we have only his word for it. Besides, Shakespeare, true to his style, has put at least one passage in C’s mouth that hints at a strong stirring of a poetic soul in him, which justifies the suspicion that he is more sinned against than sinning. But the lines in question, ‘You taught me language, and my only profit on’t  is/ I know how to curse’, has a peculiarly poignant ring for those of us who have been teaching language all our lives. I have known far too many Calibans myself, alas, ones unredeemed by any hint of having human souls. Truly, they have little use for language except to curse everyone they should be respectful and grateful to. I am sure I am not the only one at whom they spit upwards whenever they feel particularly unhappy with their lives. I wish Shakespeare could have met some of them, for I’d have loved to savour whatever he might have said about these monsters (this and this are links to two related posts I wrote some time ago).

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Abolish child labour?

Here is a front page article from The Statesman dated September 2, 2012, saying how despite existing laws, abolition of child labour in India is still a far cry. Do read it first before continuing to read this post.

I am aware that a) India still has probably the largest child labour force in the world, b) it prevails to this day not only because of an exploding population and widespread poverty, but also because prevailing social attitudes treat it as not really a great national shame but as at most a necessary evil which ought to be winked at while other, more ‘pressing’ problems are being solved, c) millions of children are paid a pittance for backbreaking labour under nasty or dangerous conditions, and have no better future to look forward to, and d) India will never be acknowledged as a ‘developed’ nation while major social evils such as this continue to fester.

This is an issue which has exercised my mind for ages – certainly since my college days (remember, I read economics, and engaged in journalism, and saw all kinds of socio-political activities from close quarters, besides teaching youngsters for three decades now, and watching them grow up into adult citizens). My opinions have changed over time, so that today I am far more doubtful about whether child labour is at all such a great evil as it is fashionable in elite circles to call it these days, and whether abolishing it entirely would be such a very good thing for this country. Read me out before clamouring that I be lynched right away…

Don’t get me wrong: of course I am all for doing away with the utterly inhuman conditions in which so many children have to slave – conditions which any civilized country would regard as unworthy even of animals – and I am all for giving them decent wages, which would allow them to make substantial contributions to the family budget, perhaps lifting them above the poverty line (I am talking of the kind of family where daddy is a rickshaw puller, say, and mummy works in five houses as a domestic help: certainly if two children bring in at least five thousand a month extra, that would make a very big difference to the kind of lives they live). I am all for making more stringent laws and taxing people like us and much richer much more heavily, besides stricter birth control and widespread social propaganda, so that such things can be brought to pass, and soon. Other countries have done it, so we have no excuse for postponing it for ever.

But consider also, what will happen when all children can afford to live present-day middle-  and upper class lifestyles: the sort of children I almost exclusively deal with. My quarrel is with the idea that children should not work at all, and isn’t that what this class of children have become used to? Who benefits from that: they themselves, their families or society as a whole? Most of these kids have become used to pampered, wasteful living, so they are growing simultaneously fat and fat headed. Few of them read anything unless absolutely under compulsion (meaning examinations); work means nothing more than scurrying round the clock from one tuition to another (many of which have become little more than adda-s!). Most don’t even have serious hobbies to pursue, and most can’t or don’t want to do the simplest household chores unless forced, and then they do it very clumsily, with very bad grace, as if they are doing their parents huge favours. Most treat their parents as no more than drudges who supply money and goodies, and yet are so unthinkably dependent (to people like me, who have been almost completely independent since age 17-18) that leave alone doing anything creative or socially useful on their own, they can’t even travel around town without their parents’ cars and chaperoning, nor handle their own bank accounts (most parents can’t dream of letting them, either, but that’s only part of my complaint). Most of these people, as I have written here more than once before, even when they say they are going to college to get a ‘higher education’, learn so little about such trivial things (what you need to become a hotel valet or an optometrist or a BPO data-entry operator or an airline stewardess or sales agent and that sort of thing) at such great expense that they are, frankly, no better than what economists call ‘disguised unemployed’, wasting three or four years of their lives in what they call ‘having fun’, and then going on to work at things which neither bring them glory nor joy nor very respectable incomes, and to produce more babies to mould in their own likeness… don’t children who work at brick kilns or dhabas or roadside auto repair shops or jewellery factories or even households contribute substantially more to the world at large as much as to their near and dear ones, if only by not living the lives of parasites – very politically incorrect as this may sound?

And has a moderate amount of useful work, no matter how humble, ever hurt anybody as much as lack of occupation does? Forget geniuses of the Dickens and Edison and Faraday and Chaplin type who started working in their mid-teens – the world will probably see the like no more – but even ordinary, humble, routine work has enormous benefits for everybody, doesn’t it, if only by keeping people healthy and out of mischief? Why should I want, and all society want, that our children should be basically idle till they are well past 20? And what right do parents have to be proud of kids who are good for nothing, even the small minority among them who do well in examinations but cannot change a fuse or give an accident victim first aid or stand up to bullies on the road?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Paan Singh Tomar

I watched this very disturbing movie recently. The film has won critical acclaim, and if the director’s aim was to stir the audience’s sympathy for the central character, he has succeeded more than well indeed.The details you can pick up from the links provided. First off, a salute to Irrfan (Khan): he is unquestionably the best character actor in Hindi moviedom today, and he seems to be getting better all the time. He’s done it without conventional he man/chocolate boy good looks or big family connections or money to help him, too. As with Tom Hanks and a few others, I can say I shall be glad to watch any movie if I know he is in it.

A thumbnail sketch of the plot of this biopic: Paan Singh Tomar was a real life character, a poor Kshatriya farmer who came from the hinterland of western Madhya Pradesh, joined the Indian Army (though his mama was a brigand who, he boasted, was too clever to be ever arrested), rose to the rank of subedar, shone brilliantly as a sportsman at the national level and even participated at the Tokyo Asiad. Then he got embroiled in a family quarrel over land holdings, quit the army, suffered a very rude shock when both his son and mother were brutally beaten up by hired goons and the police and district collector refused to look deeply into his complaint, and eventually turned into (yet another-) much feared dacoit of the Chambal valley. He killed and terrorized a lot of people for a while, gave a self-justifying newspaper interview which made waves, got a price on his head, managed to put his son in the army which he still revered, and was finally killed in 1981 in an encounter with police special forces after he was betrayed.

The movie deals with several important issues swiftly but expertly. How shoddily sports and sportsmen are treated in India is deeply underscored (there is a list of big achievers at the end who died in obscurity and poverty) – apparently Paan Singh’s greatest grudge was how the police treated him as an importunate nobody despite his medals, and his greatest boast (always uttered with a sad snigger-) was that everybody sat up and took notice only when he turned ‘baaghi’ (rebel) and started killing people. No wonder we do so badly at the Olympic Games: it certainly isn’t just a matter of money. And no wonder crime attracts so many in India who are in desperate straits, either. One also realizes how deeply caste and caste-based iniquity is still rooted in the social psyche of rural India. I don’t really know whether things have changed much in this regard in the thirty years since Paan Singh died; the newspapers don’t give much reason for hope. The army has been held up as the last bastion of honesty, integrity, hard work, good fellowship, patriotism and that sort of thing, and yet there are contradictions even here: Paan Singh himself tells a superior in a certain scene that there are a lot of good-for-nothings among the officers he knows (and this was as early as 1960!), and his mentors were so incredibly callous (or stupid?) that they sent him to compete in the Asiad without even telling him beforehand that he had to run not in ordinary flat-soled canvas shoes as he was used to but in spiked boots, which virtually crippled him on the track. The little romantic interludes with his very tradition-minded wife are touching. Shooting at the Roorkee cantonment and in the actual Chambal ravines has added interesting realism to the visual content.

But then I said I found it disquieting too, not least because there are different voices, and different versions of what really happened. Tomar’s (now-retired) son has said in an interview that it is the police that make dacoits in the Chambal valley (that is not really a revelation; it’s been that way for ages, since before the British came to India); he has also said that the movie is ‘85% true to life’: I wonder which 15 per cent is not. The police have been demonized in the movie, and it shows that they arrived in overwhelming force to trap and kill the dacoit (who has been portrayed as a reluctant and deeply unhappy almost-Robin Hood), so there was nothing heroic about it, just a government orchestrated massacre. On the other hand, in this interview the police officer who was in charge of the operation, DSP Mahendra Pratap Singh Chauhan (also now retired) says it was a straightforward ‘taking out’ of a notorious and unpenitent criminal who refused to surrender and for whom there is no reason to feel the slightest sympathy, regardless of his army service record and his sporting achievements. Also, that this was a ‘routine job’ for him as an anti-dacoity operative, so he has no special emotional attachments to the memory, he has not bothered to watch the movie because he is sure that a trivial criminal would be glorified to the discredit of the duly constituted arms of the law; indeed, he sounds almost proud that it was done with so little resources (six constables rather than almost five hundred as shown in the movie), and without a single casualty among the police. I wonder now, what should I think about it all? Who are the real heroes and villains in independent India? Better people than me have found themselves at a loss, this much I know…

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Thinking about old boys

August is the time when some old boys and girls come to say goodbye every year, because they are going abroad – most commonly to the United States – for graduate studies. Some of the most intelligent and decent people are among them: a few years ago there were Mayuri Mukherjee and Nishant Kamath, then there was Arnab Kar, and very recently there was Sanket Roy. Not all of these are engineers, by the way – Mayuri's subject was journalism and Nishant’s is geology, Arnab’s is physics and Sanket’s is economics. Meanwhile many of my best ex-students are being picked up from the top law schools and CA institutes and places like St Stephen’s and JU where they read economics or English by top shot employers for salaries which would sound fabulous to all engineers except IIT toppers (and that too, only from a few select departments). At the same time, old boys like Abhirup Mascharak (into his second master’s at JU) and Soham Mukhopadhyay who has gone to Presidency College have been telling me not only how much they like the ambience but also laughing about how their friends who have gone into (usually third-rate private-) engineering colleges, generally against their will, and generally at great expense, are already turning green with jealousy when they compare notes. And this news article tells everybody who wants to know how bad the general engineering employment scene is. Nothing, of course, that I haven’t been telling young people for years and years – don’t imagine engineering will bring you the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, don’t go into it unless you have a genuine interest in it (rather than the desire to get into just any job somehow), don’t develop the habit of looking for shortcuts and cheating and the tendency to look down upon a lot of subjects they teach in school as useless because you will regret it soon enough, don’t pretend to be ‘interested in science’ when all you want is to get into some B- or C-grade engineering school, because it’s not the same thing at all – eventually you’ll be struggling to switch streams and try to get MBAs or a slot in the civil services anyway – don’t get lost in the herd, because ‘everybody’s doing it’ was never a good idea for making good careers, don’t imagine that what was wise advice in the 1970s still holds good today, and so on (do read in this connection what I wrote in the post titled Engineer or bust some time ago).  

It hurts me, as an old teacher, to hear old boys coming over to say ruefully ‘Sir, you were right, I should have listened to you’, because I don’t like to see people getting hurt if I can stop them from being foolish. And it also hurts to see so much talent wasted – so many potential sportsmen, musicians, artists, teachers, judges, soldiers, administrators, lawmakers, moviemakers and businessmen becoming bored, tired, uncommitted and therefore poorly-productive engineers instead: we have millions like that swarming all over this country now, desperate to get into or hang on to very pathetic jobs somehow. As I joke about a certain engineer-turned-private tutor in my town who has been minting money for years now, he found out long ago that engineering doesn’t pay, but coaching confused hordes for the various engineering-entrance examinations pays hand over fist. He and many others like him have made their piles, but is that how a country’s human resources should go on being wasted decade after decade?

Nothing in this post is meant to offend those few of my old boys who are doing well in the engineering profession: if they are making good money, enjoying what they do and contributing to the country’s economic development, they have my best wishes. Indeed, there are quite a few like that who keep in friendly touch with me, and know perfectly well I have nothing against their type. But I have only pity for the much bigger tribe who know now that I was right all along, and who hate me for being right, and who can only stew in their own juice of frustration and failure and imagine they can somehow get their own back by telling me anonymously how much they hate me. Poor sods, they can’t even read, or else they’d have found out long ago (it’s written on this blog itself) that anonymous comments are filtered out automatically, so I don’t even read them, and even if I did, I’d only laugh, not out of true amusement but out of sadness and contempt. But even for them I have my best wishes: maybe it is still not too late to find out how to live a good life and change courses… it is a very sad thing indeed that they feel this obsessive compulsion to keep on visiting my blog (and thereby making me proud to see how fast the counter keeps rising!) and can never think of saying anything other than hurling irrelevant abuse! I, for myself, don’t feel any hatred and jealousy for these people at all; rather, I remind myself again and again of the saying that hell is when a man is burning up with hatred and jealousy inside, about which he can do nothing, because it stems from his own unbearably painful awareness that he has wasted his life.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Free India is 65 today

Tanmoy has written about how bad he felt watching the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games on TV, and how some of his (foreigner-) friends spoke slightingly about India in connection with our medals tally: ‘What are Indians good for?’

I felt the same sadness as Tanmoy, and even worse that I cannot list for him ten things about India that I can be proud about – especially ten things achieved since independence came. The only two things that come to mind (remembering the enormous problems and handicaps we started with) are what Amartya Sen has pointed out repeatedly: that we have avoided famines of the ghastly sort that routinely took millions of lives all through the 19th and early 20th century, and that we have somehow managed to preserve democracy (so far at least), no matter how defective it is. Everything else pales into insignificance in comparison, or is a sad joke, given that we are a nation of 1.3 billion with a rich historical heritage many thousands of years old which drew admiration from around the world once upon a time. Forget our sports performance or military prowess or vast and awful poverty and all-pervasive corruption in public life; we can’t even design and produce on our own the ’planes we fly or the surgical equipment we use or the engines we put in our cars after half a century of ‘engineering’ education; our movie industry, huge in scale, either produces Hollywood C-grade level ‘blockbusters’ or accidental good movies which even most Indians don’t want to watch, so how can they get foreigners interested? And as for our much vaunted IT industry, the likes of Narayan Murthy and Azim Premji have said enough home truths about what really happens there for me to add anything. No matter how hurtful it sounds, everything that westerners (and the Japanese and increasingly even the Chinese) say about our lack of civic sense and punctuality and cleanliness and concern for greenery and disdain for education and superstitiousness and sectarian hatred and violence is only too sadly true…

Bharat abaar jogot shobhay sreshtho ashon lobey (India will once again rule the global roost someday) sang the poet hopefully, long ago. I have been one Indian, at least, who has tried very hard to be proud of things Indian – without, of course, deliberately blinding myself to all her myriad faults or getting furious when others draw our attention to them, for that is not patriotism at all but chauvinism or jingoism, dangerous diseases of the mind, if only too common, especially among people who know they are inferior and hate to know it. What I intensely regret is that far from achieving great new things, we are increasingly forgetting things we had once achieved that we can really take pride in, whether it is Nagarjuna’s chemistry or Kautilya’s political economy or Kalidas’ poetry or even the wonderful skill of the Kashmiri shawl weavers and the enormous repertoire of folk music we had built up over millennia. I have written about this longing time and again on this blog: see, for instance, My India, and the post I wrote five years ago, My mother is sixty. I grow older, and nothing seems to change for the better. Can my readers cheer me (and Tanmoy-) up a little by drawing our attention to at least eight other big things India has achieved since 1947 that we can be justly proud of? (please don’t mention cricket and atom bombs and Chandrayaan, for obvious reasons) And honestly, is there any sane hope that India will truly lead the world in most things within my lifetime, or even my daughter’s? That was Vivekananda’s hope – would he be cheered by what he saw if he came back to see India 2012?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Family foibles

The older one grows, the more one gets the feeling that there are lots of things in this world that one will never understand.

I have a grown up daughter at home now. She and her mother quarrel most of the time – well, twenty times a day, at least. The issues are utterly trivial; often they don’t need issues at all. I sometimes get exasperated, and sometimes despair of things ever getting better.

But then, what is ‘better’? They tell me they hugely enjoy bickering (forget the snarls and yells and mutual accusations and long faces); besides, I can see that they simply cannot live without each other. The quarrels start and end with utter unexpected abruptness, too, and then and I see that all is sunshine and honey once more, and they are all over each other. I myself, when I look inwards, know for a certainty that I won’t have things otherwise – I have long stopped pretending that I even have any idea how things could have been ‘better’.

Twenty years ago, when I didn’t have either wife or daughter, I could have given very wise sermons about what a happy family should be like.

Twenty years ago, I was a fool.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Harishchandra's Factory

I recently watched a 2009 movie called Harishchandrachi factory. It’s in Marathi, with subtitles in English. Directed by Paresh Mokashi, and with theatre personality Nandu Madhav in the lead role, it has won some awards – you can check that up for yourself on the net. I am no movie critic, so I shall write only about my gut reaction, as nothing more than an ordinary cinema buff. This is the story, in highly dramatized form and with a strong leavening of humour and slapstick, of how the (controversial-) first ever movie in India – Raja Harishchandra – got made, way back in 1913, thanks to the nearly crazy passion of one man, Dhundiraj Govind (aka Dadasaheb) Phalke, along with the almost unstinted support of friends and family, and launched what became arguably the biggest film industry in the world. It has received mixed reviews (see this article, along with the comments), but I enjoyed it immensely, and would like to thank whoever left the movie with me (I forget sometimes, there are so many of them).

Well yes, if you like, it’s a feel-good movie. It reminded me of Life is Beautiful, though it leans far less on fantasy. It told me that one needs passion if one really wants to achieve something; that one needs to shrug off a lot of criticism and ridicule and opposition, and that one’s real friends are those who stick to one through thick and thin. Nothing new here, but it’s good to be reminded as one wages one’s own struggle through life. Looking at the way the family – wife and young sons – not only braved through all sorts of hardships but actually managed to enjoy themselves, I felt reassured that I have always been right; people need money and fame far less than warmth, cooperation, goodwill and satisfying work to be happy. Blessed is the family which rows together like this – even if the reality was not half as rosy as portrayed in the movie. The movie also shows, once again, that much can be achieved on a small budget and with a cast full of amateurs if the director knows his job.

I not only have a personal penchant for movies which remind us of times of yore, but I wish that more and more such movies would be made, because people in this country are becoming increasingly ahistorical with the passage of time. It is important to know one’s history, and few people would ever bother to read history textbooks of their own volition, so film-makers are doing yeoman service when they make movies like this. More power to their elbow.

One thing that I liked about the movie was the way Chaplinesque gestures and movements have been blended with very Indian background music. Another was the fact that the man’s long-suffering yet always cheerful and supportive wife reminded me of the Bible saying ‘He who has found a good woman has found a good thing’. The older I grow, the more I appreciate what that means, and how few of us are so lucky. The third thing was that it set me musing anew on education. I have always taken the story of Eklavya very seriously, you see, and I can vouch, on the other hand, from a whole lifetime of teaching experience that you can’t teach anybody who is unwilling to learn. As in October Sky, as Will Smith said in his interview to the Reader’s Digest, if someone really wants to learn something, be it making a movie or flying a space shuttle, s/he will find out ways to master it; otherwise, no amount of schooling and tutoring ultimately amounts to anything. I wish the world would begin to realize this eternal truth and start paying less attention to formal education, which produces molehills out of mountains by the tens of millions! Finally, the movie made me marvel at how easily people only a few decades ago could feel enchantment. Is it only me, or do many others also feel that all our super hi-tech wizardry cannot affect us similarly any more, whether we are watching The Matrix or Avatar or Inception?

The movie also motivated me to read up on Dadasaheb Phalke. It seems that he made several successful movies after Harishchandra in the silent era, but faded out once the ‘talkies’ became all the rage. Strange that a man of his versatile talent couldn’t cope – or was it that he was not interested in the new format at all?

Anyway, watch this movie. And let me know how you liked it.