Explore this blog by clicking on the labels listed along the right-hand sidebar. There are lots of interesting stuff which you won't find on the home page
Seriously curious about me? Click on ' What sort of person am I?'

Monday, May 28, 2012

Midsummer musing

Several unconnected musings for this time.

We are going through the worst part of summer. What with temperatures soaring to 470 C combined with the sort of very high humidity that is more commonly associated with Kolkata, life has been made miserable around here; everybody’s praying for rain, despite knowing that the monsoon is at least a fortnight away. Perhaps I grow more sensitive to extreme heat and cold with age, but it is a matter of fact that we are hearing of sunstroke deaths in the papers. Oh, by the way, the latest fashion among women around here – at least those who ride two-wheelers – is to clothe themselves head to toe in burqua-like apparel, face masks and elbow length gloves and all, presumably to avoid sunburn. I wonder how I survived so many years without any kind of special protection at all!

Starting today, I am taking the usual mid-year week off, but this time we are not travelling anywhere. That’s because we couldn’t think of any nice place to go to. We tried hill stations at this time of year, and got blisters and heat fever and upset stomachs after coming back; we also tried places which blaze, such as Varanasi, and had to virtually stay cooped up in airconditioned hotel rooms round the clock, which is no fun: if we are going to be cooked, we’d rather do it on the cheap, at home. So it will be housework, movies, books, sleep, swimming, chatting and maybe dining out once or twice, that’s all. And helping my daughter to get through the mountain of projects assigned in school…

I was looking at the list of ‘most-read’ blogposts, and couldn’t help wondering about some of them. The top two have been fixtures for a long time now, but why is Subarnalata on that list and so high for so long? The post relating to Anna Hazare’s mission (A most frightening prospect) is still relevant, so I am glad that people are reading it. The same goes for the one on Indian English and the one titled Are you sure (because it makes me feel good to think that maybe it has set a lot of people thinking a little!). Growing up in Durgapur obviously struck a chord somewhere, so let it enjoy its place in the sun. But I wrote very little in the post on 3 Idiots, so I cannot figure out why it should be permanently on that list, and placed so high too. That the post on Steve Jobs should still hang on there while the one on The Mahabharata has dropped away I find truly dismaying: how badly people these days have got their priorities mixed up, really. An epic will be remembered – at least if civilization survives – long, long after PCs and iPads have become as trivial and uncommented upon as the washing machine and refrigerator are today, yet readers are more interested in finding out what I have said about Steve Jobs? What a pity. And there are at least half a dozen other posts which I think deserve a place on that most-read list, too. I wish my readers would go back to older posts a little more often.

Finally, a reflection on my work again. Given the number of people who keep coming to ask me to admit their kids in my classes, virtually the only thing that has been stopping me all these years from increasing the number of batches is the fact that I cannot cope with so much homework. As thousands of ex-pupils know, I correct homework with a fine-toothed comb and write detailed comments, and it gobbles up time like nobody’s business (besides hurting the eyes and trying my patience, after having been at it for so long); beyond a certain limit I simply couldn’t handle it. I have been telling ex-students that I’d gladly pay 10,000 rupees a month to anybody who could do this job for me, in keeping with my standards. Let’s put that in perspective: people with master’s degrees are teaching full time in schools around here for as little as five thousand rupees a month, whereas I am offering double that for four or five evenings’ work a week, not more than three hours a day. Imagine how hard an insurance- or vacuum cleaner salesman has to work to earn that much in commissions. Reflect that engineers at sponge iron plants hereabouts start at 12-15,000 a month for doing 12 hour days, six days a week. And yet the wonder of it is that I have never had any takers on my offer in more than a decade…

Monday, May 21, 2012

Teaching children rot

I was marking a comprehension exercise done by a pupil for homework. It told a story about how the great German painter Albrecht Durer attained fame, what a tremendous sacrifice his brother Albert made to get him the career of his dreams, working himself to the bone for years in underground mines, and how the artist paid tribute to his brother by painting his work-wasted hands folded in prayer – a painting that became famous worldwide, and still remains.

A touching story. However, having read about that painting years ago, I had a niggling feeling that something didn’t quite sound right. So I checked it out on the net, here. And just as I had suspected, that story given in some school question paper or workbook was a silly sentimental fabrication. As a medical expert cum art historian confirms, they are not Albert Durer’s hands, indeed not those of a poor emaciated workman at all, but those of perhaps a slightly elderly nobleman, perhaps suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, and whoever the model was (it could be some obscure Italian), the same hands feature in another famous painting by the same artist which shows a saint praying. So this story prescribed for schoolkids is a load of tripe. And this, when any fool of a writer, publishing editor and schoolteacher can check out the basic background facts in five minutes thanks to google. Given the fact that children on their own read nothing these days, imagine what harm this kind of irresponsible misinformation is doing to their minds (my only consolation is that this kid, being a typical teenage moron, will have already forgotten the passage, now that it is almost five days since she did the exercise… after all, no one retains any datum for any length of time these days, neither love letters nor movie storylines nor chemistry equations for much beyond examinations). But I cannot help having recurrent nightmares about these children growing up to be parents and teachers.

By the way, I found that website so interesting – Hektoen International, a journal of ‘medical humanities’, that I have put it on my blogroll.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Thinking about words

Language keeps ever changing, like a tree shedding old branches and putting out new ones, or like a river that never stops shifting course – and, at one level, it is a fascinating thing to watch and practise with, as any teacher of language must. It’s one of those things that keep me from getting bored with what I do. But, as I have sometimes commented before, there are changes that cause disquiet, or at least stir the funny bone for their sheer frivolity or absurdity, like substituting ‘anyway’ with ‘anyways’, and calling everything under the sun ‘awesome’ (recently some of my kids got certificates for being ‘awesome’ volunteers in a school function – not ‘excellent’ or ‘outstanding’, but awesome), or signing off with ‘Best’, as though it would wear your fingers out to type ‘With best wishes’, and calling the head of an academic department a ‘Chair’, or saying ‘I hope you’re doing good’ when you obviously mean ‘doing well’…galloping laziness and mindlessness combined with a desperation to be ‘in’ with the ‘cool’ crowd is not an edifying thing to see all around you!

There are three words in particular that I want to discuss in this post. Everyone suffers from ‘tension’ these days (and everybody seems to have forgotten that once upon a time it was a technical word, by which doctors referred to blood pressure and engineers to the tautness of an electrical wire): what happened to the good old ‘worry’ and ‘anxiety’? What better function does ‘tension’ serve (especially in the mouths of paanwallah’s sons, the sort of people who cannot string together one ten-word sentence correctly in English)? Then there is ‘mistake’. Everybody seems to make only ‘mistakes’ these days, never a misdemeanour or an offence, leave alone a crime or a sin! I regularly underline the word when I read essays where a pupil writes about a bully harassing a child, or a student cheating in his examination, and afterwards – most commonly when they are punished for it – realizing their ‘mistake’! Isn’t it one way we are teaching our young (and by young today I mean everybody under thirty) never to take responsibility for serious wrongdoing – when they can always expect  to get away by claiming it was just a ‘mistake’? How much longer will it be before people in the dock accused of murder will tell the judge they shouldn’t be severely punished because it was, after all, just a ‘mistake’?

And finally (for now) there is ‘insult’. Of late I have been frequently hearing (and reading-) teenagers saying ‘The teacher insulted me’ (for not doing homework, being rude in the class, coming late to school, failing in an examination or whatever). They didn’t say it so commonly twenty years ago, I can vouch for that, and I find it deucedly odd. Has the meaning of the word changed then, or have teachers changed, or have the children’s attitudes changed drastically? In our time, we had in general much sterner teachers: they not only scolded us, often harshly, but were liberal in meting out corporal punishment with the cane and otherwise. Many of them we still revere, and have no hard feelings for; to some, we are eternally grateful for all they did, and no, we certainly never dreamt of saying they ‘insulted’ us (though, admittedly, as all my Bengali readers will understand, even the best of us were frequently addressed as goru, gaadha, bandor, chhagol, pantha, bhoot, hotochchhara, idiot and the like). On the other hand, on the very few occasions when I did find a teacher’s behaviour truly unjust and cruel, I stood up to it in a way that no present-day student can dream of doing: at best they go and complain to daddy and mummy. My father did the same as a schoolboy, I happen to know: he seized the cane from his headmaster, broke it and threw it away – and willingly took everything that came his way as a consequence. Real men don’t cringe before authority figures and abuse them behind their backs. So what do my readers think has changed in these intervening years? Has something gone wrong with our teachers, or are today’s students a cowardly lot saddled with overblown and fragile egos?

Monday, May 07, 2012

Is all 'work' work?

I watch cycle-van pullers sweating as they drag along huge loads in the blazing sun, and I watch government clerks lounging away in cool dark offices, I hear of schoolteachers chattering away in class about ‘interesting’ episodes from their personal lives and also of tycoons who spend their time drinking champagne and playing golf when they are not clinching hugely lucrative deals in five-star environs. ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ was the rousing rallying cry of the communists since the mid 19th century: partly through their efforts and partly through historical circumstances which they could not have predicted, the lot of the average blue collar worker, at least in the organized sector, at least in reasonably developed countries such as India – leave alone Germany or the US or the UK, where they talk of a ‘labour aristocracy’ – is far better than anyone could have dreamed around 1900 C.E. But looking at people working, or pretending to work, I have wondered ever since teenage: how many of these can be called workers in any meaningful sense?

Both make-work and finding elaborate ways to shirk work are so deep rooted in the human psyche, you see. I myself allow for a very broad definition of ‘worker’, much broader than traditional communists, who could only think of peasants and ill-paid, overworked factory workers when they first defined their beloved proletariat. I can consider a top flight surgeon to satisfy my definition – as long as he does his work well – and equally a housewife who does all the household chores all by herself every day. A teacher who really has to teach instead of fooling and boring and browbeating his wards for a living is a worker, too, and so is a shopkeeper, though much of his work might consist only of fighting off boredom when there are no customers, and keeping fit despite his totally sedentary occupation. The engineer who has to rush at all hours to attend emergencies at the power plant is a worker indeed; so also the sculptor hammering away at his statue, or the scientist keeping a sharp eye on a bacterial culture in his laboratory for months on end. But when you watch a bank clerk taking half an hour to do a little thing that should take five minutes, even as he chats away with his colleagues and is rude to the client who dares complain, yet gets paid 30- or 40,000 rupees a month for it, can you call him a worker? What about the man who keeps running away from the workplace to ferry his kids to and from tuitions, and is never hauled up by his boss for it? Can most PhD scholars honestly assuage their conscience with the thought that they are doing some useful work?

Then there are sinecures – from ATM attendants to the President of India – well paid or not, they do get paid (some, even after retirement) for doing virtually nothing, or nothing of any importance. And of course, bureaucracy at all levels is a byword for inventing work: the more the papers, the fatter the files (which go unattended for years on end) the more important they look, the bigger their budgetary allocations grow, the more the perks they can claim for themselves! I still don’t know whether fashion designers and models do any work by the traditional definition of the word. The same goes for a lot of currently ‘in’ professions that I shall  not name here…

In a world where work was much more rigidly defined, and Tolstoy’s dictum of ‘He who does not work shall not eat’ was sternly enforced, how many housewives and headmasters, CEOs and celebrities and secretaries to the government might go abegging!

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Wife beating? why not?

This newspaper report, based on the findings of a recent UNICEF survey, draws attention to exactly the kind of serious and very unpleasant social realities that we Indians live with, and prefer strongly to shove under the carpet rather than discuss threadbare with a view to criticizing what is bad about us and replacing them with healthier attitudes and practices. In this day and age, 57% of male teenagers and 53% of their female counterparts are okay with the idea that married men should beat their wives now and then!

I, of course, differ strongly on the question of whether India is ‘rapidly developing’ as the editorial writer claims, as anybody who reads this blog regularly should know. Sanitary toilets, decreasing superstition, greater freedom of expression and increasing public awareness of rights and responsibilities are far better indices of development than cars and cellphones and shopping malls, and my worst critic cannot deny that we have made very little progress on such counts. But let us think for a while about all the possible reasons why such a fiercely atavistic attitude regarding what is permissible in marriage should still prevail so widely among our young, especially given that so many of them believe (inspired by Bollywood if nothing else) that ‘love’ should be the cornerstone of a good marital relationship.

First, the survey could be very small and based on too biased a sample to be reliable. I doubt it, though, because the UN is not known for superficial and shoddy work.

Secondly, (if we assume that the above is not the case) it may be that the young are so indoctrinated by both oral tradition and what they see at home that they actually believe wife beating is ‘normal’ and even right. If that is so, what, as the editorial asks rhetorically, are our young people being taught at home – what kind of parents are we? Do we need the kind of public regulatory authority of the sort that they have in countries like Norway, where governments can take away very young children from home and put them in professional care if their experts think that the parents are incapable of raising decent children decently? How many Indian parents are going to lose their children if that happens?

Thirdly – and I am being politically incorrect here consciously – shouldn’t we ask why such an attitude still prevails among so many? Let us grant the feminists what they have always shrilly claimed, that men are brutes, pigs, so they can’t think of anything better, marriage for them has always meant exercising crude physical dominion over the wives. Well, why aren’t today’s mothers (many of them ‘educated’ too) teaching their sons any better? This is one question feminists answer with a loud silence. Much more alarmingly, so many girls seem to find wife-beating okay too – what can be said about that? What is it about our females of all ages that they should still hold such a belief? Could it be – dare I articulate this question? – that too many women are aware, deep inside somewhere, that there is much in them that needs disciplining lifelong in the crudest possible way? Could it be that too many women, having seen how some of their highly ‘liberated’ sisters abuse their freedoms, have decided that most women cannot handle freedom responsibly? (I hold no brief for men, by the way – to my knowledge, most men cannot do it much better either, but the very ancient tradition that acknowledges their ‘superiority’ in this matter still seems to have very strong roots in many women’s minds!)

And what about the remaining 43% of boys and 47% of girls, those who apparently do not condone wife beating? Shouldn’t they play a more vocal, more active role in bringing about change for the better?

My daughter belongs to this set of teenagers. What her attitude in this matter is should be obvious to all who know – if only from this blog and hers – what kind of parents she has. But the fact that she is growing up in the midst of so many others of such a very different and ugly mindset is something I find most disturbing to contemplate. Will most of these girls be happily married if only their husbands buy them a lot of clothes and jewellery, and let them go to parties and malls and beauty parlours every now and then, even if they are occasionally beaten just to be reminded who is the boss? Is that all they ask from women’s ‘emancipation’?

An old boy was recently lamenting that his girlfriend of many years, having suddenly ditched him for a wealthier husband without so much as a by your leave, is now trying to get back to him, moaning about how badly she repents her ‘rash’ decision! Do such women deserve to be beaten by their menfolk, then, as disgusting creatures who have no real minds and feelings of their own? Remember, in our hoary scriptures, women have often been compared to various kinds of domestic animals…

Postscript: Critical comments are welcome, but for those who base their comments merely on the last line (because they have already forgotten the rest), let me remind them that if I have referred to a certain type of woman derogatorily, I have also called some men pigs in the same blogpost! I have written glowing tributes to women I admire, too. And if I see that most female readers prefer to stay quiet, I shall assume that most of them cannot see anything wrong in what I have written, only they are too embarrassed to say so openly.