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Monday, January 28, 2013

It's the SAT now!

A coaching institute of India-wide repute has lately been advertizing lavishly in the papers, pushing a new program purporting to train young aspirants for the SAT examination conducted by ETS Princeton, so that they can bypass the whole rigmarole of trying to get into some so-called elite Indian college/university – such as the IITs – and directly go to the US of A (which is, after all, the ULTIMATE AMBITION of the whole Indian middle- and upper middle classes; the IITs have never, let’s face it, been anything more than undergraduate churning factories which serve as a stepping stone on the way). After all, says the ad, why waste time trying to get into one of the IITs? They don’t figure among the top 200 elite institutes in the world anyway. Especially when you can go directly to attend the ‘best’ colleges in the world?

The irony in this ad stems from the fact that this is being done by an organization which for nearly two decades, I think, has been both feeding the ‘dream’ of sending millions to the IITs,  the ‘finest colleges in India, among the best in the world’, and making a fortune out if it (they have started ‘preparing’ kids as young as class six). Obviously, their chief honchos are now beginning to realize that this particular milch cow is beginning to dry up slowly – the competition has increased manifold, the market is reaching saturation, and a still small but increasing number of parents are beginning to realize that getting into one of the IITs, especially these days, is something pretty much short of finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; the best that they can lead to is attempts to go off into a master’s course on scholarship somewhere in the US, or preparing to get into some decent B-school, or taking a shot at the civil services. And a lot of photographers and fashion models and lawyers and private tutors and chefs and airline pilots and musicians and restaurateurs are making far more money than IIT graduates on the average can ever hope for. But imagine: it’s  a big ticket tutorial which is saying so now, not just Suvro Chatterjee, who is just a small-town private tutor of English and who has been reviled, scorned, feared and avoided by a lot of parents and kids alike simply because this is the tune he has been singing for 25 years and more!

But caveat emptor. Unlike these big businesses/cram shops, I have never wavered from the true teacher’s credo in all my life: tell the truth, no matter how unpopular it may be, and even if it brings me no material advantage whatsoever. This SAT is no big deal; steer clear of expensive coaching for it. If you have an ICSE/ISC background and are in the 75%-plus marks category, to get a decent score in SAT which will get you admission to a fairly good college in the US, you need to do nothing more than buy a widely available guidebook for a few hundred rupees and practise daily for an hour or two for two months or three. Of course, that will not ensure you a full scholarship: for that, you need to score in the 99th percentile or higher, and most of you should forget about that straightaway, unless you really believe you are Einstein or Tagore. These newfangled courses will be designed for the wards of that newly-rich class of Indian parents who can afford to send off their kids to Umrica on their own, no scholarships needed – that’s anything between 15 and 30 lakhs a year or even more for four straight years. So if your dad makes something between Rs. 50,000 and 200,000 a month, don’t even think about it. The ad talks about sending you to Harvard. Well, I know a bit more about the ways of places like Harvard than the average parent hereabouts, and let me tell you this: the three best ways to get in there are  a) prove that you are the next Zuckerberg, even if not Einstein (it will not hurt to watch the movie 21 either), b) have a surname like Gandhi (not even an Ambani or Tendulkar is quite good enough), or c) tell your dad to make a $10 million endowment to the university fund. Note: coaching classes don’t figure in this picture at all!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Vibrant Gujarat, moribund Bengal?

One has to accommodate only about sixty million people over an area of 203,000 square kilometers, the other is home to nearly 91 million, meaning 50% more, in a space of just over 88,000 sq. km. Should you even begin to compare the levels of development attained by the two without keeping these two pairs of stark, fundamental, unalterable facts very firmly in mind?

The first, if you haven’t guessed, is the currently favourite supermodel among Indian states, Gujarat; the second – you have obviously guessed – is our own sad West Bengal. Swapan Dasgupta’s edit-page article (one more eulogy for Narendra Modi) in the January 18 issue of The Telegraph made me check up a few things, and thereafter I have been thinking hard about how much Mr. Modi deserves all the encomiums and our leaders, be it Buddhadev Bhattacharjee or Ms. Mamata Banerjee, all the brickbats. Mr. Dasgupta is a veteran and informed journalist; when people like him start talking like that, one begins to wonder whether they are not being deliberately disingenuous, … inspirational leadership (Dasgupta’s last but one paragraph) is all very well, and I hold no brief for any of our local leaders regardless of their political colour, but I do wonder whether, given the ground realities, the greatest leaders we have heard of, be it Lincoln or Adenauer, Kemal Ataturk or Lee Kuan Yew or Subhas Bose (leave alone Mr. Modi) would have been able to do much better for West Bengal. It is always so much easier to criticize.

Yes, WB has been in a bad way for a very long time. Yes, Bengalis have much to be blamed for – they are as a rule lazy, uncooperative, quarrelsome, jealous and suspicious of material prosperity, and so on and so forth (and no leader can really change a whole population’s mindset, remember, certainly not in a few years). Yes, after Dr. Bidhan Roy, none of our CMs can be credited to have pursued any large, constructive long-term vision. Yes, we have not been able to make full use of our natural wealth and intellectual capital. Yes, our infrastructure is in shambles, by and large. Yes, we are saddled by a venal, incompetent, bloated bureaucracy. Yes, our educational and healthcare systems are creaking. But as I said, who has a good, practical idea, a magic wand, to get us out of this mess? Let us imagine putting someone like Mr. Modi in the CM’s chair. Can he wish away our long history of disasters and their consequences that refuse to go away – from terrible famines to partition-induced migration on an unimaginable scale that swamped every resource we had to the long fight to curb Naxalite-led threat of anarchy; to mention just three things that Gujarat has never faced? Has he been able to do a better job of maintaining communal peace if not amity (remembering that we have a far larger Muslim population than Gujarat)? Does he preside over a population ‘too poor to tax, too numerous to feed’, which has saddled our government with such a gigantic debt burden that it is currently having to live hand to mouth? Can he who gives away hundreds of thousands of acres of land on the cheap to tycoons to build industries on think of handling a situation where every nook and cranny is crawling with people who refuse to leave simply because they have nowhere to go – and every attempt to take over land for any public purpose at all, even roads, power plants and hospitals, threatens to turn into a bloodbath unless the losers are compensated on a scale which makes it either unaffordable or utterly unattractive to any investor? Can he alter a political culture which has seen a long decline into street hooliganism and organized browbeating of all but the very rich and powerful? And also – is there any real reason why Bengal needs to hang its head in shame, given that, despite such horrible odds, it has (until the early 1980s, at least, when it went into secular cultural decline) produced more big achievers in art, science, literature, music, philosophy and patriotism than virtually all other Indian states put together – however politically incorrect this sounds? (For Christ’s sake, Narendra Modi himself professes to revere and walk in the footsteps of a Bengali: his name was Narendra Dutta!)

My point is, we certainly need better leadership; we certainly need to get rid of a lot of ingrained bad habits, we certainly need to gird up our loins and make an all-out effort to hasten our rate of development so that we don’t end up at the bottom of the list: what we don’t need is foolish, motivated, malicious comparisons with those who shouldn’t be compared with. Here’s a little mischievous idea: let the World Bank or Mr. Manmohan Singh or Bill Gates give our current chief minister an interest-free fifteen year developmental loan of Rs. 100,000 crore, and simultaneously export about fifty million Bengalis to Gujarat for Mr. Modi to take care of, shooting them not allowed. We can come back and compare notes in the year 2028.

I am glad that Sunanda K. Datta Ray’s article on the same page of the next days’ issue of The Telegraph (“Laughing up his sleeve”) debunks many of Mr. Dasgupta’s tall claims on Modi’s behalf, and exposes how he has put a spin to the story by hiding all sorts of less than scintillating facts about his ‘vibrant’ Gujarat, including a) that a lot of other states, including Nitish Kumar’s Bihar and Navin Patnaik’s Odisha have been making the same sort of progress with far less chest thumping, b) that Gujarat is pretty low down the list of states in terms of many social development indices, no matter what the rise of multi-storeyed buildings and shopping malls and fancy cars in the cities hints otherwise, c) Modi’s increasing glamour as the national opposition’s poster-boy has been won to a great extent by default, by contrast with the UPA’s record of corruption combined with confusion and inaction, and, most tellingly, that d) the big moneybags, Indian or foreign, are going to sing loud paeans to any political master who makes it easy for them to avoid social obligations and reap ever bigger profits, so as far as big socio-political realities are concerned, only fools would take heed of their ‘opinions’. As I shall never stop underlining, businessmen never have to worry about anything other than bottom lines; even low level politicians have to think of far more, and far more serious things.

Not putting things in perspective is intellectual dishonesty, and intellectual dishonesty is the worst sort of dishonesty there can be. Yes, Mr. Dasgupta, I shall be glad to see Mr. Modi on the throne of India. If only to see him proving to be just another damp squib. India is not merely Gujarat, and as someone called Chandrababu Naidu, now forgotten, found out at great personal cost in Andhra Pradesh, running a government is not done very well by imitating corporate CEOs. Let Modi and his acolytes find out the hard way. It is a good thing that not only senior news editors in Delhi but top leaders in West Bengal don’t take him seriously.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

delhi noir

‘Noir’ is French for black. The noir mood in cinema and literature indicates a hard-nosed realism, a focus on the seamier side of life, and a wry, satirical, even bitter or despairing outlook arising from it. The noir series of short stories, originally based on contemporary low life in some US metropolises, has now spawned imitations worldwide, and some of them are good (look up this list). I have just finished reading Delhi Noir, and it made gripping reading – besides making me surer of myself that I have always been right about three things: a) big cities are increasingly becoming the same everywhere, b) I am very lucky not to have to live in one of them, and c) no country can hope for much in the way of long-term social peace and stability, leave alone progress in any meaningful sense, unless it goes all out to give a better deal to the vast under-class of down and out people who are always swarming, scrounging, fighting, cheating, robbing, mocking, killing, getting killed and otherwise interacting with their better off fellow citizens simply out of the primal urge to get along as best as they can through a life which loaded the dice against them from the very first. No moral codes apply, simply because, in Shaw’s immortal words, they cannot afford them. The wonder is that some of them not infrequently behave in such a way as to put us, their ‘betters’,  to shame.

Think autorickshaw drivers, bus ticket touts, roadside chaiwallah’s assistants, municipal sweepers, small-time hookers – and police constables and junior journos on the beat, resident doctors at government hospitals and petty shopkeepers and tenement landlords, the vanguard of the upper classes who cannot avoid rubbing shoulders all the time with the former (an ordeal from which the really privileged are insulated most of the time), and you get the brew out of which these fourteen tales are concocted. Only a long-time Delhiite with eyes wide open will be able to confirm how true to life they are, of course, but from what little I have myself known, they do, most grittily, even gorily. The only thing I am not sure about is whether the Delhi Police deserves such unrelenting bad press. Some of these stories even manage to do that almost impossible thing – make the reader laugh, or at least grin ruefully, even as she sighs over what a bad shape the world is in: How I lost my clothes by Radhika Jha, for example, and Hostel by Siddharth Chowdhury. Some, like The Scam by Tabish Khair make you wonder along with the author. Some, like The Walls of Delhi (by Uday Prakash, translated from Hindi) carry you away into a world of fantasy which does not have a happy ending. A few like Railway Aunty by Mohan Sikka would move even a jaded reader to pity: the poor boy had fun of a weird sort for a brief while, but in the end he stood no chance at all.

The last story in the collection (Cull, by Manjula Padmanabhan) stands apart from the rest, for it alone is set in an imaginary future rather than the present; a bleak dystopia set in a ‘New’ Delhi sometime maybe a hundred years hence, when the gigantic, almost-totally-planned urban agglomeration is aspiring to be a World City, but is challenged by the cancer within – brought back echoes of all sorts of books and movies, including Brave New World and District 9.

They are all accomplished writers, at ease with the language in its sahib and desi idioms and confident of their message. Only, they could use fewer expletives without seriously harming either their style or content, I think (it’s become such a cool thing to do post Chetan Bhagat that far better writers are deliberately stooping in order to catch the average reader’s eye), and somehow, they sound a little too alike, as though they have been cooked under the eyes of the selfsame chief chef. Something to do with the editing, perhaps, or is it just a personal illusion? … which reminds me, this is a book where the introduction written by the editor must be read for its own sake. Saying any more would be a spoiler; go read the book. And thanks, Dipanwita and Arani, for giving me this book to read. I should very much like to read Kolkata noir. If Didi permits such a book to see the light of day, that is.

[delhi noir, edited by Hirsh Sawhney, published jointly by Harper Collins India and India Today group 2009, ISBN 978-81-7223-853-7, pp. 289, Rs. 399]

P.S., Jan. 20: Do look up the latest post on my other blog.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

People, people...

Since I am enlisted with the local Voluntary Blood Donors’ Association, people often call me up in medical emergencies. It so happened that a woman phoned me on Monday night (Jan. 7th), sobbing that her 84-year old father was struggling for his life in hospital, and needed blood urgently, and since his group matched mine, would I please come post haste? I drove over on Tuesday morning, only to find that this woman was someone who lived on my own street, and her daughter had attended my tuition nearly a decade ago. Blood donation over, she and her mother were all over me, of course, telling me what a good man I was and how grateful they were, and how keen a student the daughter used to be and how much she loved and admired me, blah blah blah… whereas the fact of the matter is, the girl could at best be called mediocre, she has never once met me or called me since the last day of class, and her mother and grandmother never so much as acknowledged me with a courteous nod on the street in all these years until Monday last, when they were in dire need of the sort of help that only a few softies like me are kind enough to fulfill in this great big town full of rich, educated, healthy people, all very proud of their ‘status’ deriving from fancy cars in the garage and sons/sons-in-law in Umrica, civilized qualities of character be damned.

And on Wednesday morning, while visiting somebody in his third floor flat (I was literally dragged in, and they were too nice and insistent to refuse without being rude), I met a man in the lift, both of whose daughters used to be pupils of mine in years gone by. Not only that, I have lost count of how many times they and their parents visited us out of class hours to tell me  about all kinds of woes, seek solutions to all kinds of problems, and generally weep over my shoulder. The man studiously looked away, not giving the slightest sign that he knew me from Adam.

Immediate need over, that’s the way most people behave with me, the same people who come in droves to admit their kids every year. I hope many of my readers can recognize themselves and their parents in these lines. I know their grouch is that I publicly refer to their type as chhotolok, riff-raff. Given a lifetime of such experience, can I really be censured for having developed a very jaundiced view of mankind? Tell me honestly, what would you have done  in my place? … and to those who might ask ‘Why do you do charity, then?’ my answer is quite clear: For the good of my own soul. As a rule, I couldn’t care less about the people whom I do good to. I do not hate mankind, but I most certainly despise a very large part of it.

P.S., Jan. 12: Swami Vivekananda would have been 150 today. Country-wide celebrations, of course. I choose to maintain a confused and rather shamed silence. All I can do.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Delhi-Agra trip of 2012

Another New Year has dawned, and it’s business as usual for me again. But let me reminisce for a bit over how I spent the last days of the dying year. It was a perfect vacation…

I took my last classes on Friday, December 21st. My wife and daughter had left for Kolkata the day before, and I took off on the 22nd morning. Lovely Volvo ride along the NH2 (I am addicted!), and soon I was in our city flat. Kolkata was unusually cold. Basked lazily in the sun the whole afternoon, then Sayan and Rashmi came over: we had a long, lovely chat. Sunday was spent housecleaning, chatting with Abhirup and then an old friend of mine, Subhasis, whom I was seeing after more than a quarter century! Biryani from Shiraz did not agree with me. Monday morning we moved to my in-laws’ place, and then off to catch the Rajdhani Express from Sealdah station. Got caught in a traffic jam on the way; would have missed the train but for my over-cautious habit of setting out early. Thanks to dense fog all over Uttar Pradesh, we were eight hours late. Poor Arundhati, Aakash, Saikat and Subhadip had to cool their heels at New Delhi station waiting for us, but we got a cheery welcome. Off to Aakash’s flat, and we decided it would be too risky to drive down the deserted road to Agra that night, so we dined and slept there: Aakash and his wife Arundhati, whom we were meeting for the first time, proved to be the perfect hosts. My apologies to Arundhati for the trouble we gave her; I hope she didn’t mind too much!

Early on the morning of the 26th we set off along with Saikat for Agra in a hired car. The eight lane superhighway, opened only months ago, was a driver’s dream. We stopped off at Itimad-ud-daulah’s tomb (‘baby Taj’) before arriving at Sai Homestay, where we had booked a suite online. The owner, Mr. Rajiv Sethi, made our stay very pleasant, as much by the impeccable service as by his affability. In the afternoon we visited the Taj. It was horribly crowded – poor Pupu, she was seeing it for the first time. Agra Fort was somewhat better. But alas, thanks to excessive vandalism by ill-mannered tourists, more and more interesting things are being put out of bounds: the Sheesh Mahal, for instance, and the room where Shah Jahan was imprisoned during his last years. Very soon, we shall be able to see all our top attractions only on TV and DVD, and that will serve us right. Fatehpur Sikri was a dream, but it was foggy all the way, and bitterly cold: I hadn’t felt so chilled to the bone in Shillong at this time last year, though we were more than 5,000 feet above sea level then! Dined at Pinch of Spice on the second night. It was nice, though a tad over-priced.

We visited Sikandra on our way back to Delhi, and also Mathura, but gave the birth-place of Krishna a miss: it being too crowded, and too over-zealously guarded by swarms of gun-toting guards. What a country we have made, really. Checked into a very nice hotel in Paharganj, a five-minute walk from the railway station: my old boys, themselves living in Delhi, were surprised that such a good hotel room at so reasonable a price could be found anywhere in the capital. The weekend was spent travelling all over the city, especially the parts my wife and daughter had not seen during their last visits: Purana Quila, Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi Haat, Mirza Ghalib’s den at Balli Maran, Gurdwara Shishganj, the Baha'i Temple, the ruins of Tughlaqabad Fort. Also, stopping off at various eateries on the way (the nahari at Karim’s off the Jama Masjid and the mirchi bhajji at Green Park Market were superb), as well as markets (naturally, with so many women present – Arani and Dipanwita had joined us on Sunday). There was Aakash’s car, alongwith a rented MUV to ferry us around. Driving around was not a problem, despite several approach roads to India Gate being closed off. I marvelled for the umpteenth time at Delhi’s wonderful roads and wealth of well-tended greenery. My daughter’s sixteenth birthday was celebrated with books from Spell and Bound at SDA Market, a pair of boots she had set her heart on, and red wine, besides assorted gifts. Sunday evening was spent chatting in our hotel room and the rooftop restaurant (Fire and Ice) over many cups of coffee before they all bade goodnight.

Monday went by at a leisurely pace, packing up, bathing and dining. We left for the railway station, and – after ten continuous days! – the Rajdhani was bang on time. Arani, Saikat, Subhadip and Subhanjan came to see us off. A quiet, swift ride, and we were back at home by 8:30 a.m. on New Year’s day.

So we saw a lot of sights, dined well, stayed in good hotels, and moved about a great deal. But for me at least (my daughter will write about her own experience, and I’m sure she’ll tell it differently), the real – and indescribably heartwarming – pleasure lay in meeting and going around and chatting with so many beloved and loving old boys. I could have sat in a hotel room and done just that and never felt that I was missing anything. Saikat has become almost a family member now. Subhadip Biswas, God bless him, is still happy and ‘excited’ to be my trusty point-man in Delhi, and assures me that much that I taught is still of use to him. Aakash, in his own quiet way, kept amazing me with his minute and glad recollections from his days with me in school. He went to a great deal of expense and trouble for my sake: it fills me with a deep sense of gratitude that he made it apparent he was enjoying every minute of it. Arani and Dipanwita, dog tired after having travelled all over the country, made it equally apparent that they were happy to meet up and go around with us nevertheless. I look forward to many more delightful encounters with them, and they have my best wishes for everything. Subhanjan was tied up with work, yet somehow made time to come to see us off at the railway station; my grateful thanks to him, too.

Bijit Mukherjee broke my heart five years ago. Something was lost there that will never come back, of course, and yet, these boys (I still call them boys!) have tried magnificently to make up for it. One of them was gracious enough to tell me that those pupils who never made the effort to know me well, or those who dropped off after a while don’t know what they have missed. So I can’t help feeling that despite everything, I have been truly blessed as a teacher. These young people had been telling me for years to come over and enjoy myself with them, and by God, I did. All that remains to be seen is how their tribe increases as the years roll by…

[here is a link to fifty selected photographs, in case you are interested]