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Monday, August 15, 2022

Jai Hind. Fears and tributes

I am a patriot, but alas, I never learnt to be a nationalist. 

You can look up what I have always thought of and prayed for India in earlier blogposts, such as My IndiaMy mother is sixty and Free India is sixty five today.

This Independence Day, maybe simply because I am older and much more weary, I stay gloomily, apprehensively quiet.

To turn to more cheerful things, look up this new documentary on one of my lifetime heroes, James Herriot. I shall be delighted if that leads some readers to pick up one or two of his wonderful books...

Friday, July 22, 2022

Heat waves!

I was reading, partly with sympathy and partly with a feeling of 'serves them right', the news about the recent heat wave sweeping across the UK - a few days ago London was considerably hotter than Delhi, the celsius having for the first time in recorded history broken the 40 degree barrier. A couple of years ago I had read about the same thing in France (people diving into public fountains, and looking around desperately for fans and air conditioners and mechanics who could install and repair them, these things being in very short supply there because they have never imagined needing them!), and about wild bushfires in Australia and western parts of the USA.

If climate change is both real and serious, it is good that it is beginning to affect the advanced western countries already. Let them learn first hand a little about the conditions in which we live, here in south Asia. That is the only way they will ever become really interested in doing their bit to reverse the damage, their societies learning at last to pay more attention to an issue like this than the release of the latest iPhone or the shenanigans of the latest pop music band. Who cares, after all, if the polar ice caps melt and kill off all the bears and penguins, or even if an insignificant country like the Maldives sinks within the next twenty years, or millions of poor and unimportant people suffer in countries like India and Bangladesh? Things will begin to change only if the white sahibs start taking big steps, and of course, that is only when we in India and China will follow hurriedly in their footsteps...

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Clio stirring

I recently read a newspaper interview of a senior historian saying how Amit Shah’s insistence that history should be rewritten with a view to glorifying ancient (read Hindu-) India is ‘old hat’, because this project has been actually going on for over a century now; also, that people like Shah have a very clearly ideological-cum-political agenda, which is anathema to serious history writing, and also that many of the claims of such ideologues, though laughable (such as that ancient Indians had aeroplanes and plastic surgery and nuclear weapons), are full of mischievous potential, because average Indians, including those who like to think of themselves as educated, are only too eager to confuse mythology with history, especially when it serves to aggrandize their self-image.

All this is true, but I think that both interviewer and interviewee have missed the real point here. To my mind, the real point is, Indians by and large are not interested in history – not just because mythology is so much more entertaining and less demanding of the intellect, but also because (and this is the supremely important thing) reading history does not easily and quickly lead to jobs, and any cerebral effort that does not do so is hated by Indians of all classes and ages with a deep, fierce, collective and unalterable hatred. So it is drilled into children from a very early age that history is boring, useless, too hard to read because it taxes the memory with so many facts, names, dates and so on. By the age of 16, they are – well, 99% of them are – convinced beyond redemption. Notice that the same logic applies even to what is called ‘interesting’ by the entire middle class when they are in their early teens (hence biology and chemistry are far less commonly liked than math and physics), and a little later, when they all make a beeline for that great Indian ‘passion’, engineering, they all want to go into IT or some branch of computer science, not civil, mechanical, electrical or chemical, which have been the core branches for ages, not because they are in truth fascinated by computers but because the entire adult world has convinced them that in all other branches of engineering, jobs are too few and far between, so they must all convince themselves that they are ‘passionate’ about IT/computers. No other race can make a virtue out of necessity as well as we can. Here I agree entirely with our prime minister about the deleterious effect of a thousand years of ghulaami – servitude of the mind. Remember how during British rule most middle class Indian parents (including Subhas Bose’s father) were ‘passionate’ about their sons becoming judges or magistrates under the sahibs? As I have been saying for decades, if the word went around that these days there are no engineering jobs available while historians are being hired in vast numbers and at eye-popping salaries, every Indian parent would beat the idea into their wards that they must be ‘passionate’ about history, and God help those who timidly express any interest in ‘useless’ subjects like physics or chemistry! When the chips are down, Indians have no loyalty to anything except their pockets. As Noam Chomsky the American philosopher observed, you don’t know what materialist means until you have known Indians well…

I have been truly passionate about history since childhood. I have found that I have learnt more history, and still have instant recall about more historical facts, than most history scholars do (I have checked out with my own daughter, who earned a gold medal in history when she left college). That has not prevented me from learning economics very well up to the master’s level, or being a successful teacher of English over a lifetime at all levels from middle school to university. It’s a matter of being really interested in knowing, rather than in examination scores, which is all that middle class mothers (especially the Bengalis among them) care about. I have among my ex students – though their number is sadly few – people who have doctoral and post doctoral qualifications in science and mathematics, yet also pursue a strong and abiding interest in history on their own. I also know that much of the deep-rooted dislike of history that grows in school can be ascribed to the bad effects of utterly bored, boring, ignorant and unintelligent teachers. Moreover, to say history is boring is also to say that you are not interested in knowing about your past – your ancestors, your legacy, your past follies and mistakes, your long-term weaknesses – and only fools are like that, because it has been well said that men who forget their history are condemned to repeat it. I have seen that some of the most technologically advanced countries, far more really ‘advanced’ than India, are deeply interested in knowing and preserving their history: an interest in science and technology does not in any way impede the pursuit of historical knowledge, only a lack of interest in knowledge does.

To anybody who asks ‘What is the use of reading history?’, my first retort is ‘What do you mean by use?’ If all you want out of an education is a middling sort of mindless job, like clerkship, coding, or selling soap, it is certainly of no use. And it is true that no country needs to produce college graduates in history by the hundred thousand. But it has been well said, and will be valid when IT has long been forgotten as a hot career, that ‘man shall not live by bread alone’. History is entertaining in a civilized man’s sense. History warns you against common, oft-repeated stupidities and disasters. History prepares you to face the future better. History is needed to appreciate a great deal of art and literature and music. You cannot master a lot of subjects if you do not know a great deal of their history, be it law or medicine or aeronautics. You cannot make a lot of good movies or write a lot of good books without expert historical knowledge. AND: history misread and mis-told can misguide whole nations with disastrous consequences, as witness what happened in Italy and Germany in the 1930s (to know which, too, you have to read history!)

I believe that, despite our first prime minister having been a profoundly history-literate man, the subject has not got a fair deal as an academic pursuit. First of all, by and large only science failures have gone to college to read it, as lately as my daughter’s batch: that is not how a country produces first class historians. Secondly, they have followed a too-rigid leftist bias for too long in the universities, and that has not served the discipline well. Thirdly, reading history didn’t lead to good jobs, and that confirmed people in their opinion that it is a ‘useless’ subject. Fourthly, too few historians have written well for educated laymen: how many writers can you cite after you have mentioned William Dalrymple? Fifthly, we have actually done too little serious, original research – why is the Indus Valley script still undeciphered a hundred years after it was discovered?

In my considered opinion, therefore, it would not be a bad thing if the controversy being stirred by those who are in power right now in their effort to give a sharp and sometimes silly rightward-orthodox twist to the reading and writing of history brought about a churning, an intellectual ferment among at least the educated sections, a shaking off of apathy, a stirring of renewed interest, in what history is all about. It might, in the end, do more good than harm. At least more books like Manu Pillai’s Rebel Sultans (which meticulously records how, rather than there being clear cut Muslim periods and Hindu periods in history, things have always been far more complex: for instance, Muslim has often fought Muslim with the help of Hindu generals and counsellors, and it was political power and economic benefits that were uppermost in their minds, not the spread of religious bigotry) might get written and read, even by engineers! What harm is there in being a little optimistic now and then?

Monday, June 27, 2022

Silly hyperbole, mad exaggeration, desperate sensationalism

At first glance at the headings, I was admittedly dismayed. ‘Supreme Court kills abortion rights in the US’, screamed The Times of India. It went on to say that the fifty year old landmark Roe vs. Wade judgment that had made abortion a ‘constitutional right’ had been ‘overturned’ by a conservative dominated court, and went on to quote President Biden (a Democrat) calling it a ‘sad day’ and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (also a Democrat) declaring that the ruling is ‘a slap in the face to women’. Someone has even said on record that it shows that in America the rule of law is being replaced with ‘rule by judges’.

What absurd hyperbole, what wildly speculative scare-mongering, what utterly senseless allegations are being thrown around (immediately to be supported by tens of millions of twitter posts from people who can neither read nor think nor care to go into the nitty gritty of any serious issue at all, even to the minimal extent of reading the reports in full)!  

First and foremost, they have done nothing like ‘overturning’ Roe vs. Wade. All they have done is a) mandated that, barring emergencies, abortions cannot be carried out beyond 15 weeks (a little less than four months) after conception, because doctors, lawyers and most ethicists agree that after that the foetus begins increasingly to resemble a human being, so MTP virtually amounts to murder, and b) that state legislatures will henceforth be free to devise their own (stronger or more lenient) restrictions. For the sake of comparison, The Times thankfully provided a chart to show what sort of restrictions other countries imposed: from there I learnt that in 2021, Poland, for example, imposed a ‘near-total’ ban on abortions, but apparently even that near-total leaves out all cases where the child is born as a result of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is at risk. For heaven’s sake, what ‘right’ or ‘freedom’ are women and liberals screaming about having lost? In India, I have just been told (doctors and lawyers among my readers, correct me if I am wrong), there is no such ‘right’ at all: it is the doctor who decides, based on purely medical considerations, whether an MTP is warranted or not (it is another matter that as with everything else, there is a huge grey area where millions of women lose their lives or ability to give birth and/or their babies as a result of forced and botched abortions, most often done by quacks). My understanding is that there are now a vast number of people around who take childbirth and motherhood as something as trivial as going to the beauty parlour or buying an ice cream – was happily fornicating around/ just learned that we’re going to have a baby/ took more than three months to decide we don’t want it/ let’s get an abortion (like let’s have dinner at a chic restaurant)! And when conservatives, whether in the US or America (including a lot of women!), regard such an attitude as sacrilege – people should not breed like dogs and cats, without responsibility – they are branded orthodox, stupid, misogynistic and every other abuse you can think of. No man or woman has a right, we say, to bring a baby into this world without first having decided to take responsibility for it till it attains adulthood: if they dare to claim that they were just ‘having fun’, or it happened ‘by mistake’, they do not have a right to have unprotected sex at all. Rigid? Yes. Moralisitic? Yes, too. Orthodox? Fine. We don’t think quadrupeds make better human beings. Remember, always, that unregulated freedom brings only chaos, anarchy and loss of civilization in its train. The least I can say is, if someone – a mother to be – really has to kill the baby growing inside her, she had better know that it should be treated as one of the most serious decisions she will ever make in her life, and she had better decide fast: if possible, within days of knowing what has happened. It is nothing short of sin to wait three months or more. And if some people insist on that kind of responsibility, they are not perverts.

Turning to the huge recent brouhaha over the Agnipath/Agniveer scheme for hiring soldiers in India. The way the liberals/opposition politicians and press are going on, it is as if it will be the end of the world. The truth is a) the government’s hand has been forced, because they simply don’t have money enough to keep on footing the already monstrous pension bill for retired soldiers any more, b) they are trying to reduce to some extent the average age of our soldiers (it was becoming an old men’s army – more of a joke in a real wartime situation than anything else), and c) many countries, as the same newspaper assures me, have schemes for very short service military jobs, as short as four or five years, so the Indian government is not doing something either stupid or utterly unheard of. What kind of opposition is this, what kind of liberalism and socialism is this, that they will scream blue murder at whatever the government does without considering the merits and compulsions? I am not a great admirer of Modi's, and I rue many of his hasty ‘reform’ schemes, but why should I abandon all reason and information to criticize, often in the silliest, most abusive terms, everything that he does?

And what kind of press have we got that insanely exaggerates everything that it serves up, especially in the headlines, knowing that 99 per cent of voters don’t read beyond them? Isn’t it high time that reporters and editors and owners were sternly pulled up for writing content where the actual report sharply differs from, even contradicts, the headline? Isn't it time to wonder whether the proliferation of 'journalists' has itself become a serious pestilence?

P.S., June 29: Delightful to read in today's newspaper that the government is finally banning single use low utility plastic bags (from July 01), so soon after I wrote here about it: see the last post. I hope the ban is implemented in all seriousness. Pupu, I know, will be happy - she has been refusing to accept such bags at shops since she was so high!

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Summer of 2022

This summer – almost all over India, I hear – is turning out to be one of the longest and worst in living memory. The last nasty one was 2016: it was definitely hotter, I remember, but it started late, and we were not sweating from every pore night and day for weeks on end. My daughter confirms that it is right now warm to hot in and around Shimla, Delhi is again under a ‘yellow alert’, and here, though it has been raining intermittently all through the last month, every three rainless days makes life unbearable. The weather app routinely says that while the temperature in the shade may be only 38-39 degrees, it ‘feels like’ 50, whichever way they figure it out, and I have confirmed it with hundreds of people that there is nothing particularly wrong with me: everybody’s feeling half dead and murderous at the same time. Heaven knows when the real monsoon will set in. This is the time I start cursing my ancestors for having migrated to this horrible land and breeding like rats over millennia … assuming that the migration theory is true at all. Only North Bengal has been having almost daily showers, damn their luck!

Our Chief Minister has again prolonged the summer vacation for schools by a fortnight, and this time round it seems the government is forcing even private schools to stay closed, though even opposition leaders have started grumbling ‘have we never had hot summers before?’ I wonder what exactly is going on: is there some plan afoot gradually to do away with schools altogether? Online examinations have already put paid to the meaningfulness of examinations for several successive batches of students at all levels; now do they want to axe traditional organized education itself? Have they thought up real, workable alternatives?

A reminder – I have to write this sort of thing again and again because new readers rarely know how to navigate this blog. It is best to read it on your computer; but if you must use your phone, scroll down to the bottom of the home page and click on ‘view web version’ – that is the only way you will be able to see everything that is there, including all the tabs along the right hand margin and links to old post, comments and so on. I would very strongly urge anybody who has become an interested reader to visit old posts: there are hundreds of them, on scores of different subjects, and I am sure many of you will be surprised to see that I have written so much. That would save me endless needless effort repeating many things over and over, whether it is about religion or economics, poetry or aeroplanes, Harry Potter or the Mahabharata, the state of education or the prospects for India. This is especially meant for new, young readers: I am glad that they visit, but sad that they look at only the tip of the iceberg instead of exploring the vast collection of essays that has accumulated over sixteen years…

P.S.: It gets on my nerves to see grown up people who should know better insisting that shopkeepers give them single use plastic bags to carry purchases home. It is as if all the dire warnings being constantly issued by environmentalists do not reach them at all, or they simply don’t care. In any case, how long will the government keep playing this shameful double game? If they were serious about banning plastic pollution, they would simply ban their production, wouldn’t they? Do they seriously think that merely ‘requesting’ people to stop polluting would teach anybody any lessons, at least in this country?

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

Latest sojourn in Delhi

I am just back from my one-week mid-year break in Delhi. It feels as if the routine set since 2018 is beginning to be resumed, now that (God willing) the long Covid-induced hiatus is over. If the good times continue, we shall keep coming and going several more times this year.

I wish they would restore a morning flight soon: in the current dispensation (going evening, coming back afternoon) I lose two whole working days merely travelling.

I stayed in Pupu’s latest house for the first time. Lots of space, air and sunshine: not too good for the long and terrible summer, but I am really looking forward to wintering in Delhi for the first time, with the lovely terrace to sunbathe in. God is fulfilling a lot of my little long-held wishes, albeit slowly: I presume to think that I may have earned them, and they are not the sort that harm anybody…

I was lucky enough to enjoy torrential rain twice in the space of a week which drastically lowered the temperature for a bit, and that was a small miracle, considering that all through March and April it hadn’t rained there for a single day. The violent thunderstorm on Monday the 30th evening uprooted hundreds of trees, killed two people and broke the finial off the Jama Masjid, so, considering that I simply enjoyed the chilling squall from my balcony, coffee mug in in hand, I was among the very blessed ones! And it is raining now, Wednesday evening, in Durgapur, so we have been cooled down again.

Did some daily household chores, as well as worked alongside Pupu on her nascent project, so my holidays are not merely lazing days yet, though I got up very late every morning. Can’t tell you how much I enjoy being of some professional use to my daughter, and how fervently I thank the Maker every day for having allowed me to have lived this long with my faculties more or less intact. Brings back memories of the entry I made in my diary that day in August 2007 lying on my hospital bed. My appendix was about to burst, and the surgery was scheduled for that evening. I wrote ‘I must get back on my feet soon. I must go on slogging for ten more years at least’. It’s been fifteen.

Little weird experiences this time round: visited Nehru Place market, and discovered that half of India’s laptop- and mobile phone sellers and repairers are located in that one place! And while it was blazing outside today, and the air conditioners maintained a very mildly cool ambience inside the airport, there were people who were going around in full-sleeved sweaters, hoodies, and one man (I kid you not) in a fur-lined jacket that I would not wear in Delhi except at night in December or January! You should watch the traffic jams below my house every time a DTC bus tries to negotiate its way through, with vehicles parked along on both sides of the two-lane road, and every driver trying to use it like an eight-lane highway!

Now it’s happily back to the grind. Imagine, it’s the 36th year in Durgapur alone!

I write this sort of stuff because I like doing it, and because I know that some people enjoy reading it. I also know, sadly, that some people hate my guts and that is the sole reason they are revolted by anything I write. To all such people, I repeat: why don’t you merely stop visiting and thus tormenting yourself over and over again? How pathetic your sort must be!

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Baby food shortage: history repeated upside down!

Reading about the current countrywide shortage of formula baby food in the USA brought back poignant memories of more than half a century ago. I was an infant then, and heard this story from my mother when I was a few years older. Back in 1964, when my father was pursuing a PhD in geology at Indiana University Bloomington and doing a field tour of the Rocky Mountains, there was an acute shortage of baby food in India (well, at least in West Bengal), and my grandfather had to run from pillar to post to find tins of Ostermilk (it was the Amul Spray of that era) for me. Meanwhile my father was travelling with professor and classmates, and one of their vans carried a huge tank of fresh milk, refilled every morning, overhead. They drank gallons of it each, and threw away the rest on the grass or into waterfalls. My dad was apparently horrified. He wrote a touching letter lamenting what he had seen back home, and my grandfather, his father in law, apparently used that letter to shame some low level government functionaries into allotting us a couple of baby food tins. How history comes full circle! I am glad I have lived long enough to see it, and if only it had not involved babies, I would have sighed contentedly and murmured to myself ‘Serves them right’. Advanced country indeed!

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Request

My daughter is about to start up an online learning platform for adults who have a professional need to learn practical, communicative English. To begin with, she is doing a little market survey, and for that she has put up a google form online. Please click on the form below and fill it in: it will take you less than five minutes. We shall be very grateful if you pass on the message to all those friends, relatives, colleagues and neighbours who you think might be interested. Thank you very much in advance for your help.

Message from Urbi Chatterjee:

Hello everyone, 
I'm working on my startup that will offer communicative English training to adult learners. I am conducting market research to understand the needs and aspirations of those who are over 18 years of age and are struggling to speak in English. This short Google form will help me get a better idea of what people really require. I would greatly appreciate it if you could take out 10 minutes of your time and fill this form up. It is entirely anonymous, and you can choose whether or not you want to leave your contact details. Please do circulate this widely in your personal and professional networks. Thank you for your cooperation :)

Thursday, May 05, 2022

Fantasy

Okay, how about a bit of fantasizing? If I were a dollar multi-billionaire, with at least five billion in guaranteed securities which would allow me to spend a million dollars a day indefinitely (let’s say that means for the next fifteen years) what would I do?

To start with, I would ensure that my daughter would never have to work except at what she truly loves.

I would entirely renovate and refurbish my present little house to my taste. That would include getting the street re-layered, and planting large, leafy flowering trees all alongside.

Next, I would buy a villa in the south of France, maybe, and penthouses in London, Paris and the bay area of San Francisco, along with one giant rural estate somewhere in the US where I could luxuriate in peace and solitude over at least a thousand hectares of virgin forest with a lake or a river nearby, and snow for at least four months a year. Every one of these would come with a proper butler of Jeeves vintage, if such men are available.

I would travel the world in first class comfort, slumming it only when my whimsy dictated me, and of course with armed security guards in top of the line SUVs in tow.

I’d have a lot of dogs, all-year swimming pools to myself, and a very nice wine cellar.

I’d have a small dedicated staff administering my charitable activities, which would amount to $ 80-100 million a year, aimed at only causes that I genuinely believe can make a significant difference for the better to this world. Education, as I have understood it, for those who I think truly deserve it and will make the best possible use of it, will be very high on my list. Especially being of some serious help to my most favourite and promising old boys.

I’d hire the best teachers to train me in subjects as diverse as Sanskrit and tai chi.

I have no interest in boys’ toys which are the favourite of low-class philistines who want to preen before people of their own mental calibre, but I might buy a little biplane if I can learn to fly it at this age, and a large sailboat with a crew of three or four to take me across the vast oceans now and then, with only salt air and sunshine and silence around me.

I shall find out whether there are comfort women available who also have brains, and who can perhaps be induced to become something like friends, if only for a price. Call me a cynical romantic if you like, incurable if you like, but that’s the way I am.

Above all, I shall meet and talk only to people whom I genuinely like, invariably one on one or in small groups. I shall most definitely neither attend parties nor throw any.

I shall make sure that I can have euthanasia whenever I choose to, and no questions asked.

[I wrote this thing because all my life I have been disgustedly watching and listening to middle-class people slobbering over the ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’, and thought drawing up my own little wish list would not be a bad idea. This post could be read in tandem with ‘What sort of person am I?’, the link to which is a fixture on top of this blog]

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Complaint, repeat

My other blog, the whimsy blog, is sulking. Too few seem to be visiting it these days, and that in turn makes me loath to write frequently there, though I like to think that anyone who visits that blog often gets to know about a less-familiar (to some unexpected) side of my character.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Swimming after Covid

My hopes of a mild summer after a year when it rained every month were cruelly dashed in early March. Summer came early and ferociously this year. For the last month it has been blazing, with the temperature having soared beyond 400 C in early April. And there has been no respite: not a single nor’wester rainstorm has arrived yet to cool us briefly off. There was a day recently when it was actually hotter in Durgapur than in Delhi.

 I last went swimming in 2019. Then Covid struck, and the pool was closed for two whole years. I knew that it has opened this season over a month ago, but – call it old age, or the irritation of having to drive 24 km through increasingly dense and erratic traffic every time or just plain lost habit – despite knowing that I would love a dip, I had been postponing a visit endlessly, until today. This morning I went, and enjoyed myself just as much as I had hoped. God bless them for reopening the pool. They have opened a new one much closer at hand, but I found it to be rather small and overcrowded, so I haven’t tried it out yet. I wish there were one in every large neighbourhood. If I were really rich, an all-year, full sized, personal pool would be something I should definitely indulge on…

 A lot of people seem to be awaiting a fourth wave of Covid with what can only be called ghoulish excitement, and sound truly disappointed that though the infection numbers are very slightly rising once more, as in January, the death toll is almost insignificant. Let us see whether God gives them their kind of satisfaction! I for one am delighted that countrywide there are no takers for the booster dose of the vaccine, and most people are not wearing masks unless compelled. Madness must be called by its proper name and laid to rest sooner or later.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Rest in peace, doctor

Our family doctor, Paramananda Bhattacharjee, passed away a few days ago. He was about 74, had been undergoing treatment for cancer for years, and had been very depressed and fearful throughout the Covid scare. He had not been attending his chamber for a long time, and we had slowly fallen out of touch, though I had tried to keep track of how he was doing. Alas, none in his family bothered to let me know so that I could say a last goodbye in time, though they live virtually next door, and I am sure they all knew how much he meant to me…

He and our family went back more than forty years, since before he got married, and now his two sons are grown up. We and he owed too many mutual favours to count. I shall always remain grateful for everything he did for me. Though he was an excellent physician – I have always held that his power of diagnosis was near miraculous – he was more like a wise and respected elder brother to me than a doctor. When I say his death leaves behind a vacuum which will be hard to fill, I am not mouthing an empty platitude. May his soul hear me, and rest in peace. It is hard that I had to hear of his passing from casual neighbourhood chatter, and it will hurt for all the years I live.

Friday, April 08, 2022

Two long, swift, arduous but most rewarding decades

Ten years ago on this very day, I put up an exultant post, announcing that I had finished a whole decade of teaching at home with no salaried job on the side, no advertising, and no organizational support whatsoever, corporate, social or political, yet I had managed to do well enough for myself, certainly by Indian middle class standards. It was a moment of celebration well earned. 

Ten more years have passed since that day. My daughter is now grown up, my savings have swelled, my reputation remains intact despite the countless, endless, vicious and mean assaults on it, and having even survived the two-year long pandemic scare, I am still going strong, operating on the same large scale and relentless pace as I started after leaving that schoolmaster's 14-year long job twenty years ago. Only sensible, thoughtful, experienced and sympathetic working people in their forties at least will begin to appreciate how lucky I have been (though I prefer to ascribe it to God's grace), and also how much nose-to-the-grind hard work it has taken. Only the very lazy and very greedy and very stupid can envy me.

At this remove, and at this age, one acquires poise and perspective, even if he did not get them much earlier in life. All through my working life, despite all odds, difficulties, setbacks, rebuffs and disappointments - believe me, there have been many! - I have tried obstinately to stick to certain principles, and given my strong likes and dislikes very high priority. So I left the prospect of a university job, though more than well-qualified for it, because I wouldn't kowtow to ignorant political masters nor bribe my way through, and there was hardly any other way you could get a college lecturer's job. I gave up a possibly lucrative career in medicine simply because hospitals, as they existed in the 1980s, turned me off and I knew I wouldn't survive them. I quit journalism not only because it paid very poorly in those days but it had begun to stink (the stench is unbearable today, so thank God I chose rightly!) I didn't get through the national civil service exams, despite having done very well in them - and over the last forty years I have met numberless bureaucrats who were most evidently far less well endowed than I was and yet managed to get in, and now, after a lifetime's experience, I have very strong doubts whether I'd have hated the job and managed to survive in that stultifying atmosphere, so I  have no regrets. I got job offers from better schools, private colleges, publishing houses and national newspapers which I casually chucked up because by that time I was well settled ploughing my own furrow. I similarly gave the go-by to admissions in several foreign universities because I had by then decided it was too late to venture on entirely new experiments. I quit the school job because I had no intention of serving under an overbearing idiot where they could not even afford to pay me a decent salary. I have tried startup ventures several times over the last quarter century trying to spread my wings countrywide, with no success, but on that one I have not given up hope yet, because now that my daughter is of working age and showing a strong predilection to take up my baton, and literally everyone has access to the internet, things might at last work out in my old age as I had planned in my youth...

Today, approaching sixty (official retirement age for government servants, but teachers and doctors and lawyers never need to retire as long as they can continue working), I have not slowed down very much, but I am becoming more and more choosy, because I can afford to, and there is nothing left for me to prove. I have not managed to become rich or powerful or even famous (except in my own small town where I have been working for 35 years straight), but I am certainly better off, physically, financially, domestically and socially, than probably 90% of my compatriots. No man should ask for more. I can also look back and smile contemptuously at all the wise men and women who cautioned me decades ago that I was heading for disaster by living so proudly and willfully, and bring untold sorrow and suffering upon those who were dependent on me. My advice to the young: most of your elders are actually stupid, uninformed, lazy cowards, so don't order your life by their advice, learn early to be your own man or woman; 'heart within and God overhead'. The other way lies slavery and frustration all life long.

I am now a story, like it or hate it. My kind of life can be lived, and enjoyed, cocking a snook at all the conventional wisdom they throw at you, even in India. And trust me, I have enjoyed myself much more, in many more different ways, than most middle class adults can, except in their wild dreams. 

I have also learnt a great deal indeed about the whole educational system in India, with all its flaws and disgusting drawbacks. Let me mention a few of them here. 1) Not everybody wants an education, nor can be educated. 2) We have made a hash of education at all levels by blindly equating it with examination scores and degrees. 3) Most teachers are hopeless; at best they don't help you, at worst they confuse you and waste your time. 4) Some are born bright and eager to be educated; they are a joy to teach. Some others are not so bright, but they are earnest and willing to work hard: they are the only ones a teacher can help to grow. 5) Education is rapidly becoming a commercial product, and things are going to get worse very fast before a sharp reaction sets in: I wonder if I shall see that within my own lifetime. 6) As a very great teacher - trained by Tagore himself - warned me at the very early stages of my career, the key to good teaching is simply this: 'If you must teach Jack Latin, you must love Jack as well as Latin'. Very simple, very hard to do, especially when you have to deal with hordes of little horrors all your life. 7) Most children, if they are to be educated, have to be rescued from the mindless misguidance of their parents. Etc etc (a whole lifetime's lessons can hardly be compressed into one paragraph!)

What lies ahead, I still wonder... for me, for India, for humanity? But for myself, I can vouch that it has been a good career on the whole, and looking back, I wouldn't have exchanged it for anything else. I started teaching my peers, and here I am teaching the children of my older students and grandchildren of my colleagues. What a journey!

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Skilling for work

I hate that new-fangled coinage, 'skilling' (see my other blog). Still, now that governments central and state are talking nineteen to the dozen about the need to 'skill' (or 'upskill') millions of young new job seekers to help them cope with the challenges of the current economic dispensation, I have perforce had to start thinking again of what that means (I said again. See my 2012 post, Is all work work?)

Governmental agencies - and the 'experts' who advise them - seem mindlessly focused on skills that a) can be more or less easily taught, b) are in high demand and c) do not seriously tax the learner's intelligence, patience, or native talent (such as plumbing, home appliance servicing and computer coding). However, there are lots, literally lots of skills that are both necessary and valuable as well as hard to learn, though not well-enough respected, or even discussed. Sitting at Ghalib's Kebab Corner at Nizamuddin in Old Delhi, where my daughter and I have become welcome regulars, I have noticed a little boy assiduously at work, helping his uncle and elder brothers with everything that needs to be done, from taking orders to serving them up, toting up bills and collecting them, cleaning the tables and packaging takeaway orders, even lending a hand with the cooking now and then, swiftly and confidently, never having to be told what to do, let alone corrected or reprimanded. I should guess that he is 13 or 14: in our social class he would be in class 7 or 8. Mind you, though they live simply and give themselves no airs, they are perfectly at ease among the high and mighty - there are photos on the wall showing them decked in Mughal finery, taking a trophy at a food festival organized at one of the priciest hotels in the capital, and they don't bat an eyelid whether you walk into their den or arrive in a chauffeur-driven limousine. Would this boy do better in life if he grew up in the lazy urban middle class, unable to cross the road without his mother, wasting his time and cheating his way through exams at school, and then attending some sort of vocational course in late teenage, hoping to land, say, a low-level job at a bank or IT company or hospital?

I have also watched with fascination a video showing how Kashmiri shawl weavers pass on their intricate, hard won skills down the generations, how fine their work is, how much pride they take in it, and how highly it is valued in the posh showrooms of our metro cities and abroad. Again I wonder: are their children likely to be better off, and would the country progress faster, if they all joined the middle class herds chasing pathetic jobs in the organised sector, which do not even offer the prospect of lifetime employment any longer? (think Air India, and think of what is likely to happen soon to LIC, Indian Railways and SBI. Think of what has already happened to state police forces - constables replaced by civic 'volunteers' working for a pittance - and schoolteachers).

Forget the government: are we elders, as parents and teachers, quite sure that we are not dangerously misguiding our children who must enter their working lives within a decade or so?

Sunday, March 06, 2022

Rajasthan again, February 2022

[You can find photos here. Click on each photo for some description]

From takeoff to touchdown, the flight from Delhi to Udaipur takes barely an hour. So unless you absolutely love train journeys - which I most definitely do not any more since the smoking ban came into effect, and given that the fares are now close if you book early, the question of travelling for twelve hours or more by rail simply does not arise.

The Uber driver was an idiot who didn't know his way about, so we took longer than necessary to reach this outside-of-town resort - Titardi Castle, owned and run by a young scion of the  Shivrati branch of the royal family of Mewar. It's tiny by castle standards, and quite unprepossessing from the outside; basically a homestay with only two rooms to let out to guests. But our room was lovely, and offered a panoramic view of the hills. When we arrived it was a little after five p.m., with the sun still blazing, and a brisk breeze sweeping in through the windows. The evening was spent lazing, chatting, nosing around (the magnificent dining cum drawing room has everything you associate with royalty, from a great chandelier to monogrammed napkins at the table, portraits of a long line of Maharanas on the walls and the current prince playing polo, numerous hunting and sports trophies, a fine drinks cabinet and a framed wedding invitation from Buckingham Palace). Much time was given to browsing through a big picture book on the history of Rajasthan that had been thoughtfully placed in our room. Shiv-ji, the all purpose factotum who does just about everything for his 'Sir', from driving to milking the cow, and has been around for 22 years, rustled up a lip-smacking dinner for us - brought Sudhirda poignantly back to mind. Aided by a beer, we gently nodded off, comforting ourselves with the thought that Bheblu was safely and happily tucked in at her new and secure boarding house back in Delhi. Udaipur was warm, so though we pulled rugs over us, the fan overhead was going full speed.

We went sightseeing around town in an autorickshaw next morning. I was doing Udaipur for the third time, and Pupu her second, so we limited the trip to just two main sites: the City Palace and Saheliyon ki Bari. The palace tour took us three hours, because we stopped and drank in a lot of the details, including the museum, the crystal gallery and the Durbar Hall (this trip is expensive). Parts of the Palace property have been turned into three five-star hotels now, including the iconic Lake Palace of Jahangir and James Bond fame. Saheliyon ki Bari with its lush greens and flowers and fountains never ceases to fascinate me, especially  because I have honeymoon memories (the marble throne in the garden on which I sat with my new wife back in 1995 has been fenced off to protect it from vandals - read typical Indian tourists), so we luxuriated in the sun for a bit, enjoying the sheer bliss of doing nothing and being completely at peace in companionable silence. Local snacks at the stalls beside the grand Fateh Sagar Lake, followed by a quick visit to a handicrafts emporium (Pupu knows just how to handle them, while I hang on to my purse for dear life), and we were done for the day. It is always delightful to retire to a good hotel at the end of a satisfactorily tiring day. Chat-bath-chat-dinner-sleep.

The young Maharaja - also an army major - saw us off in the morning. A hired car took us first to Kumbhalgarh (longest wall in India, built by Rana Kumbha, the place where Maharana Pratap was born). Two hours to walk up and down. Not the finest place to visit in Rajasthan, but I wanted it to be part of my memory book. Then off to Mount Abu. The Udaipur-Abu road was a dream even 26 years ago, when we could only sigh and long for such highways in Bengal, and it still is. The sun was blazing there too, but the wind was much cooler. A longish walk up the hills, a jaunt through the busy marketplace where Pupu bought some trinkets dirt cheap, and the highlights were getting a handmade wooden door nameplate and Marwari rabri icecream. The hotel was homely, but offered a huge terrace overlooking the lake. Kept reminding me of Hotel Evelyn in Nainital, May 2007, when we watched a rainstorm across the lake.

Post breakfast next morning, we drove off to the biggest highlight of Mt. Abu, the Dilwara Jain temples built more than a thousand years ago. The five shrines, but especially the Vimala Vasahi temple and the Neminath temple, are (though severely plain on the outside) absolutely breathtaking for their intensively carved exquisite marble sculptures within, every square inch of pillar and wall and ceiling. I wonder what Michelangelo would have thought if he had seen them, and also how sahibs who had encountered Kalidasa and Kautilya and Aryabhatta and seen things like this and the Taj could have declared that India had had no culture, no civilization... another wonderful thing is how closely the standard template of tirthankara idols resemble that of the Buddha. And finally what Richard Dawkins the fool would have said if he had come here to witness a thriving religion that has no church and expressly denies the existence of God! We walked back downhill to Nakki Lake, and had a most pleasant paddle boat ride. Then, having worked up a good appetite, we lunched on chicken korma and naan at Naaz Hotel just beside the mosque: as in Hardwar, we had been getting a little bored with strictly vegetarian cuisine. Then, believe it or not (some may consider this a great waste of holiday time) we had a very long siesta. As evening was setting in, we walked the whole way around the lake, which was beginning to twinkle with lights: it is good to see that the municipality takes pains to keep the environs litter free, and the parikrama has been kept free of traffic. An interesting sidelight is that you can hire two wheelers, chiefly Honda Activa-s, at hourly rates here for sightseeing. The last time I tried that was in Pokhra, Nepal, back in 1994. That night I gave dinner a miss, which I sometimes do these days to give my poor insides a rest, reminding myself that I am not growing any younger. 

We were back in Udaipur at around 1 p.m. on Tuesday. The driver, Indrakumar ji, was elderly, but superb at the wheel. Told me he had been at it for 28 years, and had been driving since the era of the old Ambassador - 'no car like that these days'! This time it was truly in the lap of luxury at Hotel Mahendra Prakash, very close to the City Palace. Quick lunch on biryani, then another restful siesta. Went walking in the evening to visit the rooftop restaurant at Hotel Baba Palace, where we had spent a very happy sojourn back in 2005. Got magnificent views of the Palace (just as the light and sound show was beginning) and the 17th century Jagdish (Jagannath) temple right opposite at sundown. I don't believe much in miracles, but we walked up the stairs to witness the last strains of the puja moments before the curtain was drawn across the face of the deity for the night. It was as if I had been summoned for a darshan, exactly as it had happened the last time I had been in Puri, and the way I had inadvertently visited all four 'Naths' together at Ukhimath in February 2018. Anyway...

Dinner was just curds again. Next morning, SpiceJet told us that our flight had been postponed to 5 p.m. from 1:40. The gracious hotel owner said we were welcome to stay hours beyond the checkout time, so we packed lazily, Pupu got some work done, bath and a sumptuous lunch - best daal I have tasted in years - then we finally pushed off for Maharana Pratap airport, far outside the city. A leisurely wait, and we were back home in Delhi a little before 8 o'clock. 

This was a barebones narrative. The fun lies in the quirky details. Let me list a few.

To start with, from Delhi to Udaipur it was my first flight by Air India after it returned to the Tata fold, but other than a recorded welcome message from Ratan Tata, there has been no change yet: even the plastic panels overhead still bear the trademark stains! Incidentally, all the stewardesses, whether in Air India or other airlines, somehow seem to look more cute with their paper thin 'PPE suits' on.

Half the old city of Udaipur is a dug up mess, because work has been going on over the last two years at a snail's pace to turn it into a smart city, whatever that means. However, all hoteliers, transporters and shopkeepers assured me that it would look spick and span in at most a year's time.

Travelling around with Pupu is so much fun because we share so many tastes, so many interests, so many likes and dislikes. We even keep sniggering at people around us for the same reasons - the way they mangle English, the way they try so hard to look 'cool', how thin and small the average Rajput youth looks: we agreed that since they have acquired a reputation for being ferocious warriors over millenia, something in their blood must overcompensate for their lack of physical advantages (comparing with, say, Sikhs and Pathans). So we never lacked for things to talk about in their entire course of the trip. This time, and for the first time, though, Pupu was frequently at work with laptop and phone, and I couldn't make up my mind whether to be happy or proud or sad, so I remained simply bemused...

At Udaipur the first evening, we were almost kidnapped by an autorickshaw driver who was playing music at earth shattering volume (he had probably lost his hearing years ago) and took us several kilometres in the direction exactly opposite the way we wanted to go before we discovered the mistake and got off hurriedly. The man was unrepentant, and refused even to acknowledge that we had asked him several times to take us to the City Palace before boarding: from the looks of him, I wouldn't  be surprised if he had never even heard of it, though how a man can live in a city and not know its most famous landmark is more than I can figure out.

Rajasthan is well known for swarms of foreign tourists, and Bengalis are of course everywhere, but this time I missed both types, whether because international travel has still barely resumed or because there are school exams going on countrywide, I couldn't tell you.

Walking along Nakki Lake in Mount Abu the second evening, we were accosted by an elderly gentleman in cloth cap and checked blazer who spoke Bengali with a strong western-Indian accent, and said he had lived more than half his life at Abu, with his in-laws' house located at Darjeeling. Pupu said later he looked and sounded like a character straight out of a Satyajit Ray story, and then I regretted not engaging him for a while longer.

At the second hotel in Udaipur, we had a good time feeding Tom the fifty year old tortoise tomatoes (the owner said they had discovered it was a she years after adopting her, and by that time the name had stuck. Brought back memories of Quasimodo the pigeon in Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals). Apparently guests sunbathing beside the pool have to be warned not to wear red bikinis if they don't want to be nibbled by Tom, who identifies anything bright red with tomatoes!

They do the very short trip by air from Udaipur to Jaipur with one of those small propeller driven aeroplanes which I have never flown. I hope I get a chance to do it someday. Rajasthan is one place, along with Himachal and Devbhoomi, which I would like to keep returning to.

Monday, February 28, 2022

From the hotel terrace, Mount Abu

I am looking out on Nakki Lake from the terrace of my hotel in Mount Abu. It's ten o' clock at night, and just delightfully cold. This has been one dream holiday with Pupu which almost didn't happen. Will be back in Udaipur tomorrow, and in Delhi the day after - Delhi, which I have already started thinking of as home. Collected some wonderful experiences which will be softly glowing memories for a long time. Just thought I'd put in a filler on the last day of February. Genuine readers must wait a bit for the real travel post, along with some photographs. Ciao.

Wednesday, February 09, 2022

Experts declaim on death and dying

Lata Mangeshkar left us on 6th February, as Narayan Debnath did a short while ago. My deepest admiring salutations to them for the treasures they have left behind, which I hope will remain undying. But they stopped doing their best work a long time ago.

The old lady in the house opposite to mine, who must have been at least ninety, unlike the two named above a very ordinary person like most of us, completely bedridden for nearly a decade, left in charge of two caretakers by her middle aged children who only visited two or three times a year for two or three days at a time, also finally bid adieu to this world on February 2.

Their demise brought me back to an issue which has been at the back of my mind for a long time, and which an ‘international team of experts’ has recently commented upon, as per a report in my newspaper of February 1 (so important that I have saved the entire report, here, lest it should vanish from the newspaper’s archives after a while), based on a paper published in The Lancet, a top notch medical journal.

The gist of the report is this: when people are terminally ill (in the sense that they have lost most of their bodily and mental functions, and the doctors see no chances of recovery to a reasonably full life within a reasonable time frame – meaning a few weeks or at most a month or two), we should, instead of keeping them ticking in a vegetable condition for just a little while longer in hospitals (which usually subjects them to much avoidable pain, shame and despair), give them the best possible palliative care, if possible at home with professional nursing help, surrounded by wise and caring loved ones, and make their passage into heaven or the afterlife or extinction, whichever it may be, as quiet and easy as possible. This, until assisted euthanasia is easily and cheaply available everywhere, as it is bound to be sooner or later.

Dr. M.R. Rajagopal, a member of that expert panel (and chairman of Pallium India – do look up their website and donate something to the mission if you can: who knows but you will badly need their help someday) has been quoted in the report as saying: ‘Close to the end of life, when we know that a patient is beyond medical help, nothing can be more horrible or traumatic for the patient and the family than having the patient isolated in an intensive care unit, connected to tubes and medical instruments, and surrounded only by masked doctors and nurses… this is not how it should be... the last days or hours should be the time the patient and family members spend with each other, exchange words and hugs. We see bad deaths because a lot of the focus is on using medical tools to block the physiological processes that will lead to death, even when we know death is inevitable’. My views exactly (incidentally also the view of all great religions. Just for an instance, look up The Tibetan Book of the Dead), and I could not have put it better myself.

Later in the report Dr. Rajagopal further says ‘…an ICMR document on palliative care, released in 2018, summarises the role of healthcare providers: it is to mitigate suffering… to cure sometimes, to relieve often, and to comfort always. There should be no deviation from this principle when a disease is incurable and death is imminent. Healthcare providers have the duty to improve the quality of life through life and through the dying process. Unfortunately, this is not always practised*. Advances in medical technology allow us to prolong the end-of-life phase of dying patients even when it involves intense suffering. And such opportunities have suited the private healthcare sector’ (my italics – SC)

[*in the same report he has said it is estimated that less than four per cent of eligible patients in India get the sort of near-death palliative care that he is talking about]

 As I have always believed – increasingly strongly after I turned fifty myself – this is particularly necessary for old people, and above seventy five is old for most people, in the sense that they have nothing much left to stay enjoyably engaged with, nothing more to contribute to the family or the world, they are sad and lonely, often neglected, more and more out of sync with a changing world, growing increasingly senile, decrepit and fearful. They need – they and their families should be mature enough to know that they need – to be released from their mortals coils, as they used to say in the old, wiser days; they need mukti.

Now I shall not repeat a lot of things that I have written in the last three posts on this subject, but I strongly urge any serious reader to read them up before continuing to read the rest of this one (just type Meditations on death and dying in the search box and you will find all three of them).

Most of humankind has been living such unphilosophical, materialistic, hedonistic and basically aimless lives (spiritually speaking) for at least four generations now that we simply cannot quietly and unresistingly accept the absolutely unalterable fact of death any more (indeed, a very large fraction of mankind is hoping that the Silicon Valley attitude to problems will see us through, perhaps by slowing or stopping the ageing process. It is time people began seriously to think how horrible it might be to live on and on. Imagine having to listen helplessly to a family quarrel over your great-great granddaughter wishing to migrate with her robot boyfriend to one of Jupiter’s moons. Or better still, read Tennyson’s terrible poem Tithonus). Indeed, it has become the only really Dirty Word, all thoughts of which must be avoided at all costs for as long as possible, for ourselves or those close to us (I have actually heard a doctor remonstrating, when I casually mentioned the likelihood of my dying, ‘chhee chhee, o sob kotha bolte nei’, like the most silly and superstitious of her sisters). So when its shadow falls upon us, it always takes the form of the Ultimate Horror. I recently read a movie starlet lamenting over her father’s death – ‘How could it happen to me?’ No comment. Nobody else’s father ever dies, of course.

To my mind, that in turn has happened because we have been taught to believe beyond argument that there is ‘nothing more, nothing beyond’ this one life on earth (and because modern science has enabled us to live, on average, a decade or two longer than before). Therefore we must ‘enjoy’ it for as long as possible.  And ‘enjoyment’ means doing the same things over and over again: going shopping, dressing up, attending parties, gorging ourselves, participating in festivals, watching football or cricket, gossiping endlessly without boredom, boasting about our latest luxury purchases, clinging desperately even while complaining ad nauseam about how unbearable this life is, old people trying ever more frantically to ‘stay young’, often with ugly and ludicrous results,  and at last fighting like maniacs when Death finally arrives to ward it off for as long as possible, even if that means financial ruin for the family and making the dying person suffer, prolonging the all-round misery for a few more pitiful weeks or months. Also, we have ‘outsourced’ the dying process, as we have done with so many things, from education to weddings, and now measure ‘success’ primarily by how much we have spent on the dying (it is my family’s great good fortune that when my father, past 78, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the doctor had the honesty to let us know, and we had the strength and calmness of spirit to accept, that ‘no matter whether you spend two lakhs on him or two crores, he will be gone within six months at the most’. He went in five).

This outlook has hugely suited hospitals, many doctors, and the whole healthcare sector, which is becoming more and more a corporate business indistinguishable from any other, which can best treat humans only like sausages or nuts and bolts, in faceless masses, according to standard operating protocols, mindlessly, the reward being gigantic profits for all involved – even fifty years ago, few doctors could become tycoons, leave alone ‘healthcare managers’.  They started by taking advantage of a sick mass mentality, and now that they have smelt blood, they are going all out, via the advertising industry (the most powerful of the devil’s tools), to persuade all of us that ‘there is no choice’. If they have their own way, it won’t be long before the biggest hospital chains start offering ‘death packages’, just as they are already offering so many other, from packages for having babies to some for heart attack patients. You wait and see.

Thank God that there are still sensible people around, even among mainstream (allopathic) doctors, like the ones who together penned the report for The Lancet. I hope their view gets the traction it deserves, even if that takes several decades. Meanwhile I am glad that the young man I knew through a student, who suffered a horrible accident and would have been a complete invalid the rest of his life if he lived, has died in hospital; I am sad that even five years ago I did not have the clarity and strength of mind which would have let me spare my father the last few days of meaningless suffering in the ICU, and I hope that when my time comes it might either be sudden, or my daughter will calmly do what she had always known daddy would have wanted: let me go with a prayer while I am still something like a thinking, feeling human being.

 

One last thing: nothing disgusts me more than to see people theatrically mourning someone’s passing as if life would never be the same again while those like me, whose hearts are breaking, grieve in silence, and completely forgetting the same ‘loved one’ just a few months down the line as if they had never existed. My old faithful servant, my grandfather and my old teacher Father Gilson are alive in my mind still as if they were around yesterday; I have not heard anybody else even recalling them in recent years. The one who weeps loudest is usually the most insincere. If one is to defeat death at all, it will always be only through his works, or, if he was not a great man, only in the loving, living memories of those whom he has left behind. The root of the problem there, I suspect, is that most of us guiltily know, deep in our hearts, that we lived such worthless (or even worse, insufferable-) lives that no one is likely to remember us with real affection, respect and gratitude.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Could India have developed differently, and much faster?

The current excitement over the ‘Amrit Mahotsav’ marking the 75th year of our Independence has set me thinking about how much India has achieved since 1947 (I am the last to belittle all the magnificent achievements against what had once seemed insurmountable odds), where we have failed – often dismally, if not tragically – whether we could have done better, and how we can still change courses sharply in order to see a far stronger, healthier, more civilized India that we can be much more proud of  by 2047.

India has at least a hundred million intellectuals, especially highly concentrated in Bengal, if you include the sort who dominate the conversation at roadside tea stalls, TV quarrels (I hesitate to exalt them with the title of debates) and op-ed pages in regional newspapers. I shall not let myself forget that every one of them knows vastly more about the answers to the above questions than mere me, and is absolutely confident that s/he is right. Also, it will constantly echo at the back of mind as I write this essay that, as some famous man observed, whatever you say about India, the opposite can be asserted with equal authority by your interlocutor, if he is sufficiently informed and cunning. However, I believe, too, that fifty years of concentrated reading, observing, thinking, teaching, writing and debating has qualified me to contribute my mite to the argument.

I believe that, despite having a dazzling galaxy of great leaders at the helm when we set out to fulfill our tryst with destiny, we set our priorities wrong. To my mind, industrialization with the latest technology, setting up a chain of institutes of ‘higher’ education focusing on science and tech and medicine and law and accounting, establishing nuclear-and space research centres, building up a huge military machine, encouraging the proliferation of vast urban conurbations, carving up the states along linguistic lines, grappling with the ever brooding menace of casteism, fighting extreme left inspired terrorism – all these things might have been necessary and desirable, but they could have waited a few decades. Four things that should have been given the very highest priority right from the start are 1) fostering universal respect for the rule of law, to which every man from the highest in the land would have been as subservient as the lowest, regardless of differences in age, gender, education, wealth, social position, caste, religion, language and native place, 2) drastic control of population growth, so that the 300 million in 1947 could not have reached the monstrous and almost completely unmanageable level of 1400 million today, 3) complete removal of absolute poverty, with programmes focused on redistributing a very large chunk of national income and wealth from the richest ten per cent to the poorest, 4) universal free basic education for all children up to the age of 14 or 16, coupled with a 25-30 year long project that would have ensured a secondary school level education or its equivalent to all adults between 18 and 50 who had never attended formal school, the primary aim of this education being to make good citizens rather than those preparing to go on to making ‘paying’ careers for themselves.

Reflect on this quietly, attentively, for a considerable length of time. Wouldn’t you be persuaded to agree that if the four above criteria could have been met, say, by 1977, and only after that we unleashed full democracy and (state monitored-) capitalism, then within the next 45 years we might have actually surpassed China on every index of progress, including freedom and overall material prosperity by now? And who would argue that that would have been a bad thing?

Is this a pipe dream, something that could never have been achieved? I do not think so. Let me explain categorically why.

Napoleon made  fun of the British (half-seriously, actually with admiration), saying ‘They are a strange race. They make their own laws, and they are mortally afraid of breaking those laws’. As I said, from the lowest to the highest in the land. Churchill suffered a landslide electoral defeat after having steered Britain successfully through the Second World War, and relinquished office without demur. As someone observed, if there were popular elections in the Soviet Union at that time and Stalin lost, it would not even have occurred to him that he should relinquish office – he would instead simply have had several hundred thousand contrarian voters shot or sent to the gulags. And Jerome K. Jerome wrote (in Three Men on the Bummel) that the Germans were far more law-abiding than the British! At a much less exalted level, I personally know a rich and well connected middle aged lady who plucked a flower in a London park despite being aware that it was strictly prohibited, and was politely but promptly hauled away to the nearest police station to pay a fine and have her name and photograph recorded: her husband, knowing how the system worked, did not raise a finger to ‘save’ her. Suppose this had been imposed in India right from day one: MPs and MLAs and even local councillors would not have dared to behave like demi-gods (I won’t even mention CMs and PMs), and no one, bar none, could have avoided a hefty fine and at least a night in the lockup if he had dared to challenge a policeman over an obvious case of breaking some law by shouting ‘jaanta hai mai kaun hun?’ (or ‘…mera baap kaun hai?’) Would that have helped to make India a better place, and governance much easier, or not? Why did we spread among the elite as well among the masses the pernicious idea that our newly acquired freedom meant that from now on everybody could do as he pleased, cheat and hurt anyone he pleased as much as he pleased on his road to power and pelf as long as he had the right connections, and public safety, decency and welfare be damned?

To the population question next. Consider this: if we had been able to achieve the degree of development that we have already done, in terms of overall national income and social infrastructure (roads, schools, houses, hospitals), to name just two major indices with a population which had stabilized at about one-third of the present number, wouldn’t we have been vastly better off already? (the simplest of arithmetic would tell you that our per capita income would have been three times its current value, which would have placed us comfortably among the middle income countries of the world, rather than still among the poorest!) And isn’t it an unarguable fact that we have left far too many problems – from jobs to availability of the most essential commodities to pollution to caste wars – to fester and grow steadily worse and insoluble simply because the sheer number of people scrabbling for a bare sustenance, at which level no moral or legal bars can stop them from doing what they do, from stealing to rioting to cheating and fighting for more and more ‘reservations’, has grown relentlessly larger over the decades? It would have taken so little of concerted and well-meaning effort, really: significant material rewards for birth control to the poorest, who would have grasped them with both hands, combined with mild punitive measures for parents who have more than two children (withdrawal of ration cards and tax concessions, no permission to stand for elections, things like that): no draconian measures, and some thousand crores of rupees spent – we have spent vastly bigger amounts on prestige projects galore, and are still doing so! – which would have rewarded us by creating scope for much easier governance and faster economic growth later on, and brought back the investment many hundredfold. Even as I write this I am reminded of the German poet lamenting ‘against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain’…

To come to the third point now. This is truly tragic, because we started off by promising ourselves via the Constitution, and our first prime minister reiterating in his first and most famous speech to the newly free nation, to make the removal of extreme, centuries-old poverty, which reduced millions of human beings to the level of neglected and abused beasts, our highest and first priority. Then we lost our way. I shall not go into the very vexed question of apportioning blame – I have heard about every kind of panacea, including turning India into a communist or military dictatorship, and learnt how silly they are – but the fact remains that after ‘developing’ for 75 years, India is still home to almost half the total number of extremely poor people in the world (meaning, by World Bank standards, those who have to survive on less than two US dollars a day). Anybody who dares claim, despite knowing this terribly shameful fact, that after all we should take note of all the other kinds of ‘advancement’ India has made, is one who has either never known or seen such poverty first hand or simply doesn’t care, because he knows that he and his family and kin will never be affected by it. Could extreme poverty have been removed early? I believe yes. True, India between 1947 and 1977 remained overall a very poor nation, but if you take note of the top ten per cent (and even more so, the top 1%), there were a lot of obscenely rich people around even then, from business tycoons to ex maharajas to film stars and the mahants who ran the biggest temples, and if a stern government – say, cast in the Scandinavian model – had taxed away much of their wealth to feed, clothe, house, heal and educate the poorest, I believe the worst of material misery would have become a thing of the past by 1977, though it is true that the rich would have had to wait much longer to live in palaces, drive luxury limousines, go holidaying on the Riviera, deck their wives in gold and send off their children to greener pastures in phoren lands. Our ruling elite, from Nehru to Jyoti Basu, for all their fancy rhetoric, didn’t bother to pay attention, because they simply didn’t care, and the masses never really had a voice: that’s all. Sad, because today those vast unwashed masses are eating away so much of our resources through their incessant demands on the national purse (look at the intense competition going on among our state governments to launch ever more lavish ‘welfare’ projects to buy the next vote) that there are virtually no resources left for anything more worthwhile, from building infrastructure to supplying the military with new age arms and technologies! (our mainstay  fighter aircraft is still the forty-plus year old MiG 21, the ‘flying coffin’ – one air force chief has publicly complained that no one would drive a forty year old car – and the government, according to a now-retired army chief, cannot afford more than ten days’ ammunition for his soldiers in case of a full scale war).

So we come to the last point. Education. The one thing about which almost everybody who knows me will admit that I know a thing or two. Nothing shows how elitist and undemocratic India’s governments have always been – no point carping about whether the Congress was a little better or the Janata governments or the BJP – than how we have neglected basic education in favour of the ‘higher’ version. From Finland to Japan to New Zealand, I have learnt enough about the most ‘advanced’ countries of the world to be sure that they have done just the opposite, and prospered that way. And yet the Father of the Nation had wanted otherwise. He insisted so hard and so long that the requirement that the State shall provide universal free education up to the age of 14 was enshrined in the Constitution as a Directive Principle of State Policy, but then it was quietly and by near common consent forgotten. Why did he ask for it, and why was it forgotten?

To explain how I have understood him, I must be forgiven for a little dissertation on the side here. Do read it with the foreknowledge that I have not only read extensively about the right purposes and methods of education but personally taught at all levels from primary school to post graduate students of many disciplines for more than half a lifetime, while continuously reflecting on our real job all through.

To start with, then, the greatest authorities in both the east and west, from Russell to Vivekananda, have always given far more importance to school education rather than what passes for ‘higher’ education. There must be a very good reason for that. A schooling for at least ten years is essential for everybody, whereas only a tiny minority in every country goes for higher education, because they neither understand the need for it nor want it, nor have the aptitude for it nor can afford it (the vast majority of the millions in highly subsidized Indian colleges, whatever they are formally ‘studying’, are actually just killing time and scraping through exams somehow until they can get a job. This is an open secret. In any case, no country needs millions of new doctors or lawyers or engineers or historians or mathematicians every year – if some country, such as ours, is still churning them out, there is something very seriously wrong with the system).

Secondly, we must be very clear-eyed about why a certain period of schooling for everyone is needed, what it should seek and hope to achieve.

One very noble and desirable purpose of education is, certainly, nurturing the original creative urges of people born highly talented in every field. Two things, however, must be remembered in this context: one, that people like Mozart and Michelangelo and Lincoln and Tagore are so energetic, focused and self-directed that they do not really need a formal schooling, and that a formal schooling is actually often irrelevant, unnecessary, a burden and a bore to them, and may actually thwart and dampen their finest innate talents; two, the present day schooling system, which is designed for very average people working as teachers in a bureaucratic setup and dealing with vast numbers of pupils who are born and destined to be very average adults, is simply not capable of handling geniuses, so the less time, thought and money that is wasted on this goal the better – as most geniuses have shown, they can make their way through life very well on their own.

Two other, much more practical aims of universal schooling are a) to make good citizens of the future (reasonable, fairly well informed, non violent, polite, cooperative and law-abiding people, as long as the laws are obviously designed to serve the greatest good), and b) to give everybody some saleable skills that they can make a decent living with later on. Now I agree entirely with Gandhiji’s view (and not his alone) that ten years of sincere and intelligent schooling is quite enough to achieve both the above purposes (a certain small section will be found to be simply uneducable – how they can be dealt with is beyond the scope of this essay). Remember, indeed, that the best results for (a) can be achieved only when you start with very young children – I have always maintained that it is stupid to introduce a course in ethics to MBA students – and 90% of jobs in adult life do not need any ‘education’ beyond ten years of good schooling followed by a few months of technical training, whether you think of a shopping mall supervisor or optician or petrol pump manager or bank teller or policeman or low level IT worker (I say this last on Sudha Murty’s authority). It is a shameful waste of national resources to ‘educate’ millions of youngsters who will turn up in those professions in how to read Shakespeare or do integral calculus, or how the Krebs cycle works in your body cells or how plants and animals are classified in the Linnaean system. If millions of parents still send their children to college, they do so firstly because they associate a college degree with a silly thing called ‘status’ (which nobody really believes in anyway), or because the unemployment situation is so bad that they keep hoping that more degrees will finally fetch their children some halfway respectable job (and are then horrified to hear that a crane driver in some places earns far more than their ‘engineer’ children!), or because they are simply too ashamed to admit publicly that their children are really unemployed, when they have the option of calling them ‘students’ instead. But the long and short of it is that if 90% of youngsters could be employed after ten years of schooling and at most a year of professional training, not only millions of families but the whole nation would have benefited hugely (just think of lafungas on motorbikes posing a menace on the roads and their female counterparts burning their parents’ money at restaurants and beauty parlours and you will get what I am driving at).

Education has one more purpose: to give people a much wider appreciation of life and its treasures, by means of all the precious products of civilization, namely literature, art, music, sport – not its horribly caricatured professional version but sports for pleasure and comradeship – justice, true spirituality and so on. This is so neglected in our country that I have often been heard to say that if many people do manage to become educated in India, they do so not due to but in spite of the schooling they have received, so I shall not belabour the point here.

Finally, the fact that this kind of universal basic education has not happened in India, I am convinced, is because of the very deeply elitist (partly casteist, partly sexist, partly economic) bias built into the Indian system of governance right from the start, in open defiance of that famous Directive Principle in our Constitution. Perhaps if Ambedkar or Subhas Bose had been at the helm at the start things would have been very different today – or perhaps they would have been assassinated! In any case, the fact that it has not happened very largely explains why India is so backward still, for all its IITs and IIMs, and why our ‘educated’ population’s highest dream remains to run away to Umrica or failing that, to work for an MNC. As Tagore wrote: poschatey rekhechho jaare, sey tomare poschate tanichhe… the one whom you have shoved behind you keeps pulling you backwards.

Now think: if you broadly agree with this thesis, wouldn’t you also agree that if just these four things had been achieved by 1977, India would have found it far easier to race ahead on the road to progress thereafter, and been in a far more admirable position today?

[I deliberately wrote this essay to mark the day Gandhi died]