Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Theatre of the Absurd

Move over Martin Esslin. Your book is passe. On the larger proscenium stage of higher academia in Bihar, Pinter plus plus is being enacted. Well, before getting into the narrative, a bit of the pre-theory. Camus defined the absurd as the tension which emerges from man's determination to discover purpose and order in a world which steadfastly refuses to evidence either. In other words we inhabit a world in which attempts to script rational meanings are defeated in the very act of doing so.
Now watch these events as an unfolding of an absurdist dramatic script:

1. The chancellor appoints a Vice-Chancellor
2. Media reports vigilance probes against the appointee
3. Government requests Chancellor to reconsider decision
4. Chancellor sticks to his decision.
5. Government seizes financial powers of the VCs
6. Chancellor asks Universities to disregard unauthorised directives
7. Government stops salaries of VC.
Soap opera to continue?

A respectable academic from an off-shores university phoned me this morning and said, 'the last time I was in Patna, you spared no pains to advertise your state at a public seminar and we truly believed you'. I grimaced at the stifled sound of the chuckle.

Had this been a play scripted by Beckett, Ionesco,Genet, Arrabal, Pinter or Simpson, it may have been critiqued as a work of art. When it happens in real life, it attracts ridicule. People within and outside the state are watching with puzzled derision.

Its time that Martin Esslin returned to the pages of his own book and the aesthetic of meaninglessness ceases to occupy columns of prominence in the dailies. It is good to laugh and be happy, its just a wee bit tough to be laughed at.

P.S. Not that we don't have a sense of humour. We have had long years of experience, haven't we?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Seedhi Baat, No Bakhwaas

I was walking along the jogging track of the Zoological Park this morning when a potbellied businessman with oily hair greeted me very politely. He said that he had read my Chatternama scribbles with the allegorical implications about resignations and rescinding sweat equities in an earlier Blog and told me frankly that he wasn’t impressed. My ego was bruised. I was, to be honest, so enraged that I wanted to invite him to a steamer ride and toss him over into the Holy River and get the Gangetic Dolphins to feed on him to enable a banquet for the species that is threatened with extinction. Are Gangetic Dolphins vegetarians? Do let me know so that the next time I have such thoughts I will know whether to or not to. I do not wish to offend aquatic sensibilities.

When I got home, the phone rang; I responded to my former teacher’s voice. ‘Why do you write so much of gibberish without understanding the politics of power’? he asked. For gurus I have the highest regard. That’s because, as my indiscrete students say ‘You are a guru yourself’.

But everyone is entitled to redemption. So am I. The truth is that the media always attacks the smaller sharks at the behest of the bigger sharks. The relatively innocent are often implicated in the Kafkaesque world of the woven maze. The oceans are too vast for us to understand its complex cross-currents. At least Tweety Pie is an author of distinction and a person of international repute, who speaks English in English, but what about those who implicated him in a Wittgenstein world of language games he did not understand? Or is he too arrogant to admit it?

They are the sharks. But remember, shark oil is also highly coveted.
Shall we wait and watch?

P.S. Parting shot of the lackey to the businessman: Mohan, if you are a Man you'll give him back his jagir.

I drove home, glugged a bottle of Sprite: Seedhi Baat, No Bakhwaas.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Allegory of Tweekers

The flavors of the season are Tweekers and Tweeters. Tweety Pie and his sweat equity partner have beaten the retreat and the Tweeker’s King is getting into Danny Boyle’s subaltern public utility created with chocolate cream. But that’s happening in the sub-continental territory called Mahabharat. In the 50’s it used to be said what Bihar thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. In the next four decades it became: if India catches a cold, Bihar will sneeze tomorrow. But make no mistake, we are the resurgent ones, chosen to lead, destined never to be left behind for long.

Now, while all this Tweeking and Tweeting was going on and the sordid entertainment occupied all the space from the headlines to the sports page, something was happening in the state in higher academia which looked like a T20 weekday single header. The competing teams were the Tweedledum Gormint and TweedleDee Gorner and it had all to do with captaincy issues. No one was willing to try out the Buchanan - KKR formula of 2009 because somewhere, in spite of the 42 degrees, people remembered the disastrous effects of multiple captaincies. But you might argue that two heads are better than one and I may rebut too many cooks spoil the broth. These polemics get us nowhere. And so, the anti-Buchanan formula prevailed and one captain for each of the universities was appointed by the official authority that was ostensibly not authorized to make appointments without consultations with the board authorities, as stipulated by the rules of the game. And there was talk that one of these captains was in the league of Hansie Cronje. And he has been asked not to decide who is to bat and bowl. For the time being he can only decide on fielding positions. Which is a polite way of saying: find yourself another stadium to play another game.

The national Tweekers and Tweeters had hogged all the media space for a while which in a sense was a bit of a relief because it edged out the cross-border shuttle-cocking. But the state Tweekers and Tweeters are now in action and threaten to turn a bearable T20 into Test Cricket.

While all this happens, those involved with higher academia will occupy uncomfortable seats in the local stadium without the luxury of Kingfisher lounges and the cheerleaders.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Oh Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?

After so many moons in the academia, this is what I had to hear. But first a little background to this rueful tale. As you know, I teach English studies. They don’t call it Literature any more since the advent of something that appears monstrous to the uninitiated called Theory. After Theory, we talk of everything around literature rather than about it. I teach this stuff for fear of becoming an obsolete model whose spares are no more available. For every other thing I am fairly old fashioned. For example I talk about stuff consigned to the brittle, sepia-tinted pages of social history such as ethics and values, character and responsibility and Gandhian staples such as means justifying ends. You know the old black and white stuff.

Yesterday this researcher, young enough to be my daughter, said that these words were signs of contemporary irrelevance. A PhD with a NET on the way to a univ. teaching job, or becoming a civil servant or a banker or a media peddler would never get her an apartment in Burj Dubai nor make her the co-owner of an IPL team. I frowned, not being able to take it in. She would, she said, be much better off with an elected representative of the cattle classes with black kurta kind of sartorial elegance ,preferably from the south of India; a real tweety-pie; rather than hang out in stuffy libraries with groaning fans.When there is electricity to make them groan, that is. She said she could then acquire something called a sweat equity and get into a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose lifetime connectivity with the sheer magnificence of luxury.

The switches in contemporary iconography began to bother me. I sought some solace trying to talk this over with my wife over the evening’s cup of green tea. To be honest, she said, they are the world, we are the children. Whether we are right or wrong, only time will tell. You already have a decent accent, now don't get yourself a black kurta.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Is Green Hunt a Hunt for the Greens?

The rumblings are gathering decibels. Digvijay Singh and Mani Shanker Aiyar have expressed themselves in public. They are thinking people. Sonia Gandhi has urged caution. PC is intransigent. Is the Naxalite problem a law and order one or is it one where years of socio-economic inequities have spiralled into creating a problem that urges a sensitively studied solution? Is the environment being compromised by the privileged that can open the purse strings for profit or should the environment be the domain for those who can derive sustenance from it and protect it?
We need answers quickly and get people at the helm of affairs who can deal with these with an eye on sustainability, equity and non-violence. The greens need protection. If we don't, we shall regret it at our peril.
Let us stop the violence and the bloodshed.
We are all Indians and human beings after all.

Vivek sings Cryptic Notes for 6 to 96

Whatever they tell you at school or at the university, your education is never complete. In Dan Brown’s 2003 worldwide bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, the venerable Jacques Sauniere, curator of Louvre Museum tells his six year old granddaughter Sophie Neveu ‘life is filled with secrets. You can’t learn them all at once’. Learning and discovering secrets is what education is about and more importantly it is about how to discover secrets.

Let me not make this unnecessarily intriguing like the mystical teachings of the Kabbala. I am not writing about paradoxes, anagrams, Fibonacci numbers, and cryptography but about a book written by a dynamic civil servant, Vivek Kumar Singh, called Understanding Cryptic Crosswords: A Step by Step Guide. An Indian Administrative Service Officer, he is currently the Principal Secretary, Department of Culture and Youth Affairs, Government of Bihar. For sundry details, the book has been published by Macmillan India this year and was released at the World Book Fair in New Delhi. It is priced very nominally at Rs. 155 which is very affordable and I recommend it very strongly for every child, adult and entrants to their second childhood. Let me explain these recommendations to the three categories.

Fundamentally, the book is about using language in imaginative and creative ways; of thinking outside the box;of lateral explorations. The author lists three requirements for initiation: a sharp mind, adequate general knowledge and a reasonable command over the English language. In many of the cryptic crosswords in national dailies usually borrowed from western sources, the cultural associations are alien, hence difficult for many Indians. This is where Vivek Singh’s book scores a major point: it is culturally inclusive. With this remarkable book, he seeks to transform an esoteric pastime into a popular meaningful activity. Unlike simple crosswords in which clues are fairly straightforward and a fair vocabulary and reasonable general knowledge are adequate ingredients for success, cryptic crosswords are complex with camouflaged clues. Hence the challenges are more exacting and correspondingly, solving them is more fulfilling. And this book, perhaps is the only book that tells you how to do it.

Back to the benefits for the three categories. For children, it is a wonderful opportunity to play with language; think creatively; think laterally; improve one’s vocabulary, general knowledge and reasoning; things that parents pay a fortune for, later in life. The School and College curricula, because of population and other pressures often make parrots of bright talents. This is an opportunity to reverse the ornithological programming. Adults, including parents and teachers will benefit immensely by learning and teaching these wholesome skills. It will keep them off the passive pastime for dolts for some time at least (not everybody watches the news,good films and sports) and other forms of middle-age mischief. For senior citizens, it is a great way to spend quality time, keep dementia and Alzheimers at bay and become what they can be: the best teachers in the world with their wealth of experience.

Hence: buy it, use it and enjoy it. Start slowly, stick with it, you will love it. Cheers.

P.S. For my students who think and practice Deconstruction, it is invaluable!
Sgniteerg rof eht wen raey

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Updated critique on the NCHER Act 2010

The proposed NCHER act comprising 7 chapters divided into 56 sections has been necessitated because of the extremely variable standards of higher education and research in the country. It is:
AN ACT to provide for the determination, co-ordination, maintenance of standards in, and promotion of, higher education and research, including university education, technical and professional education other than agricultural [and medical] education, and for that purpose, to establish the National Commission for Higher Education and Research.
AN ACT further to promote the autonomy of higher educational institutions for the free pursuit of knowledge and innovation, and for facilitating access, inclusion and opportunities to all, and providing for comprehensive and holistic growth of higher education and research in a competitive global environment through reforms and renovation; and to provide for an advisory mechanism of eminent peers in academia.

Quality Knowledge Quotient is going to determine the hierarchy of countries in the world in times to come. Universities in India need to act fast to improve quality, opportunities and communication skills to enable the resources it creates for the future to compete successfully in areas as diverse as rocket science and the service sector. Such cautioning had been sounded by the UGC and in the Knowledge Commission’s report. This also means that universities as a playground for opportunistic politicking especially impacted upon the state universities and the complete lack of initiatives in certain states to improve education need to be reversed. For the many academicians who have questioned the arrival of the off-shores institutions in the post-WTO regime, it is likely to be an opportunity to set one’s own house in order and provide quality education, if of course the vision of the act can be translated into reality or to put it bluntly, if the pockets of vested interests permit the positives to be achieved. The logic is simple. If we do not wish to import an institution, we need to create at least two of equal quality of our own and make the opportunities available to the most disadvantaged. In so far as the act is an attempt to bring uniformity of standards and remove iniquities in opportunities, the intent is praiseworthy.
However, many questions remain unanswered and one wonders whether the pursuit of this worthy end justifies the means and therefore it is necessary to interrogate the doubts that arise from reading the act in its present form.
Q1. Why is agricultural education and medical education (other than in Universities: ref Sec 3 t) being excluded from the purview of the act?
Q.2 In Sec. 3 (a) academic quality, among other things means physical infrastructure. How will the NCHER ensure basic minimum acceptable physical infrastructure in State Universities, colleges and institutions?
Q3. Compulsory accreditation may be ideal in spirit provided the many ambiguities are ironed out. Should there be any discrepancy in the points collected by an academic for publication in journals abroad and in India? This attitude of privileging the West is an admission of the lack of confidence we have in our own institutions. It undermines national interests and reveals that though we may be politically free, we are still mentally colonized. However, the ideological priority must not be an alibi for unacceptable quality. In many quarters, we have seen how systemic breakdown is a deliberate ploy to serve self-serving interests.
Q.4 One of the objectives of the bill is ‘to promote the autonomy of the university for the free pursuit of knowledge and innovation’. However isn’t it likely that the NCHER with such overwhelming powers centralized in this body may impinge upon democratic spaces in the universities that is supposed to nurture independent research and innovative teaching?
The structure of the Collegium (Ch.3, Sec 17) again indicates the impulse toward centralization. On the other hand, a federal structure would perhaps be more representative of the intellectual, cultural and linguistic aspirations of diverse India.
Hence I would, with all humility, propose that each state should have 5 members that would constitute a Regional Collegium. They shall also be Ombudsmen for all Central and State Universities in that region. The members, who should be eminent academics with proven innovative scholastic and ethical track record, shall be appointed to the Regional Collegiums ( North, West, South, North East, East Central and Central states) for a period of 5 years.
One member of each state, on a year’s rotational basis, may be the member of the central collegium. This will ensure the democratic representation of academic diversity. The Regional/ federal collegiums will be accountable to the Central Collegium.
Six members from the central collegium constitutive of one member from each Regional Collegium shall constitute the NCHER with another three members nominated by the Central Government.
And finally and most importantly, the NCHER should be the funding body that disburses plan and non-plan grants to all the universities so that frequent complaint of fund-crunch by states may be overcome. Only then will the gap between central and state universities be bridged. Needless to mention, this is the Indian tax-payer’s money, hence accountability should be meticulously ascertained.
Prof. Yashpal in his recommendations on 'Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education’ states ‘The biggest deficiency of higher education is that it is not developing sensitivity and commitment to freedom. The Social Science subjects: Economics, History, Linguistics etc. are especially meant to help students see exploitation and discrimination with clarity. From among the students of these disciplines emerge civil servants, judges, lawyers, businessmen and economists who can assert their authority but cannot see the realities of living of the masses’. Civil servants representing the government in its interface with universities and institution should be those that have academic interests and credentials that equip them for such positions.
Professor Yashpal’s intent in the report is commendable: ‘The thrust is to give full autonomy to universities which will function as self regulatory bodies and will be vested with all academic responsibilities. They will design the function and structure of programmes’. In the post-WTO regime, under GATS, education had become a service to be provided to drive the nation’s GDP by teaching appropriate skills. This is contrary to the vision of education envisaged by the founding fathers of our republic: to be an agency for emancipation and the making to good human beings and good citizens. Professor Yashpal seeks an amalgam and one that will hopefully find clear focus in the Act and its implementation.

Higher Education works best when it is supported by structures that are democratic rather than bureaucratic.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Jai Ho

I know a six-footer called Ujjwal Choudhary. He also modestly believes he has six abs. Like many others from Bihar, after studying in Patna College, he went to Delhi University, did very well in History, got into the Civil Service, married his soulmate, parented two talented children and then like a missionary patriarch in his autumn, he decided to rattle the apple cart.

Last year they appointed him the Director Investigation,Income Tax, Bihar and Jharkhand. A sure recipe for disaster for those that seek moderate comforts in life. He went to Jharkhand and investigated a former Chief Minister who ostensibly made 4000 crores of the state's money his own and shared it with his buddies. Now which prudent officer in his/her right senses and in Saare Jahaan se Accha would do a thing like that; I ask you? Privileges are meant for the privileged. Common sense. But common sense is not common for this guy. Can you imagine, he wanted to script a fairy tale!

I believe Charles Bronson also gave this tribal Lionel Ritchi moral lessons in prison where he is currently a state guest. Told him what he had done was not good, that the money could have been better used for the development of the state, alleviation of poverty and all that. You know all that postcolonial claptrap about subaltern emancipation. What most people speak but don't mean. But not this chap.He has this bad habit of saying what he means. Very Gandhi like, I was informed.

A few chosen people did not like what he had done. You know things like raiding so many premises of so many patriotic people who were trying to increase the GDP of the country in an alternative sort of way. But like a pedigreed Rottweiler, he just wouldn't let go. And like the padre on Sunday morning, he got these guys to confess to their ill-gotten wealth and collected large sums of money for the state. And some wits declared him Bureaucrat of the Month.

Now some bats did not like this. We don't know who but some safari-suit clad charandaschors took money ( now I'm telling you this in strict confidence) to have him transferred. And some birdies tweet that it happened in the national capital. Oh my! What shame, no?

And the plot was almost successfully implemented. And one journalist who had had one too many of Laphroig at an undisclosed location whispered knowingly: behind every man-made plot, there is a woman. I've been trying to find out the details but you know these whodunnit bits are difficult to unravel and I don't believe journalists. Especially when they have had too much of Single Malt. They malign reputations. Mainly of middle-aged women. And old men.

But the upshot was that a national network of bad zoozoos wearing masks offered 20 crores for this officer's transfer. Now that figure may be subject to some debate but what happened thereafter made India blush. He was transferred.They said, its nothing out of the ordinary, it was merely a regulation transfer.So candidly innocent, no? And that too while he was travelling through the rough and tough terrain of Chaibasa motivating his officers toward the success of their enterprise.

And some bad zoozoos said on video that they had to do this because this big fellow was incorruptible. He lacked soft skills to accept small gifts. Also because if he did, his wife who prefers books to solitaires would not let him come back home. This tells us that behind every unsuccessful man there is also a woman.

Well to cut a long story short, several PIL's were filed in Jharkhand High Court against the transfer. The department could not satisfy the court on the plea of regulation transfer. And the transfer was, sadly for some, happily for others, stayed. A little more of intelligence and a little more of ethics would have saved the departmental wags and wigs the embarrassment but with twenty crows perched on the stem of the money plant, the resistance to temptation was feeble.
With the setback to the bad zoozoos, Tiger Uncle is all set to roar again. Jai ho.

P.S. And when fuddy-duddy examiners ask students to write essays on cliched topics such as Honesty is the Best Policy, even the most logistically dependent will have something to write about. And their abhibhavaks outside the examination halls, willing to risk damnation to sneak in a bit of help, can heave a sigh of relief.

Passing thoughts on Fool's Day

Any form of representation can at best be partial. Its determinants are space, time, personalities, quality, ideology, opportunism and many others. How is higher academia in Bihar represented in the public domain to the people of Bihar and to those outside? Despite the onerous responsibilities and the remarkable work of those academics that still prop up a failing system, infrastructure and quality, recruitment and appointments have left a great deal to be desired in the last couple of decades. Sadly, these metaphors of failure represent higher academia.
The universities are represented by the Vice Chancellors, the teachers and employees by their respective associations and students through their public conduct and achievements. Changes for the better must include decision making that needs to transcend irrational choices so that in the years to come, representability may be respectable and credible. Credibility is the most substantive component of public trust. We have reason to believe that we are living in an era of hope, of resurgence. Development of any kind must necessarily include education because, at the end of the day, education is an agency of hope, emancipation and change. For a start, let us respect education and those connected with it and in return, let the institutions be accountable to the people. Education needs the best minds and the best minds can be drawn by attractive remunerations, respectable housing and other benefits at par with peer professionals. The best in education hinges on the balance of autonomy and accountability.
The other side of the picture, if we fail, is very gloomy. If the problems of university education are not addressed, institutions will continue to produce unemployable young people; unfit to occupy positions commensurate with their qualifications and because of their qualifications, unable to take up menial jobs. The cascading effect of poor higher education where degree holders are compromised individuals in terms of knowledge, communication and ethics means that the schools are likely to be affected adversely. When the current crop of excellent teachers retire their places will be taken up by those that are hardly qualified to teach. The result will be disastrous for the state. Parents of children in Bihar who are willing to sacrifice all for the sake of education (and education is valued very highly in the state) will then be forced to their children out much earlier than the current prevalent practice.
Lets get together and make a beginning. We owe it to our state.