Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Other Side of Midnight

I must confess, many of us, at one moment or another,have been soothsayers of apocalypse. The CWG has generated humour, cynicism and prophesies of doom. Yes there have been genuine debates as to whether a developing country can afford to be lavish in its expenses on a sporting extravaganza when other priorities seem more significant and pressing. As a consequence, it has also be argued, whether, if at all the games were to be held in India, it ought to be held in the capital given the perceived step-motherly treatment toward the rest of the country. The CWG has also been theoretically scrutinized by intellectuals and academics in terms of it being a perpetuation of imperialism. But the fact that these concerns have been voiced is because all of us cherish one core value: we love India.

It is time that we shed the history of ineptitude and corruption and prove to ourselves that in spite of the many discouragements and adverse representations, we are among the best in the comity of nations. Let us acknowledge and respect much good that has been done and let us restore pride in ourselves. Let us encourage our sports-persons. We have a wonderful national anthem, let's sing it out loud. The school I went to many moons ago had for its motto 'For God and Country'. Lets celebrate India.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

City of Djinns

In 1993, William Dalrymple published a book I greatly treasure: The City of Djinns. It was at Feroz Shah Kotla that this Cambridge narrative historian met his first Sufi, the weasel eyed Pir Sadr-ud-Din. The mystic told the author that when the world was new and humans were created out of clay by Allah, he also manufactured another race from fire. These were the djinns, ordinarily invisible but capable of being seen after a substantial period of ascetic abstinence and prayers. Delhi is a city of many secrets, a city resplendent with the brilliance of untold chronicles but a city cursed to repeated catastrophes by the deeds of imperious vanity. From the stretched history of Indraprastha, through the medieval exuberance of magnificence and treachery, the rise and fall of the good, the bad and the ugly both white and dark skinned, Delhi remains an enigma beyond the understanding of historians and scholars, poets and journalists. It may only be revealed by the djinns. After all it is the city of djinns.

The newspapers this morning carried the headlines of a overhead walk-way collapse, embarrassingly just twelve days before the start of the Commonwealth Games. Earlier there have been other stories, big and small that has made non-thick-skinned India run to opticians for sun glasses. The djinns need to be appeased. Every day for the next twelve days, I propose all those that call themselves lovers of our dear country, find poky corners in the city of Delhi: old monuments, under flyovers, the garbage dumps in non-metropolitan Delhi, slums with dogs but without millionaires and light earthen lamps while whispering a small prayer for India. In an unobtrusive Sufi sort of way. Quietly, in hushed baritones. After all the common citizens of the country can't make televised speeches on Rajpath.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Confessions of a challenged Economics student


Confession= acknowledgment or admission of insufficiency or fault
Challenged= impaired
economics= a discipline involving the study of the administration of material
student= a person who studies.
Maun= willful silence of an ascetic

Opening apology: I am not a lexicographer, nor an economist.

When you open your mouth, your foot may be the first in it. Such sayings are normally credited to the ancient Chinese sage called Confucius or to some of his modern day disciples but I can assure you, and I am being very honest, Confucius did not say this. The truth is, I just said it although some American may patent it even before I can say, may be Zandu Balm.(Since it is much in the news as a source of pain rather than being whatever it is supposed to be)

Monday is the cruellest day, breeding doubts in thinking minds. And so it happened when I tried to mix literature and development into a heady cocktail of uncontrollable exhilaration. Some of my students got into a discussion on development statistics. Figures flew thick and fast. India is growing at around 8%, someone said. There was an all-round feeling of pride despite the apprehensions of droughts and floods and the Commonwealth Games. Then one quiet, bespectacled, last-bench, latecomer spoilt it all by asking this question. If India is growing at around 8%, how is it that Bihar, which has little or no industries, has generated little or no employment, where education is a sigh of despair, where agricultural output has been on the decline, growing at 11+ percent? I was caught out of my crease. I gulped, wiped by eyebrows like a batsman beaten by a wicket-keeper's agility, waiting for the third umpire's verdict to be displayed on the giant LCD screen.

I decided to be forthright. Look here, I said, I am not a professor of Economics. I shall verify this for you. So I made my way downstairs to the man-who-knows-it- all. Every theory, every piece of data, multiple interpretations of diverse statistics, the entire mechanics of a la carte economics. Tailor-made for the listener. Luckily he spotted me as I tried to catch his eye at the perimeter of his circle of students. I told him of my predicament. Without blinking an eyelid, he said Bihar is growing at 3.7 percent. How do you explain the difference between the official figures and the one that you are giving me? He smiled at my innocence. He said there are more things on heaven and earth Horatio that are known of in your philosophy. I felt slighted. Short of insulting me, he was pointing out the sin of my willingness to believe what the state was representing to it people. That is why, the Knowing One said education is the last of the priorities in a popular democracy. The more popular the democracy, the less popular is education. Education makes you think. Education makes you ask questions. You interrogate and analyse the rhetoric. And when you do that you are not popular any more. You can pick up a zerox of Tagore's Ekla Cholo Re, learn it by heart, sing it if you can and be a lonely Munnabhai minus the celebrity status of a celluloid cut-out.

I went upstairs and declared it was my moment of maun. Good mauning.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Just another brick in the wall.

The cultural constituency to which I belong has ensured that I am a polite person. My home, my school, my university and the birds that I flock with have vaccinated me against the kind of conduct that is often seen in places of expected public decorum such as legislative assemblies and offices of governance. You know the kind: a flower-pot tossed here, a mike-head hurled there and someone whacked here and there with the long list of unprintable etcetras. Therefore I shall be polite and courteous instead of screaming my lungs out like a hysterical banshee at the entrance of a wicked mother-in-law's kitchen.
For the last couple of days at an academic conference, attended among others, by the UGC chairman, Professor Suskhdeo Thorat a number of nasty things have been said about the state of higher education in Bihar. The newspapers have been scandalously reporting the comatose state of higher education using pejorative vocabulary contesting the roseate official reports of migration reversal and the large scale manufacture of genius in our institutions. I am truly reminded of the theme of ingratitude so poignantly articulated in King Lear: How much less sharp is a serpent's tooth than a thankless child. This, after the media had been feasted with advertisements. When power is perceived to be on the ebb, the returns are like the Wall Street crash. O the unregenerate peddlers, manufacturers of consent and mechanics of thought control, this was the unkindest cut of all.
My pigeon tells me that academics have been raising fingers at the kind of appointments to superior academic posts. To give the authorities the benefit of ten years of doubt, they may not know the academics of eminence. After all evaluation has the tendency to be subjective. One man's meat is another man's poison unless of course you are a practicing vegetarian and have nothing to do with meat. Now lets be sensible,how can we tell that such and such professor is good? If the argument is provided that s/he is punctual, regular, conscientious, blah, blah and blah plus has written books and has published widely, it may be argued that the person has limited talents. S/he is unsociable, has not networked with politicians, incapable of fund-raising and therefore unsuitable for appointment to a public office of contemporary significance. In today's postmodern world, the slippery indeterminacy of language leaves all arguments open-ended. And so too with higher education. Sukhdeo Thorat will leave droppings that will have been washed clean with the next shower of rain. Many of you may say, its not raining much these days. This thing hope is such a bait/ it covers any hook. Between Volpone and Pink Floyd its just another brick in the wall.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Colonial Criminality and lessons from History

Hasn't Kipling's East is east and West is west/ And ne'er the twain shall meet/ been problematised by egalitarian postcolonial dabblers? Well, just as we were beginning to be complacent about the negotiablity between colonial Britain and colonised India, Madhushree Mukherjee's book Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War Two indicts Churchill as one of history's most inhuman colonial practitioners in the denial of food in times of distress. This physicist turned scientific journalist turned researcher on the Bengal famine of 1943 wanted to understand the human aspect of the famine and her archival investigation led to what may be termed as one of history's most significant establishment of culpability by an acclaimed political leader.
The book investigates Churchill's rejection of Viceroy Linlithgow's SOS to send foodgrain to India to avert a disaster. Falsely claiming shortage of ships, he prevented abundant food being accessed from Australia. The truth was that there were numerous ships available with not enough cargo to carry. This criminal callousness resulted in the loss of three million lives which is half the number of Jews and Gypsies sent to the torture chambers of Auschwitz, Belsen and Dachau during the Holocaust. There has been a surfeit of that narrative played out in the books of history because it was about the vanquished, narrated triumphantly by victors. Will the Civilised West acknowledge its own Auschwitz in Bengal at about the same time in human history?
More importantly, have we learnt the lessons from history? Today grains are rotting in the godowns and people continue to starve in many parts of the country. Is post-colonial India a repetitive representation of its colonial past? We would not like to think so but wonder if there is hope at the end of experience.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


All creatures are allowed time off to hibernate. I lay claims to that right as well. The 5th of September ended it with the overwhelming expressions of affection from the many students I have had the privilege to teach and learn from over the years. It began a couple of days earlier with two young ladies interviewing my wife and me for a newspaper column and concluded on the 6th with oversees students trying to match their time with ours and some of my very dear students coming home for a small celebration.
Teachers' Day began at 6 in the morning with the mobile phone replacing the proverbial rooster. Those who felt that I ought not to be disturbed sent text messages. And thankfully most were not the time-saving abbreviated ones commonly seen on mobile screens today. I am a bit old fashioned with language usage and prefer words to spell rather than sound. And for the rest of the day greetings poured in from all corners of the globe.
On the evening of the 5th, Lions Club organised a felicitation ceremony and I was privileged to be honoured. It was a greater honour to have been introduced by Hon'ble Justice Samarendra Pratap Singh, Judge, Patna High Court, a responsibility for which he had graciously volunteered. I went to school with him and we have worn the blue and white, gold and blue as children. He is a person of impeccable integrity and despite the exalted position that he occupies, he is a wonderfully amiable and an unassuming person. Busy as he is, he still finds time to read Shakespeare and draw upon the wisdom and linguistic virtuosity of the Stratford bard. My sincere gratitude to him for his wonderful gesture that evening. It was also an honour to share the dais with the eminent academic and former Vice-Chancellor Professor L.N. Ram, for whom I have had the highest regard and Professor R.R. Sahay, one of the finest vice-chancellors that the universities of Bihar never had. The programme was held at the Shatabdi Hall of A.N College, an institution that has grown to be one of the finest in contemporary Bihar. I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Haridwar Singh, the dynamic Principal, Professors Ashok Ghosh, Lallal Singh and Kamesh, each of whom have contributed their might to excellence in their respective fields.
And finally to the many students, too numerous to name whose greetings have served as the elixir of life, to do my best for another year, till the 5th of September 2011: thank you all. You make life truly worthwhile.