Tuesday, November 29, 2005

In Praise of Nepotism

What’s wrong with nepotism? Nepotism is a phenomenon as old as human society. And, as per evolutionary biology, it is the source of all cooperation in nature, argues
Adam Bellow The Indian Express Thursday, July 10, 2003
I am the son of a famous writer. I work in the publishing business and got my first job through a friend of my father’s. Next month I will publish a book of my own — a book whose value was undoubtedly enhanced by my famous last name. Most people would probably call this a pattern of nepotism. Ten years ago this kind of thing might have been considered remarkable, but today it is a common occurrence. Children of successful writers have launched their own writing careers and it’s not just happening in publishing.
The same holds true in the entertainment industry — popular music, film and television — as well as in politics, business and even professional sports. The new successors are more like opportunists trading on their famous names and family connections than passive beneficiaries of family largess. But others see a worrisome return to inherited status and a threat to democratic equality.
The first thing to be said about nepotism is that it is as old as human society and has deep biological roots. Indeed, according to evolutionary biologists, nepotism is the source of all cooperation in nature and the basis of all societies, human or animal. The pilot whales that beached themselves last summer in Cape Cod, and kept returning despite efforts to save them, died because they were unwilling to abandon their relatives, according to many scientists. Primates base their small societies on biological kinship, and humans aren’t that different.
The family itself is a product of nepotism, based on the mother’s genetic inclination to protect and nurture her offspring. Animals favour their kin through blind instinctual compulsion, but humans learned early to extend these nepotistic instincts to unrelated individuals through the invention of marriage and kinship. All societies — from hunter-gatherer bands to ethnic states to multiethnic empires — were based on kinship and its cultural extensions: the clan, the tribe, the caste, the ethnic group. It is still a man’s first and highest duty to support and aid his relatives.
The West — and America in particular — is an exception to this rule. Our society has reduced the effect of nepotism because, for us, kinship and nepotism are seen as important obstacles to economic development and political health. This is the fruit of a lengthy historical process that began nearly 2,000 year ago, with the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Catholic Church and feudal monarchies.
The American war against nepotism began with the Revolution, couched as a rebellion of sons against a tyrannical royal father. This was followed by the abolition of aristocratic inheritance practices such as primogeniture and entail, which sought to preserve the family estate by passing it intact to the eldest male heir, and by laws against polygamy and cousin marriage, which also kept property in the family. A generation later, the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way. Americans have rediscovered the joys of family enterprise, and after a century and a half of public insistence on youthful independence and autonomy, more and more the sons and daughters of established parents are choosing to follow in their footsteps.
Some observers warn that the return of dynastic families is a dangerous trend, but such critics underestimate the degree to which the values of meritocracy have been absorbed in American culture. Today’s successors generally hold themselves to higher standards than anyone else would ever set for them. Far from having a big ego, what they have is an inflated super-ego. This is our best protection against the darker side of nepotism and makes the return of dynastic families something to celebrate rather than fear. (Bellow, son of writer Saul Bellow, is the author of In Praise of Nepotism, which will be published this month by Doubleday.) (LATWP)

No Logo

by Naomi Klein
Successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products. A new kind of corporation began to rival the traditional all-American manufacturers for market share; these were the Nikes and Microsofts, and later, the Tommy Hilfigers and Intels. These pioneers made the bold claim that producing goods was only an incidental part of their operations, and that thanks to recent victories in trade liberalization and labor-law reform, they were able to have their products made for them by contractors, many of them overseas. What these companies produced primarily were not things, they said, but images of their brands. Their real work lay not in manufacturing but in marketing. This formula, needless to say, has proved enormously profitable, and its success has companies competing in a race toward weightlessness: whoever owns the least, has the fewest employees on the payroll and produces the most powerful images, as opposed to products, wins the race.
Since many of today's best-known manufacturers no longer produce products and advertise them, but rather buy products and "brand" them, these companies are forever on the prowl for creative new ways to build and strengthen their brand images. Manufacturing products may require drills, furnaces, hammers and the like, but creating a brand calls for a completely different set of tools and materials. It requires an endless parade of brand extensions, continuously renewed imagery for marketing and, most of all, fresh new spaces to disseminate the brand's idea of itself. I'll look at how, in ways both insidious and overt, this corporate obsession with brand identity is waging a war on public and individual space: on public institutions such as schools, on youthful identities, on the concept of nationality and on the possibilities for unmarketed space.
Though the words are often used interchangeably, branding and advertising are not the same process. Advertising any given product is only one part of branding's grand plan, as are sponsorship and logo licensing. Think of the brand as the core meaning of the modern corporation, and of the advertisement as one vehicle used to convey that meaning to the world. The first mass-marketing campaigns, starting in the second half of the nineteenth century, had more to do with advertising than with branding as we understand it today. Faced with a range of recently invented products - the radio, phonograph, car, light bulb and so on - advertisers had more pressing tasks than creating a brand identity for any given corporation; first, they had to change the way people lived their lives.
Ads had to inform consumers about the existence of some new invention, then convince them that their lives would be better if they used, for example, cars instead of wagons, telephones instead of mail and electric light instead of oil lamps. Many of these new products bore brand names - some of which are still around today - but these were almost incidental. These products were themselves news; that was almost advertisement enough. Not surprisingly, this led to a considerable increase in spending on advertising. That we live a sponsored life is now a truism and it's a pretty safe bet that as spending on advertising continues to rise, we roaches will be treated to even more of these ingenious gimmicks, making it ever more difficult and more seemingly pointless to muster even an ounce of outrage. Continues

Fashion, frills and feminine farce

VISA RAVINDRAN The Hindu Magazine Sunday, Nov 17, 2002
Mary Pijher, author of Reviving Ophelia, uses "Hamlet's" Ophelia — who was mentally sound till she fell in love but then grows confused, depressed and finally kills herself because she is torn between her father's expectations of her and her lover's — as a metaphor for what happens to many girls in early adolescence. "They become confused by others' expectations of them and their true selves are lost." The delirious celebration of beauty and the body and the tendency to keep women constantly captive in a state of "becoming beautiful" at great expense of time and money, is a direct contradiction of all the gains of the women's movement.
The ridiculous procession of anorexic, semi-nude bodies on the ramp, all with the same comic gait of gambolling, knock-kneed colts is yet another societal ritual from where Generation Next sometimes picks its impossible role models. The tyranny of the slim body has lead to physical and psychological trauma and death and one can imagine how recent discoveries like hormone infusion — which "sort of simulates a fake meal, fooling the brain into thinking it has already eaten" — and an American company's weight-reducing device — implanted near the nerves in the stomach wall to send electric shocks as an alternative to stomach-stapling — can be misused. Even health news is a lot about building the perfect body or toning muscles to perfection rather than achieving true well-being. Good grooming and healthy bodies are goals to achieve but they are given undue importance to the detriment of self-esteem and the realisation of one's true potential.
Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique) in the 1960s, and Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth) in 1990, have brilliantly explored the myths surrounding beauty, female obsession with outward appearance and the factors contributing to it, in which they have included insightful analyses of the role of women's magazines and advertisements in keeping women avid consumers. Friedan demonstrated that advertisers made a "religion of domesticity" to make women buy domestic gadgets and now, "the Beauty Myth in its modern form, arose to take the place of the Feminine Mystique, to save magazines and advertisers from the economic fallout of the women's revolution," is one of the points of departure from which Naomi Wolf moves to build her case that, now, beauty takes the place of domesticity and replaces the myths of motherhood, domesticity, chastity and passivity which are no longer able to keep women controlled in society, and quotes Germaine Greer describing the Stereotype — "To her belongs all that is beautiful, even the very word beauty itself ... she is a doll ... I'm sick of the masquerade."
"Behaviour that is essential for economic reasons is transformed into a social virtue," says John Kenneth Galbraith, explaining the reasons behind trapping women in the Feminine Mystique. Before the Industrial Revolution, when cottage industries thrived and the family was a productive unit, women's work complemented men's and "work skills, economic shrewdness, physical strength and fertility" were important requisites, argues Wolf, and "beauty as we understand it was not for ordinary women, a serious issue in the marriage marketplace" till the Industrial Revolution created literate, idle women, family sizes shrank, the middle class expanded and capitalism exploited women to keep them submissive, first by enforced domesticity and then by the beauty myth. She goes so far as to argue that every time women won rights or liberties for themselves, patriarchy resorted to devising new ways of controlling them. "To paraphrase Friedan," says Naomi Wolf, "why is it never said that the really crucial function that women serve as aspiring beauties is to buy more things for the body? Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that they will buy more things if they are kept in the self-hating, ever-failing, hungry and sexually insecure state of being aspiring beauties."
The Channel 4 website traces 100 years of make-up, with its slyly tongue-in-cheek L'Oreal-like title "Because You're Worth It". In the early 1900s, suffragettes wore red lipstick as a mark of defiance as they struggled to win the vote, and when Selfridge's decided to sell powder and rogue openly it pleased the women but not the men; in the 1940s (wartime), make-up was seen as an affordable morale-booster and instant feminiser, red lipstick as defying hardship by maintaining appearances; then denouncing make-up became a feminist statement with the publication of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch and the backlash against the concept of prettying oneself to please men; moving to the materialism of the 1980s and expertly-groomed trophy-wives but paradoxically, around the same time, ecological values also emphasise avoiding cruelty to animals and using natural ingredients. But into the 21st Century, the obsession is at fever-pitch. As the population ages, anti-ageing creams, cosmetic surgery, quickfix treatments like collagen implants and "Botox" anti-wrinkle injections that can be taken over a lunch break vie with facial skinpeels and electric wave therapy.
Makeup, they say, generates more money than armament sales. The exploitation of the willing consumer will increase with expanding markets and increasing choice. But when magazines catering to widely-differing readerships project expensive clothes, holidays and lifestyles to keep the beauty myth alive in a developing country — whose priorities should be different and value scales not so skewed by commercial propaganda, they are perpetuating a grave disproportion, widening the rift between the haves and the have-nots. What is worse in the pursuit of outward perfection emphasis is placed on the fleeting and the ephemeral to the detriment of self-confidence and the realisation of true individual potential. As Wolf says, "over the ruined barricades" of the women's movement, "a revolution has come upon us and changed everything in its path; enough time has passed since then for babies to have grown into women, but there still remains a final right not fully claimed." It is a secret "underlife poisoning our freedom". Because women continue to be vulnerable to outside approval instead of banking on their inner resources. Surely, there are greater crusades in life than fighting acne in adolescence and wrinkles in old age.

Why Are We Violent

Rakesh Shukla
THE TIMES OF INDIA Tuesday, November 22, 2005
In the book For Whom The Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway poignantly brings out the dehumanisation that occurs when two or three hundred persons surround an exploitative landlord and beat him to death with sticks and stones. An opportunity to beat a person to pulp and feel indignant patriotism comes by only rarely. The thrashing of a pickpocket is more like an everyday expression of righteous indignation, with a number of people participating in it. Besides, the act of inflicting some body blows generates a sense of power and hence pleasure. Violent behaviour can be linked to a general sense of frustration and powerlessness.
Almost all of us experience the indignities of life and at times feel like retaliating violently against the agent of oppression. Righteousness apart, the links between masculinity and violence need to be explored. Physical strength is the sole parameter which permeates the little boys' world. Bigger boys prey upon the smaller, deriving perverse pleasure from causing pain and distress. No laws, courts, wardens, principals or parental authority are able to act as effective checks. The socially acceptable mask of 'ragging' is fortunately coming under question. Yet, at the core are gender stereotypes which play a crucial role in the formation of the psyche.
In sharp contrast to the ideals of feminity such as fragility, sensitivity and docility, machismo, strength, callousness remain prized qualities for men. In fact, 'sissy' — hiding as it does contempt for girls — is the worst abuse that can be given to boys. Boys considered 'girlish' or effeminate can have a rough time growing up. Pulling the wings of insects is a favourite hobby of many a small boy; as an adult, he might derive pleasure out of inflicting pain on a hapless victim. Feelings of righteousness also play a major role in loosening control over anger and violence — a relaxation of the grip of the super-ego on the Id in Freudian terms. Righteousness, in almost any context, is inherently based on subjective perceptions of injustice. Whether it is the Jordanian woman with explosives taped on her body, all set to explode them in a hotel, or the blasts in bazaars tearing apart innocent men, women and children, the perpetrators feel righteous in their own eyes. They feel not merely justified, but also noble and selfless at risking their life for a cause.
This is not to equate acts of individual aggression with large-scale wars in a post-modernist way. However, in seeking to understand the psyche that is used for larger events, one needs to link the big, bad world supposedly 'out there' with familiar, everyday occurrences. A husband who beats his wife thinks that she deserves to be beaten for not putting salt in the vegetable or giving him cold food. A jilted lover in righteous anger throws acid at the loved woman. A teacher feels that the child talking in class needs to be thrashed for her own good. US intelligence operatives as well as our own special cell police feel that third-degree methods and torture inflicted on suspects is for the good of the country, society and the world. In fact, from Krishna's exhortation to Arjuna to put his qualms aside and take up the bow, to righteous calls to pick up arms for jehad since Islam is in danger, the mandate of religions seems clear.
In the non-religious terrain, the justifications offered for annihilation of class enemies in Marxism-Leninism are well known. Entrenched social and political structures perpetuate violence in society, as the state plays a partisan role. This can be seen in the branding of Dalits, the slave labour of children in zari units, the rape of lower caste and class women and illegal exploitation that occurs on a routine basis. Yes, human beings are fallible. Yet there are some steps that can be taken to make our society a less violent place. Take the arbitrariness involved in the concept of capital punishment, and the stubborn opposition to abolishing the practice. The cold-blooded execution of a person dehumanises the society and individuals inflicting the punishment. In sum, there are no easy answers to the conundrum of cruelty — only some pointers. The writer is a Supreme Court advocate.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Quantum Resolution of Truth

Crossroads Of Religions: Quantum Resolution of Truth: Ancient Cultures
Dr. Chitta R. Goswami
Where does humanity stand at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first? Full-fledged man, Homo Sapiens, appeared on earth a little over one hundred thousand years ago. However, we get to know of man’s life, that also scantily, from what happened during the last cycle of his existence, that is, after the end of the last Ice Ace. In fact, our knowledge of human civilization does not go beyond eight thousand years.
The civilizations of Egypt and Sumeria are considered by many archaeologists as the most ancient. However, there is no agreement among the authorities with regard to the sequence of time among the contending ancient civilizations, namely, Cretan, Greek, Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Assirian, Iranian, Indus Valley, Aryan Indian, Chinese and so on. Certain institutions are found to be common to these ancient cultures. Political system was almost invariably Monarchy; religion was Polytheistic; relation between the political and religious institution was by and large harmonious, but not always so. Similarities in social laws are also found. Most of the ancient societies were dominated by the male; the position of women was rather subservient, polygamy being a common feature. War among neighboring states was common if not frequent. With regard to technology, Bronze Age was superseded by the Iron Age. As a result, advancement in agricultural and manufacturing tools and weaponry was manifest. Mining was known; but the main source of power were: domesticated animals, water, sunlight, different kinds of oil and wind. As for standard of living, a small number of people in every society enjoyed certain luxury, with labor coming from slaves or domestic servants; majority of the population lived a very modest life.
Through which preliminary steps civilizations reached the stage indicated above is difficult to delineate. In fact, it is well nigh impossible to establish a hierarchy of progress among the ancient civilizations noted above. On the other hand, we have specimen of truly primitive societies available in different continents. Aborigines of Australia, tribes of people living in distant jungles, hills and islands of India and many other Asian countries, Eskimos living near the North pole, American Indians available from the Northern tip of North America to the southern tip of South America, innumerable tribes spread over large areas of Black Africa are examples of primitive society. By and large these societies are egalitarian in character, monarchy being extremely rare. Technologically they are ill-developed; they have no written language or literature. They have, however, religion with a belief system in multiple divinities and a store of myths. The existence of these primitive societies is being threatened by the expansion of modern societies and the latter’s encroachment into the life and the society of the primitive people.
The big question is how did the most of the ancient civilizations die out? Actually, only the Chinese and the Vedic civilization of India have withstood death. The rest are dead for all practical purposes, though not without some relevance to modern life and thought. Causes of destruction could be either natural like, flood, earthquake, volcanic eruption, drought etc. or man-made, like, war. There were wars between Egypt and Greece, between Greece and Iran; this did not result in the ruination of any of these civilizations. Middle eastern civilizations of Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria etc. fought with one another, one defeated the other, one dynasty was replaced by another. These also cannot be made responsible for total elimination of any of these cultures. With regard to Indus Valley civilization, some scholars have conjectured that flood was the cause. Others guess that Indus Valley people did not know the use of horses; the Aryans came on horse back and could easily wipe out the Indus Valley people. There is hardly any proof that the Aryans came from the North as invaders. Some scholars draw attention to certain common elements connecting the Indus Valley with the Vedic culture; In the Indus Valley the head of a piece of sculpture looks like that of Shiva; another piece looks like a mother goddess. Indus Valley has two components: one is Mahenjo Daro and the other Harappa. Both are urban cultures and in that way somewhat different from the earlier pastoral Vedic culture. Some scholars think Indus Valley is truly Dravidian culture akin to that of South India. In any case, despite the disappearance of the Indus Valley, it remains in spirit a part of the Indian culture which has shown a remarkable continuity and vigor.

I have come up with an idea that the emergence of Monotheism as an aggressive religion has gone a long way in destroying most of the ancient civilizations.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Mosquito-human equilibrium

Dart that gnat: Battle the mosquito with genetic engineering
Why are we unable to eradicate malaria? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that our ecosystem is like a giant, incredibly intricate, spider’s web. Everything in it is connected to everything else, however remotely, and any disturbance at one place is balanced by disturbances elsewhere. This balancing effect is nothing but a manifestation of Braun Principle elucidated by the great Le Chatelier, which states:
‘‘Whenever stress is placed on a system in equilibrium, the system will always react in a direction that will tend to counteract the applied stress.’’
Back in the old days, humans and malarial mosquitoes coexisted in a delicate, if painful, equilibrium. The mosquitoes bit humans and gave them malaria; the humans swatted the mosquitoes; and thus their respective populations were held in a fine natural balance. And then came DDT. To begin with, the insecticide worked like a charm, killing off the mosquitoes like...well, flies. But within a few generations the little biters became immune to the stuff. So other insecticides were invented, but in due course the insects became immune to these as well. And so it went till a stage has come about today when mosquitoes are not only impervious to the most lethal chemical cocktails we throw at them, but are actually lapping them up with the unholy glee of a thirsty citizenry celebrating the lifting of prohibition.
To add insult to injury, these very chemicals and the noxious wastes resulting from their manufacture are poisoning humans with utmost efficacy, and have fouled up our farmlands, rivers and atmosphere. As for malaria, it continues to plague us with undiminished vigour. We do not notice it so much only because there are a whole lot of other diseases which do not permit human beings to live long enough to be killed by the malarial parasite.
In a nutshell, what has happened is that with the advent of insecticides, humans proceeded to slaughter mosquitoes in vast and unsustainable numbers, thereby placing stress on the mosquito-human equilibrium. The ecosystem has therefore reacted so as to counter the stress, in accordance with the aforementioned Braun Principle. Mosquitoes have developed immunity to insecticides and increased the virulence and variety of the viruses they carry so as to knock off humans at a proportionately higher rate, thereby restoring the balance.
Is there no escape from the clutches of this dreadful Principle? Actually, genetic engineering could supply a solution, Because the mosquito-human balance cannot be eliminated merely by eliminating mosquitoes, the answer lies in somehow providing the mosquitoes with an alternative supply of nutrition (namely, human blood) so that they no longer need to depend on us for it. On conditions of anonymity, a young biotechnologist put it succinctly: ‘‘We need to create a different bunch of suckers for the little suckers to feed on!’’According to him, advanced cloning techniques could provide a steady and uninterrupted supply of mosquito-attracting human clones. These creatures, tentatively named Anophilians, could be settled under carefully monitored conditions in mosquito-infested areas of the planet, and their numbers fine-tuned so as to maintain the existing mosquito-human ratio, while keeping the real human being quite untouched by the insects.
However, some scientists warn that with the establishment of this new mosquito, humankind itself could become redundant in a vital sphere of the ecosystem and thereupon proceed to undergo rapid and irreversible degeneration in physique and intellect, ending with the extinction of our species. Other scientists argue that this process of decay has begun anyway with the advent of MTV, virtual pets and SMS. And so the debate rages on. In the meanwhile, though, it is advisable that we keep malarial mosquitoes at bay by perfecting our swatting techniques.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The sacred and the profane

Gurcharan Das
The Times of India Sunday, February 21, 1999
The Infinite is never far in India. A few years ago I visited the Madras museum in Egmore. While I was admiring a Chola bronze, a middle-aged South-Indian woman came behind me and, without self-consciousness, placed a vermilion mark on the Shiva Nataraja. At first, I was appalled, but then, I realised that we live in two different worlds. Mine was secular; hers was sacred. For me, it was a 900-year-old object of beauty, for her, it was God. Mine was an aesthetic pleasure; hers was a divine darshana.
Suddenly, I felt embarrassed by my petty concerns and my niggling mind. I am struck by the contrast of our lives—the fecund richness of her sacred world, and the poverty of my weary, sceptical, feeble existence. This is where our empty secularism has gone awry. We have lost the holy dimension in our lives. We are quick to brand her superstitious, illiterate, and casteist. She is, in fact, far more tolerant and accepting of diversity because she is capable of seeing God everywhere.
In my world of museums, concert halls, and bookstores, there is plenty of search for beauty, but there is no place for the holy. The answer for an authentic life, I think, lies with the woman in Madras, in whose attitude lies the possibility of a fullness and wholeness of being.
Divinity in a stone
Sudheendra Kulkarni
The Indian Express Sunday, October 09, 2005
On a morning walk along a pot-holed road which was being re-laid, I saw a group of labourers who were about to begin their day’s work. It was obvious that they belonged to a migrant clan of stonebreakers, engaged by the construction contractor. It was also obvious that they were poor, very poor. Tented huts on the roadside, open-air kitchen with the barest of utensils, a baby cradled in a cloth-sling — it’s a common sight at construction sites in India.
What struck me was that before the team began the day’s work, a woman performed a small puja on the stone, smeared it with the auspicious yellow and red powder, broke it with a ceremonial strike and then everybody went about their respective tasks. I asked the woman why she did it. In her own earthy Marathi, she replied, "This is not a mere stone for us. There is divinity in it. This stone feeds us. It also makes your cars run smoothly on the road.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Sachin in a Ferrari

If you rob the idols, you ruin the temple. Stars are key to cricket’s future, don’t knock them out The Indian Express Thursday, August 15, 2002
Two questions repeatedly asked are, why does everybody support only cricket, and why is there no money for other sports? There’s one, very simple, answer. A cricket star earns well, lives well and is loved by everyone if he doesn’t lose his balance along the way. These stars are the wheels of an entire economy: administration, advertisers, sports goods manufacturers, marketing agencies, broadcasters, television channels, commentators and journalists and so on. They attract audiences to the benefit of the entire industry.
Yes, cricketers can earn lakhs — a couple of crores, maybe — in match fees. So do many middle-level MNC executives. But they usually don’t set pulses racing, adrenaline flowing across the country and through the world. The cricketers do; they are the reason people support a game. Take away the purse of these cricketers and you stand to rob the entire cricket economy. Children are inspired seeing Sachin in a Ferrari; how will they react if he rides a motorcycle? Take away the idols and you ruin the temple.

Peddling angst


Sometimes I marvel at the existentialist dilemma of the thinking Indian. By definition he is a worrier, particularly if he does not have to worry about where his next meal is coming from. Instead, he or she worries about the great unwashed who do have to worry about survival in general. He worries about where this country is headed. And if he is creative, he can often make a nice enough living doing so, and feel somewhat morally superior to the non-worriers who do not let poverty or unrest get in the way of going about making money, spending it, and rearing a brood of angst-free pappus. All of us who pay periodic and collective homage to the notion of public service broadcasting belong to this category of angst-ridden worriers, and we've been at it for decades. The Hindu Sunday, Sep 01, 2002

Save Education from Academics

by Dr. Anil Wilson
The Times of India Saturday, June 15, 2002
That the Indian Brain is among the finest in the world is now an acknowledged fact. Alas the same cannot be said of the Indian Heart. How else can we explain the situation where our colleges and universities, full of the best academics with the highest possible degrees, are yet hotbeds of petty intrigue, trivial jealousy, and meaningless mistrust? Somehow all that goes into the head does not percolate down to the heart. The most essential element of education osmosis (the process whereby the stuff in the upper chamber would get diffused into the entire system and expressed through ones behavior and relationships) does not take place, resulting in a blocking of the arteries and a highly constipated clogging in the cerebrum.
The Academic, therefore, does not manage to graduate on to becoming an Educator. Academics are a useful species, no one may deny. Yet their habitat needs to be restricted strictly to research centres located in remote hill-hideouts, away from colleges and universities where the more earthy and mundane of the human species should dwell. What we need in colleges and universities are more of Educators and less of Academics. There was indeed a time when Academics were also Educators who were not content with what went on in the classroom alone but made strenuous efforts to make positive interventions in the very lives of their wards. Their key motivating factor was concern and their target was the entire human being.
Then, somewhere along the line, due to a series of ill-conceived approaches to the process of pedagogy and education, the Academic perched himself higher than the Educator. Thus, to be an Academic is the ambition of most luckless souls who do not manage to get into management, finance, administration or fashion. A pitiful few aspire to be Educators, for that would reveal the triviality of their ambition in life! Those who interview young people constantly find that among the miniscule few who look to teaching as a career, it is teaching in a college or a university - never in a school, perhaps because it is popularly believed that it is in colleges and universities that academics congregate, while schools need educators.
hus, today, we have a surfeit of Academics who may well be likened to hit-an-run-artists. Occasionally, between seminars and conferences, they rush into the classroom (generally late by a few or more minutes because they were giving finishing touches to the latest book that must meet the publishers deadline); deluge the students with the most brilliant lectures, frown on any hapless creature who reveals his/her intellectual poverty by daring to ask a question, refuse to respond to queries because “how can one come down to the level of the students?” rush off even before the bell is rung to prepare for the forthcoming seminar that must be attended as this would pave the way for an invitation to the next one which is being held in some exotic location.
Marks can't be the sole indicator of meritThe Academic as hit-and-run artist leaves behind a host of bleeding victims who do not know where to turn for succour and help. Such victims would indeed be lucky if in the faculty there survives an old-fashioned Educator.
She will not only tend to the victims, take them to the canteen or even her own home, feed the body and the soul, laugh and joke with them (a serious anathema to the Academic who believes in the "High Seriousness of Study"), and in general seek to get involved in the fundamentals of her pupil’s life and concerns. Thus an Academic addresses, in terms of academic ability, the HCF (Highest Common Factor) in a class whereas the Educator caters to the LCM (Lowest Common Multiple). Thus while the endeavour of the Academic is to cover the syllabus, the Educator seeks to uncover it. Thus an Academic has no use for his students outside the classroom while for the Educator, old-fashioned that she is, the entire world of her pupil is her classroom.
A student’s behaviour, outside the classroom is none of the Academic’s business, while the Educator, misguided soul, will go out of her way to make it her business. This may fetch her momentary unpopularity but will earn her long-run respect. The Academic does not want this because he knows that "in the long run we are all dead". The heavy emphasis on an Academic approach to education has effectively curbed the Educator’s point of view. The unfortunate consequences of such a situation just cannot be missed.
  • There is the inordinate emphasis on acquiring skills and information with the corresponding inability to find measures to translate these skills and information into knowledge and wisdom.
  • There is the obsession with marks as being the sole indicator of merit. And this, in the face of the fact that the wide-ranging social and economic disparities in our country militate against any such simplistic connotation of the term merit.
  • Due to such a blinkered approach to education there is no scope for developing a mechanism that addresses some basic issues about what constitutes good education and what place such constituents could have in our appraisal systems.
While there may be indices (however unsatisfactory) to determine the literacy levels that a candidate has attained, there appears to be no mechanism for indicating the educational attainments of a student in terms of the core values that any reasonable educated person is expected to have. Fundamental tools of education like basic problem solving, responsiveness to universal human values, appreciation of responsibility, peer relationships, sense of discrimination and discernment, and other such intangibles, have no place in our evaluative processes. Thus we confuse skills with knowledge, information with wisdom, teaching with learning, high grades with talent, degrees with competence, and fluency with the ability to think afresh. There is a general devaluation of sports and extra-curricular activities in colleges and universities.
The Educator as an Academic is a typical product of the Industrial Age. Education, particularly higher education today, is dominated by the assembly-line syndrome that characterised the Industrial Age. This can also be seen in the similarities between mass-producing industries and most educational environments: five-day week, seven-hour day, careful division of labour for both teachers and students, a strong emphasis on conformity and a corresponding suspicion of originality, a total dependence on the sequential curriculum process, and most of all, the overwhelming concern for the product rather than the process. As we move from the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Age, there is a newfound questioning of sequential curriculum process and the assembly-line syndrome.
We have come to realise that learning is fitful, episodic, explosive process of inquiry, where the process is as important as the product. Such learning is not taking in information. It is a fundamental shift in vision, awakening intuition, whereby we re-create ourselves, re-perceive the world and become a part of the re-generative process of life. The Educator will be back in business and Education will be rescued from the clutches of academics. Hopefully.

The pathology of success

The Indian ExpressWednesday, June 05, 2002
The prevalent system of education does not inspire the child; nor does it help her discover the possibilities she is endowed with. Instead, with examinations and associated classification of ‘success’ and ‘failure’, it processes, hierarchises, and eventually eliminates people. Not surprisingly, every year around this time — particularly after the Class X and XII Board examination results — many vibrant minds are told that they have failed, that they are incapable of pursuing life’s important projects. Although we can hear fragments of this violence, manifesting in psychic disorder and suicide, society at large does not seem to be interested in listening to those who have failed. Because it condemns failure, it does not have the the courage to see the pathology of success.
Success is celebrated and glorified. Newspapers and television mythologise the narratives of success; schools want success stories to sell their products; and parents want the success of their children to establish their social superiority. Success assures instant entry into one of the IITs, eventual migration to the US, acquisition of a green card, smart spouse and limitless prosperity! Indeed, the goal of education, it appears, is not the comprehension of the universe — its natural laws, its cultural complexities, its aesthetics and beauty. Instead, the goal is to achieve success that can be quantified, graded and packaged.
Real knowledge requires patience — the ability to enquire, comprehend and analyse. But success requires merely a strategy — how to memorise, and write ‘objective’ answers in an allotted time, how to reduce, say, the principles of magnetism and electricity, Tagore’s poetry, Gandhi’s Dandi march, the glaciers in high mountains and the symmetry of geometry into a ‘course-material’, a CBSE puzzle to be solved within 150 words! No wonder, such an unimaginative form of learning kills the spirit of joy and rigour.
Success, as a result, has no relationship with creativity. It is difficult for those who have failed to speak of the hollowness of success. Because they have already been wounded; their self-confidence has been crippled. To fail is to be deprived of one’s language. To fail is to devalue one’s own worth. As a result, those who fail begin to accept the system, and relate their failure to their ‘innate deficiencies’. But then, it is absolutely important that those have failed begin to rethink and act in an altogether different fashion.
  • First, let them see the deeper meaning of failure. Failure is by no means the end of one’s life-project. Failure is a turning-point, a new beginning. Failure is a moment of rigorous self-introspection. Ironically, the privilege and arrogance of success makes it difficult for the ‘toppers’ to undergo such a self-reflexive exercise. Failure softens and humanises the person.
  • Second, failure is also the beginning of a quest for a new possibility. One has failed in the exam strategy; one has failed in what is being taught as physics, mathematics or history. But one has not failed in life. Because no young person can fail in life; life has just begun. One who has failed in the Board exam is possibly a good poet, a good singer, a good mechanic, a good nurse, a good farmer, a good social activist or a good worker. That is why, for all those who have failed, it is an opportunity to rediscover their hidden potential — something they have repressed because of the examination pressure, because of the social stereoptype that good guys are those who became either engineers or doctors.

Yes, those who have failed ought to be told that they have not really failed. But who would tell them this alternative story? The success-oriented/ middle class/ competitive/ consumerist society abhors failure. Yet, there are dissenting voices. Maybe, a true educationist is feeling restless, and trying to evolve an alternative pattern of learning. Maybe, a parent is waiting eagerly to find a companion who too has a similar quest for new education. Maybe, there are potential rebels even among those who have failed. Perhaps one day all of them would come together, and alter the prevalent system of life-negating education.

Neat People vs. Sloppy People

By Suzanne Britt
I’ve finally figured out the difference between neat people and sloppy people. The distinction is, as always, moral. Neat people are lazier and meaner than sloppy people.
Sloppy people, you see, are not really sloppy. Their sloppiness is merely the unfortunate consequence of their extreme moral rectitude. Sloppy people carry in their mind’s eye a heavenly vision, a precise plan that is so stupendous, so perfect, it can’t be achieved in this world or the next.
Sloppy people live in Never-Never Land. Someday is their m├ętier. Someday they are planning to alphabetize all their books and set up home catalogs. Someday they will go through their wardrobes and mark certain items for tentative mending and certain items for passing on to relatives of similar shape and size. Someday sloppy people will make family scrapbooks into which they will put newspaper clippings, postcards, locks of hair, and the dried corsage from their senior prom. Someday they will file everything on the surface of their desks, including the cash receipts from coffee purchases at the snack shop. Someday they will sit down and read all the back issues of The New Yorker.
For all these noble reasons and more, sloppy people never get neat. They aim too high and wide. They save everything, planning someday to file, order, and straighten out the world. But while these ambitious plans take clearer and clearer shape in their heads, the books spill from the shelves onto the floor, the clothes pile up in the hamper and closet, the family mementos accumulate in every drawer, the surface of the desk is buried under mounds of paper, and the unread magazines threaten to reach the ceiling.
Sloppy people can’t bear to part with anything. They give loving attention to every detail. When sloppy people say they’re going to tackle the surface of a desk, they really mean it. Not a paper will go unturned; not a rubber band will go unboxed. Four hours or two weeks into the excavation, the desk looks exactly the same, primarily because the sloppy person is meticulously creating new piles of papers with new headings and scrupulously stopping to read all the old book catalogs before he throws them away. A neat person would just bulldoze the desk.
Neat people are bums and clods at heart. They have cavalier attitudes toward possessions, including family heirlooms. Everything is just another dust-catcher to them. If anything collects dust, it’s got to go and that’s that. Neat people will toy with the idea of throwing the children out of the house just to cut down on the clutter.
Neat people don’t care about process. They like results. What they want to do is get the whole thing over with so they can sit down and watch the rasslin’ on TV. Neat people operate on two unvarying principles: Never handle any item twice, and throw everything away.
The only thing messy in a neat person’s house is the trash can. The minute something comes to a neat person’s hand, he will look at it, try to decide if it has immediate use and, finding none, throw it in the trash.
Neat people are especially vicious with mail. They never go through their mail unless they are standing directly over a trash can. If the trash can is beside the mailbox, even better. All ads, catalogs, pleas for charitable contributions, church bulletins, and money-saving coupons go straight into the trash can without being opened. All letters from home, postcards from Europe, bills and paychecks are opened, immediately responded to, and then dropped in the trash can. Neat people keep their receipts only for tax purposes. That’s it. No sentimental salvaging of birthday cards or the last letter a dying relative ever wrote. Into the trash it goes.
Neat people place neatness above everything else, even economics. They are incredibly wasteful. Neat people throw away several toys every time they walk through the den. I knew a neat person once who threw away a perfectly good dish drainer because it had mold on it. The drainer was too much trouble to wash. And neat people sell their furniture when they move. They will sell a La-Z-Boy recliner while you are reclining in it.
Neat people are no good to borrow from. Neat people buy everything in expensive little single portions. They get their flour and sugar in two-pound bags. They wouldn’t consider clipping a coupon, saving a leftover, reusing plastic nondairy whipped cream containers, or rinsing off tin foil and draping it over the unmoldy dish drainer. You can never borrow a neat person’s newspaper to see what’s playing at the movies. Neat people have the paper all wadded up and in the trash by 7:05 AM.
Neat people cut a clean swath through the organic as well as the inorganic world. People, animals, and things are all one to them. They are so insensitive. After they’ve finished with the pantry, the medicine cabinet, and the attic, they will throw out the red geranium (too many leaves), sell the dog (too many fleas), and send the children off to boarding school (too many scuff-marks on the hardwood floors).
Yeah! Go Sloppy!

The dhania factor

Santosh Desai The Times of India - Saturday, July 10, 2004 
Paisa vasool. The ultimate Indian idea of good value; not to be confused with miserliness. 

Paisa vasool means that the purchased item was worth its price. It indicates a satisfaction in extracting every drop of consumptive liquid from each paisa. When you wring the act of consumption dry, and leave no discernible residue, it is then that you feel the warm after-glow of paisa vasool.
Our compulsive need to re-cycle things is a pointer to this need. Long before eco-trendism placed the idea of re-cycling on its current pedestal, the Indian has recycled. Not only re-cycled bur re-soled, re-collared and refilled disposable lighters with an injection. Selling raddi is an art form with the price as well as getting the raddiwalla to weigh accurately being high skills. Old clothes are exchanged for utensils, old bottles are sold, with scotch bottles commanding a wholly explainable premium. Old shoes used to be re-soled and all trousers had margins that could accommodate growing children.
A common sight in smaller towns is a handkerchief worn to protect the collar as is the ubiquitous purane kapdon ka doctor who specialises in coaxing a few more years of life from a recalcitrant garment flagging in spirits.
A corollary is our inability to throw anything away. Lift any mattress inside any home in India and you will see a proud collection of plastic bags lovingly gathered over a period of time. We hoard plastic spoons, grow plants in ice-cream tubs and buy insatiably large quantities of Pet jars in promotions. When we buy a TV set, we are actually buying a TV set, the thermocole that it comes packed in, the outer carton and any miscellaneous clips or pins or plastic pouches that accompany it.
A necessary skill for every housewife is that of bargaining because that ability is the most tangible way in which she converts her almost visceral need for value into everyday reality. She has that unique ability to have saved up that crucial little while having tended to her family's needs with very little to start with.
The skill lies in economising on the right thing and displaying largesse on a few critical occasions. It can be argued that this picture is changing as middle class India moves towards greater affluence. While this is true to some extent, it is important to recognise that the mindset governing consumption is not changing all that much.
Take the example of the way housewives buy vegetables. Regardless of whether she stays in an affluent neighbourhood or in crowded flats, she must get her dhania and hari mirch free. It has nothing to do with affordability; it is about sneaking in additional value helping make the transaction fulfilling.
Getting the right value then becomes an issue of fairness: of being asked for the theek daam, of knowing that one has not been taken for a ride. Of feeling re-assured that no consumption juice remains in the discarded object.
This ability to see utility in all its dimensions in any object and to not rest till every ounce of it is exhausted, has perhaps more to do with the ingrained cultural memory of scarcity, than with a real need for economy. We may not mind paying more, but our paisa must always be vasool. [Santosh Desai Times of India, June 12, 2004 Fly...]

CITY CITY BANG BANG Weekly Column Remembering the swing January 27, 2014
Who amongst us has had enough of the playground swing? Among the smaller pleasures of life which one coveted and never quite got enough of when growing up, was time at the swing. Of course, you could make do with the slide, the see saw and if you were desperate, the jungle gym but what…Read more » Also posted in Columns 
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Perilous prospects

By K.N. Panikkar
The Hindu Monday, Nov 17, 2003
In recent times, Indian society has witnessed the emergence of an anti-liberal and authoritarian ethos in almost all social, cultural and political practices. It is well pronounced in the field of education, both in content and organisation. The changes in the education system mainly target two areas.
  • First, the content of the curriculum in order to redefine the character of the nation in religious terms. Privileging the indigenous system and knowledge are its defining characteristics. It appears to be a part of a revivalist agenda, which essentially seeks to indigenise the system by foregrounding the knowledge linked with Hindu religious tradition, which though historically important may not have much relevance in contemporary times. The indigenisation, however, is not the same as incorporation of indigenous knowledge, which is necessary and desirable.
  • The second feature of the changes is enclavisation, which is an inevitable legacy of colonialism. There is an overwhelming section of the population that is deprived of higher education for social and economic reasons. In a country like India only the state can provide them the opportunity. Most Indian universities have become stagnant pools, starved of funds and facilities and are unable to keep abreast with the explosion in knowledge taking place in almost all fields.

An enclavised, commercialised and communalised system of education, rapidly gaining currency, can be countered only by strengthening the public system, the revitalisation of which depends upon a variety of issues, more important among them being quality assurance, democratisation and autonomy. None of them is on the agenda of the state, even if they form the themes of officially sponsored seminars. The ground reality obtaining in most institutions, however, is totally inadequate to ensure even minimum quality.

Intellectual Treason

New Humanist Jan 07, 05
Unless we understand the ideological mechanism of this sacralisation of politics, we will not be able to combat the ongoing coups against secularism under nominally secular democracies.As a student of the history and philosophy of science, I have been watching with concern how modern science itself — perhaps the single most powerful force for secularisation — is being re–coded as sacred, either as affirming the Bible or the Vedas, or as ‘lower knowledge’ of ‘dead matter’, in need of spiritualisation. As an old–time partisan of the Enlightenment and scientific temper, I have been watching with concern as my fellow intellectuals and activists, in the United States and India, who identify themselves with social justice, anti–imperialism, women’s rights and sustainable development, have themselves paved the way for re–enchantment or re–sacralisation of science.
Contemporary theories of physics, evolution and biology were wilfully distorted to make it look as if all of modern science was converging to affirm the New Age, mind–over–matter cosmology that follows from Vedantic monism. ‘Evidence’ from fringe sciences was used to support all kinds of superstitions, from vastu, astrology, ‘quantum healing’ to the latest theory of Vedic creationism. Science and ‘Vedas’ were treated as homologues, as just different names of the same thing. Orwell’s Big Brother would’ve felt right at home!Another sign of doublespeak was this:
  • On the one hand, the BJP and its allies presented themselves as great champions of science, as long as it could be absorbed into ‘the Vedas’, of course.
  • On the other hand, they aggressively condemned the secular and naturalistic worldview of science — the disenchantment of nature — as ‘reductionist’, ‘Western’ or even ‘Semitic’ and therefore un–Hindu and un–Indian. Science yes, and technology yes, but a rational–materialist critique of Vedic idealism no — that became the mantra of Hindutva.

Why this over–eagerness to claim the support of science? There is a modernising impulse in all religions to make the supposedly timeless truths of theology acceptable to the modern minds raised on a scientific sensibility. Contemporary Hindu nationalists are carrying on with the neo–Hindu tradition of proclaiming Hinduism as the universal religion of the future because of its superior ‘holistic science’ (as compared to the ‘reductionist science’ of the West.) Besides, it is easier to sell traditions and rituals, especially to urban, upwardly mobile men, if they have the blessings of English–speaking ‘scientific’ gurus.Granted, this business of Vedic science had been going on before anyone had ever heard the word ‘postmodern’. But this Hindu nationalist appropriation of science has found new sources of intellectual respectability from the postmodernist, anti–Enlightenment turn taken by intellectuals, most radically in American universities, but also in India. What do I mean by postmodernism and how did it play out in India?

Postmodernism encompasses a wide variety of theoretical discourses, touching on everything from literature and history to architecture. What unites them is a suspicion of universal knowledge. Modern science, being the ideal type of such knowledge, naturally became a target of postmodernist critics. Sure, there were many critics of this universal science, including prominent scientists themselves before the advent of postmodernism, but their criticisms were leveled at the abuses of science, not at its logic. As disillusionment with the military–industrial complex grew in the West in the wake of the Vietnam war and civil rights struggles, the top–down model of development in India led to a radical critique of science, in which its claims to objectivity and universality were questioned.
In India well–known public intellectuals Ashis Nandy, Vandana Shiva, Shiv Vishvanathan, Claude Alvares and others condemned modern science as being innately barbaric, violent and even genocidal because of its reductionism and its imposition of western interests and values in collusion with westernised Indian elite. But the critique of science and technology that emerged out of the so–called ‘Delhi school of science studies’ was not limited to uses or abuses of science: it questioned the content and methodology of science as we know it. No one can deny that there are alternative, culture–dependent descriptions of nature: the world is full of a vast variety of such descriptions. Given this diversity, can we not say that modern science provides us a closer, a more approximate representation of nature which is more adequately supported by evidence and logic? Not so, according to its critics, because the standards of truth and falsity are also relative to the ‘form of life’ of a culture. They justify developing a science in accord with the Vedic cosmology as an attempt to decolonise the ‘Hindu mind’ of western, Semitic–monotheistic influences.
Indeed, scholar–activists sympathetic to the Hindu worldview, including Rajiv Malhotra and Koenard Elst routinely cite the writings of Ashis Nandy, Ronald Inden and even Gayatri Spivak as allies in a shared project of understanding India through Hindu categories. Like the postmodernist supporters of ethno–sciences, they do not deny that modern science has discovered some truths about nature. But they declare them to be lower–level truths, because they merely deal with dead matter, shorn of consciousness. Notwithstanding all pious declarations of the ‘death’ of the Newtonian world view of matter obeying mechanical laws, the fact is that any number of rigorous, double–blind tests have failed to show any signs of disembodied consciousness or mind–stuff in nature: matter obeying mindless laws of physics is all there is.
But in the Vedic science discourse, the overwhelming evidence for adequacy of matter to explain the higher functions of mind and life are set aside as a result of ‘knowledge filtration’ by western–trained scientists. Take the example of the emerging theory of ‘Vedic creationism’ (which updates the spiritual evolutionary theories of Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda). Its chief architects, Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson, claim that Darwinian evolutionary biologists and mainstream biologists, being products of the western ontological assumptions, have been systematically ignoring and hiding evidence that supports the theory of ‘devolution of species’ from the Brahman through the mechanism of karma and rebirth. All knowledge, they claim, parroting social constructivism, is a product of interests and biases. On this account, Vedic creationism, explicitly grounded in Vedic cosmology is as plausible and defensible as Darwinism, grounded on the naturalistic and capitalist assumptions of the western scientists. Vedic creationism is only one example of ‘decolonised science’.
Postmodernism represents a treason of the clerks which has given intellectual respectability to reactionary religiosity. With the best intentions of giving marginalised social groups — especially if they were women and if they belonged to the non–western world —the right to their own ways of knowing, western academics, in alliance with populist Third Worldist intellectuals, have succeeded in painting science and modernity as the enemy of the people. Rather than encourage and nurture a critical spirit toward inherited traditions, many of which are authoritarian and patriarchal, postmodernist intellectuals have waged a battle against science and against the spirit of the Enlightenment itself. As the case of Vedic science in the service of Hindu nationalism in India demonstrates, this misguided attack on the Enlightenment has only aided the growth of pseudoscience, superstitions and tribalism. read/post comments

Karnak and Luxor

A visit to Egypt can be a humbling experience. Big is really "massive" in Egypt, like the pyramids of Gizeh and the temples of Karnak and Luxor with their huge columns and obelisks. Napoleon's scholars calculated that the limestone blocks in the three pyramids of Gizeh were sufficient to build a wall one foot wide and 10 feet high around the whole of France!
The expertise of the ancient Egyptians in the field of architecture, engineering, astronomy, art, sculpture, writing are all there for us to wonder. What we should realise though, is that these were the achievements of a bronze-age culture. Cutting limestone and hard granite into huge blocks for building and carving sculptures in the round without the use of iron tools is an extremely difficult feat. The beautifully carved hieroglyphics, painted with the most vibrant colours is in itself a work of art. Even more remarkable was the living standards of the kings and ruling classes. Elaborately carved and designed chairs, tables, cots, thrones, chests in cedar and other wood, metal craft, woodwork, pottery, jewellery making, all kinds of crafts were highly evolved at a time when most people of the world still lived in neolithic villages.
Western scholars have been judgmental when they dismissed the civilisations of the east as the cult of the dead and have argued that this obsessive concentration on death rituals was the reason for these cultures remaining stagnant and their ultimate eclipse. However, it is to be noted that western cultures have developed only in the last few centuries, while the great Egyptian civilisation flourished for several thousand years with near continuity in religious beliefs and practices, lifestyle and concepts of kingship.GEETA VASUDEVAN The Hindu Magazine Sunday, Mar 07, 2004 About Us

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

I am my own reader

Writing seems an entirely self-contained activity, work pursued for its own sake. Actually, the writer sets out on a very personal and solitary quest, involving, at least in its intentions, no one else. I am my own reader. In fact, when writing, I am telling myself things. What the writer is trying to do rather is to make sense of life — for herself and incidentally for the reader. It is a kind of self-communing, of which the reader becomes a part. What is ultimately communicated is a picture of the world as the writer sees it, a picture that comes out of somewhere deep within, often taking even her by surprise. It is almost like hypnosis: things one didn't know were there, things one wouldn't have expressed in ordinary life, emerge. It is also a little frightening, being almost like an emotional and intellectual strip tease; there is a sense of standing exposed and bare under the spotlight.
For a writer, as I said, writing is the thing. But in exploring ideas, in teasing and stretching them, the writer helps readers to see what they have not been able to glimpse on their own. It is the writer's imagination that opens out new worlds to the reader. The imagination is a very powerful tool, it has both muscle and strength. I would compare it, not to the butterfly's flitting, but to the eagle's swoop and soar in flight. There is something daring about the way imagination can go into the dark, leap over a yawning abyss and make connections. It is imagination that allows the artist to get to the inner truth, going beyond the facts, behind the presumed reality. "Poetry is something more philosophical and of graver import than history": Aristotle's words. It is the writer's imagination that makes it possible for creative writing to have these qualities. SHASHI DESHPANDE The Hindu Literary Review Sunday, Jul 06, 2003

I read therefore I am

I see readers, and in their gestures the pleasure, responsibility and power that they derive from reading, that are common with mine. I am not alone. In my adolescence, whenever people mentioned my so-called passion for reading, I would always start to bristle. After all, to be known as a book lover — how grotesque. To my hypersensitive ears, it was like being called a eunuch or an old maid; one always hears that faint sneer of disdain and condescension mixed with pity. To be bookish is to be mousy, repressed, a shy wallflower, incapable of getting along with people, dreamy and poetic, helpless in the real world.
Shocking as it may seem, my real "love" isn't so much for reading as for pleasure — it merely happens that learning new things delights me, as do fast-paced stories, imaginative wordplay, and distinctive prose styles. Should I be congratulated for being a self-indulgent hedonist? I certainly wouldn't read books if they were boring, irrelevant and soporific — which is how most high school kids regard the classics of world literature. No, I read for excitement. Everything else is secondary.
It was in books that I encountered the universe: digested, classified, labelled and still formidable. Reading gave me an excuse for privacy, my bed late at night became my safest and most secluded place for reading, in that nebulous region between being awake and being asleep. Many nights I would turn on my bedside lamp and try both to reach the end of the book I was reading, and to delay the end as much as possible, going back a few pages, looking for a section I had enjoyed, checking details I thought had escaped me. In fact, I don't ever remember feeling lonely, my books were good company. The psychologist James Hillman argues that those who have read stories or had stories read to them in childhood "are in better shape or have a better prognosis than those to whom story must be introduced... Coming early with life it is already a perspective on life."
I never talked to anyone about my reading; the need to share came afterwards. Each book was a world unto itself, and in it I took refuge. Though I knew myself incapable of making up stories such as my favourite authors wrote, I felt that my opinions frequently coincided with theirs, and (to use Montaigne's phrase) "I took to trailing far behind them murmuring `Hear, Hear'." Later I was able to dissociate myself from their fiction; but in my childhood and much of my adolescence, most of what the book told me, however fantastical, was true at the time of my reading, and as tangible as the stuff of which the book itself was made. The world that revealed itself in the book and the book itself were never, at any price, to be divided. The contents of every book burned within it, blazed from it; located not merely in its binding or its pictures, they were enshrined in chapter headings and opening letters, paragraphs and lines. You did not read books through; you dwelt, abided between their lines and reopening them after an interval, surprised yourself at the spot where you halted. I think I read in at least two ways.
  • First, by following breathlessly, the events and the characters without stopping to notice the details, the quickening pace of reading sometimes hurtling the story beyond the last page — as when I read Vonnegut, Maugham, O'Henry or Salinger.
  • Secondly, by careful exploration, scrutinising the text to understand its ravelled meaning, finding pleasure in merely the sound of the words or the clues, which the words did not wish to reveal, or which I suspected was hidden deep in the story itself, something too terrible or too marvellous to be looked at.

The second kind of reading — which had something of the quality of reading stories — I discovered in Lewis Carroll, Vikram Seth, Vassanji, Tagore and Nabokov. Reading, to me, set one free, it gave one a freedom to explore thoughts and the world outside the context they lived in. This has its retributions in the political world we live in, from the banning of writers like Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen to the censorship of countless authors ranging from Neruda to Gorky over the years. But not only totalitarian governments fear reading. Readers are bullied in school yards and in colleges as much as in government offices and prisons.

Almost everywhere the community of readers has an ambiguous reputation that comes from its acquired authority and perceived power. Something in the relationship between a reader and a book is recognised as wise and fruitful, but is also seen as disdainfully exclusive and excluding, perhaps because the image of an individual curled up in a corner, seemingly oblivious of the grumblings of the world, suggests impenetrable privacy and a selfish eye along with a singular secretive action. "Books, you have too many books!" my mother would exclaim in frustration. I remember being called a dreamer once by a maternal uncle when he saw me reading, as if my silent activity contradicted their sense of what it meant to be productive or alive.
The popular fear of what a reader might do among the pages of a book is as ageless a fear as men have of what witches and alchemists do behind locked doors. The recent attack by vandals at the Bhandarkar Institute in Maharashtra, is yet another example of destruction of information, of books that demonstrators have no idea about in terms of value and content. Their pillaging convinced no one. Thus reality — harsh necessary reality — was seen to conflict irredeemably with the evasive dream world of books. Demotic regimes demand that we forget, and therefore they brand books as superfluous luxuries; totalitarian regimes demand that we not think, and therefore they ban and threaten and censor; both, by and large, require that we become stupid and that we accept our degradation meekly, and therefore they encourage the consumption of pap. In such circumstances, readers cannot but be subversive.
Told that we are threatened with extinction, we, today's readers, have yet to learn what reading is. Like the act of reading itself, the history of reading jumps forward to our time — to me, to my experience as a reader — and then goes back to an early page in a distant foreign century. It skips chapters, browses, selects, re-reads, refuses to follow conventional order. Paradoxically, the fear that opposes reading to active life, that urged my mother to request me from collecting way too many books that might not amount to much, recognises a solemn truth: "You cannot embark on life, that one-off coach ride, once again when it is over," writes the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk in The White Castle, "but if you have a book in your hand, no matter how complex or difficult to understand the book may be, when you have finished it, you can, if you wish, go back to the beginning, read it again, and thus understand that which is difficult and , with it, understand life as well." PRIYA BALASUBRAMANIAM The Hindu Literary Review Sunday, Aug 01, 2004

My Passage to Many Indias

The Coexistence of Multiple Realities ALEXANDER M KADAKIN
The Times of India THURSDAY, JUNE 10, 2004
But even before I stepped on the Indian soil, India was ever present in my dreams and imagination. Indeed, even at that nascent age as a scholar of India, it dawned on me that it would be wrong to presume that there was one India. There exist several ethereal and material Indias, blending into each other and simultaneously coexisting in time and space, more often peacefully than not, but at times conflicting. I kept coming to India, each time for a higher post in the Embassy, interacting with more and more Indian friends and familiarising myself with ever new facets.
Every year during those decades I was attentively putting my ear to the barahmasa song performed by India's nature. There followed Indian winters, insufficiently refreshing by Russian standards, but still uncomfortable especially for those who do not have a safe shelter. Indian springs, joyful at the start until they transform into a scorching blast furnace of the summer heat. Every time I witnessed the monsoon I felt reborn in a new avatar, thus getting a somatic self-explanation for the theory of reincarnation. Implanting the various shades of the seasons into my soul, experiencing them during North-South and West-East travels, I have to admit - geographically and climatically the vast India is as surprising as her polylingual and polyethnic multiplicity. I was struck by India's weightless architecture haunted by ghosts and phantoms, rid of history's yoke. No other country has such palaces with timeless architecture. India's culture, unlike currencies, is not convertible.
I could not help processing through my soul everything I was associated with - from the Himalayan saga of the Roerichs to the Nehru-Gandhi family's tragedies and triumphs of Aeschylean or Shakespearean magnitude.
My India spoke to me in various languages which, luckily, I could understand - be it the polished English of Indian diplomacy or the "Hinglish" of informal chats, the "Hirdu" of Hollywood movies or the chaste and refined Hindi of Doordarshan. At times, it could be an intellectual discourse or a soporific pravachana, a shriek of pain or boastful self-praise. I listened to all those voices and often wondered whether they belonged to a single whole or to a polyphonic chorus. Not only the voices. Hi-tech luxuries carried on a bullock cart, agricultural revolution and the ancient plough, jhuggis side by side with glittering skyscrapers, haute couture shows watched by shabby dhoti-clad manufacturers of things fashionable, ahimsa ideals and bloody clashes - could all this coexist in a single flacon? Or even within an individual who could imbibe the 21st century ideas and razor-edge technologies, at the same time ready to fight for the identification of an ancient site? Should I call it contrasts or contradictions? Are these features self-excluding? Are there many Indias?
It took me time to realise that my India is remindful of a human body with its seats of power and intellect and various indriyas. Sometimes the body is guided by reason and sometimes by mere emotions. It might feel rigid in the morning, become more elastic by daytime, get overexcited by evening, and frustrated by night. It fights its own ups and downs, tides and ebbs, high spirits and the blues. It looks different if observed from various angles, and is familiar and mysterious, gorgeous and shabby, pure and impure, and, eventually, it could be either cherished or ruined. I have visited many other countries, but I reserve this metaphor for India exclusively. Or may be this is one more thing that I have mastered in India — to speak by sidhantas and drishtantas: is it a better way to make oneself clear, or to conceal one's thoughts? In any case, it is certainly an acquisition to be packed into my diplomatic luggage and carried back.
To go on with the body, it may, like any human one, be healthy or ailing, beautiful or disgusting, may be mistaken about its own state and feel in good shape being at the same time unaware of a terminal ailment that has already taken roots in it. Still, really challenging is that it possesses a soul which generations of scholars have been trying to comprehend and explicate to others. But this soul encompasses such an enormous variety of traits from the heights of virtue to the depths of vice that the moment one feels capable to form some well defined knowledge, an event comes up to the surface that wholly contradicts the previous notion. Myself hailing from the country which, as our classic poet and diplomat Fyodor Tyutchev said, "cannot be understood by reason but can only be believed in", I have the similar feeling for India though, I must confess, in both cases the strength of reason and belief has been, more than in one case, put under severe test.
How more profound is India's traditional world, where each stone is a hierophant, a sign of the presence of the sacred in our world. Every sunrise here becomes a cosmogenic drama, every woman - an embodiment of the tantric principle of Shakti whose presence is the source of the world's very existence, and could be manifested right up to the election Lila. Behind the exterior forms specific only of India there hides the sublime universal paradigm of the traditional conscience which is totally opposite to the modernistic one, at the same time far more vibrant and wholesome. In purely modern phenomena one sees the same movement of the spirit that one can get from traditional doctrines. The craving of human soul for sacral archetypes is unquenchable, and archetypes are easily juxtaposed with new age constructs. The sacral and the profane coexist.
Once Russian astronauts told me that from the outer space India resembled a human heart. I wish that the hearts of Russia and India forever beat in unison between themselves and the outside world at large.
To paraphrase the great philosopher, Mircea Eliade, have these years made me learn better the magic formulae of this great Indian alchemy? Yes and no. My diplomatic status was both of help and an impediment. It offered and denied me a number of opportunities. Many Indias have escaped my attention. Many voices I was not able to hear and many developments unable to grasp much less to foresee, as India seems to be specially designed by the Vidhata to defy all prognoses and theories, especially in politics - oh no, I've promised. My heart remains here but all my Indias will travel back along with me, needing no extra space in the plane. And new ones will appear when I return. Or is there only one India reinventing, multiplying and reproducing herself many times and each time anew?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Women and religion

Women's engagement with religion has always been taken as a part of being feminine. Really staunch atheistic women have existed only in the Self-Respect Movement. A woman who decides not to observe the rituals and customs dictated by religion has always been seen as a harbinger of conflict, disorder and pain within a family. This is because, for a woman, religion is not just something linked to a god but a cultural practice that she is supposed to preserve. Despite the influence of the Self-Respect Movement, one of the important duties of a married woman is to continue the worshipping tradition of the family she is married into.
In the women's movement, it was generally assumed that those who fight for the liberation of women cannot be believers because the rituals that are a part of religion and the meanings attached to the rituals bind women in many ways and degrade women in unacceptable ways. Moreover, engaging with religion also meant accepting the divisions in the society based on caste and religion.
But in many of our households, certain symbols of religion casually lay around as cultural objects in the form of a terracotta goddess whose name one had forgotten, bought from a small village temple or a lamp which one's mother had lit all her life, an unusually carved Ganesha, brass Deepavali lamps handed down by the family, a brass candle stand or a rough wooden cross carved by a village sculptor or a Ravi Varma painting of Rama's coronation.
One still found it difficult to step on a book. One did enjoy Carnatic music, bhajans, Christmas carols, some festivals like Id, Pongal, regional new year celebrations, Christmas or Deepavali which meant new clothes, tasty food (even if the women had to slog cooking it), the smell of sugar cane and jaggery permeating the house, the fragrance of a cake cooking in the oven, the flavour of spicy mutton and milk pudding with cardamom boiling on the stove and the smell of flowers and fruits which change the atmosphere in the household for a while. Many of us who had discarded the ritualistic part of a festival did enjoy the food that we cooked or the family cooked or the neighbours sent over.
Over the years, we understood that while religion and the identity it imposed was not acceptable to us, faith was something deeply personal and that so long as faith did not make you look at the other with hatred, so long as it was not imposed on the other to create hierarchies, it was not harmful. However, we did stay away from groups openly professing a faith or a religion. We were still trying to grapple with the issues religion raised when the demolition of Babri Masjid happened and we realised that what was demolished was not just a religious structure but the very foundation of harmony that had been built over the years. Ochre was no more just a colour. Nor was the trident a wall decoration. The Hindu Literary Review Sunday, Aug 07, 2005

Gandhi fought against foreigners and the natives

The Mahatma's Case AMULYA GANGULI
THE TIMES OF INDIA Teusday, October 4, 2005

Even after conceding that Gandhi fathered the nation, Swagato Ganguly has blamed the Mahatma (The God That Failed, Oct 1) for much of India's ills. Yet, in the admission of his fatherhood lies the key to understand the Man of the Millennium. A basic feature of Gandhi's life and politics was that he was not just a freedom fighter like Nelson Mandela. Even as he opposed the British, Gandhi wanted to ensure that the Indians were ready for their freedom. It has to be remembered that the most harmful effect of colonialism was not economic exploitation, but cultural subjugation.
Gandhi's first battle was against this conviction of inferiority which enabled a few Britishers to rule over many Indians. His objective was to instil a sense of self-respect among Indians by making them feel proud of their Indianness. As William Shirer, the author of the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich writes in his book on Gandhi, when he called on the Mahatma, he found him sitting on the floor plying the charkha. Gandhi asked Shirer whether a chair should be brought for him, but Shirer declined and sat on the floor. The episode is symptomatic of Gandhi's politics. He wanted to demonstrate that Indians sat on the floor (and ate with their fingers and had their own dress codes) and were not ashamed of their customs. If the whites wanted to join them, they would have to do so on these terms, and not the other way round.
It is this attitude which made him discard western clothes and tell journalists, who asked him how he felt meeting the King in Buckingham Palace in his meagre attire, that the monarch was wearing enough for both of us. Arguably, in his endeavour to emphasise the distinctive Indian personality, Gandhi took his anti-western stance too far, to the dismay of Tagore and Nehru. But, then, the Mahatma was not a man of compromises. It has to be remembered also that, to him, the fight with the British must have seemed an endless struggle. Gandhi, therefore, fought on two fronts against foreigners and the natives. And the latter had not only to be taught to be self-reliant and worthy of respect by weaving his own clothes but also by cleaning the latrines, a lesson which the country doesn't seem to have learnt even now.
Gandhi may have also calculated that to make his non-traditional attitude towards untouchabi-lity acceptable, he would have to identify himself closely with eternal India through his dress, religiosity and austere lifestyle. An obviously anglicised person such as Nehru wouldn't have been able to do this. In the process, Gandhi had no alternative but to turn his face against western civilisation, a yet to be attained good idea. Had he praised industrialisation and preferred allopathic medicine, he would have been a charlatan to the masses. His was a canny strategy to topple an empire, leaving the future to take care of itself. The writer is a political commentator

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Tolerance, acceptance and sympathy.

A SINGLE event helped create a timeless mystique around Swami Vivekananda. This was his address at the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago on 11 September 1893. Even to this day, his address is seen by many as a turning point in Hindu re-assertion and revival. Contemporary votaries of `soft' Hindutva, from A.B. Bardhan to A.B. Vajpayee, swear by the spirit of his message in Chicago. Liberals, leftists and communalists are joined together in appropriating the legacy of Vivekananda as put forth in this address. What was so special about this piece of oration delivered to the `Sisters and Brothers of America'? In a masterful way, Vivekananda addressed three major concerns of nineteenth century India: Hindu identity, Hindu nationalism and an equal `dialogue' between Hinduism and other faiths.
At the outset, Vivekananda categorically asserted the pre-eminence of Hinduism by calling it `the mother of religions'. This claim of superiority rested on the fact that Hinduism was that religion which had taught, and continued to teach, the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. Not only did Hinduism believe in tolerance but it also accepted all religions as true. It had never persecuted, either with sword or pen, and, in fact had given shelter to persecuted sects. Its message was the surest antidote to sectarianism, bigotry and fanaticism. In one deft stroke, Vivekananda defined Hinduism's equation with all other faiths: They were mere children in relation to the `mother of religions', and also were participants in an eternal seminar, where the `tutor' was Hinduism and the `tutees' were all other faiths...
Having dwelt on the theme of tolerance, Vivekananda now started taking other faiths to task. All other religions, asserted Vivekananda, suffer from the fatal flaws of faith in a Personal God, sectarianism, bigotry and fanaticism. This assertion flowed from his formal definition of religion:
Religion is not talk, or doctrines or theories, nor is it sectarianism. Religion cannot live in sects and societies. It is the relation between the soul and God; how can it be made into a society? ... Further, all religions, with the sole exception of Hinduism, depended on the historical veracity of their founders or prophets. This invariably led to conflict. Tearing apart the prophetic tradition, he debunks the very motives of all prophets (with the exception of the Buddha). All prophets were moved by external motives to expect reward from the outside, meaning the material world. Their actions were not unselfish. Their language may have been highly evolved but their intentions were highly suspect...
It was against this background that Vivekananda proposed his theory of Hindu tolerance. It fits in uneasily with his earlier typology of all other religions, except Hinduism, as participants in a process of eventful perfection. The idea of Hindu superiority was also implicit in Vivekananda's attempt to propose such a theory. The first rhetorical step in positioning a theory of Hindu tolerance was, therefore, to refrain from judging other faiths. According to Vivekananda, we tend to reduce everyone else to the limits of our own mental universe and begin privileging our own ethics, morality, sense of duty and even our sense of utility. All religious conflicts arose from this propensity to judge others. If we indeed must judge at all, argued Vivekananda, then it must be `according to his own ideal, and not by that of anyone else'. It was important, therefore, to learn to look at the duty of others through their own eyes and never judge the customs and observances of others through the prism of our own standards. This was the very foundation upon which the edifice of tolerance stood. Hinduism, says Vivekananda, was built on a similar foundation, or to put it more correctly was the foundation itself...
Hinduism was the repository of such tolerance, acceptance and sympathy. The first step towards this admirable goal was to feel that oneness. Once this was accomplished, we would be able to transcend our limited phenomenal world and become immortal. Vedanta allowed this sense of oneness while promoting an infinite variety and variation in religious thought. Therefore the Vedanta lays down that each man should be treated not as what he manifests, but as what he stands for. Each human being stands for the divine, and, therefore, every teacher should be helpful, not by condemning man, but by helping him to call forth the divinity that is within him.
The lofty flights of Advaita were, therefore, of little help to Vivekananda in forgetting the past. History cast its shadow on the whole idea of oneness and fellow-feeling. Hindus must build churches and mosques in India, asserted Vivekananda, despite the hatred, brutality, cruelty, tyranny and the vile language of the Muslims and Christians. He hoped that such proactive love would ultimately win. Yet, Vivekananda could never take that all-important leap into rejecting sweeping racial and religious stereotypes. When he says Muslims, he meant all Muslims, and so with Christians. (The subtlety of the idea of rejecting English rule but not the English had to wait for more than a decade for Gandhi to formulate it.)

Vivekananda derived the idea of a common universal faith from Sri Ramakrishna. In a speech delivered in New York, and subsequently published under the title, My Master, Vivekananda speaks of Sri Ramakrishna's attempt to know the truth of all other faiths ... ... Vivekananda did not experience this oneness of faiths like Sri Ramakrishna. His attempt remained confined to the intellectual plane and lacked the intensity of living another man's faith with one's `whole heart'. Between Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, the disparity in method to arrive at the same conclusion made all the difference. Like Jesus, Sri Ramakrishna was after all the pure sort, unencumbered by history or context, but immensely rich in experience. Vivekananda was like Paul, the thundering sort, who had to spread the light quickly and effectively. He understood well that religion was not an intellectual activity but an act of realisation. But he was often impatient. Hinduism as a tolerant and all-embracing faith remained for him an aspiration, never an experience. Excerpted from Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism, Jyotirmaya Sharma, Penguin Books India, Viking, Rs. 350.