If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Visva-Bharati: Where the mediocre converge

"Yatra visvam bhavatyekanidam" (Where the world converges to build a home) - Motto of Visva-Bharati, founded by Rabindranath Tagore

Two hundred and fifty million Bengalis today would have been a different people if Rabindra Nath Tagore had not been born. Many of my generation would agree with this rather bizarre statement. Tagore had tremendous impact not only on Bangla literature and language, but also on the Bengali way of life, and to a lesser extent, on the country and the world. It is also a fact that Rabindranath is becoming increasingly irrelevant. His ideas do not find many takers in a consumption driven society where greed is considered good.

The school set up by Tagore, Visva-Bharati, is no longer an important centre of learning. It is also plagued by corruption, mismanagement, and repeated violence and strikes. The latest was a strike by employees and teachers, which shut down the institution for six long weeks from 24 September 2009. The strike was withdrawn after an appeal by the Prime Minister.

Any discourse on the recurring strife at Visva-Bharati and its steady downhill journey should examine to what extent its problems reflect the incongruity of the guiding principles of its founder in today’s world. In a letter to the editor in The Statesman (5 Nov 2009), Mr. Bibekananda Ray goes to the heart of the matter when he says: “… a question that well-wishers of Visva-Bharati have to address is, whether this unique and affluent central university should remain wedded to the century-old tradition of imparting man making education or compete with most other universities in awarding degrees that have value in the job market in India and abroad.”

Students no longer study to gain knowledge. They do so to find well-paying jobs. To many, knowledge is worth pursuing only if there are concomitant material benefits. Simple living is on no one’s agenda. The teachers and employees of Visva-Bharati today are different from their predecessors who earned a pittance and suffered much hardship to run the institution. That began to change in 1951, when Visva-Bharati became a Central University. How can these unalterable facts be reconciled with the ideal of “man making education”?

A way-out from this apparent impasse can be found if we recognise that “man making education” does not necessarily reduce a student’s worth in the job market. None from the alumni of Visva-Bharati have headed airline or soft-drink companies, but countless among them have excelled in their respective fields. Ramkinkar Beij, Kanika Bandopadhyay, Satyajit Ray, Mahasweta Devi, Suchitra Mitra, KG Subramanyam, and Amartya Sen are not exceptions, but dazzling motifs on a general pattern. And in an increasingly complex world, technology cannot deliver everything. Experts from the fields of language, literature, arts, and social and natural sciences too are needed.

Visva-Bharati therefore, hasn’t fallen between the two stools of pursuit of knowledge and “marketable education”. Its problem simply is a vast decline in standards and a lack of quality education. And it is necessary to analyse the causes behind these.

Much has been said about how the CPI M has filled the state-run universities in Bengal with their cadres and cronies. This irrefutable fact is contested by none, including that party. I do not know why nobody ever mentions that the Congress Party has done exactly the same in Visva-Bharati thanks to it being a central university, and their long stints of power in New Delhi. It is widely known that a powerful central minister and his sidekicks have had significant control over recruitments in Visva-Bharati over decades. To illustrate, one might point out that the three principal leaders of the workers’ and teachers’ unions today are former leaders of Chhatra Parishad of the same university. As Birbhum district, where it is located, has no industries and little potential for employment, congressmen treat Visva-Bharati as a goose that lays golden eggs in the shape of lucrative government jobs for their members and followers.

Aside from that, in the small and somewhat closed world of Santiniketan, everyone knows everyone else. Over time, this has created a network of employees, retired employees, ex-students and their families who can influence either the administration or sundry politicians to push their candidates at the time of recruitment.

Consequently, merit has become a casualty at all levels. And instead of the world coming together at this seat of learning, as its founder had envisioned, mediocre people from a small area around Santiniketan have converged to make Visva-Bharati a comfortable nesting ground.

Visva-Bharati does not serve the local community only by providing jobs. At all stages of admission, from primary school to post graduation, internal candidates are given preference. It is expected that a toddler joining one of the preschools run by the university will eventually get a post graduate degree in a discipline of their choice. Merit naturally has a limited role in such a scheme. To attract students from far and wide, the present Vice Chancellor (VC) got admission tests conducted at various centres across India in 2009. But the attempt failed.

On top of these structural problems, Visva-Bharati has been saddled with a succession of failed VCs in the recent past. A mathematician of doubtful standing who was subsequently arrested for financial malpractices was followed by the former head of a nondescript B-School of Kolkata. They apparently cared little for Tagore or his educational philosophy. It is likely that these eminently ordinary gentlemen were political appointees too! The present incumbent, a noted historian, has shown that academic eminence is no guarantee against administrative failure.

There is no easy way out for Visva-Bharati. Without pretending to know the answers, one might suggest a few steps.

The central Congress leadership must rein in their local satraps in the long-term interest of this once unique school of international renown. (Let’s hope good sense will prevail!) Simultaneously, the administration needs to be strengthened by replacing senior officials of proven incompetence. It would be incorrect to focus only on the VC. He/She ought to have a good team. Special chairs may be created to attract outstanding academics to various departments. The revamped administration should get unstinting support from the Centre, with zero tolerance for disruptive trade-unionism.

As regards a roadmap for the institution, a high-level committee appointed by the President of India in 2006 suggested that Visva-Bharati shun courses like law and management. The Committee, headed by Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi, was aware that it had the potential to become a model traditional school that could stand as a counterpoint to the market driven education factories that dominate the scene now. Visva-Bharati may still reinvent the magic that produced a galaxy of stars from Ramkinkar Beij to Amartya Sen if there is visionary leadership, and if the deadwood is removed ruthlessly.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Of English and alu paranthas

It was a wide-bodied jet, a Boeing 777. In the “cattle class”, there were ten seats in a row, four in the middle and three each on the sides, with two aisles separating them. I had an aisle seat on the right. Between the window and me were an elderly Haryanvi couple, returning from holiday in Stamford, where their daughter lived. Within minutes of introduction and exchange of pleasantries, the husband, let’s call him Rampal, invited me (and my wife who was not accompanying me) to his home in a village near Sonipet, and promised paranthas made with the finest buffalo milk ghee. After spending a month in the United States, I felt I was already in India. Such an offer was unimaginable from an American. An American would never know the joy of inviting a complete stranger home, or of “feeding broken biscuits to street dogs”.

I knew I wouldn’t travel to Sonipet to eat paranthas, however fine the ghee might be. And my virtual host too knew it as fact. But I am sure his offer was genuine. At that moment, he would have imagined me as a guest in his house. A golden wheat field with water gushing out of a pipe, and tall bony men and women with high cheek bones flashed before my eyes. So I said, ‘Han ji! Zaroor jayenge.’

Rampalji was a retired secondary school teacher and his wife, a homemaker. Their children were well-placed and his family had houses in Sonipet, Chandigarh, and New Delhi. A relaxed person, he was pleased with life and exuded the confidence that comes alongside success. He spoke absolutely no English, like many educated people from the North.

Across the aisle on my left was a young woman with a baby in a bassinet hooked to the wall in front. She was tall, lean, beautiful, in jeans and a white top. She was travelling alone with the baby. She had obviously noticed the book I was reading and spoke to me in Bangla, ‘Kaku, can you please look after my son for a few minutes? I’ll go to the toilet.’

Sonny was remarkably quiet and needed no looking after. His mother came back, thanked me, and took her seat. Then she started chatting with me. She was from a small town near Kolkata and had done Bachelors in Commerce before getting married and joining her husband in New Jersey. She came out as a competent, smart young woman. I liked the simple and forthright way she talked. I also felt the sadness that every man over fifty must have felt at some time or other. She obviously had obviously taken me to be a harmless old fogey.

A little later, an air-hostess handed over disembarkation cards to us. The girl across the aisle approached me again, presently, with a touch of embarrassment, ‘Kaku, could you please complete the form for me?’

As I filled in her form, I thought of the terrible state of English teaching in Bengal. Why, after studying English for eight to twelve years at school and after three years of college, an otherwise confident girl could not fill one of the simplest forms in English?

After I was through with her form, Rampalji gave me a shy smile and asked me to fill his and his wife’s. When they were done, he called a steward and asked for a stamp pad. The steward gave a puzzled look and said, ‘Why do you need a stamp pad, sir?’

Raising his left thumb and pointing at his wife with his right, Rampalji said, ‘Angutha chhap!’

Air India apparently doesn’t include the stamp pad among necessary passenger amenities. The steward replied in Hindi, ‘Sir, you sign for bhabiji. That should be fine.’

My gloomy thoughts about the implications of a school master’s wife being unlettered were interrupted by a delightful, sumptuous dinner served by the much maligned national carrier. After dinner, bhabiji took out some alu paranthas and achhar as a supplementary dish and offered me a plateful. I took one. It was heavenly.

I watched three movies that night, including Dev Anand’s Guide. For some unfathomable reason, all but one of the songs of the film had been snipped off. Whoever did it, couldn’t delete SD Barman’s Wahn kaun hai tera … because it came along with the credits. It was such a big let down! Guide without its lilting songs was like Agra without the Taj and the Fatehpur Sikri.

The next day, before reaching Delhi, I asked Rampalji casually, ‘Sirji, what subjects did you teach in school?’

‘English’, said he.

[This is a true story, except for the names of persons and places. It was published in The Statesman on 19 November, 2009]

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

A day in the life of Contemporary India

My day begins with a couple of newspapers, and it usually begins on a sad note. But the combination of the news stories in today’s paper is disturbing even by our abysmal standards.

“Traffic in northern and central parts of the city [Kolkata] came to a standstill for over four hours” as Ms. Mamata Banerjee led a procession. Thousands of people – including the sick and the elderly – had to walk miles to reach their destinations. One can only imagine the agony of patients stuck on ambulances, and hungry little children on school buses. In West Bengal, stories like this appear with metronomic regularity, but still, it is worth asking a simple question: Would the protest be less effectual if it were organised on Sunday instead of Monday? Ms. Mamata Banerjee is the chief minister in waiting. Can’t we expect better sense and more consideration from a person in her exalted position?

The lead story in today’s Statesman says the home secretary virtually admitted that the chief minister had lied about Trinamul Congress’s collusion with the Maoists. A day earlier, the CM had said that the main opposition party in the state had links with the Maoists, who are on a rampage in several districts, killing policemen and civilians almost at will. The home secretary said neither Trinamul nor any other mainstream political parties have links with Maoists. The CM’s information was from “political channels”!

In another country, this would have been enough to pave the way for resignation of either the CM or his home secretary. But such standards are unthinkable in Bengal, where the main political debate is on the number of dead bodies on either side of the political divide. Honour and decency are not words to be found in the political lexicon where so called “senior leaders” use gutter language to attack opponents.

The rest of the country does not fare much better.

A legislator was manhandled by fellow MLAs from MNS in Maharashtra Assembly for taking oath in the national language. A paper-tiger chief minister roared again, warning the MNS chief of stern action. One wonders why no action has ever been taken against him despite repeated crude acts of vandalism in the name of protecting Maratha pride. No one can take away the pride of a community that has produced legends like Vijay Tendulkar, Lata Mangeshkar, Sunil Gavaskar, and Sachin Tendulkar. Will the living Maratha icons unequivocally condemn these rogues? It is high time they did.

Advocates manhandled a judge in Karnataka High Court. They were protesting against continuation of the chief justice of the court who, according to a report submitted by the collector of Thiruvallar District, has usurped large tracts of government land in his village. In the commercial bank where I worked, prima-facie evidence of misappropriation of funds by an employee would attract an automatic suspension followed by an enquiry. How is it that the standards are lower in the highest judiciary of the country than that in a bank? And how can lawyers physically assault a high court judge?

The Delhi chief minister extended the parole granted to the murderer of Jessica Lal on patently false grounds within a year after he began serving life term. Let’s recall, the killer, a congressman’s son, had been indicted only after a huge outcry in the media and an intervention by the Supreme Court. While working with the inmates of a Kolkata jail on behalf of an NGO, I met poor inmates whose appeals for parole had been rejected. Most of the “lifers” were serving without parole for decades. Some of them were simple rural folk who had committed crimes when they were barely eighteen or nineteen. And I am sure there are a few who hadn’t actually committed the crime for which they were imprisoned. In the Indian democracy, some are obviously more equal than others.

In Kolkata, two hundred tramcars (out of a total fleet of 272) have become junk while the authorities have been renovating tram tracks over one to six years with a dispassion not preached in the Geeta. CTC, the tram company, loses 1.80 crore rupees every month because of the idle trams. You go to jail if you rob a man of thousands, but if you rob the public of crores through inefficiency and lack of commitment, you retire in due course with full pension and a few garlands. The CTC chairman, a political appointee, certainly will.

I might close this summary of the day’s news with the story that puts us all to shame. India ranks 114th out of 134 countries in terms of man-woman equality. This is a finding of the World Economic Forum. Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh are above us on the list. This means women in those countries have a better opportunity to share the available resources with men.

A definitive measure of civilisation is how women are treated in a society. Perhaps this statistic explains everything else. We are NOT a civilised country.

10 November 2009

Sunday, 8 November 2009

God’s own countrymen

We were in Goa on a holiday, with two small children. After a blissful week on the shores at Miramar and Calangute, the evening before we were to leave, I told my wife it would be sacrilege to leave Goa without tasting feni.

Alone I walked into a bar teeming with clients and found an empty table. When I asked for a drink, the waiter was apologetic: it was the 2nd of October; they wouldn’t serve alcohol. Then, after watching the shadow of disappointment cross my face, he added, ‘Sir, if you don’t put the bottle on the table, I’ll get you one.’

Looking around, I found that every single person in that crowd was enjoying their drink, but the bottles were all on the floor. Abstinence: Goa style!

Further down south, men of Kerala too are reputed for their devotion to the bottle. Throughout Kerala, you find dimly lit joints selling arrack or toddy. At a temple near Kannur, people offer the presiding deity – a pagan God – meat and toddy: God’s own country liquor. Crowds of mostly economically disadvantaged people throng the temple on holidays. Kannur is dominated by Marxists; even religion there seems divided across class lines.

In much of semi-urban India, hotel means restaurant, just as an inn means a pub in England. Once, a colleague and I stopped for lunch at a hotel around two in the afternoon on our way to Ernakulam from Idukky. It was one of those small market places around a bus stand, a beehive of activities. Each of the two floors of the restaurant had rows of eight-by-ten-foot rooms on either side of a long corridor. And every room had two tables. A rather unusual design for a restaurant! My colleague, who was from the area, said the building had begun its life as a hospital, but the owners had shifted to a more profitable line of business. Almost all the tables were occupied by men holding glasses containing liquids, the colours of which ranged from sunset yellow to dark red. My eyebrows rose, ‘At 2 PM?’

My companion said contemptuously, ‘These fellows start drinking before they brush their teeth.’

For the sake of completeness, I must add that none of my numerous friends from Kerala imbibe a drop more than they should, although I have come across many alcoholics elsewhere.

Bengaluru / 22 September 2009 / 393 words