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

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Is 13 a lucky number?

Re-posted in memory of Joe (Manimury), who passed away on 19th June

Joe (extreme right) at an office meeting

On my first day in the bank, I met Raji and Venks, who remain my friends after 34 years during which the earth has become warmer, the world less quiet, and people more bitter.

Over the next few weeks, I met the rest of my batch. We were a some-what cosmopolitan group of thirteen. Seven of us were Malayalis, four spoke Tamil at home, one Kannada, and one, Bangla. There were three lovely girls, Raji, Mythily, and Sindhu, though not necessarily in that order. Only two of us, Gopes and Raji, were from Thiruvananthapuram. The rest were fresh imports.

All of them were well-informed, if not well-read. They could discuss anything under the sun and tried their best not to talk shop outside office. Mythily, brought up in New Delhi and LSR College, spoke at a fast clip. I followed her with difficulty, like I did Vivian Leigh or Joan Baez. But our colleagues at Puthenchanthai branch hardly understood her English. She was a small, slender, serious girl with a sunny smile and ate one apple for lunch.

Nija was the tallest among us, an adorable, happy-go-lucky fellow who loved food and films. He often sang – out of key – “Hawa mein udta jaye, mera lal dopatta malmalka, hoji, malmalka.” He and Mythily – who were seemingly opposite in every respect – fell in love during the first few months in the bank and married a few years later. They were the first to desert us for greener pastures, although our pasture was quite green at the time.

For some reason, there were a disproportionately large number of physics graduates among us. Gopes was an engineer from the IIT and Sindhu had done her MA in English. Gopes and Damu were products of two different Sainik Schools; their English didn’t have the usual Malayali twang. In fact, the only thing visibly Malayali about Gopes was his moustache; Damu didn’t even have that. There were two budding economists, Sriram and Mythily. The second named has almost fully budded now; she is a top-notch editor of a leading economic daily. Sriram was a warm young man with strong opinions and a hearty laugh that -- like a sparkler -- lit up the people around him. Most of us had done masters or equivalent and had been either toppers or very near the top of our respective classes.

The only black sheep in the group were Joe and me. We were not only mere graduates, neither of us had a “first class” under our belt. During our head office training, a venerable senior officer, KC Oomen took an avuncular interest in us and enquired each of us about their backgrounds. (Being a meticulous person, he would also jot down the details in a notebook.) I still remember the look of sadness on his face when I said I had a second class. For the first time in my life, I felt sorry for my academic record and thought I ought to have spent less time chasing girls at college.

Joe has a wacky sense of humour. After confirmation, he and Damu were posted at our main office in Bombay. Joe got a letterhead printed for them both. It read:

Menon and Manimury
Assistant Accountants

Many years later, when we were living far apart in course of our peripatetic careers, once all of us had to gather at Thiruvananthapuram for something, possibly an interview for promotion. I reached a day earlier and took a room at Baba Tourist Lodge or maybe, Bhaskara Bhavan. Early next morning, when it was still pitch dark, there was loud thumping on my door accompanied by the announcement that tea was brought. Irritated and still asleep, I said, ‘Chaya venda!’

There was silence for a few minutes. Then further thumping and: ‘Caapi saarĂ©!’

Stretching my Malayalam to its limit, I yelled, ‘Chaya, caapi, unnum venda!’

Silence for a few more minutes, followed by more banging of the door: ‘SaarĂ©, naarenga velyam (lemon squash)!’

As I opened the door, ready to knock off the impudent hotel boy, I found Joe with a broad, mischievous smile on his bearded face.

A few weeks after we met, we were invited for tea to Raji’s home at East Fort. Her siblings were youngsters with sparkling eyes, for whom academic excellence came naturally. Their sparsely furnished house with its sparkling red cemented floor and white walls with few windows was in sharp contrast with the elaborately furnished Christian houses of Kerala. As I walked into their home, I felt I was entering an RK Narayan book, an impression confirmed by the later day TV serial Malgudi Days.

A few months later, I felt the same way when I visited Sriram’s house in Chennai, although from outside, his house looked quite different from hers. Sriram and Raji are in different corners of the world now, and each of them has done exceedingly well in their diverse fields.

Besides learning about different lifestyles, there was so much else to learn from friends. Gopes was, and still is, an epitome of balance and maturity. Raji would talk straight; she had a healthy irreverence for authority. Thomas is personification of sincerity, loved by all who come in contact with him. About twenty years later, I took over from him as the head of our main branch office at Kolkata. He was held in such high esteem by the staff there ... it was to be seen to be believed.

Just as sincere is Venks, who makes absolutely no attempt to mask his views to please people. Roy, Mr Dependable, is warmth. From Sriram, I could have learnt how to work hard, but I didn’t. But from Damu, I did try to learn something: not to complain about personal difficulties. He never does. If – God forbid – one found him floating on a plank on the sea after a shipwreck, he would still smile and say, ‘Oh! I am fine.’

Good friends are one’s best teachers.

[A note to those mentioned here and those who aren't: If you happen to read this, could you please pass it on and jot down your reflections to compare your notes with mine?]

Bangalore, 23 September 2009

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Education for the highest bidder

A report in the Statesman, Kolkata on 12 June 2011 carries these nuggets.

Kerala health minister Adoor Prakash purchased a post-graduate seat at Pariyaarm Cooperative Medical College in Kannur for his daughter for Rs 80,00,000 because it is “the responsibility of any father to ensure a better future for his children.” The minster runs a chain of liquor bars which I guess somehow qualifies him to be the health minister of a state that has overtaken Punjab as the biggest consumer of alcohol.
Unfortunately, the doting father had to give up the seat because of criticism even from his party, Congress, which as we all know, believes in austerity and value-based politics!

The comedy of ironies doesn’t end there. The seat was sold to him by a college controlled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI M) and headed by party leader AV Jayarajan.

Prakash's colleague, education minister Abdu Rubb is under pressure from his party, Muslim League, to return the MBBS seat which he got for his son at the Jubilee Mission Medical College, Trissur. The Christian management of the college charges Rs 50 lakh (5 m) to Rs 1 crore (10 m) for an MBBS seat, but cynics allege that the seat has been gifted to the minister for supporting its stand that it can sell even government seats. (I presume this refers to the seats allotted to students who find themselves in the merit list prepared by the government.)  But to his credit, the education minister hasn’t yet succumbed to the pressure.

The DYFI, the youth wing of the CPI M, marched to the medical college demanding that the minister’s son not be admitted. The commendable protest by the DYFI against the sale of medical seats lost a bit of sheen when it was revealed that its state treasurer, VV Ramesh, too had bought a seat from the Pariyaram Medical College for his daughter under the NRI category, which costs Rs 50 lakh.

Ramesh, poor fellow, had to forego the seat at the instance of CPI M leadership. He said he had been driven by a father’s instinct when he had sought the seat rather than the discipline of a comrade. “The moment I realised my flaw, I corrected it by giving up the seat. For a communist, the party is above everything,” said he. It is sad that the people of Bengal and Kerala, who have seen the comrades closely, do not notice these simple virtues among them. BTW, the said Ramesh is also the director of the college.

In Kerala congressmen, communists, the Muslim political elite, padres, you name them, have their hands in the education pie. It is worth noting that these political parties / pressure groups have ruled the state alternately since the 1950s.

The situation is no different elsewhere. In Karnataka, possibly all the private engineering colleges are owned by congressmen and politicos other than from the BJP, who are Johnnies come lately in the state. The BJP chief minister therefore has developed a soft corner for the aspiring engineers of the state. When the private engineering colleges wanted to hike their fees recently, he instructed them to charge Rs 30,000 for those who qualify through the common entrance test (CET). The colleges demanded they be allowed to charge between Rs 50 and 80 thousand. Ultimately, the chief minister arm-twisted the private colleges to accept the following fee structure:   

45% of engineering seats [will go] to students who have cleared the CET for Rs 35,000 and the remaining 55% seats under Comed-K and management quota for Rs 1.25 lakh. In addition, a supernumerary quota of 5% mandated by the All India Council of Technical Education will provide free seats [to] economically backward students.  (Deccan Herald, Bangalore, 3 June 2011)

In West Bengal, most of the private engineering colleges were set up by the CPI M leaders and their cronies during the second half of their 34-year regime. (Engineering colleges and cold storages were the only businesses that flourished in rural Bengal, both cornered by comrades.) In 2010, the reds read the writing on the wall. They knew they would be thrown out in the assembly elections in 2011. So they did something neat. They increased the annual tuition fees of private engineering colleges from Rs 56,000 to Rs 70,000. No protests, no wrangling, and no arbitrator to decide what the fees should reasonably be! Today, a student studying at a private engineering college in Bengal may reasonably ask why they should pay twice as much as their counterparts in Karnataka. 

Lots of good things have happened in our country since independence. And lots of bad things. The worst perhaps is commodification of education.

When we were young, a bright young boy or girl considered higher education their right, as college education, including at the IITs, cost next to nothing. One only had to be smart enough. The situation has changed. Higher education is now something that the rich can buy for their children so that they qualify for a job.

If you can afford it, you can buy a comfortable future for your offspring, just as you can buy a house or a car. Is anything wrong with that?

Well, till the other day, young Indians, who had neither houses nor cars, had the option to work hard and arm themselves with technical education to make a decent living. That option has been taken away, for all practical purposes, the official sop of 5% supernumerary quota notwithstanding.

Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen has said a time might come when one part of India will resemble California and the other part will be like sub-Saharan Africa. If that ever happens, privatisation of education, rather, making business out of education will contribute much to the process.