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

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow

The first photograph was taken in 1976, at the Trivandrum Museum compound. The second, at the Jong Falls near Twang in Arunachal Pradesh, a few weeks ago.

The 36 years that separates the pictures couldn’t have been better for us. Naturally, there has been happiness and sorrow, agony and ecstasy, much failure, and a few specks of success. To begin with the losses, our parents and some wonderful elders are no more, but frankly, what hurts most is death of friends. It began with Siladitya (Sen) a few years ago.

Suhita (Sinha Roy) lost her brave struggle against complex syndromes in 2010. Then, 19 June 2011 was the happiest day, and the saddest. Our second grandson Toto was born that day, and Joe (Joy Joseph Manimury) died in an accident. Suhitadi and Joe didn’t know each other and were very different individuals. The common things about them were their brilliance, sensitivity, and kindness. Rarely do we come across people with such a blend of head and heart.

Arundhati and me were happy then; we are happy now, with much to be happy about. Our children have grown up into – we think – “good” human beings. Moumita has joined us, and Haroun and Toto have arrived.

The first picture was taken by Damu. Damu and Nandini are one of the finest couples we have been blessed to have as friends. In India, we don’t go to a counsellor when we are down, depressed, or suicidal. We turn to friends. I always turn to Damu when I confront something I can’t handle, and he has never failed me. We have also been fortunate to have friends like George-Molly, Rajagopal-Bhawani, Uma Sankar-Indrani, Gautam-Suktara, Soumya-Ruma, Saswati-Ashokda, Shyama and Santanuda, to name just a few.

In the 36 years that separates the photos, the earth has become warmer, and we, greedier. The earth has also become smaller, but our neighbours have become distant. We no longer visit friends without appointment. New phrases like the Internet, global warming, mobile phones, living together, etc. have come into our language and lives. What will we be after 36 years? And I?

Que sera, sera. What will be, will be. But in 2048, I’ll post another picture of us on my blog. Watch this space, Buddies!

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Bokshi Babu bundled off

Of all human failings, only one is almost fatal. If you, with all sincerity, compassion, and selfless altruism tell a bloke how he should fix his life or do well in exams, or if you simply throw some light into his mind and try to dispel a bit of the infinite darkness hanging therein, the ungracious fellow usually turns around and says, ‘Please spare me of your gyan, my five-year old niece knows that.’ Some overly polite people may not say so on your face, but will convey the idea in any case.

Having been treated thus many a time, I have coined a term for it: the Law of Universal Ingratitude. The law always works, much like the laws of physics, barring exceptional situations when you are the boss or a creditor to the guy you are trying to enlighten. Recently I watched it in action, with Bokshi Babu, a retired pen-pusher, at the receiving end. Let me narrate the story.

There were four SUVs in all and in our vehicle, there were seven of us besides the driver Amit Bodo: Mrs and Mr Bokshi, Mrs Rini Agarwal along with two aunts and yours truly and his better half. The three families had just begun a nine-day trip to the hills of Arunachal Pradesh. Strangers until then, we were brought together by Providence as we had all bought a holiday package from one tour operator. Rini was the only youngish person and the live wire in the group. Incidentally, she and her aunts never agreed on anything and argued all the time. I whispered to my wife that the niece was mostly right and generally, aunts are difficult people to deal with. I recalled that P G Wodehouse even had to write a book on the subject: “Aunts aren’t Gentlemen”. But my wife, with her singular lack of objectivity, said I am always biased towards younger women.

Mrs Bokshi was an affable elderly person. Her husband too was friendly and warm, and as we left the city of Guwahati and the gorgeous Brahmaputra behind, we discovered how well-informed and indeed widely-travelled he was. As we veered towards discussing our past travel experiences, we realised there was no tourist destination in India that Bokshi Babu hadn’t visited. When someone mentioned a place they’d been to, Bokshi immediately responded with a sense of déjà vu. The conversation followed a pattern.

Bokshi would say he had visited the place in 19…, give us a detailed account of the trip with dates, the positives and negatives, and would wrap it up with some friendly advice. Transcribe any one of his narrations, and you get a fine essay: “A Memorable Journey”. I felt I was actually in school, talking to the first boy of our class before an exam. The brilliant fellow was reeling off topics he had studied and in gathering gloom, I was realising how terribly ignorant I was!

Bokshi was not only abundant in travel stories, but also had an opinion on everything under the sun: from ballistic missiles to “Bidya” Balan.  And he didn’t hesitate to express them if there was an opening, however narrow it might have been. When I complimented him on his expertise in so many fields, he said, ‘Hang on. I have hardly opened my basket. You’ll be dumbfounded when I do.’

A most generous offer, but sadly, we felt there was something sinister about it. Our ignorance would have faded a bit, if only we had the patience, and of course, the desire to enrich ourselves! But the Law of Universal Ingratitude came into play and we chucked the opportunity, stupidly.

So the next day, Bokshi Babu and his wife found themselves in another vehicle, and a happy couple joined us with their lovely child. And as if to prove that Nature loves equilibrium, the gentleman who replaced Bokshi Babu was rather reticent. He uttered exactly eight sentences in the remaining eight days of our tour.

How was the switch achieved? Well, one of the basic rules of telling a story is not telling everything!

Friday, 26 October 2012


King Henry II and Thomas Becket, the head of the Anglican Church were good friends once. Becket, who was a trusted aide of the King in his conflicts with the Church, became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162 possibly with the King’s help. Henry might have hoped that Becket would continue to put the royal government’s interests first, rather than that of the church. But over time, Becket transformed into an ascetic and changed side. He was killed by Henry’s followers in 1170.

This true story inspired a Broadway play written by Jean Anouilh: Becket or the Honor of God, and later, a movie, Becket in 1964. In the movie, Peter O’Toole played Henry II and Richard Burton, the Arch Bishop.  In Namak Haram (1973), the protagonists were Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna. Industrialist Amitabh Bachchan sent his friend Rajesh Khanna as a mole into the trade union of the workers of his company. But instead, he turned into a genuine trade-unionist and the friends fell out. Both the films were hugely successful commercially. This time-tested formula has been used yet again by Prakash Jha in Chakravyuh to tell the tale of the Maoist movement that is raging in India today.

Arjun Rampal is the Superintendent of Police of Nandighat, where impoverished people shunned by a Shining India barely manage to live. Buried beneath their feet is an enormous wealth of minerals that attracts mining companies, leading to their ouster from the land they have lived on for centuries. Kabir Bedi is the head of the Mahanta group, a thinly veiled allusion to Vedanta, the company that has wreaked havoc in the forests of Odisha. Mahanta is trying to evict people from 256 villages to expand his project. And to do that, he thinks it is legitimate to employ paid hoods. The state government is in cahoots with him, but the government’s writ doesn’t go beyond the towns. Maoists are in control of the countryside.  The SP reluctantly sends his friend Abhay Deol into the ranks of the Maoists to sabotage their movement.

On the other side, Manoj Bajpai is the ruthless Maoist boss who terrorises the very people he is trying to liberate. One of Bajpai’s lieutenants is a woman from Jharkhand who falls for Abhay Deol head over heels. And Abhay starts looking at things from a new perspective. 

The film has all the ingredients of a mainstream Hindi film: sex, violence, and of course, song and dance, including an “item number” by Sameera Reddy backed by an ear-rupturing song by Sunidhi Chauhan. In contrast, the hero and heroine are strangely asexual, a throwback to the 1950s. And in the end, Abhay Deol and his love interest’s personal tragedy supersedes the tragedy of millions of people.

Despite the obvious fault-lines, this is a remarkable film of the recent times because of two reasons.

Firstly, the scale of the production is gigantic. The vast hills and forests of Central India and the millions that live under the constant fear of contractors, forest officials, and policemen have been represented with an authenticity that we hardly expect in Hindi pictures. And obviously a film maker needs courage to show bulldozers razing tribal houses or to name Tata-Birla-Ambanis in a song on “mehangai”.

Secondly, and more importantly, the story tells us how it all began, the ruthless exploitation of the tribal population, which has only worsened since independence. It tells us the story of the mining barons for whom dislodging people from their homes and livelihood is as incidental as felling trees. It also tells us the story of Maoists who put a small price tag on human lives. And this has been narrated from a remarkably neutral viewpoint.

I saw the picture at a multiplex a day after its release, with 28 out of the 30 rows vacant. Two men sitting next to me left at half-time to underline the fact that for the well-heeled urban middleclass, the emaciated people of Dantewada, Keonjhar, or Lalgarh are as distant as inhabitants of a different planet. The point is: is there any point of making films like these? I think there is.

Kolkata / Friday, 26 October 2012

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Women: yesterday and today

Recently, I was at a university, running a workshop. On the first day, as students were introducing themselves, a petite girl rounded off her self-introduction with the remark, ‘And I have a boyfriend.’ She was no exception. Several other girls took pride in stating that they too had one. A girl even rued the fact that she didn’t have any, yet. As I listened to them, my mind drifted back in time. My wife too had a boyfriend when she was at college in the early 1970s, but it would have been unthinkable for her to declare the fact in a mixed-gender class, that too when a teacher was around. In the last forty years, lots of things have changed for the better around us, but the most visible among them is the confidence that young women of India display today.

If you go to an engineering or management school, you will often find more girls than boys. Even in subjects that were once male preserves, like geology or civil engineering, you find lots of girls. And usually, the class topper is a girl. Many of them are actually masters of their own destiny. And their confidence is reflected in the way they dress and behave. Girls in spaghetti-strap tops and tight jeans confidently present their bodies to the world. Young women today hug their men in public as they ride pillion on motorbikes. And that is not the only change.

A few months ago some students of the Presidency University of Kolkata were interacting with the state chief minister in a televised programme. When a girl, Taniya Bhardwaj asked the CM an uncomfortable question, the latter shouted at her, called her a “Maoist”, and stomped out.

As I watched the absurd drama on TV, I was amazed by Taniya’s composure. Although she was taken aback initially, she was not seriously awed by the situation. She held her ground. On top of it, she followed it up with an open letter to the CM, saying:  “One of the most important features of a true democracy, which I have learnt as a student of political science, is freedom of expression.”

It would be insane to expect the Bengal CM taking lessons in democracy from a young girl. But ironically, the chief minister of West Bengal was the only girl who made a mark as a student leader in the hoodlum years of the 1970s. A grandmother of mine, then the principal of a girls’ college in Kolkata, once told me, ‘A girl named Mamata is making my life miserable.’ While Mamata’s male comrades in Youth Congress were notorious for their vulgarity and violence, her principal claim to fame was that she had danced on the bonnet of Jayaprakash Narayan’s car, something that she denies now.

However much I might detest our CM’s brand of politics, I have respected her – I still do – because she has overcome the twin disadvantages of her gender and subaltern background to reach where she has reached today. Mamata Banerjee and Taniya Bhardwaj are two strands of the same evolutionary process, one representing our pathological past and the other, a possibly different, desirable future.

I began this article with a conscious phrase, “young women of India”. Actually, we live in two countries simultaneously. Let’s also spare a thought for the young women of Bharat, who live under the watchful eyes of “khap panchayats” which rule that girls should be “married off” (what a sexist expression!) before they are sixteen so that they are not raped. Things haven’t changed much for them over centuries. Let me correct myself: we not only live simultaneously in two countries, but also in modern times and in the Middle Ages.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

A treatise on happiness

Rabindra Nath Tagore

[Tagore's Chhinnapatra or Torn letters is a fascinating collection of letters written when he was in his late twenties and early thirties. This is the second piece of translation from the collection.]

If you wish to really appreciate something, you need to segregate it with walls of free time around it. You can feel it within yourself completely by allowing it to grow on you, by spreading it all around. One of the main reasons why you adore letters from friends when you are alone in a small town is that there is free time to soak in every word, every character of the letters completely, like little droplets. Your imagination grows around them like creepers – you can feel it growing for quite some time. If you become greedy and try to rush, you’ll be deprived of that pleasure. The desire for happiness travels so fast that at times it overtakes happiness itself, and destroys everything in seconds. When you are preoccupied with land deals and litigations, you don’t ever appreciate any letter, you feel there isn’t enough to satiate your appetite.  The older I grow, the more I realise, to what extent you will receive depends on your ability. It is pointless to complain about how much others can give, the point is how much I can receive. It takes a lot of training, education, and arduous efforts to take hold of whatever is within our reach. We spend three-fourths of our life to acquire the skill, and after that, not much time is left to reap benefits of the training. This is the first chapter of The Treatise on Happiness.

2 July 1893

Translated on Thursday, 26 July 2012 at Kolkata

Friday, 20 July 2012

The village school those days was great

Dr Jayaprakash Narayan

[Dr Jayaprakash Narayan, a former IAS officer, is the founder of Lok Satta Party, a political party that stands for “new politics for the new generation”.

In India today, when we think of education, we usually think of upmarket business schools, foreign universities operating here, smart classrooms and so on …. This article, copied from the website of the party and slightly abridged, offers a different perspective.]

I studied in a Telugu-medium government school in a village called Godavarru near Vijayawada. There was no electricity, toilet or running water at my old aunt’s house where I lived away from my parents during school years. I left school (after tenth grade) in 1969 at the age of 13. In those days it was not uncommon for kids to enter school at three.

A friend of mine, a brilliant cardiologist now, finished school at 12! Despite the young age and spartan life, my school years had a profound impact on my life and attitudes.

The village school in those days was great. The infrastructure was inadequate; but the community owned the school, and all kids – rich or poor – went to the same school.

The teachers were competent and committed. They inspired and encouraged us. Amazingly, we could question and challenge teachers. The school was a true institution with a sense of purpose and played a vital role in village life. In sports, I was the slowest kid.

We played kho-kho and kabaddi. A few who had bats played ball-badminton. We never saw a shuttle cock. I never heard the names ‘cricket’ and ‘hockey’ until I left school! But we had a Boy Scouts group, and greatly enjoyed the signals, codes and many other pleasures of a boy scout.

My village teachers kindled great interest [and] allowed me to work at my own pace. When I found the text books not challenging enough, I was encouraged to do exercises from Hall & Knight (Math), and Wren & Martin (English grammar). We could point out our teachers’ errors without fear. When I look back, schooling in that village laid superb foundations for our future lives.

There were regular inspections by the DEO. I vividly remember an amusing incident. We had a great Telugu teacher. He was a master of the classics, and taught us with passion. On the day of inspection, we decorated the school with confetti. Our Telugu teacher was in class, and we were waiting for the inspector.

One kid stood up and showed a little finger. The teacher promptly said, “Why are you scared? We (the teachers) should be nervous when the inspector comes, not you!” We all found it hilarious.

My science teacher actually demonstrated experiments in our small lab. He even wanted to show the anatomy of frog by dissecting it. I was entrusted with the task of getting a frog to class. A friend and I, with some difficulty, caught a toad (we thought it was a frog). I then visited a clinic in Kankipadu and borrowed some chloroform in a small bottle. The teacher, to our wonder, had put the toad to sleep by sprinkling a bit of chloroform, and dissected it and showed its digestive system. I wonder how many fancy schools today give such exposure to kids!

One English teacher always scolded me for my refusal to learn essays by rote, and for my insistence on writing in my own words. I refused to comply with his instructions. In exasperation, he said I would never score more than 75% in public examination. I got exactly 75! But I never regretted it.

All in all, our schooling was fun. It gave us a chance to fulfil our potential and make something of our lives. It is a pity; forty three years later, many many kids don’t have the opportunity we had in village India of 1960’s.

18 Jul 2012

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The torn letter

[Rabindranath Tagore’s Chhinnapatra (literally, The torn letter) is a collection of letters written by him to a niece when he was between 26 and 34 years of age. Tagore wrote them while he was travelling extensively in East and North Bengal and in Orissa on family business.

A friend has recently given me a book on Rabindranath, Kabir Swadharma (The poet’s own religion) written by a noted scholar, Sourindra Mitra.

Sourindra Mitra, who passed away in 1989, wrote: “There is no dearth of famous and great books in the treasure trove of Bengali literature, but there is only one about which the term intimate can be used.” Mitra felt Chhinnapatra was a book that was intimate in the way Walt Whitman had described one of his own books of poetry: “Who touches this touches a man”.

Being nearly illiterate, I hadn’t read Tagore’s Torn letters earlier. I opened the book this morning, and was fascinated by the first piece that I randomly read. Allow me to share a translation with you.]

2 December 1892

Went to M’s place yesterday. In the evening, all of us went out for a walk. I quite liked the path flanked by fields on either side. The endless empty fields of Bangladesh, and the sun setting behind the trees on the margin … such profound peace, such quiet compassion! What an affection-laden bonding between our own earth and the faraway sky! There is some humongous eternal sadness about the universe – it reveals itself when a shaft of absent light falls on the forsaken earth of the evening – what an eloquent silence fills the earth and the sky. As one looks at it intently for a long time, one feels if this infinite stillness could not hold itself any longer, if suddenly, its eternal language exploded into audible sound, what deep, sombre, calm, beautiful, gentle music would reverberate from the earth to the stars. It actually happens. If we quietly concentrate and try, we can translate the collective harmony of all the lights and shades of the world into fascinating music. One only has to close one’s eyes and in their mind, listen to the reverberations of the endless stream of visual images of the world. But how many times will I write about sunrise and sunset! I can experience it anew every day, but how can I express it in a new way every day?

Translated on Thursday, 12 July 2012

[i] In Rajshahi, Bangladesh 

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Quaint portraits of an enchanting city

I would say Paul Fernandes is to Bangalore what Desmond Doig is to Calcutta and Mario Miranda to Bombay. Like them, Paul too has drawn intimate pictures of the city he loves. And he's drawn them with some brio. Bangalore is fortunate to have someone like him to record its moods for posterity. Stylistically, Paul is closer to Mario than to Doig and although he hardly enjoys their kind of fame, he too has an artist's insight and a superb grip on his pen.

I heard Fernandes’s name and saw his cartoons only a few days ago, thanks to Yahoo.com.  It was love at first sight for me. Paul has captured the languid spirit of what used to be Bangalore in the 1960s and 70s. His cartoons remind me of a time when I was in college and used to visit Bangalore to spend time with my dad who lived there alone. 

This Coffee House was a favourite joint for my old man. Many a time we had coffee, toast, and an omelette at this place. The present Coffee House in a narrow street parallel to MG Road is an apology of its past. And I am sure there you won’t find a waiter carrying a huge dosa, two chutney bowls, and a pyramid of coffee cups for an off-site customer.

Here is another lovely cartoon by Paul Fernandes.

I think this picture vividly captures Bangalore streets forty or fifty years ago. A snoring potbellied cinema watchman against the backdrop of Clark Gable kissing Vivian Leigh, and a thief rolling tyres with the careless abandon of a frolicking child, with no one around to witness this bizarre crime actually bring alive the loneliness of Bangalore streets of the time. I remember, many a late evening when I walked from Cubbon Park to Shampanghi Tank Road, where dad had his digs, through a steady drizzle – it it used to drizzle all the time – not a soul would be on the road some days. A few cars would occasionally whoosh past only to accentuate the sparseness of the scene. 

To bring out that loneliness through the antics of a comical watchman and an adorable outlaw requires the sensitivity and imagination of a top artist.

The South of India is essentially a conservative place. Those days, it was much more hidebound and so was Bangalore. One would rarely come across women in anything other than the traditional sari. Premarital – no I am not talking about sex – relationships were possibly less common than extra-marital liaisons. Heterosexual interactions were restricted to cousins within families. I guess there was a lot of suppressed libido underneath the genteel veneer of the city. No wonder that Tokyo by Night would run to full houses for three weeks or more in Bangalore, despite the smallish town having as many as seventy movie theatres. I wonder if this carefully-hidden-but-known-to-everyone fact could be expressed more brilliantly than what Paul has done in the cartoon below! And if you click on the picture to get a better view, you won’t miss the disgust writ large on the face of the only lady in the picture. Her husband  who is equally aghast – is holding her head to make sure she doesn't get a glimpse of what happens in Tokyo by night! 

The police constable in bell-bottom half pants with a protruding paunch was a cartoonist’s delight since the beginning of history. Sad was the day when he started wearing trousers. Paul too takes a keen interest in him. In the picture below, the caption reads: Potential guest at Cubbon Park Police Station. I can’t remember if I saw the police station, although I used to walk or jog in the Park almost every day during my short stays there. Looking back, Bangalore in general and Cubbon Park in particular was such a peaceful and tranquil place those days! It does seem the policemen posted there had no more serious business than dealing with delinquent kids. This picture indeed says a lot about the peace and quiet of the city of yore.

It used to rain throughout the year in Bangalore and it was a place where I felt sleepy all the time. The people were exceedingly gentlemanly and rather laid back. Through Paul’s paintings, the quaint past of the city seems to be winking at its feverish present.

Kolkata, Thursday, 31 May 2012

If you are from Bangalore, you can see the pictures at aPaulogy, which is open from 11 am to 7.30 pm on weekdays and Saturdays. The address is: 15 Clarke Road (Opp. Au Bon Pain), Richards Park Entrance, Richards Town, Bangalore - 560 005.

The pictures are courtesy yahoo.com. To see more of Paul Fernandes's pictures on line, please copy-paste this URL: http://in.lifestyle.yahoo.com/photos/apaulogy-where-art-meets-cartoon-slideshow/

Friday, 25 May 2012

Growing young

I’ve been feeling younger since I turned sixty. And this is not another glib sentence I’ve made up as an opening line for a work of fiction. It’s a bare, unadorned fact. But why do I feel young when I ought to feel oldish? I had been pondering over this riddle for some time, and this morning, the answer flashed before me while I was crossing the grey, utterly lonely no-man’s land between sleep and wakefulness.

Turning sixty means you have attained the socially accepted retirement age in our country. Once you have crossed the magic line, even if you don’t have a steady job like yours truly, your friends no longer gives you a miss because you are “unemployed”. No one looks down upon you because your picture never came on Page 3 of any newspaper. Rather, people think that somehow, you have earned your right to sit back and relax under the sun. In other words, the society writes you off as a stick-in-the-mud oldie and stops expecting anything from you. And that, Dear Reader, is the biggest advantage you gain after toiling hard for six decades. I reckon it makes you feel good!

The lack of societal expectancy is reflected in you too. You stop bothering about many things that you worried about earlier. You realise that you didn’t really have to please your boss, if you still had one. Or your spouse, for that matter. If you managed to reach this stage with your wife still being your wife, both of you would be so utterly inter-dependent that you would have realised there was no escape. And you had better accept the truth. Keep fighting, but make merry too, until the winter breeze starts blowing in.

Turning sixty also means you pay less on income tax and for boarding trains. But those are minor benefits. The real thing is that you are spared of the challenges of handling the latest fancy gadget that allows you to kiss someone on the other side of the planet. Even if you had a Facebook account, you wouldn’t really know what to do with it. And you wonder to what use you could put the information where Stefanie Graff or Sreetama Guha partied last night.

Being sixty means you still send those old-fashioned emails and drink your beer from a mug. And you don’t give a damn if it was politically incorrect! If this is not freedom, what is?
Monday, 30 April 2012 / Kolkata

Sunday, 20 May 2012

They didn’t have the green thing back then …

Author unknown

[I am copy-pasting this from Gaasedal’s Weblog, a WordPress.com Blog. Gaasedal writes that he copied it from a friend status on Facebook. I am happy to share this brilliant piece with you. And I bow to the unknown author.]

Checking out at the supermarket recently, the young cashier suggested I should bring my own bags because plastic bags weren’t good for the environment. I apologized and explained, “We didn’t have this green thing back in my earlier days.”

The clerk responded, “That’s our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment for future generations.”

She was right about one thing – our generation didn’t have the green thing in “our” day. So what did we have back then? After some reflection and soul-searching on “our” day, here’s what I remembered we did have ….

Back then, we returned milk bottles, pop bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles repeatedly. So they really were recycled. But we didn’t have the green thing back in our day.

We walked up stairs, because we didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks. But she was right. We didn’t have the green thing in our day.

Back then, we washed the baby’s nappies because we didn’t have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 240 volts — wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in our early days. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that young lady is right. We didn’t have the green thing back in our day.

Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house — not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of Wales. In the kitchen, we blended & stirred by hand because we didn’t have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded up old newspapers to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap.

Back then, we didn’t fire up an engine and burn petrol just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power. We exercised by working so we didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she’s right. We didn’t have the green thing back then.

We drank from a water fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water. We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull. But we didn’t have the green thing back then.

Back then, people took the bus, and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their mums into a 24-hour taxi service. We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn’t need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint.

But isn’t it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn’t have the green thing back then?

Please post this on your Facebook profile so another selfish old person who needs a lesson in conservation can add to theirs.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Higher education off the shelf

[This is in continuation of my previous post, "What ails our education system". I would request you to read that article, if you haven't already done so, before you read this.]

It has been heartening to see some thought-provoking comments in response to the blog post of 4 May: What ails our education system. I am quoting two of them here. The first one, written by Indrani, is:

Single child is the norm in today's world. Most children are not even taught the basic duties of caring for their near ones. Parents send their kids to distant schools and when they grow up, to distant cities to give them a wider and better exposure. Rich parents pay huge sums of money to get their kids admitted to foreign universities. In most cases these kids are pretty average and completely confused and selfish lot. It is high time we revamp our education systems.

A friend of mine who doesn’t want to share his name wrote:

[When we were young,] education meant much more than scoring high marks in the exams. We were taught to be decent, selfless, helpful, compassionate and loving human beings. It wasn't just the teachers who “educated” us. Our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and even neighbours too played a crucial role in shaping us.

This “education” that we received is etched in stone in our hearts and minds. Our teachers ... had a gift that seems to be pitifully lacking in teachers these days. I'm talking of the sheer love and passion to teach! Our teachers went beyond our textbooks to enrich our young minds. 

At home, our parents guided us by imparting high moral values for us to emulate. 

I finished my schooling in 1966. Yet, forty six long years later, I still remember the names of EVERY teacher who taught me. I just have to shut my eyes and think of them for the faces of these noble souls to appear in front of me.

Do the students these days even bother to remember the names of the previous year's teachers? Having said that, it may not be the fault of the children alone. The fault lies with the teachers! What is the calibre of the average teacher in a school these days? Apart from “finishing the portions” in time for the exams, what do they teach?

… With teachers who are only bothered about their paycheque and the parents placing the onus on the schools and teachers, what we see today is a generation totally devoid of any social skills. 

Their parents are probably very thrilled that they're scoring the expected high marks. What sort of human beings will they grow up to be? Who cares!

I couldn’t agree with them more. We have conveniently accepted a narrow definition of the word “education”. And the problems of our education system stems from that basic sin. It would be wrong to blame students for what’s gone wrong. They are following a path shown by their parents. They are both beneficiaries and victims of the system.

What do middleclass and richer parents want their offspring to become? Better human beings or someone with a comfortable job with a fat pay-packet? Although the two are not mutually exclusive, the question is relevant. And we all know the answer. Commodification of education that began in the 1990s suits them fine. If I have money, I can BUY a comfortable future for my son or daughter. It doesn’t matter whether they are intelligent or mediocre, hardworking or lazy. This has been a fact of life in some countries like the USA for long. Otherwise George W Bush wouldn’t have become a President of a country that has produced hundreds of Nobel Laureates. In India, this is a recent phenomenon. How will this work in the long run?

My peripheral connection with two engineering colleges convinces me that nowadays, education is indeed available to the highest bidder. Students with bare pass marks in school leaving exams can enrol in an engineering (or medical) college!. And there is an unwritten agreement between the college and the parents that none will fail. Teachers have become education vendors rather than teachers. Consequently, they deserve and receive as much respect as shop assistants do. But that is only collateral damage.

The main issue is that in the present scenario, rich people’s kids are cornering all the opportunities while the doors are being shut on the faces of the poor. Parts of India like Bangalore and Noida are first-worldly glitzy, while more and more people are being pushed to the margins. The India where I was born was much poorer, but the difference between the rich and the poor was never so obscenely stark. Neither was greed the force that ran everything. A cash-and-carry higher education system will perpetuate the present situation. Already, it is making the odds impossibly high for a vast majority of our people. If APJ Abdul Kalam were to be born today, he wouldn’t possibly become a scientist or the President of India.

Every Indian should demand two things from our government: (a) make primary education available and compulsory for all, and (b) fund the higher education of every student that qualifies for admission to government run and other reputed institutions of higher education. Funding shouldn’t cover only the tuition fees, but all other expenses as well.

The government of course has no money to meet either of the demands. But if you buy a Mitsubisi Pajero for Rs.25 lakh, or some other fancy vehicle, our government will give you about Rs.10 for every litre of the diesel you buy. How much money does it cost the exchequer to subsidise owners of private vehicles by way of cheaper petrol and diesel?

But should we complain? Doesn’t the government run for people like you and me, who own computers, drive cars, and holiday abroad?

Friday, 4 May 2012

What ails our education system?

A recent article in the Guardian[1] on what works and what doesn't to improve exam performance of school children discusses some research findings that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. The research was conducted by Durham University. The issues are worth considering because the research deals with problems that are universal. The main findings are as follows:

Reducing class sizes and setting homework for primary school children are among the least effective ways to raise standards. The benefits of reducing class sizes “are not particularly large or clear, until class size is reduced to under 20 or even below 15”.

Secondly, the benefits of homework are modest. The optimum time spent doing homework for secondary school children is one to two hours per school day, but the benefits tail off as the amount of time increases, and there is little benefit in primary school pupils doing homework.

Thirdly, one of the most effective uses of a teacher's time is in giving good feedback – which should be sparing, specific and encouraging. It is "more important to give feedback about what is right than what is wrong," researchers say. It is also best to praise a particular task that has been accomplished well rather than praise a pupil with phrases like "good girl".

Finally, Students should be encouraged to develop independent "learning strategies" and to learn from each other. Teachers should encourage pupils to plan, monitor, and evaluate their own learning.

While this report focuses on schools, let me enlarge the context and include the parents’ role too, with a particular reference to India. Let’s recall the incontrovertible fact that education, like charity, begins at home. If parents mismanage the early childhood training of their offspring, it is difficult to undo the damage later. 

Bringing up children is one of the most complex tasks humans perform. But a lot of parents have not the vaguest idea about how to go about it and in fact, just sleepwalk through this onerous task. Let me share a personal experience. One afternoon, I was on a crowded public bus. A boy of about ten in school uniform sat splay-legged on a seat. His mother stood by his side, although there was enough room for her to share the seat. She was even carrying his bag! A little later, an elderly woman approached the boy and requested him to move aside and make room for her. Son didn’t budge, and mother shouted, ‘It’s my seat. I have left it for him!’ This scene was repeated several times as new unsuspecting people – mostly women – got onto the bus and approached the child.

Although such insensitivity is rare, the general standard of parenting is not much better. In my city, parents often enroll their children in presumably good schools far away from their homes. It is a common practice among young mothers to accompany the offspring to school, spend the entire school hours hanging around and gossiping with other moms, and return home in the evening. In the process, the child – s/he is more likely to be a single child – learns that s/he is the fulcrum around which the family revolves. It won’t be their fault if they grow up into selfish and cussed individuals.

If we may move over from ethical training to academic training, many Indian parents – from Kolkata to Kochi – would be scandalized if their secondary school children were not allowed to do more than “one to two hours” of homework. For us, the motto seems to be: the more the merrier. And what matters are grades, not education. The goal is not learning, but enrolment in premier colleges. Dependence on “private tuition”, the most pernicious system invented to kill the student’s initiative, follows naturally. Every evening, one sees children carrying heavy bags scurrying from one tuition centre to another, at a time when they ought be in a playground. In the process, the child loses two things.

The twenty-first century Indian child does not know much of the fun and frolic of childhood, and as they grow up, their faculty to think independently atrophies through lack of use. Once I asked my first year students at an engineering college to write down their personal strategies about how to improve their English. The first assignment that I read was by a student with limited English competency. But the language of his submission was impeccable; it had been written by his private tutor! So much for students “planning, monitoring, and evaluating” their own learning! You may say that one cannot generalize a specific experience. But if you talk with college teachers in india, you will realize that a majority of students just cannot “think”. The situation is bad, and our planners and administrators do not seem to be aware of the problem. Therefore, there is no reason to hope that the situation will change for the better in the foreseeable future.

Imagine a situation when secondary school students will not focus on solving innumerable problems of mathematics or physics in milliseconds, and instead will focus on the concepts behind the problems … when students, instead of “learning” a language, will focus on “using” the language creatively.  Imagine a situation when the best of our graduate students who wish to do research are not selected through a test that asks inane multiple-choice questions, but based on evaluation of real merit. It may never happen, but if it did, a necessary precondition would be that students were “encouraged to develop independent learning strategies and to learn from each other”.

You may say I am a dreamer, but hopefully, I am not the only one.

[1] 21 June 2012

Monday, 16 April 2012

Beyond pain

Shun Fujimoto
[I stumbled upon this while rummaging through the Net. I am sure you'll like it.]

Before the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Japan had won the team gold in in gymnastics in all the four previous Olympics. So one can say that the Japanese were the undisputed champions in men's gymnastics in the 1960s and 70s. Naturally, they were contenders for the gold in Montreal too.

Shun Fujimoto, a member of the Japanese men’s gymnastics team at the Games, broke his right knee while doing floor exercises in the finals.

Shun ignored his injury, knowing that if he withdrew, his team would lose out to the USSR in the overall tally. He did not even reveal the magnitude of his hurt to his teammates, fearing that it would impact their performance adversely. Despite terrible pain, he managed to complete the pommel horse routine, and quite miraculously, scored 9.5 out of 10. He then faced the rings, his final event. Shun performed extraordinarily, without getting distracted by the thought of the inevitable effects of dismounting from a height of eight feet with his broken knee. After completing his routine, he hurled himself into a beautifully executed somersault dismount.

When he hit the floor, he felt excruciating pain, but kept his poise and raised his arms in a perfect finish before falling down. He had scored a 9.7, his highest-ever score on the rings. And he won the individual gold for the event. But the dismount dislocated his broken kneecap and tore ligaments.

His superb performance in the face of physical agony enabled the Japanese team (576.85 points) win Gold, beating the USSR by a margin of, hold your breath, 0.40 points! After winning the closest gymnastics team competition in Olympic history, Shun joined his team at the victory stand to receive his gold medal, and he did it without assistance.

He stated that he had not wanted to let his team down by revealing his injury. Later, when asked whether he would do what he did again, he replied frankly, “No, I wouldn’t.”

This simple statement shows that Shun is human after all, but a very special kind of human. And Shun Fujimoto is a revered name in Japan today.

[Source: Wikipedia, http://gymnasticszone.com and other Internet sites. The picture is from Wikipedia.]

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Happy Holi!

To what new tune my veena plays today,
To what a fleeting new rhythm …

As I woke up this morning, the Tagore song about the season of creation and fertility floated in from the park opposite our house.  A group of about thirty men and women had gathered around a square arena in the park and were singing merrily.  There were some more-than-competent singers in the group, it was wonderful choral music. The sparkling morning sun and the cool breeze of the spring seemed to have decided to join in, to lend their voice to the chorus.

The group had people ranging from seventeen to seventy years of age and most of them were wearing yellow t-shirts, kameez or saris. I thought some of the faces were familiar, I had often seen them walking round the lake in the park. But it was only a guess, I could hardly identify them as they were smeared with gulal. It’s Holi today.

But clearly, they did not belong to a group of close friends. They were strangers or near-strangers who had decided to come together in the spirit of the day. In the process, they created a bit of happiness and warmth and perhaps came a little closer to each other, besides exhibiting a fine grip on the best of the local cultural traditions. Does this small thing have any significance? Or should we think it was just “one of those things” and pass by?

Normally, the morning is a terrible time for me, and I guess for many others too. It is impossible not to open the newspaper, but all that you read in papers is reports of murders, rapes, robbery, frauds, and of course, monumental callousness, stealth, and inefficiency of our masters. There seems to be no escape, or is there?

Occasionally hope is rekindled when a fresh politician comes to power, when we think, okay, things have bottomed out, it can’t get worse. But future holds funny surprises; every new dispensation introduces us to new depths evil governance. The messiah of Dalits metamorphoses into a queen of arrogance. She constructs a shamelessly gaudy palace with her ill-gotten cash close to the hovel where she was born, although “her people” continue to live in the same hovels, surrounded by the same filth. One who comes to power with a promise to re-establish the rule of law quickly decides to crush laws and sheds all the trappings of decency for perceived political expediency. The learned men and women who fought against earlier misrule and showed us the way now show us they are really spineless creatures of clay. Their counterparts on the other side, who were silent when their political masters were killing people, suddenly find voice to protest against political murders now.

Even that is tolerable. Repeated instances of political and administrative mischiefs have blunted our sensitivity; we no longer react to political skulduggery. Much more grotesque is the change that is happening in the psyche of our people.  Everyone for oneself, if I need to kill someone to achieve my goal, so be it. It is a fierce world where I have to survive and prosper, where everyone else is an enemy.

A little boy kills his teacher because she was strict. A failed lover kills his beloved’s father and the killer’s family accompanies him in the crime. A young mother is taken off a train and raped in open fields. The chief minister of the state says it was only a concocted story to malign her government. News means an endless procession of horror. Every passing day dims our optimism further. The situation in large parts of India today is worse than the rule of mafia in Conan Doyle's Valley of Fear. We are in a valley where common people are turning into Mafiosi.

The men and women who sang in front of my house this morning are swimming against the tide. They are trying to come together instead of drifting away, without an eye on anything material. They are trying to make the world a better place. Thank you all, you have rekindled my hope … yet again. You should make headlines in all the national dailies tomorrow.

Let there be a lot more colour around us. And in us. Wish you a wonderful Holi!

Kolkata, 8 March 2012

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Two governments and two babies

Thanks to the frequent incidents of piracy off Somalia coasts in recent years, merchant vessels carry armed guards these days. On 15 February 2012, guards on board of an Italian oil tanker Enrica Lexie opened fire at an Indian trawler on the sea near Kollam in Kerala and killed two fishermen. It looks like an unprovoked attack as the unarmed fishermen could not have seriously threatened the big tanker. 

Naturally, there was uproar in India. After a few days of dithering, Kerala Police took two Italian Navy personnel into custody. Since their own captain identified them, their defence can at best be flimsy. Their plea, that is, the incident happened on international waters and they mistook the Indian fishermen as pirates, will be tested in Indian courts. The second argument is somewhat strange as there has been no incident of piracy off Kerala coast possibly for centuries. 

Since day one, Rome mounted diplomatic pressure on New Delhi so that the accused were not tried in India. First, Italy rushed consular officials to Kerala and managed to delay their arrest by a few days, arguing that as the incident happened in International waters, Italy’s laws should apply. After the men were taken into custody, Italy sent their Deputy Foreign Minister to pressure India into handing over the accused.

The Italian government’s dogged perseverance to protect two of their citizens contrasts sharply with the Indian Government’s role in the case of Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya, the expatriate Indian couple who have had their infant children taken away by Norwegian authorities.

You would have read about the case, but let me recap the main facts. Barnavernet, Norway's powerful Child Welfare Service (CWS) took away two-year old Abhigyan and his sister, Aishwarya, who was just a few months old, from their distraught parents in May 2011. 

Why did they do so? I heard Anurup on a news channel. He said two things: (a) Abhigyan exhibited autistic tendencies when he was two years old, and (b) Sagarika went back to Norway from India in the winter shortly after the birth of their second child. At that time of the year, there is little daylight in Norway. It makes lots of people depressed and Sagarika underwent a bout of post-natal depression which was possibly accentuated by the absence of daylight.

Abhigyan’s preschool reported his “deviant” behaviour to the CWS, who visited the Bhattacharya household and decided Sagarika was unfit to rear the children. Besides what has been mentioned above, there were other issues too. Anurup told NDTV, ‘They told me “Why are you sleeping with the children in the same bed?’’.’ The CWS also found it unacceptable that the parents fed the babies with hand. 

So they took away the infants from their parents and sent them to foster care homes. In a somewhat barbaric show of “civilized” social order, the Norwegian authorities not only took away the babies, but also separated the siblings and put them in different foster homes. As per Norwegian laws, the children can be reunited with their parents only when they are 18, and until then, the parents are allowed three visits per year of an hour’s duration each.

A bit of search on the Internet revealed two things. First, in Norway, a country with 4 million people, more than 12,000 babies were taken away from their biological parents last year on similar grounds, and a disproportionately large number of them were from poor and immigrant families. Secondly, foster parenting is lucrative business in Norway. Foster parents are given money for things like building houses and holidaying. 

Has the Indian Government done enough over the last ten months of Sagarika and Anurup’s ordeal? Has any minister visited Norway? 

Well, no one even heard of their case until January 2012, although the couple had pleaded to the Indian Embassy in Oslo immediately after the incident. The government woke up more than six months later, much like Kumbhakarna, only when the din made by the media made it impossible for them to continue sleeping. Some of our much maligned politicians – though none from the ruling parties – took up the cause and the CPIM MP Brinda Karat made it a personal mission to get the children repatriated to India. Yet the Indian government did nothing more than making diplomatic noises. Finally, after a huge outpouring of anger, yesterday, the government decided to send a special envoy to Norway. 

One government is pulling out all stops to protect two of their citizens who are charged with killing, and the other is being sweetly diplomatic to “expedite a custody row” on behalf of a family that has done no wrong, broken no laws. Does the Indian government have any sense of shame?

As I write this (28 February), the Norwegian authorities have announced they have decided to hand over the children to their uncle. The Hindu reports, “And yet the custody saga is not completely over. The district court is to hold hearings on March 23, when it is expected to overturn its own ruling sending the children into care until they become majors.”

As I watch my two grandsons who are about as old as Abhigyan and Aishwarya, I try to understand the huge sense of insecurity every child has. Separating them from their loved ones is simply one way of torturing them. It must have been an enormous trauma for the babies of Sagarika and Anurup to be suddenly surrounded by unfamiliar faces, language, culture, and environment. I only hope they are reunited with their parents soon. I also hope they do not carry any permanent scar from the devastating childhood experience. And finally, let us also spare a thought for the thousands of infants that are suffering the same fate as Abhigyan and Aishwarya. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Music and mystery

Santanu Dasgupta

Whenever a non-resident Bengali like me managed to visit Kolkata for a few days, high on the agenda was to attend a good, live concert of Rabindra Sangeet. But that’s easier said than done!

‘You mean visiting Ranga Mashi after so many years is less important to you than attending some obscure music show?’  Guardians were aghast at my total lack of warmth or concern for my greater family. ‘No’, they swung their heads in dismay, ‘This is not OUR FAMILY speaking. Living away from home has affected you very badly indeed!’

It was futile to explain to hardline Kolkatans my longing for any kind of Rabindra Sangeet, good, not-so-good or even outright childish.

We all have most of the good disks on Rabindra Sangeet in our collection. But listening to a live performance from an unknown singer was quite another experience.  Whenever a familiar song was rendered just that much differently, perhaps in the same sur but conveying a different expression of ecstasy, my heart rejoiced in resonance. How could those living in the swamp of Rabindra Sangeet ever share my yearning?

On one such occasion, overcoming all odds, I managed to get into a hall where a club was celebrating their annual Rabindra Sangeet festival. A relatively better known singer Tanya was the chief attraction, so the announcement said.

It was already dark by the time I could reach the auditorium. The Club Secretary welcomed all and tried in vain to recall how great Tagore was etc. A roar of catcalls greeted him as he hastily beat a retreat and called upon the first singer. Things settled down after that. The hall was only a quarter full. A mild round of applause followed each song.

I was thoroughly enjoying the melodies and swaying my head in the dark when an elderly gentleman pushed his way through to take his seat next to mine.

‘Has Madhumita sung already?’ he asked. As far as I could remember no such singer had yet taken the stage and I said so. ‘Good, that means I am in time. She is my granddaughter, you see.’

‘Has she been training for long?’ I asked.

‘Well, ever since she was a child. But this will be her first performance on stage’, he proudly announced.

Just then, a big round of applause greeted the next singer, Tanya. Whistles, catcalls and thumping chairs   filled the Auditorium.

‘It is all fake, you know’, Grandpa whispered. ‘Tanya has paid all these boys to clap for her. She is no match for my granddaughter. Of course you yourself will hear her.’

I could see that the doting grandfather was feeling threatened by all the applause a rival singer got. I kept my silence and waited for Tanya to begin.

Tanya was a stylish woman. Hair puffed up and dressed in a crisp cotton sari, she looked gorgeous. A few minutes were spent in establishing harmony among the instruments. And finally she nodded at the Esraj player and smiled at the audience, seeking permission to begin.

The Esraj player first   struck the notes Sa Ga Re Ga …. It was clear that Tanya would sing “Shedin dujone dulechinu bone …”

‘Oh! Why did you play the complete notes?’ interrupted Tanya, ‘Now everyone knows that I am going to begin “Shedin dujone”. There is no longer any mystery about my first song.’

The grandpa on my right stood up straight and shouted in a loud voice, ‘Are you here to sing a song or to write a mystery story? Just get along with your song.’

The silence that followed this statement was broken by a fresh round of whistles and feline whining. Tanya looked for grandpa in the dark and went on with her song.

‘I’ve put her in her place’, said grandpa, ‘She can’t get away with paid applause.’

At once I realised why my Kolkata relations were so skeptical about my attending just any programme on Rabindra Sangeet. Even a hundred years of singing … “Praner majhe aye”, which roughly translates to: “Come closer to my heart”, has not changed our habit of picking holes in others’ achievements.

I sat through the rest of the evening and joined my neighbor in trying to find fault with every singer thereafter, except of course his grandchild.

[Santanu Dasgupta, who has retired as a senior scientist from the Indian Space Research Organisation, teaches engineering in Thiruvananthapuram. Highly respected in professional circles, he is a person with diverse interests. An accomplished singer, he is seriously interested in literature and writes songs and dramas. Thank you to Santanuda, for sharing this story with my readers.]