Human Sensitivity: A Social Responsibility or a Social Myth?

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The entire India was reeling last month around the same time under the pain of death and protest marches denouncing crime against women. There were candle light marches, slogans, hunger strikes, etc. throughout the nation. The case of Delhi gang-rape was not an isolated case and we all know in the heart of  our hearts that there are different types of ‘crime’ against women. Beginning with discrimination by grandmothers against grand-daughters or daughter-in-laws about food and provisions, to not letting women contest college and local council elections, to high stress levels in working Indian women who have to balance home and world, to sexual infringements within family, India has witnessed the worst forms of crime against women. The problem with many Indians is we tend to elevate the status of people and things so much that while we are ready to ‘worship’ women, we are not ready to take them as just another human being.
Saying all this, I do not intend to simplify the complexity of the issues at hand or be reductionist in my approach to socio-cultural dynamics of India. I am shaken by the strange approach of our responsible sections of society: media, politics, and people. A pattern that one gets to see is that there is a strong sensationalism that we tend to follow and live-in. The sensation and ‘Breaking News‘ syndrome that leads us to follow for some days the hulla generated by the horrors of such news, but then it gets lost forever in the mass amnesia, and “today’s newspaper becomes tomorrow’s wastepaper”. As common masses affected daily by these set of violence, we do not encourage the idea of sustaining our protests in the form of debates.
In this article, I am verbatim reproducing two set of dialogues that we had on my Facebook page on mindsets related to women. I thought that my larger audience might like to read and participate in the discussion that followed on a status which I posted on Facebook. The people in the dialogue are not from the imaginary/ fictional space. They are real individuals, from across different sections of  society, responsible for their statements and opinions.
In the wake of these dialogues, I am bound to reveal the identity of Anne de Plume because of the need of this article as well as to respect the identity of peers whose names are being mentioned here. My name is Arnapurna Rath — I teach engineering students and a few research scholars about the joys of being humane (I am one of the participants in this dialogue). As Anne de Plume (I consider her as my alter ego) I have met you, shared my personal and public anguish/ concerns since 2008. Coming from the academic community, my sense of responsibility towards both male and female students has often stopped me from making remarks with biases towards any one gender. However,  the context of this article comes from a discussion with some women students who once casually reported that sometimes college elections across India are so gender biased that if a woman wants to contest even as elementary a position as a class representative, some of their male counterparts state that “they would rather go for a creepy, lazy male to take-up the position than be ruled by a woman”.
Here goes the status and the responses that I posted on the social networking site:
A little disturbed today by a strange comment.Sometimes there is such a strong break between ideals and practice. The paradox is some people project high ideals and low action, while some are high on action and low on ideals.Do we ever get a seamless bonding between the two? A strange revelation from some friends: there are some students who while voting say that we will not vote for a woman because we do not want to be ruled by women. Are these the same people who are taught the fundamentals of technology, humanities, sciences by women faculty? Is this 21st century?Are we the same people who do candle light marches for social upliftment? Clean-up your home first before you go and clean the society!

Sushant Sharma: one word “hypocrites”

Arnapurna Rath: Sushant Sharma: As the head of 1500 researchers at one point what was your experience? Is this a fact or fiction?

Mathai Fenn: A PhD does not mean they are smart.

Shalu Shalo:  Given a choice, these specific “type” of people would not want to be taught by female faculty either. Its sad, but their choices of who should/not be a supervisor/superior (in business/life) perpetrate vertically. They do not enjoy the fact of working for female bosses/supervisors; would not want women leaders; an independent and strong-willed female family member (sister/mother/girlfriend/wife); strong female co-workers/subordinates…just to name a few. The reason goes back to the morals taught/practiced at home followed by the society, media and the other whole nine-yards which help bolstering such egotistical attitude. I don’t think these “type” volunteer anything remotely meant for female-upliftment et al. This lack of tolerance solely starts at home and inflates exponentially as they go out in a male-dominated society. I am not a feminist, but I sure do hate discrimination of “any kind”. All these statements are from my own personal and professional observations

Sushant Sharma: it is difficult to answer… capturing true thoughts/beliefs are near impossible, one can only judge by actions…moreover the sample size you mentioned will be biased to come up with generic answer… more likely higher-education/social-status does not necessarily mean any improvement in right beliefs….however i know sometime thoughts/beliefs evolve it just needs a spark to make people contemplate and comprehend the facts ….and at this moment i feel we are still far from being a gender neutral and civilized society ..

Arnapurna Rath: Shalu shalo what scares me is that it is not about one ‘type’. There are multiple variations of this type. You are right — some might be thinking they do not want a woman to teach them! We are thinking of social changes while grooming people who refuse to be groomed. No doubt there are 5 media incited protests and then the country forgets. ·

Arnapurna Rath: Mathai: It is not just about Phds. There are many sides of the story. Possibly even in girls colleges! The range might vary from 16yrs–96 yrs.

Akshay Bishnoi: Ma’am….I will prefer to explain it from Psychological perspective…..Ideals (Value) are ambiguous most of times and Compliance on people by Social desirability and without rational…and Practice (Action) is affected by both Values and Circumstances and more rational in approach…. So while reading humanities people express or create those ideal (Value) only because of Social pressure or getting marks…So if they behave in a different way, it is can be considered as failure of Education system…Or in other terms it signifies how important it is to have democratic environment to be followed in true sense in society which may lead to acceptance of values in better way and action will also be on same line as of values…..

Mathai Fenn: We live in a country where men and women are treated separately. I remember when I was in college there were very different rules for the men’s hostel and the women’s. While we had a fairly liberal hostel the women had early evening curfews and the like. In fact almost all colleges have different rules for men and women hostels. HOW is it in your college? The interesting thing is when I asked an inmate (pun intended) she told me that it women needed more protection than men……( “from themselves”…..I completed, under my breath)

In how many Indian families do girls get as much freedom as boys do? For that matter the West is not THAT different on the matter either. LAST QUESTION: How many women feel incomplete without a man to “COMPLETE THEM?” lets face it men and women are not treated equally by their parents, their schools and colleges, society at large, or even themselves. Let us not get carried away with thoughts of freedom, etc. Erich Fromm, in his book title “ESCAPE FROM FREEDOM” suggests freedom is the ONE THING that we do not want! AFTER ALL THIS, you are complaining that men do not want to be ruled by women? I think its understandable, women cannot rule themselves!Idealism is good for blogs. Reality is different. Believe me……I’ve been there, done that!

Shaoni Shabnam: I guess teachers and parents have a critical role to play!!

Arnapurna Rath: Well Akshay Bishnoi what you say is very true. That is what I was indicating the gap between ideals and action. My question is can we help? Is there a solution to issues of the kind rather than explanations and debates?

Arnapurna Rath: Mathai Fenn I am complaining because the illusions and the idealisms are created by people like you and me. Let us admit that women are the greatest perpetrators of subversive violence against their own sex. My concern is about a strong break between reality and theory. Let us not get into one anothers gender bashing. If mindsets do not change than as a part of academic community I also equally take the responsibility of failing to get across the ideals that we have been trained to believe on.’

Mathai Fenn: Yes very much you can help. Please launch courses that sensitize students to gender issues. Help them understand. But dont make it simplistic. Also help them to critically analyze their own situation

Shalu Shalo: @akshay bishnoi: as much as I want to agree, I must disagree with the decree that “women cannot rule themselves”…etc etc… Age old rules of women’s role in society and homes have been brain washed onto men n women. This brain washing psychologically stifles the capacities to break old borders and create new ones. Keeping a few lazy women aside (who want everything handed to them in their lives), I believe that most women (yes, I speak for myself and women in my family and friends) want to break free and want freedom from caustic old and rusted belief system. Again, it’s the belief system and attitude that has to change…at home and then it will slowly trickle into the society.

Mathai Fenn: Does that mean you are complete even without a man?

Akshay Bishnoi : Ma’am…Mathai sir already answered it very well, how to tackle such issue, perhaps the most practical approach……In short Internalization of values by people is only solution….Debates also help in awareness, perhaps debates are the places where a person starts to think about issues, the first and most important step for change…Isn’t it??? But they can be internalized better when some real life examples follow them….And we need to take things in every aspect of life rather than only classroom teachings for e.g. we can have plays where role playing of the girl by a boy for some time, so that it may give him better perception how it feels to be like a girl (Empathy development)……

Shalu Shalo @mathai fenn…if you are asking me, then here is my take on the question…”when was I incomplete”? I was born alone, took all the challenges so far by myself, and technically we fight our battles alone . Unless otherwise brain-washed over n over again, no one is incomplete. Now, feeling the need to have a man to complete oneself should not automatically discounted to be a symbol of weakness or lack of confidence. Companionship means different thing to different people .

Akshay Bishnoi: Shalu Shalo: Man and women complete each other is correct….It should not be seen as sign of weakness….But when dependence crosses limit, what should we call it ???……Just a simple thought how much Indian women prefer to have their own identity??? Identity based on their own skills, achievements rather than Kids and husband?? We may have few ladies who have identity of self…But when i Look to Indian masses “Learned helplessness” is inserted in a girl from the very day she was born and accepted by most of us…Perhaps we are brought in such a manner that Such issues are made Sacro Scent to us and we never question them…..So providing a more thought provoking and Democratic parenting, Schooling and Societal environment to child is best way……..

Akshay Bishnoi: Shalu Shalo: Just one more thought about “Age old rules”….Well, If we reinterpret those rules by studying original text or most closely available ones….They are good rules with Some specified intentions which were used by Society people in wrong notions as time passed and no body questioned them….Just for example In my childhood days, everybody told me Speak Truth but no one told Why I should???….I saw most of people surrounding me telling a lie even the teacher and parents who taught me to say truth..Am i expected to say truth is such situation….Perhaps we forget the fact that A child learns more by Observing surrounding than Reading books…

Shalu Shalo: Well, new age issues need creative and new age solutions. In all my comments, I always mentioned the need for change in attitude. We are talking about old age belief systems which are hardwired across generations and cross sections. Such things cripple new age progress. It will be challenging as it involves changing both women’s attitude AND men’s attitude. A tough battle, but not an impossible one.

Arnapurna Rath: Thanks all for sharing my concerns and anguish. The length of the comments speak about your involvement with the issue. I have a feeling that diluting everything to psycho-sexual behaviour is not leading us anywhere. Introducing courses and seminars have also not been as fruitful as they should be — Akshay Bishnoi’s statement kind of proves that. We do courses for grades and marks these days, not to end up learning. In my opinion, post classroom debates, informals, debating clubs, etc can play an important role, and most importantly girls themselves should be responsible to establish their own identity in whatever possible ways they can. Men can be great supports and fabulous comrades too, but playing a second fiddle to someone is not a great idea. If personal anecdotes can help — during a particular PG cult at my home institution, I needed a projector to be setup on the SAC for my PPT on ad-making and someone from the council shouted down at me very rudely. I had a steely reply: “You see I usually get things that I want, either you help me or else I will help my self to get what I want” . We got what we wanted! And others who followed also got the projector for the next set of events. Did not intend to boast — even if one woman is inspired, I would consider victory.

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The debate generated an interest which was followed up in the psychologist Mathai Fenn’s status update. I am sharing that dialogue too:

Mathai Fenn’s facebook status: A friend of mine, Arnapurna Rath, complained that she knew some men who do not want to work under a female boss. She found it disturbing that men could think that way. Once upon a time I did too… but no longer..and HERE IS MY ANSWER….
Mathai Fenn: We live in a country where men and women are treated seperately. I remember when I was in college there were very different rules for the men’s hostel and the women’s. While we had a fairly liberal hostel the women had early evening curfews and the like. In fact almost all colleges have different rules for men and women hostels. HOW is it in your college? The interesting thing is when I asked an inmate (pun intended) she told me that it women needed more protection than men……( “from themselves”…..I completed, under my breath)
In how many Indian families do girls get as much freedom as boys do? For that matter the West is not THAT different on the matter either. LAST QUESTION: How many women feel incomplete without a man to “COMPLETE THEM?” lets face it men and women are not treated equally by their parents, their schools and colleges, society at large, or even themselves. Let us not get carried away with thoughts of freedom, etc. Erich Fromm, in his book title “ESCAPE FROM FREEDOM” suggests freedom is the ONE THING that we do not want!
AFTER ALL THIS, you are complaining that men do not want to be ruled by women? I think its understandable, women cannot rule themselves!
Idealism is good for blogs. Reality is different. Believe me……I’ve been there, done that!

Samresh Kumar: I hope you look at the reality as it is, understand it and yet hope that someday the ideal thing will happen!

Mohit Kishore: Assuming as you say that women don’t want the freedom/liberation/authority, how does that link up to men not wanting to report to the ones who do have the freedom or liberation or whatever. I think the bit about not wanting to report to women is more linked to men who are used to withholding women’s liberties in other aspects of life and find it hard to get used to a professional / workplace scenario where they no longer have that control.

Mathai Fenn: I have no doubt. My intention was to show that these attitudes run deep and we can find it in our own institutions and families

Arnapurna Rath: Mathai Fenn people feeling complete or incomplete without each other is a part of  biological and emotional preference related orientation. But gender competition and dominance is a part of cultural evolution. Thinking of August Strindbergs play Father.

Mathai Fenn: Ah biological evolution makes a woman feel incomplete without a man. Despite this if a man FEELS superior he can’t use the same logic. Obviously saucer for goose and gander are different

Pravin Noronha: Equality is a myth, be it gender or socio-economic status, but fairness is what we should call for.

Arnapurna Rath: No Mathai Fenn the feeling of incompleteness is mutual. You are leaving out preferences which may not include man-woman equation.

Mathai Fenn: Ok time to bring out the not-so-nice guy. I have had more WOMEN tell me that they feel incomplete than MEN do.

Arguments:1. Men and women feel it but its not cool for men to say it 2. Women feel it because they are victims of a male dominated society

Arnapurna Rath Loved that one — cultural stereotyping as I said!! Men are taught ‘not to be emotional’ and girls are known to be expressive and chatty!

Mathai Fenn That is the key to such arguments. It uses the argument either way to support your POV. I am sorry, but I genuinely don’t buy the argument that women feeling incomplete is BIOLOGICAL

Arnapurna Rath: I think we both are arguing the same point through two different ideological frames. I told that in my other comment too that it is not completely psycho-sexual behaviour. We live through multiple layers of complexity in the society. Some of them are yet to be understood and tapped. Mathai Fenn: I am publishing this entire conversation on my blog as it is, with the permission of the concerned people. I hope no one has reservations?

Mathai Fenn: I reserve rights to 30% of the advertising revenue that you get from the traffic to your blog for six months from the date of publication!

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I have specific reasons to publish this dialogue. In India, these days, we are mostly following the debates  that are being raised by media and social networking sites. We tend to show reactions to a set of actions generated on television or cinema. They are great starters in my opinion. However, we would perhaps help generate a more responsible and socially sensitive set of people if one-to-one debates are encouraged either on social sites or as a part of informal grooming sessions or classrooms and canteens. If gender sensitivity is such a tough idea to introduce in a tough-nut patriarchal society,  the reformists can start from primary schools and classrooms.

We have battles to choose — which one is our prerogative and priority! What do you all say?

Nobody ever loses their memory. It gets locked away like a madwoman in the attic. Occasionally you hear her scream, but you don’t unlock the door and have a look. Right?
There’s a great sadness in your life. (Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Madwoman in the Attic)

*I am thankful to Mathai Fenn for instigating me 🙂 ! I am grateful to all the participants in this discussion: Sushant Sharma, Shalu Shalo, Akshay Bishnoi, Shaoni Shabnam, Pravin Nornha, Samaresh Kumar and Mohit Kishore. Hope that the spirit of debating continues.

Maut ka Kuan: Well of Death

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The festive season is back again. There is a lightness in the air and the early mist of the evenings of approaching winters fill the world with delight and with a longing for new clothes, food, and fun family get-to-gathers. As the year starts slowing down with the advent of October, a series of festivities take place across India. As per the Hindu calendar, after Mahalaya (today is Mahalaya) the festival season begins, continuing until the end of the year.

In India, there is a concept of the mela or the fair during the Navratri season and in fact during other festivities too. A typical countryside or small town mela has got a fixed set of attractions: there are colourful glow-lights on the streets, swings, mithai and chat stalls, big lighted festoons/ gates, decorated idols stuffed with hand-made colored jewels and high-decibel music on the pandals, loads of relatives visiting your homes, and the children getting their share of mela being carried on the shoulders of an uncle or aunty, who generously buy them balloons and tiny plastic toys or squeezers. There are also interesting folk-dance performances all over the country.

I get a very strong sense of nostalgia when I remember the tiny bits and pieces of these festivals and the community puja pandals during my childhood and school-going days.

If you ever visit Eastern India, Odisha and Bengal especially, you will observe that Durga Puja and post-Durga Puja season will open with a host of these community festivities. They are also fantastic business seasons. Vendors, sellers, magicians, giant-wheel managers, and nacha parties (theater groups), come to the rural and semi-urban towns, and setup their stalls for months together. They live in camp-sites and if you visit them during the day, you will find an amazingly different life to think of and to narrate.

Of all these stalls and games, the one which had deeply affected my own sensibility was the game of “Maut ka Kuan” or the “Well of Death”. Typically, “maut ka kuan” involved a biker or a Maruti car rider to drive their bike/ car in a long cylindrical tube at a very high driving speed from bottom to top and again vice versa.

I hated it, yet always was drawn to watch the game as the drivers rode-by ‘vrooommm vrooomm’ …. There was a charm in the dangers of the game, a charm in the name itself….

As a child, the characters behind the steering-wheel in these bikes/ cars inspired me to imagine a lot of things. Perhaps they were film heroes? Perhaps they were from some alien world? Perhaps they die on these stunts? I would watch wide-eyed sitting on the shoulders of uncles, how they performed these feats one after the other. As I started growing up and reading elementary Physics at high-school, my only question would be: “How do they defy the force of gravity? Newton must be proven wrong with their stunts”.

I had some qualities of a consistent stalker and if an event or a thing touched the frequency wires of curiosity, I would follow it up. I kept following the “Maut ka kuan” stunt for years. In the small town of Dhenkanal during Lakshmi Puja (a fifteen day long festivity), each year the same group of ‘maut ka kuan’ would turn up. I observed the lead stunts-man when he was in his youth, and observed him each year growing old and performing the same stunts with more expertise and dexterity.

During my college days, I was once visiting the bazaar in the day time during these Pujas to buy some clothes. I spotted this ‘maut ka kuan’ group in their camp area, chatting away and laughing while eating some stale chapatis, onions, salad, and potato curry. Nursing the secret bug of being a writer someday, I decided to stop-by the ghetto and meet the lead driver and ask him about his life. He said that he comes from a small district of UP (Muzzafarpur). He has been in this business of the well of death for the past twenty-five years, from his teens. He traveled from village to town across India performing these stunts and entertaining people. I asked him, “do you have a family?” and he smiled saying “yes, my wife is a trapeze artist. I met her in one of the villages. We travel together.”
I was always curious about what made them chose this profession. Why would anyone want to die? What if something went wrong in the car/bike (after-all these are only machines). He replied to my question with a nonchalant shrug, “you have to have an intense love for adventure driving if you want to chose this profession — it’s not for the faint-hearted. Madamji, jigar chahyieyeh maut ka khel hai! Hum toh uski dehleez ko chumte hain” (we kiss the doorsteps of death). There was a certain dramatic overtone in his narration — a voice of a performer, not simply a stunts-man or a driver. He narrated to me several incidents of how life is for these small time stunts groups — their nomadic travels, the injuries that often happen with machine failures, adept mechanics who help them with perfect engines in these dare-devil stunts, and tales of jealousy and envy — how a stunts-man can fail brakes of another stunts-man because of financial rivalries or popularity rivalries among ladies and nautch-girls, and so on. Hours flew by and my pages were filled with notes of stories of the “well of death”. Some of these stories if recreated may as well seem to be straight out of a masala Hindi flick.

But, that’s how some parts of life are? Aren’t they? For some life is a calculated risk, while for many others it’s a dare-devil stunt of the ‘maut ka kuan’ variety — full of miscalculated or unspoken risks.

I lost my dream of becoming a writer soon after, and consequently I lost the notes I had of these ‘characters’ from real-life (many of whom can be picture-perfect portraits in cinema). But, even now when I sit in the air-conditioned comfort of my present profession, I do sometimes think when festivity seasons arrive, of these characters that were a part of the memory of my childhood — and lazily look at the distant voices outside my office window.

The dust of time accumulates over even the best memories…and many unwritten novels get buried within these dusty accumulations.

Take care and have a good night! Got to lock my office doors….

Entanglement

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एक खुशबू आती थी, में भटकता जाता था
रेशमी सी माया थी और में ताकता जाता था
जब तेरी गली आया, सच तभी नज़र आया
मुझमें ही वो खुशबू थी जिस से तुने मिलवाया

 …. (Lyrics of Maula maula from Delhi-6)

I have been thinking of entanglements for a while — was searching the dictionary and thesaurus just to make sure that I was going the right way in my thoughts. Found the term fascinating. An interesting point is, that the term has found a lot of fan following in Physics, especially with the theory of Quantum Entanglement initiated by Einstein and his collaborators. Interested readers can fish out the meanings themselves.

This article however, does not pick-up the debates around the term as used in Physics. It rather thinks of the lay use of the term as ‘confusion’ and ‘inter-twining’ of issues and thoughts in a seemingly never-ending bunch. Personally, when I reflect on the term I find it carries a deep philosophical problem of existence and might in fact hold the keys to solving the puzzles of human  mind. We all live in entanglements that we have either created for ourselves or else others have woven for us.  You might call it the existential dilemma of our lives.

Talking about entanglements, there is an episode from my hostel days that comes to mind. Possibly it might help to substantiate my own quest that I am sharing with you and provide a meaning to the issues that I am trying to think of.

The time following Diwali used to be the best time of the year at hostel. Being a long vacation, most of the inmates would go away for celebrating Diwali with their family and friends. Those of us who were left back in the hostel during the vacation had the entire hostel to ourselves and additionally the charm of an early winter and quieter Diwali. We lighted Deeyas in our own rooms and bought gifts or ate out.

During one of those diwali vacations, we bought a wind-chime as a gift for ‘T’s’ (let us assume that the name is just ‘t’ )room. A beautiful pink wind-chime with a lilting melody, soft silky threads connecting one rod with another, and a lovely pink glow. It would be a delight to listen to the tinkling of the chime rods in the evening by the glowing fairy bulbs. The wind-chime had suddenly got to be the eye-catcher for everyone who passed by through the open doors of her room.

I had got used to waking up in the morning, holding a tooth-brush in hand, walking sleepily into her room and playing with the wind-chime for a while before beginning the day. One morning when I walked into her room, I saw that the thin silken strings of the chime had completely got intertwined and it seemed that it would remain in that complicated lump forever. The strings being that delicate, it was tough to get out of the entanglement without damaging the chime.

I sat in her chair for around half and hour and struggled with the chime, trying my way to force open the knots, getting frantic once in a while. While I kept trying for long, slowly started losing patience, and once in fact worked my way through the strings with some harshness.

That is when ‘T’ intervened. She took away the chime from my hands and said: “Anne life’s entanglements are much more complex than the entanglement of these strings. It takes patience and perseverance if you really intend to open-up the entanglements. Some of these strings are really ‘knotty’, but opening them up is not impossible. Stop competing with time to frantically open the strings of the chime or of life — let life and the strings slowly un-knot themselves from all entanglements. Do not lose the opportunity of listening to the melody of the chimes by forcing your way to open-up the strings. You will then make it more complicated. Keep it simple — carry less baggage and walk entangle free’.

It all sounded like a pep-talk or a motivational lecture at the first go. I gave a sheepish grin and thought that I was receiving all that gyan because I meddled with her wind-chime. Later through the day, whenever I came back she was slowly un-knotting the knots  of the chime. I observed that she would go to lab as usual, have lunch/dinner, and whenever she got the time she would be working on the chime trying to remove the entanglements. In two days time, she entered my room gleefully and showed me the tinkling wind-chime and said: “See now it’s free of all entanglements! I am just putting a wooden wick on the top of the strings and that would stop the strings from colliding.”

You might say that the event was minor, doesn’t bring Himalayan changes in the world. True. But, I still draw a lot of inspiration from that insignificant event. Whenever, my own set of entanglements haunt me, I sit quietly for a  while and reiterate to myself: “if that wind-chime could open-up from absolute entanglements, so could my own life as well, someday…so, patience”.

Entanglements are not always negative. Family, friends, relationships, work — each can be an entanglement in its own way. Some of these are welcome and some are hassles. Distance from them depends on personal space requirements and your capacity to distance yourself from situations.

These pep-talks on entanglements and dis-entanglements might sound drab to those who have taken to the paths of cynicism. However, if you could, then do believe that patience is far more tough to practice than impatience, dis-entanglements are tougher than entanglements, and to forgive is tougher than to keep hating. It shows the breadth of your capacity to dis-entangle.

Take care! Share your entanglements if any and correct me if I am interpreting the term in ways different than how it should be ….

Leaving you this evening with a thought from Anne Frank:

I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery and death… I think… peace and tranquillity will return again.

‘Perhaps Love’

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“If I should live forever
And all my dreams come true
My memories of love will be of you ” — “Perhaps Love, John Denver”

This is Anne’s 100th article on Iris! 🙂

As we reach the benchmark of hundred articles, I had promised myself that the 100th article should be on ‘love’.  What else other than love can keep people and thoughts going? Recently, one of my students met me and was narrating the story of a close relative who is in hospital on life support systems. She was telling me that the only things that the patient responds to are  old pictures of their family and children. These pictures bring tears and smiles into the eyes of the patient — perhaps love drives the breaths into their own tiny cycles.

We call love a ‘feel good factor’ these days — a side preoccupation in an ultra-busy professional life. But, stories aren’t complete without a love story — however minor they might appear to be.

A group of my readers have written and asked me personally questions that whether I have ever loved anyone? My answer has been: “I would not be writing unless I was in love”. We love something or the other and someone or the other loves us, which keeps us going with work and life. It may be work, it may be a person, or it may be simply a family.

Today I was reading Barack Obama’s statement on a social networking site:

“I’m inspired by my own children, how full they make my heart. They make me want to work to make the world a little bit better. And they make me want to be a better man.”—President Obama.

People — in the form of parents, spouses, friends, children, or siblings — are the purpose of life and work. Work is a way of living, while love is the way of life.  We love ourselves as much as we love people and things, and that perhaps is our greatest strength and deepest weakness.

Here is a love story from the many stories that occur in our lives. Your choice it is, to call the story a fiction or a slice of life….

She (just one face among many faces, so we shall call her ‘she’) and he (nameless) . They are two ‘lost’ souls who are wedded to work and books. They had not seen each other, not spoken to each other, not registered each other, even though they worked in the same premise.

They had enough of their own shares of heart-breaks, student day stories, and one-sided love stories to keep them preoccupied in their own lives and work-zones.

She was going through tumultuous changes in her life and work, such that nothing in the world could draw her attention except work, and work related stories. She would come back tired every evening, cook a bit for herself, walk out with her lappy to the balcony, look at the dark star-studded skies,  give a smile to the dark emptiness and sigh deeply. Was that an emptiness or the feel of people whom she somehow lost on her way — not sure.

In fact, her professional commitments were so high that in personal circles and among friends many people perceived her as ‘plastic’ and non-reliable — committed only to her ambitions. He was more of an alien in his own land — friends, people whom he knew were now a part of a long lost dream and an alien land. His had more of a workaholic life, added to a whole lot of social and humanitarian responsibilities.

Months passed and years slipped away, the monotony of every day life was something that she had come to love. If there was an emptiness, that emptiness was extremely dear because of the amount of ‘thinking time’ she got.

Then, one day suddenly she got a friend request from He and an offline message: “How do you feel when you go back to campus after leaving IIT? The Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets feeling — I feel, I might cry at any moment — recorded today at Kharagpur”.  She was taken aback. Who is this person and why a friend request on her mail id? She figured out soon that it was a peer. She remembered seeing him once during a wedding party of common friends and being the target of friends’ jokes because coincidentally both had landed up in the reception wearing the same outfits — jeans and black shirts.

She accepted the request and forgot about him. He came back next time online and this time he asked her: “did you get who I was from my mail id?” She said “yes, it was obvious…”. He was in Kharagpur, his alma-mater and they shared emotions that were perhaps shared by campus dwellers across all IITs. For two days he wrote to her every thing related to his travel back to campus, his visit to his old hostels, meeting canteen people, having Tinku, guest-house renovations and so on. For she, IIT campus was a weakness — a love that remained in the form of nostalgia — and he was reliving everything that she had herself felt. Who was he? What was his antecedent — she did not care. All that mattered to her was that he was narrating the exact emotions that she had ever felt for her campus and her life, of course with some amount of dry humour. There was of course more about him that she wondered about — his commitment to social causes, his humour, and his love for literature in Hindi language.

Two evenings had passed. The monotony of she’s life had already broken — no going out to balcony and no sighing away at the dark emptiness. On the third evening, before returning from office she met a friend over coffee. Suddenly the friend came up with a statement; “She you should now think of settling in personal life. Do not take life as a fairy-tale where someday a Prince Charming would come and sweep you off your feet. We love our parents — at least do things for their sake.” She decided to get serious — returned back home and said a ‘yes’ to a proposal sent by parents since a long time.

Late that night she came online to check her mails. He wrote to her: “I have been waiting for you. Got to tell you something. I think I like you…. It is perhaps love….”

The adventure of ‘perhaps love’ had just begun….This was a prelude to what might or might not have been a love story….

I leave the rest for you to imagine and construct your own stories….Angles, triangles, fights, makes-breaks, happily ever-after,….with the realization — that “perhaps it is love”…

Good night and take care!

Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.
-Mother Teresa

Perform or Perish

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Let me share some of my insecurities today on Iris. I am not sure if many of you feel the same that I am feeling.

Apparently, world economy has slowed down in its growth, the value of money is lesser than ever, there is a relentless competition at all levels (corporate and higher education) for creating grounds for survival rather than co-existing as equal survivors. I am intrigued by this level of competition and the constant need to “prove” yourself in the market. Recently, I visited Mumbai and met some old friends and juniors. All that I am able to recollect from my past discussions and interaction is the stupendous insecurity and the constant need to say that “I am better than such..such…such…” and that “I achieved”. It’s not that these thoughts, these competitive vibes do not touch me. Let me confess, these vibes are sometimes deeply disturbing — they create a pressure to perform or perish into anonymity.

This “perform or perish” business is deeply ingrained in the human mind. When Mr. Rajesh Khanna (the proclaimed first super-star of India) died recently, a whole bunch of news articles and stories proliferated on his life, achievements, and his times. I was reading Shormistha Panja’s article on her blog on IBN Live about the rise and fall of Mr. Khanna as the superstar. What struck me was her title itself: “Catch a Falling Star”. Stars shine bright on the firmament and then move into pitch-dark falls from the skies of their popularity.

Celebrities and super-stars, constantly need to prove their mettle to the world and out-do what they have already achieved/ are achieving. If you have observed the pulp news-papers and Page-3 glorification of a certain young star/ sportsperson, proclaiming her/ him as the “next big thing” of the country, you must have observed that there also follows a sharp decline in their performance after these proclamations. My study is that these declines are a result of overwhelming psychological and social pressures to “outdo” their own past performances. Mr. Khanna is perhaps a classic example of the fall of such an angel who became the victim of his own performance and his own competitive abilities. The tribute article by Mr. Amitabh Bachhan, the man who is thought to be instrumental in the fall of this “angel” by popular mediums, clearly spells out some of the insecurities that stars go through when they are competing with each other and with themselves. Prof. Panja also writes that it  was the release of “Zanjeer” that spelt the downfall of Rajesh Khanna.

Some actors are proclaimed as super-stars based on their first movie by media and the public. After that one performance they are so deeply entrenched in that character, that it becomes difficult for them to sustain anything new coming their way and re-invent themselves.

I have been citing celebrities in the context of this article because our own lives sometimes reflect theirs. As human beings we tend to show certain kinds of traits, patterns of behaviour that are similar. These behavioral patterns create insecurities in ourselves as well as in others — fair enough, as long as  these insecurities do not disturb your own and someone else’ equanimity.

Performance indexes in education are inflexible and judgmental.  We judge people by the pages of papers or presentations (many of these might be sub-standard) that they produce. In my opinion, some of the solution to education policies and necessity for reducing the “perform-perish” equation may be based on the returns that we give to society in terms of thoughts, ideas, service work, creativity, etc. Idealistic it might sound, but it is not impossible. My reference goes to some intellectual persecutions happening at Kolkata during the current regime in the name of anti-government campaigns. India needs its own model of assessing performances rather than relying on borrowed indexes. What these models are, the think-tanks need to figure out for themselves….

Who determines individual success quotients? I am not very sure — might be subjective. For some success might mean ample bank balance, for some it may mean a great house and family, for some it might refer to promotion etc., while for many others success is determined by the fact that you managed to survive one more day on earth without going hungry or dying on the streets. For such people performance is determined by the daily wages they earn and perishing refers to the day they go without work….

 

Life Bytes

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We are so often intoxicated with work, life, and our own success index that our observation of multiple sides of the coin starts fading in some way or the other.  These short-lived success indexes might someday lead to the failure of our satisfaction index.  We are generally in love with a set of ideals and ideologies rather than the practical sides of life. Why am I getting into generalized observations and universal musings? Not sure — just felt like sharing bits of my thoughts with you.

Be it love or marriage, a dream job, a dream house — we know that things and moments lose their sheen, what perhaps remain with you are people and possibilities.   One of my seniors had once advised me that recycle your anger for the benefit of the society, because what remains is neither anger nor the moments of outburst, but only people and good/bad memories of it.

Cut to the present, let me share an episode that I witnessed at the airport during my travel back home these summers. The hop between two flights was nearly four hours. My luggage was already checked-in for the entire flying time and I had only a laptop bag on my shoulders and ample time in hand to observe people and events . Whenever I get the interlude time to ‘do nothing’ am extremely grateful to my stars, because that gives me an opportunity to think, feel, and record my observations. Anyway, after whiling away sometime at the airport book wheeler and window shopping at the gadget shop (being a gadget freak), I decided to settle down at the lounge with a plate of steaming hot idlis. About ten minutes later, a gentleman came and sat next to me, shouting at  top decibel on someone over phone. For the next ten minutes he angrily voiced his opinions at perhaps an employee/wife. My own tolerance capacity is limited to a few minutes in such situations and being angry by nature these moments challenge my response-time.  I picked up my bag and  moved away from the place.

Now, the seat I found next was closer to a spa. I was super-happy,  had something new to observe. I am not aware of things that happen in a spa. The place seemed to only cater to foot care and head massage. The spa was an open counter and I decided to observe and get some beauty tips myself :). A number of men and women queued around near the reception, waiting for their turn for a massage. Nothing unusual. I noticed that the staff members were all wearing uniforms and greeting people with a smile. However, what really struck me was that they were all wearing dark glasses (black goggles) along with the uniform. I thought that there is perhaps some special technique that they use, which would require them to wear these dark glasses. Some term like ‘reflexology’ was written on the entrance to the spa. My curiosity was ignited.

I got up and went near the reception for an inquiry into the treatments and the price range. The price range is Rs.1600-1700 for 20-25 minutes of the treatment. I lingered around the place for a while to find out the secret behind the dark glasses.

Found out that all the members of the staff except the receptionist were blind! Yes, they were serving people without being able to see their customers! Each employee would be lead by hand to the customer that he/she is to take charge of.

I was shocked! What an irony! The visually challenged enhance the beauty of people who ‘can see’? The reception informed me that a logic for only employing ‘blind’ crew in the spa is that visually challenged have a more sensitive perception of people’s nerves and reflexes — thus ‘reflexology’. But, how much do they earn for their services? I didn’t get a clear answer — not more than 7000 in my estimate. I bought a treatment just to be able to ask a few more questions to one of the crew about their lives in the spa. However, they just refuse to talk when they are serving! The only information that I could elicit was that they stay in the chawls close to the airport. Houses in Mumbai are expensive.

I came out of the spa a bit more confused. Am not sure if capitalism helps or hinders an individual’s growth records. One part of me was thanking the spa for helping these people to lead a “normal” life and the other part of me was saying that “the seeing exploit the sightless”. I am not sure if I got an answer to the pros and cons of my observation — but of course the time I got ‘doing nothing’ helped me ‘see’ something that I would have otherwise let go — unseen.

Was  reminded of Hellen Keller’s short-story “The Seeing See Little” as I came out of the spa. Read it if you get an opportunity and see if we can really see with our sight and do we have the time to really ‘see’ things beyond their surface reflections.

 At times my heart cries out with longing to see all these things. If I can get so much pleasure from mere touch, how much more beauty must be revealed by sight. Yet, those who have eyes apparently see little. The panorama of color and action which fills the world is taken for granted. It is human, perhaps, to appreciate little that which we have and to long for that which we have not, but it is a great pity that in the world of light the gift of sight is used only as a mere convenience rather than as a means of adding fullness to life. — “Three Days to See” by Helen Keller

On Debating Clubs

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“Aisi baani boliye, man ka aapa khoye

Auran ko sheetal kare, aap hu sheetal hoye” — Kabir Doha

(Rough transl: Speak words that touch the chords of the heart. Words that reach out to calm the hearts of others while calming your own soul) 

Those of us who were born in the early 80s or prior to that must have known the era of debates and the existence of debating clubs, coffee houses, and public lecture halls. This was the era before we went thoroughly virtual living nosier lives on social networking sites than in real-time.  Debating clubs were a rage in universities. A university gained fame by its debating champs — some of whom went ahead to define the political and legal landscape of the country. In fact, the university systems and their strengths were sometimes defined by the debating groups existing within their premises.  Look at the history of Patna University, Allahabad University, Benaras Hindu University, Delhi University, etc. and you will understand what am I trying to indicate. Oxford University still hosts one of the best annual debates in its campus as per the traditional debating club style.

How far do these clubs go back in time? In my assessment to the times when Nalanda and Takshasila were the ruling universities. This assessment comes from a cursory analysis of Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s popular series Chanakya which was telecasted back in early 90s. There is an episode when Vishnugupt Chanakya speaks at Kaikayaraj about the ideal teachers and their role in nation building. That speech qualifies as an excellent example of flash-extempore.

There is another episode where Chanakya debates with the 16 regional Janapada kings , including the king of Magadha; Dhanand for a united action against Alexander. In my opinion, those debates confirm to the high standards of debating ethics that scholarship can ever produce.

The best forms of debate have been a part of university systems and consequently parliamentary systems. Some of the State Governments have former debating champions of the state universities as their helmsmen/women. There are a few points which I remember from my grandfather and my school teacher’s tips on how to be good debator. Actually, these ‘hows’ are very subjective and defined by individual attitudes and disposition. I do not exactly remember, who said which point to me but I am re-framing those tips in my own words and in ways that I can think of. These tips I now share as a mixed bag with you all. They had come to me when I was only 9-10 years old:

1. Respect your opponents and their thoughts and points.

2. Make a blue-print of your battle strategy before you actually fight it.

3. Listen, and listen carefully if you want to win —  you get your trump card from your opponent.

4. Speak with substance not just with passion.

5. Never lose your grounds or change your ideologies just because you are losing the championship.

6. Speak from your soul not from your mind — mind is only an equipment of the soul. People usually see through your intentions.

7. Be silent for 15-30 secs before you start speaking — that gives you strength to handle your thoughts.

8. Be coherent rather than intellectual.

9. Think of the usefulness of your arguments — do not argue just for the sake of an argument.

10. Be courteous, dignified, and make a statement with your actions not just with verbose.

I am aware that English teachers will pick these points up from Iris and freely talk to their students as if these points are their original statements.  Well, that is the reason why I am sharing these trade-secrets on Iris.

There are some very interesting movie clips that I recollect where musical debates between the boy and girl lead to a new love story. Remember Sachin and Ranjeeta’s famous debate song based on Kabir’s Dohas in Ankhiyon ke Jharokhon Se? Whenever I listen to that song it gives me a high — education and pedagogy seemed to be determined by the quest for knowledge rather than the quest for hefty pay-packets:

Traveling across the continent, British debates are known for their humour, wit and sharp repartee. Citing an instance, there is a joke of a repartee between the famous parliamentarians William Gladstone and Disraeli during one of the British parliament debates.  Attacking Disraeli, Gladstone had remarked “the honorable gentleman will either end on the gallows or die of some loathsome disease”. Disraeli replied immediately during his turn in the debate, “That depends on whether I embrace the honorable gentleman’s principles or his mistresses” .

On the whole debates, debating clubs, are the mark of a country’s and an academia’s intellectual capital. In India somehow traditional university systems have lost their debating sheen and IITs do not seem to have encouraged their debating champs as much as they should have. As a PG student, I used to enjoy watching the annual debating championships in the university. Never dared to participate at the PG level because I knew the limitations of my verbal capacities. There are no inter-IIT debating championships and neither are intra-IIT debating groups that remarkable in establishing their presence.  I envision that someday inter-university National debating championships would be held so that we witness history being rewritten.

Perhaps, this is an utopia…but I am not pessimistic about the reality of this utopia.  On that note let me make a cuppa hot-ginger tea….For my readers who are dissapointed about my not writing on love stories — will be back soon with a love story as my 100th article.

Goodnight! Take care of yourselves and do debate with your ideas and ideologies 🙂 ….

Animal Sacrifice: Dead Customs or Gory Reality?

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Do you remember the age-old tradition of ‘bali’ — balipratha?  Animal sacrifices seem to have gone under the carpet in India. We have either stopped thinking of them or else we think of them as rituals of the past. Animal sacrifice in Hindu rituals have a common thread with the worship of the forms of Shakti, the feminine divine force.

Why am I narrating this old dead custom of animal sacrifices on Iris? That is because when we think that some customs and traditions have gone dead, it is either our own blind acceptance of everything that is modernized or else we have not seen the realities of life that exist ‘beyond’ our immediate context.

I am recounting this story from an event that happened this summer during my vacation in the depths of Odisha. I was into the forests of Koraput (one of my favourite destinations — there are other articles on Koraput on this blog) traveling through the deeps of Kolab, Macchkund, etc. There is a Devi temple very close to the industrial location of  NALCO. It’s an ancient temple — centuries old. One morning I just walked across the road to have a look into the temple. It was a Tuesday.

Usually that early in the morning there are not many people in these temples. However, the number was sizeably large that morning. I saw people — not tribals, but perfectly educated people from well-to-do families (perhaps employees of these industrial localities) standing in a group and waiting clustered around the deity, chanting something, perhaps a sloka or perhaps a rhyme. In the meanwhile, a lady and her husband walked-in and a person followed-in with a living hen. The hen was placed near the deity and marked with red vermilion, people raised the voice of their chants, and slowly moved closer to the deity. It was squeaking helplessly — the eyes spoke of fear and pain. I could not believe my eyes! Could anticipate the magnitude of the event that was waiting to happen. Thought I was living in the 21st century in an ultra-modernized India. I did push my way through the crowd in order to stop the event from happening, but someone from my family held my hand and stopped me from moving forward, saying that “people will get crazy if you stop them right now. These are rituals — do not fight against them”.

In no time the hen was taken right out of the temple by a man (perhaps a temple employee) and before everyone’s eyes was killed with one stroke. Pools of blood gushed out and coloured the premises with a deep maroon. People cried out the name of Devi with an even greater fervour. I ran out of the temple and vomited. Could not think of the event — tears streamed down my eyes. My mother tried to explain the event to me saying that it is an age old custom of the temple and people usually promise the deity with an animal sacrifice if their wishes come true. I felt desperate! An innocent animal is sacrificed to fulfill one human dream and wish in the stream of many-many such dreams and wishes.

I am not against non-vegetarianism per say — that is the choice of someone’s food habit. However, sacrificing an innocent creature at the altar of your purely ulterior motives — is that the correct version of spiritualism and worship? What I found even more ironical is that human beings sacrifice an animal at the altar of the deity whom they name “Mother goddess — Mother of the Creation”. Which mother wants the flesh of her child? I am yet to figure out the configurations….

On the bazaars

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1638. — “We came into a Bussar, or very faire Market place.” — W. Bruton, in Hakl. v. 50.

(source: Hobson-Jobson)

There is something incurably romantic about the bazaars within the depths of the cities of India. The term bazaar has been naturalized in the English diction for many centuries now. In fact, if you look at the various usages of the term in dictionaries, a whole new range of meanings connected with human culture and human habitat emerge.

Why am I writing this post on bazaars, such a commonplace habitat of the human world? I really don’t know — just felt the internal urge to connect with you all through some mad trope that attracts me. I have been thinking of a metaphorical connection with the world as a market-place where sometimes we shop things, emotions, moments, and people for real, while at other times we just go window-shopping coming back home empty-handed.

Visually, (taking the V.S.Naipaul kind of description in his India Trilogy) these streets in the bazaars of India are full of dirt, stench, betel-spittle, crowd and smoke.  These gullies appear like breathing, yawning, salivating human-beings who survive in what the rich and the famous would call ‘mediocrity’.  The bazaars (sometimes called haat) are the hubs of cheaper, affordable, and sustainable products. Yet, they are the most living and throbbing places in India.

A brief anecdote, as  Undergraduate students we used to have one day in every six months for ‘hostel duty’ where we were supposed to accompany the caretaker to the daily-haat in Bhubaneswar (famously known as 1 Number Haat). Those days, I dreaded the thought of even going to the haat to buy vegetables and groceries for the entire hostel. The heat, dust, and sweat of these market-places drove me crazy and even if it was 8 o clock of a winter evening, I would come back and take a thorough shower. Looking back into those times, I regret missing many chances of understanding the beauty of the daily market place, perhaps due to my ‘elite’ sentiments. I am not sure if personally I have overcome this distance from the daily markets, but have definitely become more perceptive towards the aesthetic charm of these markets.

The bazaars in India appear to reflect the avarice which is an integral part of human personality but which we human beings continuously try to push into the unconscious or perhaps pretend that it is not there in our personalities.  They reflect the hunger for ‘more’ kind of a sentiment. You can try visiting the markets and feel the need for buying what is completely, purely needless.

To be a nature-lover, searching for pockets that are ‘far from the madding crowd’, silent, and calm have been the passion of many. However, of late I have been observing the joy of the street-side, the openness of the markets, the secret sense of independence that you get when you are bargaining and arguing for  small, insignificant ‘nothings’ and then the pride of grabbing what you might think to be impossible in the scheme of your shopping. The madness of the crowd and the noise of the market-place often make the toughest person crack into anarchy, and also might drive the strictest ascetic to insanity. Try venturing out into the heart of old cities: Hyderabad, Mumbai (Dadar area, Hindmata Market), old Bhubaneswar, Ahmedabad, etc. during the day in the peak summers. You will understand what am I trying to talk of — no less than any adventure sport. However, a word of caution — do carry your water bottles if you try something of the kind.

There is an air of austerity, a moment of  ‘sacredness’ about shopping in the malls which are ‘cleaner’, ‘hygienic’ and  ‘sophisticated’ means of realizing your need for buying things (many of which you perhaps hardly need during this life time). Bazaars on the other hand are a carnival of absolute absurdity — raw, ‘brainless’ and completely ‘anarchic’. You have to shout and argue to finalize your deal here while in a shopping complex or in a mall, there is no question of any bargain. I have been thinking of the movie Confessions of a Shopaholic where brands and ‘smooth shopping’ lead to the debacle of a young shopaholic.  Find that there is something ‘profane’ in the absolute sacredness of the malls. The profanity of the bazaars on the other hand is open, unrestrained, and taboo-less.

The language of the market places are different in India. The vernaculars and dialects rule Indian bazaars. Each bazaar in every state of India is unique and different from the other bazaar — yet there are some common threads. Possibly, this is the only place where one would find communal harmony. Interestingly, here we would see a Muslim selling mithais to a Hindu, or a Sindhi selling textiles to a Bengali. I am often amazed by the kind of ‘harmony’ that economic interdependence could bring among people. One might argue that this harmony observed in bazaars is ‘cosmetic’ and one tiny spark in terms of communal differences could lead to a massive riot killing many.

I had once read an interesting take by Amitav Ghosh in one of his novels about the predicament  small shops in the market places of communally troubled zones. There is a moment in The Shadow Lines where Ghosh describes the Khulna riots and the Dhaka turbulence. This moment reflects the menacing calmness of the bazaars before a riot breaks out. In the novel that moment leads to the death of an ailing, poor old man.  No denying that market places are the breeding grounds of communal tension, yet these are also the places where communities survive without strife, based on peaceful coexistence.

Bazaar is also a term that has perhaps some of the most ambiguous and controversial implications. In Bollywood movies, the term bazaar is used to signify the red-light areas of cities where human trafficking, and flesh-trade is practiced within the heart of ‘ethical’ grounds of orthodox social structures. There is a 1982 movie which comes to mind with Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Supriya Pathak, and Farooq Sheikh in lead. The movie is itself called Bazaar and it reflects the absolute ‘stubborn’, unchangeable structures of Indian societywhich is more inhuman rather than anything else.

Bazaar_1982_film_poster

Bazaar_1982_film_poster_Courtesy: Wiki-images

The purpose of my thought in this article has been to highlight some of the uncommon aspects of a perfectly common arena like a market-place. Bazaars are colourful and vibrant in India. Yet, they are also places which have a silent menace, a hidden notoriety either in the form of eve-teasing, or else in the form of communal upheavals, or prostitution. But is not life designed the same ways: a combination of black, red, white, and grey shades?

Think about it and share your marketplace experiences 🙂 ….

Goodmorning and do take care of yourselves until we meet again sometime in the timeline….

Unbranding and Rebranding: IITs from the Drawing Rooms

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A new season of IIT aspirants, a new bunch of wide-eyed, anxious parents, a new set of questions regarding the credibility of “IITs” as a system, a new range of doubts about pay-packets and lack of student interest….Somehow, we do not tire of talking, writing or thinking about IITs.

At least I do not….I will not give facts and figures in this article, will just debate the gossips from the grape-vines of academia. It’s been a three month long break from Iris. Have missed connecting with you all over this long hiatus.  Someday if time and space permit me and if I am really able to narrate, will narrate the stories of the past three months.

All through my life, I have been a rather boring talker and more of a curious listener who picks-up bits and pieces of drawing room conversations and sometimes weaves stories of them. There are no doubt a lot of valid points in these drawing room chats — some of which are meant as harmless gossips to be heard and forgotten. These drawing-room conversations are not always baseless — they are symptomatic of deeper issues that people would perhaps not discuss in a formal setup.

As someone who has been on both sides of the table: as a student and immediately after graduation as a faculty in the IIT system (believe me it hasn’t been any easy :)), mostly I am in a state of confusion when writing “objectively” about a mega-system like an IIT. Let me confess my own subjective biases for the system even before I start writing. This article is a refusal to defend — but I would like to present my own picture of the glossy and not-so-glossy side of this system as I have experienced it as a student and then as a faculty.

Recently, in one of the drawing-room conversations, a friend pointed-out that IITs are “not” the best in education and that “these  engineers” are lop-sided and often “superficial” in their views and overhyped. They are not aware of social, and cultural issues, and it’s only the money that keeps them glued to whatever they are doing.  Additionally, there is the lack of “sheen”  in IITs. There is a dip in the pay-packets and students are unnecessarily pressurized from school days to get into the IITs by parents. Further, there is a lack of interest in students to read and learn — the pressure of “making” into an IIT is so high, that the post-burden of courses and education weigh high upon them.

There are no doubt some valid aspects of these points.  However, I have a strong disagreement with some of these points. Especially, when people in responsible positions including bureaucrats talk about these issues without giving the psychological dimensions a thought, it portrays a sad picture of the story.

I did not bring myself to argue in the drawing room scenario deliberately, but was making mental notes of these points so that will be able to discuss them on Iris. These points  might be also doubts that come into the minds of a bulk of our population.

The first aspect that comes to mind is the young age that students start preparing for IIT-JEEs. Perhaps, class 8th or 9th and for some it is class 6th or 7th. We come across this issue of parents forcing their children to make into IITs and after that being extra-possessive about their daughters/sons when they graduate.  While there is a lot of truth in these statements,  let us not forget that IITs are perhaps singularly the only system that have catered to the dreams of an average “middle-class” or “lower-middle class” Indian family to give a high-end education to their children.  Some of their children graduate to be the who’s who of Silicon Valley while some get into graduate studies at the best places of the world, including the majority of Ivy league colleges. The amount that a young IIT graduate earns at the age of 24-25 (including those with the least pay-packets) has been beyond the dream of some of their entire family’s income collectively put together. The gap of pressure and performance in IITs do not in my opinion come from parents only, it comes from the gaps in the economic standards of two generations. Moreover, the lack of public awareness for education, the complete ignoring of some of the promising pedagogic disciplines that have gone into disuse over time, and the lack of interest in alternative learning systems account for this excessive obsession that Indian population has for IIT admissions.

What is the average pay-packet of IITians? In our conversation people discussed the “low” pay-packets and the dipping placement scenario. I would say — that is pure fiction.  Those of us who have been through the grind and who have witnessed the  depressing placement seasons at IITs (I mean depressing because friends suddenly turn competitors during these seasons) are made to realize time and  again the value of money. IITs have been a few among institutions that have survived the onslaught of  recession. The average monthly income of an individual in India is Rs. 3000 (Courtesy: Express India). While in older IITs people crib about a 22 lakh package as “less than” their friend’s 29-30 lakh package, in the new IITs the scene will begin to clearly emerge after two or three batches start moving out and the alumni base starts strengthening itself with the pool. In an article in the “Economic Times” of December 2011, the highest gross package of an IITian in 2011 placements have been accounted as 75 lakhs (< http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-12-03/news/30471827_1_iit-campuses-final-placement-n-ramesh-babu&gt;) . I am quoting money and placements here because perhaps that is something that immediately strikes an average thought.

It would also depend on how the young breed of faculty define a clear goal for their own IITs and steer the institutes along those directions. As far as my study goes, in the older IITs like Bombay, Kanpur, Kharagpur, Madras and Delhi, the first generation faculty members had a clear defined goal set for their institutions: to set-up a high-end undergraduate technical education that would match the best among the international standards. That was clearly achieved over fifty years time. But now what? Where to go next? We keep talking about “research” without getting into the dynamics of teaching and research.

In the Indian scenario, there is a strong political and public apathy when an institution over-reaches itself and establishes its autonomy beyond the state unlike the United States where an institution becomes a public pride if it does great work. I am citing the example of United States because Indian academia of late has been trying to follow a lot of the “US model”. This has been the fate of many brilliant Indian universities (I am deliberately not naming them) in the past . We go by the casual “chalta-hai” attitude and our ways are more of empty critiquing than constructive suggestions to build a system. We pull down systems with empty procrastination rather than building them.

IITs are in a crucial cusp at this moment which would define their position in the long run, and instead of following models if they develop their own model of education, then perhaps the entire South-Asia would have something to talk-of in terms of an educational capital. My limited thought is a strong PhD base along with an equally strong undergraduate teaching.It is only over the last few years that people have started recognizing the economic benefits attached to a PhD degree in India.  The time when we have the brightest of our undergraduate IITians or Central University students or high-end private engineering college students joining for research at an IIT instead of opting for a university abroad, I would consider that as the beginning of a new era of success and as the process of “rebranding”. The other part would consist of public support and more of research initiatives that would be of use to India in whatever possible ways. An institution should emerge as pride for the people that it serves.

As far as the lack of emotional, social, and cultural awareness in IITians (specifically “engineers”) are concerned, I would say that perhaps some of the best known names in writing and theater at this moment are from these institutions. It’s not one institution, the common sentiment among students all over the world is a lack of an appetite for reading or for socio-cultural issues.  History says that there have been motivating teachers behind a successful student (king in the ancient times).  A Chanakya was responsible for making a Chandragupta, an Upagupta was responsible for a converted Ashoka. It is not information that creates responsible students in my opinion, it is rather your attitude towards life and academics. How we create that attitude would more or less depend on us. Moreover, let us accept that the basic training in IITs are to make “good engineers”, how we add the responsive and emotionally balanced and honest individual to that list, would depend more or less on us as friends, parents, society, and teachers.

On that note…a warm weekend wish to you all :). Ciao!