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আমাদের বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়গুলির উত্কর্ষ – পিছিয়ে থাকা নিয়ে কিছু ভাবনা

প্রতি বছর বিশ্বের কিছু নামী সংস্থা দুনিয়ার সকল বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের একটি বিশাল রেঙ্কিং তালিকা এনে উপস্থিত করেন। কোন বছরেই কোন তালিকাতেই সেখানে ভারতীয় সংঘরাষ্ট্রের কোন বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় প্রথম ২০০-র মধ্যে আসে না। সেই নিয়ে এখানকার কিছু লোক একটু চিন্তা ব্যক্ত করেন। আর কেউ কেউ বলেন ওসব রেঙ্কিং আসলে পশ্চিমা দুনিয়ার চক্রান্ত, যাতে কিনা আমাদেরকে জোর করে হারিয়ে দেওয়া হয় (তারা বেমালুম চেপে যান যে শ্রেষ্ঠ ২০০-র তালিকায় একাধিক এশীয় বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় থাকে, থাকে চীনের একাধিক বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়)। যেসব পন্ডিত মনে করেন যে সমগ্র বিশ্ব একমাত্র আমাদেরকে কোণঠাসা করার জন্য এই শ্রেষ্ঠত্বের তালিকা থেকে আমাদেরগুলিকে বাদ দ্যান, তাদের জানা উচিত, এই ধরণের বিশ্ব-ষড়যন্ত্র মার্কা ধারণা গভীর মানসিক অসুস্থতার লক্ষণ। অনেক ক্ষেত্রে কিছু রাজনৈতিক ধারা বা ধর্মীয় ধারা এমন ভাবে নিজেদের সকল বিশ্বের ষড়যন্ত্রের স্বীকার বলে প্রচার চালায়। এই সব সেয়ানা কারবারীদের চেনা প্রয়োজন। এরা কেউ অসুস্থ নয় – ষড়যন্ত্রের শাঁক দিয়ে নিজেদের ভেতরের পচনের মাছ ঢাকার একটা নিষ্ফলা চেষ্টা করেন এরা। এর ফলে বন্গায়ে শিয়াল রাজা হয়ে অন্যান্য রদ্দি শেয়ালদের থেকে বাহবা পাওয়া যায়, কিন্তু বিশ্ব-দরবারের বেঞ্চিতে এক ইঞ্চি জায়গা-ও জোটে না।

এই ধরা যাক বিশ্বের শ্রেষ্ঠ ৫০-টা  বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় – সেগুলির কিছু বৈশিষ্টের দিকে একটু মন দিয়ে দেখি। তারপর নিজেদের সাথে তুলনা করি। আপাতত টাইমস হায়ার এডুকেশন রেন্কিং মেনে চলি, যদিও কিউ.এস এবং এ.আর.ডাব্লু.ইউ, এই দুটিও যথেষ্ট খ্যাতনামা। আমাদের সঙ্গে সবচেয়ে বড় একটা তফাত হলো যে এই শ্রেষ্ঠতম বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়গুলির স্নাতক স্তরের কোর্সগুলো মূলতঃ হয় সেই দেশের প্রচলিত মাতৃভাষায়। এবং সেই দেশে ইস্কুল্গুলির, পাঠ্যবই-এর মধ্যেও মাতৃভাষার দাপট-ই বেশি – এটা কোরিয়ান, ম্যান্ডারিন চৈনিক, সুইডিশ, ইংরেজি, জাপানি, জার্মান, অর্থাত যে সব দেশের মাতৃভাষার দেশের বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের নাম শ্রেষ্ঠ ৫০-এর তালিকায় আছে, এই সকল ভাষার ক্ষেত্রেই সত্যি। আমাদের এই বাংলাদেশে তথা দিল্লি-তে অনেক পন্ডিত বলেন যে মাতৃভাষায় ব উচ্চ-শিক্ষা হলে সমাজ পিছিয়ে পড়বে। তথাকথিত এক আন্তর্জাতিক পরিসরের দোহাই দিয়ে বলা হয় এইসব। তথ্য থেকে এটা পরিষ্কার যে মাতৃভাষা-হীন উচ্চ-শিক্ষা দিয়ে ইংরেজি-ভাষা প্রচলিত দেশের জন্য প্রযুক্তি-ব্যবসার ঝাঁকা-মুটে  বা মূলতঃ শ্বেতাঙ্গ বাচ্চাদের আমদানি করা ‘বৈচিত্রময়’ অধ্যাপক হওয়া সম্ভব, কিন্তু নিজ দেশের বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে মাতৃভাষাকে দুরে রেখে উত্কর্ষ তৈরী কঠিন। রাজনৈতিক নেতারা যতই ‘সেন্টার ও এক্সেলেন্স’ লেখা শ্বেতপাথর উদ্বোধন করে জনগণ-কে ধোঁকা দিন, এক্সেলেন্স-হীনতার এই ফাঁকি এইসব রেঙ্কিং তালিকায় ধরা পড়ে যায়। এছাড়াও এর ফলে মাতৃভাষায় শিক্ষিত ইস্কুলের গন্ডি পেরুনো যে শিক্ষার্থী-সমাজ, যারা কিনা ছাত্র-ছাত্রীদের মধ্যে ব্যাপকভাবে সংখ্যাগরিষ্ঠ, তাদেরকে অবহেলা করে, প্রান্তিক করে দিয়ে, হীনমন্যতায় ভুগিয়ে তাদের মেধা সম্পদ নষ্ট করা হয়। এই সম্পদ থেকে বঞ্চিত হয় দেশ ও জাতি।  অবশ্যই এর পিছনে রয়েছে আমার মতো ইংরেজিতে পরা ভদ্রলোকের বাচ্চার কায়েমী স্বার্থ। এই মাতৃভাষায় শিক্ষিত সমাজকে প্রান্তিক করে রাখা নিয়ে রেঙ্কিং হলে ভারতের বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়-গুলি যে বিশ্বে প্রথম ৫০-টি স্থান অধিকার করবে, এ নিয়ে আমার সন্দেহ নেই। তবে নিজেদের কায়েমী স্বার্থকে কি করে সর্বসাধারণের স্বার্থ হিসেবে দেখিয়ে ক্ষমতা ও প্রাধান্য ধরে রাখতে হয়, তার ইন্টেলেকচুয়াল ট্রেনিং দিতে আমরা ওস্তাদ।  পশ্চিমবঙ্গে অধ্যাপকের চাকরি লোভনীয়। নানা দেশের অধ্যাপকের মাস মাইনের সঠিক তুলনা (অর্থাৎ সেই পরিমাণ অর্থের সেই দেশে ক্রয়ক্ষমতা – যাকে বলে পারচেসিং পাওয়ার) করলে দেখা যায় যে এদেশের অধ্যাপকেরা গড়ে মার্কিন যুক্তরাষ্ট্র, জার্মানী, ফ্রান্স, জাপান প্রভৃতি দেশের অধ্যাপকদের থেকে বেশি ক্রয়ক্ষমতার অধিকারী। আমাদের পিছিয়ে থাকাটা টাকাকড়ির কারণে না।

কি কি দেখা হয়েছে এই সব রেন্কিং-এ ? রয়েছে গবেষনার খ্যাতি ও পরিমাণ, শিক্ষা-দানের খ্যাতি, তবে সবচেয়ে বেশি জোর দেওয়া হয়েছে ‘সাইটেশন ইম্পেক্ট’-এ।  অর্থাৎ এই যে জনগণের টাকা নিয়ে বিদ্যাচর্চা ও গবেষণার আয়োজন, তাতে যা পয়দা হচ্ছে, তা কি জ্ঞান-বিজ্ঞানের বিশ্বে অন্যদের নজরে আসছে, তারা কি সেগুলির কথা বলছেন, নিজেদের কাছে ব্যবহার করছেন ? আমাদের বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়গুলি মূলতঃ জ্ঞান দেবার জায়গা, নতুন জ্ঞান তৈরী অধিকাংশ ক্ষেত্রেই গৌণ। এর ফল খুব সহজ। আমরা এখুনো  হা-পিত্যেশ করে বসে থাকি সাহেব-মেম-রা নতুন কি বার করলো। যেহেতু নিজেদের উঠোনে হয়না সেসব কাজ, তাই আমদানি করা জ্ঞান সিলেবাস ভুক্ত করতেও হয়ে যায় বিরাট সময়ের ব্যবধান। আর এই কারণেই চলে বিদেশের বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের ছুটি-ছাটার সময়ে দেশে আশা স্বজাতীয় পরিযায়ী পাখি অধ্যাপকদের নিয়ে একটা আদেখলাপনা। সাফল্যের মাপকাঠি হয়ে ওঠে বিদেশে কে কত নাম করলো। ফলে গবেষনার বিষয়-গুলিও মূলতঃ হয়ে যায় বিদেশের সমাজের মাথাব্যথার উপশম করার
‘আন্তর্জাতিক’ প্রকল্পে হাথ লাগানো বা শ্বেতাঙ্গ পন্ডিতকুলের আভ্যন্তরীণ বিতর্কে নাক গলিয়ে জাতে ওঠার চেষ্টা। আমাদের দুর্ভাগ্য যে এদেশের
ব্যবস্থা ঠিক এই ধরনের আচরণ-কে পুরস্কৃত করে।

অথচ এহেন গুরুদের প্রশ্নবিদ্ধ করার সংস্কৃতিকেও এখানে বেশ জোর দিয়ে ধামাচাপা দেওয়া হয়।  যেখা চিত্ত হওয়ার কথা ভয়-শূন্য, সেখানে
সামন্ত্রতান্ত্রিক গুরুবাদের ঠেলায় তৈরী হয় ত্রাসের পরিবেশ। প্রশ্ন করতে নেই, নিলে স্যার রেগে যাবেন, তারপর স্যার তার ক্ষমতা-মতো ‘দেখে
নেবেন’, তখন কে বাঁচাবে ? জ্ঞানচর্চা ও গবেষণা এমন এক জিনিস, যেখানে সব কিছুকে অনাবৃত করতে হয়।  যেখানে যুক্তির শানিত ব্যবহারে অধ্যাপক-কে কাছাখোলা করাটাই শ্রেয়, সেইসব ক্ষেত্রে গুরুর ঘরের সামনে মাথা নোয়ানোকে মনে করা হয় আদর্শ ব্যবহার। মেধার বিকাশের জন্য গুরু-ভজনা নয়, গুরু-মারা বিদ্যা আয়ত্ত করা প্রয়োজন।  এবং দরকার সেই ধরনের গুরু, যারা ছাত্রদের গুরু-মারা জ্ঞানচর্চা করতে উত্সাহিত বোধ করেন, ‘আমি জানি না’ -পরিষ্কারভাবে  এই বাক্যটি  ভাবে বলতে পারেন সকলের সামনে।  এক্সেলেন্স ফলে মানুষের মাঝে মুক্তচিন্তার অঙ্গনে, শিক্ষামন্ত্রীর বাণীতে  না, ফলকে না, অধ্যাপকের চেয়ারে রাখা তোয়ালের নিষ্ফলা ‘মর্যাদা’তেও না।

মতান্তর ও বিতর্ক হলো বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের প্রাণ। ক্ষমতার সান্নিধ্য মুক্ত-চিন্তার কাছে বিষময়। ঠিক সে কারণেই চিরকাল-ই প্রতিষ্ঠান-বিরোধী ছাত্র রাজনীতির নেতৃত্ত্বের সাথে মেধা ও উত্কর্ষের একটা সম্পর্ক থেকেছে আর ক্যাম্পাসে সরকারপন্থী ছড়ি ঘোরানোর রাজনীতি জন্ম দিয়েছে গতদিনের
প্রফেসর অনিল ও আজকের  প্রফেসর শঙ্কুদের। এই বাংলার অন্যতম ভালো বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় যাদবপুরে কাশ্মীর নিয়ে আলোচনা-সভা করতে অনুমতি দেওয়া হয়না, উপাচার্যের টুকলি-করা গবেষণা-পত্র ধরা পড়েও চাকরি থেকে সে বরখাস্ত হয় না – সসম্মানে ফিরে যায়ে পুরনো আস্তানায় – আরেক ‘উত্কর্ষ’ কেন্দ্রে, নিরাপত্তার নাম করে ছাত্র-ছাত্রীদের উপর সিসিটিভি নজরদারী চালানো হয়। যে দেশের বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ে চিন্তা ও আলোচনার বিষয়
কর্তৃপক্ষের অনুমতিসাপেক্ষ, অধ্যাপক-বেশী চোরেরা আসল অধ্যাপকদের দন্ডমুন্ডের কর্তা হয়ে বসেন, খাঁকি জামাপরা পুরুষ সরকারী কর্মীরা
সুরক্ষার নামে যুবক-যুবতীরা বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় চত্তরে কখন-কোথায়-কি করছে, তা টিভি-তে দেখার মত অশ্লীল কাজে লিপ্ত থাকে, সে দেশের কোন
বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় যে বিশ্ব-বরেণ্য তালিকায় নেই, এতে এত আশ্চর্যের কি আছে। তবুও এর মধ্যেই যাদবপুরের নয়া উপাচার্য্য সুরঞ্জন দাস যাদবপুরে
সিসিটিভি-গুলি নামিয়ে নিতে নির্দেশ দিয়েছেন।  শুরুটি ভালো। কার তাতে কি, আমরা যদি এই আকালেও স্বপ্ন দেখি।

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Bostonian accent and coconuts / Urban vision blind to the poor and their languages

[ Daily News and Analysis, 15 Apr 2014 ; The Independent (Bangladesh), 16 Apr 2014 ; Millenium Post, Apr 23 2014 ]

The greater Boston area of the United States of America has a very good public transportation system. This comprises of buses, local trains, boats and the metro rail. The Red line is one of the metro routes, stopping at Harvard and MIT, the two institutions where I have spent all of my academic-professional life outside Bengal. This means that I have taken the Red Line metro many, many times. One of the stations on the route is called Porter Square. Soon after the metro leaves a stop, there is a recorded voice which lets the passengers know what the next station is. The way that voice said ‘Porter Square’ was in what can be called a Bostonian accent. That is apt since the metro is in Boston, most users of the metro are from Boston and that is the accent they are most comfortable with.

The Unites States of America exists much beyond its territorial limits. Specks of California and Manhattan are scattered in urban centres of the southern world, including our subcontinent. Here, in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and beyond, those specks of Amerikana exist with a lot of vigour thanks to the brown-outside-white-inside coconut desis whose rootlessness attracts them to these ‘cosmopolitan’ areas. The subcontinent lives with such offsprings, proudly alienated, consciously ‘liberated’ and hip. With sentences peppered with ‘like’ and liberally spreading their ‘sh*t’,‘cr*p’ and other four-letter jewels among the rest of us, they constantly want to signify their ‘cosmopolitan’ awareness, maturity and liberation. Picking up the expressions of their own life’s many moments not from their living environment but from but from American/western popular media styles is the principal marker of these types. The problem is, it does not end there.

Given their numbers, they wouldn’t have mattered unless wielded inordinate power over policy and public life, given ‘English mediates our own social hierarchy’, as Hartosh Bal astutely puts it. They speak English in ‘cafes’ and restaurants, Hindi to their domestic helps. They prefer to live within self-created bubbles where they perform predictable ‘firangi duniya’-philia rituals with a commitment that often amuses the West. This is like the amusement of a father who has just come to know that the rape he had committed actually resulted in a child who loves him more than its mother.

Coming back to public transport. The coconuts constantly lament that brown cities are not ‘outsider’ and tourist friendly. This is rich coming from those who are voluntary outsiders in their birth-lands. They lament that the buses often have things written in ‘local’ language. The same goes for street signs, shop names and so much more. This constant reminder of brown-ness is an eyesore that they have successfully removed from their bubbles. Their all-English restaurant menus, their all English working spaces, get-togethers, poetry-readings, book-launches, debates, discussions, malls and supermarkets help them, at least in certain hours during their daily life, forget the horrid brown land whose imprint they carry, whether they like it or not. And so they complain of their spaces being ‘too vernacular’, harbor ideas of transforming the subcontinent’s urban areas into ‘world class’ – which is a code for a place where a firang would not feel lost. The fact is that in the last couple of decades, in the language of street names, public signage, private spaces and much more, the staggering majority of the people have been progressively told to ‘get lost’.

The poor and their language have been excluded for long. Now even the middle-class is under attack. In the brown subcontinent, even a telecaller now starts in default in English or Hindi, irrespective of whether it is Chennai or Mumbai. We are staring at an increasingly exclusionary urban vision which is undemocratic and downright insensitive which consciously overcounts the few and ignores the majority. At the root of this is an elite idea of citizenship, what constitutes a human being, who is counted as a person of value.

Yet, our languages live among the people on whose back breaking work everything is made, while angrejiwalas have their sausage, wine, banter and sophistication, building tapestries and ‘narratives’. If there is good in this universe or there are gods and goddesses who care about human dignity, something must give.

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Lit fests and not so well-lit fests / Not so organic fests

[ Down to Earth, 15-28 Feb 2014 ; Dhaka Tribune, 5 Apr 2014 ]

My home in Kolkata happens to be very near Kalighat. This is one of the holy Shaktipeeths (centres of divine power) that are spread across the subcontinent where different body parts of Lord Shib’s wife Mother Sati fell. For Bengali Shaktos, the Shaktipeeths, especially those in Bengal and Assam are of immense divine importance. At Kalighat, the reigning goddess is Mother Kali. In my life, I can rarely remember an auspicious occasion where a trip to Mother Kali of Kalighat was not undertaken. Kali, the dark mother holds immense sway over her mortal children.

As I grew up, I have often roamed about in the by-lanes around the temple. The temple lies on the bank of the Adi Ganga, at one time the principal flow channel of the Ganga and now a near-dead, rotting creek. This area with river-bank, shops, inhabitants, ganja-sellers and smaller temples has pulled me towards it time and again. Some of the smaller temples right on the river-bank belonged to goddesses whose names I did not know. In the pantheon of caste-Hindu Bengalis like me, there was an assumed mainstream where Mother Kali and Mother Durga had very important places. It was only by chance that I went to Kalighat once on a weekday afternoon on a chance school holiday due to rains. I was quite taken aback by the huge crowd, a few thousands strong, that had gathered around the temple. But to my astonishment, they were not there for the main temple of Mother Kali but for a very small temple of Mother Bogola. The people had a very intricate set of offerings that looked quite different from what I was used to seeing. And everyone there knew this occasion and at that moment, I was the fool in town, with my pantheon suddenly seeming irrelevant. Due to my very limited immersion in what we call in Bengali as gono-samaj (mass society can be a poor translation of the concept), a divine set had been built in my head that had entirely bypassed what was so near and what was always there. The blindness and illiteracy due to my social locus and ideologies that come with it was very badly exposed. Social alienation creates culturally illiterate beings.

Thankfully, the festivals of Southern West Bengal (where my home is broadly located) gave me many opportunities of unlearning and literacy. And they are not too hard to come by unless one is of the kind whose worlds are not defined by the physical-ecological-social reality they live in but the fantasy worlds they can afford to inhabit. I started attending the mela of Dharma Thakur, whose few sacred sites spread over the two Bengals, and have a distinct character in the kind of rice product that is offered (called hurrum) among other things. There is the 500-year old fish-fair held near the akhara of the seer Raghunath Das Goswami at Debanandapur in my ancestral district of Hooghly. The many Charaker melas that I have been too have been so enriching in its cultural produce that one wishes to be a sponge. The Gajaner mela in Tarakeswar, again in Hooghly district, goes on for 5 days and the cultural action is frenzied. The number of ‘parallel sessions’ (if one were to call the things going on there) is probably more than a thousand and there are no websites to print out the schedule. And that does not matter. The Ganga Sagar Mela is different every time. This mela, the second-largest in the Indian Union, is literally and allegorically an immersion experience. The experience is different in different times of the day, on different days of the mela and in different years. The festival around Salui Puja (worshipping the Sal tree) in Medinipur has tremendous footfall. Further west, in the adibashi areas, I once attended the Chhata Parab on Bhadra Sankranti day. In Malda, the week-long Ramkeli festival is a cultural cauldron that overflows during the summer month of Jaistha. The 2 big Ms associated with this fair is music of the Gaur-Vaishnavite tradition and mangoes that are harvested around this time. While stalls selling wares are an integral part of these festivals, each festival is different in its different parts and substantially different from each other. It is sad that I have to underline this point but I say this remembering my one-time know-all attitude towards these festivals before I had even attended them. What culture can a bunch of brown people produce left to their own devices? To know that, one has to have some humility in admitting cultural illiteracy and suspend ideas of supposed superiority of textual literacy, White man knowledge systems and the artifacts they produce. This unlearning can be harsh, especially when whole self-identities are built around wallowing on these artifacts. But there are too many brown people making too many things for too many centuries to take imported ideas of superiority seriously. One can live without being exposed to this reality and that wont cause any peril. The urbanites of the subcontinent have created a wondrous system by which they can eat rice but not know the rice-type or the growing area, get a house built but not know where the masons live. But of course they know where Indian wines are grown and the life-events of authors they have read, and other details of the lives of sundry characters of their fantasy world. The mindscape of the ‘enlightened’ can be more enlightening to the rest of us than they would want to it be.

The point of mentioning these festivals is not to create a mini catalogue but mention certain characteristics. Most of these festivals have a deep connection with the local ecology – cultural and natural. These are not American Burning Man type of fossil-fuel powered ‘creative’ fantasies (I have always failed to understand what is ‘creative’ about pursuits that require high fossil fuel burning or require pollution intensive factory made accessories). They don’t say ‘free entry’; that I mention that at all is absurd in their context. They don’t ‘say’ anything at all. They happen. They are organic, as opposed to the ‘festivals’ that are primarily thronged by the ‘fashionable’, the ‘articulate’, the ‘backpacker’, the ‘explorer’ and other curious species of the top 5% earning class of the subcontinent. Most of these festivals don’t have the kind of portable artifact quality that is so popular with the rootless, possibly best exemplified both by the Great India Mall and its location (the ‘Sector’ ‘city’ called NOIDA created by destroying many villages like Chhajarsi and Hazipur, now known by more fashionable and presentable names like Sector 63 and Sector 104). Most of them are not part of the ‘Incredible India!’ imagination and hence are largely devoid of white and brown people with cameras. Such a shabby state of affairs, however, has not prevented some of these festivals to go on for centuries, without sponsorship from ill-gotten-big-money supporters.

It was sometime in high school that I started noticing newspaper headlines such as ‘Kolkata’s young heads to the clubs’ (clubs being dancing places with rhythmic music). Many more young people regularly headed (and still do) to the East Bengal club or Mohan Bagan club grounds for football matches. But this was a different club. The idea was to create a fantasy and a false sense of feeling left out, of being in a minority, on not being ‘in’. For the already socially alienated, this pull can be magnetic – particularly because these come without pre-conditions of prior social immersion. If at all, certain kinds of fantasies and ‘enlightenments’ celebrate delinking from one’s immediate social milieu and replacing that with fantasy milieus, typically with White people’s hobbies. If the products of such indoctrination happen to arrive at the Muri Mela of Bankura (a festival where hundreds of varieties of ‘muri’ or puffed rice is produced, exhibited and sold), all they might see is more of the same. However, they do aspire to tell the difference between different red wines. Anything that requires being socially embedded in a largely non-textual cultural milieu (hence Wikipedia doesn’t come in handy), they are like fish out of water, gasping for the cultural familiarity of over-priced chain coffee stores.

It is the season of a new type of festival. Like an epidemic, big-money ‘lit’ fests have spread all over the subcontinent. The sudden-ness of the epidemic reminds me of the time when suddenly, year after year, brown women started winning ‘international’ beauty pageants. That ’arrival’ was meant to signify that browns are beautiful. The present trend probably is meant to convey that now there are enough number of moneyed browns spread all over who can nod knowingly hearing English. ‘Half of Jaipur is here at Google Mughal Tent’ – read a tweet from one of the fests. This tone sounded familiar to that time when I read that youth of my city headed to the clubs, but saw that no one around me did. May be I just belonged to an odd social sector, or may be they never counted me. But I am quite privileged otherwise. I never ever saw a headline saying youth of India head to Ganga Sagar mela on Makar Sankranti. At any rate, it is a greater statistical truth than saying youth of such and such city head to such and such ‘lit’ fest. This non-counting of many and over-counting of some is a predictable and sinister game that is played by the urbanbubbleophiles over and over again till it actually starts sounding true. The believers in such a worldview fear real numbers – the ‘odd’, the stubborn, the smelly. They would much rather ‘weigh’ according to their ‘subjectivities’. The sizeable ‘hip’ throngs within their tents are never ‘masses’; they are assemblages of aficionados. They have individual minds. They can think. They are human. The rest are better kept out until some floor mopping is required.

When real estate dacoits, construction mafias and mining goondas come together for a ‘cause’, one can well imagine the effect. The well lit fests provides a good opportunity for branding and white-washing crimes. Taking prizes from greasy hands, some authors are only too happy to oblige in that project. There they are, on the newspaper –smiling. They write ‘sensitively’, argue ‘provocatively’, and entertain ‘charmingly’. Ill-gotten prize money from the infrastructure mafia can supply powerful batteries for their headlights as they reach into the dark inner recesses of the human condition through their words. All this boils down to a few days of litting, ‘Think’ing, festing and other things that may get you in jail when done to people who have dignity and the courage to speak up.

The need to distinguish oneself from others can be rather acute in certain sectors of the subcontinental bubble urbania. What distinguishes one from the others whose ‘purposeful’ lives are peppered by sampling cultures whose social roots they are alienated from, long drives, coffee-chain hangouts, mall meetups, multiplex evenings and money-powered ‘rebelliousness’. To see oneself purely as a consumer – a seeker of market defined and mass-produced hatke (alternative for the discerning new Indian) ‘experiences’ and ‘thrills’, can be bit of a self turn-off for the brand and ego conscious yuppie. In a society where they want to define taste, no quarters should be given to others to make them appear as vacuous and crude. Hence, there is the search for ‘meaningfulness’ beyond the necessary evil of quotidian parasitism. This is best accomplished while practicing parasitism with a thin veneer of ‘meaningfulness’. Practising White people’s hobbies and engagements, with a bit of Indian elephant motif thrown in, fits the bill perfectly, at home and in the head. The well Lit fests of the rich with the ‘famous’ for the aspirational and the arrived accomplishes multiple functions at the same time. It is apparently ‘meaningful’ to be an onlooker at ill-gotten money sponsored talk-shows with only a few rows of seated brown sahibs and mems separating the top 5% income audience from the gods discussing the intricacies of brown and paler experiences. This ‘refinement’ is so much more substantive than double-refined mustard oil. And then there is the extra benefit of the Question and Answer – that which gives a feeling of participation and contribution, even accomplishment and ‘production’. That should give enough warmth, inject enough meaning and experiential richness to last through a cosmopolitan, urban winter after the show is over. And if any heat was lacking, such festivals and the spotlight it brings on the ‘winners’ and other such losers gives them an opportunity to impress those who hold such characters in awe and worship them. This gives these heroes a perfect pretext and opportunity to sample some fresh, young, fan ‘meat’. Some famous winning authors frequenting these spaces are equally famous for drug binges, for serial hunting of fans half their age, with some of these hapless young ones dying early deaths. Such ‘launches’ bring together publisher and author, writer and fan and above all, potential bedfellows. When infrastructure sleaze hosts ‘intellectual’ posturing, the sleaze-fest is complete. And of course it has to be winter. That is the time when brown and white migratory birds from White lands come down to brown land. They are in much demand – hopping from one gawk-fest to another. They dare not hold it in summer, like the Ramkeli festival. Their armpits might just start smelling like those of the ones outside the gates.

The well lit festivals have as much connection to ground realities as the owners of the palaces have with the local population. The court-like atmosphere, graced by tropic-charred whites turned native and tropic-born natives itching to be white, creates much gaiety and banter. Typically and predictably, the pre-eminent language of these well lit courts is something that most localites would not identify with. That goes for most of the books and the preferred language of the authors. Collectively it represents their fantasy world, as they claim to represent much. It is not as if the writers thronging these places are most sold or most read. The English-speaking spokesperson who has captive white and coconut (brown outside, white inside) ears becomes the chosen voice. He is the authentic insider and quite often a chronicler of the urban ennui and excitement of the parasites. The subcontinent has many authors who have sold more and been read more than all brown Englishwallahs taken together, but no infrastructure mafia wants to honour them by prizes. The loot of people’s money from the Commonwealth games by a famous prize giving company is better utilized elsewhere. Why is it that the Chennai or Kolkata book fair, with more attendance of authors and readers than a desert jamboree can ever manage, will never be covered by corporate media with the same degree of detail, as an event of similar importance. One has to ask, what are these choices meant to convey, why now, for what, for whom, against whom. The benign smile of prize acceptance of some of these first-boys and the fellowship of enthusiastic clappers need to be seen for what they are and what they represent. Why this project of pumping air into the English cat so that it looks like a tiger, to assist it to punch above its weight? Who does it want to scare into submission? Who does it want to provide confidence? Cultures, especially those that come associated with upward mobility, hubris and power, seek to displace others. As Hartosh Singh Bal puts it, ‘English mediates our own social hierarchy.’ The soft hearts of sensitive beneficiaries of cultural-economic hierarchies are too sensitive to probe their complicity in this project. Elsewhere, as Akshay Pathak has shown, the way some well ‘lit’ fests have tried to replicate their foreign idiom of ‘storytelling’ through festivals in less ‘lit’ places like Dantewada shows another aspect of the dark underbelly of the ‘articulate’ beast. Such beasts hunt in packs, as shown by their excellent ‘teamwork’.

This odd idea of non-local ‘exploratory’ tourism cum weekend-thrill is a symptom of a deeper disease. This disease adds layer after layer between the earth and the birds who float atop that earth, with the organizers making sure that the undomesticated and the unrefined stench of the earth does not make its way in to this stratospheric paradise. Such ‘cosmopolitan’ inhabitants who belong nowhere produce nothing. Of course they know about the Sati ‘tradition’ and shur their book and minds with that. These are those who see no intrinsic value in any tradition but partake in its goodies, document it, sample it, sell it to visiting firangs, package it as if they were wares on sale but contribute very little to the richness of the human condition, on a long term basis. If this worldview and lifestyle becomes the dominant one, I shudder to think what kind of a cultural desert the flittering non-traditionalists will produce with their contempt of tradition and rootedness. Given their clout and power, that urban-industrial dream of an atomized society might become true, till every grain looks the same. Individual grains of sand around Jaipur have more heterogeneity and character than this.

Would the dominant idiom and language of these well lit fests survive if Whites paid reparations for colonialism and slavery? Will any of these well lit fests survive even for a year if the world magically becomes becomes crime-free? Something that owes its very survival to dirty money and claims to be a festival of ‘mind-opening’ needs to be exposed. This is true for many other creative pursuits of these times and these classes- they don’t exist without the backing of money, cannot be produced by the poor (hence most human beings) and, if the world could be flattened so that everyone was at mean income, none of these creativities would even exist. These are pursuits for which inequity is a necessary pre-condition. But there is art beyond that, in persisting oral traditions, lores, gods, non-‘cosmopolitan’ ways of everyday creativity and knowledge and earth inspired insurgents like Namdeo Dhasal and Gaddar but that is beyond the well lit faces and enlightened minds of the perfumed ones. It must be painful for the ‘enlightened’ ones to imagine that the world can actually go on without their collective knowledge being at the centre of it. But it does. It always has. And whether you like it or not, and whether you matter or not, it always will.

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‘Sala Main To Sahab Ban Gaya’… and other thrills / Angrezi delusions

[ Daily News and Analysis, 23 Dec 2013 ]

Very recently, I was on a flight from Zurich to New Delhi, operated by Swiss International Air Lines. My co-passenger was brown like me and had strong opinions on the mis-pronunciation of English words by desis. The person was especially perturbed how even proper nouns and place names were being rendered unrecognizable. My co-passenger was quite sad that this was happening. I mostly did the listening. I guess trans-continental flights are spaces that assume a kind of brown cultural homogeneity and hence a commonly held set of sensibilities. The top 5% income category browns have many worldly burdens. Defending the sanctity of the mother tongue of Anglo-Saxons apparently is one of them.

All through our journey, the captain kept us updated about how the flight was going. The captain, who was Swiss, repeatedly said that out destination city was ‘Deheli’. The firangi word pronunciation Nazi who I was sitting with it seemed to have no take on this. ‘Deheli’ was okay, given the race of the speaker. There was nothing to be ‘corrected’. It was his natural accent. There was no need to graduate into some ‘ higher’ state of correctness, whatever that is. While ‘Deheli’ of Swiss extraction was deemed acceptable, ‘Delly’ is the pronunciation of choice for the uppity. This is what some pack of pale-face marauders had pronounced a few centuries ago and what could be wrong about that. Dehli or Dilli may not sound anything like ‘Delly’ but that did not make ‘Delly’ a mis-pronunciation in my co-passenger’s sensibilities. This sensibility is more widely held. It is my suspicion that the origin and contours of such refined sensibilities and the predictable double-standards hold some clue to the increasingly rootlessness one observes in the metro-centric aspirational classes of the subcontinent.

Now try to imagine the reverse. When someone says ‘New Yaark’ as many in Punjab may do, or ‘Lawndawn’ as many in Bengal do, the brown thikadars of English pronunciation will react with thinly veiled contempt. You may even be ‘corrected’ in ‘good faith’ – ‘See, it is ‘actually’ pronounced like this’. Between these responses, the speaker of ‘Lawndawn’ will be classified by the enlightened brown ones as either being not well rounded enough or being an obstinate non-learner or worst still, getting some vicarious thrill by sticking out.

They will try to explain root-cause of ‘New Yaark’ and ‘Lawndawn’  – you know, socio-economic rungs and such. And that moment of trying to explain is an illuminating moment – it explains the person who is doing the explaining. Their exasperation with ‘Lawndawn’ standing uncorrected goes much further and deeper than plain prickliness about the mother tongue of English people. It veers into the underbellies of their Anglicized exteriors – into ideas of correctness, propriety, higher and lower, sameness and difference, own and foreign, alienation and privilege.

At the centre of this probably stands the fear of being swept away in this brown subcontinent by those who think, imagine and love in their mother tongue. The alienated recognize the confidence that comes with it. That confidence is a threat that needs to be broken; otherwise it has insurgent qualities that might just want to reclaim centre-stage. What absurdity is that, in ‘this time and age’? The speed with which we label something absurd hints at something else. As Allan Bloom said, ‘The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside’. The even sadder bit is that an alienated, self-hating minority is able to dictate the terms of what is this outside.

‘New Yaark’ and ‘Lawndawn’ symbolize exactly the sort of confident agency that is rootless is fearful of, partly because it reminds them of their own ‘non-place’-ness. Identifying deeply with the oppressor’s ‘refinement’, they would rather have agency always stay with the oppressor while they can take on the mantle of being gatekeepers to that enchanted world of refinement. The culturally illiterate Bombay-Delhi bubble urbania, with their undue and incestuous grip on the ideology of indoctrination systems like centres of higher learning, fear things that draw inspiration from the ground beneath their feet, and not from the words of gods from superior worlds. They love to play the role of this native priest (to lesser brown folks) and translator (to remotely enthusiastic firangis). They stand at the gates of modern citizenship in brownland, correcting their backward folks as liberated pundits. I wish it were funny. It is not.

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Tropical universities and knowledge production / University rankings and India / University rankings and Indian academia

[ Daily News and Analysis, 16 Sep 2013; Kashmir Reader, 17 Sep 2013; Millenium Post, 20 Sep 2013; Shillong Times, 21 Sep 2013; Hitavada, 22 Sep 2013; Echo of India, 25 Sep 2013]

As world rankings of universities are being discussed, we are back to that sad truth. No university in the subcontinent figures in the top 200 universities in the world. However, one would not realize this when one looks at the cocksureness and pomposity of desi academics in the subcontinent. There is a Bengali idiom called ‘Bon gaye sheyal raja’ which means that in a far-way forested village, even a fox can be king. Such is the state of affairs around us.

Some would have us believe that it was not always so. Around the time of the great uprising of 1857 led by the mercenaries of the East India Company, 3 universities were also established in the 3 presidency towns of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. In no small way the result of a 1854 dispatch sent by Charles Wood, a top dog of the Company, to James Broun-Ramsay, the then governor general of Company territories in the subcontinent, these 3 institutions continue to be important institutions of higher learning in the Union of India.

Founded in the same year, all these institutions celebrated 150 years of their existence, with a lot of pomp. I graduated from one of these afore-mentioned universities and I was present at more than one such ‘celebration’. Four years after 1857, on the other side of the globe, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the institution I am affiliated to at present, was established. I was also present at its 150-year celebration events. Thus I had the opportunity to compare what I had seen and heard in the subcontinent and in Massachusetts, USA. The difference could not have been starker. Much of what I heard in the sub-continental anniversary celebrations was about a supposed glorious past, long-standing ‘heritage’, a lot of talk about famous personalities associated with the institutions and gloating over all this. At MIT, almost invariably I heard about plans about the future – new avenues of research, newer expansions, and newer challenges. There was not much mention of personalities in the institute that has produced 78 Nobel laureates till date. Neither is MIT peppered with ‘museums’ dedicated to Nobel laureates. Museums are same as temples and mosques – places of praying for things to go right miraculously, not places of action.

In the subcontinent, when one thinks of MIT, a centre of excellence for research in engineering and technology is the typical impression. While that is true, according to the 2013 update of the well-regarded QS World University Rankings published last week, in the whole world, MIT is second only to Harvard in Biological Sciences and Economics. What this means is that it has not simply stuck to its one-time strengths but has actively diversified its ‘priorities’. In doing so, it has also shut down departments and divisions whose shelf life was perceived to be over. These are signs of a living institution in conversation with the cutting edge of knowledge production – situated squarely within the social needs and agendas of the society it derives meaning from.

In the QS rankings, MIT tops the list Harvard, Cambridge, Stanford, Yale, Oxford and Princeton are also among the top 10. It may be news to some readers that not one of the top 10 universities of the world has a department of botany at present. In most cases, they ceased to exist decades ago. All that remains are museums bearing that erstwhile department’s name. Contrast this to the large departments of botany in most universities of the subcontinent. May be there is something we get that ‘they’ don’t. Given that the occidental university system and department making is something that ‘they’ taught us, could it be that there is something they get that we don’t?

It is worthwhile to continue with the example of botany. When the white colonial powers set up universities in the subcontinent, why did they set up departments of botany? What knowledge did they seek to produce? For whose benefit? What made them wind up or fuse certain departments? To cut whose loss? All knowledge production and prioritization exists in a societal context – the colonizer’s societal context fashioned their decisions, at home and in the colonies. Given that we are not only inheritors of such university systems but also active perpetuators, do we have an appreciation of our own reasons to do so? Why are there so few institutions like the Indian Statistical Institute that was conceived in a social context, whose agenda is in conversation with the society it derives funding from and blooms in and also is a centre of excellence?

But then this is part of a bigger problem. So let me broaden the ambit a bit.Why do certain things, like homeopathy and psychoanalysis, have long after-lives in the once-colonized tropics compared to places from where they were imported? Lets hone in on psychoanalysis. To understand the mind, one needs to study the mind and yes, people are studying the mind. Much of these studies are not aimed towards illness or pharmaceuticals, in any foreseeable way. If some have a muse in the form of psycho-analysis, an outdated fad which has all but died except in ‘fields’ insulated from currents around them, they can have it. Just not with people’s funds. The tropics can ill afford it. Understanding the mind shouldnt be a dead idea but unverifiable tracts cannot replace inquiry and can hardly be called a knowledge project. And again, the social context is crucial to all these things. The question in the piece is, why do such things continue to live in tropics long after they are dead in their places of origin. The answer may partly lie in the very skewed class-caste composition in the academia of the subcontinent – this enables socially insulated indulgence to a dangerous degree.

When the site of knowledge production is far off and they cater primarily to needs of alien societies, transferred knowledge and ideas create a sense of awe. This results in a lack of confidence to manipulate, to break, to discard. In so far as universities are fountainheads of societal knowledge yearnings, what do our societies want to know? Have we even asked? We better start doing that. Otherwise we risk becoming expert cleaners and preservers of other people’s furniture, even lacking the confidence of changing the arrangement. However the cleaner’s wage is paid by our own brown people. This is how the third world continues down the path of being  2nd class at the 1st world’s priorities and it is mightily proud about it.

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My vote for pluralism

[ Open Magazine, 14 Sep 2013 ]

On one issue, there is no doubt. If there was a murder most foul – it was Narendra Dabholkar’s. The slain leader of the Maharashtra Andha Shraddha Nirmoolan Samithi was, by any measure, a well-wisher of the people. He was a strong supporter of inter-caste and inter-religious marriages. He had been fighting, for decades, an unwavering war against ‘black magic’ practitioners and had ruined the business for quite a few. Threat to his life was ever-present. It is thought that the recent airing of his views endorsing inter-caste marriages and his long-term push for an anti-superstition bill finally did him in.

A doctor by training, Narendra Dabholkar cut his teeth in rural social service with another doctor-turned-activist Baba Adhav during the “Ek gaav, ek panavtha” (One village, one pond) movement. What set Dabholkar apart from many atheist-rationalists is how his work was deeply embedded in society – not preaching from above but militantly conversing alongside. He earned his legitimacy by living an exemplary life. The widespread shock and anger on his murder points to that. Urban rationalist talking heads might learn a thing or two from his life before complaining for the umpteenth time how ignorant the people are. During his lifetime, he was painted, with partial success, as someone who was anti-religion. That view also has serious currency. It is important to see why.

Dabholkar led a crusade against the deleterious environmental effects of divine idols. Water pollution was the holy cow that was used to elicit a court order banning certain kinds of idol-making substance in Maharashtra. Is that being anti-religion or anti a particular religion? Who knows. But put back in the context of a world where the people see the pollution and choking of rivers, lakes and other waterbodies by large-scale industrial effluents going unpunished, this particular focus on water pollution from idols does carry a different charge.  What conclusion should those idol-worshippers draw, who see both the ban against plaster-of-paris idols and the unchecked water pollution from other sources? Believers are not donkeys.

It is not a coincidence that nearly all the self-styled gung-ho rationalists or ‘magic’-busters of the subcontinent are also staunch atheists. A stupendous majority of the people is not. However, when preaching rationalism, the preacher’s atheism bit is downplayed or made invisible. We are not against religion but against superstition, they say. Believers are not sheep either and can identify patronizing double-speak. They are naturally left unimpressed by those who claim to be sympathetic do-gooders but actually could give two hoots about people’s beliefs and viewpoints.

The grand failure of such atheist/rationalist projects, in spite of having the full weight of the constitution of the Indian Union behind them, also has to do with the patently alien idioms of communication and propaganda that they use. That the rationalist propagandists themselves are often alienated from the living currents of their own society does not help matters.

When a miniscule minority aims to scare, browbeat and threaten people of faith by trying to get legislation passed that criminalize practices that believers voluntarily submit to, what we have is a most naked use of privileged access. This privilege follows the usual path of undemocratic access in the subcontinent – urban backgrounds, English education, Delhi connections, friends in media and so on. Every time such legislation is passed, it undercuts democracy – for, in their spirit, such legislations seek to act as wise elders, running roughshod over the beliefs and opinions of the people at large. It may befit a sociopath to assume that the masses are either juvenile or imbecile or manipulated or in darkness. It hardly is the ideal characteristic of a socially engaged being in a democratic society. Every individual is a complete moral agent with as much intelligence and responsibility as the next one.

In the absence of empathy and respect towards difference – things that are the basis of a harmonious society, we have elitocracy. When some urban rationalists shamelessly clap at ‘anti-supersetition’ bills and legislations that few believers would agree to in a referendum, they often let the mask of false empathy and democratic pretense fall off from their faces. They can afford to do this as throwing stones at glass houses far from one-self has always been a very non-risky affair. Some excel at this. It is in the context of this snooty and privileged way of looking down and talking down to the believing unwashed masses that Ashis Nandy, the shaman of our times, had said ‘There are superstitions, and there are superstitions about superstitions.’ Others chose to work amongst the people and live (and some, like Dabholkar, unfortunately die) in the consequence of their actions. It is this latter kind which has won some legitimacy from the people.

In some ways, the work of rationalists should have become easier with rise of textual religion in many parts of the world, including the subcontinent. The level of canon literacy that exists now among the believers is truly unprecedented. But text also pins down belief, making it vulnerable to the kinds of tactics that rationalists use to expose certain practices. Ostensibly, contradictions between a certain belief and empirical reality can be shown more easily as scriptures and canons have taken up a largely immutable form by now. For example, followers of scriptures which claim a flat-earth or that the sun revolves around the earth are ripe for engagement as part of the rationalists’ ‘blind-faith’ removal programme. Rationalists have failed to do even that.

Reminding the body of believers that the development of ‘scientific temper’ is one of the ‘fundamental duties’ of the citizen according to the constitution of the Indian Union does not win any friends, neither does it challenge rationalists to develop meaningful ways of  engagement for their cause. This compounded by the notion that such ‘juktibadi’ (rationalist) types even look and act in a certain way. They are not different from other posturing social types like the faux-westernized body-art loving ‘rebellious’ 20-something yuppie of the post-liberalization era or the jhola-beard-jeans-chappal type communist youth of the same era. That certain rationalists chose to boycott all social occasions like marriage, funeral and so on as religious rites are performed there does not help in their social immersion.

Lived religion, like any other aspect of human life, is not something unpolluted from a changing world. Religion is not what it used to be and that is how it has always been. Religion has also taken up characteristics and props of this age of mass production of material goods, easy transport, mass media and increasing literacy in a few languages of dominance and power. The peculiarities of this age put their stamp on religion to create bizarre products that are as much characteristics of the age as they are of religion that consents to such corruption. In a way, that is how religion has always ‘survived’ in any meaningful sense of the word ‘survive’. However, to use the specific peculiarities of an age to paint religiosity or practices in general as a timeless evil is neither honest nor tactically smart. Constitutions and new ‘values’ that disappear almost as soon as they develop cannot and should not speak down to faith. This point becomes especially poignant when one quotes Karl Marx out of context – ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.’

Let me make a final point. What is it to be human is a question that is hard to answer but a significant part of the world population, including the present author, believes that there are multiple ways of being human. Faith elements that are non-textual, that are handed down in communities, that makes their presence known in myriad practices (some of which may qualify in rationalist-speak as superstition) also contribute to the multiple ways of being human. These very many ways of being human come with as many world-views and whole theories of the workings of the world. These theories, world-views and practices – to what extent are they separable from one’s special sense of self and identity in this world? Religions, gods, goddesses and other beings, in so far as they are responsive to the changing world and living communities with which they are in constant interaction, also change. Being a certain kind of Bengalee, I grew up in the thick of brotos (practices to receive divine blessings) and many other acts, from which my particular kind of ‘Bengaleeness’ is indistinguishable. The gods and goddesses of my ‘Bengaleeness’, Ma Durga, Ma Monosha (often vulgarized off-hand as a ‘snake goddess’), Dhormo Thakur, and other divines who inhabit fringes of my ‘Bengaleeness’ like Ma Shitola, BonoDurga, and the practices and ‘superstitions’ associated with the particulars of my birth accident make me, in no small way. This Bengaleeness is not a static thing – static not even in a lifetime. Faiths and gods continue to communicate and adapt with the changing world their adherents inhabit. When some gods cannot adapt, they die too. An earlier time would have produced a different notion of selfhood in me.

Without this scaffolding, what kind of human would I be? Some may have no need of such things but what about the rest of us? What does this lack of particular scaffolding look like anyways?  Why do those do prescribe leaving such things, appear so much more similar to each other? Those who have some stake in the intrinsic plurality of the human condition and think that preserving that is a good thing, where would they stand if this homogeneity were the cost of inculcating a atheist-rationalist worldview. In any case, in colonial societies, the anti-traditionalist worldview can be as much received wisdom as any other tradition. Such a formulation might hurt the bloated egos of those who think that university departments and wistfully imported and badly digested bits of European post-enlightenment thought elevates them vis-à-vis their fellow hapless and ignorant brown people. Make no mistake; the hapless also have a theory about those who hold them in contempt.

Till ‘rationalism’ finds a way of preserving and strengthening the plural ways of being human that human societies believe they have produced in cahoots with their gods among other things, it certainly does not have my vote. An imported version of the universal brotherhood of man, something that some curious residents of the tropics always take to with more zeal and seriosity than the west itself ever did, is a cheap replacement for the loss of a million gods and a billion ‘superstitions’.

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Filed under A million Gods, Bengal, Caste, Democracy, Elite, Faith, Identity, Knowledge, Plural pasts, Religion, Science

Of Sati, Snake-bites and ‘blind’ superstitions

[ Daily News and Analysis, 2 Sep 2013 ]

Recently I was exposed to an interesting concept called Godwin’s law. Godwin’s law states that ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.’ This means, the longer an online discussion gets, it becomes more and more likely that someone would bring in some comparison with Hitler or the Nazis. Those who inhabit the fractious world of online discussions (and I sometimes do) would be able to appreciate whether Mike Godwin has a point or not. The more general point of Godwin’s ‘law’ is that certain words, concepts and themes (like ‘Hitler’, ‘Nazi’) have such a wide currency (at least among a majority of Westerners and a minority of browns) as powerful symbols that they have been used in almost any context, to counter anything, to badmouth anyone. Of course that reflects poorly on the user of these terms. If every debate with me involves me throwing the same debate-stopping expletive at the other person, I have just put my intolerance on display. And if one cannot counter someone else’s point of view except by throwing back words that are mostly used as exaggerations out of context, then we have someone who is also petulant and insecure.

Be that as it may, this Godwin’s ‘law’ reminded me of certain similar things that I have often faced in discussion with some modern brown people (a.k.a. ‘enlightened Indians’ who have a particular distaste for those who use hair-oil). When one discusses any element that might faintly sound as a defence of things whose ethno-cultural roots are to be found among brown-people, certain alarm-bells and defences go up among the hair-oil haters. And by chance if something relatively indigenous is counterposed to something imported from a White domain, all hell breaks lose. Specifically two hells – Sati and snakebite. In that predictable and unimaginative barrage, any talk of being comfortable in one’s inherited brown mode of life in defiance of the newest imported flavor of the week makes one a supporter of wife-burning. And of course, the same person would be confronted with the ‘gotcha’ question – so what would you do in case of a snakebite?  Such is the potency of these two symbols of brown viciousness and backwardness respectively that even partner-assaulting modern males and patient-gouging medical practitioners liberally use these without an iota of shame and self-reflection. It is the ‘ideology’ that matters, stupid.

This same class of moderns typically exhibits a near-complete lack of understanding of the fall and the rise of Sati, its caste specificity, especially in the context of the subcontinent’s colonial encounter. Any engagement with modern Sati is apologia; any nuance is ‘obscurantism’. Again, when they go after ‘witch-doctors’ and faith healers with the certitude of a neo-convert, they hardly want to understand the reasons behind the continued presence of these institutions in society, against the tremendous odds of denigrating propaganda. This lofty non-engagement reminds me of those savarnas who ‘do not believe in caste’, ‘hate casteism’, have savarnas over-represented among their friend circles and cannot name even 10 shudra caste surnames.

The struggle against the practice of Sati were led by fighters with a social connect, and could not have been decisive without people’s consent. This was true then, this is true now. It is in this context that the Maharashtra ordinance against ‘black magic’ has to be seen. The anti-superstition bill criminalizes displays of miracles, doing ‘black magic’ to search for missing things, saying that a divine spirit has possessed oneself and various other things. Far from being criminal, many of these things are deemed to be within the domain of real happening by a significant number of people in whose name the ordinance has been promulgated. Paying homage to the respected rationalist Narendra Dabholkar is something, passing laws as a knee-jerk reaction that criminalizes activities which enjoy wide social acceptance is quite another. Yes, there are organized vested interests in some of these activities. But to think that whole people are being manipulated and that they need to be saved by know-it-all people is not only demeaning to the personhood of the believers, but also demeaning to the concept of unfettered universal adult franchise. It infantilizes the people, opening the gates of paternalistic legislation. And that, my friends, is not good for democratic functioning.

Beyond fundamental rights of individuals like right to life and right to consent to bodily intervention, whether a practice in society is harmful or not is not something that only ‘experts’ can decide. Social practices are multi-dimensional and can have more consent and agency built into them that have ‘uses’ beyond the immediate ‘efficacy’ of ‘black-magic’. One also has to understand how and why a witch doctor whose interventions could not save a life is looked upon as a bigger criminal than a MBBS doctor whose negligence causes the death of a patient. The social alienation of those who look upon the people as backward and superstitious might do well to ask themselves – why is it more likely that they have heard of Richard Dawkins, the fiery rationalist from England, but may not have a clue who frail, brown Aroj Ali Matubbor was? The problem is that metro-bred and metro-based alienated life-forms have infected the decision making and power centres of the nation-state – the government, the ‘NGO’s, the universities and the like. The socially alienated cannot expect people’s support and no wonder people’s support eludes them – if anything, they live in fear of their alienation and contempt being exposed in front of the people on whose name they so often speak and act. Narendra Dabholkar knew that and had been wise to avoid that posturing. I hope those who are mourning this selfless man’s death also keep that in mind.

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Next time you hear intellectual mumbo jumbo/ On the accountability of ‘intellectuals’ / Knowledge in these times / Lacking in intelligibility and accountability

[ Daily News and Analysis, 19 Aug 2013 ; Morung Express, 23 Aug 2013 ; Daily Excelsior (Jammu), 25 Aug 2013 ; Echo of India, 1 Sep 2013 ; Millenium Post, 24 Aug 2013 ]

A kind of human being derives strange pleasure in appreciating music that few others like. In fact, if too many people start listening to it, they get dejected. Their special thing has become too commonplace like a road-side tea stall. Such is often the case with those academicians and their acolytes who love big words and impenetrable sentences. They protect their rarified lens to the world with smugness. They are quick to defend their demi-gods of helped them build these lenses. Why would legitimate knowledge seekers be so invested in thinkers than thoughts themselves and whether such idolatry is healthy for frank and critical knowledge production is another question.

In the first year of my PhD at Harvard, I sat in a 2-semester long statistics class. Professor Jim Sidanius, a former Black Panther, taught us concepts – breaking them down for us. But he also wanted to make sure that we were digesting the broken bits. He knew that hiding behind jargon is the best way to evade clarity. And he would have none of it. So, when he asked us questions, and we started replying in jargon, he would promptly cut us short and ask with a smile – ‘How will you explain that to my grand-ma?” This was a crucial question. In many cases, it called our bluff and made us more honest to ourselves. This was more than knowledge acquisition. Jim was trying to drive in a characteristic that academicians and thinkers owe to society – clarity.

Clarity is something that ought not to be limited to knowledge acquisition, but also knowledge production and communication of ideas. But are not some ideas inherently so complex that an insistence of broad intelligibility would somehow make those ideas flatter than they actually are. And to this, a response came from Steven Pinker, another professor from our department at Harvard. To simplify is not to be simplistic, he said.

Fine, but why should we care about such issues at all? Ideas shape people, their ideas about themselves, other and the world at large. So, if certain kinds of ideas gain currency, it is important that these do not become received wisdom but are critically evaluated by the people. For that, it is necessary that knowledge and ideas are available to the people at-large, with clarity, in forms and sites they can best engage in. Academicians occupy the most privileged centre of knowledge production in our times – the university. Hence they have to be held particularly accountable in this regard.

However, when we look into the academic circles that universities have been breeding, they seem to breed a pathetic tendency to jargonize and speak in tongues that are largely (and I daresay, intentionally) unintelligible to people. The intention is not necessarily conscious for most practitioners of this dubious art – it is something they pick up to be counted. This gulf between ‘high-brow’ knowledge and its public intelligibility is most acute in those practitioners to invoke that shameful phrase ‘in our field’. Typically, this implies that one would take liberties about facts or be oblivious of contrary facts, not expose the underbelly of assumptions to scalpels, would discount fundamental criticisms as being ill-motivated or worse, expressions of ‘power’. Such a petulant water-tightness is typically seen in ‘fields’ full of ‘-isms’ or those where sentences are peppered with things like, ‘in a –ian sense/paradigm/view’. And so forth. The latter is a classic method of saying – I will say this to you without explanation. Either you will not along as you wont admit to knowing what the ‘-ian view’ is, or if you say so, I will give such an exasperated look and say, well all this has been known for so long, and you are not at an intellectual level where I deem fit to engage with you. And such elements still have the gall to say that society owes their keep to them. It takes an immense amount of hubris to think that ideas articulated in forms unintelligible by much of perfectly intelligent people have added that much to that understanding that it can demand funding in spite of being unintelligible.

In the subcontinent, a rich tradition of handed-down knowledge in the form of songs and sayings attributed to thinkers like Kabir and Lalon Shah and myriad other unnamed ones, makes one thing very clear. The subcontinent has had intellectuals who have engaged with the public in terms that were clear and have been thought leaders who have shaped people’s conceptions. In such interactions, knowledge and ideas are located within society, and not in some cabal outside it, claiming to ‘understand’ society. Song and pravachans which people still know and remember have helped people deal and make sense of the human condition for millennia.

Only in a self-important and delusional view of human existence do recently produced knowledge and ideas come to be considered so groundbreaking and crucial for understanding the human condition. This view, in which the recent is so privileged, expresses the same kind of attitude that concepts like jahalaat embody. The difference is that the last 100 or 400 years are considered unprecedented.

Some would have you believe that the last 50 years have been crucial. But then we know there is nothing special except the kind of self-importance that confuses recency with progress. In such a ‘progressive’ world-view, earlier times are deemed bland. For example, the 50 years between say 1200 AD and 1250 AD would be considered much less ‘eventful’ which the period between 1950 and 2000 apparently has been world-changing is terms of idea productions. But the world was there then and it is there now. The same is true for the humankind and the human condition.

To think of ourselves of having been born in some special time can be nice. But it gets problematic when, to make careers out of ideas generated in the last 50 years, people start over-selling these times. That the selling involves more hocus pocus does not help. And hence, public scrutiny becomes important to separate the wheat from the chaff. At the end of the day, we know that two humans make more sense of the world than one, and three more than two, other things being the same. So, claims of certain geographical locales being particular sites of production of relevant and crucial knowledge, especially when such locales are also centers of colonial capital accumulation, have to be viewed with suspicion. Ideas from these locales also are in lock-step with the idea that the last 400 years or so have so uniquely informative in understanding the human condition. Decolonization of the mind is not an easy thing. It is especially hard to accomplish when such concepts live so comfortably within us, become like our skin and self-identity. We are not only slaves in what we follow, we can also be slaves in what we deem important, how we organize our mental worlds around exotic concepts, especially when we exhibit a distinct lack of understanding of the knowledge and ideas around us, in the specific geographies where we are embedded, in flesh, descent and culture. How did we come to be the way we are is a question we ought to be asking ourselves.

I again return to the role of the intellectual, the academic, the thinker. Like most people who live off the public exchequer, earning one’s keep has to have people’s assent. Speaking over the head of the people, in the name of the people, remaining unintelligible and all the time claiming to unearth some deep understanding of the people, of their lives, desires, politics, structures and what not, is good for conversations inside such cabals. The outside world has not been scathing in asking for accountability. Like the Sanskrit mantras of today, these are performed technically in public view but are insider-talk at the end of the day. Such insider-talk, whatever its purported merits and brilliance, come with a severe lack of checks and balances, like any other priestly order. This is a dangerous thing for knowledge production as load fulls of quality bull shit can pass off as insight if its sounds and feels right to the ‘initiated’. The world, especially poorer societies, can ill afford the luxury of continually feeding white elephants whose public engagement ends within the ramparts of the university or other such spaces. It is about time that the real world asked for explanations about what is being done with their money.

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In defence of Ashis Nandy / Stir against Ashis Nandy exposes laziness of elite anti-casteism / Of caste, corruption and the Indian chatterati… / A skirmish in Jaipur

[ Daily News and Analysis, 28 Jan 2013 ; Millenium Post, 31 Jan 2013 ; Echo of India, 8 Feb 2013 ; Jansatta, 4 Feb 2013 (translated in Hindi) ; Frontier (web) 18 Feb 2013 ]

Whatever else it is, this is not a good time to be Ashis Nandy. In this age of ether when spoken words travel faster than sound leaving comprehension behind, it is not surprising that some ‘casteist’ words of Ashis Nandy, spoken by him at a literary festival, have been taken up by the chatterati. Token anti-casteism like token anti-communalism is one of the easiest paths to salvation for the elite chatterati. But even in the month of Magh, the Kumbho mela is too plebian for the comfort of such folk. No wonder, so many have chosen to sanctimoniously pounce on his statement, as a Plan B.

It is important to note what Ashis Nandy has not said. He did not say that people from the OBC, SC and ST communities are most corrupt. What has Ashis Nandy said then? “Most of the people who are doing corruption are people from OBC, SC and ST communities and as long as it remains Indian republic will survive.” The difference between most of the corrupt and corrupt-most is crucial. An audience whose interaction with the OBC, SC and ST communities is limited mostly to house-maids and drivers made sure that his comment did not go unchallenged. Later, he also tried to clarify that corruption from these communities are more likely to get caught, due to absence of mechanisms of saving themselves, unlike the upper castes.

At the most banal level, there is no way for the statement to be statistically untrue. ‘Most of the people who are doing corruption are people from OBC, SC and ST communities’ because most people who live in the Indian Union are from OBC, SC and ST communities. Together they form a stupendous majority of the population. That they also form a majority of the corrupt is only natural, unless corruption flows along caste lines. The problem with looking at corruption in this way is that it does not unpack this thing ‘corruption’ into the myriad forms it takes – and that matters. Limiting us only to economic corruption, by form I do not only mean the quantum of corruption but also the method of execution. Given that corruption is something that all communities indulge in, asking who does what how is important.

But there is also the public life of corruption, its most talked about form being corruption in public life. In that elite congregation in Jaipur and their kith and kin beyond it, if one were to ask for the names of 2 most corrupt politicians, Madhu Koda, A Raja, Mayawati, Laloo Prasad Yadav will jostle for space in their lists. That people from OBC/SC/ST communities are over-represented in the imaginary of this ‘public’ along with its pronouncements of wanting to see beyond caste needs some reflection. The charge of corruption is looked upon as a non-casteist charge and by bringing it up, prejudices and animosities, which may otherwise have casteist origins, can be sanctified and presented in public discourse. The devil, then, is not in the commissions but in the omissions. This brings us to the question of ‘visible’ corruption.

‘Visible’ corruption, the eye-ball grabbing variety, is visible mostly due to a crude job in covering up tracks. The visibility is due to getting caught. A clandestine political group escapes persecution by building a networked system of subterranean safe-houses. Caste groups with pre-existing socio-political hegemony have a long experience in building safe-houses so as to channelize their corruption into ‘internal channels’ rather than public-private ones. So much so that some such forms of corruption are not considered as such and do not need to be clandestine any more. Systems of aggrandizement are built into the system so that corruption happens even on auto-pilot. Just like old money begets new money. Older and much-maligned extractive capital becomes today’s fashionable finance capital. All this requires time. OBC/SC/ST communities, by and large, have not had the time to develop the art of reducing corruption to making the papers correctly. They do not have a well entrenched system of trustworthy accomplices who are well grounded in this management science. Upper castes elites have. They are its fathers. For example, they make green-laws and mangle them to their benefit. But the corrupt that this ‘public’ sees are squatters and ‘encroachers’ who pollute. The irony of the fact that all this corruption-talk happened in an event sponsored by a giant real-estate company should not be lost. But then, there is no corruption in corporate-sponsored, free-flowing red wine. It is only the water in the milk from the neighbourhood milkman that is corruption.

In the subcontinent, few opportunities exist for someone to undo the lack of caste or economic privilege at birth. Aspirations and accomplishments are pre-determined by a legal framework that does not acknowledge realities of the past or the present. The few viable ways to negotiate this disadvantage happen to be extra-legal. We love to call this corruption. Indeed, in the absence of this conduit, things would be even more skewed than they are.

Some anti-reservationists are jumping at joy at what Ashis Nandy has said. This is both tragic and comic at the same time – how the same lazy understanding gives rise to joy and uproar in different quarters. They shout – in anger and mirth – united by the pre-judging lens through which they view what he said.

His words on West Bengal being ‘clean’ has also been twisted out of meaning. Given how commonly the relatively ‘corruption-free’ politics is touted as some kind of virtue attributable to either the Bengalis as a people or the bhadralok political culture spanning the communists and the congressites, Ashis Nandy tried to drive a hole into that too.

If Ashis Nandy had said, most corrupt come from the forward castes, there would not be any furore. That is because, in the Indian Union, the potency of implicating hegemonic groups has been defanged by the enthusiastic appropriation of the mantle of fashionable anti-casteism by the very same groups. Which is why the persecution of the Kabir Kala Manch does not attract the ‘freedom of speech’ wallahs who also double up as ‘anti-casteism’ wallahs, as and when required. The reaction to Ashis Nandy’s statement exposes the laziness of elite anti-casteism. If condemnation is the best response we have, it is sad indeed. The essence of what said was that ‘visible’ corruption is rare in West Bengal because in this state, the political empowerment of SC/ST/OBC communities has not happened. This means that a political sphere which is dominated mostly by the upper castes will mostly have the long-entrenched kind of well-lubricated and ‘clean paperwork’ corruption, systems that these groups have developed over long periods in power. This is the mystery behind West Bengal’s apparent cleanliness. Thus he says that West Bengal appears cleans because the nature of its corruption bears imprints of long-entrenched elites and not new rising groups. To take this argument, albeit a roundabout one, to simply mean that West Bengal is actually non-corrupt and the upper castes who have long been in power in West Bengal as the reason behind some real lack of corruption, shows that we do not want to engage with arguments and understandings that are even a little complex.

Finally, it is the limitation of the non-printed form that when one speaks, words like ‘clean’, ‘corrupt’ or anything which one may be using in multiple meanings cannot be put in quotes like I just did..One has to understand grimaces and what not. I do not think that Ashis Nandy is best suited for the sound-byte medium, for the way he speaks and has always spoken. All that was said was in response to something said to Tarun Tejpal is important – that is the context. In the sound-byte and one-liner world, things acquire lives of their own after the words have been spoken. They acquire meanings based on the filters each one of us have in our heads. Ashis Nandy’s style is highly vulnerable to this. He is not an ‘academic’ academic. For decades, he has been an activist-intellectual for the underside, a champion of exiled sensibilities, a public speaker for what many publicly deny and privately acknowledge and I thank him for that.

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