Friday, July 31, 2020

Adventure: the flighty temptress

Outside Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi [2012]

In one of her Harry Potter novels, J K Rowling describes adventure as “that flighty temptress”. Life is a flighty temptress and adventure is the wicked witch with her magical potions. I have drunk deep from both: the witch as well as the temptress. Life would be sheer wasteland without these two seductresses!

The best adventure I have had was in the Garhwal Himalayas. The school where I taught in Delhi gave me the opportunities to trek on those rugged landscapes that belong to the gods and apsaras. My first such trek was to Hemkund with its altitude of 15,000 feet. Another unforgettable trek was to Gaumukh a few years later. There were many less adventurous treks in between in the Land of Gods where, as Arun Kolatkar would say, every stone is a god or his cousin.  

Mountains seduce me far more immodestly than gods and their cousins. Mountains tease you with their peaks. When you conquer each peak, you transmute the tease into a triumph. It’s a game in which every surrender is a capitulation. The gods and their cohorts join the peaks in mockery. No, you needn’t take that mockery. You needn’t buckle down and start chanting mantras and offer aartis. You need to pull up your boots and move on. That is life. Your gods are no kinder than the mountains. The apsaras are worse: they titillate like fireflies in the emptiness. You have no choice but mock them back by moving on. Move on till your last breath. That movement is the adventure of your life.

I’m waiting for the pandemic to subside, to walk hand in hand with the temptress, sipping the magical potions of the witches. I long to step onto the mountain trail once again and embrace that flighty temptress, adventure. I want to breathe in the cold mountain air, stand in the caressing mist, and whisper words of romance to the tickling winds.
En route to Gaumukh [2012]

Thursday, July 30, 2020

New Education Policy

Source: Dawn

From the highlights available so far, the New Education Policy 2020 [NEP2020] seems to be well-meaning. There are certain changes that are very much needed. For example, it seeks to make school education more pragmatic and career-oriented by introducing vocational education from grade 6 with internship. It will certainly help a lot of students to find jobs much earlier than the present system does.

The objective of NEP2020 to foster “holistic development of learners by equipping them with 21st century skills, reduction in curricular content to enhance essential learning and critical thinking and greater focus on experiential learning” can also work wonders if properly implemented. 

The existing system lays undue stress on rote learning and mere reproduction of that memorised knowledge without any creative and critical thinking. This system does not take the students beyond the most fundamental objectives of education: acquisition of basic knowledge. In other words, it does not encourage critical thinking, questioning, creativity, analysis and synthesis. It creates citizens who will merely toe the lines drawn by various authorities: governments, powerful political parties, religions, and so on.

Will NEP2020 take students beyond that to new horizons? Will it really shape students who question intelligently, think creatively, and beat new tracks? Or is it going to be just another glittering façade with little beyond the superficial glitter? After all, this government is notorious for giving us such facades: the Statue of Unity, for example.

If you read into the document, you have reasons to be sceptical. “The vision of the policy is to instil among the learners a deep-rooted pride in being Indian, not only in thought, but also in spirit, intellect, and deeds, as well as to develop knowledge, skills, values, and dispositions that support responsible commitment to human rights, sustainable development and living, and global well-being, thereby reflecting a truly global citizen.” Isn’t there some self-contradiction there? You have to be Indian in thought, spirit, intellect, and deeds and global citizen in knowledge, skills, values, and dispositions!

Well, we need roots in our own soil before we can spread the branches into the neighbourhood skies. That’d be fine indeed if it were not a BJP government – particularly one led by a person like Mr Narendra Modi – that was presenting this policy.

The problem has seldom been with policies. It is not the principles of socialism that undermined socialist governments; it is the misuse of the system. The same is true with every system including capitalism (in spite of its individualism and competitive spirit) and religions. We human beings bring all our greed and selfishness and envy and all other possible vices into the system, however wonderful the system is. And the system collapses sooner than later.

When you have a leader whose track history is soaked in blood and vengeance with an equal measure of chicanery, you can’t expect a policy to be as sublime as it sounds through the loudspeaker. The leader makes most of the difference.

NEP2020 seeks to sideline English altogether subtly and not so subtly. Education is to be in mother tongue up to grade 5, then “preferably till grade 8 and beyond”, and also in “more higher education institutions.” Sanskrit will be an option made available to students “at all levels”.

At the same time, NEP2020 seeks to bring “top world ranked universities” to India. Well, we don’t suppose that top world universities are going to give Indians instruction in the latter’s mother tongues or in Sanskrit.

Given Mr Modi’s grandiose visions, it is probable that he imagines Sanskrit towering above all and becoming a global language in his lifetime itself and India becoming the global superpower dishing out Ayurvedic concoctions as panacea for all evils. Is there that undercurrent too in NEP2020? I am not sure. I have only got the highlights so far though that is a pretty long document which throws ample light into the spirit of the policy. I can almost imagine Mr Modi standing on the Himalayas and looking with pride at the Akhand Bharat stretching beyond the Alps. Some policies are indeed grandiose.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Lizard’s Gospel


It was when the coronavirus disease had forced Ravindran to stay at home day and night that he began to understand the language of the lizards. The lizards were there all over the house ever since the house was built nearly two decades ago. Less than two decades, in fact. It wasn’t easy to forget the year.

Lizards shared the house with Ravindran right from the time he built the house. They behaved as if they were the real masters of the house. Not that they made much noise about it; they were usually quiet. Once in a while they would let out a cry, a click, or a squeak. Krishnan, one of the oldest men in the village, once told Ravindran that the sounds made by lizards have specific meanings. The meaning depends on the time and direction, he said. What time of the day or night and from which direction – east, west, etc. Ravindran dismissed Krishnan’s theory as mere superstition of an ignorant villager.

Now he understands the language of the lizards. They are saying that they are the real owners of the house. Of the earth. Ravindran is just a parasite here. A parasite that destroys the earth with filth of all sorts. As if to show their contempt for Ravindran, the lizards left their shit all over: on windowsills, shelves, behind the elegant art pieces mounted on the walls, just anywhere and everywhere. On the face of the wall clock, on the set top box of the TV, nothing was sacred to the lizards apparently.

Ravindran was a teacher in Gujarat for many years. He taught English language and literature in the senior secondary section of a reputed school in Ahmedabad. Literature is life, literature is love, he would chant every now and then to his young students who loved his passion for life and love.

Nothing can take the place of love. That was Ravindran’s fundamental philosophy. Not even gods. Especially gods that want your worship. If you want to be called by a thousand names and offered bhajans and aartis, what are you but a snivelling beggar? No, my dear boys and girls, there is no god but the love you can carry in your heart. The tenderness you feel for the guy sitting next to you, for the stranger you meet on the road as you walk back home after school, for the beggar in the city square, that tenderness is the only god worth having.

That god of Ravindran died a thousand deaths on the streets outside his school and residence after a train was set ablaze by some hooligans in Godhra. People chanting god’s name drove long knives into the hearts of their fellow beings. People chanting god’s name raped women as if it was a religious ritual and tossed little children into fathomless abysses.

Jai Sri Ram! The slogan rattled Ravindran. It was uttered by one of his own students who was tearing apart a girl’s clothes. The girl was his own classmate. Ravindran ran to rescue the girl. When he regained his consciousness, he was in a hospital bed. Helpless. Unable even to feel tenderness.

He quit the job and the place and returned to his village in Kerala. He shared home with lizards.

He cleaned lizard droppings every morning like a religious ritual. I have encroached your space, forgive me. He sought forgiveness from the lizards. They clicked or squeaked. The time didn’t matter. Nor did the direction. Ravindran understood the meaning of those clicks and squeaks. They were the real gospels. He knew.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Right wing myopia

Shyam was grazing his goats on the hillock when a group of men stopped their SUV on the roadside and walked towards him.

“If we tell you the exact number of goats in your flock, will you give us one of your goats?”

Shyam was amused. “Yes,” he nodded.

One of the young men took out his smartphone, fingered with it for a while and said, “123.” [The notorious IT cell of the party had apparently accessed Shyam’s flock too.]

“Right,” Shyam agreed. “Pick your goat.”

The men picked up a goat and carried it to their SUV.

“Are you from any right-wing organisation?” Shyam asked as they moved on.

“Yup,” one man said. “How’d you know?”

“Simple. First of all, you came to me totally uninvited. Secondly, you taxed me for telling me something I already know. Thirdly, you don’t know a thing about goats. This creature you’re carrying is my dog.”

This is an old story that I have adapted for this post. This story was kicked up in my memory by another adaptation of it in a Malayalam newspaper I read this morning. Next to the article which carried this story was a report about a Covid-19 patient who died in Kottayam [place in Kerala] yesterday and whose body could not be cremated because a BJP councillor from the municipality organised a huge protest against the cremation.
BJP-led Protest in Kottayam against a cremation

The dead man belongs to a Christian sect which does not have a cemetery in the locality. So the authorities convinced the relatives of the man to cremate the body in the municipal electric crematorium. A BJP councillor got a whole lot of women (and a couple of men too) to block the way to the crematorium under the pretext of safeguarding public health. The real reason? BJP’s usual strategy of communalising everything. A Christian corpse doesn’t belong in the municipal crematorium!  

Kerala was once described as a lunatic asylum by none less than Swami Vivekananda. The great monk was shocked by the inhuman insanity that prevailed in the state because of religions in general and caste discrimination in particular. Kerala learnt the required lessons and liberated itself from the clutches of savage totems that were misused by the upper castes in order to maintain their social dominance.

Today, thanks to BJP and its rapidly spreading myopic ideology, Kerala is reverting to the lunatic asylum it once was. The right-wing Malayalis have revealed the fangs and claws of their regressive and myopic vision time and again in the recent years. Just for the sake of getting a political upper hand, the entire atmosphere in the state is devilishly communalised by the supporters of BJP in Kerala.

This is the normal strategy of BJP and its associates all over India. They communalise everything from the Taj Mahal to the corpse in Kottayam. The entire socio-political reality in the country is seen through the myopic lens of religion.

By the time the majority of Indians realise that the balderdash dished out by BJP today has nothing to do with religion and it is going to create a lunatic asylum out of a whole country, too much harm would be done. Goats becoming dogs or Taj Mahal becoming Tejo Mahalaya is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface of these hilarious transmutations lie the real perversions of human minds and hearts. That perversion is the essence of the right wing’s myopia today.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Great people are strange

“Great people are very strange,” Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s protagonist Little Prince comes to that conclusion after his encounter with a king of a tiny asteroid. The king was delighted to see Little Prince because he didn’t have anyone to rule over in his kingdom. Without subjects to rule over, no one can feel like a king. To be a king means to boss over others.

Little Prince is bored by the king’s desire for a subject. He yawns. Yawning in front of a king is contrary to etiquette, the king points out. Little Prince explains that he is tired after his long trip and loss of sleep. “Then,” says the king, “I command you to yawn.”

Everything must go according to the king’s commands. When Little Prince says that he cannot yawn as per orders, the king says, “Then I … I order you to yawn sometimes and…” Little Prince can yawn whenever he likes. But he should pretend that all his yawns are in tune with the king’s orders.

“May I sit?” Little Prince asks.
“I order you to sit down,” King answers.
Little Prince has some doubts like what the king is actually ruling over on a tiny planet like this.
“I order you to question me,” King says before answering Prince’s question. He reigns over everything, he says. His own planet, other planets and stars.
“And the stars obey you?” Prince asks.
“Of course. They obey at once. I do not tolerate indiscipline.”

Prince longs to see a sunset, he says. King can order the sun to set. After all, he rules over the sun too.

That’s an unjust demand, says the king. “We must demand of each one what each one can give. Authority should rest on reason. If I command the people to go and throw themselves into the sea, there will be a rebellion.” Little Prince will have his sunset. But he should wait, wait until its time.

Prince wants to leave. This King is a big bore. [Which king is not?]

King doesn’t want to lose the only subject he has managed to get. Don’t leave, he says. I’ll make you a minister. King offers to make Prince his minister of justice. “You can judge that old rat,” he says. “You will condemn him to death from time to time. So his life will depend on your righteousness. But you will pardon it every time to save it. There is only one.”

When Prince insists on leaving this wretched place, King lets him go but appoints him his ambassador.

As we Indians commemorate the Kargil victory today, I was reminded of this King. Of course, I am patriotic enough to celebrate national victories over marauding enemies. What amuses me is the marauding itself. Whenever a puny mind wishes to assert his power over others, he attacks. That is what wars are in essence. The yawn of a boring ego.

All these great people ruling over countries are not very unlike the king in the story above. Their mammoth egos could be hilarious entertainments for ordinary mortals like us had they not been perverted marauders. Anyway, patriotism requires proofs and occasional marauds offer proofs or at least opportunities for creating proofs.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Colours of Truth

5 years ago in Delhi when I grappled with certain godmanly truths

There are no absolute truths except in rigidly well-defined systems like mathematics and science. Even a scientific statement like water boils at 100 degree Celsius is true only under clearly defined atmospheric conditions. Water will boil at 68oC on top of Mount Everest.

Mathematics can claim more absolute truths. A formula like sin2Ɵ + cos2Ɵ = 1 is absolute and won’t change even on the Everest. But what sense does that formula make to most people? The more absolute a truth is, the less valuable it is in day-to-day life. Absolute truths generally belong to specialised cliques and communes who have their own unique languages like trigonometry for example.

For ordinary mortals like me, absolute truths are like The sun rises in the east or The cow gives milk. But then if you ask me where the east is I’ll have to say that it is where the sun rises. [That’s like saying that David is Absalom’s father because Absalom is David’s son.] Imagine standing somewhere in the outer space far away from the earth and the sun. Where is the east? There is no east nor west in the infinite spaces. The absolute truth about the sun and the east is no more absolute than the cows giving milk. Some cows are too holy to give milk or anything worthwhile.

 Shelley told us two centuries ago that “Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, stains the white radiance of eternity.” The ordinary truths are all stained by life. When I say I love my country and choose to live in Birmingham with a Chinese wife, my patriotism may be little more than the occasional pangs of nostalgia for some lost moments of childhood happiness or a little more adult longing for a need to belong to a more familiar environment. Or it may be genuine passion for a cause that is yet to be understood clearly.

Life’s truths are blurred like the mirror in the bathroom after your shower. The infidelity of a woman can shatter the entire universe of a Hamlet. Yet we know that not all women are unfaithful to their husbands and hardly any significant number of them actually murder their husbands in order to sleep with another man. So what was the value of Hamlet’s truth? Yet didn’t his truth drive too many people to insanity or death?

Truths are multi-coloured. Your truth may be saffron while mine is blood-red. There are green truths too. A lot of colours, in fact.

Who cares anyway? We have learnt to call it the post-truth world.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Miracles happen

Lewis Carroll’s Alice could believe “as many as six impossible things before breakfast”. Impossible things do happen around us not too unfrequently. Miracles have their own places in our lives.

In his 1961 book Persuasion and Healing, psychiatrist Jerome Frank describes a treatment performed by the German physician Hans Rheder on three bedridden patients. One patient had an inflamed gall bladder and chronic gallstones. The second had had a pancreatic surgery and the recovery process was becoming tough. She lost weight rapidly and was reduced to a mere skeleton. The third patient was dying from a painful uterine cancer that had spread throughout her body.

Medical science stood gaping helplessly at these three patients. There was little that could be done anymore. So Dr Rheder decided to do something unconventional. He told all the three women that he knew a faith healer who could cure with remarkable success simply by directing his healing power to a specific place. Each woman was told that this healing power was going to be directed to her room on a particular day and time.

The day and the hour passed. Within a few days, the patient with gallstones lost all of her symptoms, returned home, and remained symptom-free for a year. The ‘skeleton’ woman began to eat and subsequently gained nearly 15 kg. The patient with cancer was already a terminal case, but her bloated body excreted excess fluids, she gained strength, and her blood count improved. She returned home and lived for 3 months in relative comfort.

Our minds can perform miracles. A lot of what we call reality is a creation of our minds. A lot of all that reality depends on our attitudes, perspectives, and emotions. Dale Carnegie’s two men look out from prison bars. One sees the mud while the other sees stars. That is the case with all of us. We see what we choose to see. We shape our destinies by what we choose to see and do.

Miracle is a change of attitude. There are many religious gurus and healers who actually perform miracles. Illnesses are healed by them. What really happens is a psychological change within the patients. They undergo a psychological transformation. Their bitterness and jealousy and ill feelings are taken out. A lot of illnesses are born of those bad feelings. When tenderness and goodness replace those bad feelings, healing takes place.

As a young man, I once interviewed one of those faith healers in Kerala. He was (and still is) a Catholic priest who ran (and still runs) a retreat centre in central Kerala where a lot of miracles were (and still are) taking place. I asked him whether what he calls miracles weren’t just psychological transformations. “Psychology works at the mental level,” he answered me. “Religion works with souls.”

I had problems with that because I didn’t believe in souls. “If I bring a person whose one leg is amputated, can you create the missing leg?” I persisted. The priest didn’t like the question though he answered it: “It is God’s will. We can’t question God’s will.”

The truth is that such miracles won’t happen. The miracles happen only when the mind undergoes a transformation. The miracle is a change of attitude, I repeat.

But as an older man today, I am ready to grant the concept of the soul. There is something more than the mind at work in the whole process. If you have ever undergone an inner transformation, you will agree with me. Otherwise, it is impossible to explain this.

A clarification: I am still a non-believer as far as God and religions are concerned. But I believe in goodness and miracles.

PS. The anecdotes from Dr Rheder’s experiments are taken from Passer and Smith’s book Psychology: the science of mind and behavior.  

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Happiness is so easy

Joy of Life: Painting by Francois Girard

“Mother asked me whether I have spoiled you by pampering you,” Sheena said. She was on the phone. She had sent me an image of her dinner plate some half an hour ago: one chapati folded neatly into two, three pieces of grilled chicken, a few slices of raw onion, and some homemade sauce. She is a good cook and loves doing it. I think she loves whatever she does. No wonder, she is always happy. It is a delight to talk to her; happiness spreads from her very being into our souls in a mysterious osmotic process.

Sheena (not her real name) is a class 12 student of mine. The online Parent-Teacher Meeting was over a couple of hours ago and I buried myself in the sardonic humour of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. When Thomas Cromwell’s “chief duty” of getting his king new wives and disposing of the old begins to weigh heavy on my aesthetics, I put aside the novel and pick up my phone. That’s when I see Sheena’s tempting dinner plate on WhatsApp. I write a casual response and move on to other messages. Soon the phone rings. The screen shows Sheena’s image.

My serene living room erupts into a bubbly world of quirks and sparks. There is the soft pitter-patter of the rain on the leaves outside. I turn the phone’s speaker on so that Maggie won’t miss the fun. Nobody would have imagined that what followed was a conversation between two teachers and a student.

Sheena had called to thank me for being “so gentle a teacher” during the PTM. Her mother had attended the meeting from abroad where she worked. “I often tell mother about you,” Sheena says to me, “and mother is concerned whether I am spoiling you with all this pampering.” Maggie and I laugh. The conversation is soon hijacked by the two of them.  

“How does she manage to be so happy?” Maggie asks when it’s all over. Sheena’s ebullience is contagious. It has flowed into Maggie too.

“Happiness is her existential status,” I answer. She is one of those rare souls that don’t need reasons to be happy. They don’t seek anything in order to be happy. They don’t derive happiness from something external. Happiness is within them. They are happiness. Happiness is them.

I know that life isn’t a bed of roses for Sheena. Being the eldest child, she has many duties at home especially since her mother is away. She does a lot of work at home. She studies well too. And she smiles a lot. She radiates joy around her.

Whenever people speak about happiness, Sheena rushes to my mind. You don’t discover happiness, Sheena teaches me. You don’t create happiness. You are happiness. Or else you are on the wrong road.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Nero’s Fiddle and Modi’s Muddle

Nero could not have played the fiddle while Rome burned. The fiddle didn’t exist in ancient Rome, for one thing. Ancient Roman historian Tacitus wrote that Nero was rumoured to have sung about the destruction of Troy while Rome was burning. He added that it was probably just a rumour. History has enough evidence, however, to show that Nero did initiate some relief measures though the people of Rome didn’t trust him. The Romans thought that Nero had started the fire himself in order to clear the area for the Golden Palace and the surrounding gardens that he constructed there soon. More interestingly, Nero later put the blame for the fire on the Christians who were a disliked minority in Rome in those days.

Two thousand years later, Nero’s soul seems to have found its appropriate material counterpart in no lesser an avatar than India’s Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi. Modi is fast-tracking his Central Vista project in Delhi which will cost the nation Rs 20,000 crore but will give Modi his coveted Golden Palace along with hopefully a golden place for him in the country’s history which is being rewritten hastily enough. Even a pandemic that is threatening to kill thousands of people doesn’t seem to deter Modi from his pet projects. After all, history will forget pandemics and its faceless victims. Golden Palaces will remain proclaiming the glory of their builders.

Compared with the cost of Modi’s Golden Palace in Delhi, the Rs 2500 crore temple in Ayodhya whose foundation stone will be laid next week by Modi himself should not be a burden on the national exchequer. More and more people are being driven to starvation by a pandemic that has gripped the nation as badly as the entire world. Hospitals and rehabilitation centres should take precedence over palaces and temples: did anyone say that?

A couple of years back, Modi presented to the world the tallest statue which cost India a whopping Rs 3000 crore. The proposed temple for Modi’s god doesn’t consume so many crores, mercifully. In a sheer display of absurd irony, the statue was named for national unity. Never in the history of India has national unity been under threat as in the years of Modi Raj. Modi thinks he can bury certain bitter truths under 20,000 cubic tons of cement concrete and 25,000 tons of steel with 1700 tons of bronze coating. Yet another cosmic irony too: the whole Indian national unity thing was fabricated by the Chinese – Chinese technology and Chinese labourers. A colossal statue whose one big toe alone can accommodate the entire Kothie village that was displaced along with many others in the process of the construction of the humungous dam whose lake houses the Statue of Unity.

Oh, the dam has a story to tell too. The Sardar Sarovar Dam, one of the biggest in the world, was Modi ji’s birthday gift to the country! The new version of the old dam was dedicated to the nation by the Prime Minister on his 67th birthday, 17 Sep 2017. The new version of the dam had displaced about 85,000 families, i.e., some 500,000 people.

The present pandemic has displaced more people from their workplaces. When these people are struggling to find a way ahead, our Prime Minister will be on the holy grounds of Ayodhya laying the foundation stone of a dwelling for a god who spent a substantial part of his actual life as a displaced person. Ironies are not new in Modi’s India, of course. Mercifully, Modi ji doesn’t know how to play the fiddle and has no inclination either. But he did sing about the battle of Kurukshetra when the pandemic was raging in the country.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Poop and Butter


Even after years of observation and contemplation Derry could not determine which side of the bread was to be buttered. The problem started when he was a little boy. Little Derry sat looking at the bread in one hand, holding the butter on the knife in the other, and wondering why he could not apply the butter on the other side.

“Okay, then apply it on the other side,” his mother told him with losing patience. Then Derry would wonder why the other side. Initially mother thought it was just a childish game. When it went on endlessly, she decided to take the boy to the parish priest for counselling and blessing.

“Both sides are created by the same God and hence equally holy,” Reverend Father Nicholas counselled little Derry.

“I thought the baker created the bread,” Derry said solemnly. He looked like Immanuel Kant saying, “I want to stop philosophising, but I Kant.” Rev Nicholas was offended by the boy’s solemnity. The priest was used to everybody saying Amen to whatever he said. Here was a kid questioning the limits of God’s creativity. “I don’t know why the Lord wanted children to go to Him,” said the priest as he crossed himself.

The epistemological metanarrative of the bread’s ontic dualism starts up a cosmic dance of neurones in Derry’s brain even today when he is in his late twenties and doing research on a COVID vaccine along with many experts who are biostatisticians, microbiologists, molecular biologists, pathologists, bacteriologists, virologists and a whole galaxy of researchers.  

There is a sense of urgency about this particular research quite unlike others. Usually all great research discoveries are made by mistake and the greater the funding, the longer it takes to make the mistake. The COVID vaccine research is different. It has the same urgency of Xi Jinping poaching on international borders like a congenital kleptomaniac and that of Pakistan acting like an impish boy who pricks the bum of a fighter with a pin stealthily while the duel is going on in a crowded street. There is an equally intense sense of urgency in the words of Derry’s own leaders who take a flight to a border area just to deliver a jingoistic speech on a camera.

Urgency everywhere. There is urgency in the prime-time TV debates. There is urgency in the adverts that creep into those debates. Smoking Kills, says an advert to COVID patients who are not sure of their tomorrow.

Tomorrow is becoming uncertain for too many people. The numbers rise every evening on the TV screens. Fourteen million urgencies in the world. 600,000 final farewells.

Derry’s government has other urgencies too. “BJP’s Maharashtra unit has raised 500 crore rupees to topple Ashok Gehlot government,” says the news headline on the TV. “Varavara Rao may have dementia,” says another headline. Dalit couple swallows pesticide as cops destroy their crops. The ever-rising prices of petrol and diesel have ceased to be news anymore. PM Cares Fund is not auditable. Who cares? As long as we have jingoism shouted loud from the nation’s borders, what does anything else matter? Patriotism is our birth right. Give me blood and I will give you patriotism. Jingoism, at least. Slogans, for certain.

Which side of the bread to butter? The question arose again in Derry’s mind like an eternal conundrum. Both sides are unholy. The baker is unholy. Killers are calling themselves Yogis today!

Who has messed it up all like this? So irredeemably? Doesn’t every politician know Burke’s Rule: Never create a problem for which you don’t have an answer?

Derry is standing outside his research lab, in the backyard, under a gulmohar with flame-red flowers. He needed a fag. Smoking Kills.

“Mitron,” a TV was audible from a nearby window. “In the fight against COVID, India has extended assistance to 150 countries,” the voice boomed triumphantly. Jingoism is going beyond national borders. Learn from us, China and Pakistan.

A sparrow drops its poop from the gulmohar and it falls right on Derry’s cigarette extinguishing it. Not only fart, but also poop! Derry is amused. And then voila! He is enlightened. Like the Buddha under the bodhi. Like Newton under the apple. He knows it. He knows who is behind it all. Behind it all. But it’s no use. It’s too late to do anything. Except go back to the research.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

English worship of mediocrity

One of the infinite paradoxes that haunt CBSE is its attitude to the assessment of English. A student in Kerala was awarded 100 marks in all subjects except English in the last class 12 examination. There may be other such students too but my information is confined to this case for now. My first question is why the student was deprived of one mark in English? [The other questions will follow soon.]

I have been an examiner of CBSE for two decades now. I have never succeeded in comprehending the Board’s claim to “objectivity” in assessment.  The Board gives an astoundingly protracted set of instructions to the examiner before the evaluation process every year in order to ensure “objectivity”. But don’t you dare to follow those instructions! If you do, you become an outdated gargoyle stuck up on a post-truth façade. Why? [That’s the next question.]

Why? Those instructions are only meant to help you to award marks liberally. Almost any answer can be accepted as right if you look at those instructions. Be liberal. Be generous. This is the sum of all those instructions. Then why do we need all these instructions? That’s the next question.

We need these instructions in order to cut down that one mark from the student who threatens to jettison the sacred convention of not awarding 100 percent to English. You can always find a clause or sub-clause with which you can slash half a mark here and another half there so that the perfect 100 loses its crown. Why does the Board do that?

Honestly, I have never figured out. The only answer given by CBSE’s ‘experts’ is that language can never be so 100 % perfect. “Language is also about style, Mr Matheikal,” one expert told me once. Of course, it is. I nod my head. So what? Which style is perfect? How do you judge that?

The truth is that the Board has no genuine answer to that as well as many other problems related to assessment. 100 percent in mathematics or physics doesn’t actually mean that the student has perfect mastery of those subjects. When it comes to English, however, perfection matters! Strange?

It is strange. But I have never been an advocate of excessive magnanimity in valuation of answer sheets. I detest the entire process which is a worship of mediocrity. Just this morning a senior secondary teacher of CBSE answered me with this message on WhatsApp to a related question: [My response is also there.]

All the twenty plus years that I have been an examiner, I have grappled with this enigma: why is every system [I was an examiner with other systems too before joining CBSE] tilted in favour of the mediocre? Why does the world belong to the mediocre so blatantly? The answer, we all know. Another teacher in the above-mentioned WhatsApp group reiterated it:

That’s it. Clear enough.

Now the question why English cannot be awarded 100 still remains a mystery. I hope some genius of CBSE or any other Board will condescend to enlighten me on this.

Next question is what the above WhatsApp comment implies without subtlety. Why is the English assessment system of CBSE is perpetrating this terrible injustice against the brilliant students? When it awards 98% to a mediocre student and cuts down the 99 of the brilliant one to 98 because 99 is meant only for the rarest of the rare [that’s what really happens at the evaluation centres, believe me], it is being shamelessly discriminatory against brilliance. This is one thing that I have never understood all these years that I have been an examiner.

Let me end this apparent diatribe on a personal note. During the evaluation process a few months back, I awarded 99 marks to a candidate whose answers revealed outstanding understanding of the literature lessons and a mature grasp of the social reality in the writing section. I decided to ignore the few minor grammatical errors; they were insignificant anyway in comparison with the content. But my Supervisors cut down one mark because of those grammatical errors. Yet another brilliant student merged into answer sheets that carried endless grammatical and spelling errors and, worse, seriously inferior content but scored 98!

Inferiority of the content is what really bugs me. Serious thinkers are always sidelined in this world that worships mediocrity. Why? That’s my last question. I know the answer. The above WhatsApp comment gives the answer. We all know it too. I’d like to put it this way, however: We’re scared of intellectual brilliance.  

Monday, July 13, 2020

The Awards I never received

Recently I reviewed a book in my blog. The author of the book did not express any opinion about the review though I was asked politely enough to add the review at two more places which I did. A month later I came to know that my review was sent verbatim by the author to another blogger who published it in her blog without making any change as if it was written by her. The author of the book went on to heap praises on that review and promoted it in various social media too. She even described it as the best review her book had received. Apologies and explanations followed in due course of time though I never pointed out any of these to the persons concerned. Someone else who knew me through my writings raised the question somewhere without my knowledge.

This happened when I had just turned 60, too old to be surprised by such events. Life makes you immune to surprises much before the age of 60.

I can say boldly placing my palm on my heart that I have done my best in the two fields that fascinated me: teaching and writing. My best may not be anything much for many. That’s a different matter. The point is that I placed my trust in sincerity to the job I did.

But I was never rewarded anything more than the monetary remunerations. People have made me write a lot and put their names to those writings. My students made me write references and then got them signed by bigger names in the profession. I have written much over the last many years which carried other people’s names and pics. I have seen teachers who hardly entered the classroom getting national awards for best teachers. Recently I was asked by a college professor to help him write a paper needed for his next increment. I refused this for reasons that have no relevance here. But this professor is someone who earns ten times more than I do and as far as I know he has hardly written any of his papers on his own.

These things happen. They stopped bothering me long ago. A thought occurred to me this morning, however. Does it happen because I am as unlovable a person as I think I am? That was my answer to the riddle so long. I know that I have many personal traits which make me quite detestable and that is precisely why I stay away from people. I am aware of my hubris, my absolute intolerance of views and opinions that I consider fatuous, my ruthless bluntness in expressing my views, my intrinsic misanthropy, and the agonising shyness that prevents me from looking like a social buffoon. More, I am sure. You’ll surely get them if you ask the thousands of people whom I have met as part of my regular affairs in the last half a century or so.

Okay, I accept my unlovableness. But then are all those people who get what they want and more, who get more than what they deserve, really the paragons of lovability? Or is it just that they know how to get what they want and more?

I think the latter is the point. If you look at it in a slightly different way, the real point is what is it that one really wants. Do you want the satisfaction of doing what you love to do the best way possible for you or do you want the accolades?

It may not be as simple as that either. It may be that you really don’t know how to manage both. Or you don’t know which matters more to you. Or you’re not as smart as you think.

That last point blinks at me with a devilish grin. I love that devil.   

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Ashwatthama is still alive

Image from Pinterest

“I met Ashwatthama.” When Doctor Prabhakar told me this, I thought he was talking figuratively. Metaphors were his weaknesses. “The real virus is in the human heart, Jai,” he had told me when the pandemic named Covid-19 started holding the country hostage. I thought his Ashwatthama was similarly figurative.
Ashwatthama was Dronacharya’s son in the Mahabharata. He was blessed with immortality by Shiva. But the blessing became a horrible curse when Krishna punished him for killing the Pandava kids deceptively after Kurukshetra was brought to peace, however fragile that peace was, using all the frauds that a god could possibly use. Krishna of the Kurukshetra was no less a fraud than a run-of-the-mill politician in my imagination. He could get an innocent elephant named Ashwatthama killed and then convert that killing into a blatant lie to demoralise Drona. He could ask Bhima to hit Duryodhana below the belt without feeling any moral qualms in what came to be glorified as a dharma-yuddha. The foundations of his morality were like tectonic plates that shifted as and when it suited him. If Dharma was so helpless in the hands of a God, where would it ever be safe? This was a problem that never ceased to beleaguer me.
Was Ashwatthama any worse than Krishna? I used to wonder again and again. At any rate, he was a better warrior. Moreover, his morality did not sway like a bamboo reed in the wind. If you can use deception, I too can. His dharma was as straight as the arrows he shot in the battlefield.
But Krishna seemed to believe that fraudulence was his personal prerogative.
“I love imagining Ashwatthama standing in the Pandava camp that night, after killing the Pandava children mistaking them for the illustrious warriors, and laughing like a contented savage.” I once told Dr Prabhakar. “Ashwatthama’s laughter must have been the last laughter of the Mahabharata. Tit for tat. You kill my father, I kill your children. “The futility of human dharma is what Ashwatthama’s last laugh underscores, Dr Prabha,” I said. “The ultimate farce is that this dharma has been taught by none less than a god.”
“But Ashwatthama didn’t know how to take back his weapon when he needed to,” protested Dr Prabhakar as if the inability to take back a fired bullet made you an inferior shooter. While Arjuna could take his Pashupatastra back, Ashwatthama was only able to redirect his Brahmastra at the last crucial moment even when the gods requested him. Ah, the gods, imagine them standing with folded hands before Ashwatthama! That was perhaps the most glorious moment in the entire Mahabharata, I used to gloat. Dr Prabhakar did not appreciate my irreverence.
But I did share Dr Prabha’s indignation about Ashwatthama sending his deadly missile into Uttara’s womb that carried Arjuna’s grandson. The end of the Pandava lineage was not what roused my indignation, but the attack on a woman, on her womb, on the innocent life that was just sprouting there.
“India has particular fondness for targeting wombs,” I said with a sigh. “We are Ashwatthama’s descendants.”
That is why Dr Prabha’s claim that Ashwatthama was alive did not perturb me. We are all Ashwatthamas, aren’t we?
Krishna cursed Ashwatthama for his dastardly act of driving a whole cosmic missile into a woman’s womb. “Live your entire immortal life carrying the stigma of a leper on you,” Krishna uttered with an uncharacteristic solemnity. Even Krishna could be touchy about certain things, you know. Thus the immortal Ashwatthama became an immortal leper.
“I met Ashwatthama,” Dr Prabhakar told me. “He had that terrible stigma on his forehead. A deep hollow that went as far as his brain. I could see his brain festering.” Dr Prabha was disconcerted and he was trembling. “He came to me for a painkiller. I stared at him for a moment and then asked, ‘Are you Ashwatthama?’ The man groaned. The groan faded away and also the man. It was like the Cheshire Cat fading away gradually. Like the Cat’s grin, this man’s groan lingered in the end. For a while.”
Ashwatthama is still alive, I told myself. We are all Ashwatthamas, aren’t we?
PS. This story was inspired by a reportedly real incident that I stumbled on this morning: Mahabharat: Is Ashwatthama still alive?

Pessimism of the gods

There is a romantic at sleep in my heart who likes to believe that people were better in the good old days. The people I saw as a child we...