Thursday, October 30, 2008

My Thoughts on Diwali Day

A well-known politician sent me Diwali greetings through sms.
My initial reaction was of surprise coupled with shock. Once I'd
gathered my wits, I sent him the following message. The text
is being reproduced for your benefit:
"I'm really touched by your gesture that you thought of exchanging
Diwali greetings with a 'small fry' like me. I hereby reciprocate your
sentiments and wish you a very happy Diwali. But if you really wish to
make me happy, please ask your field workers in Orissa to bring some
'light' into the lives of those they brought to ruin."
Note: Obviously, the gentleman belongs to a particular political party.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hello Friends & Viewers

Here's wishing all of you a very happy Diwali.
May this festival of lights bring good cheer and joy into your lives.
May God watch over all of us and give us the strength to walk through the dark corridors of life, with little candles in our tremulous hands.
May Allah protect us from harm that the dark forces around are only waiting to inflict upon us. May Christ show us the right path each time we are tempted to go astray.
May Satguru keep us in mind each time he doles out peace and joy to His people.
All our wishes and prayers must be secular in nature, if we have to realize the dream of creating a truly secular nation.

Friday, October 24, 2008

How to improve University Education in India?

Ever since Chadha Committee made its recommendations about the pay-scales, there has been renewed interest in the teachers, teaching, role of higher educattion and great deal of talk on how we can firm up the college/university (read higher education!) by offering higher salaries. Yes, I agree, if we have to attract 'talent' into teaching, we have to offer higher salaries (or salaries comparable to other professions such as bureaucrats, doctors, engineers, MBA's etc).
But tell me, what kind of 'talent' are our colleges and universities producing at the moment? How many of us would like to back up that 'talent'? And ask yourself: Is 'talent' (if it does somehow emerge in our society, despite all our efforts to snuff it out!) actually valued in the kind of mediocrity-worshipping society we have created for ourselves? After all, if our universities are not producing much 'talent' worth the mention, how do we expect 'mediocrity' to become 'meritorious' overnight? Those who think salaries alone can make all the difference need to think twice, or perhaps, several times over.
We are caught in a vicious cycle. We have little 'talent,' our society has no mechanism whereby it could sift grain from the chaff, and then we think, money will overnight create the much needed miracle. If our entire focus in higher education has been on quantity, we can't become 'quality-conscious' overnight and expect things to change dramatically. When quantity thrives, quality suffers. If you're not convinced, go ahead and read Marx's Das Capital.
Let's create a society that shuns 'mediocrity' and valorizes 'meritocracy.' That demands that we create a social mechanism whereby 'mediocres' are separated from the 'meritorious.' Let us put an end to the culture of 'sifarish' and 'nepotism.' Then we may be able to bring 'talent' or whatever is left of it into 'teaching.' High salaries alone won't do the trick. Those of us who think, it is so, are as myopic as our policy makers or politicians.
Let's not miss the wood for the trees.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Baba Farid de Shloka

1. The day a young girl is betrothed
The wedding day, too, is announced
And as the saying goes
The Angel of Death comes calling
To anoint the ceremony of ‘face-showing’
One day, wrenching the ‘poor soul’ out
By battering the bones dry
He sends out a message, loud and clear
That soul, his bride, shall abide its share of ‘allotted time’
And when the moment of final parting comes
With groom, waiting to take the bride away
Clinging to the shoulders of all, she shall cry her heart out
Now whose help shall she seek, and who would she turn to?
Haven’t you heard of a ‘bridge’?
As thin as human hair
Suspended between life and death
Journeying through hell, all souls must cross
Fearing their fall, forever,
O Farida! You sure can hear all the cries
As you stand on the shore, so delude no more!

2. O Farida! You are no more than a fakir
Hanging outside the door of your Sain
But with little bundles of worldly cares
Pressing down constantly upon your head
Go about as though you are a man of the world
Now if you seek Him, why not cast the bundles off?

3. Life is a puzzle, none can solve
Life is a mystery, none can follow
Life is a raging fire, none can douse
O Sain of mine! Had you not poured your Grace divine
This fire would have charred my limbs beyond recognition.

4. O Farida! You knew it well how few the seeds of sesame were
Then why didn’t you pick on each with caution and care?
Had I known that Breath, my Lord, was so impatient to go
I, the bride, would have been less vain than I was.

5. O Farida! Had I known that my ‘veil’ shall be in tatters soon
I wouldn’t have tied the ‘knot’ so hard and strong
My body has roamed the world all so free
But it has seen none as great as Thee.V

Hope you enjoy reading these shlokas.
Rana Nayar

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Can I Afford to Sleep Tonight?

Terror was there, out there
In some distant, far-off countryside
Growing wild amid corn and wheat
Like some straggly, old country cousin
I didn’t have to hear
The sound of the gun
I didn’t have to see
The mounds of corpses
I could sit pretty in my bed
And read the headlines
Or rush to the office
Poring over facts and figures
Buried in a heap of piles
I could easily forget

Terror came out of the countryside
It was still there, not here
Haggling in the market-place
Dressed as a well-bred city guy
I didn’t have to hear
The sound of the gun
I didn’t have to see
The mound of corpses
Sometimes in the afternoon heat
I’d attend funeral of a city boss
And walk back home
Laughing over a hearty meal
I could still forget

Terror started stalking the streets
Here, there, everywhere
Posing as a postman
Went to all my neighbour’s with a news
I didn’t hear
The sound of the gun
I didn’t see
The mound of corpses
Late in the evening
With my windows barred and shut
And doors latched securely
Sitting in my drawing room
And watching news on TV
I could pretend not to remember

Now the terror is at my doorstep
Knocking hard, banging the door
Looking somewhat like a policeman
Promises to deliver me of my enemy
I may not hear
The sound of the gun
I may not see
The mound of corpses
But I can see the blood spots
On my children’s faces
And mortal dread
In my wife’s eyes
Can I now pretend to forget?

Can I afford to sleep tonight?

Punjabi Language, Punjabiyat and the Punjab Government

By Rana Nayar

Only last month, the Punjab government has successfully pushed through two Acts; the ‘Punjab Official Languages Act’ (2008), and the ‘Punjab Learning of Punjabi and other Languages Act’ (2008). While the stated purpose of the first is to make the use of Punjabi mandatory within the official circles, that of the second is to make Punjabi compulsory up to class X in both the government and private schools.
As this has been done in fulfillment of one of the electoral promises of the Akali Dal, understandably the Acts in question are being hailed as a major victory, especially by the ruling party. It is also hoped that these Acts shall promote the use of Punjabi in the official circles as well as educational institutions, for they carry the provision of punitive action against the defaulters.
Now that the bills have already become Acts, it would be churlish, if not entirely futile, to debate over their merits or demerits. But as these Acts are likely to have some far-reaching ramifications for the Punjabi language and Punjabiyat, both of which are very close to the heart of every true-blue Punjabi, among whom I also count myself, the present intervention becomes absolutely necessary.
Though I’m ready to express cautious optimism about the efficacy of these measures, I find it difficult to share in the enthusiasm, even euphoria of the ruling party. Rather I’m saddened by the fact that it has taken us some sixty-odd years to initiate such steps for the promotion of Punjabi language, that too, in the land of its birth. Even if one were to grant the fact that this couldn’t have possibly been done until the Reorganization of the States in the region, this measure has come a forty years too late in the day.
Of course, the successive governments in the Punjab do owe it to the people to explain why it took them so long to wake up to the importance of Punjabi language? To put the record straight, one must mention that it was the Lachman Singh Gill ministry that introduced, even passed a similar bill in 1967, of course, minus the punitive action. One wonders why the earlier efforts in this regard failed to produce the desired results. One is also tempted to ask, legitimately, if the Act of 2008 has managed to plug all the loopholes that the earlier one was riddled with.
Going beyond, one may also like to ask, if at all, there is one-to-one correspondence between the legislative measures and the promotion of language. To my mind, there are lessons to be drawn from the aggressive manner in which the Central government has sought to promote Hindi as an official language through a series of legislative measures. Though the ‘Official Languages Act’ was promulgated as far back as 1963, and has since been used to promote (read ‘impose’) Hindi across the length and breadth of this country, it has failed to wear down the resistance of the Southern States to the extent it was expected to. If anything, the resistance to Hindi has only grown, not lessened over the years.
In fact, if there is one thing that has worked to the advantage of Hindi down South, it’s not the Act of 1963, but the ever-growing popularity of Bollywood. It wouldn’t not be wrong to say, it’s Bollywood that has done much more for the promotion of Hindi in the Southern States than all the governmental efforts put together. Strange though it may seem, there is a very important lesson to be drawn from this: that the popular media such as films and television can perhaps do much more to enhance the acceptability or popularity of a particular language than legislative measures ever could.
This brings me to another point. If we were to look through the history of languages, we shall discover that whenever efforts were made to install a particular language as the official language, it lost out on its popular appeal. Languages always reside in the hearts and minds of the people willing to own them up, and not in the drab, official documents and records. Besides, people generally tend to offer resistance to whatever they perceive as an imposition, be it language, religion, or culture. The other Act that aims to make Punjabi compulsory in both the government and private schools may also have limited impact, as it would remain restricted to the literates.
Undoubtedly, no language can flourish without state patronage, but state patronage alone can not ensure either its survival or its continuation, and much less its promotion and popularity. To my mind, the Punjab government would do well to remember this simple lesson of history while promoting Punjabi language through state patronage. Moreover, it also needs to bear in mind that the promotion of Punjabi and/or Punjabiyat may not be possible, without raising the level of literacy from its current 69% to, at least, 90%, if not 100%. It has to be realized that those who are out of this loop may be able to speak Punjabi, but sadly enough, can not read or write their own language.
This only means that, as far as this goes, we need to adopt a two-pronged strategy. If on the one hand, we need to initiate and sustain a state-wide, adult education programme, on the other, there is an urgent need to tone up our system of elementary education, especially in the rural and semi-urban areas, where the learning/teaching of Punjabi leaves a lot to be desired. One only has to look at the primitive, pre-modern ways in which the Punjabi language is being taught in the government schools or relate to the deficient manner in which the children often display their reading, writing or other related skills to realize the grimness of the situation. The whole purpose of promoting Punjabi is likely to be defeated, if semi-literates are all we manage to produce in Punjabi.
Besides, we need to strengthen the library network in the small towns and villages of Punjab. Even in those areas where the literacy rates are somewhat better than what they are in other places, people do not have access to a well-organized library network, with the latest editions of ‘readable books’ in Punjabi. It is a well-known fact that often libraries, especially in the backwaters, are used as dumping grounds for eminently unreadable books and the books that people often want to read are simply not there. Absence of a well-knit library network is bound to work against the cause of both Punjabi and Punjabiyat. Somewhere the promotion of Punjabi journalism, films and television also deserves as much attention as some other measures do.
In a nutshell, the Punjab government needs to back up its effort at introducing the Acts of 2008 with a series of related measures, if it really is sincere about promoting both Punjabi and Punjabiyat. For if it fails to do so, it may legitimately be accused of playing politics, a folly that future generations may find rather hard to forgive us for.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Dear Friends

Last month, Arundhati Roy wrote an essay in The Outlook. It was on Kasmir and Azadi. I found it extremely provocative and so felt a strong urge to respond. My response is in form of a letter I wrote to the editor (reproduced here). The truncated form of this letter was carried by The Outlook (Sept 15, 2008), too. I'm sharing this with you in the hope of starting a much bigger debate on the issue.

Rana Nayar

The Editor
New Delhi

Dear Sir
In her characteristic maverick style, Arundhati Roy (Outlook, September 1, 2008) has made out a strong, impassioned case for the Azadi of Kashmir from India and India’s Azadi from Kashmir. Her logic is that the historic moment for this “mutual” liberation has finally come as this time round, the battle cry for Azadi has been raised not by the ‘separatists’ but by the ‘people’ of Kashmir and whatever has happened in the streets of Shrinagar in the last few weeks is nothing but a “spontaneous response of the Kashmiri people” to decades of hurt, betrayal, torture and persecution by the “Deep Indian State.”
It’s not at all surprising that Ms Roy has chosen to advocate this line of argument. Vir Sanghvi (HT), Pradeep Magazine (again HT) and several other so-called enlightened intellectuals in the Indian media have been harping on similar quick-fix solutions to the Kashmir imbroglio, with almost unfailing regularity. It is as though Indian media is slowly but systematically mounting moral pressure upon the Indian State to grant “freedom” to the people of Kashmir.
I do not know whether such a position is reflective of ‘intellectual liberalism’ of the Indian media or is an expression of its absolute ‘intellectual bankruptcy.’ One does get the impression though that the so-called Indian intellectuals have jumped on to the popular bandwagon of the Kashmiri people (read ‘separatists’) and are openly siding with them. It’s people like these who have in the past sixty years of so, done incalculable damage to the Indian polity, the Indian State and the Indian Nation.
How can someone like Arundhati Roy be trusted to stand up for the Indian Nation/State, especially when she believes herself to be nothing more than ‘a one-woman republic?’ Though Ms. Roy personally admires and even to an extent casts herself in the mould of the great dissenter Noam Chomsky, she doesn’t seem to understand one of his basic ideas where he talks of an insidious process of “manufacturing consent” in a modern democracy.
What Ms. Roy describes as “the spontaneous response of the people of Kashmir” was nothing but a systematic attempt by the separatists to “manufacture consent” in favour of Azadi. Anyone who knows the history of democracy as an institution does know that its success or failure has always depended upon the ability (or the lack of it) of its leaders to manage what is popularly known as the “crowd management” or “mass mobilization.”
That mass hysteria is not necessarily an expression of popular will is something that Ms. Roy needs to understand very clearly. Besides, she is forgetting that Kashmir is not just a question of ‘national prestige’ or ‘stature’ (false or real!) for the Indian State. If it is holding on to Kashmir at such a heavy cost (which is more than Rs. 10, 000 crores annually), it is only because the very notion of India as a nation is at stake. Following Ms. Roy’s skewed logic, if we were to grant “freedom” to Kashmir today, the whole fabric of India as a nation is likely to fall apart. There are states within the Indian State that are just waiting to secede. In other words, what Ms. Roy is suggesting is that “the tryst we made with destiny” on August 15, 1947 needs to be abandoned now as a national goal, mission or commitment. Sorry, Ms Roy, we are not with you!
I sincerely wish Ms. Roy you had instead made out a case for federalism in India, something in support of which all right thinking Indians need to mobilize the public opinion, today. It is not that the Indian State has failed to deliver in Kashmir alone (where perhaps it’s a case of over-delivery of everything, money and cops included), but it has failed to deliver virtually in every other Indian state as well. The point is simple. Indian State is too vast and too diverse to be governed from New Delhi. If the development of the people at the grass roots has suffered immensely in practically every State (and it’s nobody’s case, it hasn’t!), it is mainly owing to the ills resulting from over-centralized form of governance.
If it is a historic moment of some kind, then it is time to reflect on our top-heavy and top-down model of democracy and make efforts to show political sagacity and vision by going in for the federal structure, whereby greater autonomy is conceded not only to Kashmir but to other Indian states as well. Concurrently, the special status already accorded to Kashmir should henceforth be withdrawn. That is where the real answer lies; not in patch-work, knee-jerk solutions of the kind that Ms. Roy and her tribe keep bandying, from time to time.
Let’s keep our feet firmly planted on earth (as Gandhi once said) and let us not allow ourselves to be swept off our feet by Ms. Roy’s extremely seductive, almost Ciceronian ‘rhetoric.’
Yours sincerely
Rana Nayar

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reflections on August 15

I walk the pavements of Chennai
With men and women yawning in my face
As if saying, now that you’ve forgotten us
Why don’t you just let us sleep
And the children sleeping over the garbage
Waking up with a shriek
As if crying, why couldn’t you lend us
Some of your dreams
What should I tell them?
Should I tell them of that fateful day
When we all won our freedom
Or of the night Nehru couldn’t sleep
Or that we haven’t slept ever since
Should I tell them
That all our dreams are now mortgaged
In the Swiss banks
And that now
I sleepwalk in eternal wakefulness
But how,
How can I tell them all this
When I know
My language is not
What they speak or understand
In this season of death
Seeing, listening, saying and hearing
All is dead.

Our Political System: A Few Observations

Dear Friends
Jassi Khangura (Congress MLA from Qila Raipur) wrote an extremely thought-provoking article in Indian Express (Op-ed, October 14, 2008) on the role and responsibility of the legislators. I recommend it to all my friends who, like me, are disillusioned with the present political system and are waiting desperately for it to change. In order to initiate debate on this issue, I'm reproducing my response to Mr. Khangura's article, which he was kind enough to acknowledge (something, let alone the Indian politicians, even the Indian editors are not known to do in our times of growing pompousness).
Here is the original text of the letter I wrote to him:
Dear Mr Khangura
I hope I can take the liberty to address you in this manner. There is something about the tone of your article in Indian Express today that inspires enough confidence in me to do so.
Let me start off by saying that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your piece in the Indian Express (Oct 14). It's so refreshing to know that there are right-thinking and truth-seeking people among our legislators and politicians, too. Over the years, we have only got used to people who believe in double think and double speak.
You belong to a rare breed of 'politicians' who not only have an impeccable sense of what the legislators are supposed to be doing but also have the necessary courage and conviction, I believe, to do their duty without a blink. Your article has restored my faith in Indian politics and political system.
Let me confess that I belong to that growing species of intellectuals (I'm a university professor and teach English at PU) who have developed eternal distrust of and cynicism towards politics, politicians and the political system. We are not in any way to be blamed for this state of affairs. I think, it's the practice or rather several ill-practices of Indian democracy, over the past sixty years or so, that must be held responsible for this.
My prayer is that may your tribe grow in number and influence, so that we can effectively hope to bring about the much needed change and reform in our society and polity. I think it all begins with the kind of acute self-consciousness about what we are doing and the way we are supposed to be doing it. (Your article gives ample proof of the way you have brilliantly conceptualized and summed up the role of the legislators. Please make sure that all the legislators get to read it, at least, once). I wish, bureaucrats, academics and other sections of society, too, decide to follow the lead you have provided and do some soul-searching the way you have.
I also feel that time has now come when we should stop thinking in terms of the political parties (polarization along the political spectrum is turning out to be quite a sham, as all of them seem to be functioning in the same manner and also following the same politics of separateness and divisiveness. What else do you say for a country where the citizens are only perceived as the vote-banks?) and start thinking in terms of right-thinking, pro-people politicians and ill-disposed, anti-people politicians. And regardless of what their political affiliations are, the right-minded politicians must come together (I see Mr Manpreet Badal as your natural ally in this respect) and start working for the welfare of the people and society.
Mr Khangura, you are bang on target when you say that the legislators are doing everything except what they are supposed to be doing, that is, legislate effectively. That's a comment on our society where all the institutions such as executive, judiciary, bureaucracy and media are serving ends other than what they are originally meant to serve. This is why we get to see so much of direction-less-ness in our society and every institution is today threatening to usurp the role of the other, rather than perform its own.
I remember having visited Canada and learnt about the way legislators are chosen by the people at the grassroots and not imposed from above. Their sole criterion is the kind of social/community work an individual does at the local level. And the decision in this regard is not taken by someone in the federal government but by the local people themselves. Why shouldn't people have the right to choose their representatives? Why must they always be forced to choose lesser of the two evils, as is the case in our country right now?
I wish we are able to bring in some of these ideas into our polity and inject some healthy political practices into our system. Perhaps, people like you could take a lead in this respect and help cure our polity of, at least, some of the several ills it is afflicted with.
I would like to meet you sometime and learn more about your future plans.
I wish you good luck and success in all your future ventures.
With warm regards
Rana Nayar
Professor of English
Panjab University

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Breathing Spaces

A road
From my heart
Curls back to a village
Where an old peepul tree
Stands guard
Against the termites of time
In broad daylight
Shades a sun-tanned child
And at night
Ghosts of memory
Dance in the hollow
A canopy stretched over a broken well
Cloying intensity of a mother’s love
Sometimes oozing
Sometimes dripping
Sometimes flowing
Into an onward stream
Rushes thro’ the green fields
Well bounded
By a red brick wall
Flushed with the anger
Of a stern father
I could not stay rooted
Like the peepul tree
And moved away
Leaving the green fields behind
The red brick wall
A mere stain on my conscience
But I carried
A little garden in my heart
Where a white rose blooms
By midnight
When breathing spaces die
On the edge of my gas chamber.