Category Archives: institutions

2014 elections: the death of decency

The ordeal is finally over. After more than a year of having to endure twitter/facebook posts on economics, history, politics, ethics and conspiracy theories by people whose only information came from a couple of books and random websites, one hopes things might cool down a little (for now at least). We have a new government, and its immediate effect should be the suspension of catfights on social media. The social media websites must have been banging their heads about using precious hardware to store the crap generated by Indians over the past year, all of which pointed to the same thing: the death of decency within Indian society.

It may matter who holds power at the centre, or it may not. But one thing is certain: to call ourselves citizens of one nation, members of one civilisation or simply human beings requires traits that have been completely abandoned over the past year. Mutual respect, restraint in thought and action, tolerance of opposing world-views, attempts to put oneself in the other’s shoes — all these are vitally important as we Indians march towards a future where each and every individual has the capacity to hurt many people, both physically and psychologically. Like someone once said, it is foolish to expect that leaders will be good or even decent; It is upto the people to provide the counterbalance to the inevitable abuse of power by political leaders. This is possible only when we embody the traits mentioned above, among others. Without these, we become susceptible to manipulation and eventual physical or mental slavery.

Before going ahead, one thing must be acknowledged: Politics, however practiced, is a dirty game: one cannot sip tea in elegant settings and talk high-minded philosophy in the process of engaging in politics. Politics is a game to garner as much power to oneself within the framework of certain rules (which are rarely followed, unfortunately). It is unlikely that someone indulging in politics, for however noble a cause, will come out of it more emancipated than before he entered it (There are exceptions to this rule, but that’s what they are: exceptions). The only hope is to emerge out of politicking with at least the same amount of dignity that one went in with. It is by this metric that the ‘politically awakened middle class facebook user’ has miserably failed.

I mention Facebook simply because that is the one medium to which I have been exposed (not fatally, one hopes), dinosaur that I am. But without doubt, this has been the case with every medium out there, web-based or otherwise. Long-term friendships have broken apart. Prejudices in the form of ideals have hardened due to the incessant brainwashing. Respectful dialogue has been replaced by invective. Personal identities have been drowned by the mob identity. Self-criticism and introspection has given way to a smug self assurance typical of morons, even among otherwise discerning people. All this in the name of getting this or that crook into power.

This is one fact that all of us must agree upon: politicians, regardless of their place in the spectrum, are crooks. And all we have achieved is break bonds and burn bridges in the name of one or the other, arguing that this or that crook is less crookish than the other and therefore a great hope for the nation. The politicians, party workers and other assorted hired guns have always been hungry for power, regardless of what they tell themselves or others. It has been justified by various means: For a United and Strong India. For a Corruption-Free India. For a Secular India. For the Dalits. For the Muslims. For the Hindus. No matter what the justification, all one wants is the means to power. I am not being cynical, but merely stating a matter of fact. What one does with power is normally secondary during elections to the actual acquisition of power. In the song-and-dance sequence that is the Indian elections, any and all means to attract attention is used, and most of them have the unfortunate consequence of dividing people. What the British taught us over a hundred years ago, we have learnt well. Probably, too well.

About the elections themselves, one thing was certain: the Congress Party was going to lose, and lose spectacularly. This was obvious for a very long time. Even if there were no scams, the sheer force of anti-incumbency would have removed them from power. The scams and the global recession/volatility (which was not under their control) helped a great deal, no doubt. The same thing happened in Karnataka, when the extremely corrupt BJP government was overthrown and power was handed over in a platter to the only alternative by the people. This would have happened even if the Karnataka Congress Party had sleepwalked through the elections.

The reason I brought this up is to underline the fact that the Indian voter is not stupid, and not insulated from the happenings on the ground (unless he is posting photos of what he ate on Facebook). The spectacular fall of the BJP in Karnataka happened without major drama in the social media and without the spewing of venom at all and sundry. This begs the question why this was the case in the national elections.

Though religious missionaries are always in the news for almost always the wrong reasons, we have seen the emergence of multiple missionary orders during this elections. Facebook Missionaries of BJP, AAP and INC were of course the most vociferous,  but others were present too. Their activity was the source of both amusement and concern. They ensured that our elections became Americanised, with cults of personality taking prominence over ground realities. It was sad and shocking to see one politician’s ‘undeclared’ wife being subjected to a media circus. Another politician being slapped or having a shoe thrown at him was celebrated with glee. ‘Friends’ on Facebook were calling each other Fascists, Naxalites and AAPtards (whatever that means). Caricatures were no longer for irony, but for vicious attack. One conspiracy theory video on Youtube was answered using another video, left-leaning articles being shown as the reply to right-leaning articles. A sad way to expend the enormous energy and creativity India today radiates, to the whole world’s envy. Like all missionaries, the desire to impose one’s world view on others at all costs has disabled the lifeblood of Indian civilisation, that which has kept her alive for thousands of years: the capacity to understand, assimilate and create.

All in all, India now has a poisonous, divisive and menacing air about it. Of course, this is not the product of one elections, but a progressive trend caused by the systematic application of the tactics of the British Raj by all the political parties with the hope of ‘harvesting our souls’, as someone put it. With the polity in tatters and hopelessly divided, no counterbalance exists to keep our leaders in check. That, to me is the greatest contribution of the BJP, INC and AAP in this election. Congrats, and all the best!

The ‘Practical’ person

Being practical seems to be normal state of being for the majority of the people. In fact, being practical is often equated with maturity, adulthood or ‘coming of age’. It is considered that magical threshold beyond which you finally understand your place in the cosmos and how it (the cosmos) works. You now can share the table with the big boys, with that glass of liquor essential for socialising among practical people.

Watching so many people make this transition (since this is the age (25+) around which most people take that leap into the abyss) gives fodder for thought and amusement. The first visible change is in clothing: you shift from the ‘Yo!’ clothing of your foolish, immature, larval/pupal stage into the big, beautiful wings designed by van Heusen or a cheaper brand. Running shoes are now, unfortunately, used only while running. Spectacle frames thin down (while your own frame fills up), your favourite sports watch gives way to a less accurate, but way more expensive, analog watch.

The second visible (and audible) change is in language and mannerisms: gone are the golden days where you could spout four letter words with gay abandon; you start to address each other with great civility, which most of the time is not very sincere. You start talking intelligently about topics you have no clue about, especially those pertaining to the economy and politics, with Facebook being the ideal place to show your ignorance and practical (i.e., worldly) bent of mind. You look forward to shaking hands with other practical people and vice versa; you would never shake hands with children or other such degenerates. Phones are now a means to balance bank accounts rather than multiple girlfriends.

Though I find practical people amusing, it does not mean I don’t respect them. It is within the structures created by practical people that impractical people like vegans and scientists (or what is worse, vegan scientists) can survive and even thrive. They are the cogs of that giant machine we call civilisation, on which some lazy, good-for-nothings get a free ride. Practical people run the world, may be even helped create it, though it is unlikely they would ever be able to conceive of it. They are normally peaceful, predictable and law-abiding, since they find comfort in following law, ritual and custom, without thinking too much about them.

Adulthood is a most unfortunate period in life. It is the time when practical people combine the worst qualities of the infantile and senile. Thus, they are stubborn, cranky, narrow-minded, think they know better, and are proud of being so. You can bully children and ignore the old, but these options are unavailable when dealing with practical people. Because of their strong conviction that they understand the world and how to go about life, they are fiercely combative when faced with something outside their ‘operating parameters’, and go on to advise the ill-informed on the correct ways to lead life.

The practical life is like the perfect prison: you know you are in it, and are proud of being in it and never want to leave it. It ensures you can keep body and soul together by an incessant performance of certain rituals and without the anguish of constant self-doubt or constant self-improvement. Practical people do admire people from outside their world, but only if they gain success in terms that make practical sense, like money or fame. However, this admiration is accompanied by the belief that they can (and should) only dream about such things from the safety of their couch.

It must have been a practical person who first thought of cursing people using the phrase ‘may you live in interesting times’. But then, this is a Chinese curse, and the Chinese are known to be very practical people. Being practical ensures you fit in, blend, and most importantly survive. Being practical means understanding and accepting the way the world is structured. It is something like travelling using public transport: Only an impractical person will wait for a direct bus from Yeshwantpur to R.T. Nagar (for example). The practical person understands it is easier to get a bus to Mekri circle, change over to a Yelahanka bus, and then finally get a bus from C.B.I to R. T. Nagar. If you don’t understand the previous sentence, you obviously are not a very practical person.

On the other hand, the impractical person, will have to wait for half an hour, finally give up, hitch a ride half the way, walk few kilometers, lose her way, ask a few people for directions, and finally land at her destination half an hour late. However, during this ordeal, she might have met some interesting people at the bus stand, some kind person willing to give her a ride, noticed a small bookstore that is only visible when you walk past it, increased her patience, humility and stamina, and probably figured out some problems with the public transport system which, if she ever gets into a position of power, she might change for the better.

A world overrun by impractical people will be unliveable; in the same way, a world ruled by practical people will be brittle and intolerant. While civilisation may be by, for and of practical people, it makes a lot of practical sense to carry along the free-riding man-children who carry in them the seeds of unconventionality which will make all the difference when what is practical today becomes impractical tomorrow.

What to remember, what to forget?

Humans are creatures with a gigantic memory. The evolution of the written word made it possible to store things outside our brains, and hence more safely for very long periods of time. This gradual accumulation has resulted in a memory too large for any single human to remember or grasp. Only collectively do we know a lot.

Sooner or later, the question of what is important and worth passing on, and what can be neglected or lost in the sands of time would have cropped up. This is because even external storage of memory is not costless. Different civilizations came up with different answers to this question. Indians seemed to have thought that lessons from history are more important than history itself, and thus have left us with very little solid historical data, which is why the huge controversies surrounding the ‘construction’ of ancient India. Europeans were more meticulous, and have always had a good tradition of storing away bits of information from life thousands of years ago.

But why is it important to remember? Goethe took a shot at this question, and said

He who cannot draw on 3000 years is living hand to mouth.

which is simply another way of stating what Newton said:

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The biggest advantage humans have over other living creatures is our capacity to build cultures, and it is on the basis of this culture that we can ‘move ahead’ without (literally!) reinventing the wheel every generation. This is why we have schools, so that we can remember something, and social institutions, so that something else can do the remembering for us.

But this memory can as easily be a disadvantage in many ways: First, not everyone who draws on 3000 years can rise above it to think for themselves. Knowing too much may kill creativity and the capacity to face a changing world. Second, remembering everything may preclude the possibility of forgiveness and healing. This is what is happening in India and America after 2002 and 2001 respectively. The intention is to ‘never forget what happened’ and the very memory breeds anger and hatred.

Thus, some people try and make a case that forgetfulness is as important to humanity as is remembrance. Thus, even when one is saddened by the news that Muslims in Gujarat are voting for Modi in the name of restoring normalcy,  one understands why it is happening. Shiv Vishwanathan believes that people are forgetting what happened due to Modi simply because all of today’s stories are written in the language of economics, which fails to capture the evil Modi represents. In fact, he is made to look like someone who has made Gujarat great if one only looks at the economy side of things. Same with the Bhopal gas tragedy. ‘Victims’ were converted to ‘patients’ and then to ‘vagrants’, simply by changing the language in which memory was constructed.

While this interpretation is undoubtedly true, one must also understand that even if the language changes, the want for people to restore normalcy to their lives will never go away, and that bearing a burden as heavy as the Gujarat riots maybe too much for most.

This brings us to today’s time. Semiconductor and magnetic memories have become so accessible and cheap that I believe that the 21st century will be a watershed for humanity: It is the time from which we forget practically nothing. Forever. The principle of important vs. unimportant memories simply no longer has any relevance. People are clicking photos using their phones and their cameras; recording voices and songs; recording every small detail of their lives on Facebook and blogs. It is no longer sufficient to experience something beautiful (or trivial for that matter), but to capture/record it from every angle and tweet about it, paste it on your wall and upload to Flickr or Picasa. The 21st century is the veritable historian’s nightmare: with nothing forgotten, he has to sift through immense data to try and make any sense of the world he will inherit from us. Undoubtedly, the day is not far when writing history will need the assistance of machines.

The demons of memory will haunt us now more than ever before in history. The issue is that it is not experience that makes us wise, but what we learn from experience. This requires a certain distance from what we experience, a kind of ‘greying out’ or ‘blurring out’ which is no longer possible as our entire lives are recorded in HD quality video. We have become ‘knowledge brokers’, but to rise above mere knowledge and pass onto posterity real lessons of history might no longer be possible.

Does everything really matter? If yes, does it matter to everyone around us, to the rest of the world? Just like Calvin says:

I’ll bet future civilizations find out more about us than we’d like them to know.

Subsidizing spirituality

If we define as ‘spiritual’ pretty much anyone who does not worry (or have to worry) about getting his daily bread (which would include swamis, scientists and musicians), then it seems strange that those who actually put in hard work to earn money somehow willingly part with it to keep the other kind alive. It does not seem to end with just economically subsidizing them, but also allowing them to behave in ways simply unacceptable normally even though they are, for all purposes, under the mercy of the people who pay them. You do not have to think hard to find examples — Musicians, actors and spiritual gurus have not all been exactly role models, but they still seem to get by pretty well, even better than those who collectively keep them alive.

A straightforward and somewhat simple-minded reason for such collective insanity would be that the ‘spirituals’ are somehow brainwashing the mob into such behavior, that some version of class antagonism goes on behind such dynamics. It is of course valid in some situations, but cannot explain the general trend. Similarly, one can give evolutionary explanations saying the if a society has to evolve, it must always have variety, and somehow this is unconsciously understood by everyone and this is the reason why we subsidize cranks and academics.

However, a deeper look into human nature always shows a desire for transcendence. No matter how rich or poor and regardless of location, this is always noticeable. To transcend time and space, to leave a mark which remains beyond personal existence has forever been something we have been striving for. From hopes of being immortalized by folk tales and songs to training our children to be like us (or better), this desire crops up everywhere. Since the’ spiritual’ section of humanity aims at creations which seem to fit exactly such ambitions, the synergy between some strange kind of demand and supply is hard to miss. From gurus puporting to explain inner space and scientists outer space and musicians trying to link both, all the while creating edifices of thought, emotion and technique which remain with humanity for ever, these people naturally have something that the people can tap into, either by ‘consumption’ of their works of looking up for guidance in their own quest.

However, this relationship is not as one-dimensional as the above description might suggest. A good example is that of the Sringeri Math in earlier times. It was the largest landowner in the region and simply because of its size was dependent not only on the donations of the common people but also the good-will of the local rulers. Similarly, the rulers understood the influence the Math had in the region and patronised it for political reasons if nothing else. Hence the basis for the extremely cordial relations between the Math and Tippu Sultan.

All over the world, religious institutions played an important role in the material life of people, and continue to do so in India. The best recent example is the Gadag land acquisition issue where in the forefront of the agitation were the heads of the various Maths in the region, since the local BJP MLAs obviously would not do anything about it. In fact, until the deliberate attempts of the British to dismantle it, everyday life in India seemed to revolve around local institutions and were largely insulated from the vagaries of the large scale political vagaries. In such a situation, an ‘impartial observer’ who was largely insulated from the demands of normal life was naturally needed, and in a strongly religious country like ours, no guesses as to who would be that observer.

Afer India went onto the path of modernization, and the temples of modern India were being built, there are again no surprises as to who were to lead the discussions and debates on how life should be organised. New religions require new priests. Scientists of Nehru’s time were very active in public life due to the mandate given to them to build a modern nation, a trait that is not very conspicuous among scientists today, given that India has a new religion called economics. There were, of course exceptions to the rule, people who were truly unaccountable for their actions either due to extreme mass appeal or asceticism, but these are exceptions that prove the rule.

Societies seem to subsidize certain capabilities and allow strange behavior when they see how influential they can be in everyday life — either by helping them forget the humdrum of daily life, if only for a moment, as entertainers or inspirers, or by making life easier to live by reaching for concepts not everyone has the time or the talent to absorb. Spirituality, on the other hand, cannot survive unless it comes down from the skies once in a while and actually dirties its hands in the slush that all those who support it have to wade through daily.

Those on the ground want to reach for the skies, whereas those up above will do well to keep their ears to the ground. Just as life flourishes where the earth and sky meet, civilization can sustain itself when the farmer and the philosopher can actually understand each other.

The Subject-Object distinction

A basic ontological position that is taken up in the quest for knowledge is that of  Subject and Object. The Subject is the Observer, the Object the Observed, and there has to be a definite distinction between both. Once this is setup, the observer uses some means of acquiring knowledge about the observed, be it meditation, divine revelation or the new-fangled thing called the scientific method. The knowledge acquired about the Object, through a means that is independent of the Subject is thus ‘objective knowledge’. This kind of knowledge is supposed to reflect reality as it truly is, without contamination by the biases of the observer.

It is easy to see why the scientific method of repeated observation and experimentation is the preferred mode knowledge acquisition – God apparently reveals to people of every religion that theirs is the true religion or that theirs is the superior religion, and obviously not everyone can be right, i.e, there is some ‘contamination’. Of course, the previous statement implicity assumes that there is actually a single reality, but without that assumption, one falls into the critical theory mire, which to me is the worse of the two alternatives. Thus, the scientific method, atleast in theory, can be relied upon to produce subject independent knowledge about some object.

The crucial thing, again, is the fact that we must be able to provide a clear separation between the observer and the observed for this to work. Without this separation, the scientific method is as good as divine revelation. There are quite a few objects that are amenable to this separation – the solar system, atoms, molecules, plants, animals, ice-cream, among other things. However, there are certain objects that do not allow such a distinction (Of course, you cannot call it an object anymore, but Im retaining the nomenclature and discarding the ontological connotation).

For example, the stock market – If someone gives you ‘objective knowledge’ that there is a good chance of the stock market crashing and you pass on that information and you and your friends selling all your holdings triggering a crash, there is absolutely no way of telling whether the crash would have happened if you did not know that it would happen. Another example would be the ‘study of the Self’ – If you figure out through psychoanalysis or meditation or something else that ‘humans are essentially xyz’, and you begin to see yourself acting (or trying to act) in that manner, it is difficult to gauge whether behavior follows the statement or vice versa. This is not to say that humans are not xyz, but whether they are only xyz. If someone subscribes to the Freudian prescription of  the mating instinct dominating our actions or the Christian one that Man is incomplete without God’s grace, and tries to interpret his everyday action through such a framework, then he is likely to see that everything ‘fits’. But it is evident that there is no way that this is objective knowledge.

The previous paragraphs can be considered as a very short summary J. Krishnamurti’s line of thinking – that there exist situations where the subject-object distinction does not hold and thus statments about objectivity or subjectivity make no sense. The critical theorists in addressing the same issue come to the conclusion that everything is subjective – made famous by the statment ‘ Death of the Author’, but the issue to me cannot be interpreted from the subject-object perspective – the negation of objectivity need not only be subjectivity but also lack of both.

Take the example of a drama – one may imagine that there is a clear distinction here between the observer and the observed. But if one takes another look, the drama is written and produced keeping the audience in mind, for otherwise there is no point in it being performed, and thus the audience is also part of the play – the observer is also the observed. The drama, as it unfolds, is a dialogue between the performers and the audience and can thus be interpreted only as a whole. A ‘flop’ is one which fails to bring about this unity, with the dramatist complaining about how backward his audiences are. The drama is simply not situated within the correct context, which alienates the audience from the drama.

Similar questions arise in other places as well – can historical records and religious texts be interpreted by an observer who is not also the observed ? In India, the interpretation of history is a huge controversy. But neither the Hindutva glorification of the spiritual nor the Marxist focus on the material can do justice, since neither ‘lives’ the history – it is an exercise in textual interpretation. The only true history can come from someone who actually lives it. Similarly, atheists/rationalists tearing apart religious texts serves little more than angering others.

Another interesting place to look at is music. It is well known that most classical music is also religious music – some of the finest music has been in the praise of God (regardless of definition). Is is possible to appreciate Handel or Tyagaraja without sharing the intense experience of divinity (again, regardless of how you define divinity) that lead to the actual creation of the music ? Bland technical music criticism leads to a ‘fossilization’ of the music just as textual criticism of religion only shows a religion that is ‘dead’ – both lead to unnatural and normally harmful ideas of  ‘purity’ which do not allow any evolution of the object under scrutiny. A true purist will try and maintain continuity rather than stasis – not hinder evolution, but participate in deciding its direction.

This question is more important now than ever, given that natural scientists and engineers are called to take on the burden of examining and interpreting phenomena that are complex beyond comparison to the objects of study which they initially started off with, which decided their methodology. Unless we evolve new ways to understand reality, all we will be doing is tuning zillions of parameters, looking for an Objective Model of the World.

Education from the bottom up

Just finished Ela Bhatt’s book ‘We are poor but so many’, which is quite a strong reminder as to how radically different the outlook, needs, tastes of the invisible 70% of our country is when compared to our own.

Benchmark for the entire planet!!
Benchmark for the entire planet!!

Bhatt recounts her experiences with women of various trades in and around Ahmedabad and around Gujarat, notably ragpickers, vegetable sellers, rural embroiderers who see that their strength against exploitation by the middlemen serving people like us is in their collective bargaining power, in their numbers. SEWA is an trade union of, for and by women in the lowest strata of society.

Bhatt tries to make the reader understand the various dangers and difficulties a poor woman has to face and how things change when their confidence (almost synonymous with financial independence) rises. As a source of both information and inspiration, this book is very useful.

In the same vein, one can envision of an education that suits the needs of those that recieve it, rather than a one-size-fits-all package shoved down children’s throats nowadays.

There have been many people who have thought hard about children’s education, but probably none could put it in stronger terms than Ivan Illich in ‘Deschooling Society‘:

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.

Another interesting person is Krishna Kumar, whom I have already written about. Both, albeit in very different tones, make the same basic point – Education no longer helps children to relate to and understand their surroundings, but rather encourages them to insulate themselves from it, preferably by getting onto the middle class bandwagon. This strategy worked spectacularly for the British, who managed to create a small group in India who admired European civilization as much as they despised their own. This group helped the British administer India, and is nowadays known as the Indian Administrative Service. The middle class in present day India (you and I) have also taken excellent advantage of such an education to insulate themselves from vagaries of nature and the economy.

However well this may work for a small part of India, it is almost irrelevant to someone who does not earn more than, say, 3-4000 rupees a month. They cannot insulate themselves from nature or Chidambaram, and therefore cannot afford not to understand the environment in which they live – their survival depends on their understanding of their environment. This can easily be substantiated – Those who die of swine flu have never travelled outside their city, those who die in communal riots are not the ones who instigate it, those who have access to money will not die during a drought, if you cannot differentiate between edible and poisonous plants  or between potable and unpotable water there is no way you can survive. For those with access to money, however, all these details are taken care of by the Consumer Affairs or Health or Home Ministry.

The reason why this point is being made is that there is tremendous interest being generated in the field of education, with innumerable well-meaning volunteers from comfortable backgrounds spending time with kids in slums and villages. Times of India has a huge program, someone wants to start something called Reach and Teach in IISc for the kids of employees here, and almost every corporate has some fancy corporate social responsibilty program attending to such a need. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions – hard facts and insight into the magnitude of the task of teaching children from a milieu fundamentally different from your own is normally missing.

Since school is of no use other than to provide midday meals and the company of other children, all the required life-skills are learnt through informal channels or worse, from vested interests. Being street-smart is necessary for survival, but it also perpetuates certain modes of thinking and behavior which keep the poor away from the mainstream. The case of poor Muslims in India makes this very clear. Ela Bhatt and SEWA Bank also sought to bring certain skills into women’s lives like financial planning and spending on consumption versus production, which helped them make better decisions for themselves. Ultimately, it is their life to lead – education must help in making people autonomous and confident about their own decisions. This kind of education, especially to children just beginning to observe and understand their environment (6th – 12th grades, maybe), is crucial in my opinion. For children younger than this, it is probably more important to ensure they play a lot and generally have a good time.

So, what is the responsibility that rests on the teacher ? It certainly is non-trivial – it would atleast require a basic understanding of the background of the children, learning from their observations and interpretation, a strong sense of history and ethics and huge number of interesting stories. Nobody can learn all of this at one shot – the teacher must approach the children she is supposed to teach with humility and a desire to learn rather than teach. Reading books like the one mentioned above will not hurt either. Then the background required will slowly evolve within oneself and will benefit all involved (probably the teacher benefits more!). It also brings about a new respect for the modes of behavior and thinking of a people completely different from oneself. Indians like to travel the world to meet new people and learn about new cultures. All you need to do is step into your neighborhood slum.

IISc – first impressions

Nice trees. Very nice trees. That is the first thing you notice when you come to IISc. It is an island of green in a sea of gray concrete, beautiful and soothing at the same time.

The second thing you notice is relaxed the place is. Nothing of the ‘publish or perish’ problems that seem to plague friends studying in US universities. Consequently, the number of papers that IISc outputs in a year is not very high and I frankly think nobody should give a damn about it.

Another thing one notices is the number of people from Karnataka here, which is close to despairingly low. But our lunch table has enough interesting people, so not really too much of an issue from my perspective. The profs are really good, atleast in our department, students are quite capable with some exceptions.

The high point of the last month has been two talks, one by Ramaswamy Iyer and another by Uzramma, both questioning what is defined as ‘development’ today – the former in the context of big dams and the latter on the cotton cloth industry. IISc and its neighbors are able to get some really good people for talks, which is an advantage of being a famous institution and all that. However, one thing that immediately comes into focus is that the world of the people in IISc is completely cut-off from the real world, with people living in their own private wonderlands. Thus, Uzramma was given suggestions to do HRD, improve efficiency using solar power and such things when her talk focused mainly on generating a livelihood, which was being denied to many in India today. Iyer’s call for academic institutions to focus on water science will probably be lost on professors and students intent on keeping up with the latest topics in vogue in the West.

There is no dearth of a feeling that IISc is doing the country a great favor by its existence, though such a notion can be very easily questioned. The main contribution of  IISc seems to be the material enrichment of its alumni, all getting huge salaries by virtue of their ‘brand name’. And absorbing lot of CO2 and dust, thank you very much. It does not seem too interested in the material basis of its own existence, with lights and computers running 24/7 and not a single building that I have noticed implementing rain water harvesting, and all this with a Centre for Sustainable Technologies (CST) on campus!!

There are places which are supposed to do interesting work, like the Divecha Centre for Climate Change and CiSTUP, but the imperative for the scientists here to deliver information and insight that empowers society as a whole seems to be missing. Science appropriate to our local context seems to have taken a back seat to cutting edge science which has no relevance to the hawker on the street. Is it possible to create science which is both cutting edge and socially relevant ? yes. One does not start out trying to be socially relevant, since that restricts the mindset of the scientist, but a complete lack of knowledge of problems facing our society which could lead to interesting science does not seem to faze the people here.

Not that the people lack awareness – there are amateur theoreticians and activists in every field here, be it politics, culture or linguistics. In that sense, IISc is a typical intellectual institution – people supporting Hindutva and Marxism and every other ism exist side by side, staying away from each other and looking down at everyone else who obviously have an ideology inferior to the one they hold dear. There are grand theoretical discussions and debates, but obviously none of that matters to the kid who had to leave school to work in the xerox centre, copying books he cannot even hope to understand. The fact that students and faculty of a centrally funded institution have a strong social obligation seems lost here. There may be people justifying that their social obligation is to produce original reasearch, i.e, publish papers, but Amulya Reddy might beg to disagree.

Like someone said, the poor have only the truth to fight with. Scientists, as seekers of the same truth must use their skills to help the cause of those who do not have anyone to look upto for help. Whether each student of IISc is doing her bit to work towards this end, is upto her and her conscience.