Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Of Mid-Stream and Main-Stream

Having had a remarkably hospital-free life I was not prepared for the intricate processes that hospitals can thrust one into. During my present predicament when the doctors suspected that I also had infection in the urinary tract I was sent off to the lab to get a test done. The lab attendant thrust a plastic container in my hand, propelled me towards the men’s room and asked me to fill it up with a ‘sample’. As I was about to go in he added the words that have since then always scared me whenever I have had to go in for a ‘sample’, “Mind you” he added in a stern voice, “it must be a mid-stream sample”.

Knowing that scientific procedures are all about precision and exactitude I wondered how I would determine that the mid-stream had actually arrived. Through the process I would agonize whether I was still too close to the head of the stream or had passed the point-of-no-return? I somehow felt that if I fudged the attempt I would be found out just as my chemistry teacher in the school lab always knew when I was fudging the results of a chemical test. I could visualize the experts hunched over their microscopes, peering at my ‘sample’ and saying to themselves, “Aha, another mid-stream violator !!!”

I thought the matter was serious enough to mention it to a junior doctor who had become quite friendly with me. “Why,” I asked him, “was it that science with all its advances hadn’t managed to device a pill to be taken fifteen minutes before collecting the sample that would give off some indicator, like a low whistle or alarm or something, as the mid-stream came near?” The doctor responded in a slow grave voice, like explaining something to a ten-year old, “Firstly,” he said, “you have too much faith in the science and medicine that has not been able to find a cure for the common cold or the incessant hiccups you are afflicted with after every chemotherapy. And secondly, can you imagine what a chaos such a procedure would cause in a men’s room, setting off a general scramble for their containers among the samplers, not knowing whose whistle had gone off?” I acknowledged the error of my ways and returned to my ruminations on the mid-stream problem.

I realized that this was not the first time I had had problems with issues concerning ‘streams’. Having been born and brought up as a (I hope) good Christian, I was always reminded that in order to be a good Indian as well I must become a part of the “main-stream”. Loving my country as I do, I embarked on the search for this ‘main-stream’ where, when found, I could immediately jump into, clothes, shoes and all, and emerge, re-baptized as it were, a true-blue Indian. Just like the “mid-stream” issue this problem too proved to be far more elusive than I had imagined. Try as I might, I just could not discover the geographical or even metaphorical co-ordinates of this main-stream. But, intrepid researcher that I am, I did not give up my search.

Then I decided to get married to a charming young lady from a Hindu family much to the chagrin of my clan persons who felt that this would not just be a case of taking a dip in the main stream but actually drowning in it! However I soon discovered that she was a much better Christian than I was. I would have been disappointed had I not felt so shamed. So I turned to my in-laws for a hint about the whereabouts of the main-stream. I found that they were so engaged in the rivulets, brooks, creeks, gullies, gorges that the so-called main-stream was enmeshed in that it was just too difficult to identify the mid-stream of the main-stream where one could indulge oneself.

However, all was not lost. Along came a vivacious, articulate and clued-up daughter-in-law, who to add, as they say in the vernacular, “sone pe suhaga” came from a Jain family. But to my particular quest for the main-stream this too was unyielding of results. The Jains I found were even in a deeper quandary. While I was repeatedly reminded that I needed to belong to the main-stream, no one bothered to say even this to the Jains. They did not know whether they were in or out. Even in our redoubtable courts of law the jury was still out whether the Jains are a ‘minority’ or not.

Hope was re-kindled when along came a son-in-law: a tall, handsome, turbaned Sikh. “I want to marry your daughter” he said to me. In a voice I reserved for the most errant of my students, I said “Meri do sharaten hain – I have two conditions”. I could feel the intrepid fighter-pilot quake in his shoes as he wondered whether my sharat would be for him to shear off his hair and get baptized. I savoured the moment and then said, “After the gurudwara ceremony is over and we go for the Church blessing I want you to be attired in your ceremonial Air-Force uniform, and secondly whenever you converse with me it will not be in English but always in Punjabi.”

This perhaps was my way of continuing my quest for the main-stream. But alas I was again to be disappointed. The Sikhs, I found, were in a more difficult position than the Jains. They had been co-opted without as much as ‘by your leave’ and they had to do all kinds of things – some not very pleasant – to try and maintain their distinct identity, notwithstanding the turban, the kesh et al!! We have no objection to merging, they appeared to say, but we do object to being submerged.

Not having a third child (those were the days of “Hum do hamare do”) there is no chance of continuing my quest in that direction with the addition of a Muslim son/daughter to the family.

Last Christmas when we had our usual extended family Christmas-eve get-together, there were not just my Hindu saas, sasur and saalies, not just my Jain bahu and her charismatic sisters and parents, and the Sikh damad with his parents and younger brother in his bright patka, but along the line I had also acquired a petite sister-in-law who traced her ancestry to Gharwal, another no-nonsense but nevertheless a charmer from the impressive Himachali Sood biradari, a delightful conversationalist bong nephew-in-law with a sharp sense of humour, another with a boisterous laugh, a loving disposition and a trifle headstrong as people from the Hindi heartland are wont to be.

As they all crowded around the piano singing popular Christmas carols, I wondered if, without my knowing it, my quest was over. Am I now in the main-stream and perhaps right in the middle of it?


Monday, 9 February 2009

To Chemo or Not to Chemo

To Chemo, or not to Chemo -- that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind and body to suffer
The pangs and tremors of the pest within --
Or by baring arms to the chemo needle
Invite the aches and after-shocks
That flesh becomes heir to:

'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be debated:

To chemo: and fight the monsters
in the unexplored mind and body --
And perchance find the ammo to do so
To chemo: sure killer of blood and bile --
but perchance may also douse the fire within --
That's the rub that gives us pause.

Or Not to chemo --
And cover up arms
for fear of unexplored country
from whose bourn not many travellers return:
Or Not to chemo -- and bear those pangs we have
Than fly to others that we know not of --
Puzzles the will and makes cowards of us

So softly now Fair Nurse:
gently prod the needle in
'cause the native hue of resolution
Must not be sicklied o'er by the pale cast of fear
And enterprise of great adventure
be not lost for want of resolute will.

(With apologies to Shakespeare for making him turn in his grave)

Saturday, 24 January 2009

When Amitabh Bachchan Made My Day

So Amitabh Bachchan is in the ‘hot seat’ these days for his comments on ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. Having read snippets of his views quoted in the media, and not having seen the movie, I do not think it would be fair to comment on them. I do wonder how many commentators have actually read his comments or seen the movie. In a television panel-discussion one of the panelists, after having fulminated at length on Bachchan’s views did confess (though after repeated prodding) that he had not actually read the comments -- but went on to justify his ire by saying that he had no reason to disbelieve the worthies who had quoted them.

The point is that we are ever ready to jump to conclusions on the flimsiest of grounds. This is what Bachchan laments in a later blog. However, unlike Bachchan who perhaps has been a victim of this tendency, I was once its beneficiary and this, incidentally, involved Amitabh Bachchan.

One morning while going to office in the Himachal University I found the road blocked by the police to allow a film-maker to complete a shot. As a young lad in Shimla I had often been fascinated by such shootings and had spent hours watching actors go endlessly through the same motions till the directors ‘Okayed’ the shot. Something of that fascination returned that morning and as my SPO proceeded to alight from the car to make way for us to proceed I told him, “Let them complete what they are doing and then we can go”. My driver and the SPO were more than happy to oblige because the tall figure of Amitabh Bachchan could be seen at some distance preparing to shoot.

However, this was not to be. A policeman on duty espied the standard official issue of white ambassador replete with red batti, flag, et al and stopped the shooting while frantically motioning to us to pass through. As we drove through the cordon Amtibah Bachchan, I suppose with some irritation, stopped whatever he was doing to watch this bossy official, with his ridiculous officious paraphernalia, jump the queue and drive away. Filled with embarrassment at this intrusion, and in a gesture of contrition, I waved out to Amitabh Bachchan. Surprisingly he responding with a half mock salute. My driver and SPO were thrilled. “Aare Sahib aap inko bhi jante hain?” I responded with a non-committal laugh !!

As luck would have it there was a traffic jam further down the road and I was late in reaching office. Consequently my first appointment got delayed. For one who made it a point to meet visitors at the exact time of their appointment, this was a matter of concern for my staff. However they decided to redeem ‘sahib’s izzat’ in their own resourceful way. I discovered this when the first delegation came in. As I apologized for keeping them waiting they said, “Auspicious day Sir – your morning meeting with Amitabh Bachchan.” This was the refrain throughout the day. I realized that my staff was telling every visitor or colleague that Sahib’s schedule was uncharacteristically running late due to a chance encounter with Amitabh Bachchan who insisted on engaging Sahib in a tête-à-tête. Later in the evening when the Deans came in for the customary briefing session the conversation began with: “Heard you are in a great mood today Sir due to your meeting with Amitabh Bachchan in the morning” By now I had become quite adept at the non-committal laugh.

The next morning as I drove into the University the number of students who waved to me was far in excess to the usual lot. I knew that at least for the time being my stock-in-trade had gone up -- thanks to Amitabh Bachchan.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

St Stephen's: Christian College or Church Institution ?

In the midst of populist rhetoric about reservations for 'Christian dalits' at St Stephen's College Delhi some basic facts have been ignored. Media reports referring to the 1992 Supreme Court judgement on admissions to St Stephen's have consistently misrepresented the most crucial part of the judgement that states: "The minority institutions shall make available at least 50% of the annual admission to members of communities other than minority community."

Thus, seats upward of 50% have to be given to non-minority candidates. The remaining seats are for all reservation categories: Christians, physically challenged, sportspersons, children of war widows, etc. The judgement does not give a specific percentage for Christian candidates but leaves it to the State to fix this percentage proportionate to the minority population in that state.

Thus, a Christian institution in a state with a Christian population of, say 1%, may be required to admit minority candidates relative to this figure. If the State does not fix this percentage, then the institution is free to determine this number, keeping in mind that (a) at least 50% seats must go to other communities and (b) some of the remaining seats must be kept for other statutory categories, like the physically challenged, children of war widows, sportspersons etc.

Recent media reports also suggest that the special provision for Dalit Christians is a new idea. Here too the record needs to be set straight. The idea of a preferential approach for those from the dalit background, rural areas or low economic levels was discussed by the Supreme Council of the College as far back as May 2000. However, the matter was not allowed to go forward on the grounds that there were no legally acceptable indices to determine the "dalit" origins of a Christian. The idea of having Bishops certify this was viewed with horror, as cases of false baptism certificates occasionally came to light. Even though there are means of verifying the authenticity of baptism certificates, it was beyond imagination what could be done with so-called "Christian dalit certificates" for which no viable authentication is available.

It was also debated whether the College could create a special reservation category not provided for in the Indian Constitution, given that the College is run purely on government grants and does not get a penny from the Church.

In response to these objections, I as the then Principal, suggested that the College retain the 30% to 35% admission quota for Christians, but use it to grant admission to those from rural background and low economic levels. After all, making reservations available to those from well-to-do families and those who have had the best educational opportunities was not in the larger interest of either the concerned candidate or the community.

While civil society is willing to accept reservations for the deserving, this creates serious social tensions and resentments when given to those who do not need them. As an example I mentioned a letter from a candidate who said that his classmate, (whose father was a civil servant while his own was an office clerk), had been selected while he had been rejected. What pained him was that his selected classmate had scored 15 percent marks less than him and in anguish the young man had asked: "was I rejected only because I am a Sharma and he was selected because he is a Mathew even though I have scored more than him though he had more tuitions than me?" The example failed to move the powers-that-be and the matter was gratuitously closed by affirming the policy of giving preference (within legal parameters) to candidates from depressed backgrounds.

Thereafter, the issue of denial of schedule caste status to dalits who had converted to Christianity became a hot political and legal issue. The Church took the stand that a dalit is only a dalit: to classify a dalit as a "Muslim dalit" or a "Hindu dalit" or a "Christian dalit" is a pernicious political device to deny rights to some dalits on the basis of religion. Therefore, we have the curious situation where on the one hand the Church has the view that there cannot be discrimination between dalits on the basis of religion and on the other hand it proposes a separate reservation category for some dalits on the basis of religion itself!! Such a contradictory approach does more harm to the dalit cause than anything else.

If there has to be a preferential approach to the dalits, and there must be one, the Christian way is to have it for all dalits without distinction of any kind. This is what the College has, in effect, been doing for many years without tom-tomming it. In a meeting of the Supreme Council the Chairman himself had the following recorded: "The Chairman expressed satisfaction over the emphasis laid by Principal on special concern for Christians from the dalit background, rural areas, and low economic level families". This was in the year 2000.

So what exactly is the purpose of this great hype now? If nothing else, this has certainly succeeded in diverting attention from the vexing situation of the governance of College during the absence of the Principal. As a byproduct this also highlights the fact that there is a growing distinction between a "Christian College" and a "Church Institution". A "Christian College" is at the service of humankind-at-large: inclusive, eclectic, cosmopolitan, and ecumenical in the widest possible sense. A "Church institution" is at the service of the power structures of the political establishment within the Church: insular, blinkered, dogmatically sectarian, and concerned only about 'I, me and mine'. Most Christian schools and colleges are being called upon to choose whether they will be one or the other because it is no longer possible to be both at the same time. The history and the constitution of St Stephen's College show that it has, by conscious choice, been a 'Christian College" rather than a "church college". This has been its special distinguishing feature and the source of its educational and spiritual strength. One wonders if this is about to change.

* Times of India carried this on 19 June 2007

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Humanizing Homo Sapiens

Saturday, 30 December 2006

Humanizing Homo Sapien

A couple of days ago the finance section of a newspaper talked about a buoyant market as a result of the heavy Christmas-New Year spending. People, we were told, have more to spend and the markets have more to sell and this was a perfect setting for the ‘feel-good factor”.
Today, an ‘end-of-the-year’ new-paper report talks about the dramatic increase in alcoholism, aggression, suicides, rapes, road-rage incidents, et al. The ‘feel-good factor’, clearly, is only in the market place and not in peoples’ hearts and homes.

The confusion is, as it has always been, between ‘consumption’ and ‘satisfaction’. We tend to believe that the more we consume the more satisfied we would be. The truth is just the reverse. Excessive consumption is only an indication of the hollowness within. We seek to fill up our emotional, spiritual, intellectual hollowness with odds and ends purchased from bargain stores. I know people who, whenever they feel ‘low’, go off shopping to get over their gloominess. ‘Buy three for the price of two’ functions as a therapy for overcoming hungers that have their origin elsewhere. It works – but only as a placebo, a painkiller, that addresses the symptom not the problem, and leaves one more desperate than before. So we have people who are given to shopping devoid of requirement, to eating devoid of need, to sex devoid of relationship.

I hear that “Kaun Banega Crorepati” is being revived. The original KBC was a huge success – it filled up the hollowness in so many lives through the vicarious delight of seeing someone like themselves being suddenly catapulted into a state of fiscal nirvana. And that, many believe, is the only nirvana there is. I wonder if anyone has tried to find out what happened to the lives of those who won big money at KBC. Once I did come across a survey of people who had won lotteries and the conclusion generally went on to uphold the adage ‘easy come easy go’.

In some ways this situation is reflective of the failure of education. We have an education that refuses to acknowledge the real world and would live in its own ivory tower. And we have another education that only kow-tows to the ‘real’ world with no eyes to see beyond the dollar signs or ears to hear beyond the cash-register, no vision of the ideal, no concern for the need to constantly and continuously humanize the homo sapien species.

Perhaps it is time we began to bridge the gulf between these two educations.

Sunday, 26 November 2006

The Guru

“Guru” is a much abused term and has come to connote a person skilled in the art of trickery of some kind. A “Guru” is also an honorific given to god-men and evangelists of all kinds. However in the traditional sense it was a term used for a teacher and it simply meant ‘one who is so weighty or profound that he cannot be shaken’, one who is so deeply established within himself that nothing can affect the complete dedication he has towards his vocation. The dedication the guru-teacher is not to scholarship or to esoteric intellectual pursuits or to promoting an ideology or to personal advancement of any other kind. It is to the process of self-actualization in his ‘shishya’, his student. “A teacher, if he is wise.” Says Gibran, “does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.” Given this approach real and true scholarship will follow.

Now, everyone who teaches is not a “Guru”. If a sense of personal gain or self-promotion comes in the way of this dedication then one is not a “Guru”; one is only a vendor of the information commodity. Obviously as a vendor his approach is governed by the laws of the market place. If on top of this he happens to be an unethical vendor (and such a breed is not entirely unknown) he sells spurious stuff, he under-weighs, he shortchanges his students. Therefore in the Hindu Scriptures we are, again and again, enjoined to select our Guru very carefully. Just as we cannot be carried away by his personal appearance so we cannot be swayed by his oratory – anyone with a bit of effort can turn a good phrase. We cannot be carried away by his show of scholarship – the hallmark of a true teacher is not the show of scholarship but the ability to absorb and internalize his scholarship in a manner that it functions at the level of his most disadvantaged student. Similarly it cannot be his intellect because unless the intellect is totally focused on the value of the student it can become an instrument to confuse and confound.

So how does one identify the true Guru, the genuine teacher? The significant test is that of ‘authenticity’. Does a teacher’s life accord with what he professes? Is he in the pandering business or the elevating mode? In other words how does he understand and express his function as a teacher. This function is not to enable the student to pass examinations just as it is not to teach him the ways of the world – this the student will learn anyway. The basic function is to ‘sensitize’. Does the study of literature sensitize his student to the importance of human emotions and feelings? Does the study of history sensitize his student to the forces that propel human existence and bring misery of happiness in their wake? Does the study of economics sensitize his student to the importance of material needs required for a meaningful existence? Does the study of science sensitize his student to the rhythms and patterns in nature to so awaken his mind to the need to live in harmony with it and his heart to the great mystery of existence? In short, a teacher becomes a ‘Guru’ if he sensitizes – because in doing so he carries out the most important function of education: to humanize.

And this is what differentiates a teacher who is ‘Guru’ from a teacher who is a vendor of information.