July 15, 2007

Widening Horizons

Rediff, 15.07.2007

What is the most beneficial aspect of acquiring a Western education? Is it the lucrative job that probably follows it?

Or is it the degree that not ridiculed by half of the developed world’s universities? Or is it, for some at least, the approval stamp of a foreign university that seems to be so much more alluring than an Indian one?

For me, however, studying in Britain for five years has been all about widening my horizons. From the moment I stepped off the plane at Heathrow in 2001, the world has suddenly seemed a much larger place. I seemed to be in a straitjacketing cocoon in India that cracked the very first day I spent alone in another country.

For one, you learn to be a lot more aware of your surroundings because you haven’t got your parents to cover your back. In 2007 - after finishing my A-levels, then a degree and then working for a year in the United Kingdom - I’m left with a far greater understanding and deeper appreciation of what the world around me is like.

Everyone invariably speaks from within the contours of his or her particular context and experiences. I am no different.

Much of what I feel are the strengths of Western education comes from the fact that I studied a joint honours degree in History and Politics, and not Information Technology or Medicine that most Indian students tend to prefer.

Aside from the possible availability of better research laboratories in the UK, I cannot comment on the merits of the education system in science-related subjects in the UK.

I remember one of the major things that alienated the Indian school education system to me was the expectation that students can memorise large chunks of information to reproduce in the examinations. Another was coercing students to study certain ‘compulsory subjects’ beyond a certain age.

I really didn’t want to grapple with the intricacies of Hindi linguistic theory beyond Class X, but as my first language I would have had to.

I didn’t feel the need to memorise even the finest details of the subjects I studied at A-level, although the points of Lord Asquith’s cabinet in the first decade of the 20th century, or European competition laws were taught in their finest detail.

The trick was to do plenty of real-life case studies and projects in the classroom, which automatically drilled the knowledge in the students by the time the exams came around at the end of the year. I could give the exam without even spending too much time on revision because of how deeply the knowledge had penetrated my intellect—and I still remember those details.

Half of my friends in India cannot remember a word of most of their study materials from Class XI or XII.

Moreover, it always occurred to me that classifying students by academic streams viz. science, arts and commerce was rather unnecessary and arbitrary. There is none of that in Britain, and students are free to choose whatever four subjects they want at A-level.

I chose Business Studies, Government and Politics, History and Information Technology. This would have been impossible in India. This allowed me - and all students - to focus on what I liked, and since the interest was already there, to genuinely care for what I was studying.

At the school, and later on a much greater scale at the university level, there were two key strengths of the British education system compared to the Indian one.

First, the focus on improving the students’ methodology was very strong. Indeed, strong historiography was rewarded much more than listing every single fact you knew about a topic.

Students could get top marks by listing 70% of the facts, but stitching together their answers in an academically sound manner. The converse was not applicable—all facts and a poor structure will not get you more than 60% (B).

I was noting down footnotes diligently while I was doing my school project on Indian independence. At university we were taught the intricacies of the Oxford and Harvard system of referencing and I adhered strictly to the former. My friends in Indian universities had no clue about the proper methodologies even after graduation.

The second thing was the emphasis on developing student-generated original research, particularly at the university level. Perhaps here is where the difference between a developed and developing country is blatantly obvious. Not many government departments in India, let alone universities, can boast of annual revenues of ₤300 million (Rs 230 crores) to upgrade university facilities.

Every single journal of repute in every single subject was available to us on our computers. Most books of note published in every subject were in our library, which was adding to its shelves on a daily basis. Books are being converted into e-books, journals are stored electronically to free up space for new entries and magazines were held dating back to the previous century. None of this is present in India.

All this helped students to be up to date in their opinions, and this in turn fostered their minds to devise original answers to questions on the basis of a strong research-oriented outlook. Answers with original content backed up by heavy research were handsomely rewarded, while mugging up won’t even earn you passing marks.

A wide number of workshops, projects, seminars and discussion sessions helped us bounce off ideas against each other. The actual curriculum stipulated one seminar discussion with a professor every week on each module, where students basically threw seething criticisms at their colleagues’ thesis while the sober academic calmly took notes of how each student defended his/her ideas.

This personalised treatment was present even in schools. Each answer of mine received details comments - positive and negative - by the teachers. I used to put my mugging up skills to good use initially, but after the structural defects were pointed out by my teachers, I slowly changed track and acquired those very important methodological techniques instead of writing whatever I knew about a subject.

On the other hand, I have always found that students - and adults - prefer to quote eminent personalities to defend their views. Is it because they lack views of their own?

I haven’t mentioned anything about extra-curricular facilities that are part of the holistic education system in the West. But you can get details of student union parties, impressive sports facilities at particular institutions and the local nightlife in any careers magazine in India these days.

I have instead focused on the core of what advantages there are of a Western education system apart from the added frills. Needless to say, some will scoff, saying that I am servile to the West. But dear reader, do you think the education system in India is actually Indian in nature? Hardly.

Our curriculum content, ideologies and structures within which we educate our students are bad emulations of Victorian England [Images]. There is nothing authentic about India’s education system, so we should stop defending it as if it’s the direct descendent of the gurukul system.

I have tried to portray how structural and methodological changes can greatly help our students without the need for installing expensive facilities, which seems to be a convenient excuse for the current stagnation.

July 12, 2007

The Immortal Bard

The Telegraph, 12.07.2007

Ramachandra Guha has delivered a rallying call to shift Rabindranath Tagore from the regional to the national pedestal. Guha could not have been more right at a time when India seems to be so fascinated by everything Western. In his address at the inauguration ceremony of Cheena-Bhavan in Visva-Bharati on April 14 1937, Tagore said, “We had, for over a century, been so successfully hypnotised and dragged by the prosperous West behind its chariot that, though choked by the dust, deafened by the noise, humbled by our helplessness, overwhelmed by speed, we yet agreed to acknowledge that this chariot-drive was progress, and that progress was civilization. If we ever ventured to ask, however humbly: Progress towards what, and progress for whom? It was considered to be peculiarly and ridiculously oriental to entertain such doubts about the absoluteness of progress. It is only of late that a voice has been heeded by us, bidding us take account not only of the scientific perfection of the chariot, but of the depth of ditches lying across its path.”

Fortunately for Tagore, he found Gandhi, who did question the speed and direction of the chariot’s progress. Since we have neither Gandhi nor Tagore today, we must look up to their words to avoid those ditches.

July 08, 2007

Never on Time

Boloji, 07.07.07

“Date- 04.05.2007, Amount Paid Out- £24.30, Recipient- “X” Ltd, Mumbai (India)”

On the morning of the 5th I found this on my online bank statement. A couple of hours later, I was found yelling, “Do you think this is some kind of a joke?” to a surprisingly brazen customer service representative of a reputed online portal based in India who told me point blank that they had not charged my card for this transaction.

“You will have to fax us a copy of your bank statement, sir. Your order is not confirmed and so we have not charged you for this.”

“Are you telling me I’m lying? I can see the outgoing sum on my statement right here. And I am not faxing anything over to you, particularly sensitive details such as these.”

Did I sound rude and uncooperative? I had a reason to be. This precise thing happened last time when my friend was using my card to send a birthday cake to her mother and I had to fax these documents to authorize the payment and was told 48 hours later that I had in fact forgotten to fax them. The audacity! I expected better from a leading company in a country that claims to be on the advanced frontiers of information technology. Why couldn’t someone else pay for a product for another person online? It happens on all reputed websites all over the world.

“So will the item be delivered on the 11th, as I requested when I placed the order?”

“No sir. Since you have not confirmed the order, we cannot make this delivery date. And you have not requested any delivery date.”

“Actually I did mention the 11th. Also, once I have placed the order why do I need to confirm again? And how should I know I had to? And excuse me, you HAVE charged me.”

“No sir we need proof. And we have sent you the confirmation e-mail.”

“Well, check your bloody bank account ‘coz you’ve taken the money from mine. And no, you haven’t sent me anything”

I was getting nowhere. This was ludicrous. A few minutes later I was given the supplier’s number to ring and request the item to be delivered on time. I was wondering whether it was really the customer’s business to chase up suppliers for the seller. When I did get through to the supplier, he told me that the item had already been dispatched and will reach on time.

It didn’t. So I called on the 13th and was told that the courier has got it and the supplier had no clue why it hadn’t been delivered. After another round of banging my head against the wall, the item arrived on the 18th. Am I missing a point, or should a birthday gift actually arrive on the birthday?

Last week I bought a phone from Amazon.co.uk which arrived in faulty condition. I e-mailed the seller who appeared to be dragging his feet about the refund. I sent an e-mail to Amazon customer service. 12 hours later I received a response saying that have contacted the seller and will credit my account with the refund as soon as possible.

This was all the more impressive because I bought the phone from a seller, and not one of Amazon’s own suppliers. But it really is the norm here, and it is so very disappointing to see Indian companies who aspire to be world beaters to fail so miserably in putting the customer first. The arbitration process in India is notoriously opaque, and I felt extremely helpless as the customer who’s shelled out the cash for the product.

Please don’t take me for an arrogant buffoon who unfairly compares the infrastructure of a developed country with a developing one. The point is that online technology is widespread in India, and I am not even talking cutting edge and expensive gizmos here. Simple project management, efficiency, transparency and empathy will do the trick.

Capitalism would have us believe that customer is king. In India instead of getting value for money, the customer has to pay the money and pray that the value comes with the order.

July 06, 2007

Parting Shot

The Telegraph, 06.07.2007

S.L. Rao has completely missed the ground reality in “Triumph of Choice” (July 2) in which he brazenly crowns the consumer to be the supreme factor in Indian economy. A visit to a multiplex in the city would prove him wrong. Here, an average movie ticket costs Rs 150 while a small box of popcorn can set you back by Rs 70. A similar experience in the UK is cheaper. Given that the ratio of average income of a Brit to an Indian is about 45:1, it can easily be noted where the value for money lies. Moreover, the widespread hankering for everything Western has led to undeserved elevation of non-exclusive brands to an elite status in India. This has more to do with consumer mentalities and their blind emulation of the West than with squeezed profit margins of the manufacturers and retailers. A typical anomaly is that in the West, local stores cannot offer economies of scale whereas supermarkets can. However, in India the corner shop offers a better deal on a wide array of products vis-à-vis the supermarket. Thus, to suggest that the Indian consumer has real choices in a marketplace that offers him value for money is nothing but fallacious.

June 18, 2007

Fluid Identity

Boloji, 17.06.07

Whatever you say, naming your son Gogol is harsh, particularly when he’ll be brought up in America. That’s the first thing that came to my mind looking at a gigantic Bengali poster for The Namesake in Leicester’s city centre. The more Oriental the identity of an individual sounds, the greater sense of alienation he will feel- castigated and ostracized as the omnipresent ‘other’ in the minds of the typical American teenager. But is identity a constant concept? Or is it even a singular concept? Lots of things make up my identity, and that identity is extremely fluid- changing not within years but within seconds. When I type an entry onto my blog, I am ‘protonriver’. Once I’ve finished typing, I am someone else again.

“Bud bud ting ting 2.99, went to a Paki shop n got a bottle of wine”- such innuendos about your Indian accent forces your identity to be straitjacketed into a narrow prism. When you respond by learning how to speak English with a British accent, you are reminded that you’re a “freshie” by British Asians. On the other hand, ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) and its British counterpart (BBCD) are labels that we put on them to define their identity. It is plausible that integration was their priority while selecting a certain identity for themselves.

And we’re back to ‘us’ and ‘them’ again. Edward Said, in his pioneering Orientalism, pointed out nearly 30 years ago that the Orient responded to the Occident’s generalizations in the same terms that were originally used to define it. The other day one of my clients asked me whether I was so clever since I was a Bengali Brahmin and people from my caste are supposed to be clever. I know plenty of readers can remember political party leaders from my caste that they would not classify as ‘clever’.

But that is not the point. What is fascinating is that sitting thousands of miles away from India, I responded to such utter generalizations about my identity. Later that evening when an Indian man asked my community background, I responded emphatically- ‘Bengali’. Generally I do give my mother some credit by mentioning her non-Bengali roots.

Finally, we’re onto roots. I am not sure about other Indians, but I went through two phases of identity shifts and am in the third at the moment. Initially there was the rejection of roots. India had disappointed me- it had not given me what I aspired for in my life. So I left. Starting from the sickening heat, unsatisfying education, crowded buses- I dissociated myself from the India I left behind. Clean roads, swanky cars, terraced houses, bacon and eggs, Queen’s English became attractive as a hankering for acquiring a British identity crept in.

Then came the rude awakening. Rejected and repelled by British Asians and experiencing some downsides of life in Britain shifted my identity once more. “If we wanted, we could occupy your country and loot it again”, teased one of my classmates at school. I responded by going through innumerable statistics and websites to find out about India’s armed forces and its nuclear arsenal and prepared my retort to this statement. Not interested in the Godless existence amidst ‘booze and babes’, I began visiting a temple, something I had never done in 15 years of living in India. I started taking a lot more interest in events back home. I proudly spelled out my name to any call centre worker who couldn’t understand, something many Indians are so ashamed of that they’d rather call themselves Bob than Harjit.

The third phase began when I couldn’t find my roots. Romantically returning to a village helped Mohan Bhargav find his roots in Swades, but all I went back to were concrete boulevards, swanky cars, English-speaking gentry and ‘booze and babes’ reigning supreme. I am also realizing the folly of using Western statistics and definitions to reject their generalizations about my identity and country. That is what Said was writing about in his book. The Orient is no longer there as it once was- it has been reinvented and designed by the Occident. And the Oriental is born thinking this to be his natural abode. Amartya Sen may argue for giving chosen identity primacy vis-àvis that assigned by others, but there may not be any difference between the two. The environment automates an individual’s actions according to its social, political, intellectual, economic and linguistic contours and there’s not much he can do about breaking this Foucauldian discourse.

Gogol Ganguly lives within me. And not just in me. But if I see him, I want to find out where he got his roots back from. I want mine too.

May 17, 2007

Parting Shot

The Telegraph, 17.05.2007

As Dipankar Dasgupta points out in “Road to efficiency” (May 15), the delay in profit, and the consequent lack of incentive, is a major reason behind the inefficiency of state-led projects. But even without State meddling, there could be other problems. For instance, the lack of transparency in the process of issuing tenders despite the matter being handled by private companies. This happens in the other countries too. Take the recent multi-billion pound scandal involving Saudi Arabia’s purchase of Eurofighter jets.

Despite privatization, the State has to employ independent auditors to oversee the bidding process. It should also allow regulators in each industry to function independently. The State cannot absolve itself of its responsibility in infrastructure-building and delivering public services.

April 30, 2007

Derivative Lot

The Telegraph, 30.04.2007

Mukul Kesavan’s “Life at second hand” (April 26) delivers a message that needs to be heard throughout India. An extreme defensiveness is noticed among urban, middle-class Indians whenever the authenticity of the ‘new’ India is questioned. The English-speaking gentry, whether left-liberal, Marxist or neo-liberal, needs to realize that modernity, as it exists today, is essentially a product of the West. The modern (Western) academia, both in the humanities as well as in the sciences, through its innumerable tentacles, engulfs the Indian student within its discourse. Slavishness can be easily detected in the association of “cool” among the youth with speaking English, and preferring Western, rather than Indian, attire and music. Kesavan shows how even the Hindutva brand of right-wing nationalism is “crudely derived from authoritarian European nationalisms”.

However, it is not enough to take Western ideological hegemony as a given and submit to it. Efforts must be made to integrate more Indian thought in academic courses, for starters. Giving Kautilya’s political theories the same importance as John Rawls in a political science course could be an example. A large GDP and a nuclear arsenal cannot help in producing a vision for the future.

April 23, 2007

From the Annals of Civilisation

India Nest, 22.04.2007

Water and oil don’t mix. You put a few drops of oil in a bottle of water and you can shake it well – as well as you want – but in the end the oil will remain separate. Tony Blair is shaking this country and hoping that multiculturalism will work. It hasn’t. And it won’t.”

No I was not attending a British Nationalist Party rally. I heard this quip on a train between Birmingham and Leicester. I was impressed by the metaphor and gobsmacked by the expressed views.

“Don’t get me wrong – I am not a totalitarian bigot. I am a democrat. But has Tony Blair ever bothered to pop a letter in the post to us asking whether we actually want to live in a multicultural society? If a majority of the British public agree to it, then so be it. If not, we should just respect the majority opinion.”

And do what, I wondered. Chuck the rest of us non-whites out? Did Robert Clive ever conduct any referendum in India to find out whether Indians wanted to be enslaved by the East India Company? Or did His Majesty ever write to the Indians to find out whether they wanted to be part of the motley crew that dwelled in his empire?

Am I not comparing apples and oranges? Non-whites aren’t exactly ruling Britain, are they?

“English people should live in England. Asians should live in Asia. Africans should live in Africa. That’s how the world should be.”

OK, so why did hordes of Englishmen join the merchant navy bound for the exotic (and rich) Orient? And what on earth did Gordon Brown (a Scot) do to deserve being chucked out from 11 Downing Street in London?

“You can’t buy a cheap house these days because all of those are being gobbled up by the immigrants.”

This surely classifies as ‘economics for the insane’, suggesting that Britain’s house prices are linked to immigration.

“I have no issues with immigrants if they take our ways. I just don’t get the whole multicultural thing.”

Right, and what would those ways be? Fail at school? Getting pregnant by 15? Smoking cannabis by 16? Getting an ASBO (anti-social behavioral order) by 18? Divorcing our partners? Getting drunk every Saturday night down the pub and get involved in a brawl after that over a girl or a guy, or worse still, a cigarette?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not defending another sort of anti-social behavior – that which leads to virtual segregation, with communities not touching each others’ lives. But what needs to be appreciated and understood by a certain class within British society is that multiculturalism is not a choice- it is a fact of life. It is a fact that has been created by the Europeans, and that which must now be accepted by the Europeans in all its avatars.

For all the positives and negatives of immigration, it is a fact now that the UNICEF rates Britain the worst place to raise your child in the developed world. It is also a fact that ethnic minorities perform far better at school than their ‘native’ counterparts. It is also true that record number of jobs are being advertised in the country, and immigrants are not taking away opportunities from the locals.

Yes, there are negatives such as illegal immigration. But then again, when was rational discussion the point of the rambles of my co-passenger?

He is just part of an increasingly overlooked underbelly that Britain has that has remained rooted to the past.

March 29, 2007

No Full Stops in India

The Telegraph, 29.03.2007

Scene 1: “Where do you think you’re going?” questioned a moustached laathi-wielding guard outside one of Sir Edwin Lutyen’s architectural marvels — the viceregal palace in New Delhi, now the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

“I have an appointment with the President of India,” I replied, with a smirk on my face. I pretended to ignore the bemused look on the faces of the guards as my Ambassador taxi drove up the drive outside the gigantic concrete steps which one half-naked fakir had trod on 70-odd years ago.

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is everything the media portrays him to be — he is intelligent, a man with a vision and a good grasp of developmental issues concerning India. I got a full dose of all his plans — providing urban amenities in rural areas, infrastructure development, use of information technology to alleviate poverty and so on. I was interviewing him as part of a research project for the University of Warwick. By the time I came out, my head was spinning with facts and figures.

Scene 2: Sitting in a small, and rather humble office, I discussed economic reforms and its effects on India with N. Narayana Murthy, till recently the chairman of Infosys. He was the only famous man in India who took the trouble of standing up and greeting me when I entered his office. There was the usual dose of praise for reforms and call for further liberalization. That India’s economic growth is based on borrowed ideas was readily accepted — something Indians get very defensive about.

Scene 3: “We will not get any jobs in the new factory. We are poor and illiterate and soon will be landless.” I heard this in the Jagatsinghpur district of Orissa, where the South Korean firm, Posco, is planning a £5 billion steel plant. Sitting in a mud hut in sickening heat, with crushing poverty around me, I listen to the villagers who have no say in India’s march towards breakneck industrialization. I had spent the previous month talking to bureaucrats in the Planning Commission, who spoke at length about how rural infrastructure is improving. The potholed roads in Orissa did their argument no favour.

Scene 4: “India is growing by 9 per cent a year and soon we will overtake China that is growing by 10 per cent a year”. I got bombarded by another round of facts and figures from well-meaning, English-speaking students at a renowned university in Calcutta. Earlier in the month, I had seen the crowd overflowing at the newly-opened KFC outlet at the City Centre Mall in Calcutta and the Subway and McDonald’s outlets in New Delhi — the fads of ‘new’ India.

Scene 5: The banks of the Sabarmati river have changed completely since 1982, when Richard Attenborough shot Gandhi. Amidst the concrete jungle, the Sabarmati Ashram is barely recognizable. I walked up to a guard and pointed out the irony of his carrying weapons in the world’s non-violent capital.

“What to do sahib? College students come here to ‘fool around’ behind the bushes, taking advantage of the peaceful surroundings,” he replied.

Watching The Last Days of the Raj on Channel 4, sitting in the heart of England, these images of today’s India flashed across my mind. India has definitely seen a lot of change, but what that change is leading the country to is something we haven’t explored fully. What I know for sure is that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s India is no more. The country he fought to free has ceased to exist in the 60 years since 1947. Whether Bapu would have called this freedom, I don’t know. But I can guess.

March 20, 2007

Globalised Ramblings

India Nest, 17.03.07

When was the last time you ever looked at the sky and took a deep breath of fresh air, cleansing your mind of all thoughts? For starters, fresh air is non-existent in the concrete boulevards of modern cities. And what’s the big deal about that empty blue mass hanging over us anyway? What I realised the other day walking down Narborough Road in Leicester that I had not looked up at the sky for many months.

I remember 2001 in Kolkata. After every gruelling porikkha, we used to play 3 hours of cricket every day. No inhibitions, no worries, no restrictions- those were the days. Lying covered in mud in the playing field, looking up at the sky- hours used to fly by like this. When I went back home last year, the field had been replaced by a construction site. I suppose children could look up at the sky from the tiny windows of the multi-storeyed flats.

What’s the whole fixation with the sky all about?

In the higledy pigledy world of modern urban existance, there is no respite, no space and no freedom. Looking at the sky- at the millions of stars sprinkled around the moon at night- represents appreciating the finer things in life. It doesn’t have to be the sky. When was the last time you took a flower and smelled it? Or looked at a puppy playing with its mum and smiled?

Oh the interruptions! By the time I’ve typed about 4 lines, 3 calls have come from work. And I am at home on a Friday evening!

Now where was I?

Ah yes- Where’s the time? Mortgages have to be paid, cars have to be bought, utility bills are piling up, the taxman is knocking on the door- modern man has no time for nature. Whatever time he gets “off work” is spent in the small room brimming with others, surrounded by darkness and loud noise and his lungs being pummelled by the smoke in the air. In other words, down the pub “socialising”. How on earth can you socialise when you can’t even see or hear the person next to you? Perhaps it just means to talk about yourself, women, money and fancy consumer electronics items.

The globalised economy takes us far away from where we were born. Identity refuses to shift smoothly though. Sometimes I see Indians wearing metal locks and chains as ornaments (yes, that is fashion too, apparently), and trying to emulate 50 Cent or P Diddy (both African American rappers) in their speech. They prefer calling themselves Bob, when their birth certificates say Harjit. And then I see an old woman trying to get directions in fluent Punjabi from a bewildered policeman. When I tried to help, I discovered that she’d been living in Britain for 40 years. Going back home, I cannot find a waiter who will speak Bengali or Hindi in an upmarket Kolkata restaurant.

What’s the point of all this anyway? Not that it matters to anyone apart from people who are after the simple life. And no, I am not talking about a reality television show starring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.

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