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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Speak Memory: A Hundred Years of Patna University

Shankar Datt (Professor of English Literature, Patna University) has a great sense of anticlimax, I know for sure. Or you can say he likes to balance things, presenting both sides of the case. He called me up to write something about my days in Patna College  for the souvenir to be taken out on the occasion of centenary celebration of Patna University. I could quite imagine that he had already persuaded   the famous and the illustrious, toppers , gold medalists , record breakers , path breakers, pioneers  which my college  produces  as a routine  and in abundance  for their memories or memoirs.  He wanted to throw in sharper relief the fact that intellectual democracy prevailed in Patna College; it had nurtured non- entities like us also. 
So here I am trying to coax my memory. Speak memory, speak! But it won’t break its sphinx like silence.  And for good reasons, too. I did not top any examination, I was not even awarded a bronze medal let alone a gold medal. No record breaker, my academic achievements could at best be described as middling middle; neither irredeemably bad nor enviably outstanding. My presence in the class was not noticed very much, either by my classmates or my teachers, simply because most often I was not there. While some of my friends impersonated me in other classes, thanks to a kindly Hindi professor the shortfall in my lecture in vernacular classes was condoned. He appeared to be a little hypermetropic; he saw great promise in me!
 To tell you the truth the academic curriculum prescribed by the college and the one that I had set for myself did not follow the same trajectory.  But of that sometime later. Patna College gave me the honourable vocation of studentship, the status of a boarder in its Jackson Hostel and the university canteen for endless discussion on subjects marked by fatuity, pompousness and self importance. Taken together all these ensured regular remittances from home which though not princely was enough to keep me afloat and sometimes allowed me to drown my sorrows in a few drops of alcohol.
After a day fruitfully spent in the canteen, drinking endless cups of tepid lemon tea and smoking cigarettes, time that I should have been legitimately utilized listening to lectures, we were ready – I and my friend, he is no more so I shall call him just my friend- to shift the locale of our earth shaking discussions to the Coffee House at Dakbunglow Road. The call of the Coffee House coffee was irresistible and poets, artists, writers, journalists, students flocked together in the evening. Renu jee was the central figure and sometime the Governor Mr. D K Barooah would grace the premises. Emergency was a couple of years away). The coffee nicely brewed and stimulating in its own right, enhanced our self esteem and inflated the worth of   our opinions in our own eyes. The ambience aided our self belief and many a grandiose plan to undertake another revaluation of the English Poetic tradition, F R Leavis was too bloody opinionated   and sweepingly magisterial or to debunk T S Eliot’s Wasteland as the greatest intellectual hoax of our time were conceived and aborted. Under the influence of the non communist left and apostates like Koestler, Orwell, and Samizdat literature Anna Andrevina Akhmatavova, Solzhenitsyn and Mandelstam, given prominence in our Bible, the Encounter we decided that Marx was bound to be relegated to the archeological museum of knowledge.
After the coffee  and  the exalted company of poets and poetasters ,playwrights and confirmed plagiarists  my friend,  who was a day scholar  went home none the worse for having spewed so much gyan, but I was bound to face up to  the music for having missed the study period, in the hostel, which was between 6 and 8 PM. My hostel superintendent Professor B K Lal, though a kindly person  was obliged to fine me 25 paisa  and I  had the ignominy of finding it out from the notice board. It seems he mended his ways later because he found that I was not perhaps capable of mending mine.
 Mr. Mahendra Pratap and Mr. Madan Jee were two personalities who could unsettle me. Madanjee was the durban – the janitor – to Jackson Hostel and Mr. Mahendra Pratap was the Principal of Patna College – later the Vice Chancellor of Patna. He was also for some time our Warden. Madan jee  was the custodian of the keys to our little kingdom  and boarders who came late  had to keep him in good humour  which was quite a task considering that he  was   a  sour faced, mongrelish fellow who could smile , if he could  spare the effort.  To be fair to him he would not grudge very much all those coming back to the hostel after watching a second show. But after that gentle tapping and calls to admit the straggler would be answered with a growl. The more   ferocious his growl would become the more sheepish the voice on the other side of the Hostel gate would become. Night owls like me were quite experienced in handling him but on this occasion things went awry.  Some people said he was not malicious, he was simply snoring. I never found out. Whatever.
 I had come into some money, now I don’t remember how, some honorarium or something. Money meant celebration and celebration meant beer in Amber, a bar which was patronized by the students. In college I was a pure soul. I used to get drunk on a glass of beer, one half of which was pure froth. There were four or five of us including my friend. As usual he parted company on the Ashok Rajpath, headed for home happy as a lark, in Professors’ quarters Ranighat. He had no fear because his mother would keep awake listening for the gentle knock on the door as not to disturb his father who was professor in Patna University. To me devolved the responsibility of transporting my humble self, drunk like a lord, to the hostel. It was late, much later than the curfew hour and Madan jee was in no mood to relent. The gambit of growling and sheepish bleating seemed to have arrived at a stalemate. It was particularly chilly night. Locked out  I was loitering near the kitchen,  wondering whether to  try my friend or go to my local guardian ,  when one of the   mess servants  woke  up  and opened the lock with  the simple  expedient of  an iron  nail .
 Mr. Mahendra Pratap was known to a relative of mine and perhaps in a moment of concern, he entrusted him the job of overseeing my education. Mr. Pratap had been to Cambridge and perhaps in those days they awarded   the  degree  merely only on the strength of knowledge of  Faery Queene and sundry archaic, boring texts.Mr. Mahendra Pratap crystallized his responsibility towards me to one simple task – judging me for my proficiency in Faery Queene. Lurking near the principal’s office for some work or the other I blundered into him twice and on both the occasions he tested me on my knowledge of the above text and found me wanting, notwithstanding the fact that it was not part of our syllabus. Or so I thought!
To pursue my lifestyle of careless and peaceful anarchy I had made one rule for myself: I would break all diplomatic relations with texts which did not interest me and mind you I am not an easy person to please! Unfortunately Spencer and I were not on speaking terms and my conversation with him was only through intermediaries. On the first occasion I bought my freedom by assuring Mr. Pratap that I will read him. On the second the information on Spencer that I had gathered through my friend deserted me because- all my critical sensibility was concentrated in hiding the cigarette. I cut a sorry figure and earned a well merited rebuke but that alienated me to Spencer forever.
I ran into Mr. Mahendra Pratap one more time, a close encounter of the third kind. It was around one AM. I climbed up to the first floor where my room was and I thought I saw Mr. Mahindra Pratap.I had mixed feelings. Was it an apparition but there was some real people, my hostel mates with him? Should I run away, is it going to be a public shaming for my inability to wade through the Faery Queene? But Mr. Mahendra Pratap spoke to me, or tried to speak to, perhaps he was trying to recall my name. I readily supplemented his memory, “Faery Queene, sir.” He laughed and addressed me with my proper name. “We are all going to drive out these book worms out of their rooms.  Man has landed on moon and these fellows are not even celebrating.” I stood dumb founded .Disturbing the serious minded students was one of my most favourite pastimes and now it had   been accorded official sanction. A night of revellery and riot led by the Principal was the culmination of my anarchic dreams. We went to the Cavendish Hostel, to the Faraday Hostel and I think then to the BA lecture theatre where Mr. Mahindra Pratap spoke in his inimitable style to us about Neil Armstrong   and what his achievement meant for the human race. The word globalist was not even coined then but he was a true globalist.
 To me Patna College was not merely a structure made of brick and wood and cement; it was not merely the class rooms and play fields. It was a whole eco system of learning  comprising of  my teachers , my class mates , the fellow  boarders, other students , the  folklore about students and teachers who had been part of its glorious tradition, the library.  My contact with my teachers was largely beyond the confines of the class in informal settings and I got to know some of them very closely. To them I owe my gratitude for having pulled me from crass ignorance into a little bit of awareness.
But above all it was that ineffable feeling of walking in the shadow of countless intellectual giants, formidable minds who had enriched the life of community in many ways, men who had made history and then become part of history.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Three Shades of an Intellectual

Kanchah Ilaih Shepherd must be a learned man.
So is Ravish Kumar,I suppose.
Together they share the self image of “intellectuals”, leading the dangerous crusade against right wing retrograde and authoritarian forces out to vanquish rationalism and spread darkness all around. A compulsive letter writer, Ravish Kumar has cried wolf so often in his epistles that one has ceased to take him seriously.(He reminds me of the protagonist in Saul Bellow’s famous novel Herzog who keeps writing letters to all and sundry, including God). This time round his paranoia has taken him one step further; he fears for his job, which would mean the dissolution of his identity? What would Ravish Kumar be without his very private pulpit to which he retires every evening, to deliver long sermons to the faithful of similar political persuasion? About the making of this unique intellectual later! Let us first address ourselves the concern of two very, very scared intellectuals. If Mr. Modi is following me, my earnest appeal to him is to accord them z+ security. Let them ignite their revolution with police help lest history gripe at the lost opportunity. And yet!
The image of the intellectual in our minds, however , is that of a courageous individual on whom lies a moral onus -to “speak”- in the Biblical phrase popularized by Julian Benda (Traihon de Clerics, The Treason of Intellectuals) “truth to power”. A contrarian figure and an eternal nay sayer, an intellectual is indifferent to the lure of material advantages or personal glory. His convictions do not admit fear of death. Socrates is the archetypal figure; the escape route was available to him but he accepted the cup of hemlock casting derision on death.
Emilie Zola championing the Dreyfus case carved another role for the intellectual (as also the coinage of the word) ; a political activist, an honorary spokesperson for truth and justice for all seasons. In short for an intellectual (in Voltaire’s famous dictum) “Moi, je ne propose rien. J’expose”. ( I proposed nothing , I expose) Zola’s “J’accuse” ( I accuse ) came to symbolize the war cry. He has a full blooded engagement with the vulgate world of politics and yet remains absolutely unaffected by its evil ways.
The political activism of the intellectual was accorded some kind of inevitability by the Bolshevik Revolution. The Revolution was largely made by vanguard fighters, a small band of intellectuals under the direction of Lenin, whom he called “dead men on furlough”. Their fearlessness lent a modish charm to the idea of the soldier- activist- intellectual.
Martyrdom and honour go together. But some intellectuals forsook personal honour; courted infamy, wallowed in filth and mud to advance the cause of revolution as immortalized in Arthur Koestlers famous novel Darkness At Noon. It was clear that the Revolution was not going the way it was expected to and to admit the defeat of the idea would be detrimental to the cause of the Party. So like Rubashov (modeled possibly on  Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin) the protagonist of the novel Darkness At Noon, which foreshadows the horror of the Stalinist shadow trials, confesses to the most absurd charges because he is made to believe that it would help the cause of the party to be told that the failure of the revolution was not due to any fatal flaw in the design but to the treasonable activities of its leaders.
In case the examples seem remote and distant in context, let us remind ourselves of Lasantha Wickramatunga who is very close to us - temporally and spatially. His Letter To Grave shows a philosophical detachment at the prospect of his own death which he embraced with equanimity, because he knew he had a choice.
There are of course other stripes of intellectuals who were being run in 50s and 60s by a middle level police officer and funded by the CIA to think progressive thoughts ; not one but the entire non communist left and liberals which could boast of names like Isaiah Berlin , and Hannah Arendt, Trevor Rooper and Mary McCarthy , Edward Shills and Stephen Spender . You name it they figured there. Any one who has closely followed Frances Stonor Saunders’s detailed investigation into the funding of ENCOUNTER and DER MONET (two of the finest intellectual magazines of their time to which all those named above contributed,) cannot be blamed for wondering WHO PAID THE PIPER?
Which company do you keep gentlemen?

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

This is the picture that launched a thousand ships for the elements who shouted their intention of fighting till the vivisection of the Indian state (Bharat tere tukde honge, etc) from the very heart of Bharat, from the campus of the elite Jawaharlal Nehru University, fully residential and fully funded by public money.  It is famous for mass producing intellectuals.

Now we all know intellectuals are clever people and they often use words as weapons with more effectiveness than normal weapons.  It is also said that a picture is worth a thousand words, which makes it even more powerful than the words.

Fortunately for the elements sworn to the destruction of India, a significant section of the media, those who disseminate pictures, and moving images, and opinions, are sworn to the morality of always finding the security forces in the wrong.  The picture has gone a long way in propagating this belief and has been circulated with some exuberance to become part of the anti-India folklore in Kashmir and elsewhere.

Dar is no longer an ordinary man, he has become a symbol of the victimhood of the Kashmiri people, the picture a never fading frame of reference for the brutalization of our security forces.

Nobody denies the reality of the picture but the picture becomes much more than a picture when torn out of its context.  The eye follows the lead given by the camera and the man behind the camera controls reality, obfuscates it, and edits it to purpose.  What was the background to the unseemly episode is blotted out so that from mere information it becomes a potent tool of propaganda, a clever ploy to advance a favoured narrative!

Were the security men giving the fellow a free ride for the sake of fun? The fact, as gathered from sources reliable and unreliable (truth always comes in alternative versions in Kashmir), is that the army had rushed to the aid of a paramilitary section surrounded by hundreds of stone pelting, blood thirsty hoodlums.  Just to debunk the romanticized version of the misguided youth, let us recall that such a crowd of ‘misguided youth’, who throw stones at the security forces by way of a normal occupation, had formed a “human shield” to obstruct the evacuation of a critically wounded Major Dahiya long enough for him to die.

To bury the dead and to give succour to the dying is the universal norm of civilised people, but the ‘innocent misguided stone pelting’ youth advanced the design of the terrorists who had attacked the security forces by their very non-violent act.  Unfortunately, the incident did not attract much attention, nor the fact that some of these elements had acted as human shield for much more sinister purpose.

Coming to the point, there were three options available to the army: to be peacefully lynched, to peacefully shoot their way out killing as many as had the bad luck to come in the way of fired bullets, and the third one the "militarily incorrect’ behaviour that the army resorted to.  Such an “aberration” was resorted to as a one-off tactical, disruptive measure.

General Panag, who has been frequently quoted, made a very nuanced statement: he said that it was a “militarily incorrect behaviour” but hinted its roots in the absence of the “healing political touch”.  The general also faulted the army on its failure to issue a statement explaining the circumstances under which it was done - a PR failure.

But let us hear Lt. Gen. DS Hooda, another distinguished army officer.
“Honestly, this is a difficult question to answer.  From a purely legal perspective, the answer would be, ‘No, not permissible. ’ But in conflict zones, there is no single prism through which events can be viewed.  Apart from legal, there are also moral, human and practical perspectives.  Even while sitting in my comfortable office in Udhampur, I often struggled to find the right answer.  It is much more difficult for the officers and men on the ground facing a very complex and difficult situation.  The frustration and anger is not only on the side of the Kashmiri youth.”
Consider the helplessness situation: a significant section of the civilian population has become a tactical ally of the terrorists and emboldened by the assurance of use of minimum force against civilian population (the government has withdrawn pellet gun so as not to discomfit them), comes to active assistance of terrorists during the encounters with security forces, to distract, divert and demoralize the army.  They regularly resort to identifying and targeting families of pro India elements and police men and their family members.

The entire democratic infra structure has disappeared, the mainstream political elements have decamped to safer environs, and the considerable body of people who are not with the secessionists, have been rendered silent by force, or out of fear, and side-lined.

It is a tough military situation where the security forces are in   an eyeball –to- eyeball confrontation with the terrorists from both sides of border aided by a fair number of their over ground supporters. The logic of the military situation should prevail yet the army tries to act according to norms of humane behaviour satisfying all the requirements of human rights protection but when they fail to live up to the scrutiny of ideal norms those out to advance the agenda of "Bharat tere tukde honge" get into an overdrive.

The counterfactual must also be stated.  See for yourself the pictures below and compare the indignity of the two situations in your mind's eye: the one about the use of a Kashmiri as a human shield on which we have been fed to satiety, and this one which has figured just as a bit of news.

There may have been a doubt about the identity of the man tied to the jeep, whether he was a mischief monger or an innocent bystander but who could have mistaken the identity of men in uniform carrying arms in the defence of the realm being kicked, humiliated, and lynched by innocent misguided youth.  It did not get all the traction or anguished commentaries etc. as the former.

(NDTV did a story as a balancing act, too late, because the picture of the humiliation of the security forces, which is the norm by the way, predates the more famous one.  But, thank you NDTV! All the same.)

News makes inroads in the public consciousness only if relayed in a particular manner; there are levels above which they are reduced to being endless background chatter just as the low-key positioning drowns it in distraction of other events.  This is a specialized media industry.

Not that those who are crying murder do not know the situation in Kashmir; they know it better than anyone else.

I am reminded of the remark by an anonymous CIA operative in the context of damning disclosures that the entire non-communist left and liberal intellectuals mobilized against the Stalinist regime were being run by the CIA, through their front agency, The Congress For Cultural Freedom. “They knew as much as they wanted to know, and if they knew any more, they knew they would have to get out, so they refused to know.”

Never was bearing arms in the defence of the realm fraught with so much ambiguity. Throughout history, victory in battle brought honour and adulation, martyrdom eternal glory and gratitude; these were the only two fates known to the soldier. But those were simpler times.  Concepts of patriotism, territoriality, and nationhood had fixity of meaning; the battle fronts were defined; you were here, the enemy was there. No longer so, every thing is in a state of flux ; the enemy can be found lurking behind your lines; rooting for the vivisection of the country has become the new cool  for the cosmopolitan elite yearning for a post nationalist order. Consequently, the men who bear arms in the defence of the realm find themselves trapped, at cross purposes with themselves.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Make Love While There Is Still Time

Disclaimer: This bit of writing is humour (the quality of being amusing or comic, especially as expressed in literature or speech) and therefore, it need not be taken seriously. The name of Gandhi occurs once or twice in the writing but he is not the butt of any joke. My respect for him is no less than any other person on this planet. The joke is on me, poor voter. I do not intend to mock, insult,ridicule, deride , or make fun of or otherwise show in poor light any person dead, living, or yet unborn. I respect the rights of human beings. I uphold the rights of animals as well. In short I give no offence; I am not capable of giving any offence.It is not my purpose to cast any aspersion on any religion, superstition, fad, fashion, trend, custom, movement, hair style, style of dress, or rail against any ideology, philosophy, scientific theory, and hypothesis .I have firm faith in democracy, I am not an enemy of Marxism; capitalism does not bother me because I do not bother capitalism.
I am a meat eater but if prohibited I will make do with vegetables. I love my occasional single malt but when restrained by law I seek solace in the Rubaiyyats of Omar Khayyam, reading them aloud to myself to recreate the pleasures of the fabled elixir.I believe in universal peace and love yet I am not unduly affected if Syria is bombed or there is calm in Crimea. I live in peaceful co existence with crime syndicates, corporate fraudsters, buccaneering bureaucrats, hoarders, adulterers. I pay lip service to the poor and am keen to mingle with those who are my better off. I pay my taxes, I cast my vote. I am a helpless citizen who babbles in his helplessness, hoping to reach some other kindred spirit.
I have tried to make my purpose clear in writing this piece, to the best of my ability ,and yet if I manage to convey something else, at the very outset, I tender unreservedly, and without any hesitation, an unqualified apology to my would be tormentors, to my trolls, rabble rousers, hecklers, friends who do not give a tosh for my views, foes who think it is all crap and faceless jokers who always have another point of view.
The humorous bit begins from here.( Statutory warning : Adult Content)
“Usually unreliable sources tell me that an independent member’s bill to make celibacy mandatory for all Indians, irrespective of their age and gender is under the consideration of an august body. It proposes to ban sex for people of all ages, save and except for the purposes of procreation, and for people above eighty, for the purposes of recreation. Those who have had a peek at the draft tell me that it is one of the most progressive documents, free from any bias of caste, community or gender, free from any traces of misogyny and patriarchy. The objective states that prohibition, (in certain states, but hopefully every other state will follow) ban on the consumption of beef and cow slaughter (exceptions are some states for electoral purpose) reflect the commitment of the Indian state to follow Gandhian edicts. With the legislation of celibacy the dream of universal Brahmcharya will be fulfilled .And what better occasion than to pay this tribute to the Father of the Nation than in the year of his centenary celebration; the political consensus suggests that they are all agreed that the cumulative economic effect of these moves will automatically reduce every Indian into wearing only loin cloth, the dress sanctified by Gandhi Jee.
Many a law maker who were at a loss as what to ban next jumped with joy when this bill was tabled and there was much warmth and hugging across the party lines. “What use is power if you do not have the power to prohibit or dictate or interfere with the life of a billion people and more in the most intrusive way?”a law maker told me. He even boasted that if a law was made today, prohibiting certain bodily functions, “you could do precious little. You would have gone to hell in a hand cart by the time remedy was available by way of a court order.” I dared not dare him. What they do – and what they are capable of doing – was fresh in my mind.” Humorous bit ends. JAI HIND