Frontiers to freedom

Is humour for one offensive to another? Is fun at one’s expense mirth for another? When does humour transgress limits to become a slight? Are we touchy when we are made fun of but can’t hold back a smile when another is being mocked? These were questions that  were bounced off in a debate on television yesterday. The context was a PIL (public interest litigation) by a Sikh group in the Supreme Court of India against the infamous ‘Sardarji’ jokes that stereotype male members of the Sikh community as being dim-witted.

The Americans for their English (‘Americans haven’t spoken English in ages’, Prof. Henry Higgins, immortalised on screen by Rex Harrison, famously said), the British for their accent (when attempting to speak in Indian languages, for instance), the Germans for their love of ‘organization’ and their lack of humour (see the delightful ‘Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines’) and Indians for their love of loudness – in everything from speech to honking on the road to colourful attire – are all stereotypes that humorists unapologetically milk to the hilt.

While artists of all genres (from stand-up comedians to actors, writers, painters and media-persons) are unanimous that they have the freedom to spoof whoever they wish, they stop short of political incorrectness. Certain communities (of which the brahmin community is not one) and certain religious adherents (of which the Hindu affiliates are not one) are sacrosanct, their sensibilities and sensitivities are not to be trifled with.  As for the rest the said actors, litterateurs et al refuse to be held responsible for thin-skinned audiences.

Can there be frontiers to freedom? Should there be? Wouldn’t talk of ‘limits’ to freedom become oxymoronic? Perhaps, an answer can be found in this ‘Fool’s Prattle’. Says D V Gundappa in his classic work of philosophy for the layperson, Mankuthimmana Kagga:

The roving bird responds to the call of its nest, the ambling cow lets the rope on its neck hold it back. What is life if not bound by any value?

Self-restraint and allowing oneself to be restrained by societal norms are limits that make freedom a happy choice for all and not just the ones who claim their right to it. To be civil is not to be unfree!

Introspect: the mantra for success is within yourself

 

Successful people attribute their achievement to having a goal and working towards it purposefully.  But the not so ‘successful’ people have goals too; they also work hard to attain these targets… This being so, why do some people succeed in reaching or surpassing their goals while others with equal or even more talent, zeal and expertise fall short?  Introspection, perhaps, holds the key.

Before taking the plunge, successful people invest thought and time in assessing their strengths and drawbacks – personal qualities, lifestyle factors imposed by the circumstances of one’s upbringing and the social milieu in which one lives. This helps them set goals that are well suited to their temperament and life conditions.  Reaching their targets becomes easier since a high degree of self-awareness has informed their decision at the goal-setting stage itself. Their goals are based on what they have learnt about themselves: their interests, capacities, and inclinations. They have thought of answers to questions such as: why do I want to do this? Do I have the knowledge and skills to do it? Are there compromises I will have to make? Are there any trade-offs? Will I be able to accommodate these?

Having set the goal, and having started on the path, the successful individual does not simply doggedly keep at it.  Rather, they stop to take stock periodically. Self-reflection is an instinctive exercise, a force of habit: am I on course or is there any course correction needed? Have I overestimated my capacities: are there any skills or knowledge I lack? Have I underestimated the demands of the task: should I seek guidance or outsource some of the work?   At any stage, if their assessments warrant, they may not hesitate to shift the goal post or alter the contours of the objectives, limit them or even give up an endeavour altogether in favour of a more viable alternative.

Hard work is important in order to succeed, focused hard work even more so.  The ability to work hard is an admirable strength acquired by persistent training. But getting to the goal, for those who succeed in getting there, is not a simple act of jumping into the water and then learning to swim, or making a dash for it without pausing to look back. Their hard work reaches fruition as they have cultivated the habit of introspection as well.

The #IndianScientificCommunity and their irrational fears

I have reproduced in this post the text of a recent online petition of the Indian scientists protesting what they term “the climate of intolerance” in the country.  My questions to them are indented, in red, in-line.

The scientific community is deeply concerned with the climate of intolerance, and the ways in which science and reason are being eroded in the country.

Apart from the stray comments of people in power, is there any evidence that science and reason are being eroded in the country?  Indeed, the question is: is the tradition and practice of Science in our country so vulnerable that it can allow unreason to prevail? 

It is the same climate of intolerance, and rejection of reason that has led to the lynching in Dadri of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi and the assassinations of Prof Kalburgi, Dr Narendra Dabholkar and Shri Govind Pansare. All three fought against superstition and obscurantism to build a scientific temper in our society. Prof Kalburgi was a renowned scholar and an authority on the Vachana literature associated with the 12th-century reformer Basava, who opposed institutionalised religion, caste and gender discrimination. Similarly, Dr Dabholkar and Shri Pansare promoted scientific temper through their fight against superstition and blind faith.

It is important, firstly, to delink the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi from the assassinations of the rationalists.  The first, a crime against an individual, is inhumane in its conception and execution.  The other three crimes appear to have been executed against a belief system that is at odds with that of the perpetrators of the crime.  However, it is important to bear in mind that the criminals are yet to be brought to book and their motivations, exposed.  Till such time that this is done, who is responsible for these crimes can only be conjecture born of gut feeling.  It is also important, in this context, to recall that a recent news reported the finding of the dead body of one of the suspects alleged to have killed Prof. Kalburgi: the former had himself been killed under mysterious circumstances, which now has further complicated the investigation.

The Indian Constitution in Article 51 A (h) demands, as a part of the fundamental duties of the citizens, that we ‘…develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform’. Unfortunately, what we are witnessing instead is the active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought by important functionaries of the government.

Once again, this claim is not borne out by sufficient evidence.  A few stray comments do not warrant the overarching comment that “we are witnessing the active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought” almost as a matter of state policy. 

More importantly, though not germane to this discussion, since ‘humanism’ has been cited as a guiding spirit behind the action of the scientists, why are the victims of Bhopal not deserving of this compassion? Why has Indian academia not take any significant step to argue the case of the thousands of ordinary people who suffered and continue to suffer the consequences of the worst man-made tragedy independent India has witnessed?

The Indian civilisation is a truly plural one. We have always had many practices and communities that have allowed space for each other; we celebrate the festivals and anniversaries of all faiths. This unity and peace has now been disturbed by a rash of bigoted acts, attacks on minorities and Dalits, which show no signs of abating.

The pluralism continues to be felt on the streets, in the markets, in every means of public transport, and in every place where masses gather to either have their opium or their caffeine and nicotine.  To superimpose a drawing room or conference room perspective of conflict on to the society at large and claim that “unity and peace has now been disturbed by a rash of bigoted acts” speaks of the disconnect of the intelligentsia with the real India.

The writers have shown the way with their protests. We scientists now join our voices to theirs, to assert that the Indian people will not accept such attacks on reason, science and our plural culture. We reject the destructive narrow view of India that seeks to dictate what people will wear, think, eat and who they will love.

Once again, a few stray incidents are being blown out of proportion to make it seem as if there is a war against right-thinking individuals by right-wing individuals or groups.  What people should wear, think, eat and love have always been subjects of debate.  Lumping them together as is done here only seems to be a tactic to give an impression of a crisis where no such thing exists.

Consider this: when someone asks the masses to question superstition is it not as much about telling people how to think and what to practice?  When an unwritten dress code exists in each of our public and private spaces, in institutions, at events and gatherings are we not already outsourcing our sartorial sense? As for eating: sciences of health, medicine and nutrition have more or less taken over our kitchen, and public policies in this regard are impacted by multiple agencies.  Midday meal programmes in schools that includes eggs and milk or ragi porridge and biscuits are definitely not tailored to individual tastes or cultural practices!

We appeal to all other sections of society to raise their voice against the assault on reason and scientific temper we are witnessing in India today.

“Assault on reason and scientific temper”, once again, is a hyperbolic sentiment.  It is, in fact, a reiteration of an unsubstantiated claim already made several times over in the scientific community’s rather short letter. Redundancy does not add value to a claim.  And repeating a claim does not make it any more true than what it is worth.

The views expressed in the statement are individual and do not reflect views of the institution a signatory is affiliated to.

I find this disclaimer hypocritical: Courage of conviction demands that the individuals de-link their names from their positions.  Unless an individual feels that in order to draw attention to one’s views it is necessary to use their institutional affiliation as a crutch!

Do we want no education?  A reaction to Prof. Pulapre Balakrishnan’s article*

                *See ‘We don’t want no education …’ by Pulapre Balakrishnan, The Hindu, June 27, 2015.

A quick perusal of the thesaurus turns up the following synonyms for ‘education’ – teaching, learning, schooling, tutoring, instruction, edification, culture.  Except the last two, the others are quantifiable [as is cognitive ability] and their presence or absence can be established – but only at a superficial level [once again, as in the case of cognitive ability].  Teaching, for instance, is not merely about passing on a bunch of facts and opinions but also about connecting with the student, sharing information about the subject in a manner that enhances and elevates audience understanding, and so on.  Tomes have been written about teaching but it is still being written about and researched.  Schooling and learning, similarly, are not merely about institutionalised education and imbibing instruction in a palette of subjects; a school must prepare those who enter its portals to leave as intellectually and morally well-developed citizens and learning is to exhibit such qualities of intelligence and moral standards as the commonsensical rhetoric ‘… and you call yourself educated!’ would illustrate. But what is intelligence? What is morality?  These are, once again concepts that are constantly being re-visited and revised. However, as universal measures of education, teaching, learning, schooling, tutoring and instruction have found acceptance. The presence or absence of edification and culture, however, are rather difficult to establish to universal approbation.  Edification, for one, is intangible as it goes beyond raw understanding and means a deeper, and one might say esoteric, enlightenment.  As for ‘culture’, I am only reminded of T S Eliot’s telling observation that some of the people we associate closely with culture are among the most uncultured.  Whether or not we agree with Eliot, the fact is that culture is too nebulous a notion to be tied down by definition or computed.

Education, etymologically, stops with just saying ‘lead out of[1]’ and does not specify out of what. Perhaps, it is time for a paradigm shift in our conception of education itself – even before we set out to rescue it from the social forces that are out to ‘snuff out a vibrant and free-spirited learning environment’, political forces that are in cahoots with them and market forces that straddle both. What do I mean by that well worn term ‘paradigm shift’?  For a start, I think it is worth asking if ‘education’ happens in institutions such as schools and universities or whether it happens in the wider world of which these institutions are a part.  Once this happens, the constructs such as primary, tertiary and higher education will become seamless levels of accomplishment rather than definitive standards. Think sports or music or Sanskrit.  ‘Education’ in these streams of skill or knowledge or both is not constrained by constructs such as we have in formal, institutionalised academia.   Exclusion is not the norm in these arenas – rather, they are open to all, and the levels of learning are self-determined.  Evaluation is not normative, and achievement is tested and graded in a variety of ways. There is a curriculum-like framework in place, but as a light that you carry in your hand to guide you on the path you choose and not a light that is there in the distance towards which you work your way on a pre-determined path.

Thinking of education in terms of aspiration that is open to all will also make redundant questions about the levels and kinds of institutions we should invest in.  Which, in any case, appear curious: One commonly asked question is shouldn’t expansion of school education be privileged over higher education?  I ask: if there is not an equivalence in their expansion, what happens to all those who complete school and wish to enter the best of the higher education institutions we have (in the system as it exists today)?  Should their justified ambition be sacrificed as there is no means to entertain it? But then, as Prof. Pulapre Balakrishnan argues, if ‘expansion becomes the raison d’être of the public presence in higher education’, quality becomes a casuality and it is ‘disingenuous’ not to raise concerns about it. I ask: is the question of quality not equally relevant when school education’s expansion is emphasised and encouraged? Is this too not a case of inviting hungry people only to feed them leftovers?  And is this not the case today?

On a different note, I would say the thirst for knowledge is as universal a human want as the thirst for water.  And the quest is for ways to quench this thirst in a more satisfying, a more nourishing way, education as practiced today being just one way of doing it.

Notes:

[1] Ex was a common preposition used in the Latin language that simply meant “from, out of, from within”.  Ducere is the infinitve form of the Latin verb duco, which means “to lead, conduct, guide, etc.” The literal translation of educate is to draw out of, lead out of,  etc. (http://www.babeled.com/2008/11/27/word-power-education/)   Rousseau, however, traces education to ‘educatio,’ which means ‘nurture.’ ((Emile, Book I, 39 from http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/pedagogies/rousseau/em_eng_bk1.html).

A manic media vs The meditative Modi

 

Having buttressed their TRP ratings with Modi-speeches all through the day, the media went hammer and tongs at him all evening, trying to salvage the self-inflicted damage to their ideological baggage:  This amusing, oftentimes exhausting, serial unfolded day after day in the run-up to India’s 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The media – at least the Indian, English language media – has never been for Modi.  Whereas the regional language channels present a mind-boggling array of ‘India-s’, with no two regional channels seeming to talk about the same people, places or events, the English television channels conform to a pattern, each feeding off the other even as they engage in a Darwinian fight for survival.  In the race to ‘break news’, they often end up breaking eggs on their own faces. No matter, though; it’s only a question of who’s got less yellow and more white.  The most recent example of this syndrome, which I have named ‘simply wipe the egg off the face and get on with the show’, is L K Advani’s ‘emergency’ comment that came like a bolt from the blue a week or so ago. 

For one whole day, politicians of non-saffron hues and a pliant media poured vitriol in voyeuristic delight, demonising Narendra Modi to their heart’s content. ‘There’s a deep and widespread conspiracy’…, they said, ‘… dark and threatening forces are taking over the country …’ ; ‘… sinister right-wing forces are at work …’ ; ‘There are both visible and invisible threats’ ; ‘These forces are weakening social justice, hatching fascist designs’, and so they went on and on all day.   Twenty-four hours later, Advani in an interview to Karan Thapar clarified that in saying ‘the Emergency could be imposed again’, he was alluding to the Congress’ complete lack of remorse for 1975 and not about Prime Minister Modi’s proclivities.  One would have expected that there would be some semblance of shame or at least a retraction from the media or the politicians after they were shown up. But zilch.  Instead, they just moved on to another story, once again cautioning the people, warning the nation about the ‘dark forces that are out to undermine democracy’, derail the nation, destroy its dignity and what not.  In a brazen show of unethical reportage, some media houses and personalities continue, even as I write, to harp on the wrong message they had been touting before Advani’s clarification.

Interestingly, those haranguing against #PrimeMinisterModi [see quotes in the previous para] use the same language, indeed the very words that the apologists of the 1975 #Emergency used as they cautioned the nation to be ‘united and alert’ and the Indian people to be ‘vigilant’ about divisive forces!

But it is not only the media that is going overboard with its fly-by-night accusations in its attempt to provoke a Prime Minister who remains apparently indifferent to their laboured perorations.  A representative of the ‘intelligentsia’, a scion of Mahatma Gandhi’s family writes, of Modi joining the Yoga Day celebrations in RajPath, ‘By personally leading, like an adept instructor, the phalanx gathered on the Rajpath lawns he has choreographed yoga into an opera of mass power… What we have to be wary of is … the robotisation of our minds into a ‘yogic’ acceptance of one drill – majoritarianism – and its masterful drill-master’. (See ‘Mastering the Drill of Democracy’, by Gopal Gandhi, The Hindu, June 25, 2015).  When intelligence becomes the hand-maiden of ideology, one loses both innocence and inspiration and is left harbouring only illusions.  Amidst this nation of nay-sayers, the Prime Minister’s silence comes as a balm to battered sensibilities.

Poor Pothi!  Poor Pothi? Poor Pothi.

 

Pothi is the name of my neighbour’s home-bound domestic help – a smart slip of a girl some ten or so years old.  I have exchanged a few smiles with the child, but can’t speak her language.  So I can’t claim to know what is going on in her heart and her head as she goes through her days, sweeping, dusting, mopping, cleaning, washing, and though I haven’t actually seen it, probably cooking, and, most likely, polishing shoes and ironing clothes of a family of four and an endless stream of live-in guests.

She is constantly in demand: ‘Pothi, close the gate!’ call the two other children who live there – one a little older and another a little younger to her – when they go off on their bicycles to call on friends or to their tuition classes.  ‘Pothi, come and bowl’, it is, when the children are short of a hand at a game of cricket.  ‘Pothi!’ the house-owners call when dark clouds threaten rain and clothes have to be taken off the line, when there is someone at the door, when the car has to be washed, the garden watered, the compound swept, the garbage cleared when the municipal workers have played truant, leaving several days’ garbage bags hanging from the tree outside their gate, when guests have to be attended to, their children entertained … and so it goes on, hour after hour, day after day.  Pothi has not had a holiday in years. Poor Pothi!

But is Pothi the one to feel sorry for?  While the children of the household grow up in boisterous abandon, frittering away their energies on facile attempts at play – except when exams are round the corner, gibbering away in acquired accents of English-medium ‘international’ Indian schools,  trying to skip or skate away their extra kilos in feeble fits and starts, Pothi is learning many life skills: to concentrate on the work at hand while all around distractions abound, to be tough since indulging in self-pity is not an option, to be circumspect about exhibiting emotions as hand-me-downs and leftovers become par for the course when others get the treats and the pampering, to learn how to manage time and to multi-task, doing every task well as there is no other option.  While the children of the household could grow into maladjusted adults because they have never learnt to lead independent lives or to live responsibly, Pothi will be a competent and capable person, an asset to the larger society.  Besides, when day in day out there are reports of child-abuse and child-trafficking, when children run away from public institutions meant to shelter them, and from the homes they were born in because they cannot withstand the drudgery or horror, when the world Pothi was born in and the larger society we live in are such cesspools I wonder, should I describe this child next door, who is growing up in a decent family ambience, as Poor Pothi?

But then again, what accounts for this patent unfairness?  Why should one child be bonded in labour, seeing to the comfort of other children her age and the adults who are blind to the child in her?  It is only because Pothi was born into an economically deprived family.  To what avail legislations and government departments, activists and civil society organisations if sections of our people are so poor that they cannot even take care of their own?  When a family has so little to sustain itself that it has to ‘sell’ off one of their kids, what would happen if a child of theirs is ‘rescued’ and restored to them?  What would happen if, after investing in their dreams of a university degree and a job to follow a society can assure a child like Pothi neither? Can a #ChildLabour law or a #RightToEducation law operate in a vacuum?  The reality of the poor, like Pothi, and their life worlds have to be factored in when framing laws for their welfare.  Strengthening structures and systems has to precede, not follow policy implementation.  Only fail-safe supporting frameworks and their continuous monitoring will ensure that the intended ends are truly realised.  The Pothis of the world are not commodities that can be traded in; equally, they are not properties that can be used to enhance the prestige of platform exhortations[1].

[1] A term used by V.T. Lakshmi in her early twentieth century note, A Suggestion Offered.

Yoga: beyond physical well-being

The PubMed biomedical literature database reports a spurt in #Yoga research in recent years but > 90% of it relates yoga to health conditions.

In a 2014 article in the International Journal of Yoga (In search of yoga: Research trends in a western medical database) Marcy C McCall reports that while the first recorded yoga article in western medical research dates to 1948, authored by E. Abegg, there has been a surge in academic interest post-2007, with an average of 200 articles being added every year in recent times.  The article concludes by stating, ‘Systematic reviews and yoga trials are increasing, indicating a potential increase in quality of evidence. Three conditions show consistently high correlations with yoga research: stress/anxiety, pain, and depression. A significant rise in the number of cancer publications suggests an area of emerging research.’

Yoga has been described ‘as a safe and effective intervention to increase strength, flexibility and balance, and treatment for high blood pressure, heart disease, aches and pains, depression, stress, and potentially asthma’ by the National Institutes of Health, USA, and by the National Health Services, UK.  It is less known that yoga seeks to align individual health with social health, which is in line with WHO’s definition: ‘Good health is a state of complete physical, social and mental well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Health is a resource for everyday life, not the object of living, and is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources as well as physical capabilities.’

The Bhagavad Gita (verses 5.23 and verses 6.20 to 25) tells us that yoga helps us reconcile our aspirations with the outcomes, tolerate agitations that arise from desire, and recognise that expectations and disappointments are par for the course for sentient beings as long as they live.

The path of Yoga suggested by the Gita provides for the inescapable reality of expectations.  It also grants that it is natural to feel frustrated when these expectations are not met.  However, it counsels us to show forbearance in the face of such disappointments.  Yoga, says the Gita, helps us cultivate an endurance to the psychological pain akin to the fortitude with which we learn to bear physical pain.