Friday, October 30, 2009

From Shoka to Shloka in Gujarat

Today, I attended a very interesting lecture on `Poetry as Language of Persuasion’ delivered by one of the best living poets of Gujarat, Sitanshu Yashashchandra Mehta at Forum of Contemporary Theory, Vadodara. Evoking the epics by Dante and Valmiki, Prof Mehta discussed how poetry is an account of travel and journey. The lecture was organized under the national workshop on ` Towards an Ecology of Knowledge’ by the Forum on Contemporary Theory and Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics and other Human Sciences. Prof Mehta was critical of the Indian intellectual’s reliance on the Western paradigms. He advised us not be the ` darlings of the West’ by quoting Derrida etc. He was also critical of the idea of `General Semantics‘ as being imported. He remarked that the experts in General Semantics’ who had come to enlighten the participants of the workshop would be rewarded if the young Indian scholars would `offer them `our’ riches, as intellectual return gifts’. He then talked of the ancient Indian poetics  and talked about the mythical story of the origin of poetry where Valmiki, the composer of the Ramayana, saw a hunter kill one of the Krauncha birds which were mating nearby. Valmiki , as the legend goes, was so deeply grieved ( shoka= grief) by the plight of birds that he composed the first shloka ( a couplet) of the Ramayana. The inspiration for the epic came from the grief of a bird. Prof Mehta also talked about Auden’s famous elegy on Yeats , quoting the following lines:
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
Prof Mehta pointed out how the poets have to descend the depths of darkness when the dogs of Europe ( like Musolini , Hitler and, Prof Mehta said, Indians would add Churchill) barked ceaselessly.
In the question answer session, yours faithfully expressed his reservations and doubts ( as usual). I said that the whole idea of ` our riches’ is not that simple. Determination of what  is `ours’ is probably as violent as `othering’. Who decides what is `ours’ and who would feel that the `ours’ is not really `ours’, I asked.
I also pointed out that forget the Congress vs the BJP or the notion of activism or of ideology ( the things ,our reputed poet , should not pressurize  a poet to write certain type of poetry). I said even if we stayed within the classical notion of poetry of shloka( poetry)  being inspired by shoka ( grief) of a dying bird, I dont understand why so many poets ( I was not referring to him in particular but many Gujarati poets ) did not find inspiration or feel shoka in the Gujarat carnage of 2002 and write shlokas about it. Instead, I said continuing the Audenesqe analogy,  they preferred to join the Dogs of India in barking. Had Valmiki been alive, he would not have preferred the seclusion of his hermitage in such circumstances. I said that the question was not of ideology but of the poet’s sensitivity.
Prof Mehta, very kindly responded that he, like many others had indulged in silences but one should not be selective in protesting. One should not just protest the killings after the Godhra tragedy but also protest the death of people who died in the train, he said. He said we should also protest the plight of Kashmiri pandits who have lost their homes.
I thought to myself how can a person who does not understand or sympathize with  the tragedy of the rape and burning alive of pregnant women near home can ever understand the tragedy of people living in Kashmir. When one is insensitive to terrorism at home, can one understand terrorism in a far away land?

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Critique of Judgment and Towards Jaina Theory of Literary studies

Transformation is a way of life according to Landmark Education and I am learning a thing (learning being one of my strong suits) or two everyday. Discussing the problems of relationships with my friends, I discovered how being judgmental is a negative way of being which drains us of vitality and openness. Most of us believe that we are open-minded, but if we just became aware of the things that we consider ` good', `right', `wrong' or `bad', we discover that we are constantly judging people, situations, things and of course ourselves. At the same time, almost all of us allow other people's judgment to affect us and influence our way of thinking and being. I believe if we avoid looking at the world in terms of ` good-bad', `right-wrong', `proper-improper', our world view would become very broad.

I was wondering about the conversations I heard during the Forum regarding, ` Must, Is, because' and ` Always Already Listening' and I felt I did not quite get them. But I feel today that they about ways of thinking and being which restrict our openness and put constraints on the other possibilities of being and living. Saying that X is like this or Y must ... or thinking in terms of `because' are all based on the perception of present which is based on our past. LM perceives the present from the point of view of the future which is not merely a projection from our past that is our fantasies, anxieties, fears and wish fulfillments etc. Transformation, in LM philosophy is different from change. Change is modification or alteration of what already exists, transformation is invention of a state of being which is not a modification of what already exists.

LM educational philosophy is based on the idea of `transformative education’ instead of informative education and it achieves its aims by focusing on our areas of being, living, and thinking which we did not know that we did not know, as against most of the education system which focuses on what we know we don’t know -we know we cant speak Chinese or how to hack into the Pentagon website. An instance of transformative education unit is the idea that most of us are judgmental thinking in terms of `right-wrong’ etc without acknowledging or knowing that we are judgmental.

With these things at the back of my mind, I was browsing through Crossword bookstore looking for good books on Jainism. Jainism is an incredibly powerful religion and like all great religions, it is based on atheism. Its central value is `aviolence’ (often translated as non-violence) which has to be conceived very broadly. This central value is based on its metaphysics of ` anekantavaada’ or pluralistic view of reality (that is `realities’). The Jaina logic, probably one of the greatest logical systems of the world, is based on seven step syllogism or the Sapta Bhangi Nyaya. This logical system like the notion of `a-violence’ is based on non-absolutist metaphysical outlook of the religion.   The summary of this seven fold logic is first found in the writings of a Jaina monk Bhadrabahu (c. 4th century B.C,) and goes something like this:

"The syadvada is set forth as follows: (1) May be, it is; (2) may be, it is not; (3) may be, it is and it is not; (4) may be, it is indescribable; (5) may be, it is and yet is indescribable; (6) may be, it is not and it is also indescribable; (7) may be, it is and it is not and it is also indescribable."
A-violence is possible if your outlook becomes a non-absolutist and being judgmental implies that my view is truth and is unquestionable one, because I am Right and you are Wrong.  In a way, our judgmental view is the source of violence in the world and it limits our world view in a violent way.

Sometime back, I was almost fanatic and dogmatic upholder of the ` evaluative’ mode of criticism and felt that non-evaluative or non-judgmental study of literature as promoted by outstanding critics like Northrop Frye has resulted in certain `anomie’ of values in literary studies department. The judgmental way of reading or being is actually a very limited and violent way of reading. I wonder how a-violent or non-judgmental mode of reading is possible. It is possible by admitting multiple points of views of readers and the characters and the author in the process of reading, in fact, by admitting that all the voices that speak in the text, including the voice of reader, is not  speaking `the Truth’, but ` a truth’ which is a limited one.  Reader response theories admit multiple points of views of readers by asserting that the readers produce their meaning, but there is need for this ethical awareness that even a particular meaning generated by the reader is not the `right one’, but one right reading among the many ones. The potential of this ethical outlook can be radical and can actually go against educational and pedagogical models of literary studies which actually are violent in the fact that they want readers to produce a `particular kind of reading’ in order to get grades. The Syadvaad can be a base of newer ethics of reading and `criticism’. Am I proposing a Jaina theory of literary studies? Probably I am, or probably I am not….Probably it will lead us beyond the conversations marked by ` Must, Is, Because’ and ` Right/Wrong, ` Good/Bad’, ` Correct/Incorrect’ which delimit our views and open up a possibility of radically open mode of literary studies….

Monday, October 19, 2009

Of Gender , Sexuality and other Disasters

One of my friends asked me to chair a session or two at the forthcoming one-day seminar on ` Gay and Lesbian Studies: The Indian Context' and she said that one of my colleagues had turned down the offer because he was ` straight' and ` still interested in women'. Not very funny perhaps.

I agreed to the idea even if it was not my area of academic research. The area of gender and sexuality is probably one of the most interesting area of research probably. If someone stupid would ask me why I am poking my straight nose into this queer area,I would reply by describing a scene from a very very funny and interesting film ` Love and Other Disasters' where Mathew Rhys who plays a gay room mate of Brittany Murphy  and Santiago Cabera go out for dinner as it is `set up' by Murphy  who thinks that Santiago is gay and sweet for Rhys. Rhys character is obviously shocked when Cabera's character tells him that he is straight and not gay. Funnily, Rhys' character asks him ` Straight? Since when?', to which Santiago says that he is straight since he was eight and however hard he tried to develop interest in men, he would end up with women. The humour is largely due to inversion of the usual situation where it is the `straight' who would ask such questions to the gay and it would be the gay person who would give such a reply. The point probably is that heterosexuality too is as much a construct as homosexuality is. So my answer would be same as that of Santiagos but at the same time it would betray an awareness that people are not born straight, they become one.

Some years back, I was not very enthusiastic about feminism and gender studies as I felt that the subject was exhausted and that there was hardly anything new in the area. But that simply was my ignorance and complacence. My reading and understanding of feminism and gender studies was limited to the French theorists I read during my post-graduation days. I had a faint idea of something like `the Third Wave' of Feminism.But only after joining the MS University, thanks to my colleagues like Dr Deeptha Achar, who is an outstanding researcher in this area,  and the DRS SAP programme which organized seminars,colloqiums and workshops on the questions of Identity,  I got interested in the area of gender. We had find scholars like Prof Nivedita Menon and Prof Jasbir Jain in our Dept.

Besides my renewed interest in Wittgenstein enabled me to appreciate the work of theorists like Judith Butler in a new light. Just like Wittgenstein challenged the idea of ` transcendental meaning' which exists independently of speech acts or specific language use, we can challenge the idea of any such transcendental notions of gender existing independently of the specific language-event. That is gender, like most of other things, can hardly exist outside of specific performances, outside of ` language games'. This is obviously not exactly what Butler is talking about, but my way of reading her is from a Wittgensteinien perspective.

I also protest the idea that someone should be punished and discriminated against just because they are  different. Difference is not a disease. There is a huge amount of variation even within the categories perceived as monoliths like ` heterosexual'. No two heterosexuals have same sexual expressions and at the same time even a single heterosexual can express herself or himself differently over a period of time or in different context. Consider what is a state termed euphemistically as `sexual dysfunction'. A person sexually dysfunctional with a particular person may function `adequately' with another. Sexual expression is inseparable from relationships ( which means it is always socially conditioned).It is in such a huge range of variation of sexual expressions, that one should locate the terms such as ` heterosexual' and ` the homosexual'. The binary terms are not really water tight compartments nor are they `homogeneous' or monolithic, There are homosexualities and there are heterosexualities.

In Indian context, homophobia most commonly manifests itself by equating homosexuality with anal penetration. People forget however, that anal sex is not limited to homosexuality but a part of common heterosexual practices too. Besides, patriarchal outlook delimits homosexuality to male sexuality and has no ways of understanding female homosexuality.
( more to come..)

Friday, October 9, 2009

The End of Higher Education in `Swarnim Gujarat'

In an unprecedented move, the Govt of Gujarat has decided to implement the Sixth Pay Commission pay scale instead of the University Grants Commission( UGC) Recommended Pay Scale to the university and college teachers. This means that their salaries will be at par with bureaucrats and govt officials. In no other states has the state government flouted the UGC norms so openly and with such impunity. The move can seen as a strategic back door implementation of what is known as Common University Act, an Act apparently made to bring about uniformity in Higher Education but also to reduce `burden of higher education' by promoting privatization and commercialization of higher education. The whole game is to encourage ` Self- Finance' educational institutes and contract based appointments of the teachers and discourage granted and subsidized education. Not that anything is grievously wrong with the concept, but the problem lies in the way it is implemented. The way the State Govt took teachers for granted and penalized them is outright unjust. No other state in the country seems to follow this ` Gujarat Model'.

The roots of problem in Gujarat do not just lie in the present economic situation, but also in the politics of Mr Narendra Modi and his admirers. One of the smartest manipulators of media, Mr Modi knows that he will get admiration even if he is demonized by media and his detractors and so he uses his media generated persona to float ` airs' of various sorts. Swarnim Gujarat is one such brain child. Swarnim Gujarat or Golden Gujarat has succeeded in creating a belief that all is well in the state of Gujarat and not just that this is the Golden Period.

Gullibility is one fundamental trait on which politics all over the world survives and thrives. Gujarat is no exception. Teachers and intellectuals probably are the most gullible people in the country today. Family members of the people who died drinking illicit liquor in Ahmedabad and the family members of children killed by Tantriks in the Asharam Bapu Ashram know that there is no such thing like Swarnim Gujarat . Neither do the family members of people killed in the Post Godhra riots and various minorities buy the idea of Golden Gujarat. It is not just that insignificant and ideologically impotent political party called ` Congress' which dislikes the state under Mr Modi, it is also a fairly large number of people in the BJP who hate Modi and his coterie. With the present decision of the Govt, Mr Modi might probably lose many of his admirers among teachers and he doesn't care about it. For, as long as you have the media,you don't need any other propaganda machinery.

The best part of this crisis is it provides the much needed ` reality check' to those who live out-of-sync with present times. Teachers and academic institutions are reputed for completely being out of touch with the actual world outside and these kinds of blows bring them back to normal.

The title of this entry ` The End of Higher Education' is deliberately ambiguous. For the ` the End' can mean the final collapse and it can also mean ` the ultimate purpose' behind Higher education. This is for the second or third time I am participating in teachers agitating against the govt in my short career of 13 years. The question is, why does the society and its representatives think that higher education is dispensable and insignificant ? Why is it that if the teachers go on strike for routine administrative things like the implementation of pay commissions are not seen as creating any serious problems for society? Teachers not going to work is no big deal for society. One needs to ask why. I have seen many highly reputed educational institutions, like other institutions of the society, completely shattered and biting the dust. Most of them have become ` by the mediocre, of the mediocre and for the mediocre', where loyalty to the authorities has actually become ` merit'. Probably this is because of the large scale upheaval caused by the forces of globalization and economic liberalization which went on a rampage after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The present economic recession has brought this bull-in-the china shop machine of globalization to a grinding halt.

This moment of crisis is indeed a moment of agitation and resistance to contemporary fascism bred on omnipresent media but it is also the moment of introspection: we have to find out what is the ultimate purpose and function of higher education in very specific and concrete terms and then restructure our institutions on its basis. This is the quest for ` the true end' of Higher Education in Gujarat and probably in India too. The post-Cold war ideological vacuum, which resulted in the disappearance of critical discourses from public life, was filled up with regionalism and fanaticisms of all kinds in the past two or three decades. One of the most important functions of higher education in India today is to promote a critical form of cosmopolitanism which resists fanaticisms of Modi-Raj Thakeray and so many others politicians world over, by restoring critical spirit to its public domain. It would mean moving out of the walls of colleges and universities directly into public spaces. And given the possibilities of new medias like the internet with its social networking sites, blogs and other platforms, I think the teachers of today need to do their critical ` extension' activities on such platforms. This might mean , apart from the usual academic seminar- research publications, the teachers would do well to reach out to the places where young people really are, apart from classrooms- that is in the space opened up by the internet.

The post-colonial thinking looked at how the idea of nation was `imagined' and `constructed' in the times of print media. The post global contemporary culture has created newer ways of creating communities with the help of social networking and blogging and hence a newer way of `imagining' nation which is NOT primarily based on regional and local cultures. Globalization which people once thought would bring about the end of nation has actually resulted in newer ways of inventing nation and hence newer nations. It is in the context of this newer ways of imagining nation and culture that higher education in India and elsewhere will have to find out its true ` end'.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Of Leadership and Politics: A Gandhi Jayanti Reflection

It requires a certain amount of maturity to understand Gandhi. Very often people who hate him and people who convert him into a `saint', fail to understand Gandhi. Both of them start from the wrong end- his `ideology'. Even I did the same and was cynical of him. It is so very easy to be cynical of Gandhi. It is so very difficult to understand him, but then it is so very easy to appreciate his greatness. He had only action, commitment and practice. His ideology is merely an attempt to explain what he was trying to do and hence of little consequence to him. His action was his ideology. What he was doing is crucial to us, and once we understand what he was trying to do, we realize why is one of the greatest leaders of all time.

He was trying to see how far is it possible to commit oneself completely and thoroughly to welfare of the society. He tried to become the person he was committed too by wearing clothes like him and living life like him. It is this commitment and complete sense of responsibility to his society which makes him the greatest leader ever. Understanding Gandhi will make us aware of the difference between a politician, a saint and a leader.

The politician is the person who wants power and sees responsibility as a burden. He takes up responsibility for gaining power. The leader is a person who takes up responsibility. The leader is a person who commits himself to the other. Power becomes a means for fulfilling the responsibility for the leader. A leader, because he commits does not require power because this commitment makes him powerful. A Gandhi does not require a post to be powerful. Unlike a saint who insist that you follow him, a leader dedicates himself to you. Thats why Gandhi was much more than a saint or politician.

We need Gandhi today is not because of his abstract ideas of truth, non-violence or like . We want Gandhi because we want to learn how to commit ourselves to the society we live in. To dedicate ourselves completely to others. The society we live in in the twenty first century teaches us how to be completely self-centred and non-committal, which results in extreme powerlessness of the individual.

Gandhi teaches us that we can become powerful only if we dedicate ourselves to others. We want power without responsibility, consequently we can only be weak. If we take up responsibility, we are already powerful we need not `desire power'. You don't become powerful by desiring power. It is precisely when we give it up the lust for power that we become powerful- this is the Zen of Power, this is the Koan which Gandhi personifies.