A travel note from East Africa

FullSizeRender (11)

Rwanda – Uganda Border, July 2018

9/7/2018

Kampala

Arrived in Kampala after a twelve-hour bus ride from Kigali. Through the bus window, one gets a slow and close introduction to the landscapes, life and people outside of the capital cities.

Kampala’s playlist goes on until early hours, uninterrupted and loud. Sleep if one must, enveloped by sound. Travelers join in, linger, drop out, sleep, get back… Hordes continue this way, as though some sort of natural order among backpackers. The residents speak of the city’s nightlife. One notices it – the music, people milling about, cars, walkers and the general loud cheer, often of young, youthful voices. They behave as if time is running out on them. And perhaps it is. On all of us. Some feel it, some dread it and some take these backpacker routes. These are the modern pilgrims. On travel routes. Discussing fact-of-the-day. “Do you know the word  for a herd of zebras? It is called a dazzle.”. “You know what daisies are?”.  “Anyway… lets connect on insta and facebook”. New connections made, travel continues.

On the breakfast table, the talk is about how everyone is ‘discovering’ Africa. I realize I am too, by having my textbook idea of the continent busted. The discovery of Africa is by all means and for all matters a discovery of one’s own miserably narrow worldview and understanding. Beyond the fascination of wildlife on this gorgeous piece of planet, everything else is traveler’s own ignorance about people, cultures, living and thriving in societies outside of their own.

Advertisements

Possibilities in forgiveness and healing: Rwanda

IMG_4515 (1)

Kigali, July 2018

Kigali smiles generously. There is intrigue, amusement or a smile on most faces that a visitor crosses on the streets here.  and kind to each other in numerous small ways. Elsewhere, we spent time discussing conflict, peace and post-conflict societies. This elsewhere was a classroom several years back, in Bangalore. We were high on ideas of justice. Violence wasn’t quite unknown, but neither known in the severity that Rwanda experienced. To most visitors for the brief time they spend in Kigali and one imagines even to Rwandans the traumatic experience of violence and genocide sits in the daily consciousness. Although, in different ways.

Visiting the Genocide Memorial in Kigali has been an intense experience. The time here completes an arc of the quest to understand what forgiveness means. And if indeed one can truly forgive. I have been gripped by it since the time I read about the details of violent acts and the community justice approach through Gacaca system that Rwanda practiced in its efforts towards justice and achieve a kind of closure on the trauma that the country lived. The need to know forgiveness emerged in a personal experience. After time here, it appears as though individual and collective are deeply enmeshed. I observe an extreme level of forgiveness that the Rwandan people have demonstrated, lived and continue to practice. It is extraordinary in its quality because this exhibits a possibility of human capacity that is hard to even touch within oneself, leave alone the ability to tap it as a vital source.

IMG_4517 (1)

Genocide Memorial, Kigali, July 2018

The hours spent at Genocide Memorial can be intense and unsettling. The memorial and the museum are a great asset to the world. Walking through one gets as gentle introduction to a political, social, personal and a human horror story as can be possible. It isn’t easy. And the museum curators have done a great job of it. As I walked through the space, I noted a few quotes which hit a personal note. Felicien Ntagengwa survived the genocide. Her words, “if you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me” appear at the beginning of the gallery spaces. It is stirring to dwell upon the import of it. Will man ever get to know oneself well enough to act reasonably at all times? How do these ruptures in human behaviour happen? There is another gripping instance, in Father Seromba, who, to quote the exhibition, “murdered his own congregants in his own church”. He led the Nyange parish.

The exhibition depicts development of differences among social groups in Rwanda since colonial years, post-colonial intensification of the differences, the horrid inclusion of social group on citizens’ identification cards and the post-colonial political trajectory that precipitated into the genocide.

Looking at the pictures of today’s Kigali, a friend writes back saying, ‘sounds like heaven’. This heaven, or ‘Singapore of Africa’ that Rwanda’s government aspires the country to be, has been a walk through untold pain and nurturing hope even when every reason to hope has been brutally taken away. A sliver of this hope is seen when students who are taught about Rwanda’s past, share their opinion. One of them, which to my school-teacher eye seems revealing is from a participant of Peace Dialogue Club. Callixte from Ecole Secondaire Magi, Gisagara district says “I used to hear that Tutsi were the cause of the genocide. but after learning and discussing, I decided that what I heard was not true . Now I look for my own truth.”  For a student to suggest that she looks for her own truth, is a sure sign of efforts beginning right.

Along the walls, I pick up another quote. This time from the Rwandan writer, Yolande Mukagasana. With Greek-Belgian photographer Alain Kazinierakis she produced the travelling exhibition Les Blessures du silence, witness accounts of the genocide. She writes, “There will be no humanity without forgiveness. There will be no forgiveness without justice. But justice will be impossible without humanity.”

What is remarkable about this memorial is that this is arguably the only place in the world that gathers together, in a small way, all the genocides of the world until recent years. From Herero people of Namib desert, to Holocaust, Bosnia, Cambodia and their own country’s. This is tremendously effective in understanding humanity, peace, conflict and violence. For it to ‘hit’ home, this exhibition proves useful.

On law and indigenous people, I take home this extraordinary and simple message that Nama chief Hendrik Witbooi sends to Major Leutwein to inform him that the local people would no longer tolerate the behaviour of invading German forces and settlers:

“he (the colonist) introduced laws… which are entirely impossible, untenable, unbelievable , unbearable, unmerciful and unfeeling. he punishes our people… and has already beaten people to death for debt. he thinks we are stupid and unintelligent people, but we have never yet punished people in the cruel and improper way that he does”

IMG_4523

The afterword. Genocide Memorial, Kigali, 2018

As a prelude to the exhibition, visitors are advised to watch a 10 minute clip with genocide survivors speaking of their experience. After one walks through the gallery spaces, they are led to another room to watch a video, which the visitor learns is a sequel or an afterword, on the exhibition. “We are here and we are at peace” says one of the survivors in the afterword video. It ends with these two short sentences from another survivor. These were stirring and show the possibility of hope, in real, perceivable form – “You felt the cost at all times.” It closes with “I am still here standing strong.”

For other times in the city, I play Kigali’s favourite, Kiss FM and in the cheerful songs, I think of human beings making that necessary effort to forgive, hope and move on, when necessary.

Hate Cleaning? I love it! – Scraping through in Oslo

image_oslos

Oslo, June 2018

The city is cold. This is not a statement on weather here. Even on weather’s count, cold season of cities in lower latitudes is Oslo’s summer. It manages to keep an attractive and highly refined façade of affluence and lifestyle that unfurls into layers of nuances only on repeat visits. Parts of the city that face the world arriving at its fjord doorstep, and parts of the city that visitors’ see are those that lead to a compelling desire in them to imagine a comfortable and secure life far from the brokenness of the known cities of the world. Irrespective of a visitor’s own city of residence – New York, Mumbai, Cape Town, Shanghai or any other; Oslo’s sense of orderliness and ideal setting that grips most people. The trams work like a bug free program. The shiny red buses arrive on time. The train system, NSB and its state of the art airport train, Flytoget; can be planned up to the last minute and connect seamlessly to flight departures. This near overlap of intent, plan and actual events cast a spell on the visitor. Then the warmth of harbour side cafes and restaurants, town hall’s ringing bell and Oslo residents walking brisk in their sharp clothing are a sight which is hard to find fault with. All this set under a clean, crisp air on most days and as clean outdoors as the world can offer today, in highly urbanised settings. In one evening of arrival, all of these stir up a longing to live in such a city. On and on, I have seen visitors go weak on their love for hometowns, having experienced half a day’s clockwork in this half a metropolitan high up in north of the world.

Most leave within days and without staying long enough to see their impressions get dented, on the ferries and planes they arrived on, bound by their itinerary’s timeliness. The prices of the city on the first night, second and the third are a matter of choosing cheaper over expensive, or vice-versa. It is only when the stays expand to a week or longer, do explanations roll in, for scenes lodged in the visitor’s tourist eye. Food prices follows close. More than a couple of meals in restaurants can make even the most loaded traveller beat a hasty retreat. But, enough of the prices. The whole city deals with it. Some fix meals out of the cheapest food from its convenience stores. Some struggle. One doesn’t know how many perish in this attempt.

There is struggle in Oslo just as other cities of the world. The only difference is that it is cloaked. When this struggle – of poor residents, immigrants and homeless people – reveals itself through the very few cracks that the city allows for, the details of it can be a crushing read. The contrast is also striking. The residents of Oslo love to keep to themselves. Sharing is an idea that perhaps means sharing public spaces and transport. Beyond that, one stays quiet and avert eyes from all visual discomfort that the resident might get waylaid with.

A suitable place to watch people and their situations unfold is Oslo Sentral. This the point of arrival in Oslo for all, except those arriving by the ferry. This is also the place where the racial, social and economic diversity of this city-town decants. I watch the pleas unfold here, on some evenings. This is where a visitor is likely to find homeless people begging for alms and hustlers trying to get by their days in this expensive city. The space around Oslo S is perhaps the most fascinating spot. Along the walls of tram stops and bus stops one gets a glimpse of a struggling bunch of people. Those resigned hold up placards asking for money in the name of their god, which is interesting when one knows that church attendance in this country has hit rock bottom. The young print out their intents and pleas for work – “Hate Cleaning? I love it!”, announces one. The self-advertising ad ends with a pitch, that the person can make “your home more beautiful. :).” In my time here, these are the little instances which speak of a hard life for those who have come in search of work and life. It seems as though the city ignores them and with this indifference, frustrate them into checking out. Only the Roma faces seem familiar year on year, and the juggler – a talkative and sassy young man of African descent, who puts up shows on juggling six basketballs, on Karl Johan’s street. Watching his show on the street is a practice in confidence building. He talks, calls out and heckles those standing by, as though he has resolved to go back home that evening making that exact amount of money that he set out thinking of. I stay away from him, lest he calls out in my direction and asks me for a 10 kroner tip.  This would make a substantial sum to be given away in Indian Rupees for a street performance, which Indians have taken for granted and deem as close to natural phenomenon in everyday life.

Meanwhile, the cyclists of a food delivery company make rounds around town. Young men and women, in good shape riding cycle through the streets of Oslo with a big box of a bag strapped on their shoulders. I am keen on knowing them. Who are they and did anyone of them get here after pasting self-advertising printouts of their cleaning skills on the tram stop walls for years? What intrigues is that Oslo residents do not talk about any of these kinds of work and workers. When the academicians at Norwegian universities do think of workers and their conditions, they make way to the southern hemisphere mostly, and speak of informal labour. In the meantime, informal work trickles into Norway’s daily life, wetting their boots, as they keep themselves busy studying the world.

 

 

They know it better

There is a subcontinental society that we form – of material status, skills, nationality and race, in countries where South Asians gather. Among those living in economically prosperous parts of the world, whether temporary or for long term, this pattern can be recognized. It doesn’t matter how skilled an immigrant from this region is. It takes him a long time to be confident about it and behave confident.  A Pakistani engineer working for a European telecom takes a longer time to get comfortable in his skin. It takes a much higher level of education for the South Asian to feel even partially confident to sit by a technician making a point, who might at best would have attended a vocational school and perhaps has not seen the inside of a university. I notice the striking difference in years of education and training that immigrants have compared to the residents, in Europe and the US.  What the resident has is perhaps not the right university degree but certainly the right nationality and a right passport to go with it. And, he can teach English!

On brief work visits to Europe, this contrast is striking. Possibly, the resident European (plug any Western or Scandinavian nationality) has a different view on it, as he goes about serving coffee at a local cafes or work the checkout counters in departmental store or be a cyclist for a food delivery company. But this is about a visitor’s experience and what meets his eye. We are all only degrees apart in latitude – the countries, but in confidence we are a world apart, especially on the world stage. A Bangladeshi, a Pakistani, a Nepali and an Indian (and perhaps Sri Lankan) might take several years and repeated assurances of his excellence before believing in it. It doesn’t come easy to them that they can be good at their work or in what they know. This could be partly conditioned by the Asian families that they come from and the legendary ethic of proving oneself. In the process the Asian strives too hard.

Why does this matter – this lack of confidence? This leads to stifled state of innovation, risk taking and leadership roles in multinational teams as well as in their home countries when some of them return. Asians, and Indians in particular, become proficient at working on assigned tasks than leading teams. This may not be true of Indians in Silicon Valley, but I have only secondary information and no first hand experience. It appears as though this lack of confidence makes Indians come into themselves quite late in their careers, when they could have been in driving roles much earlier. The lost years, is my concern. Moreover, this under-confident behaviour in multinational settings, seeps into successive generation of professionals who take after them. The next in line, go about experiencing the world already defined and conditioned by their less confident elders.

I am not sure what the remedy for under-confidence is. However, it is one of the reasons that there is a perceived disparity between perception of ‘expertise’ and the reality of it. Expertise seems to be almost always available in the West and is their forte. It must be imported as tech, consultants or other forms of knowledge products. How do we change this? There seems to be a relationship between an individual’s nationality and in the confidence he carries while working in multinational settings. This shapes the individual and his country’s perception, although in a subtle manner. May be, by being conscious of it can help a bit in avoiding this behaviour.

Update: 

Devesh Kapur has moved from CASI at UPenn to Johns Hopkins University. In a recent piece (H/T Amol Agarwal) he writes the following, which also serves a case in point –

While there are notable exceptions, in many large data projects, India-based personnel are the intellectual equivalent of coolie labor—they do the grunt work, leaving the thinking to Boston Brahmins, so to speak. An intellectual hierarchy has been created between the haves and have nots wherein the funding channels reinforce the model of fly-in-fly-out academia that professes that it is doing all this work to help India.

India has largely itself to blame for this state of affairs, having done so much to undermine its universities and intellectual culture over the past few decades. Indeed one personally knows of cases of government departments denying data access to Indian graduate students even while they give the same data to foreign researchers—a bizarre interpretation of a level playing field.

Further, a slightly different issue but no less pertinent –

When asked how many of these expensive RCTs had moved the policy needle in India, Arvind Subramanian, Chief Economic Advisor, GOI, was hard pressed to find a single one that had been helpful to him in addressing the dozens of pressing policy questions that came across his table. By contrast, the compiling of just some key facts on learning outcomes by Indian NGO, Pratham, has had a big impact on policy discussions in education, because it is backed by a degree of specific knowledge and engagement that is more credible and persuasive. One could question whether “relevance” or “timeliness” are a valid standard for good research—yes they are, when those are precisely the reasons given to funders for these projects. 

 

It is not what you think is wrong with ‘education in India’

Teacher_bhagwan_750_pttv

Mr. Bhagawan a teacher of English language and his students, as he is leaves school premises. (Image Courtesy: The News Minute and PTTV)

Writing this in a haste, with an urge to put down what I feel about this piece that Scroll published a few hours back about a government school teacher who was mobbed by his students and urged to not leave, when he was transferred from the school. The students and teacher are visibly moved and emotional in the photograph that is being shared. This is real! It does happen. Students do get attached to teachers for a variety of reasons. Does this mean that there is something systemic to be said about it? How do we want to see it or read opinions on it? Media in this country is in the business of passing its ill-thought, half-baked and pathetically ill-informed opinion on absolutely anything and they go for such low-hanging incidents. It is sickening to read the views of this journalist someone who felt it would be opportune to extrapolate it and speak of what is wrong with ‘education in India’, beginning and ending with only one photograph flashing on her screen.

I am a bit enraged at this piece for several reasons. The tone of writing is high handed – “It seems Bhagawan did what good teachers do.” Another one that this writer wants us to believe – “This lack of mastery is not unusual for school teachers of any subject in India. ” Sure. This school teacher now goes on trial for his work by a writer who most likely has seen far less of classrooms, teaching and days at a government school in a village. This isn’t my immediate problem.  The real one is that this piece insults, demotivates and discredits several hundreds of teachers who work in the system and try to do their best, with resources, abilities and opportunities that their contexts have to offer them. Why is this not being regarded? This is upsetting! Why is it that these writers are so brazen and lack even the faintest humility to consider that they might be reading the situation wrong? Teacher and student affection can be a lot more than this myopic reading of it.

The writer introduces a grand sounding sub-heading ‘Impediments to public education’ and fills it up with careless, ill-informed observations about education system. It is enraging that instead of substantive arguments it is filled with ad hominem remarks. This I find are insensitive, flawed and of course uncharitable. I can’t imagine how did this pass the editor’s desk. She writes –

The first impediment concerns teacher competence. Bhagawan, an English teacher, is not fluent in the language. In a short comment he made on TV, he was unable to form grammatical sentences or find the right words to explain his situation. It is possible that he has bookish knowledge and is able to teach his students the rules of grammar and prepare them for simple writing exercises that they need to pass their exams. Because he has the instincts of a good teacher, he will undoubtedly contribute to the overall growth of his students. He may, however, not have the tools to make them learn the language he is employed to teach them. This lack of mastery is not unusual for school teachers of any subject in India.

Here is someone passing comments on an English teacher’s competence to teach by watching him on TV. Beat this! Moreover, this is deemed acceptable by the editor. I am compelled to ask if this writer ever stepped into a school of the variety that concerns this event or pursued a closer reading of situations from other sources. This isn’t ‘lack of mastery’. It is a lack of commonsense and even the most basic exposure to teaching and learning in India’s government schools. Do you imagine that the best education systems in the world are run by masters of subjects? This says nothing about education in India. Instead, it speaks a lot about how people with no clue about education, teaching, learning and challenges there in, write with impunity and reckless confidence in this country. And god forbid, if they end up changing public opinion.

With all the wisdom expounded in the piece, the writer finishes with sentences like “India needs to think about its schools and its teachers differently if its intention is to educate its massive school-going population.”  and offers little about what this thinking might entail! May be the writer needs to think if ad hominem remarks against a school teacher’s competence and ability to teach is a wise way to clock articles.

The art of preface: Woman, Body, Desire in Post-colonial India

For two days a week that I spend working at a university, I spend a part of my time reading preface of books and digging archives. If a preface gets my attention and is compelling enough, the book gets read for sure. Jyoti Puri’s Woman, Body, Desire in Post-colonial India (Routledge) is one such. The label post-colonial has sounded uneasy in this brief period of academic pursuit. However, when some thinkers, authors and researchers use it, in their hands, it seems worth a thought. The idea of women, body and desire isn’t as appealing as the context in which Puri sets it. The author’s preface reads a fine piece in a researcher’s personal ethics, honesty and humility with which the research framework and material is presented. She writes,

Despite the personal and cohort-based experiences of middle-class womanhood in post-colonial India that I bring to my work, this book is not about me or a narrowly defined peer group. Specifically, it is about the 54 middle and upper-class women who took the time to speak with me about various aspects of their lives. More broadly, this book delves into the tensions of female bodies, desire, womanhood, and social class, and the kinds of hegemonic codes that regulate these aspects of the 54 women’s lives.

This clarity of motivation appears remarkable for my inexperienced eye. Perhaps this is how it is supposed to be written.

It has been difficult to agree to claims of authors in women studies (or writing in feminism) because of the biases that the authors tend begin with, some of which consistently places women as the oppressed and that as a universal truth. As I write this, I am conscious that taking names or citing works can be problematic. The observations that feminist literature makes on women and their subjective experiences can be valid and for authors’ to make. However, the transition from those observations to claims is where discontent lies. Puri’s book is noteworthy and makes me write about it because this is the kind of writing that I think can do a lot of good for the cause of feminism and to the discipline of women’s studies. For instance, Puri writes,

This book is about understanding these categories of experience and self-definition from the viewpoint of women’s reality.

The categories in context are female bodies, desire, womanhood and social class. She closes the preface with –

I hope that this book will be of use to an audience interested in issues of womanhood in contemporary India but also to an audience interested in grappling with the tensions of gender and sexuality across diverse social settings.

The tensions of gender and sexuality has been a continuing interest, which perhaps originated in personal experience. In contemporary feminist writing anger comes across as the most immediate motivation. This can be a genuine starting point. But I have felt that it clouds perspective, as much as the ability to reason. And therefore, emotive feminist literature hasn’t been able to set forth coherent thought as much as they have weaponized anger and rage. This position to write from isn’t productive at all, if not destructive. The point of this post is to keep, for a later reference, the writing style and presentation of ideas, which convey a tempered position than a reactive one, as well as a kind of humility and refined reason that is hard to find in feminist literature published since 2010.

Ooty Ultra 60K

ooty_ultra

Two Sundays back I ran a 60 KM ultra run in Ooty. This was the year’s first ultra. Though labeled 60K actual course distance of 62K. Every time I mention 62, instead of 60, I am reminded of a fellow runner who insisted that every additional 100 meters matter when running long distance. However, I am inclined to think that it matters less, these little additions. It gets difficult for sure. But at the same time mind is too tired to fuss over the distance, unless the runner is competitive.

The course is across a large swath of hilly terrain around Ooty. It had an overall gain of 6300 ft and loss of 5700 ft. This appeared quite unusual for the distance. First 10 KM climbs up to Dodabetta Peak, the highest point in Ooty, rolls down for the next 15 KM and begins climbing up again. The last 10 KM is again a difficult road climb up several hairpin loops, up to Ooty. This last 10 KM was a laborious climb, taking away all the energy I had for running the last two easy kilometers to finish line. Over seven and a half hours, I coasted through half a dozen tea factories, tea plantations and several villages of the Nilgiris district. For its beauty and freshness, I would highly recommend this run. It requires a serious thought for those who haven’t done hill ultras, because hill running is a different game from running in plains. I had my initiation a couple of years back in Nepal and that kept me in good spirit for this one.

In this ultra, I let the course run through me. It felt better this way than to think of me running the course. The thought of every passing kilometer floats right on top of mind when I track the distance covered. When I think of only the finish line and to get there, without tracking time or distance, I have had a better experience. Ooty was also a faster and better run compared to all the other times. This seems like an ‘approach’ to running long distance that is shaping up lately. I haven’t been driven by metrics, though I do take a good look at splits and timing after finishing courses. This minimal approach has translated into better run experiences and has brought in a certain lightness within me. I anticipate that this may need a revision when I take on 100 KM runs. Over the years, it sure feels stronger as a runner and especially in this ultra, there was no despair that tends to take over on sighting hard sections of the course. I could take them on calmly.

These years of running have been a process of ‘becoming’. Becoming what, is hard to get a finger on. It certainly feels so. There are changes and subtle transformations, physical and mental. These post-run posts helps track this change. After Ooty Ultra, there is a mental strengthening that has happened. There is a force with which pursuits of uphill sections was done. And that, in retrospect, has been the most delightful part of the run.

 

 

 

 

[Policy Thinking]: A Flowchart

In the type of work we do in our consulting practice – research, evaluation and advisory, there is seldom time to develop theoretical insights, during the preparatory phase or during an ongoing work. It helps us to have (relatively) quick process flows; application oriented concepts and most importantly actionable insights. This is where one cannot pick up theoretical books. Application oriented books on practice of policy, evaluation etc are fewer in comparison to theory and fundamental concepts books. So, we are always on the look out for action-oriented thinking. The last I wrote about an applied concept was a post on development primer. A couple of my friends suggested that it was useful for them in their research projects and over the years we have used it too.

This post is to share a flowchart to think about policy problems and propose solutions, methodically. It is set within economic theory. The steps may appear rudimentary. However, for beginners in public policy the crisis often is about how-to ‘begin’. Here are the steps in analyzing an issue and methodically develop a solution for it:

  1. Identify an issue
  2. Build a model
  3. Analyse behaviour of economic agents
  4. Look for a solution by identifying the equilibrium
  5. Understand the conditions for a stable equilibrium
  6. Introduce welfare concern in the equilibrium
  7. See if the equilibrium undergoes any change
  8. Study enforcement or implementation of the altered conditions under which the equilibrium with welfare effects incorporated is achieved

This term, I am assisting in Public Finance course. The above flowchart is from a lecture by Dr. Anup Pujari. It helps that he has had decades of experience in government and in teaching economics.

A more recent inspiration for this post is Ajay Shah’s post Become a public policy thinker in three easy stepsI have returned to his post often, for its simple and effective presentation. Step 3 on the hurdle of public administration is just the kind of input that only those with a longer exposure and experience to real world policy problems can provide, as is the case with Dr. Pujari’s flowchart above.

I will use Policy Thinking as a label to series of applied ideas that will be written about on this blog henceforth.

Death of a library

FullSizeRender (11)

Two registers lay open on the front desk with a blunt tipped pencil tucked in one of them. Visitors are required to enter their names in it. Many walk by without a second look. Two women manned the baggage counter, deciding in a seemingly random fashion, bags that must be tagged with a number and bags that should be left on the floor, in a corner. My bag  didn’t deserve a tag. Back volumes section on the first floor resembled a wastepaper dealer’s store room with bundles of old newspapers and periodicals tied in strings, lay coated in a thick layer of dust. Back volumes of journals, or what one may call as archives, is what I had gone looking for. The library opened in 1915 and one expected a rich list of journals and periodicals from pre-independence era being subscribed to. Did the library have subscription of the journals I was looking for? The staff at the lending desk had a serious difficulty in understanding what ‘journals’ meant. There was no hint of familiarity with this word. She pointed to the same store room on the first floor where I knew the state of affairs. There was repeated use of ‘general’ books in her conversation. In that moment, I abandoned the search for ‘journals’.

The paradox that hits a visitor standing in the middle of the large circular hall, encircled with shelves of books, in two levels, is whether to be glad or sorry. Glad, for the State Central Library (SCL) still exists. That it retains some of its original architectural character and that it appears to be in good health as far as the building and its upkeep goes. Or sorry, for the shelves that hold nothing of the past. The library has no archive. It seems to have done away with the past that once stood on its shelves. For a public library that opened in 1915, SCL has frightfully few books from the early half of twentieth century. A few odd late nineteenth century publications remain tucked among the latest books, as survivors of the purge. There is irony in this report from a newspaper on the reopening of library after renovation – ‘The State Central Library is ready to play host to a new generation of bibliophiles’. The new generation of bibliophiles are civil services aspirants pouring over books that are relevant to the UPSC examination, the grand test that leads up to the portals of modern Indian empire.

For the rest it is an empty shell. It should have once contained within it accounts of past years, stories of those before us, pictures of a world that was and millions of conversations from a world that can be known only through the books of those times. Those books and journals were our only chance. This library sits lifeless for the history seeker, having done away with such records of the past.

Now the city strings it like a treasure to display and entice the tourists who walk by marveling at the setting – an expansive, green park, a pretty red coloured building set within it and pruned gardens around, in which they are likely to take a seat when the park tires them out.

Digital revolution won’t kill the libraries. Government will. Celebrating the structures and gloating over founding dates is all that we are capable of.

To become young fools again

IMG-2974

‘We travel, then, in part just to shake up our complacencies…’ Pico Iyer writes in a reflective and philosophical piece on why we travel. His keen eye on how the experience changes the traveler and the place he travels to, is revealing in a way. In these years that I have re-read the piece, it appears as though I have been graduating from one reason to the other. ‘We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.’ Check and check! At different times in life, both these observations were true of my travels too.

Lately, when I venture out, travel seems driven by a compulsive need to be in a state of movement. The movement, as though, will counter the slowness of inner life. The transitory state, where every place on the itinerary serves as a transit camp, seems appealing. The temporariness of program and of intent brings along a lightness that stands in contrast to the planned and predictable everdayness of home. Plans and precise knowledge of what one will do a month later, and the meetings one will attend three months in the future, for some, stand against the vital nature of life.  Unnerving too. To travel, then, is to resist this. Resist, in a way that doesn’t destroy anything. At best it destroys one’s financial prospects. This resistance is constructive. It is a conduit to that high-pressure frustration (or just fatigue) that some of us are building up in our professional and personal lives. We travel to heal. In this healing, one learns to love all over again. Unlike other experiences, the place that we leave behind, doesn’t always conditions the character of the destination ahead. We learn to cast away, molt fast enough to arrive at the next destination and take it as new, formative experience.

Healing, by tuning-out of the regular, taking time to get back (if one must) and renew oneself, is how I’d describe the deliverance of travel. This, of course, doesn’t apply to all. It is also dubbed as ‘escaping’. I have avoided that word because one doesn’t escape by undertaking an uncertain travel. If anything, this strikes more fear than the familiar spaces of one’s own home, locality and city. If one must see this as an escape, then it sure must be an escape as Santayana describes, observing that ‘the world is too much with us, and we are too much with ourselves’ –

We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.

In these words, I see an unhinging that Santayana speaks of from the daily (‘into aimlessness’). It is unsettling, as I have experienced, yet empowering. I write this note on travel again (wrote earlier on meaning-making) to record this shift in perspective on travel. In these months, I have come to see its healing potential. Perhaps, the explorers, adventurers, expeditionists, Sufi saints and sadhus who have tramped the vast expanse of this country for aeons have known it all along. On me, it dawns this morning as I sit looking out of the window, awaiting the train to roll past the beautiful Chilika lake on the Eastern coast.