The best blah blee of the country

From the notice board of the university. Those who share this, perhaps are content with only reading it.

From the notice board of the university. Those who shared it, perhaps are content with only reading it.

“You are in the best *** school of the country” is the most frequent starting line in this university, when the key guys address their flock of sheep students (I am attending a university for a master degree in public policy. This is my second masters.). I wonder if boys and girls also use some version of this as a pick up line. Because, I do see them carrying the “best school…” kind of gloss on their nose tips.

This is quite a rant, but feels necessary because I have never been to any “best school” of the country ever in my life. I have been the one who went to all things average in India. A regular middle rung school, a private university for first degree, another private university for masters and then when it came to career, I was again lost in the sea of average-ness starting a company when that was not quite the thing to do.

Two weeks into the program, the Vice Chancellor walks straight into the class, in between a lecture of a professor, takes the center place and urges students to participate in an essay contest “My first day in law school”. The face breaks into a strange smile which I found hard to read. I wouldn’t have cared, but for the extreme high headed, patronizing and appallingly meritocratic feel of this place. It sets quite an adversarial and unhealthy competitive environment in the institution. For graduate students who spend just two years in the campus, this is okay and they can be indifferent to it. But for the integrated law program where 18-19 year old enter the institution and will be spending the next five years this can mean a serious impact of the institution which is likely to shape them as individuals. Certainly, there is something right that this university is doing which produces some of the most well trained and capable lawyers in the country, but as individuals who are also something besides their professions, I feel that the university ends up having a rather questionable effect.

Some of the students on campus and alumni of this university I have met, plainly said, lack a humane attitude. They are outright patronizing and carry a frightening belief that they know it all. The humility that must come along with a good education, is missing.

There is no intention to find faults with this university or with its students, it is only that the place does not quite have a spirit (of compassion, of humility) as necessary of a university excelling in legal and social sciences education.

My first day at law school, honestly, was rife with anxiety. One was constantly made aware of “not getting into trouble” and “authorities”.  It sure is not a good start if one is considering to stay or to leave on the first day at a place of learning. I was doing that constantly! The display of “shields, medals and cups” in the VC’s office were referred to and the new students were urged to win more of those!

Ironically, as a high school teacher, that very morning when one of the guys was urging the newly admitted students to get more of those medals, in the high school where I teach we were discussing the  consequences of a meritocratic education system and what kind of effects it has on the students and society. The students instinctively agreed that it puts tremendous pressure on them. One student said that his Mom would often fuss about the rank that he would get in the final exam. As long as he was in the first five it was okay, but then as he moved past rank 10 and beyond, he was pressurized and urged to get a better rank. In our school, students are not ranked on their performance, nor are they compared with their peers. It is a very learner centered, learner oriented system where each student is assessed only on his own abilities with his own performance over the year. This student then remarked that it was much better that our school (Poorna) doesn’t do this ranking thing.

That same day, in the afternoon, I was to start my master program in the university where there was this call for “become the best”, “you are the chosen few…” kind of public addresses were being made.

So, back to the point… being best is no big deal if all you produce are super sharp minds with no hearts that can feel. And the best institutions of the country should understand this very simple point. Do not carry this attitude. Your competitive entrance exams are a form of violence. They are sheer violence on students from across the length and breadth of the country who can’t get through because the odds are so unfairly stacked against them. They do not have as many sources of information to know or understand that which you test them on, before admitting them. They also do not probably have the proficiency in English language which you use in such fine measure in the entrance exams. And finally, for just over 50 seats a whole mass of them enter into this mindless game of proving themselves worth of one of the spots. It goes down heavy on those who don’t get through. The dejection is carried in the hearts for a long time in their lives. Not every youth in this country is capable of taking failure easily. Societal baggage perhaps, but it is real.

So, even if you do have to keep those competitive entrance exams which sure are a practical necessity, do not keep touting or more importantly believing that what you have admitted is the absolute best. Of what good is this discrimination? It is a plain elitist practice, in a country where there are millions of people are equally capable if given a chance, trying desperately hard to enter the universities and work their way to a better career, a better life.

My first day in law school could have been an inspiring and much joyous occasion for the promise of personal development and opportunities in life that the institution holds (and genuinely offers to those who are admitted to it) but those who run it, ruined it !

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Man’s search

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This month feels as though an overloaded truck of lessons has just showed up in my life and unloading its cargo at the doorstep. There is a speed at which events happen and the days vaporize. Somewhere in between school, work and university lies the meaning of it all, I’d like to think. But what that meaning might be or how will all of these things that I am trying to pack in a day, every single day add up, I am not sure. Two weeks went by in confusion. Last week in catching a breath, housekeeping and spending with people who matter. And this week I am just rafting in the daily rapids.

Tonight, in the university library, I was delighted to spot a familiar book. A book that has been tremendously inspiring ever since I read it – Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. And this was strangely tucked in a shelf of public policy books. What a little gem. Being unreasonable, I’d like to think that its being in that shelf is a message of sorts. For, it makes me stop and look back at the infectiously hopeful prose with which Frankl manages to convey that human spirit is indeed indomitable.

The book takes me back to these lines where Frankl speaks of success and happiness –

Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.

It amazes me to imagine how he lived his days in the concentration camps and what sort of will power saw him through the end of each day in those terribly hopeless places. Reading his memoir is to calibrate ones own life and its situations and realize that one can get through in a nicer, livelier and positive way. For, every situation is transient.

Grad Life Ends Here

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This week, grad life comes to an end officially. With convocation it draws to a formal close. As I looked at the grade statements which have never been a happy sight for me, I realize that they do not reflect is the quality of time that I spent at the university and subtle transformations that came through along the course.   What they do reflect is a long trail of papers not submitted and assignments not done. Over the last two evenings I have been thinking about the ways grad life impacted my work and personal life.

It has been an enormously enriching two years, as I look back. The diversity of projects, internships and studies that I have packed in these two years would be hard for a work life to deliver even in four years. This has been the single most point of satisfaction for me personally, as I finish this program. A carefully chosen grad program I realize can be a great boost to professional growth as well as personal enrichment. On this point – about promises of a higher education, I am a recent convert! Two years back this would be hard to see.

Barely two months since the program finished, our business pipeline has grown steady and also higher in value. A part of it is a direct consequence of the time spent at the university. I also think that deliverance of higher education in terms of professional value is specific to chosen field. While a management degree may not seem to be a smart investment of money when compared to the experience gained in the same two years when spent at work, in some other fields it can work quite the reverse. For example, in journalism or in development sector. I see that it can improve the quality of work several notches up in development sector. The assessments and evaluation studies that our company now conducts are more comprehensive in the range of factors they consider and are more rooted into ground level action. Works earlier would often be weak on theory-practice-action connect.

My partners at the firm have been able to shape our company’s focus from a pure business orientation to a space which is sensitive to development challenges in countries and then bring in our business into addressing those challenges through our business. Here is an instance – in our scientific instruments business where we sell laboratory instruments for healthcare and lifescience research applications, my partners are looking at the role of these instruments in creating an impact on the healthcare situation (and in some cases science education in colleges) in the geography where we operate. This would have perhaps been hard for us to do if not for the learning in the past two years.

Personally, grad degree’s most significant impact has been on my outlook to life and its purpose. I am more likely to listen to folks who are contributing in their own small or big way to change social situations around them. There was a fair degree of indifference in how I looked at social issues earlier. Why did this change had to wait for the university and why did it happen only now, it fails me. But it did. I considered taking some time from a typical work week to do something self-serving.It was hard for me to imagine because near hundred percent of what I did was all for the self. This is when teaching happened. I considered being a teacher in a high school and teach a few days every week.

A direct consequence of grad program – that I teach two days a week in a high school and get to spend time with children. This is a complete turn around from the way I would do things earlier. Plus, a teacher’s hat I see is quite a responsible one to wear, which can bear heavy on the self-conscious individuals who think several times before committing themselves to tasks as these – which require disciplined and consistent efforts.

Looking back I see that University is a great place to experiment. Experiment with oneself and with ideas. This is what I did. If you also happen to run a small company, then be sure that the company too would reflect the changes that you go through, provided you have been inclusive enough to involve your colleagues in the range of crazy ideas that you tried at the university. In our case, it was the company that went for higher education. Not just one partner!

 

 

 

Theorizing Rape and Potential Rapists

Sculptor Giambologna's "Rape of Sabine Women". Just as he delighted in solving the complex spatial problems of three intertwined figures in this famous sculpting, detached from the nature and act, the theoretical exercise too appears the same. (Image: Wikipedia)

Sculptor Giambologna’s “Rape of Sabine Women”. Just as he delighted in solving the complex spatial problems of three intertwined figures in this famous sculpting, detached from the nature and act, the theoretical exercise too appears the same. (Image: Wikipedia)

I have often felt that the urge to theorize does more disservice to the disciplines apart from the waste of time and resources that happens anyway. The discontent is about the sort of scholarship prevails that has no link to practice. Then that begets the question if one should even care for such scholarship. It is not meant to be a tirade against theory.

At the university, someone proposed a seminar on rape and specifically on the thought – if all men are potential rapists. Fantastic timing to have a faculty seminar on such a topic in India, where the frequency of rapes being reported in the newspapers as well as the number of high profile cases coming to light is at an all time high. The intention and personal motivations of the researcher are not suspected. Considering that they are well meaning beyond doubt, the method and arguments are reflected upon. To attempt a framework about how to understand a phenomenon in the society – particularly of extreme forms of sexual violence towards women is understandable.It is not just this particular case of presenting theory on rape that I am referring to. It is about a variety of opportunistic research that is pursued in the academia which sort of gets into a discipline because the ‘time is right’. No problem with this as long as the reasons reflect integrity and coherence. For instance, the historical background of rape and how women have been raped in every recorded century is irrelevant to a question of contemporary sexual violence against women in India. Theorizing rape in the following way is at best an opportunistic move and lacks practical sense or relevance. Here are the assumptions which drove the thought on rape in the seminar and why they are contentious –

  1.  Taking an ‘immanent’ position in theory – While the intellectual honesty in proposing a position where the researcher himself is located within the world which he is examining is appreciated, this doesn’t explain why this position should be the most ethical of other positions in theoretical exercises. The danger that is often talked about is that researcher cannot occupy a moral high ground when he speaks of subjects like desire and violence. The propensity to commit to these acts in him is as much present as in the ‘others’ that he is directing his enquiry on. And therefore, instead of being located somewhere outside the system and examining the ‘others’ he must be located within this system. This is the immanent position. However, does this automatically incorporate high and desirable ethical standards in the theory? The presenter seemed to think so. The point I am making is that it is not enough to indicate a position in a theory. The work must also reflect this at every assertion that it makes. Being located in the same system as the observed (in the binary of observer and observed) and yet not being able to grasp that rapes are not only an ‘opportunistic’ behaviour among men but are also driven by motivations – like ‘teaching the woman a lesson’ by outraging her modesty. Such a phrase is not unheard of in India. How does it escape a consideration here is not quite clear.
  2. That ‘desire’ is the only driver of rape: This is a psycho-analytical hangover that keeps manifesting itself in studies which are better of without such a lens. This can get tiring besides being frustrating – the idea that there is violence in all of us, subdued within and that this finds expression when one gets an ‘opportunity’. If ever there was a depressing take on the human condition it is this. It is baffling that one can label all men as desirous of raping women, restraining themselves because they have not got the opportunity to do so.
  3. Use of history in this analysis – This is by far the most contentious aspect of theorizing rape in the current times, for me. How does one use historical evidences and to what effect is worth reflecting on. If one cites the rape of Sabine women in ancient Rome as an evidence to prevalence of the tendency of rape in men then it is either a serious error of judgement on the researcher’s part or that historical information is being distorted to the effect of making one’s point forcibly. How is the rape of Sabine women committed by roman men in 750 BC suggestive of anything related to propensity to rape by men today? Besides this, the implied meaning of “rape” in the form that it was recorded in history may not have been of ‘sexual violation’ but that it meant ‘abduction’ (i.e. Latin form of ‘rape’ and not the modern English usage).  Not stating this doubt about the intended meaning and ambiguity in the use of word ‘rape’ is a serious issue. On this basis alone, one can call off the entire exercise to be of dubious nature. 

At our company, while conducting field research for clients we have often observed the big disconnect between theories in a discipline such as social sciences and the real action on ground. Out of maybe 10 theories in sociology only about 2 or 3 theories are likely to have any bearing on the patterns observed in real world. But this is just our experience. Many of these theories as our friend proposed right in the beginning remain at an ‘immanent’ level – i.e. a mental act performed entirely within the mind.

Another case of being too early: Governor’s remarks on APU

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(Image: todays-quotes.com)

Being always late when required and way too early when not required is a pathological condition in India, especially among those of the political and bureaucratic lot. Of them the Governors of states are a unique lot. In the recent times, it has become rather difficult to understand what role does this class of administrators (if one can call them that) play in a state other than occupying colonial bungalows. With some of them almost behaving like those who occupied those bungalows before independence. Last week, the Governor of Karnataka, H.R. Bhardwaj in a ceremony at the Raj Bhavan (the Governor’s residence) remarked that Azim Premji University (APU) is not ‘living up to its promise of helping the poor and economically-weaker students’.

I happen to attend a graduate program in development at this university. Clearly, I have spent more time than the Governor in this university and can see that he has arrived way too early into an impact assessment party which is not happening. And it in this case it is neither required nor solicited. That he is a “Visitor” at this university and not the Chancellor is a relief!

Obviously, such a remark grows out of a distance from a life of struggle and realities of the country that the office of the Governor reflects. How does one assess the impact of a university which was set up in 2010 and has just seen its first batch graduate? Since his remark, many have suggested that it is premature to judge APU which is a fair point. But let us indulge this remark as it happens to have received some coverage in the newspapers. So, if he would have cared to even visit this university in question for at least one continuous week he would have learnt a thing or two about restraint, civility and definitely a good load about the realities of people, lives, livelihoods and education in an India which is different from what it appears from the windows of the Raj Bhavan. This learning put together would be worth more than a typical luxurious and soporific term in the office. One needs to look at the areas of work that the university is working in – primary education, government teachers’ training, education capacity building in districts and blocks, policy research, empirical studies in education and development – to gain a sense of the expanse that this institution is hoping to contribute to.

His remark was particularly about helping students of economically poor background. For one he clearly has no idea about the scholarships, financial assistance and pre-placement offer like arrangements that the university has with the students, in spite of he being listed as a visitor here. Second, this is a vacuous, opportunistic statement. If the assumption is that this would evoke a response from the university or the foundation that runs it or even the people who manage it, then it is a clear miscalculation. Because there is not a spare moment for indulging remarks like these in this establishment. And civility with hard and real work is valued here more than watching things out of a window. Those who are at the helm do not spend their time addressing banquets but trudge the paths in the hinterland understanding the country better and developing an appropriate response to help the situation, if necessary.

Bottomline is, there is much more happening here than what goes out in the world. People here are media shy and tend to take the last row of chairs when it is time for accolades. This to some is an alien thought.

A colleague suggests that this post is flat on substantial point about the university and that it verges on being a rant. So here goes further evidence of the kind of thinking and scholarship that the university hopes to produce. In Putting Scholarship First the university’s registrar, Giri talks of the Gordian knot of higher education in India today. It is an interesting piece, particularly for those who are interesting in questions with a slant of ‘impact’.

In the Indian context, the overarching social purpose ought to drive research. Research that informs policy and can contribute towards social benefit, even if not published in international journals, should be valued. Such research by teachers serves to bring their students into the world of inquiry, discovery and to appreciate that knowledge is not something to be merely consumed but to be continuously generated.

How does one then look at the impact of a new university within three years of its start? For all we know, a vision such as this might not even create an impact as understood and expected by those sitting at positions from where they should rather be more telescopic in their thinking.

Sociology – Is it necessary to take sides?

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The editors of n+1 magazine have gone whacking at the weeds that have grown in sociology as a discipline in their recent issue. Too Much Sociology discusses what is wrong with the nature of knowledge produced by sociology and the way it is used, appropriated or more often, tapped into, by arts, literature, politics and culture critics to their ends. They note that sociology has always rested itself on universalisms and depersonalized individuals with its interpretations encapsulated it into theories like agent-structure, habitus, unfreedom and other such ideas which are now the keywords for the critics in other disciplines like arts, culture and social sciences. The closing question on why does sociology requires one to take a side is something which we must now ask even more assertively to the masquerading social scientists. The editors make a tough note with – “It elaborates rules for a never-ending battle in which there are winners and losers, dominators and dominated, but nonetheless fails to persuade us why we might want to take sides in the first place.”

A year into a graduate program which packs in a major paper in sociology and then keeps it close to the core curriculum, I have experienced the power and curse of sociology at the same time. Sociology in this graduate program in development, is meant to aid a better understanding of people, society and institutions. So I might perhaps be making a rather early observation here, but then, these too serve a purpose – of charting the course of one’s learning.  There is a gradual frustration level that I was building up attending lectures in a course called ‘Categories in Art’ and then more heavily in lectures on theory and philosophy of development. The reasoning offered by instructors in both these courses was much like a plain polarized light which oscillates on a single axis alone. Although enough ‘disclaimers’ were given that the views put forth are one’s own and should be approached with caution, I felt that these did no good to my understanding of the subject. For instance, in categories in arts, the instructor could read only political statements and motivations in works of art. Seriously? Is that all that one can say about works of artists from different tribes and regions of India? Perhaps this was her key concern but that sure doesn’t make a complete appraisal or introduction. It is coloured, perhaps, anthropocentric and if I have to take it further, flawed. The instructor – a trained art historian had a knack of seeing only schemes, collusion and vested interests in dance forms, paintings and literature. While this may certainly be true, what happened to aesthetics? That too if a question is raised, is explained as an acquired, learned, influenced taste or style of the artist. Is there nothing that one can say about the aesthetics of such art? Aesthetics as a theme was for all purposes emasculated out of the arts in this course. (The obvious result – I dropped out of the course.)

Similarly, theory and philosophy of development lectures were a needless, quixotic time travel into ancient Greece and Rome. The farthest it came along the history scale is Hegelian dialectics. And all this to train a mixed bunch of graduate students into development professionals? The instructor would deep dive into the Renaissance period like an earthworm running into the dark end of the tube which was partially subjected to a glowing bulb. No attempts to bring him back to pursue discussion on contemporary works and trends in development practice could liberate the lectures out of the ancient clutches. After several such lectures, I felt that N+1 editors raise a very critical question which in my opinion must be asked – Can we no longer really provide good-faith reasons for our cultural preferences, reasons rooted in private and idiosyncratic experience but articulated in a common language, and therefore also capable of non-coerced, voluntary change?

The two instructors I took lectures from are examples of professors hard coded into the highly technical and often superfluous styles of practicing sociology. And this intellectual muscle flexing is seriously threatening sociology which could be of use to our world without laying conditions on who can participate and who cannot and which is not dominated by such single strands of theory that applies a singular elitist scale of interpretation, projecting that as the universal.

Music and perception

Ustad Bismillah Khan playing his shehnai. (Photo: The Hindu)

Ustad Bismillah Khan playing his shehnai. (Photo: The Hindu)

An effect of pursuing liberal arts is that one’s mind is no more disengaged with the heart. (yes, that typical problem with modern education). Pursuit of any form of art or art itself as an experience, as a conscious consumption works as a bridge between the left and the right brained orientations that psychology talks about. Bridging of these two sides has interesting consequences in life, which are at times thoroughly satisfying. For instance, one’s conception of music as an experience.

Why do eyes well up listening to some people play music? Never knowing who the violinist in Song from a Secret Garden is, but riding with that song a full five hundred kilometers on the road stopping, crying, gazing into stunning landscapes, letting the tears get absorbed by the balaclava covering your face and repeating it all in that order?

And so with Ustad Bismillah Khan whose shehnai can reach such depths within that you’ve never fathomed. This affectionate, intimate connect with the person without having seen him ever, tells something about the ability of music to be a language transcending the need to know. You’ve heard a music and felt something happening within? Then you’ve already known him, met him and you are already talking to him. Ustad Bismillah Khan of one’s mind is perhaps the real Ustad Bismillah  who he ever wished to be! And the rest is just a body, a physical being as the Hindu belief goes. The affinities run deep and gets deeper with time. That the body is gone? How does it matter?

As they say, the music lives on. The language too remains, the message expressed and the man still alive. If you care enough to talk and listen and dialogue, he is there! And so are many such people who are no more with us.

A methodological note on field work & research

A woman draws water from a beri (a traditional well), Barmer district, Rajasthan

A woman draws water from a beri (traditional well), Barmer district, Rajasthan. Image: Praveena Sridhar

On conducting research in development sector and doing field work it appears that there are divergent views on how a question of interest (enquiry) should be pursued. These academic concerns – epistemological and ontological, were clearly unknown to us in our comapny where we have done contract research for small businesses, funding agencies and NGOs. We had a question, we had an agreed structure of enquiry and then we proceeded to the field to find out whats going on and we sought observations guided by our pre-decided structure. At one level it appeared intuitive to us. Of course, it requires domain knowledge and prior experience in that field of research but then that is all. We did have it. Also that we have persistently worked on it over the years.

The findings we came out with and the reports we developed during these research assignments always seemed to find acceptance with the client and was done to the client’s satisfaction. A testimony of this fact is that our company has grown solely on word of mouth and our image as well meaning, ethical researchers with a good value for money proposition. In our humble opinion we are just another cog in the wheel who try to do their job and learn from every single one of them.

This idea of ‘applied’ work (that we thought we were doing fairly well) complicated as one of us (I) entered academics. I am attending a course on research methods to take the quality of our work in our business to the next level. This next level we see as a widening of scope, depth and offer greater value to the clients in terms of insights and actionable knowledge.

In conducting academic research projects the knowledge framework, methods and final use perspective of the research are divergent from how one may conduct research in business. I am not entirely sure if the divergence that I am noticing here is universal or it is merely coincidental that we in our company have operated differently! Here is an instance –

In March 2012, we documented a small NGO’s work on using traditional methods of harvesting water in desert regions of Rajasthan, India. This NGO felt that it had a rather unique approach where it was not organizing the water scarcity affected community by using any external or ‘western’ approach of implementing projects but work with the community to mobilize them, drawing on their own, inherent societal values. There are no ‘timelines’ and no ‘plans’ in such mode of operation. In some ways this was a very fuzzy and unclear mode of working for an observer outside of the cultural and social realm of the people living in these deserts regions of Rajasthan.  The organization now wanted this work documented because they had been successful in helping the people of the villages in this region to address their own water security by reviving the traditional water harvesting structures that have existed in the region for centuries. They felt this approach should be shared with a wider network of organizations and that they too could draw some learning from this experience.

We toured the region for over three weeks and actively observed the deliberative process and village meetings that happened between people. The staff at the NGO also constituted our subject of enquiry as their motivations mattered to the outcome of this NGO’s endeavour.  The report was prepared and the NGO as well as its funding partner find it articulate and insightful, for now they had an identified process in place which could be shared with organizations. In short, they felt it was a practical guide to working in revival of traditional water harvesting systems.

When I presented the same study (in greater detail) to a group of academic researchers, I was questioned on the ‘knowledge constructs’ and ‘implicit assumption’ that our approach carried. No objection that we would like to raise to such questions of theoretical merit but we would like to ask ‘whats the point?’ . Too many good quality studies which actually help organizations benefit from clearly identifiable method to accomplish a change or implement a project are criticized on their epistemological considerations. While for a larger pursuit such questions may be of value and many a times they are (like they say ‘some research questions should have never been asked’ as in case of scoring human intelligence (IQ)). But in development sector it would perhaps be equally important not to score a research study only and primarily on theoretical basis. Examples of such theoretical, hard to identify what is being said and what was the point kind of research abound in academics.

Bottom line: There is a dire need of applied and practical variety of research as well, which serves the interested of NGOs who seek understanding and implementation knowledge of development issues and workable solutions to them.

Taking Stock – 2012

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Graduate life (this year’s highlight) as I saw one late noon sitting in the lecture hall- is that green tree line in the frame, against a vast blue sky

This month as every year I do the mental thumbing through of the twelve ’30 day sets’ which I always feel have zipped past. The same “wait! wtf!” and “hold on… I don’t even remember” ensues. This too has become ritualistic. And after a little more wallowing in the waters coloured with events, memories and experiences, I trace what was good, what was worth and what shouldn’t ever be lived again (like that time when I felt pushed over the edge – human relationships they call it). These worthies are then listed (at times quite literally on paper) and carried on over to the next ‘365 day set’. New Year isn’t quite a special event, just a convenient moment logistically and time wise to pause and take stock.

So, here is what went right this year:

  1. Rides: A good number of motorcycle rides over long distances. This year was a great experience  in travelling the numerous highways and  living-the-history-geography-textbooks project that I undertook this year. It just meant that all the historical places that I have read in my high school textbooks, I will visit all of them and put a colour picture besides the names that I read in black and white NCERT textbooks. A high point – standing by Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur with a crescent moon in a dark night sky. That was a sight to behold. Loved it! Second, breaking bread at the Gurudwara Sachkhand Sahib  in Nanded. I was that typical unwashed, hungry, travel worn pilgrim who reached the doorstep of this great sikh temple. And I was fed. I was sheltered. It was a stirring moment.
  2. Wilderness: A major trek this year was ascending Kumara Parvatha in the Western Ghats of India. This because of the unsettling quiet night in a tent camped on a ridge overlooking the other ranges. Cold, dark and foggy. And we read Kerouac and slept with thoughts of Muir, Jack London and Indian explorers like Salim Ali. This one trip did much to make me research colonial forestry in India and the tension between development and wilderness.
  3. Graduate Degree: I did what I thought I would never quite do – get back to university. July this year, I joined a Master of Arts program in Development. Graduate life and that decision is stuff for another post. This blog and its straight serious content is a part of some efforts during the first term at the university. Earlier, I held this one from Kerouac close:  Colleges being nothing but grooming schools for the middleclass non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets is each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness to hear the voice crying in the wilderness, to find the ecstasy of the stars, to find the dark mysterious secret of the origin of faceless wonderless crapulous civilization.
  4. Reading: Aritotle and his Nichomachean Ethics remains my favorite accomplishment this year. A sure stuff to impress people by mouthing the high tension ideas from this. And his Eudaimonia (a Greek word often translated as well-being or happiness)! Other than this I furthered my understanding in Indology with Romila Thapar (Ya. I know… how much other historians abuse her for the “Aryan” theory) , Subaltern Studies collective (Ranajit Guha, Arjun Appadurai and others), history (Gandhian works, Ramachandra Guha), Indian Economic History and Rawls, Sen, Hume and J.S. Mills. A high moment: Reading out Whitman’s Leaves of Grass loud on a road late in the evening. Another one: Reading Sadat Hasan Manto’s collection of short stories. Profound!
  5. Language & Culture: I started learning Persian from a beautiful Iranian lady – Shahin and exploring Central Asian culture with her.
  6. Running and Cycling: November, I begin running 5 kilometers daily. 2012 is a milestone in helping me get back to all the sports and activities that I had put behind me along with high school. How much I loved running all those years and cycling out exploring the neighbourhood. I am back to all of it this year. And the latest edition to the fleet is a new Hercules bike. I run, ride, read and explore this year!

My current read is Persig’s classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In chapter 1 he writes:

We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone.

This year’s resolution: stay away from such shallowness, monotony and feeling sorry for whatever!

Happy New Year folks!