Thursday, September 30, 2010

Some caste-related queries and thoughts

An elderly person who had moved into one of the flats in the apartment block in which I live came to see me.  After a few brief preliminaries, he became silent.  "I guess", he soon resumed with his voice dropping to a low whisper, "most people in this block are our people."  I knew what he meant by "our people", so I asked him, "What is your caste?"  Caught off his guard, he didn't know what to say for a moment.  Then he mentioned his caste.  "You're right", I said to him.  "Almost all the people in this block are your people.  But I am an outsider."  After sitting in embarrassed silence for a few minutes, he scrambled awkwardly to his feet and went out – perhaps to seek the company of an in-group man to regain his composure.

It looks as though nothing can shake caste – not even a hundred Gandhis.  Caste survived the vigorous campaign of the Mahatma whose ingenious methods included temple entry by the so-called untouchables, and upper caste men cleaning night soil.  Next, a more serious threat to caste came in the form of radically changing lifestyles brought about by people living in metropolitan cities and foreign countries; these involved the abandoning of some traditional caste rules.  But caste has assimilated the changes without losing its hold over the minds of people.  The matrimonial columns in our newspapers are a triumphant assertion of this living institution.  Caste – and even sub-castes – continues to be a significant factor in marriages.  Even if mixed marriages take place, the "mixed" populations either get accepted into one or other of the caste groupings or form themselves into separate castes or caste-like groups.  Even some atheists believe in caste: they may deny God, but they swear by caste!  Their marriages are still endogamous.

That reminds me of a Marxist friend of mine, reputed to be a socially committed writer in Telugu.  He once asked me to suggest a translator for his stories.  I suggested one, a young woman, good at both Telugu and English.  After her meeting with the socially committed writer, the woman spoke to me, throwing significant light on his ideology in practice.  During the meeting, he had tried in vain to find out her caste through indirect means.  Finally, he had asked her in exasperation, "Are you a Brahmin?"  "He is a socially committed Brahmin", the lady commented.

I spent four years in a small town in Andhra Pradesh where caste-related queries and talks were pointed and refreshingly unhypocritical.  In the town lived a college lecturer, a 45-year-old bachelor, who had, however, only one complaint in life: that he, a Brahmin, had to teach for his livelihood students the majority of whom were Shudras.  Perhaps to atone for the "sin" of teaching Shudra children for two decades, he resigned the job and went to Thiruvannamalai to spend the rest of his life at Ramanashram.  A few years ago, when I went to Ramanashram, I ran into him.  It was lunch time at the Ashram, and I was about to walk into the dining hall when someone stopped me.  I looked back.  It was my old friend, looking more otherworldly than before.  "Come here", he said grabbing my hand and dragging me out.  "There is a separate dining hall for Brahmins."

Gender sensitivity is the name of the game

One of the problems a male writer in English is to contend with is managing to remain non-sexist in his use of the language.  It is not so easy, given the built-in sexism of the English language and the hypersensitivity of a section of readers to whom every male writer is a male chauvinist pig.

If you write, "The teacher knows what is good enough for his students", you are guilty of sexism.  When the word "teacher" is a singular noun of common gender, how can you assume that the reference is male?  Moreover, the teaching profession is not exclusive to men.  This leads you to correct your sentence as follows: "The teacher knows what is good enough for his or her students."  But it is clumsy.  Use the forms, he or she and his or her, consistently, and even a die-hard Women's Libber will be driven by sheer boredom to burn your writing.  But there is an alternative: the use of a plural pronoun (they / their).  So you rewrite your sentence as follows: "The teacher knows what is good enough for their students."  But the grammarian sticks his clean nose into the business now.  He tells you: "With indefinite pronouns (everyone, anyone, neither, somebody, etc.), it is all right; after all, their bisexuality is as old as Shakespeare.  But with a singular noun of common gender ("teacher"), don't use they or their." 

There's the rub.  Do you want to be grammatically correct or politically correct?  The modern tendency is to be politically correct.  You can be politically correct by expressing generalizations in the plural, too.  Thus we can say, "Teachers know what is good enough for their students."  But it is not possible in all contexts.  In all my books, I have only used he and his with singular nouns of common gender, but pointed out in my Introduction that the forms do not imply any male primacy.

But who believes you?  In publishing houses, woman is a holy cow.  Publishers' concern for women is so obsessive that they suspect a chauvinist male in every woodpile.  Believe me, they even count the number of times the author has used the masculine nouns and pronouns to check that there is an equal number of feminine nouns and pronouns!  In one of my books meant for primary children, the instruction for one of the exercises was:" Princess Jamila is hot.  Join the dots and make a fan for her."  A woman being hot!  The in-house staff were scandalized.  One of them even called it vulgar!  If "Princess Jamila" had been replaced with "Prince Jamal", no vulgarity would have been detected.

Publishers' logic!

What a disorderly library disguises

I like disorderly libraries.  But this liking is a new-found one.  Earlier, I used to be as complaining as anybody else about the chaotic state of the libraries I was using.  And all of them, I must point out, were disorganized – so disorganized that A K Ramanujan, my favourite poet, had to be looked for in the mathematics section, and  P G Wodehouse, an old favourite, on the architecture rack!

But if you try to discern a method in this madness, as I once did, it will lead you nowhere.  I'll tell you why.  Going by the pattern behind the classification of Ramanujan and Wodehouse, I once spent a half hour searching for Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in the commerce section.  The section had titles on merchandising and merchant banking.  There was even a funny little book about a con merchant, the opposite of the merchant I was looking for – a  book which ought to have been in the fiction section.  But the unshrewd merchant who had given his bloodthirsty creditor the right to a pound of his own flesh was nowhere to be seen.  On my way out of the library, I took a fleeting look at the Shakespeare rack.  There he was, that blockhead of a merchant, as snug as a bug in a rug, ensconced as he was between a fat volume of the complete works of the Bard and a fatter one by the latter's critic, Dover Wilson!

But what applied to The Merchant didn't apply to Measure for Measure: after searching for it in vain in the Shakespeare section, I found it at last on a small rack in an obscure corner carrying books on statistics.  It was an ecstatic moment, after a half hour of unhearable imprecations accompanied by the gnashing of teeth.

All this anguish and agony that accompanied my visits to libraries had continued only until I started visiting websites.  Websites are so well-organized that they provide instant access to the information you seek.  It doesn't involve any search as such.  If at all, the search is within a web ring.

This instant access to information is certainly a blessing.  But it would rob you of an advantage you were gaining earlier, if you confined your information source to the Internet.  In a disorganized library (it is almost axiomatic that all libraries in use are disorganized!), in the course of your long search for the book you want, you come across several other rare books which tempt you to read – a  temptation you can hardly resist, if you are an unregenerate reader like me.  If I hadn't searched for Bacon in the zoology section, I might never have had the opportunity to read that wonderful book on aesthetics, The Elephant and the Lotus, by VS Naravane.  I wonder where that book is now: it is neither in the elephant (zoology) section nor in the lotus (botany) section.  Cyrano de Bergerac, The Thorn Birds, The Second Sex, and Innumeracy are just a few of the many books I have read by accident rather than by design.  There's another thing: the Internet robs you of a sense of discovery (Shakespeare amid a series of volumes on quantitative analysis!) which only a disorganized library can give you.

Robert Herrick spoke about how "a sweet disorder in the dress" delighted him.  I'd say that about a chaotic library now.  And I owe this realization to the Internet revolution.

"Is the book good? Is it a classic?"

One of the occupational hazards for an English teacher is being asked to recommend books forreading for pleasure.  The hazard becomes greater just before a long vacation because both his students and his colleagues pester him to suggest them novels which they can read during the vacation.  Once he complies with the request, he should be prepared to answer these two questions which invariably follow: Is the novel good?  Is it a classic?

Both questions are difficult to answer.  When I was a student, I was told that War and Peace was good.  “You ought to read it.  It’s really good”, said one of my professors.  Sure enough, it was: the very first page put me to sleep.  Even now, whenever I want to read myself to sleep, I pick up that soporific book.  The results are terrific.

But the effect is far from being somnolent when I read Milton, Thomas Hardy, Graham Greene or Herman Hesse – writers who are known for their high seriousness.  They have done a lot of good to me.  But I’m not sure if they are good for others, too.  I once recommended a PG Wodehouse to a friend who later came and complained that the book was tedious.  To me Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope is an excellent read.  But some of my friends whose tastes are by no means plebeian tell me that the novel is a pain.

The second question (“Is the book a classic?) is much more formidable than the first.  What is a classic?  The term comes from the Latin classicus.  The second-century Roman essayist Aulus Gellius distinguished literature between classicus (‘for the upper classes’) and proletarius (‘for the lower classes’).  In its etymological sense, therefore, a classic novel is one meant for the upper classes or at least intellectuals. But there are several modern definitions also.  The Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary defines a classic book as one “that has been popular for a long time”.  PG Wodehouse’s amiable nonsense (the phrase is Chesterton’s, not mine) has been popular for a long time.  Can we call it a classic?  Is Sherlock Holmes also a classic in this sense? 

But there are other definitions as well: a classic book must have “a high quality that is recognized and unquestioned” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary); it is a “standard against which other similar things are judged” (Collins Cobuild); it is “a piece of literature...of the first rank” (Longman).  Eggheads won’t have any difficulty in categorizing War and Peace and Vanity Fair as classics in terms of these three definitions; that these two novels are unread is beside the point.  I don’t think Mark Twain had his tongue in his cheek when he said that “a classic is something that everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read”.

Let me go back to the two questions I have referred to in the first paragraph.  This is how I’d answer them: If you like the book I’ve suggested, read it.  If you don’t, stop reading it.  Don’t bully yourself into liking a book just because a white-haired man has said that it is good or that it is a classic.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Anecdotes from an undistinguished diary

 For over twenty six years now, I have been keeping a journal of what I consider to be interesting happenings.  A good number of the journal entries are about my own personal experiences, but there are sundry other items as well about different other people.  Sometime ago, while glancing through the entries, I was struck by four of them which were about persons who had two things in common: all the four were college teachers, and all of them were recipients of the best teacher award of different state governments.  If the award gave a common flavour to all these acclaimed teachers, the entries added a distinctive flavour to each of them.

The earliest of the four entries was about Rao, a professor of library science.  Jagan, a fellow professional and a master of the art of facetiousness brought us the news that Rao had been selected for the best teacher award.  "Rao has four MAs", he added with a malicious chuckle.  "Four MAs!  What a pursuit of knowledge!" exclaimed another friend.  "Pursuit of fifty per cent", Jagan corrected him.  There was a blank look on everyone's face.  Jagan explained with gleeful laughter that Rao was originally a third-class postgraduate and that he needed a second class to become eligible for a particular pay scale.  After a few attempts at MA History and English Literature, which only confirmed his original third-class status, he finally turned to Sociology which yielded the required fifty per cent.

The next anecdote, recorded three years later, was about another Rao and a "best" teacher.  At a function which he presided over and I emceed, he asked me to present him as a Fellow of Harvard, and I did so.  Later, when I mentioned it to two of his colleagues, they were amused.  One of them explained how Rao would possibly have become a "fellow":  "Rao did go to the US once, and perhaps he visited Harvard, too.  A chain smoker, he must have been smoking even in smoke-free zones on the campus.  A security guard would have said to him, 'My dear fellow, you are not supposed to smoke here.'  It was quite a conferment, wasn't it?"

I got the third anecdote about two years later, while taking shelter from the rain during my walk on the campus of Andhra Loyola College in Vijayawada.  A fellow-walker, a retired lecturer, told us about a colleague of his who had gained the best teacher award.  As proof of his social commitment, the lecturer had mentioned in his application for the best teacher award that he, a Dalit, had married a Brahmin lady.  "What a novel demonstration of social commitment!" I exclaimed.  "He climbed to the topmost rung of the caste ladder to find a wife!"

In the fourth anecdote, which I got from the Chennai edition of an English language newspaper, the "best" teacher was a woman.  The lady attended a function at which a famous surgeon was felicitated.  When the surgeon was introduced to her, she gushed, "Oh, I've known him a long time.  He knows me inside out."  As though this were not enough, she blurted out, "He was responsible for my children."  All that the acclaimed teacher wanted to communicate was that the surgeon had removed some reproduction-impeding fibroids from her uterus.

Teaching: Myths and superstitions galore

Myths are always enchanting: they charm us away from the harsh realities of the world and keep us complacent.  Established beliefs and institutions thrive where myths thrive.  And, in order they would thrive, the myths about them are perpetuated in enlightened self-interest. 

The school is one institution which owes its long and ubiquitous existence to the hoary myth that learning takes place as a result of teaching.  As the institution grew, the myths around it grew, too, with the newer myths strengthening the older ones and all the myths together fortifying the time-honoured seminal myth of teaching producing learning.

When I was a student, I didn't learn much – at least I thought so.  I thought I was too stupid to learn in spite of what I believed to be my teachers' excellent teaching, and so my veneration for my gurus remained intact.  The scales fell from my eyes only much later, when I overheard two of my students soon after I had become a teacher.  "Mr Ramanujam is an excellent teacher", said one.  "Of course, he is", replied the other.  "But we're too stupid to understand him."  This innocuous comment dealt a severe blow to my pedagogic ego. But it set me free, at the same time, from a superstition.  I began to see teaching in a new light.  The light was ruthlessly uncomplimentary when it focussed on my gurus.  It was an agonizing experience.

Among the myriad minor myths mushrooming morbidly under the motherly care of this mammoth myth is the old wife's tale that teachers are effective communicators.  If there is one thing that has struck me in all the academic staff programmes I have taken part in, it is the fact that we, teachers, are awfully bad at expressing ourselves.  There are, of course, oases in that vast, dreary teaching desert, but how few they are!

Once I attended a panel discussion.  The panel consisted of three college teachers, a banker, a chartered accountant, and a sugar mill owner.  I listened in admiration to the sugar mill owner who was an enviable combination of a wealth of knowledge and effortless expression.  The banker was precise and to the point, and the chartered accountant was much more economical with words.  But the professors were a pathetic sight: they were waffling away in unhearable English.

Am I overgeneralizing from my own limited experience?  I wish I was.  But the voices I hear of people who are genuinely concerned about the state of affairs in education seem to chime in with my own.  Over three decades ago, when I was a novice teacher in a small town in India, Professor Yashpal, an exceptional teacher, wrote an open letter to us, college teachers in India, in his capacity as the Chairman of the University Grants Commission.  The purport of the letter was: You are not very good.  For God's sake, improve yourself!