The pig-nama

Himal Southasian, Apr-June 2013

On how the pig can be a great pet, and also a great meal.
By Vidyadhar Gadgil

For an animal that is so harmless, useful and downright endearing, the pig has aroused surprising levels of animosity, labouring under a burden of humiliation, denigration, slander, abuse and – to crown it all – strict religious taboos in some traditions. Yet the pig has not been rendered extinct with the hatred that it appears to have evoked in the hearts of humankind, and has even come through it all with a smile and a few good-natured grunts, though perhaps not smelling of roses.

Because a pig has many virtues. First, it has a huge evolutionary advantage: a well-cooked pig tastes divine (and I use this hyperbole with complete sincerity and in good faith). Michael Pollan, in his The Botany of Desire(2001), talks about how plants like the potato, the apple and, of course, that indispensable wonder-plant marijuana, have developed an adaptive evolutionary strategy of making themselves irresistible to humans. Seduce homo sapiensinto developing a taste for your species, and they will become willing slaves to ensure your wellbeing. Pigs have clearly figured this out – for proof, think pork ribs, pork roast; Goan vindaloo and sorpotel; Naga pork and akhunicurry or pork with bamboo shoots; and Mizo smoked pork, just to pick the first few of an endless roster that comes to mind and sets the saliva flowing. As long as the pig tastes the way it does, it is guaranteed that humans, abuse it as they might, will do all they can to preserve and propagate the species.

Second, pigs – Sus scorfa and all the sub-species – are sweet, gentle creatures that make excellent pets, though house-training can be a trifle tricky. They also look lovely if they are groomed properly using a good-quality pet shampoo. Topped off with a ribbon, they can charm even the committed philistine and hater of beauty. But Maneka Gandhi has written far more movingly about the animal’s sterling character and stunning good looks than I ever could, so let us leave it there.

Third, as a scavenging omnivore, the pig plays a vital role in sanitation. As Claude Alvares writes in the book Fish, Curry and Rice, before the arrival of the water closet and the septic tank, the pig toilet was a feature of every house in Goa (and can still be found in a few homes today). It was a little disconcerting during my initial days in Goa to remain blithely indifferent as the pig sniffed and waited patiently for my humble offerings, but one gets used to it. Eventually one even begins to feel virtuous about providing food for a fellow creature; contributing to rural sanitation in a manner that also yields direct dividends in terms of a succulent food supply. True, direct recycling.

These are the first few, in order of priority, of the many reasons I have for being an unabashed devotee of the pig – particularly when it is freshly slaughtered, cut into pieces and served up well-cooked with appropriate condiments and accompaniments.

We are now done with the disclaimer and the admission of conflict of interest in the writer’s qualifications for a rational analysis of the pig. But how did I get started down this slippery slope? Prima facie, it would appear unlikely given my caste and class antecedents – to confess, a trifle reluctantly, I happen to have been born into the same community that has relentlessly turned out stalwarts the likes of V D Savarkar and Nathuram Godse, and eminent members of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). But my father happened to be in England for two years, working on his doctoral research, through which he doubtless discovered ways to produce finer metal, alloys and things along those lines. His fellowship was sufficient to have my mother and myself (all of five years old) join him in England. And there my parents discovered the convenience of cold meats. If you don’t like cooking, want to make minimum effort and yet want something amazingly tasty – and this applied to my mother – head for the ham, salami, bacon et al section. And thus were we converted into eaters of pig meat.

The conversion stuck through the reverse culture shock of returning to India. Back home, pork was cooked about once a year, after ensuring that no relatives or friends were around to see the depths of ignominy to which we had sunk. Ham and bacon were treats to be savoured when one could afford them – my father’s college-teacher’s salary did not go far. These occasional highlights of the family table helped my newfound love of the pig become established deep within, where I have assiduously nurtured it towards maturity.

Aisa bhi aadha musalmaan

Among one of the first animals to be domesticated for food was the pig. Before that, their ancestors were hunted in the wild. Given the omnivorous food habits of both humans and pigs, the excellent taste of pig meat, and the animals’ manageability and good nature, it was a no-brainer. Human civilisation arrived with the pig in tow or, possibly, vice-versa.

In his masterful Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond mentions that over the years the pig, like every other domestic animal, has spread plenty of disease. With pigs one could recite an entire litany of zoonotic ailments for which they are source or vector, but if so, all domesticated animals are culprits. So it becomes difficult to understand the bilious invective attached to pigs, especially from certain religious quarters. For Jews and Muslims, the pig is taboo, and this taboo is observed far more strictly and universally than the Hindus observe the prohibition on eating the cow. This difference, paradoxically enough, is because pork is considered unholy, while the cow is revered as holy. After all, organised religions define their adherents in practice by what they don’t do, rather than by what they do, and usually focus on avoiding sin rather than performing good deeds. In India, riots take place when pork is hurled at a mosque as they do when beef is flung at a temple. I know hundreds of Hindus who happily break the taboo on the cow, but I know only one taboo-breaking Jew and no more than ten Muslims, all of whom subscribe only to nominal religiosity, and some who are frothing-at-the-mouth atheists.

Social scientists, be they academic or pop, have trotted out various explanations for the roots of this taboo. The American anthropologist Marvin Harris has speculated about the roots of this taboo in some of his writings, notably in Good to Eat: Riddles of food and cultureoriginally titled The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pigwhich excellent title was changed for reasons upon which we can only speculate. As Harris says, on the subject of ‘the abominable pig’, “An aversion to pork seems at the outset even more irrational than an aversion to beef.” So why then do Muslims consider it haram, and Jews place it at the opposite end of the spectrum to kosher? Well, one popular explanation is the fact that pigs, the ultimate omnivores, happily eat excrement, both human as well as their own. Then there is the more modern theory that the taboo is due to their role as carriers of trichinosis, helping lodge tapeworms in the guts of humans. But other animals display these faults too, without attracting similar censure. Why target the pig?

A Jewish friend once spent a long time explaining to me that the reason for the taboo is that pigs are both cloven-hoofed and non-ruminants. Apparently, no other animal shares this combination of attributes. Why the combination should be considered so lethal was something I must have missed as I must have dozed off, I would do much better to hear the explanation of the prohibition by the great Rabbi Maimonides, physician in the court of Emperor Saladin (of Islamic conquest fame). In a convincing argument the revered rabbi intoned: “I maintain that food forbidden by the Law is unwholesome.” That is, the law forbids it because it is unwholesome, and it is unwholesome because the law forbids it.

Frankly, I don’t believe any of it. The problem with the Don Quixotes of the academic world, as they tilt at the windmills of reality and weave their fancy theories, is that they fail to recognise the simple dictum that people often make rules just because they can. So the pig’s turn probably came up in the celestial lottery when Jews and Muslims were composing their list of prohibitions, just as the cow’s number was the pick of the draw when the Hindus were at the same pastime.

But if you must have a theory fancier than that, I rather prefer some speculations that have recently been doing the rounds in the dark corners of the cyberworld. These are based on rumours that the indefatigable anthropologist/sociologist/religious scholar Dan Brown has uncovered an ancient pig-nama buried deep in the sands of the Arabian desert. Early attempts at deciphering this manuscript – the alphabet seems to consist entirely of pig hooves of various shapes and sizes – indicate that a master-pig called Snowball was behind it all. Of course, since there is no word for snow in Arabia, the name is literally ‘white, powdery, unseen wonder’, but we can guess what was meant, and now we also know from where George Orwell got the name for his pig-hero. Snowball advised his fellow pigs to spread calumny about themselves and arouse hatred in the hearts of men to help ward off those who would cast a hungry eye upon them. Wise pig that he was, he also advised them not to take a good thing too far, but to keep working on making themselves tasty enough so that humans would not exterminate them entirely. Now thatsounds like an explanation, rather than superficial anthropological and sociological guesswork, or prohibitions based on circular reasoning.

Mirza Ghalib, who wrote his verse and lived his life with tongue-in-cheek defiance of just about everything, was not immune to the taboo. When arrested and produced before the judge as a suspect after the 1857 Indian uprising, he was asked to state his religion: “Mussalman ho?” Ghalib’s answer was typical of the man: “Aadha musalmaan. Sharab pita hoon, sooar nahin khata.(Half a Muslim. I drink alcohol, but do not eat the pig.) One cannot but chortle at the trademark irreverence, but upon further reflection, why did he consider foregoing the most succulent of all meats to be the biggest marker of his identity as a Muslim, even more than eschewing alcohol, which the Quran condemns strongly and unequivocally?

Going by the great Ghalib’s definition, I must be aadha Musalmaan myself. Having accepted my inability to imbibe wisely rather than too well, I am compelled completely to avoid the cup that cheers. But if there’s some pork going round, I can hardly wait to get my greedy hands on it. Sooar khata hoon, sharab nahin pita.

Searching in earnest

Life in most of India can be difficult for the lover of pig meat. While not outright taboo among Hindus, pork is difficult to obtain, and is generally considered unclean, a meat to be eaten by the lowest castes. Once I left the protective embrace of my parental home, finding pig meat during my sojourns in various parts of the country has been a complicated experience. In North India, one first had to find a lower-caste Hindu basti in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. And then one could occasionally get hold of pig meat if an acquaintance there were to tell you the day of the week when a pig would be slaughtered and the meat sold, discreetly if not surreptitiously.

Even in South India, the sacred cow is surprisingly easy to procure – just head for the nearest Muslim mohalla, as I would do in Mysore. But even in a tolerant city like Mysore, I could find only one shop where the meat of the abominable pig could be found. The shop was run by a Kodava, that enterprising community which is among the very few that openly savours pig meat in India. Yes, the pig was easily available in the fancier stores, in the form of ham, salami, bacon, sausages and suchlike, but for fresh pork which is in a class of its own, one had to go to the Kodava’s shop.

In Mysore, I also made a few Kodava friends. The Kodavas are from Coorg, the tiny hilly region in the extreme southwestern corner of Karnataka, bordering Kerala. A hardy people, they are known for their martial traditions, having produced eminent warriors including, in modern times, Field Marshall Cariappa, the first Indian Chief of Staff of the Indian Army and one of only two men to ever hold the rank of Field Marshal; General Thimayya, ex-Chief of Army Staff; and more lieutenant generals and major generals than one can reasonably keep count of. The Kodava have many fascinating customs – and add much variety to the ocean of diversity of Hindu practice and custom – but the one that concerns us here is their abiding love of pork. When I am down in the dumps and feel like putting an end to my journey through this vale of tears that is the modern world, I cast my mind back to some of the Kodava pork dishes that I sampled in Mysore, including the strange but compelling Pandi pork curry, which I first ate at a Kodava wedding.

But after Mysore, I hit rock bottom in Sirsi, a small town at the crest of the Western Ghats in northern Karnataka. It is a town dominated by Hindutva-wallahs of various stripes. Here even beef was difficult to obtain – the small Muslim community, realising that discretion is the better part of valour, would quietly slaughter the occasional cow in a nearby village, and one had to go there at the crack of dawn to buy beef. As for pork, it was a complete washout. I hardly ever saw a pig, except among the Siddis, a small forest-dwelling tribe of African origin. Dinners used to be a rather depressing experience as we munched mass-produced broiler chicken with the consistency and flavour of vulcanised rubber, but once in a while a Siddi friend would supply us with some wild boar meat, and light would shine upon the table. The illicit nature of the meat under the Wildlife Act possibly enhanced the pleasure by making it guilt-ridden.

Worship at the shrine

What about the pig as cultural icon? In Hindu mythology, Varaha, the boar, is celebrated as the third avatar of Vishnu, playing a starring role in the Hindu version of the deluge, the Pralaya. At the end of the rains, Bhudevi (the mother earth) remains submerged under the water, in the clutches of the demon Hiranyaksha who had abducted her and dumped her in the ocean. There are fascinating Gorakhpur-style kitsch prints available of Varaha rising from the depths of the waters holding the earth on his tusks, offering Bhudevi to Brahma. But apart from this one exception there seems to be very little admiration for the pig in Hindu mythology. Goa and the Indian Northeast accord the pig a central role in their cuisine, so they’ve probably got their pig-namas, as do the Coorgis, but that’s about it.

For some serious respect for the pig, one has to turn to Christendom. Since Christians needed to distinguish themselves from Jews, what functioned as a clear separator was the taboo on the pig. It seemed pointless anyway and, besides, there was the not-inconsiderable benefit of sudden access to the king of all meats. Across the Western Christian and pre-Christian world, the pig features in myths, nursery rhymes, epics, movies, novels – usually in the supporting cast, but surprisingly often even as the main protagonist. Most impressively, the Norse fertility god Freyr drives a golden chariot across the sky, drawn by his golden boar Gullimborsti – the pig thus becomes associated with masculinity and the life-giving sun itself.

Coming up to modern times, there are, as always in history, those who look upon the holy creature with a jaundiced eye. Robert Graves, in typical dyspeptic kill-joy fashion calls it the “beast of death”. But such carping aside, to note only my absolute favourite porcine cultural icons we have The Empress of Blandings in P G Wodehouse’s Blandings tales, Babe the sheep pig in the eponymous movie, The Three Little Pigs of the nursery rhyme, and Piglet in A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh novels. A glittering cast indeed. In the beloved and iconic Asterixcomics series, wild boars are the focus of attention of the brave Gauls from the little village by the sea, who believe that a boar is at its very best on the dinner table. The final panel of every Asterixcomic is the grand village feast, with the Gauls celebrating with wine and merrymaking, and right in the centre is the star of it all, the wild boar, turning slowly over a fire. Finally, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm the pigs are both the movers and shakers, heroes and villains, Snowball and Napoleon, always in charge, holding the other animals in thrall or terror.

One of my favourite pig tales is Roald Dahl’s little gem titled ‘Pig’. At the cost of many omissions and gross injustice to a typically macabre tale by Dahl, the narrative goes broadly as follows. A baby named Lexington, whose parents die at the outset of the story, is raised by his eccentric Aunt Glosspan. Glosspan is a great cook, but a vegetarian fundamentalist. Lexington learns cooking under her able guidance, and he can render even celery and cabbage, as well as dandelions and nettles, into something you may actually want to eat.

Anyway, one day the old lady dies, leaving Lexington, now of age, a rich man. Visiting the big, bad city for the first time (though warned against the evils, sins and iniquities of that vile place by his late aunt),he goes to a restaurant. Most of the items on the menu are unknown to him, and he ends up being served roast pork and cabbage. The cabbage earns his censure, as befits a true master of using that uninspiring vegetable, but the roast pork leaves him wonderstruck. He speaks to the staff, who convince him that the dish he has just eaten is made from a formerly live animal, a pig to be precise. It takes him some time to get his head around the idea, since the notion that animals can be eaten has never been allowed near his pure mind. Finally, convinced, he visits a meat-packing establishment to see for himself how this wondrous product is assembled. During the guided tour, a worker calmly slips a chain round his ankle. Dragged along the assembly line, experiencing all that happens to an animal in a slaughterhouse, Lexington ends up in a can of pork, doubtless relished heartily by the eventual consumer.

There are many other great stories about pigs, but Dahl’s is the one that I have focused on at some length because I suspect it tells us something about why humans are so fond of pork. In Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York, the gang boss Bill ‘The Butcher’ (Daniel Day Lewis) gives Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo di Caprio) a philosophical exegesis on gang ethics while carving up a freshly slaughtered hog. As an aside, amidst the blood and gore, he holds forth upon the similarity between human flesh and pig flesh, leaving Vallon to draw his own conclusions.

The conclusion we can draw on our part can be a bit disconcerting. Do we like pork so much because in consistency and taste it is similar to human meat? Is this an indication that cannibalism is part of our hidden atavistic selves? In many of the Pacific islands, for example, cannibalism was fairly widespread due to the exigencies of island biogeography. In some cannibalistic communities of the region, human meat cooked and served ritually was called ‘long pig’. Perhaps one more secret of the evolutionary success of the pig, providing us with the closest approximation of that sustenance which our secret selves, hidden even from ourselves, unknowingly crave.

On the true path at last

We humans all live with the illusion of autonomy in our lives – we are deeply convinced that we have made choices of our own rational will. Sigmund Freud decisively punctured such hubris – we are the creatures of forces that reside within our own minds, unrecognised and unacknowledged by our conscious selves. But while Oedipal complexes, castration envy, anal fixations and other Freudian dark forces are all very well, things are usually far simpler than that. Man marches on his stomach, after all, and I sometimes wonder whether the pig has not been a Moses guiding my subconscious self towards the promised lands where Sus scorfa reigns supreme.

My marriage to a Goan Catholic came with many benefits – most importantly love and happiness, of course, but the sudden easy access to the world of pork was a magnificent by-product. Many Goan Catholics are wizards in the kitchen, particularly when it comes to pork, and most are connoisseurs of the art of fine pig meat preparations. Once they were converted to Christianity by the Portuguese 400 years ago, the effort to establish a clear separation from the Hindus of Goa was launched during the Inquisition. Beef and pork were vital tools in this effort. It took some doing, but the result supports my hypothesis that anybody who is exposed to good pork preparations over a period of time is likely to become a committed convert to its joys.

Following three years in the Hindutvavadi heartland of Sirsi in Karnataka, we needed to chill out in a tolerant, laid-back place. Goa was the obvious choice for various reasons, of which not the least was the pig – we were in pork paradise. The fusion of Portuguese and Goan cuisine produced myriad delights. Heavy on vinegar, red Kashmiri chillies and garlic, pork vindaloo was a revelation and remains my favourite Goan pork preparation. But it is a close-run. The Goan pork sausage (an adaptation of the Portuguese chorizo) is a ready-made meal, almost as easy to prepare as instant noodles. Just cut it fine and fry it up with a few potatoes and vegetables and you have something worthy of a chef. And then there is sorpotel – a combination of pork, pork liver and dried pig blood, all cooked up in a cornucopia of spices.

There is a downside, though. How do pigs know for hours in advance that they are due for the chopping block? Why do they scream so piercingly and agonisingly as the moment approaches? The most dislocating experience I had in this regard was at the first formal Goan banquet I attended. The centrepiece of the sumptuous spread was a roast piglet, and it, bothered me on some level to have it rubbed in so brutally that my meal was coming at the cost of the suffering of a young, innocent creature, squealing till just the last moment.

The piglet looked cute even dead and cooked to a turn. After I cut myself some slices – oh, the taste, the succulence, the flavour of the sweetly flowing juices! Too bad about the young pigling sacrificed to my base appetite; at the beginning of my next banquet in Goa I will permit myself an additional moment, after grace is said, to reflect in silence on the impermanence of all beings. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and pigs to the banquet.

After gorging myself for over a decade in Goa, I now find myself in Guwahati, the transit hub of the Indian Northeast, that heaven where all great pigs come to die. Naga pork and akhuni, and pork with bamboo shoots, are in my humble opinion the very pinnacle of the art of treating the pig with the respect it deserves. Clean, fresh flavours, succulent meat cooked slightly rare. Our Naga friend, Salony, stayed with us for some time in Goa, and there he was able to introduce us to what he could do with a pig. But the spices and greens necessary to give full expression to his virtuosity were simply not available – besides which the pork generally at hand in Goa is no comparison to the sheer quality of the meat in Naga areas. You get nifty Naga pork in Guwahati itself, but when we visited Salony, back in his village in the Senapati district of Manipur, and he served us our first meal of pork with bamboo shoots… mere words cannot do justice to the experience. Needless to say, I visit Salony as often as possible – once again, as so often in my life, the pig leads me around, salivating with nose upturned in search of fresh pork in the pot.

The Nagas love meat. All animals are rightly treated as deserving of the highest respect in the kitchen, but above all is pork. The Hornbill Festival in Nagaland is a rich feast of delights centring on the pig. Each Naga tribe cooks it slightly differently, with marked yet subtle variations in the ingredients used to support and accentuate its myriad wonders. At Hornbill, you can try them all – and I did, or at least as many as I could. There was even a pork-fat-eating contest. Mesmerised, I saw the competitors perform prodigal feats of gluttony with a substance that even many pork lovers avoid. But the Nagas love the fatty parts of pork almost to excess and accord it pride of place, rightly seeing the fat as a vital component of the complete experience. It was through my Naga friends that I learned over the years that while lean meat has its own honoured place in the orchestra, the fat and bones are required to create the symphony.

I was once bamboozled into watching the first showing of a Naga friend’s wedding video, a sub-section of the art of documentary-film that I am willing to do almost anything to avoid, irrespective of nationality, ethnicity or class background of the chief protagonists. The first 15 minutes of the video were devoted to the preparation of the wedding feast. The first five minutes had the pigs and buffaloes clubbed to death with great glee, anticipation and laughter from the butchers and the onlookers. For the next ten minutes, the camera lingered lovingly on the process of cooking the meat. Looking at the audience assembled for the premiere. I saw indulgent smiles all around as the animals were rather painfully dispatched from this world and sent packing off to the kitchen.

I have had the opportunity to eat Mizo pork only a few times, and each time it was deliciously smoked, and then boiled in its own juices to prepare a curry to be eaten with rice. The flavours of the meat were great, but why was it merely boiled up with no spices? One could do so much more with it. Doubtless the Mizos are hiding something from me, but I am determined to prise the edifices of culinary virtuosity that the sheer quality of Mizo smoked pork clearly invites.

My vote for the best pork I have ever eaten? It goes to the pork at Swastidweep Hotel in Gossaigaon, a small town in the Bodo District Council Areas of Assam. What is it that the Bodo community feeds their pigs? For sheer quality of meat, it is unmatched – you know you are eating an animal that has led a happy, fulfilling life. While Goan and Naga pork dishes probably have more complex spices and flavours, the cook at Swastidweep has such a clear advantage due to the quality of the pork itself that he sneaks ahead by a short nose at the finish line, as the creator of the greatest pork dish in my experience.

What about foreign climes? Apart from the two years spent in England as a child, the only other time I have ever been out of India was a two-year stint in Kathmandu. I fell in love with Nepal but I do have one criticism – pork is pretty difficult to obtain except in upmarket restaurants catering to expatriates, tourists and the Nepali elite. Nepalis do wonders with buffaloes, and I have eaten buff momos to die for (probably literally, considering what I have heard about the parts of the buffalo that are used as the delicious meat filling), but the pig remains off the menu.

There remains an entire world to explore. Two places where I wish to worship at the shrine of the pig are the American South and France, regions that are reputed to serve some of the best pork dishes, maybe even rivalling Naga pork and akhuni. Well, this is where things stand at present, but I remain ready and willing to be led around Northeast India by Sus scorfa,discovering many more of his wondrous qualities. May he prosper and thrive, bringing happiness to all those blessed enough to quaff of his limitless bounty.



Travels in Greeneland

Seven Sisters Post, Guwahati, 21 May 2012

The Man Within My Head

By Pico Iyer

Penguin, 2012

Pico Iyer is known to most Indian readers for Video Night in Kathmandu, his late-eighties rollicking account of journeys through Asian cities, in which he accurately and hilariously captured their spirit and mood. But over the years he has focused as much on his essays and books on personal and spiritual themes, as on his travel writing. In The Man Within My Head he straddles both worlds, exploring the life and writings of his ‘virtual father’, the late novelist Graham Greene, meanwhile weaving in accounts of his own journeys to exotic locations across the world. But Greene always looms in the background, sometimes in Iyer’s head, or in the form of one of his novels re-read in Bhutan or Bolivia.

At times, Iyer also makes a tentative attempt to understand his own philosopher father, Raghavan Iyer. Even in the passages about his father, Greene puts in an appearance – the last words said to Iyer by his father were about an essay written by Iyer about Greene. But, “the fathers who create us are harder to forgive than the ones we create, because they’re much harder to escape.” Unsurprisingly, then, after some hesitant approaches towards the figure of his real father, Iyer returns to the theme of Graham Greene, the literary father he has created for himself and the title of whose first novel, The Man Within, is reprised in the title of this book.

Graham Greene is undoubtedly one of the major figures of 20th-century English literature. He found popular acceptance as well as literary acclaim, and many of his novels were adapted into films, some many times over. But he remained an elusive, controversial and contradictory figure, which probably weighed against him at times – as evidenced by the fact he was never awarded the Nobel Prize, a tribute he richly deserved. Unable to settle in one place, or into long-term relationships, for very long, he was the perpetual outsider, forever journeying to exotic and dangerous locations. He often contemplated suicide, including an attempt in childhood when he played Russian roulette six times over, until he decided that he had tempted fate enough. Greene poured much of himself into his novels, and his protagonists were similarly conflicted personalities, treading uncertain moral ground both politically and personally, a territory of the soul that came to be dubbed ‘Greeneland’.

Though separated in time by two generations, there are many obvious similarities between Greene and Iyer, and it is easy to see just why Greene preoccupies Iyer, to the extent of obsession. Both were educated in England, under a system that produced those who governed empire as well as notable failures who became derelicts in the far-flung colonies of that empire. Greene was perpetually on the move, and would turn up in the most unexpected places. This is a fascination that Iyer clearly shares, having led a peripatetic existence since his childhood between boarding school in England and vacations at his home in California, leading to a lifetime of travel – and writing luminously about the experience.

Iyer shares Greene’s self-image as an ‘outsider’; in fact, he once says that he likes his life as an outsider resident in a small suburb of Japan with his Japanese wife Hiroko – precisely because he will always remain an outsider there, no matter how well he learns the language and tries to fit in. And finally there is the interest in religion. Many of the themes in Greene’s books have religious issues as an underlying theme, and questions that can only be termed spiritual, though not always explicitly recognised as such, confront and confound the protagonists of his novels. Greene’s position on this was that in this world, avoiding sinful conduct is not a central characteristic of holiness; compassion is far more important.

As a lifelong devotee, Iyer’s knowledge and empathy with both the man and the protagonists of Greene’s novels makes him a sure guide to Greeneland. He leads us through the many memorable and ambiguous characters in Greene’s novels – the ‘whisky priest’ of The Power And The Glory, Major Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, and Fowler the journalist in The Quiet American, to name a few. Tortured souls, living in lands wracked by violence, poverty and misery, they traverse an ambivalent moral universe, and yet find redemption in small acts of kindness. For Greene, religion did not mean certainty of belief or truth, but he could never repudiate it entirely, recognising that in some of its simpler values lay hope for those who could not settle down to conventional ‘good’. And his characters – shady, seedy, shiftless losers often operating on the wrong side of the law – somehow manage to retain some moral fibre amidst lives of deceit and betrayal.

While Iyer is unsinting in his praise of Greene’s novels, he is justifiably critical of his travel writings. As a travel writer, Greene took a jaundiced views of the places he visited, most notably in The Lawless Roads,his travelogue of Mexico, that preceded The Power and the Glory, set in the same land, and arguably his greatest novel. Describing it as ‘dyspeptic, loveless, savagely self-enclosed and blind’, Iyer points out that hate is the predominant note in this book. Fortunately for us, as a travel writer, Iyer is the complete opposite, and the bits of travel notes strewn through this book are a delight. Even in the most difficult and trying of situations – for example, in Sri Lanka at a time when the conflict between the LTTE and the government was at its peak, he usually finds much that is positive both in the land and the people. He writes about his meeting with Lasantha Wickramatunge, editor of The Sunday Leader, who expected to be killed for his journalistic work by agents of the government – a prediction that came true two years later.

This book is an absolute must not only for Graham Greene buffs, but even those who have read a Greene novel or two and liked it. But if one does not have at least a nodding acquaintance with Greene, it is likely to be trying and tedious. The parts about travel are excellent, but those about his father do not really come to life. Iyer’s meditations and thoughts on various subjects are insightful, but they depend always upon referencing Greene and his works. Unlike Video Night in Kathmandu, this is not a book for every reader but for the Greene fans among us.

Seven Sisters Post, Guwahati, 17 Dec 2011

Over the past few years, there has been a huge growth in literature festivals across India. Habitual carpers may say that we now have more literature festivals than readers of serious literature, but there is no gainsaying the fact that these literature festivals present a twofold opportunity: bringing the best writers from across the world to readers in towns across India, and enabling the literature of the region in which the venue of the festival is located to find a wider audience.

It was the Jaipur literature festival, which began in 2006, that set the trend. The inaugural edition had a number of big-name writers, including Hari Kunzru, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple, but only around a hundred people attended, including some who, according to Dalrymple, appeared to be ‘tourists who had simply got lost.’ Yet from that uncertain start, the festival has grown exponentially – by 2011 there were over 30,000 attendees and the list of featured writers read like a who’s who of world literature. Too numerous to list, let it suffice to say that there were two Nobel Prize winners present, J M Coetzee and Orhan Pamuk. The Jaipur literature festival has become a ‘must-attend’ event for lovers of literature, also having been described, rather gushingly, as the ‘greatest literary show on earth’.

One of the fallouts of the Jaipur festival has been its catalytic effect in the growth of smaller festivals, not only across India but across the region as a whole, each with a distinct identity. Much of the credit for this must go to the co-director of the Jaipur festival, Namita Gokhale, who has tirelessly encouraged and promoted the staging of festivals across the region. Importantly, these festivals, in the tradition set by Jaipur, have been free and open to all. Guwahati itself is now gearing up for its own literature festival in January/February [check] 2012. As it does so, one festival whose example it could benefit from is the Kathmandu literary jatra, held in Kathmandu in September 2011.

Guwahati is the hub of North East India, and as such it provides an opportunity to showcase the myriad literatures of this region – inhabited, like Nepal, by a multiplicity of ethnicities and communities, each with their distinctive voices. The Kathmandu literary festival, held at the historic Patan museum, had its share of literary heavyweights like Namita Gokhale, Tarun Tejpal, Mohammad Hanif and others. But it stood out in its showcasing of literature from Nepal, going beyond literature produced in Nepali to highlight writing in other, less known languages of the country, like Newari and Maithali. Also, as the only country in the region which residents of all Southasian countries can visit without any hassles (visas are available on arrival), Kathmandu is the ideal hub where writers from across the region can interact. With writers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal present, the socio-cultural commonalities of the region were evident, and a small beginning was made in terms of developing a vision for a pan-regional literature – a vision that will hopefully develop as the Kathmandu festival grows further in the years to come.

There were a variety of fascinating sessions – on ‘Insurgency and Nepali Literature’, ‘The New Age of News’, ‘Dalit Voices in Literature’ and ‘Narratives as a Window to History’ to name a few – but it was the session on ‘Bridging the Language Divide’ that could offer valuable pointers to how North East India needs to approach the issue of bringing to the fore the various voices in the region, ensuring that dominant groups and communities do not crowd out other voices. The panelists included Nepali-language writer Yuyutsu Sharma, literary critic from Kalimpong Anmole Prasad, writer Namita Gokhale and Alka Saraogi, who writes primarily in Hindi. They all stressed the importance of translation in making local literatures more widely known – not only translations from local and regional languages to English, as we commonly assume to be the norm, but translations from one regional language directly into another.

Another issue of relevance to North East India, and of particular interest of festival advisor Namita Gokhale who is herself from Uttarakhand, is the need to acquaint readers with literature from the mountains. Just a month prior to the Kathmandu literary jatra, there was a literature festival held in Bhutan, and now the Guwahati festival can continue the trend by showcasing literature from the Far Eastern Himalaya.

Celluloid suicides

Himal Southasian, October 2010

Peepli (Live)
directed by Anusha Rizvi
Aamir Khan Productions, 2010

Gabhricha Paus
directed by Satish Manwar
Pacific Entertainment, 2009

I Want My Father Back
directed by Suma Josson
Salt Films, 2006

The statistics are chilling. Over a span of 12 years – from 1997 to 2008 – almost two lakh farmers in India committed suicide. Equally well documented are the links between these deaths and the implementation of neoliberal policies in agriculture (see article by K Nagaraj in this issue). The steady move towards corporatisation of agriculture, which began with the Green Revolution of the 1960s, gained further impetus after 1991, as the nostrum of free trade took hold of agricultural policy, leaving farmers with hugely increased input costs even as the prices available for farm produce dropped sharply. Caught in a debt trap and in danger of losing their land – their only form of security – many small-scale farmers were in such despair that they committed suicide, the only way they could think of to escape the situation.

The indifference of the mainstream media was almost as scandalous as the callous policy measures that had led to the suicides. For many years the deaths went unreported and unremarked upon, despite the simultaneous media explosion that was taking place in India. As P Sainath, the first journalist to extensively cover the issue, has pointed out, even today none of the major national dailies has a senior journalist who exclusively covers rural India, and the amount of space devoted to rural affairs remains negligible. No wonder the suicides went initially unreported. However, to blame the media alone would be unfair; contributing to this neglect was the indifference of the urban elites and India’s middle classes generally to rural India and the problems of the rural poor.

The media did eventually take notice in 2006, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finally visited Vidarbha, in Maharashtra, which had the highest number of farmer suicides in the country. There, he announced a package of INR 110 billion for the area, as well as grants of INR 100,000 to the families of farmers who had committed suicide. But subsequent figures show that these measures have had little impact, with deaths continuing to mount. Media interest in the issue rose again in 2008 when Rahul Gandhi, in Parliament, mentioned Kalawati Bandurkar, whose husband Parshuram had committed suicide three years earlier, leaving her to bring up their seven daughters and two sons. Somewhat far-fetchedly, Gandhi invoked Kalawati’s name during the debate on India’s nuclear deal with the US, saying that signing the agreement would ameliorate the plight of people like her. For a week or two thereafter, Kalawati received saturation coverage, but was quickly forgotten again, as was the matter of farmer suicides generally and the broader agricultural crisis itself.

Satire and realism
It is here that Peepli (Live) scores. Using the often underrated technique of satire, it succeeds in thrusting farmer suicides into the public consciousness with a bang. Two brothers, Budhia (Raghubir Yadav) and Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), mired in debt, are faced with the imminent loss of their land. The only suggestion the local political bigwig can give them is that one of them should kill himself, so that the rest of their family can avail of the INR 100,000 compensation being offered by the government. The scheming Budhia convinces the simpleton Natha that he should take up the offer; a local journalist overhears the brothers and runs a story on Natha and his impending suicide. By the mysterious processes that guide the media, the story catches the attention of Nandita Malik (Malaika Shenoy), the anchor of a national, 24-hour English-language news channel, who is under pressure to increase her ratings. Off she goes to the town of Peepli, the story appears, and media hordes begin to descend on the village, all set to find (and invent) new angles and pegs to the story – and, of course, to capture the live suicide.

The film is unsparing in its lampooning of the various players. There are the politicians involved, from the local-level fixers to central government ministers for whom farmer suicides are nothing but an opportunity for political gamesmanship; the administrators, implementing meaningless schemes that fail to address the actual problems of farmers; and, above all, the media, which is really what this film is about. In their breathless coverage of trivia and sensation around a real-life tragedy, we are reminded all too starkly of the fare that is served to us on a daily basis, where sensationalism and insensitivity rule. Think of how, for instance, cameras and mikes were thrust into the faces of the shell-shocked families of the victims of the 26 November 2008 attacks on Mumbai, while they were asked about how they ‘feel’ even as the siege of the Taj continued. Or how we are treated to inanities like ‘Amitabh ko sardi lag gayi’ (Amitabh Bachchan catches a cold) rolling across the ‘Breaking News’ ticker at the bottom of the screen.

The film has attracted criticism for trivialising the issue of farmer suicides. Some groups, claiming to represent farmers, are demanding a ban on the film; there have even been criticisms based on the fact that it is produced by megastar Aamir Khan. But these critiques miss the point: Peepli is a satire, and has to work within the limitations of the genre. With excellent direction, pitch-perfect performances by the cast (many of whom are from Chhattisgarh state’s Naya Theatre, and were trained by iconic theatre artiste Habib Tanvir himself) and a superb musical score, Peepli scores big, not least because it has succeeded in bringing attention to farmer suicides in a way that more ‘realistic’ artistic efforts have not.

It can be argued that Peepli (Live) is not really a film about farmer suicides, but rather a satire on the media. After all, director Anusha Rizvi and co-director Mahmood Farooqui earlier worked for NDTV 24×7. For better or worse, the film would probably have worked equally well if the issue of farmer suicide had been replaced by some other. As critics have pointed out, it does not give a sense of the political economy of farmers’ lives that drives them to commit or attempt to commit suicide. Not that it needs to, of course – doing so would amount to placing a burden on the film that it could ill sustain without losing its snap and drive.

Stark versus propaganda
To understand the harsh realities of agriculture in today’s India, one would have to turn to more ‘realistic’ films. An outstanding example is the Marathi production Gabhricha Paus (This Damned Rain), a dark film with black-comedic aspects, set in Vidarbha in Maharashtra, the region which has seen the maximum number of farmer suicides. The film begins with a farmer hanging himself from a tree on his farm. His neighbour, Kisna (Girish Kulkarni), is himself growing increasingly depressed due to his failing crops and his mounting debt. Kisna’s wife, Alka (Sonali Kulkarni), worried that her husband is going to go down the same road as their neighbour, tasks their six-year-old son, Dinu (Aman Attar), with keeping an eye on his father. Dinu dutifully follows Kisna everywhere, even when he goes to the fields to defecate. Meanwhile, much to Kisna’s annoyance, Alka is engaged in a desperate effort to keep up Kisna’s spirits, making delicacies that he likes and being annoyingly solicitous of his welfare.

Kisna’s attention, meanwhile, is focused on the impending monsoon. He scurries around, buying seeds and other requirements for the farm, pawning Alka’s jewellery to do so. But the rains eventually fail, and the meagre crop is taken by the moneylender, leaving Kisna worse off than before. Undaunted, though, Kisna takes another loan to dig a borewell on his land to free himself of the vagaries of the monsoon. But the borewell does not work to its capacity, and Kisna finds himself even deeper in debt – as the film moves towards its inevitable conclusion.

Gabhricha Paus is a stark portrayal of the trap in which poor farmers can quickly get stuck, with uncertain rains, ever-rising costs and non-remunerative prices for their produce. First-time director Satish Manwar, himself from Vidarbha, succeeds in weaving an effective narrative that informs without being pedantic. His film is embellished with effective performances, particularly by Girish Kulkarni and Aman Attar, the latter of whom excels as Dinu. Despite her best efforts, however, Sonali Kulkarni fails to convincingly portray a poor rural woman. This is a minor blemish, and the needs of the box office must sometimes rule; as it is, the film had huge distribution problems, and the absence of a big name such as Kulkarni would have made things worse.

Is the crisis in Indian agriculture, as depicted in Gabhricha Paus, a problem that can be corrected by economic measures – by, for instance, subsidising their input costs, giving more remunerative prices for their produce, or better irrigation facilities? Or, rather, does the issue go deeper? I Want My Father Back, a documentary directed by Suma Josson and released some years back, starts with the farmer suicides in Vidarbha, and goes on to emphatically state that mono-cropping, genetically modified seeds and free markets for agricultural produce are nothing less than a homicidal conspiracy between global agribusinesses and the state with a goal of exterminating small-scale farmers. While the film does make some valid points, and it cannot be gainsaid that agriculture is facing a deep ecological crisis, the propagandist nature of the film would be off-putting to nearly all, including the converted.

There is little doubt that mono-cropping, excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides, and the phasing out of indigenous seeds are the central reasons behind the crisis in India’s (and others’) agricultural sector today. Technological improvements can only stave off the problem for some time, but a genuine shift is needed that includes a return to organic farming – if a sustainable system of agriculture is to be developed. Yet to make this point effectively in a documentary, one needs to have some dissenting voices, if only to allow them to stick their feet in their mouths.

Dark allegations about darker motives and conspiratorial games add little to the credibility of the narrative. For example, was there really no need to urgently increase yields in the late 1960s, as the film alleges? Furthermore, the film gives the go-by to the aesthetic requirements of the medium, resulting in a static camera pointed at a series of talking heads (all on one side of the ideological fence), with a few visuals to illustrate their points. While the Michael Moore style of documentary filmmaking is not to everybody’s taste, at least it manages to hold almost any viewer’s interest. It certainly does help to keep in mind that one is making a film, not churning out a propaganda pamphlet, however true the statements in the pamphlet may be.

Herald, 8 January 2008

Freedom of expression is frequently coming under threat from self-proclaimed defenders of religion, says VIDYADHAR GADGIL

Some months ago, in the wake of the controversy over the artworks of Ganesha by artist Subodh Kerkar, the Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts had organized a panel discussion on the subject of ‘artistic freedom’. The panelists, as well as the audience which participated in the discussion, provided many important insights on a whole range of issues related to art and freedom of expression. One of the views expressed was that artists need to exercise self-restraint when dealing with social and political issues and particularly with religious matters. While many of the participants broadly agreed with this viewpoint, it was also pointed out that if we say that artists should exercise ‘self-restraint’, the next step is to define boundaries for them, which is not self-restraint but censorship. Artists must be free to reflect society in whatever terms they deem fit, and it is for them to decide for themselves what boundaries they should accept.
This is a hoary debate in which there are no easy answers. The maximalist position of complete freedom of expression is probably the one that makes the most sense, but nowhere in the world is the right to freedom of expression absolute. There are usually restrictions of public order and morality which are imposed by law.
While reasonable legal restrictions are acceptable, in India we are now seeing a situation where the mob decides what is acceptable and then imposes its views on a compliant administration. While this was avoided in the Subodh Kerkar case, we see this with regard to the controversial CD produced by Calvert Gonsalves. The CD allegedly contains objectionable references to a priest and a politician, neither of whom have been named. If particular priests and politicians feel that the contents of the CD apply to them and are defamatory, they are free to take legal recourse under the law.
But that is not what happened. By some feat of legerdemain, criticism of a priest was projected as being criticism of a particular religion. As a result, there was a law and order problem in Colva, and there was considerable pressure on the administration to ban the CD under Section 153 of the IPC, which deals with creating communal disharmony. To their discredit, the police and the government succumbed to the pressure and engaged in ham-handed efforts to ban the CD and even muzzle the press from reporting on the matter.
The observations of Justice P V Kamat of the Additional Sessions Court, while granting anticipatory bail to Calvert Gonsalves and Osvy Viegas, are instructive. He refused to accept the contention that there would be further law and order problems as a result of granting bail, and ruled, “The courts cannot be swayed by public sentiments, emotions or pressure tactics and of threats to agitate and to take the law in their hands. While dealing with the matter, the court of law has to look into the facts presented before it and to see whether ingredients of particular sections are attracted or not.”
In this case, the judge has laid down clear principles, which, while not directly related to the freedom of expression, lay down important principles to preserve it. If action has to be taken against a particular artistic work, this has to be on the merits of the case in law, and not as a result of public pressure. This is particularly important where ‘sentiments’, particularly religious ones, have become so fragile that people are ready to take offence very easily and resort to agitation in an attempt to suppress freedom of expression. Be it Hindutva forces or other political forces who want to pursue their own agendas under the guise of ‘religious sentiment’, the problem is ubiquitous.
Apart from religion, ‘defending the community’ has been another common refrain. Offence has been taken over the most innocuous references to communities and religions. To take some recent examples related to Bollywood, there was an agitation over a song in Madhuri Dixit’s comeback vehicle Aaja Nachle, which contained the line ‘Mochi chala banne sonar’ (cobbler sets out to become a goldsmith), interpreted by some as derogatory to Dalits. Over this issue, the UP and Punjab governments actually ended up banning the film. Then, in the case of the film Billoo Barber, the barber community agitated, forcing the film-makers to delete the ‘Barber’ bit from the title. With respect to Vishal Bharadwaj’s Kaminey, there was a furore over the line ‘Apna hath Jagannath’, which appears in a shot in the film written on the door of a toilet, and the line ‘Kahan Raja Bhoj, Kahan Gangu Teli’. Over the former, there were objections that the line denigrated Lord Jagannath, and the latter line was seen as insulting the Teli community. In the most recent such incident, the use of the word ‘Bombay’ in the film ‘Wake Up Sid’ attracted the ire of the Thackerays, as being insulting to the Marathi manoos.
Bollywood’s response has been uniformly craven in almost all these cases, with the offending songs and lines being removed from the concerned films, and the film-makers offering abject apologies to the self-appointed defenders of community and religious pride. While big bucks ride on Bollywood products, film-makers should take a lesson from Aamir Khan’s Fanaa, which, despite attracting the anger of Narendra Modi’s storm troopers and being prevented from being screened in Gujarat, went on to become a super-hit. Audiences are intelligent and discerning and can make up their own minds, and by folding up so easily Bollywood film-makers do themselves and other artists a grave disservice.
Another ludicrous instance has been the campaign mounted against Mumbai-based author Murzban Shroff, author of the short-story collection Breathless in Bombay, which has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the highest award for short stories in the United States. A criminal case was filed against the author for the use of the word ‘ghaati’ in the book. Similarly a complaint has been filed against the author for obscenity, stemming from the use of the phrases ‘moan and groan’ and ‘their tenderness gave way to a torrid lovemaking in the dark’.
Fortunately, two days ago the Mumbai High Court struck a blow for artistic freedom. A three-judge bench of the Court held that criticism of any religion is permissible under the fundamental right to freedom of speech and that a book cannot be banned on those grounds alone. Though it banned the book involved in the case since it had a “malicious intention”, it further held that “everything is open to criticism and religion is no exception. Freedom of expression covers criticism of religion and no person can be sensitive about it.” This judgement has laid down important guidelines which address many of the issues raised with regard to art and freedom of expression. It has upheld freedom of expression, while recognizing certain boundaries.
As for self-restraint being exercised by artists, in India the shoe is very much on the other foot – it is the self-proclaimed defenders of religion and community feelings, rather than artists, who need to exercise self-restraint.

News From the Trenches

Herald, 4 January 2010,
Journo Jaunts

By Pedro Naik

That time of the month once again, full of pain and agony, when I get my heavy mining machinery out and try to extract my rightful dues from ye olde paper. So there I was, before the beloved crumbling edifice, ready to ascend to the rarefied climes inhabited by the editor. But as I stepped in, I was accosted by a burly guard and, before I could get a word in edgeways, violently shoved against a wall and frisked. Then followed a half-hour interrogation during which I was quizzed about whether my intentions were honourable or in accordance with my appearance. Only then was I permitted to rise upwards.
Sneaking into the editor’s den, I stood there with mouth agape, confronted by a room that resembled a nuclear bomb shelter. Behind a row of sandbags I could see a combat helmet, from below which two eyes viewed me balefully. Satisfied with the scrutiny, a Rambo-like apparition in bulletproof vest and combat fatigues rose into view. Peering at this frightful spectacle in the dim light, I perceived it was none other than the editor.
“What’s with the fancy dress?” I gasped. “Last time I was here, you were dressed and perfumed like a gigolo from a B-movie, and now you seem to be preparing for Armageddon!” The editor was not amused, “Okay, okay, enough of the wisecracks. I told you that we are now competing with the national daily down the road. So first we renumbered our entire paper from page 3a to page 3r. And now we are beefing up our security. All incoming and outgoing will be monitored. Big Brother will watch you all the time,” he snapped, gesturing at an ellipsoid object, resembling an octopus eye, that dangled above my head.
“Yeah, okay, next time I visit I’ll leave my AK-47 at home,” I said soothingly as I sank into a chair. “But tell me,” I continued, “apart from security, what’s with all this? It’s hardly like ye olde paper’s at the top of Al-Qaeda’s hit list…”
“Productivity, that’s the ticket,” he responded, sounding like a superannuated British Colonel Blimp settled in Goa, where foreign pensions go that much further. “We are sweeping ye olde paper with a new broom. As part of this drive, we have installed CCTV to watch every move, and ensure that everybody is keeping their nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel. And then we will become the meanest, leanest paper in all of Goa, and blow the opposition apart.”
“Well, you could start by paying poor contributors like me on time. Maybe you could even raise the payment to basic minimum subsistence level? And give the building a lick of paint? All this would be better than imitating those crypto-capitalists down the road…”
“Pedro, when will give up your utopian fantasies? We’re not running a charity. Anyway, we probably won’t need your articles for too much longer – the best papers are now printing only advertisements, and ye olde paper too is inching steadily closer to that goal. Also, I have been studying the latest management manuals, and have visited all the best facilities to learn how to run things. I’m just back from a study tour to Alcatraz prison. Before that I went to the old Gestapo offices in Berlin. And I’m currently reading Orwell’s 1984. Before long, we’ll have those upstarts licked…”
“Well, I’ll leave you to your brave new world of journalism,” I mumbled, stumbling to my feet. “I’ll just send my articles in by email henceforth.” He nodded, “That’s wise. But just fill in the 26-page personal details form, and go through the fingerprinting and retinal image routine. It’s mandatory for everybody who has the slightest association with us. As for staffers, we’re installing microchips in their brains to monitor their every thought. And now let me study this staff training manual,” he said, dismissing me with a wave and opening a book containing illustrations that seemed to have been taken from one of the nastier bits of the Inquisition.
Avoiding the security guard, I managed to slip out of the office with the virginity of my fingerprints and retina unsullied. As I disconsolately started my scooter, I mused over what I should do now that the brave new journalism is clearly not my cup of feni. Move into the entertainment industry, and work on producing super-hit CDs on politicians and priests, maybe? If I’m lucky, they’ll even be banned, and my fortune will be made.

Citadels of Incompetence

Herald, 28 Dec 2009

Most universities across the country have degenerated into useless, expensive white elephants, says VIDYADHAR GADGIL


For the past six months or so, ever since the UPA was returned to power in the general elections, new Union Minister for Human Resource Development Kapil Sibal has been scurrying around like a man with a mission – even if he appears unsure of just what this mission is, apart from the broad objective of improving the quality of education. Inevitably, when talking of higher education, attention has been focused on elite institutions like the IITs and IIMs and central universities. This has left the issue of the dismal state of our second- and third-rung universities completely neglected.
There has been no success in improving things in Indian universities that fall outside the elite bracket (which means most of them). Accreditation schemes proposed by the UGC as well as minimum objective qualifying criteria for teaching posts have been given the go-by or short-circuited by the universities. In a moribund condition, these institutions perform no useful function beyond acting as administrative bodies for undergraduate examinations in affiliated colleges. The quality of education they dish out, particularly at the post-graduate level, is pathetic. The result can be seen in the alumni of these universities – having studied, say, English literature, to the BA level or even the MA level, many of them cannot write a logical, grammatical, correctly spelt English essay. The malaise extends to the PhD level as well, with these degrees being distributed fairly indiscriminately, without proper objective evaluation.
For too long, we have seen higher education – irrespective of quality – as a desirable end in itself, irrespective of whether the demands of particular jobs require higher education or not. This fallacy, combined with regional chauvinism, has led to numerous universities being set up across the country since independence, and these now number well over a hundred (not counting the proliferating ‘deemed’ universities, which is another scandal in its own right). These provide neither quality education to students at the post-graduate level nor any meaningful research. They cost a huge amount of money, diverting sorely needed funds away from other far more important educational requirements. Surviving on inertia, trapped in a long-drawn process of entropy, what is to be done about these white elephants?
Universities have been set up all over the country largely to cater to regional sentiment. From hopeful starts, as these institutions descended into academic limbo, large numbers of the better faculty members left for more academically stimulating pastures, like the IITs, IIMs, Central Universities, and the universities in metros. The problem of student intake due to small catchment area has bedevilled many such institutions, and post-graduate degrees from these universities do not make any significant difference to the students’ abilities or their employment prospects. Students have now voted with their feet, and there are university departments where the student strength is less than the strength of the faculty – nevertheless, these departments continue year after year, and even appoint new faculty members. The lack of good faculty and the absence of a supportive atmosphere for research means that very little useful research takes place either, as can be seen from the fact that hardly any research articles written by university faculty members are published in respectable peer-reviewed journals. With few students and little research output, what function are these institutions serving, and at what cost?
Second- and third-rung universities seem to serve largely as overpaid sinecures for unproductive staff. There is a culture of lack of accountability, in which performance appraisal is an alien concept. Even turning up at the office and putting in a certain amount of hours of work every day – a basic value in a capitalist society – is not considered necessary. Corridors and classrooms of universities are deserted due to lack of students, and faculty cabins are by and large empty, many faculty members turning up only to sign the muster roll. Little wonder then that university teachers across the country reacted with outrage to the recent suggestion by the UGC that they at least keep their chairs warm during working hours. Absenteeism and short working hours, from being a guiltily sneaked irregular perk of the job, gradually became a privilege and is now considered a right!
To make things worse, there is the issue of the completely unrealistic salaries that university faculty receive, increasing the burden on the exchequer. They are not alone in this – starting from the IV Pay Commission, government employees in general have been getting paid more and more, with some extremely specious reasoning guiding the process. At the top of the list of stated reasons is the need to pay salaries comparable to the private sector. But there is a consistent refusal to look at the other side – namely, factoring in the risks of private sector employment, where, unlike in the government, you can and will be sacked or demoted for non-performance.
Job security, which is almost total in government employment, has a high market value, but this was not factored in during pay revisions. Fifth Pay Commission member Suresh Tendulkar’s dissent note on this topic was ignored. The result is bloated government salaries, from which academic staff have also benefited. Thus, today university faculty get paid huge salaries for doing little or no work, and it is practically impossible to sack them, even in cases of gross misconduct, as we have seen in a recent case in Goa. The salaries may not look so extraordinary in the metros, but in smaller towns (where most universities are located), where the private sector pays considerably less for similar job functions, these pay packets are totally disproportionate. The creation of such sinecures has meant that politicians have more avenues for patronage. The result is a vitiated atmosphere that, in an academic version of Gresham’s law, rapidly demotivates and drives away those who want to do some useful work.
The lack of credibility of universities among the people is palpable. For example, in Goa when Manohar Parrikar, during his reign as Chief Minister, tried to tighten up things at Goa University, this led to howls of protest from university faculty, but they got no sympathy from the public at large. Inertia, of course, triumphed, and after Parrikar’s reformist flush had died down, it was business as usual.
What is to be done about the situation? Various reforms have been suggested, including systems to club together institutions of excellence into universities. But this leaves untouched the difficult issue of what to do with the over 90 per cent of our universities that are quite simply worthless. Reversing the inertia, doing objective performance appraisals, and closing down unproductive departments and institutions is vital. Upgrading them to central universities, as has been suggested in the case of Goa University, is little more than a nomenclatural change, which will achieve nothing, since pumping in more money and resources without making fundamental changes in the way these institutions function is only to send good money after bad.
But no serious reform is ever likely to happen, given the variety of vested interests and the inability to take hard decisions at the cost of government employees. If past history is anything to go by, the university system in the country is likely to continue to be an expensive white elephant into the foreseeable future.