Editorial / Sad Women in the box
Whither humanities?
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / SAD WOMEN IN THE BOX 
 
 
 
 
It is possible to find manifestations of people’s power in the unlikeliest of places. The television serial, soap or sitcom, for example. People say a lot about themselves through what they like to watch as entertainment day after day, what they feel is “entertaining” about entertainment. There are many devoted watchers of the Ally McBeal series, a programme which has viewers in India courtesy satellite TV. So popular are the comic travails of the neurotic, single, thirtysomething working woman in search of love, played by Calista Flockhart, that it is news when a film is made about a similar character, Bridget Jones — an obsessively self-deprecating, weight-watching diarist created by the writer, Helen Fielding. Refreshingly unchauvinistic and delightfully superficial, such comedy touches on real problems with the feather of innocently mindless laughter. It is immaterial whether the appeal resides in the anorexic whimsy of Flockhart or the starry presence of Brooke Shields (who can never be thirtysomething) in the sitcom Suddenly Susan.

Clearly such comedies are not unacceptable in a society so very different from that of their origin. After all, there is no dearth of neurotic thirty- or fortysomething working women in India, nor a dearth of charismatic actors to play the role. Yet they never make it to the most popular daily entertainment slots, let alone occupy pride of place in a series. India has come a long way in terms of breaking social orthodoxies. But this is simply something people do not want to watch as their daily entertainment. Nothing is sorrier than the tale of a producer who begins a “different” story, with a woman who can take control when life turns unjust or adverse, and is forced to turn the story round because of people’s pressure and that of advertisers. Saans for example, has paid this price for popularity. And the maker of Saans has led a very unorthodox life herself.

There are a lot of strong women in popular Hindi soaps, and there are some “realistic” themes being tried out. Women are fighting to keep illegitimate children. Only they need the backing of the family to do this, or of conveniently nice men who will call other men’s offspring their own. The strong women too, ultimately find the bosom of the family the best place to be, never mind individuality. And if a few women get too close to one another on the basis of a shared fight for individuality, the serial simply disappears from the box midway. Family being the most favoured arena, there is a revival of stereotypes within the resurrected glories of the joint family system. The taming of the New Woman is the most striking of these, but there are preferred forms of stereotypical tensions as well. So a dead man must come back to life to satisfy viewers thriving on the tension between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. It is a fear of change that dictates the refusal to look reality in the face. And the most handy bulwark against change is a musty moralism. To keep this alive, what must go first is the sense of humour.

Humourlessness is a chronic affliction of the pan-Indian, Hindi-soap-watching viewer who decides popularity ratings. Where all that the “different” story can achieve in place of honesty is melodrama and conformity, humour in everyday life is a far cry. The programmes in the “funny” slots usually provoke tears of despair. A really brilliant satirical comedy conceived by Indians, Goodness Gracious Me, originates in Britain. Of course there are orthodoxies, quietly disguised, in overseas sitcoms and serials. They are not always evident to watchers in India or west Asia. But the most popular daily entertainment from the West never lacks in fun and thrills. Laughter presupposes self-criticism and a quizzical detachment. Noble mothers, scheming in-laws, villainous enemies and tamed women can hardly be the product of humorous distancing. But that is what the dominant viewership prefers as its daily fare. Rivalries between Ally McBeal and Bridget Jones seem dishearteningly far away.

   

 
 
WHITHER HUMANITIES? 
 
 
BY SUKANTA CHAUDHURI
 
 
When I was in high school, there was an all-India scheme called the National Science Talent Search. It has now been renamed the National Talent Search and extended to the social sciences — but not to literature, philosophy or art.

Given the obsessive urge among even the remotely meritorious to study science, commerce and management, few humanities students would qualify for the awards. The gratuitous niggardliness points a message dating from the Fifties.

The message is that students of the arts are unproductive drones on whom the state need not spend a superfluous paisa. Yet by a cynical strategy, Indian higher education has chiefly been expanded through truly needless humanities courses: it was the readiest and cheapest way to pack a classroom. The very expansion of the humanities reflects their fall from grace. Hence India is full of arts graduates who know little or nothing of their subjects; and that little, unlike a smattering of the sciences, leaves them effectively unemployable. As for the more rarefied virtues ascribed to the humanities, it would be absurd to evoke them in this context. In a word, the humanities have been devalued even more drastically than other sectors of “general” higher education in India. Interestingly, this coincides with their gain in status in countries like the United States. Sincere and capable students of the arts have learnt to live with this subliminal frustration. But it has now acquired a new aspect that, without exaggeration, threatens the survival of significant mental activity in our land, or at least on our campuses.

The liberalization of the economy, with the collapse of the old and (in an utterly opposite sense) liberal model of education, has heightened the demand for job-oriented courses. Public opinion has understandably turned against the mass production of “general” graduates, and the trend has permeated our education policy. In crasser applications of the new policy, the very cultivation of the humanities becomes a sign of academic stagnation.

The most glaring instance is the near-total atrophy of subjects like philosophy, history and even local languages in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. (Andhra distinguishes officially between “utility” and “non-utility” subjects.) The surviving departments are either demoralized into inactivity, hastening their demise, or else bullied into an exclusive focus on practical skills. Given the paltry staff strength (often three, two or even one teacher per postgraduate department), this effectively puts paid to basic research.

The self-absorbed humanities circles of Delhi and Calcutta have scarcely woken up to their imminent marginalization in the national context. At most, they react by shadow-boxing in committees, common-rooms and coffee houses, or by sheer persistence in set ways. These are ineffectual tactics. Defenders of the humanities must reckon with the groundswell of market demand, employment needs and simple culture-shifts. To say today that “Education is not a saleable product” is as unviable as its fashionable opposite, “Education is the imparting of marketable skills”. And though one hopes that the humanities will foster humane values, there is too much contrary evidence to make this a persuasive argument.

Survival must begin with self-correction. The considerable dead wood in arts departments must be eliminated if we are to garner public support for the discipline. The student trapped in alienated rote-learning of history, philosophy or literature would be better off in a job-oriented course: he is delaying the stigma of formal unemployment only to court it more deeply three years later. It is up to our colleges to provide more such courses, instead of consigning them to the limbo of vocational institutes. This has been the constructive side of the depressing developments in south India. It should be possible to enjoy this benefit without disowning the greater inheritance of the humanities.

If study of the humanities is numerically restricted but, in its chosen centres, adequately supported, its social rationale would be more apparent. This would also be so if in the more privileged arts departments, members were more uniformly productive on their own terms. The humanities, perhaps more than other disciplines, do indeed require speculation and free-wheeling discussion, even a measure of creative idleness. This is not hard to tell from gossip, polemics, modish political campaigns and mental self-indulgence. Such frittering away of human resources harms not only the public image of the discipline, but also its actual quality and output. I intentionally borrow these terms from the corporate ethic. The goals of academia may be very differently defined from those of the corporate world, but we can press them only by a comparable seriousness and productivity.

The most forceful, if most paradoxical, argument for rehabilitating the humanities is that this may be the only way to rehabilitate the sciences. Our neglect of broad-based learning without immediate economic return is threatening the basic sciences, and even the more adventurous lines of technological research. The craze for technological education is not new. But till a decade ago, many of our brightest students opted for the pure sciences — physics above all, but also other sciences both “soft” and “hard”. This flow has now virtually stopped. The future of scientific research in India is in danger.

The vulgar wisdom of the day welcomes the change. The arguments against the humanities have been extended to the basic sciences: that they are economically unproductive, uncertain in their output, and indifferent to the alleged needs of the nation. As I heard a senior academic — once a noted research scientist, now an influential decision-maker — observe, “Of course we should carry out basic research — but only when it’s applied”. Needless to say, this insistence on immediate productive return will effectively hobble India’s efforts to become a pre-eminent industrial nation. In technologically advanced countries, vast sums are spent on basic research in both state and private sectors, and most bright scientific talent enters this field. The truly creative technologists, almost without exception, pass from basic to applied science. By setting up the opposite pattern, India is reducing itself to a technological outpost of Western science, like an ancillary unit behind the mother factory — whatever the soaring value of our software exports.

In the foreseeable future, our scientific and technological institutes might become to the Western scientific establishment what a polytechnic is to a university. Silicon Valley is already treating our pool of software experts as the Gulf countries treat our fitters and carpenters. The parallel may seem far-fetched, even offensive. I offer it nonetheless.

Our suicidal education strategy can be corrected only when we accept that the human faculties extend in various directions. Some may serve our material needs more directly than others, but they are linked within the body academic and ultimately the body politic. No nation has flourished without accepting this sum total of mental activity.

The author is professor of English, Jadavpur University, Calcutta

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Air above Delhi

Judges might be “personally hurt”, but for the Delhi public, 10 more days of breathing polluted air obviously does not hurt that much. They are happy they do not have to face the immediate risk of hurting themselves by clambering onto the top of buses to make it to somewhere in the city. The Congress government of Delhi is also happy to have escaped with minor injuries. Sheila Dixit would after all require only first aid, being ticked off by the Supreme Court for her rather brazen statement about braving contempt of court for the people. Which means there has been no loss of life and all’s well with the Congress government of Delhi. A battle won, and within the party there is no dearth of leaders to take credit for sending the judges into a huddle. The AICC general secretary, Kamal Nath, in charge of Delhi as much as he is in charge of West Bengal, is being touted as the mastermind behind the strategy that forced the court to ease the pressure for the next few days. Salman Khurshid, representing the Delhi schools, who also informally advised Sheila and Nath on legal matters, wouldn’t really mind a pat on his back. Supporters of ML Fotedar claim the coup was a brainchild of the Kashmiri Brahmin, while a devoted section of the party staunchly believes that the final touch was madam’s. Possibly. The final blow will also fall on madam.

Your loss is my gain

We eat our words. Siddhartha Shankar Ray in all probability will not enter the fray this time in West Bengal. Though his name was proposed in the Trinamool circles as a party nominee for the Midnapore Lok Sabha seat, where byelections are due, Ray surprisingly seems reluctant. A senior Congress leader explains that this might be because the veteran leader fears a poll debacle. Fair enough. Taking advantage of this weakness of Ray, another Congress leader and former Union minister of state for finance, Debi Prasad Pal, has surfaced again. Convinced that Mamata Banerjee is looking for a heavyweight for the seat, Pal has reportedly approached didi. Trinamoolis however believe that Pal is nowhere on didi’s mind. “She is reluctant to nominate Pal for the prestigious Midnapore seat,” says a party leader. Why pray? That is because didi feels that Pal is too preoccupied with his legal profession. An ambitious Pal has however sent feelers to some middle-rung Trinamoolis, including Sudip Bandopadhyay and Pankaj Banerjee. Pal has even lined up a trip to Midnapore to acquaint himself with the ground situation. There’s the will. Will didi show the way?

Running the last lap

The sticking glue of one very notable functionary in the prime minister’s office seems to be coming off at last. Despite all the tehelka in the capital, this man had managed to stay on. But not for longer it seems. Senior BJP leader, Madan Lal Khurana, and party MP from Bihar, Madan Prasad Jaiswal, have drawn the PM’s attention to what they believe is the shady past of this controversial person. This old case dug up by Khurana against our man in PMO might prove to be the clincher. Khurana refers to the raids in this man’s house several years ago when he was posted in Bihar. The details of the operation might not embarrass Jayalalitha, but are quite shocking. Quite apart from the assets found, over 10 kilogrammes of gold were also found in the house. However, thanks to the resident’s political connections, the raid episode was hushed up. But that was in the past. The old charm might not rub off on the right quarters as effectively now.

Make a pretty picture

A no-holds-barred war is simmering under the surface in the National Democratic Alliance. AB Vajpayee’s hold is quite obviously slipping as sources close to Mulayam Singh Yadav claim that they allegedly got the phone tapping tip-off from the PMO itself. The campaign against Tehelka also suffered a setback when the Andhra CEO, N Chandrababu Naidu, refused to attend an NDA rally in Hyderabad convened to defend George Fernandes and others. A humiliated PM abruptly called off his trip as well. The Janata Dal (United) also apparently made it clear that it would not attend the NDA rally in Bangalore. Amid all this, the wedding of cricketer Ajay Jadeja and Jaya Jaitly’s daughter, Aditi, gave Vajpayee the much needed break. The PM reportedly could not resist the temptation of sampling the delicious ethnic Kashmiri fare, despite his dietary restrictions and despite the strict eye of his SPG. It was only the dhak dhak girl, Madhuri Dixit, who is reported to have ultimately turned Vajpayee away from the food. AB apparently went and washed his hands when someone summoned Dixit to be photographed with Vajpayee. She looked ravishing in a maroon sari, but our bachelor obviously had other more important things on his mind.

Footnote / Hard days and nights

n Unlike the Delhi traffic case, here the credit lines are less fuzzy. The AICC general secretary, Kamal Nath, should get full honours for dealing with and then driving a bargain with the maverick Trinamool Congress chief, Mamata Banerjee. The difficulty was not so much with the numbers, as Nath found out, but with the hours. Over the past two weeks, the general secretary found didi continue the discussions till late past midnight without too many hassles. Nath has reportedly spoken to state Congress leaders about Mamata’s ability to slog well into the night without any trace of sleep. Tired and exhausted, the gen-sec apparently has also confided to some that he would be happy if he were not entrusted with the job of tackling Mamata the next time. It’s not Nath alone who has a problem with didi. Trinamool leaders often stay awake with her wondering about her boundless energy. Scribes apparently try finishing their discussions early for the fear of being held back. Asked why she slept late, a smiling Mamata shot back, “I will sleep a lot after the assembly elections are over.” Hope there won’t be any nightmares.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Please do the talking

Sir — The new declaration by the government that it is willing to talk to virtually anybody in Kashmir, regardless of “preconditions”, is yet another hopeful sign (“Kashmir talks offer to all, no strings”, April 6). The choice of the deputy chairman of the planning commission, K.C. Pant, as the person to start the negotiations is also interesting. The likes of the accused, Brajesh Mishra, should not be allowed to get involved in any issue of national security. Another interesting development is that the government is making it clear that the ceasefire is not going to be extended another time. It should have the courage to make an unequivocal announcement in this respect. But, of course, this plainspeak is beyond it.
Yours faithfully,
Salil Bose, via email

Bengal’s example

Sir —Brinda Karat’s impassioned plea for social justice and her applause for Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee can hardly protect the reputation of the chief minister (“A message from Kanpur”, April 4). True, his actions have been prompt, and, possibly, an ugly incident has been averted. But justice has not been done.

Worse, an attempt is underway to sweep the whole incident under the carpet by insinuating that this was the action of one demented person. The administration and the majority community owe it to the minorities, and more so to the Constitution, to establish the rule of law and prove that justice is indeed available to all.

There is a growing conviction among the disenfranchised that there is indeed no justice to be expected in this country.

Yours faithfully,
Partho Datta, via email

Sir — Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has shown that he wants efficiency in public administration in West Bengal. He wants to improve law and order and the work culture, especially in government offices. He has also expressed unhappiness about violent trade unionism. In the last two decades, West Bengal has witnessed a severe rise in crime, a deterioration in the standards of education and an appalling lack of industrial development. Hopefully, all this will be successfully countered by Bhattacharjee’s interventions.

Yours faithfully,
Dipak Roy, South 24 Parganas

Bad taste

Sir — The fuss that the media is kicking up about Hrithik Roshan is despicable (“My son’s life is more precious to me: Rakesh”, March 26). What is his claim to fame? He has had three films released of which two have been flops and one has been a hit.

Magazines like Filmfare have carried cover stories on him and virtually “created” his stardom. The director of one of his films, Fiza, is the editor of Filmfare. His success has also been bolstered by interviews fixed up with the likes of Simi Garewal and Karan Thapar. Then came his much-publicized marriage with Sanjay Khan’s daughter, Suzanne Khan, and the accompanying stories about his faithfulness and other such virtues. This whole episode is in very bad taste.

Yours faithfully,
Geeta Nagnath, Calcutta

Sir — Despite all the controversy, Chori Chori Chupke Chupke has become a box office hit. Many think this is because of the controversy surrounding its makers, but it must be admitted that it is a well-made film. It has also proved that Salman Khan is the finest actor in Mumbai.

Yours faithfully,
Nellie Gupta, Lucknow

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