Editorial / Harder times
Tigress rampant
This above all / In search of the divine
People / Madhuri Dixit
Letters to the editor

Private tutors are terribly useful creatures. They not only mass-produce geniuses, but also offer themselves up as whipping boys to disgruntled intellectuals wanting to point up the rot in the state of higher education in West Bengal. The economist, Mr Amiya Bagchi, known for his closeness to the Left Front, has recently persuaded the president of the West Bengal Council of Higher Secondary Education to think about trimming down the higher secondary syllabus. According to Mr Bagchi, this would automatically enable schoolteachers to finish the syllabus in class, which, in turn, would render private tutors redundant. A lighter load could be tackled comfortably by both teacher and student, leaving the tutor with nothing much to do. This is a valuable suggestion because it publicly voices the need for a fundamental revaluation of the higher secondary syllabus. But much more ought to be at stake in this revaluation than simply the weight or density of the syllabus — how much is actually packed into it for the students to cram. The real problem is not how much is taught, but how this teaching is done. What needs to be changed is not so much the content of the syllabus as the attitude to and methods of learning.

Mr Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times continues to be the presiding genius of the higher secondary syllabus in Bengal. His dourly mechanistic utilitarianism is now called cramming, but it remains the philosophy informing the syllabus. The Gradgrind method traffics in facts and information (the more the merrier, the drier the better) and ends up testing memory and stamina, rather than independent thinking, originality and creativity. The consequences are mortifying. First, it directly produces the annual saints’ legends of denial and discipline — seven tutors and no television — from the pantheon of toppers, which then become part of the glorious tradition of learning in the state. (Mr Bagchi was speaking at the felicitation of this year’s toppers.) Second, it fosters a pedagogy which kills the joys of teaching and learning. It reduces them to the mindless chores of note-making, memorizing and trend-spotting, dreary enough to wipe out the differences between literature and logarithm, history and home-science. These are the skills mastered and marketed by private tutors. But worse still, these habits of learning are the root cause of the debasement of higher education in the state, based on lop-sided notions of academic excellence.

The Gradgrind approach is also responsible for the death of the humanities and the general stampede for the lucrative sciences in the state. Subjects like literature, philosophy, the social sciences, theoretical physics and pure mathematics demand a radically different set of intellectual skills impossible to nurture within the current theories and practices of learning in West Bengal. A pedagogy which acknowledges and values this could be the only antidote to private tuition. This may not amount to making things easier for either the student or the teacher. But the challenges it would create will certainly be more fun to take on.


The multi-level offensive of the Tamil Nadu chief minister, J. Jayalalithaa, has more to it than meets the eye. The arrest of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader, Vaiko, and the public debate with those who favour the division of the state mark a new mood of aggression. This even had its counterpart at the national level in her taking exception to not being invited to the swearing-in ceremony of the new president. In a letter to the editor of a popular news magazine, she bristled at the charge that the arrest of V. Gopalsamy under the provisions of the new anti-terrorist law was in any way an attempt at a political drama. Instead, she argued that her record of governance needed no such gimmicks.

To appreciate the logic behind the detention of Vaiko, one needs to go back in time. His party, the MDMK, has been vocal in support of the Tamil militants since its founding in 1993. Even after his arrest, some of the most strident protests came from the Tamil nationalist group led by the freedom movement veteran, P. Nedumaran, who makes no bones about his sympathies with the Tigers. On one point, there is little doubt. Jayalalithaa has consistently been a critic of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ever since she took control of her party, the all India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The Tamil Tigers, paradoxically, were patronized and assisted in no small way by her political mentor, M.G. Ramachandran. In the early Eighties, when the guerrilla group seemed to be fighting a battle to defend Tamil citizens against atrocities by the Sri Lankan army, they won popularity in Tamil Nadu.

The regional party in power had good reason to stand by the Tamil Tigers. The opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, of which the AIADMK was an offshoot, launched several state-wide campaigns to grab the centre-stage on this emotive issue. As refugees floated across the Palk Straits in catamarans and dugouts, all parties declared support for a Tamil homeland, or eelam.

Things began to change in the late Eighties, culminating in the Indo-Sri Lanka accord. Even after the Indian armed forces commenced operations against the Tigers, MGR remained steadfast in his support for a negotiated compromise in preference to an all-out war for the Tamil cause. His backing for Rajiv Gandhi also sprung from a shrewd realization that there were limits to popular sympathy for the Tigers on this side of the Straits.

Not only were armed supporters of V. Prabhakaran and others running amok in parts of Tamil Nadu, they also came into conflict with local residents around the camps. Many refugee camps became no-go areas for personnel of the government. Further, secessionism in the state, already on the wane, did not constitute a major talking point. Even though the DMK led by M. Karunanidhi won the polls in 1989, and made human rights violations of the Tamils an issue, it was muted on this. The withdrawal of the Indian peace-keeping force from the island nation by the end of January 1990 also made the issue seem a dead one.

Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and especially the horrific way it happened changed all that. From then on, the charge of abetting and aiding terrorism was one that Tamil politicians would fling at one another. Often, the charge held substance, except that each major party had its own share to contribute to the problem. The dismissal of the DMK government in 1991 was on the charge that it had abetted the rise of militancy. Jayalalithaa and her ally, the Congress, made a clean sweep of both the state assembly and the Lok Sabha. Three years later, Vaiko was expelled from the DMK on the basis of similar accusations.

Over the years, smaller political formations took over the championing of the Tigers’ cause. The two key parties that back them, led by Vaiko and S. Ramadoss respectively, have together never polled over 10 per cent of the popular vote. The issue of the Tamils of Sri Lanka is very much alive, but support for the militants has melted away. In a sense, the AIADMK’s view of political militancy has been consistent, even if its record has often been almost draconian. Under MGR, the police wiped out the Naxalite groups in North Arcot and Chengulpet. Jayalalithaa has followed a similar policy of no compromise, whether it is the case of the bandit, Veerappan, or the Tamil Tigers.

Even more significantly, she has brought the party more in line with pan-Indian nationalism than ever before. She was the first to align with the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections. Her stridency on Pakistan is second to none. The new scheme to feed the poor in temples across the state has the full support of the sangh parivar.

At the same time, she has taken care to capture the public space on state-Centre issues. This is true of the Cauvery water dispute. It was also manifest in her public criticism of New Delhi not inviting a representative of the state to A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s swearing-in. It was no small matter that she won the backing of her arch-rival, Karunanidhi, and extracted an apology from the deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani.

The regionalist attitude has its other dimensions within the state’s political line-up. For all the shifts in mood, the AIADMK has its roots in the language movement. The idea of a unified Tamil Nadu is deeply embedded in the popular psyche. No wonder there was such a vehement response to Ramadoss’s proposal to bifurcate the state.

As in the case of other linguistic states, the idea of division is unlikely to win popular acceptance. The very fact that it is being voiced is a measure of the failure of smaller groups to break the stranglehold of the two major Dravidian parties on political power. Ramadoss’s own game-plan of mobilizing Vanniyar sentiment was undercut by patronage of that community by the ruling party.

Where the AIADMK is headed is still not clear. Its leader has kept channels open to more than one formation at the national level. The bottom line is that she will not brook a challenger in her own bailiwick. The premier opposition party, the DMK, is in the throes of crisis and a struggle for succession to its veteran president, Karunanidhi. Vaiko has failed to make headway and is a marginal force in much of the state. The Pattali Makkal Katchi has been shown to be a significant force, but not a decisive one. The two major national parties are still reliant on local allies and in no position to mount an offensive on the ground.

The chief minister’s current stridency only plays to the urge of having a “strong leader” who has little tolerance for the opposition. It also is a reminder of the need to have not only a stable government but also a resolute and effective opposition.

Tamil Nadu’s tragedy lies elsewhere. A movement against hierarchy and caste oppression with a rich record of cultural creativity and popular expression has given rise to an amazing concentration of power. A buoyant economy, with growing literacy and dropping birth rates, cannot disguise the fact that violence is endemic to its public life. Sending a tough message against terrorists and their supporters is a fine first step. It is no substitute for a general cleansing of public culture and more tolerance for opposing points of view.

The author is an independent researcher and political analyst


Israel Zangwell wrote an amusing story set in rural Poland about a very poor young Jewish couple who lived outside a village and eked out a miserable living, selling firewood to the villagers. Near Christmas time demand for wood increased, so the couple were able to earn a little more than usual. While the Christian village was preparing to celebrate with lavish eating and drinking, the young Jewish couple decided to celebrate it in their own way.

On Christmas eve the young wife went out in the snow to get some more firewood for their hearth. She came to a pond which was frozen hard. She had not bathed for several days. Knowing what her husband had in mind, she took off her clothes, smashed the ice and jumped into the pool. She heard men’s voices at a distance coming towards the pool. They were two farmers out shooting birds to add to their Christmas fare. The girl jumped out of the pool, gathered her clothes and ran naked to her hut.

The farmers saw the figure of a naked woman run across the snow and vanish in the mist. Who could it be on Christmas Eve except Virgin Mary? The story spread in the village. A widow whose son had been stricken with paralysis took him to the pool and dumped him in the icy water. The shock cured the child of its ailment. A bishop came to investigate and proclaimed the water of the pond to be holy. It became a place of pilgrimage and miracle cures. Soon a cathedral was built near it. The Jewish couple went into business selling water from the pond in small bottles. They made a lot of money and became rich.

Zangwell’s story is being reproduced all over our country with unscrupulous people grabbing public land in the name of their deities. I have witnessed a few instances in Kasauli and Delhi. The highest point in Kasauli was for some reason given the name Monkey Point. As a boy I often climbed to the top. There was nothing there except a pile of stones. You got a spectacular view of Punjab’s plains with the river Sutlej flowing through them. Then the Indian air force moved in. It built a lot of very ugly flats at the base of Monkey Point, on what had once been Kasauli’s favourite picnic spot. On the peak was installed a slab of stone smeared with bright red paint. Monkey Point became Hanuman Point. A story was circulated that Hanuman after finding the sanjeevani booti had put his foot down on this spot.

So a temple came up. Now it has a full-time priest. People come from distant towns and make offerings of money, fruit and flowers. A few months ago it received an important visitor, a minister more stupid than the usual run of ministers, who declared that a spot hallowed by the touch of the foot of bajrangbali should not be known as Monkey Point but maan kee point. A Hindu bania of Kasauli has done better.

There are a few Muslim graves in the town, one very close to the main bazaar. There are no permanent Muslim residents but some superstitious Hindu women were in the habit of offering mannat at the graves. So he had the one near the bazaar, given a fresh green paint and spread the canard that it belonged to a peer sahib who granted wishes of devotees.

Now there is a stream of pilgrims making offerings at the tomb. The bania is doing good business. There are another two tombs which are due to be renovated with fresh paint and oil lamps. Like shopkeepers who have a chain of shops, our local bania owns a chain of Muslim tombs. Good income, no income-tax.

In the last few years I have seen a proliferation of Hindu places of worship in the oddest of locations. One is along the wall of what was once Jinnah’s residence (now the home of the Dutch ambassador). It is on a side-lane and all there was worth noticing was huge peepal tree. Then the bole got a dab of saffron paint followed by a slab of stone with a statue of the deity. Now it is a way-side shrine. A whole area between the office of the BJP and the road has recently been taken over by some pandas to be converted into a temple. Likewise, there are dozens of shrines along roads, on road-dividers, and just about every place not already occupied. People are too scared to demolish structures which have been sanctified by worshippers. The police are equally scared to take action lest it arouses communal frenzy. So the loot of public land in the name of god goes on unabated.

It needs men of determination to put an end to this menace. Some years ago a party of Nihang Sikhs sat down in the middle of a fairway of the Delhi Golf Club. They said one of them had dreamt that Guru Gobind Singh had desired that he build a gurdwara on the spot. They refused to listen to reason; the police refused to help the club out of its predicament.

In sheer desperation late one night when the Nihangs were deep in bhang-induced sleep, club employees led by a few intrepid members swooped on them, picked up their utensils, bedding and so on threw the lot out on the road and shut the club gates. No more was heard of the Nihangs.

How to learn good English

Some weeks ago I wrote on the advisability of reading the Bible for those aspiring to write good English. I made it clear that one does not have to read it as a scripture (unless one is Christian) but as a sample of lucid, lyrical prose. I chose a few examples from the first fifty Psalms ascribed to King David. There are also gems of prose in the later Psalms.

I adduce a few examples. “When I remember you (God) in bed, I meditate on you in the night watches” (63). Psalm 68 describes god as “a father of the fatherless and a defender of widows.” Because of his grace even “the sparrow has found a home and a swallow a nest for herself.”

How transitory is a man’s sojourn on earth is the theme of Psalm 103: “As for man, his days are like grass, as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place remembers no more.”

Psalm 121 proclaims: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” About the most popular of the Psalms put to music is 121: “I shall lift my eyes to the hills — from whence cometh my help? My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to be moved: He who keeps you will not slumber….”

You may deny the existence of god but he is omnipresent, says Psalm 139: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend into heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold you are there.”

Enough of the Psalms; there is a lot in the Bible which is sheer joy to read for those who love English. You will be surprised to note that a large number of sayings, adages and proverbs in current use are derived from the Bible, both the Old and the New Testament. I will draw your attention to them another time.

An unusual burial

Banta had a 59 litre tank of petrol in reserve when rationing was introduced. He consulted his friend Santa about what to do about it. “Bury it; Banta yaar,” was the reply. Accordingly, he gave his gardener instructions to dig a hole for it in a secluded spot.

After a time the gardener returned, “I have buried the petrol”, he said. “What do you want me to do with the tank?”

(Contributed by Shivtar Singh Dalla, Ludhiana)



Mad about marriage

It could have been a scene out of Hum Aapke Hain… except that the star was dressed in an unassuming blue salwar kameez in place of that famous 15-lakh-rupee backless lehenga choli that had set M.F. Husain’s creative pulse racing and the cash registers ringing. The first day, first show of the first real matchmaking extravaganza on Indian television — Kahin Naa Kahin Koi Hai or the jaw-breaking KnKKH it’s being promoted as — had Madhuri Dixit aka Mrs Sriram Nene in a new avatar: suave matchmaker. And show and showgirl seem to be made for each other.

As the choli-ke-peechey girl coyly lip-syncs the tinkling title song glowing in bridal finery, you understand why people have been scurrying back home by 8.30 every evening since Monday. Evidently, this “female Amitabh Bachchan” is set to pull off a KBC but, significantly, without a sum of Rs 1 crore as bait. For, amid the lavish exquisitely designed set presumably aimed at setting the mood for a negotiated marriage filmi , Mad is a natural. Once thought capable of carrying any film on her shoulder, she now seems ably set to undertake this small screen challenge.

Her usual earnest self and bubbly manner seems just the right mix to set the two families at ease when she introduces them to each other. Mediator-like, she helps break the ice, too, between wannabe bride and groom as they swing in a jhula in a bid to seek permanence in their relationship.

“She wanted to look credible and convincing,” says Kunal Dasgupta, CEO, Sony Entertainment Television. Just as in the gamut of roles she’s played — be it a high-voltage intense persona in Beta, Lajja, Mrityudand or a lighthearted, naughty but dutiful daughter in HAHK or Dil To Pagal Hai. “Not just that, she wanted to look like one of the family, initiating the proceedings and ensuring that the prospective couple were relaxed,” explains Dasgupta.

Even before the first episode was over, the production team realised that the girl-next-door image wouldn’t quite work — notwithstanding that Mad has all the conventional credentials of a modern Indian woman. She comes from a middle-class Maharashtrian family, is convent educated, has a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, has had an arranged marriage, and is now doing the home-and-work balancing act. In Shobhaa De’s words, “Your typical Maharashtrian neighbour who you can open up to with your most private secrets.”

But who can forget she’s a star too, and a star without the trappings of stardom is somehow unacceptable. In the very second episode the matchmaker emerges from behind the satin curtains in golden livery, dressed to kill. It works, for the audience seems to lap it all up.

Yet, Madhuri also plays herself. Mad’s brisk movements and spontaneity in just the right measure play down her star status, a move that she herself has underlined. She has no script — or so the organisers stress — and has been instructed to be her “natural, effervescent self”. And this — the “real” Madhuri — is possibly the programme’s USP.

If KBC saw the emergence of a Bachchan who was humble with old men, gentle with the matajis, playful with young men and mildly flirtatious with the girls, India’s first homegrown reality show introduces another Madhuri. A Mad who engages her wit and humour, occasionally double-edged, melting hearts with her thousand-watt smile, siding in turn with the ladki-or ladke-wale, involved yet objective, rational still practical.

Madhuri’s metamorphosis is just as striking as Bachchan’s makeover from the Angry Middle-Aged Man of the silver screen to KBC’s hands-humbly-folded avatar. Madhuri, once known to be cold and unapproachable, now seems to be turning those attributes on their head. “People expect stars to be a breed apart. They forget that they are humans too. I’m an introvert and don’t speak much but that doesn’t mean I’m snooty. If I have done two shifts, how can you expect me to be social?” she had once questioned indignantly, when she was still struggling to find a foothold in the industry.

All those days, of course, are way behind her. KnKKH sees her in her element. Now, not only does she identify with the common man but, a la Bachchan, liaises with him, gives wing to his romantic dream and goes a step further than Bachchan to give it a real life lived-happily-ever-after spin.

She is so dazzling, in fact, that it has been leaving the others in the show, those who’ve come in search of a life-partner, speechless. “Initially the participants are so much in awe of her that they forget their purpose for being on the set,” says Dasgupta. To help overcome the problem, a makeshift house has been constructed just outside the set where the prospective bride, groom and their families spend time with the actress for the better part of the day before they actually face the camera.

If she’s putting heart and soul into the idiot box, she has reason to do so. An actress can’t spend two decades in the film industry and still hope to look as fresh as the morning dew. Five years ago Dil To Pagal Hai saw the star nicknamed “Moti (fatso)” on screen itself — which, all said and done, was only a slight exaggeration. Age, needless to say, is telling on her. More importantly, she has little to choose from as Bollywood hardly writes meaningful roles for women in their mid-30s.

Devdas, they say, is to be her last film. Mad claims she hasn’t been coming across scripts that excite her. But truth is, with the Kareenas and Amishas ruling the roost, few directors are queuing up at her doorstep with big ventures. Even in Devdas she got to be the second woman.

So her small-screen debut in the up, close and personal KnKKH is rightly timed. As Dasgupta puts it, “After KBC, actors have realised that venturing into the small screen can often effect a turnaround in terms of one’s career.” Especially a show that doesn’t demand another didi-tera-dewar-deewana act. Mad seems content to sit back and watch the participants jiggle once the soul mates join hands. There is perhaps a sense of déjà vu. Ever since Dr Nene has floated into her life through negotiation, she has merrily straddled two worlds — East and West, home and work and in snatches learned to cook biriyani and strum the guitar. Without having to give up one for the other. A point she asserts time and again on the show.

In one episode still to be telecast, the would-be groom says he is all in favour of a working wife in the first few years of marriage. But after that he would party while she would raise the children. “Madhuri,” says Dasgupta, “was livid. She just piled on to the guy and later in an aside asked the prospective bride to not take such an attitude lying down.” Bride-would-be didn’t.

Worried at sending out the wrong signals, Dasgupta is quick to point out that the actress never tries to influence the decision of the families. Only at times she points out what is right and what is wrong. “Not that she has too but because she likes to, in all earnestness.” By the look of things, this reality show is all set to hook viewers, some in search of soul mates, others lapping up pearls of wisdom uttered by the Roop Ki Rani. Before long, you might just have the nation singing in unison, ek, do, teen...aaja piya aaye bahar.    


Who’s boss in Bollywood?

Sir — The latest incident to rattle Bollywood is the recorded conversation between Sanjay Dutt and the underworld don, Chhota Shakeel (“Bro-therhood of Bollywood & the boss”, July 29). That the Indian film industry has connections with the underworld is old hat. What is worrying is that this is gaining acceptance as something normal among actors, producers and the like. The film industrywallahs perhaps have few choices but to cater to the criminals’ whims because of the death threats. But unless they learn to fight against the extortion racket, they will be blackmailed, both by the underworld and the police.

Yours faithfully,
Hanif Mohammed, Calcutta

No role model

Sir — Silver-screen idol-turned politician, Shatrughan Sinha, continues to do what he does best — enacting the role of sutradhaar in his play, Pati, Patni Aur Mein. Evidently, the issues of healthcare have taken the backseat for the Union minister of health and family welfare (“Back to first love, Vajpayee willin’”, July 26). In fact, there is even indication that Sinha might use his official position to overcome the “logistical” problem of staging his show in Jaipur. The date for the performance has already been fixed. In a country where medical facilities are non-existent for the majority of the population and 44 per cent of the people lives below the poverty line, Sinha should concentrate on the functioning of his ministry more than on theatre.

Yours faithfully,
Phani Bhusan Saha, Balurghat

Sir — If Shatrughan Sinha succeeds in acting out the dual roles of a politician and an actor, then there is nothing like it. Sinha is one of the few politicians whom Indians can be proud of. Unlike cine stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Sunil Dutt, who had tried their luck in politics, Sinha has been able to make it to the top in this arena as well. It wo-uld be heartening to see him play a positive role in reviving the dismal health standards in India.

Yours faithfully,
S. Poddar, Calcutta

Sir — Shatrughan Sinha has to realize that checking the Malthusian growth of the population for positive growth and economic stability of India is the challenge that confronts him. The exodus from villages to cities for employment, a trend evident for the last four decades, also needs to be stopped. A minimum infrastructure has to be provided in the rural sector, which means Sinha and his cabinet colleagues will also need to assure the rural populace power supply, good roads, better agriculture and small and medium scale industry. The generation of employment for millions of semi-skilled labourers in rural areas will pave the way towards better control of population growth in the end and thereby better healthcare.

Yours faithfully,
Samir Banerjee,New Delhi

Chew on this

Sir — It is not enough to impose a ban on the sale of gutkha, pan masala and other tobacco products in India (“Gutkha ban ignites anti-puff war”, July 30 ). The government should make necessary arrangements to teach the poor tobacco workers alternative farming so that they are not further impoverished. What is the point if only four states — Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu — take the initiative while others sit and watch? Traders will merely solve the problem by smuggling tobacco products from other states.

Yours faithfully,
Aparajita Dasgupta,Calcutta

Sir — Following the Allahabad high court’s directive to the Uttar Pradesh government to stop the manufacture and sale of gutkha and similar other tobacco products, the police have in right earnest raided warehouses and shops which stock the banned goods (“Traders up in arms against gutkha ban”, July 24). But it is disappointing to see that states like West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand have chosen to sit pretty on the issue. The increasing popularity of carcinogenic tobacco products among the youth is alarming. The ban on the sale of these goods must be strictly enforced. This will also put an end to the unhygienic habit of spitting in public places.

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das, Jamshedpur

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