Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Mother's Day

Mother’s Day
Everyday I set out, my identity as an intellectual intact, and that’s the greatest blessing my parents gave me. Hallmark cards did not exist in those days, and the only day which my father celebrated was May Day, though he had a lot of respect for Good Friday, and Diwali and Christmas. And ofcourse Eid, since he taught in Jamia Millia Islamia, having been one of the founding member of Rural Development, as his department was called in the 1950s. Dad was a real mum to us, since it was he who was always at home, when we came from school, and it was he who taught us to cook, and to do our homework, and had  a constant surveillance system in place, going through our books, and letters and even our dreams. We were never sufficiently grateful, thinking him to be just so intrusive and overpossessive. Mum was much more liberal, and we enjoyed her company in the real sense of the word, her love for books, and unlike my father, who had a lethal sense of humour, Mummy was amusing in a different way. Now I feel that the gifts of ancestors are the things we remember about them, and when we die, those memories go with us. We really have no idea about who our great grandmother was, for instance, or how we understand the gift of a fishing net adorned with shells which was my great grandmother’s dowry to the family, along with one gold coin and  five rupees. My mother was always snooty about that legend about my father’s family, and it was probably the elephant which her mother’s family owned, that she brought to her mind, when thinking about the fishing net. Whether either elephant or cowrie bedecked net really existed is anyone’s guess. I had a guest over at my place once, who told me that he was descended from those who were sent away by the king for killing a cow, and the women in their clan were  Nair princesses who were then sold to fishermen. And he looked at me, and said, “Your father’s father’s brother married one of our women.” I looked blankly at him, and wondered if the family knew of this legend, and whether the dowry of a fishnet could be explained for our line as well. Between fiction and genealogy there is never too much gap, only those are remembered who can further the interests of the group. Now, that artisanal castes are fighting for recognition, the sum of class interests are focussed on them. It is they who have the voice, it is they who are producing a new intelligentsia, and backward is as backward does, which is to negotiate a space between dalit intelligentsia climbing rapidly to the top and the Brahmanic upper castes.
For my generation, it really does not matter who we married, and how we brought up our children, it was the survival instinct that we wanted to harness most. We were a generation who listened to Janice Joplin’s “me and bobby mcgee” and while the real battle between the cowherds and the macaulayites  escalates, it is the past which beckons, the past which has no genealogy, but only a dna stamping which takes us back to Africa. One of the young woman lecturers who dropped in to see me last week, as tempers frayed on JNU campus, and the barometer climbed relentlessly, said that it was a struggle teaching African kinship and social structure to undergraduates, as they could not see the relevance of it in their lives. Comparative Sociology never needed legitimation in the 70s of the last century. Reading about the Mother’s Brother and bilateral filiation among the native Americans and about ghost marriages in Africa were always exciting, and our teachers released our imagination.  Teaching is always a strenuous occupation, it is a vocation, and not the sum total of knowledge garnered for purposes of passing the NET examination. Passing or failing the NET exam can never be the index  of academic achievement. To be a good teacher one must be free of worries, of where salaries come from, or what the State will say, or what the agenda of the clerical and administrative bureaucracy is. It has it’s own checks and balances which include teacher student ratio, and the continuous feedback from young people, who enrich our bibliographies with their own rite of passage.
However to think that students “run” the university, or that they will do so,  after anarchic and life asserting moments are absorbed into the university calendar as part of student democratic rights, is pushing the mile stone too far. We have a breathing space, let’s use it to be just, fair, generous and reasonable. Alma mater has a history, a written constitution, a logo, a chronology of achievements and we need to keep moving. While aggressiveness in speech is recognised as reprehensible, the student community need to know that the teachers are not with them on all the vile things they shout when they are looking to upset the apple cart.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Museums and Childhood

Of Museums and Childhood.
When I joined Hindu College in 1984, I made a gang of friends, who on odd Saturdays would go somewhere, do something, meet for lunch. There were a dozen of us, I was twenty eight  years old  and I had a new baby, and so did another member of the English Department, Renuka Booth. Going to the National Museum, or to Dilli Haat,  or to the Cottage Industries at Janpath,or to the hills with students was not something we did often, but it was memorable. We were salaried professionals, and enjoyed the pleasures of our financial independence, though the pittance we brought home went to paying grocery bills or house rent. I bought a bunch of cowbells from Dilli Haat, and though my upstairs neighbour at that time, borrowed them and did not return them (because her child liked it too much) it still remains as one of the significant purchases of a first job. College lecturers, all of us, somewhat looked down upon by the general public (“Lecturers koi kam Nahi Karte” were the invectives of the middle class upon us, and ofcourse the professoriate  in Delhi University at that time,were kind, patronising and mildly contemptuous. The fact that the publishing record of undergraduate lecturers in the Arts and Humanities was hugely  higher than that of the post graduate departments in the 1990s is a fact not to be forgotten. The new systems of  academic accounting actually dull the teachers; leave them free and let them pursue their intellectual ambitions without saying ad nauseum, “Where is the output?” like the king wanting hay turned into gold.
I remember the Mohenjo Dara and Harappa section of the National Museum in the early 1990s, when my three daughters were growing up, and learning to know the city of Delhi. On hot summer days, it was a nice place to browse, with young children, and the  teams of school children following their energetic teachers.  Corpses folded into earthen ware pots left us completely tongue tied. There were the amber beads, and the miniature toys, and the lovely designs on pottery. The Gandharva exhibits with the greek looking heads of Buddha and the sundry warriors and damsels were lovely too. Up and up you go, seeing the clothes the Mughals wore, and the delicate detailed painting of Rajputana. When the currency section opened, the coins of Gudnapheres had me completely entranced, not to mention the plethora of Mauryan and Roman coins, and ofcourse cowrie shells gleaming in the boxed light. 
And then there were days, we went to the Natural History Museum. When I saw the staff sitting on the pavement after it burned down, I felt sorry for them, it’s bad enough to lose your life’s work, but not to have a place to go to when the hot summer winds blow? What could be worse than that? One of the members of that group was a gifted artist, who once had an exhibition at Triveni Kala exhibition in the late 1980s. He drew the forts of Madhya Pradesh, which one sees from the train, perched high up on bare rocks. They were black line drawings, austere, skilled draftsman’s drawings. I felt totally in love with his work, but although they were priced at 800 rupees, circa 1980s, I did not have the money.  We were fighting union battles those days, and our pay went up from 4000 rupees to 6000 rupees per month, but rent and food bills, just did not allow us to have that additional spending money. Window shopping and friendships were sufficient for us in those days.
In the Natural History Museum, the children never dragged their feet, which they could when they went to the zoo with me, as the caged animals were never pleasing to them, and only the snake cage created a mild ripple of interest, or the greedy catatonic crocodiles in their fetid state of stupor. The Natural History Museum welcomed us with that wide mouthed laughing dinosaur, and then there was the image of the worms any ancient mariner would have been proud of, from whom we humans had ascended. And the musty exhibits in their glass cases were so remote from our lives, including impaled butterflies.  After climbing the stairs, right to the top, the children complaining a little,  we would go to Triveni for lunch, and shake off the sense of extinction that accompanied us.
 The National Gallery of Modern Art on days when summer was depleting its store of fatal days, and running into the monsoon was equally delightful. The children got their sense of the world from the rooms in which Amrita Shergil paintings led you from company art and it’s  black and white etchings to the Tagore School, and then upstairs to the larger rooms where the Hussains, Tyebs and one summer a whole new array of the generation of Rajiv Lochan and his age set were on display with their luminescent or dread oils. Museums grew bigger, better, ticketed, tourist friendly. The reproductions hung in our homes, often not framed, just tacked on with scotch tape on the wall.
 Now, I wonder what will replace the  Dinosaur exhibitions at Natural History Museum, with their plastic reproductions and terrifying cries, creating immense excitement among five and eight year olds. 
I’m waiting for my granddaughter to grow up, so I can do the rounds of the Museums again, after 20 years. And the zoo ofcourse. But let me mention the Science Museum as another delight, with it’s frequently broken exhibits, where eager children must have turned the handle too aggressively, and ofcourse the black and white photographs of our science pundits looking gravely back at us. What’s family, but the continuous sense of rotation and revolution, and the feminist space of recreating the world, regardless of blood or war, fiction or fact? In the Lal Quila, the markets of the traders with their extravagant turqoises, and the baths of the Kings, and the howling of the Delhi wind accompanies the slaves  as they move in that relic past to give the last king his food and drink while he writes in the middle of the pond, where he had a room to tide his summer days of writing and reading before being pushed off to Rangoon. Let’s hope we can keep our monuments and museums. Humayun falling down from the stairs of his library still echo in our ears when we visit his tomb, as does Bairam Khan’s gentle presence in the company of eager young lovers and old people walking to ease their bones. But picnics in the old forts is another story, that includes Tughlakabad and Suraj Khund.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Case of Ineptitude in University Bureaucracy

In a world where politicians deal with consumerism and corruption with the same sense of banality, what is happening in JNU must come as a puzzle to them. The supreme court has stated that chanting slogans is not seditious and it’s  enquiry committees have discovered that partisan channels have doctored videos. The general assumption for right wing incendiary campaigns including shouting at Faculty Members and banging on their doors  at dead of night is to be subsumed under the category of “Students can be indisciplined, and shout all sorts of things."  So where do we go from here? "Ghar Ghar Ghus Ke Mareinge" , their favourite slogan frightened some students and teachers inordinately. Maybe, we thought they really meant it.
The Vice Chancellor has alienated his working groups, and whether these be students or teachers,  he cannot do anything to solve the problem. The teachers no longer see dialogue as possible, since the error lies in Administration, not in the stars of a dozen  students. A committee that takes a decision without meeting the students is illegitimate in its jurisdiction, if it is unable to call the defendants together, or the support of the University community. To go against the wise council of the Supreme Court is itself slander to democratic institutions. The Vice Chancellor was sent in by the President, now the President must take a decision on how he sees the fate of what was once India’s premier institution, with the highest NAAC accreditation in the country last year.
 The JNUTA President, in the middle of the struggle for justice, came out with a new book from Routledge. So, just as classes continued, and evaluation process is now in place, the institutional work of the JNU remained stable. It takes a lot of effort to work in situations where the crisis of academia is part of a state pogrom against intellectuals. The BJP RSS functionaries in the JNU were placed when the right wing was in power the last time round. As two of the Rectors were RSS affiliated, their appointments  of clerical and administrative staff were also politically biased. In the 80s and 90s, the Law Faculty in Delhi University was crammed with right wing students,   and we see now that the Bar Council has a right wing partisanship. The silence of people was the expected location of the legitimation of rule and plunder, but Rohit Vamula’s suicide put a stop to that. Young people saw the annihilation of the universities as the extinction of their own hopes for a normative future, and have moved substantially to protect their ideals. "Occupy UGC" and now the present JNU struggle is part of that larger movement, with students on indefinite fast, and teachers in solidarity on relay hunger strikes.
JNUTA has to believe that institutional mechanisms can be retrieved, and with the citizenry now moving into JNU since 4th May 2016,  for providing the support that the students and teachers need, with hunger strikes and relay groups, the momentum is now in place. Vice Chancellor has a reputation for silence,  for treating JNU as if it was IIT with its extreme suicide rates,  and lack of empathy, and now, is seen as a dummy set up by the RSS to destroy the university. What is the RSS dream? If the Gujerati experience is to be relayed, it has meant hierarchy, ritual, power, death without reason. When forty percent of the country voted Mr Modi into power, they must have thought that genocidal impulses would rid the country of the extras, minorities, left, secular, what have you, women, dalits, handicapped, the hungry. Now is the time for the remaining sixty percent to respond, through writing, demonstrations, fasts, hartals, strikes, whatever it takes before the age set that now demonises the law courts as RSS lawyers become judges themselves.
Indiscipline on campus has it’s routine punishments, if the committees are not known to be partisan. By choosing a majority of the members for their right wing or Youth for Equality representatives, the JNU Administration has alienated itself from the students and teachers. The ABVP has been known to create its own ruckus whenever given a chance. The fact that two crowds met in the night,  and there was a conflagration has to be handled by the University. That the VC only hears the ABVP side of the disruption is really unethical, and its members  who went to the Paschimabad flats to terroise teachers, cannot be identified according to Adminsitration. Who will call VC to book for this absenteeism from his role as mediator and catalyst for regular functioning? We can only punish students for indiscipline, how can we punish them for their political views? The RSS does not maintain the demeanour of free citizens nor does it provide an atmosphere of equality, conviviality and freedom. It frightens people, it is contemptuous to women, dalits and minorities. Why would we want to be ruled by them?