Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Lost Researcher

(The following article appeared in this month's Voices. In view of the fact that it may interest many more than just the regular readers of Voices, I am putting it up here. This one is a slightly extended version.)

Nearly four years back, I found this picture of a lost researcher, busy with his research,
unconcerned with the goings on around him, perhaps slightly lamentable. But on the
whole, I also found it the cutest feature of his. Over the last few years, with my coming to
know this chap better and better, I have learned to look at him in a very different light,
particularly, with reference to IISc. That lost look could also signify a callous creature
who remains doped in his own imaginary world, and has deliberately decided to keep his
eyes closed to many things around him, which need his attention. And the most
deplorable of all facts is that I myself am partly that lost researcher.
Remember Matrix? People living in a illusory world, while in reality, they are no more
than instruments, power sources. The real world is very different from what they think it
is. It depends on them, but not in the colourful ways that they think it does, but, in a very
wicked, cold, ruthless way.
Look around. Your lab, right? An altar of knowledge, a pathway to a world of scientific
glory. Is it the real world? Or merely a cocoon woven around us. Does it protect us from
something; or protects something else from us?
Most of us are blissfully unaware that a mammoth system exists and functions around
these tiny oases of our labs. The administrative system: the estate office, hostel office,
messes, finance section, student section, library, CSIC, not to mention the departmental
offices. I don't know where this list ends. All I know is that these are fat, populous units,
cumulatively far bigger than the student population. And shock of all shocks : they are
more powerful and more important than the student community. We might like to think
that they exist to facilitate the core activity of the institute – research. Quite contrary to
that, that's just a small fraction of what they might be involved in. A significant portion of
their existence is perhaps dedicated to itself.
A number of issues regularly appear like insignificant itches on the skin of the IISc
community, and tragically fail to infect us pachyderms. Things – I don't know who is
responsible for – but which we should be concerned about, because they concern us. Let
me pick some of them at random, which have bothered me rather seriously at some point
in time, but which I just forgot in time, without seeking out their answers:
· Why does food get over so early before the mess closing time in A-mess, always, year
after year?
· What happened to those 100 and odd sandal wood trees that were cut down some time
back. The outrage it caused seemed to be sufficient to warrant a detailed explanation,
didn't it?
· In the new hostel blocks, the method for preventing inmates from wasting hot water
was to simply remove the shower knobs. Is that the way PG students should be treated
in their daily lives?
· JN Tata Auditorium used to be regularly lent out to students for their cultural and
other activities. Now, it's awfully hard, if not impossible, for students to use it for their
purposes. The explanation: holding cultural programmes causes wear and tear to the
auditorium. There was a story being told that a huge sum of money was sanctioned a
couple of years ago for a complete renovation of SAC, or for building a new
auditorium for holding student functions. SAC's name has been changed alright. It's
difficult to estimate how much expenditure that would have caused. Where did all that
money go? Did it ever come?
· The IISc Music team Rhythmica, which has created unparalleled popularity for itself
in the last four and half years, is forced to perform in the cramped Satish Dhawan
auditorium every time. Every performance, the auditorium gets horrendously
overcrowded, and hundreds just return because of not even being able to gain entry, let
alone getting a seat. To top this, Rhythmica was refused permission to hire sound
system from outside for reasons never made clear. The sound system in SD auditorium
is of a seminar quality, not appropriate for playing music. The alternatives that have
been provided to Rhythmica has been an advice to perform in the Gymkhana Hall or
SAC, both of which have terrible acoustics. Why is it possible for anybody to treat the
team which has proved the most successful team effort ever to have happened in the
campus, like this? With a constant membership of nearly 40 highly talented artists,
many of whom have done exceptionally well in their research, with now nearly 25
highly successful performances to its credit, doesn't this team deserve to be treated
better, and provided more encouraging ambiance to function?
· There are many cases of students being refused their scholarships because they failed
to fill their scholarship forms in time. Explanation: Money has gone back to MHRD
and nothing can be done about it.
· The current thing about which everybody is talking in a disgruntled tone is the
collection of TV cable connections fees. Onus has been thrown upon the students to
collect money from their block inmates and pay up the cable connection rents. Due to
unsynchronised lifestyles of inmates, hostel representatives find it an uphill task to get
all money collected. Why do we have to pay extra for something like cable
connection? And even if we have to, why isn't there a process to deduct the money
from source along with the hostel fees? Explanation: cable connection is a luxury item.
In 2006, cable connection is considered a luxury in the residential hostels of the most
famous research institute of South Asia! We are indeed living in a third world country.
With the above small list of questions, which doesn't even represent the smallest fraction
of all questions of this nature that can be asked, I might already have ruffled up many
feathers by now. Before a big man (in some administrative position) decides to call me
and reprimand me on being so irresponsibly vocal in a public forum, let me provide this
simple disclaimer: I am not blaming anyone. Nor am I raising issues.
If there's anyone I am directly pointing fingers to, it's the students who never seem to
wonder what's going on around them. Being a student, I know well enough that thousands
and thousands of such questions are swarming in the heart of each of us. But I am
concerned that researchers who swear by their curious nature, don't even stop by such
questions which are screaming out at them on every pathway of their life. I am
disconcerted about the authenticity of the so called 'spirit of research' which concerns
itself only with esoteric theoretical questions which, at best, a group of white-collars will
briefly talk about in a conference taking place across the oceans; when such mundane –
but authentic – questions abound our everyday life.
There have been several instances where questioning students have been sent back by
various authorities – both academic and administrative – clearly indicating that
authorities don't consider themselves answerable to students beyond a point. How has it
come to this pass that anybody dares tell that to a student?
A massive administrative body, by its very nature, is power hungry. That's not bad in
itself. An ideal situation is when the powers are so evenly balanced that the distinction
between the authority and the subject vanishes. It's a delicate balance like those existing
in an ecosystem. Its presence results in symbiosis; its absence, in parasitism. The ill is not
in the authorities not deeming it important to answer our questions. The ill starts when
we, the subjects, deem it unimportant to ask questions; when we tire of keeping asking
until we are given satisfactory answers.
This disinterest to be aware of one's own environment is the ideal breeding ground for
corruption. Authorities who hog power aren't necessarily corrupt. But, large number of
parasites find their home under their auspices. Their interest is in keeping the subjects
divided and helpless; and in keeping the actual authorities sequestered and alienated from
the subjects, lest both come to identify the real symbiotic nature of their relation.
I don't know if such parasites are already thriving in our campus (OK, I am lying). But if
they do, then we have already lost our first line of defense to them. In IISc, there seems to
be no adherence to the practice of raising questions, and answering them transparently. In
this regard, IISc can't be likened to the general populace of the country. Resources are far
more, population is far less, and its citizens are infinitely more capable of handling
information. Keeping them in dark in such numerous issues can have no possible logical
explanation. Suppressing questions by humiliation and threats or by stern refusal to
answer them seems so out of place in IISc; but it's happening everyday here. That it
already has become the practice is a clear indicator of a social pestilence of corruption
having found its way into the veins of this allegedly elite campus.
Two appeals: One is to people sitting at positions of power that if they find themselves
organisedly separated from the students whose needs it's the prime need of their
departments to cater to, they can be sure that someone wants them to remain that way.
Why not pat a student who – like a good researcher – asks a good question? And try
answering it yourself? Chuck the red-tape!
My second appeal is again to the students. Let's come out of our self-image of the lost
researcher. If we are not in a position of grooming ourselves into an aware and smart
citizen well-connected to his environment, we can hardly hope to achieve anything
meaningful for our country and this society.
And I have no appeal and nothing to say to people who, either due to their vested interest
or ignorance, believe that no question needs be raised or answered.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Calling a 'spade' a 'spade'

Quoting from one of my recent mails to a friend of mine:

there's never ever a 'spade' alone. Calling it a spade is a truth, but it's a partial one. It would be a fallacy to presume that truth can even be comprehended with our finite intellects, leave alone it's being expressed in our meagre vocabulary. I am no scholar, but I appreciate what a limited and dangerous blessing God has given us -- language. I understand that while it can communicate a lot less than what's there in our mind, it also carries with it a lot more than we are aware of -- presumptions, preoccupations, prejudices -- things which steal their way out of our minds through our speech while we intended to say something entirely different.