Saturday, August 27, 2011


I saw Aarakshan yesterday. It's a good movie, I would say. Not great from a purely artistic point of view. Good acting and dialogues. But some out of place songs. A gradually increasing portion of drama as the story progressed. There were even moments when one felt that probably the story has started draggingand had lost the crispness. But definitely overall the movie scores well in the way it deals with an inflammable topic in a sensitive way while communicating the maker's point of view rather clearly. Or may be it's actually the viewer's (my) view interpreted by him (me) as the maker's view. The climax resembles the Anna Hazare movement in its look. That adds an appeal to the experience of watching the movie, though rather coincidentally.

The way the storyline gradually drifts away from the issue of reservation and casteism to that of education wasn't accidental I am sure. In fact, it makes a very strong point: the issue of reservation and casteism are really not central to the woes of the Indian society. The central issue is that of education. The evils of casteism can't be mitigated by reservations. Not because the idea of reservations in itself is evil. It is not. But because, its correct implementation is probably impossible in presence of too many stakeholders in the game. It's impossible to prevent people from misusing it. In fact, it's not just reservation policies which are misused by politicians but the overall combination of reservations and class-struggle.

There were some dialogues which probably carried the maker's take on the matter. Once, the hero asks the question regarding why we don't have ITS (Indian Teaching Services) as we have IAS and IFS? There was one more where his wife asks why, instead of wasting so much money on reservations at higher education and job, government doesn't invest all its crores on improving the primary education system.

The way the hero deals with the overall situation in the movie was obviously very dramatic appropriate for a movie. But the message was valid for the real world. The key lies in making education accessible to everyone irrespective of their background.

I would like to add the following points from my side:

An idea worth considering for the government of India would be to have a kind of mandatory education service for all post-graduates of the country. If you aren't in teaching and you hold a post graduate degree you must devote x years (May be 1 or 2 years) of your professional life to education. Countries like Israel and Korea have successfully implemented compulsory military services in their country. I feel, it's practical to implement something similar for education.

The other thing, though slightly in a broader interest, is that education must be partially freed from being widely perceived as a professional training. Education is about life, not profession. It should be seen as a vehicle of sharpening thoughts and knowledge which are general tools for leading a better life, of which professional advantage is a small subset. But, let's leave all this to a separate discussion.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

An Anecdote from a Team-Experience

During the first few years of Rhythmica, when I used be active in it, I came across two kinds of people -- those who wanted the best out of the programme, and those who wanted the best out of the people.

Former category people were usually very talented; set very high standards for themselves and for others; and considered a musical performance as the output of the hard work. For them, it wasn't justified to compromise on the quality of the music. Substandard performance was unpardonable. At every stage of preparation, they advocated ruthless curtailing of anything substandard.

Latter category consisted of people who gathered in the music room for fun. They would, on an average, be less musically talented. They wouldn't have much to do with the highest levels of perfection. For them, a glitch here and a glitch there was absolutely OK. They would make friends, get into romantic relations, help out the more talented ones, and sulk if neglected.

Another example exists in all organisations. There are techies and there are managers. Techies don't usually think much of the managers. And managers give a damn to that. The tussle continues, and they thrive under the same roof.

It was when I was trying to characterise my responsibilities as a convener that I realised that both these types of people are required in a team. And whether one wants it or not, both these varieties would exist in any group.

Talented people are good to realise the potential of a group. The peak potential of the group is the peak potential of these individuals. Their presence is a must to take a group to the heights of achievement. The latter group are important for the existent of a group. They aren't dead weight. They are a cement which keeps the team together. A massive structure is required for resources to come together and create something that makes a difference. Usually individual talent is not enough to realise such teams.

A leader's job is to engineer two things:
- Realisation of potential
- Repeatability

The talented ones advocate such high levels of dedication and hard work as would cause severe burnouts in the less capable ones. As individuals, they may be capable of sustaining very high standards demanding exceptional efforts. That mayn't be true with others. A talented person, in absence of essential team-related qualities in himself, will look at this incapability as a disqualification, and will castigate anyone who doesn't concur. Often, this may create conflicts, not just with less capable people, but also with comparably capable people. Everyone is not at their best all the time. Being caught in the weak moment, and being reprimanded by a peer, who isn't necessarily more talented, for not meeting standards may sometimes be unacceptable to them, especially if they are inwardly rather confident that they do maintain high standards. Due to this reason, it is often seen that groups consisting of extremely talented people don't always do well, especially when it comes to durability. Music bands, research groups, etc. often form and fall apart in no time. I guess, the reason behind it could be the lack of team-related talents in its members.

A team will sustain when most of its members are happy, not just with themselves but with each other. They will come together again and again when they feel like meeting each other. A team will make its mark not just by one momentous performance, but by continuing to do so over and over again. A minimal prerequisite for that is the existence of the team.

An individual talent may look at this scenario as a parasitic relation between the less talented and the more talented. That's not justified. A team forms a critical mass for resources to come together and contribute towards the creation of something non-trivial. Such teams don't merely feed on the talents of the individuals, but gives them back a lot. The most important payback is the society of talents.
A society that's formed in an orderly fashion, and not by chance meeting between two maverick geniuses. When collaboration between such two geniuses is good, not just for others, but for themselves too, the presence of a happy group around them supports such an association, even when such an association mayn't be pleasant to the two geniuses themselves.

My Top Inspirations and Inspiring Moments

A list (which I intend to keep editing for ever) of events, moments, people, experiences which have resulted in lasting changes in me (mostly positive) and have shaped my life in a profound way. I don't claim to have arranged them in any particular order.
Learn to understand: When my father had said in my fourth class that I should try to understand the subjects rather than trying to score higher. It affected me deep and has a lot to do with my future attitude towards studies.
Tintin: When I first came across the first Tintin book in eighth class in my friend Sumantro's place, I had never seen a comic any better illustrated than Chacha Choudhary, Phantom, Amar Chitra Katha. I asked my friend what this thing was which did look like a comic but was also like a book. He said it was the best comic in the world. That day, my outlook to comics, cartooning, storytelling, everything changed. In the next 2 years I had read all Tintin books. My style of cartooning still is influenced by it. I finally succeeded to procure the complete series much later, in 2002.
R. K. Laxman: My father had brought home a calendar with one Laxman cartoon per page. I learned from it that cartoons can be drawn with basic instruments like pencil, sketch pens and water colour.
50 Classics: A thick book that Sumantro possessed which contained 46 classics and 4 epics, abridged and translated into Bangla. I came to know that there are so many books which are called classics: novels which are old, but evergreen. My fanciful mind immediately set out on the path of writing novels. In seventh class I had already written a story which ran to nearly 80 pages. In my ninth grade, I wrote a story running into nearly 120 pages. Of course, I gradually lost momentum. But the fascination with books and writing stayed on with me. I continued writing short-stories and essays.
बातचीत : The first chapter in our tenth class Hindi reader, an essay by Pt. Ramchandra Shukla. It had tough  Hindi, arranged in thick paragraphs, all of almost equal length (each of nearly half a page). It analysed various aspects of talking. I found it very inspiring that a simple day to day topic could be picked and a deep analysis could be done on that. I also came to see essays as the purest form of intellectual expression unhindered by narrative forms or poetic rules. Essays are, for sure, my favourite form of serious communication.
अरे तू तो अच्छा गाता है यार! : My cousin, who I always used to think of as sort of a bully, who otherwise used to dismiss me as a studious moron, once remarked when I was casually humming something (a Kishore song). The experience of being thus noticed was so thrilling, I actually started attempting to do some serious singing. This has led to an heretofore unbroken association with music.
Water Colouring: Book by Milind Mulick inspired me to revive my love for water painting. As my juvenile attempts to paint failed, I was instigated to give up painting for 15 long years. I suffered with the idea that I had poor sense of colours. However, around 2005, my love for painting came back in all its glory after I came across the above work. Thereafter, I have continued to make small attempts. Slowly, but surely, I have made significant improvements.
Academic books: There are many academic books which have been major influences in shaping my academic interests. Resnick Halliday (Physics) probably is at the top. But there were others. William Hayt (Electromagnetic theory), D. V. Hall (Microprocessors), C by Ritchie and Kernighan (Programming), OOAD (Booch), Compilers (Aho, Ulman, Sethi), Economics by Samuelson (Economics).
Scientists: The earliest inspirations were Marie Curie, Addison, James Watt. I used to think then that scientists run the world. After you are too intelligent to become a prime-minister, you become a scientist. Therefore, I decided to become a scientist.
Rail Shunting: I always used to wonder how a train stays on a track, and how it jumps from one track to another. I had tried to observed both the make of train wheels and the design of shunting while travelling in trains. I had never been able to make a complete observation. In sixth class, I could work out a design on paper which seemed to work. I cycled several kilometres to the nearest rail-track to my house to verify my discovery. And to my great delight, I found that I had got it exactly right.
Philosophy: I first came across Swami Vivekananda's ideas in 1993 through my friend Abhijit, who, in his first year BTech in IITK had got involved in these things, and had shared with me his initial experiences. He had once said that it's possible not to feel cold by simply imagining that it's not cold. I had tried it, and had found it works. I then bought one of his books in a book fair. It costed me Rs. 55. My father called me mad. I read much of it, and was launched into the pursuit of philosophy. It also sowed the seeds of my interest in spirituality which I have kept veiled behind piles and piles of verbose philosophy.
Ancient Manuscripts: In some TV programme, I had come across images of ancient Indian manuscripts written on this leaflets which then were tied into little stacks with a string. That about around 1986. The idea of the painstaking effort with which ancient wise men had documented their knowledge, with crude writing instruments and surfaces, and no method of automatic copying, had a lasting influence on me. There was a period when I took to doing my homework using nib pens which needed me dip the pen in an ink-pot every now and then. That was probably in seventh standard. Well, I couldn't stick to that method of writing for long. But I managed never to let go of fountain pens. I still use one. I still struggle to write in a good handwriting. And the idea of a beautiful thought written in a beautiful hand still appears very beautiful to me. I still often find it more natural to make handwritten notes of my thoughts before I create an electronic version of my writings.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Love and Patriotism

In all these years, tomorrow's going to be the first Independence Day I will spend away from India. I don't know if I am missing my country. But I am missing today my home, my family, my people. I am missing my wife's chatter about her college lectures, my son's little antiques. I am missing the exhausted sigh I heave slumping down on the sofa on returning home from office after a heavy day, as if to breathe out all the tensions of life. I am missing the evening tea which, for me, stands as a pinnacle of affection and pampering care from my wife.

May sound melodramatic, but today I have been listening to the National Anthem since morning. It's bringing moisture to my eyes. I am even playing aamaar shonar bangla again and again. The images of rural Bengal, the ponds, the green fields, the mud huts, the palm and coconut trees -- the environs which I have never lived within, but have only visited and seen in pictures -- and those words of Tagore! Could a national anthem of a country be any more unassuming, any more innocent? It just says, 'I love you my Bengal!'

These tears of ecstasy aren't about patriotism. They flow in thankfulness for that divine blessing we humans have got which allows us to be aware of all the beauty that surrounds us. It needn't be for the richest nation of the world. It needn't be for the most popular tourist destination. It needn't be for the most beautiful person in the world. That beauty may lie in our poverty: in how we share our scanty provisions and help each other out through difficulty. In the sweat with which we build something together, however insignificant. That beauty could be in every little thing which makes us all happy and sad together.

Yesterday afternoon, I was walking through the university town of Ann Arbor. The fall semester is starting. I could see students moving into their apartments. Their parents helped them with the luggage. For fleeting moments, I could feel what they must be feeling. The nervousness and anticipation in the young heart. The strong pain of separation in the parents. The dirt in the new apartment. The chores of setting everything up. The experience of getting acquainted with a new roomie. There were students sitting around a table somewhere, doing their assignments probably. And there was a senior giving some orientation tips to freshmen at some street corner. The place appeared to me the most beautiful little corner of the world. It reminded me of IISc, Roorkee...and all my friends and all the good times.

Some time back, there was a brief phase when I almost believed that 'Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious' (Oscar Wilde). But he must have been talking about its bellicose variant which drives people to wage wars on others. Probably, that variant happens only when you think your nation is great and it needs to be greater still.
Love doesn't arise from the sense of greatness of the object of love, but from the fineness of our sensitivity  for little details of beauty. Your beloved mayn't be the most beautiful in the world; but it doesn't diminish the truth in your saying you love her. Your child mayn't be cutest; but that doesn't reduce the satisfaction you get from embracing him. Your life mayn't be a shining example of success; but you may still serve it, love it. When someone builds a house, he falls in love with it, however small and dingy that house may be. The love resides in his awareness of each brick he has laid, each ounce of mud he has used as cement, each straw he has collected to make the thatch.

The ability to be aware of the all pervading beauty also serves us to stay away from becoming overly footloose. If there is something specific that takes us afar, well and good. But if the absence of something here takes us there, we will probably never stop shuttling here and there. Before setting out on a journey to faraway lands, it's good to make sure to some extent that the absence, the void, is not within ourselves. It takes effort to grow the ability to find that thing you are looking for right where you are, preferably within yourself. That's love. That's patriotism.

This day, I am separated only for a brief episode from my wife, my child, my country. Tomorrow morning, for the first time in life, I will not hear the Independence Day celebrations and National Anthem playing at some nearby school. But, I am happy I played the national anthem today. I am happy I am thinking about my dear ones today. I wish I could preserve those two drops that escaped my eyes today. Because they are full of love. Those precious two drops are full of the feeling of being alive.