Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Rereading Monsignor Quixote


It was in 1988 that I read Graham Greene for the first time. And the novel was Monsignor Quixote. I have since read almost all the novels of Greene, but, in 1988, I didn’t quite know what kind of writer Greene was. All the same, I was as fascinated by the “adventures” of Monsignor Quixote, who seemed a modern counterpart of his illustrious ancestor, Don Quixote, in Miguel de Cervantes’s novel of the same name, as I felt stimulated by the food for thought Greene offered in the novel. It was this novel which led me to the other novels of Greene, especially The Power and the Glory, and a couple of biographies of Greene, the most sensational among them being Michael Sheldon’s The Man Within.  It was a pleasure to read Monsignor Quixote again after about a quarter century last week, and I thought I must write about it here.

But, before I write about Monsignor Quixote, let me give an account of what happens in its 407-year-old literary forebear, Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. Since it was first published in Spanish on January 16, 1605, the book, acclaimed as the world's "first modern novel" and the "first best-seller", has been translated into more than 60 languages.  Throughout these 400-odd years, the novel has been avidly read in different languages by the young and the old alike, and its hero, Don Quixote, "the Knight of the Doleful Countenance", and his little squire, Sancho Panza, have remained two of the most fascinating characters in all fiction.

Misguided by books on knight-errantry, Quixada, a lantern-jawed and lanky Spanish gentleman of about fifty, decides to become a knight-errant.  He clambers into an old, creaky suit of armour.  A barber's bowl serves as a helmet.  A pitiful beast, all skin and bones, which he names Rocinante, is his steed.  The name Quixada will no longer do; he calls himself Don Quixote de La Mancha!  The "knight" is all set to go forth in quest of adventure, righting wrongs and rescuing damsels in distress.

Two things, however, are still missing.  A knight needs a fair lady to be in love.  Quixote soon finds one in a farm-girl to whom he gives the name "Dulcinea del Toboso".  Next, he needs to be knighted.  He achieves it under comic circumstances.  He arrives at an inn, which he imagines is a castle, and attacks a pair of muleteers there.  When he wins that ridiculous battle, the landlord "knights" him to get rid of him. 

On his first "expedition", Don Quixote launches an attack on a group of taunting merchants.  Unfortunately, Rocinante stumbles and falls, leaving the knight to roll away.  The merchants break his lance into several bits and beat him with them. 

After two weeks' rest, the gallant knight sets out on another expedition with a simple yokel called Sancho Panza accompanying him as a squire.  Soon, they come across a number of windmills which Don Quixote imagines are giants.  He charges at them.  But his lance sticks into a spinning sail and he gets hurled across the plain.  Never one to accept defeat, Quixote alleges that an evil spirit which did not want to see his victory has in the last moment changed the giants into windmills!  After several such misadventures, the armoured lunatic and his unquestioning squire return home, battered and bleeding.

Soon, Quixote sets off on yet another expedition – the third and the last.  The entire second part of the novel is devoted to his comic adventures on the third expedition at the end of which Quixada dies – but not before realizing that he is not a knight after all.  Before his death, he bequeaths his estate to his young niece, but adds a word of caution in the will: 'She should marry a man of whom she has first had evidence that he does not even know what books of chivalry are.'

Don Quixote is one of the masterpieces of world literature.  Miguel de Cervantes, the genius who produced this work, is now well-known and honoured all over the world.  But when he died about a decade after the novel had been published, he died in utter poverty and was given a pauper’s funeral.

Now, Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote. Set in Spain, the novel recounts the adventures of a humble Roman Catholic priest who, in a characteristic confusion of fact and fiction, believes that he is a descendent of Don Quixote, "the Knight of the Doleful Countenance."

In a comic turn of events, Father Quixote, living in his parish in El Toboso, gets promoted to the rank of Monsignor. This happens thanks to an Italian bishop who, when stranded by the breakdown of his car in El Toboso, has been much impressed by Father Quixote’s ability to fix his car – by simply discovering that the car has run out of petrol!  When the letter of promotion arrives from the Vatican, Father Quixote’s bishop, who has long since dismissed Fr Quixote as nothing short of an idiot, is outraged. At Father Quixote’s request, he grants him leave of absence and sends a young priest, Father Herrera, to replace the old priest in the parish. Monsignor Quixote sets out in the company of the Communist ex-Mayor of El Toboso, whom he calls Sancho, in the former’s old Fiat, which he calls Rocinante after his ancestor’s steed. Also accompany them on this “adventurous” journey are a few cases of the local wine, adequate amounts of cheese and sausage, books like St. Francis de Sales, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa (which correspond to Don Quixote’s old books of chivalry), a work by Father Heribert Jone on moral theology, which is frequently referred to in the novel in the discussions between the priest and the mayor, and a copy of The Communist Manifesto.

At the very beginning of the journey, there is an interesting argument about the Holy Trinity. Father Quixote attempts to explain it, using the wine bottles they have recently emptied as illustrations.  Before long, he realizes that he has committed the sin of heresy because he allocated two full-sized bottles to the Father and the Son and only a half-bottle to the Holy Spirit!

Greene packs the novel with several "adventures" many of which are reminiscent of those in Cervantes’s novel.  For instance, when the priest and the ex-mayor incur the wrath of Guardia Civil, the mayor compares the state police to the windmills with whom the knight tilted. Similarly, when Father Quixote helps a robber escape the Guardia, the reader is reminded of the Don’s freeing of the galley slaves.

The “adventures” of Monsignor Quixote reach the ears of his bishop who is scandalized by the priest’s association with a known Communist, Father Quixote's run-ins with the Guardia Civil and his stay in a brothel, which the innocent priest thought was a very friendly hotel. The bishop concludes that Father Quixote has gone mad, and arranges for him to be abducted and brought back to El Toboso where he is kept locked in his own room. The mayor, however, comes back and helps him escape (the escape itself is comic: even as the mayor makes desperate attempts to break the door open, the priest simply jumps out through the window!) The rest of the novel is about their escape from El Toboso and their further adventures concluding with the performance of a hallucinatory mass by Father Quixote and his death.

A convert to Catholicism as well as one attracted towards Marxism, Greene, was however, evidently uneasy about the submission to authority both of them (Catholicism and Marxism) demanded and seemed to favour heterodoxy. Some of his so-called Catholic novels – ‘Catholic? Nonsense. Greene was, if anything, anti-Catholic, and so are his novels!’ Sheldon, his biographer, would say  – skirt heresy: the whisky priest finding sin “fascinating” in The Power and the Glory and the apparent sanctioning of Scobie’s suicide in The Heart of the Matter are just two instances.  In an interesting passage in Monsignor Quixote, the mayor who, like Graham Greene himself, cannot resist feminine charm, asks Father Quixote, who is unmoved by women, whether he has never been troubled by sexual desires. ‘Never,’ says the priest. ‘You are a lucky man,’ says the mayor. 'Am I?’ the priest questions himself. ‘Or am I the most unfortunate?  ... How can I pray to resist evil when I am not even tempted? ...’  And he prays: ‘O God, make me human, let me feel temptation. Save me from my indifference.'  In all his novels, Greene shows great understanding of – and sympathy towards – human weakness.

‘A devastating blend of humour and sharp insight,’ said New Statesman when the novel was published in 1982. I couldn’t agree more.

Monsignor Quixote is the last of the fourteen novels I have read during this vacation. The vacation is, alas, coming to an end. Having accepted invitations to run two ELT workshops in the second week of June, I must now brace myself for the task. How I wish I had more time to read fiction!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Some reflections on little magazines


A little magazine in English, called the little magazine (that's the name of the magazine – in little letters with no capitals!), I came across at the Vijayawada Book Festival in January 2005 made me think about the history of the little magazine movement. I put down in my diary the information I had collected as well as my thoughts on the subject. I chanced upon the notes this morning while looking for something else, and it was a pleasure to read the diary entry seven years after it had been recorded.

The term "little magazine" can be applied to a range of different publications, but it is often used with reference to literary magazines which carry serious writings.  The writings are usually avant-garde and non-commercial and may not be acceptable to mainstream publications either because they deviate from the established moral or aesthetic norms, or because the writers are little known.

The aim of the earliest little magazines published in the late nineteenth century was to establish a literary movement.  In the twentieth century, the little magazine became a fixture in the cultural and political life of several nations, especially, the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany.  The first three decades of the century saw two kinds of little magazines – those which laid emphasis on literary and aesthetic form and theory, and left-wing magazines.  To the former belong Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, edited by Harriet Monroe and Ezra Pound; Others, edited by Margaret Anderson; and Dial, edited by Marianne Moore.  The most significant of the proletarian or left-wing magazines was The Masses, published from New York.

The little magazines published since the 1940s have been supported and sustained by writers in academic circles.  Two of the most noteworthy examples are The Kenyon Review, founded by John Crowe Ransom in 1939, and Scrutiny, edited by FR Leavis.

Several famous writers have had their first publication in little magazines.  The list includes T S Eliot, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway, and James Joyce.  Joyce's Ulysses had its first US printing in The Little Review, after which the magazine was completely broke!

How is the Indian little magazine scene?  In the last quarter of the twentieth century, hundreds of little magazines were being brought out in different languages.  Printed on the cheapest possible paper, on presses run by printer's devils, they were a real eye-sore.  While most of them have disappeared for want of readership, some still survive.  They not only survive but have taken an attractive form, thanks to the institutional support they receive from some publishers.  I have watched with amazement the evolution of Kanaiyazhi, a little magazine in Tamil to which I was a subscriber for two-and-a-half decades and an occasional contributor.  I no longer subscribe to it, having switched my loyalty to two other little magazines, Subhamangala, which was wound up a few years ago when its editor, Komal Swaminathan died, and Kalachuvadu, published from Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu, but Kanaiyazhi is so attractive in its modern avatar that it doesn't look a little magazine at all!

The little magazine I came across at the book festival is very well produced with a variety of engaging features and is edited with great competence by Antara Dev Sen, formerly Senior Editor with the Hindustan Times.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Project on peer feedback


The Loyola English Language Teaching (ELT) Centre, which was established in 2008 at Andhra Loyola College to promote professionalism in ELT, has done a significant project entitled, ‘Towards an Alternative Form of Corrective Feedback on ESL Learners’ Writings’. On the year-long (August 2011 – March 2012) project, the Centre field-tested its hypothesis about the efficacy of peer correction of, and feedback on, undergraduate students’ compositions in English and demonstrated peer feedback as a viable alternative to teacher correction/feedback. As the Director of the ELT Centre, I headed the project. 

Background to the project
Writing occupies an important place in any English (as a second/foreign language) course at school or college level: students are required to do a great deal of writing. But, unless students’ compositions are corrected and they are given feedback on their writing, the set writing activities may not be of much value in improving their writing skills. Besides, students may not take the set tasks seriously because they know that their compositions are not going to be read.

It is here that most schools and colleges in this country are faced with a problem. While both setting writing tasks for students and correcting students’ compositions are considered necessary by both teachers of English and educational systems, correction (or even feedback without correction) appears to be a formidable task for teachers of English.

The Centre sent a team of English Literature students to survey the prevailing practices in the correction of students’ compositions in different schools. The team reported three types of practices which, they claimed, were typical. Some teachers did not set any writing task at all. Some did set writing tasks, but their correction was unsystematic:  once the writing was over, they asked some of the students at random to read out their writings and offered oral feedback. A few teachers not only set writing tasks but also took the compositions home / to the staffroom, but they did not seem to correct them; they simply put a tick mark in the margin and signed and returned the “corrected” compositions in the next class. Teacher correction thus appeared to be by and large a perfunctory exercise, especially at college level where it was almost non-existent. There was, therefore, need to find an alternative approach to the correction of student’s compositions – an approach that was relatively both effective and viable.

Peer correction promised to offer such an alternative.  The ELT Centre drew inspiration from the proven effectiveness of peer work in teaching and mentoring in progressive educational environments, and believed that what was true of teaching and mentoring was likely to be true of correction/feedback also. The Centre, which had successfully conducted a small-scale experiment in peer correction/feedback on a pilot basis in 2010-2011, decided to do a large-scale one to validate the findings of the earlier experiment.

Project methodology
The experiment was conducted with all the 699 students of Stream B of the second-year General English course at Andhra Loyola College (ALC). These 699 students were divided into 79 groups of eight or nine students each.  Seventy-nine senior students of Andhra Loyola College from the English Literature and Stream A sections with good writing abilities in English volunteered to work as student-teachers on the project. Each of the student teachers was allotted one group of eight or nine students. I trained the student-teachers in correction procedures and feedback techniques both in a workshop for all the groups and in different informal meetings with each group. 

During the academic year (2011-2012), the ELT Centre set a series of writing tasks for the 79 student groups, and they were administered by the class teachers in the regular classroom itself. Once the writing tasks were completed, the class teachers handed over the compositions to the 79 student-teachers. The student teachers took two days to correct the compositions using the procedures and techniques the Project Director had taught them. Then they met their respective groups of students in a tutorial session (referred to as a “feedback session” on the project) in which they explained the corrections to the students and gave them feedback on their compositions.  The students redrafted the compositions in the light of the feedback, and the redrafted compositions were also corrected by the student-teachers.

The Results
  • Five aspects of the students’ writings [namely, content, organization, language (both vocabulary and grammar), spelling and punctuation] were rigorously assessed on a 10-point scale. The assessment showed that, by and large, there was improvement and that the improvement was incremental.
  • A senior lecturer from the Department of English, ALC, re-marked a few student-teacher-corrected compositions of each group. The differences were insignificant. This negligible difference, which is likely even if the compositions are marked by two experienced teachers, showed that the peer marking was almost as effective as teacher marking.
  • A questionnaire was administered to the students in the experiment to ascertain their perceptions of the improvement, if any, they had made in their writing abilities on account of the peer correction and oral feedback. The self-perception of the improvements (to a great/some extent) was: 90.6% in content, 70.5 in organization, 81% in language, and 87.5% in spelling and punctuation. While the others reported improvement only to a limited extent, 3 – 12% reported no improvement at all in organization and grammar.
  • In a questionnaire survey, the student-teachers reported an extremely positive view of the experiment: a vast majority of them (88%) said that the work did not involve any problems at all; 80% of them said that they had had negligible amount of difficulty in finding time for the correction and the oral feedback; 73% claimed that the experiment demanded considerable preparation, thanks to which their own writing abilities and leadership skills (e.g. how to undertake a responsibility and how to manage it) had improved.
  • A discussion with the class teachers revealed (a) that they were satisfied with both the improvements their students had made and the efficacy of peer correction and feedback; and (b) that they certainly favoured an alternative to teacher feedback and that they were convinced that peer feedback represented a viable alternative.
The study even seems to suggest that peer feedback has at least three advantages over teacher feedback:
  • In a peer correction situation, the face-to-face feedback session takes place in a friendly atmosphere which can enhance the scope for discussion as well as clarification and the consequent learning value. This is hardly likely in a teacher correction situation.
  • In a feedback session with student-teachers, attention can be paid to each individual student, considering that each student-teacher has a small number of students (not more than 9 in the ELT Centre’s study). This is not possible in a teacher-conducted class of 40-60.
  • In a teacher correction situation, the student does not write with freedom because he is conscious of the fact that he will be read and corrected by the teacher. But, in a peer correction situation, the student knows that his reader will be a peer which allows him to write with a sense of independence and even identity. This helps him speak in his own voice in his writing. In other words, peer correction provides student writers with something writers need primarily, namely, an audience.
Conclusion
The project was undertaken in order to find a viable solution to a problem both teachers of English and students are facing: while teachers of English are finding it difficult to do justice to their correction of students’ compositions, learners are not able to make progress in their writing skills with a sense of direction owing to either absence of feedback or inadequate feedback.  The Loyola ELT Centre proposes an evidence-based solution, namely, peer feedback. The Centre hopes that colleges and schools will find the Loyola model, which has been field-tested and found acceptable to the parties concerned, worth experimenting with.

Schools and colleges which are interested in peer feedback may contact the ELT Centre. The Centre, which does consultancy work in ELT, will be glad to conduct workshops on peer correction/feedback for teachers of English.

The Hindu : FEATURES / EDUCATION PLUS : Innovative project from Loyola

The Hindu : FEATURES / EDUCATION PLUS : Innovative project from Loyola

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Men of letters and moral degeneracy


Hilaire Belloc once wrote: 'When I am dead, I hope it may be said / His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.'  I don't think Belloc's books are widely read now, but his "sins" were far from scarlet.  His only fault, if at all, was his anti-Semitism.  But there are several writers whose books are widely read and whose sins are outrageous.

Francis Bacon, the father of the essay in English, had all the unworthy qualities of a Renaissance politician except debauchery.  As Lord Chancellor, he committed a number of shameful acts in order to please King James and the Duke of Buckingham.  He was finally found guilty of corruption and removed from the high position. Christopher Marlowe's case was worse: he was stabbed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab.  Alexander Pope, who criticised Bacon as "the meanest of mankind", did something which Bacon would have called underhand treachery: he took money to keep a woman's name out of a satire and then wrote a piece so that she could still be recognized anyhow.

The profession of letters has always had a plentiful stock of libertines and lechers.  Oliver Goldsmith earned about 400 pounds a year.  But he needed three times as much for paying court to venal beauties and for gambling.  That this "genuine vagabond", as his biographers so affectionately describe him, was the most unskilful of all gamblers is beside the point.  The playwright Oscar Wilde, who is noted for his brilliant epigrams, was a sodomite.  Guy de Maupassant, the supreme exponent of the short story and one of my favourite writers, had only one foot in high society; the other foot was always in the gutter.  He kept a parrot which was trained to shriek rude greetings at women visitors!  And he died of syphilis. 

Andre Gide, author of the famous book, If It Die, and the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947, was a homosexual.  His book, Corydon, is an apologia for homosexuality.  Graham Greene was a pathological liar and a callous womanizer, if his biographers are to be believed.  His biography, Graham Greene: The Enemy Within, by Michael Sheldon, not only does justice to his lecherous escapades but gives the lie to the popular belief that he is a Catholic novelist.  Byron's case was worse: he was accused of incest.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge tops the list of illustrious drug addicts.  Edgar Allen Poe was a high-ranking alcoholic.  Dylan Thomas, who wrote some of the memorable lines in English poetry (e.g. 'The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/ Drives my green age.') never parted company with Comdrade Bottle.  It was, in fact, his heavy drinking that brought about his untimely death at the age of 39.  DBC Pierre, whose novel, Vernon God Little, won the Man Booker Prize in 2003, was addicted not only to alcohol but to several other things.  He was known to his friends as "Dirty Pierre".  The list is endless.

Is moral degeneracy endemic to the profession of letters? I don't think so. I should like to believe that for every degenerate among creative writers, there are many who can be called paragons of honesty and uprightness.



Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The problem with the Fowlerian precepts


The King's English is one of my favourite books.  Written by H W Fowler and his younger brother, F G Fowler, and published in 1906, this epoch-making book has enjoyed a great deal of scholarly attention in the past 106 years.  "It took the world by storm", said The Times about the book, while paying tribute to H W Fowler on the occasion of his death.  This century-old book, which made Fowler a household name in all English-speaking countries, still makes stimulating reading.

A couple of weeks ago, I had occasion to thumb again the yellowing pages of the musty, old copy of The King's English in my college library.  The purpose was to pick up some Fowlerian rules for use in a guest-lecture I was expected to give.  The book was as good a read as it had always been on earlier occasions, but I was not sure whether I could use the Fowler brothers' hand-me-downs in my lecture.  I, therefore, turned to another favourite, Alan Warner's A Short Guide to English Style, and found it a better fit.

Why did the Fowlerian precepts disappoint me?  I will answer the question with reference to four of the Fowler brothers' "practical rules in the domain of vocabulary".

"Prefer the concrete word to the abstract" is one of the precepts.  On the face of it, it is sound advice because abstract words are, after all, enemies of precise expression.  But not quite sound, if you examine it carefully.  We often talk about our – and other people's – attitudes and feelings.  We will not be able to talk about them, if we decide to use only concrete words for joy and sorrow and love and anger.

"Prefer the single word to the circumlocution", say the Fowler brothers.  "No" is certainly preferable to the pedantic "The answer is in the negative."  But there are situations in which "No" would be considered blunt and therefore impolite.  Whether one should use the single word or the periphrasis depends on the context or the occasion.

"Prefer the short word to the long" is the third rule.  I do like short words, but, as a writer, I have often found long words more effective than short words in the expression of emotional ideas.  "Stupendous" and "magnificent" are much more powerful than "large" and "grand".

The last rule is: "Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance."  In other words, avoid Latin derivations where native words can serve the purpose.  It is a lame-duck rule, as Michael Beresford points out in his Modern English.  Even at the time of publication of The King's English, the distinction between the Anglo-Saxon element and the Latin element had ceased to be of any importance.  And now, in the context of what David Crystal calls "World Englishes", the cry for Saxon English or the pedigree of English words would only be a voice in the wilderness.

"Break any of those rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous", said George Orwell, author of Animal Farm, four decades later.  He was a very sensible man.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What English has done to other languages


I hadn’t heard about International Mother Tongue Day until 2004 when I took part in a Mother Tongue Day celebration at which, however, no light was thrown on the significance of observing February 21 as Mother Tongue Day.  Later, I learnt that, in the year 1999, UNESCO had declared February 21 as International Mother Language Day in response to a request from Bangladesh.  On February 21, 1952, in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), the police opened fire on a mass-rally demanding the declaration of their mother tongue, Bangla, as a state language of Pakistan, and a few young men who took part in the rally died of gunshot wounds.  Bangladesh still observes the day as Martyrs’ Day.  Incidentally, the love and respect that these language martyrs had aroused for their mother tongue, Bangla, laid the foundation for the war of liberation in Bangladesh.

One has the right to use one’s language and one has the right to maintain and develop one’s culture.  These are inalienable personal rights, according to UNESCO’s Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights.  But there are millions of people all over the world who have “lost” their mother tongues by opting to study, right from their childhood, through the medium of English, the language of opportunities, and by opting for, in addition, a dominant language other than their mother-tongue.  This has led to the marginalization of thousands of languages, particularly tribal languages, all over the world.  It is for this reason that language right activists call English a “killer language”.

How serious is this problem?  Here are some facts.  Alawa, in northern Australia, has only about 20 fluent speakers left.  Achumavi, in northern California, has just 10 elderly speakers.  There was only one speaker of Eyak in the year 2004 and he was 84 years old at the time!  Jiwali has no native speakers at all; the last native speaker died in 1986.  Manx as a native language became extinct in 1900 on the Isle of Man.

In the South Asian region, a number of languages are likely to become extinct in the near future.  In India, according to the 1961 census, there are only 98 speakers of Agariya and 17 speakers of Andamanese.  In Pakistan, there are only 250 speakers of Khowar.  In Bangladesh, Kumi is spoken by just 2000 people.  In Nepal, Kumal and Byangsi have only 1000 speakers each. 

In my own state, Andhra Pradesh, the study of the mother tongue, Telugu, has been made compulsory only recently. Until then, the tendency had been to avoid Telugu even as a Part I language in schools and colleges.  In English-medium schools, English was the medium of instruction and Hindi was the Part I language for hundreds of young people.  This was true of all the other southern states. (Tamil Nadu, which did not opt for the three-language formula, is perhaps an exception.)  Even though the study of the mother tongue has been made compulsory, people are by and large indifferent to the mother tongue. Mother tongue illiteracy is, therefore, an alarming problem.  At the global level, it is even more alarming.  According to a prediction by Krauss, a linguist, this century will see either the death or the doom of 90% of mankind’s languages.  They will be alive only in language documents and on the web. 

“Linguistic genocide”, “linguicide”, “language death” – the obiturial terminology is frightening.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Plain, evocative -- and non-vegetarian!


'Patient Pursuit of the Possible' was the title of the introductory chapter of a PhD thesis that came to me for editing last month.  I replaced that alliterative but vague title with a plain one: 'Introduction to the Study'.  The title of the last chapter ('Paradigm Shift') was extravagantly grand.  I put a circle round it and wrote 'Conclusion'.  The titles were elegant phrases, borrowed from J S Bruner in the case of the first one, and Thomas Kuhn in the case of the second.  But the problem with them was that they didn't fit in: they didn't indicate the central idea of the respective chapters.

It is difficult to find a title that is fitting as well as evocative.  The Grapes of Wrath, the title of a novel by John Steinbeck, is at once both.  In the closing scene of the novel, it is raining heavily, and Rose of Sharon, who has just been delivered of a still-born baby, is being carried along the high road by Pa and Uncle John.  They see a barn and take her inside. They find an old man lying there with a boy bending over him.  The boy says, "He ain't ate for days – reckon he’ll die unless he gets soup or milk."  Rose of Sharon lies down by the old man, undoes her dress and pulls his head down to her breast.  "You got to", she says and her face lights up with a mysterious smile.  The title, taken from 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' is itself a reference to Revelation.  Rose of Sharon, who gives life to the old man, is the Beloved of the Song of Songs "whose breasts are like unto a cluster of grapes", the Beloved who says: "Take, eat: this is My Body…"

If It Die, the title of an autobiographical fragment by Andre Gide, is reminiscent of St John's Gospel ("Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit) as well as Rousseau's Confessions.  Here are a few other titles that are evocative: A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Power and the Glory, The Sound and the Fury, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The God of Small Things.

A good number of literary masterpieces have very simple titles.  Tolstoy's tour de force, which is recognized as the greatest novel in world literature, has a plain title: War and Peace.  Dr Zhivago is plainer than that.  Animal Farm and 1984, the titles of Orwell's famous novels, are matter-of-fact.  Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are some of the most fascinating books in world literature, but their titles are colourless.  But the books urge you to raise the old Shakespearian question: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet." 

Some books are a real feast, but their titles turn my vegetarian stomach.  But I'm developing a stronger stomach, particularly after reading Chicken Soup for the Soul.  In any case, I'd prefer such books to those whose titles are as pleasing as vegetarian food but the content revolting.

Monday, April 9, 2012

An autobiography that makes amends


For decades I had nursed a prejudice against Sir Winston Churchill.  The prejudice was largely due to what Churchill had said in the House of Commons during the debate on the Indian Independence Bill.  "Liberty is man's birthright", he began on a noble note, but descended soon to the depths of insensitivity: "However, to pass on the reins of the government to the Congress at this juncture is to hand over the destiny of hungry millions into the hands of rascals, rogues and freebooters… India will take a thousand years to know the periphery of the philosophy of politics.  Today we hand over the government to men of straw of whom no trace will be found in a few years."

My prejudice remained as deep-rooted as before even after I had read about Churchill's attempt to make amends for his insensitive remarks by praising one of those "men of straw".  "When you write to your Prime Minister, Mr Nehru", he said to the Indian High Commissioner in Ottawa, "tell him I think he is one of the greatest men in contemporary history.  He has accomplished two things that men can accomplish: he has conquered prejudice, and he has conquered fear."

What this penitential note didn't achieve, his book did.  Churchill's autobiography, which I read 82 years after the book had been published in 1930, showed him in a new light.  Emerging from the pages of My Early Life is a deeply sensitive and cultured young man whose battles to educate himself don't fail to strike a chord with the reader.

"Menaced with education" is Churchill's description of his initial contact with formal education.  The first bitter blow came from a governess with sinister looks, and the next, a literal one this time, from the headmaster of a boarding school where he had been sent.  Fortunately for Winston, he had already discovered the joys of reading, and he turned to books to seek relief from the distress caused by Greek and Latin which his masters taught with the "large resources of compulsion" at their disposal.  Then he went to another school where he was taught everything he liked – history,   French, poetry, riding, and swimming.  He was detained in the Fourth Form for as long as possible, and he was happy about it: it helped him master the English language!  "I got into my bones", he says, "the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence -- which is a noble thing."

After Sandhurst, Winston, 22 now, began his army career in India.  Having plenty of spare time on his hands in Bangalore, he spent about five hours a day reading the great classics on history, economics, and philosophy.  He devoured the eight volumes of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and went on to Macaulay and learnt all the Lays of Ancient Rome by heart.  It was followed by Macaulay's History and Essays, Plato's Republic, Darwin's Origin of Species, Malthus's  On Population

Churchill was well known as a master of words.  My Early Life vouches for it.  What it also vouches for is the fact that he was a self-educated man.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

What is high about our higher education?


In today’s The Chronicle of Higher Education, published from Washington DC, USA, I came across an interesting article entitled, ‘In Search of India’s Missing Professors,’ by P Pushkar, who is a research fellow at the Institute for International Development at McGill University.  The article would have one believe that alarm bells are ringing in Indian higher education. ‘There are reports,’ says Pushkar, ‘that India faces a shortage of 300,000 faculty members in its universities and colleges. It is estimated that the shortage will increase at the rate of 100,000 each year. These are big numbers even for a country of one billion-plus people and counting. What is remarkable is that the faculty shortage is serious not only in poor-quality public universities and colleges, but even at the world-class Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). The truth is that, with some exceptions, higher education is in deep rot. India simply does not produce a sufficient number of high-quality PhDs. Not surprisingly, the IITs and the IIMs are trying to recruit Indians from abroad to fill faculty positions. It remains to be seen, however, how many will actually take up such jobs. Here in North America or in the UK, there is no dearth of Indians with Ph.Ds who distinguish themselves in teaching and research. Few, however, want to teach in India, not even at the IITs and the IIMs. The motto for Indians abroad–certainly those in academe–is still “anywhere but India”.’

Pushkar raises an interesting question: ‘How has such a large and populous country, and one where education is highly valued, reached a point where it cannot find faculty members for its most venerable institutions?’ This is his answer: ‘The problem is in part about salaries. According to a study by Philip G  Altbach of Boston College and Jamil Salmi of the World Bank on academic institutions around the world, salaries at the IITs are “ridiculously low” compared to IIT graduates who go into the private sector. They could have added that salaries are also “seriously low” compared to salaries in Western or world-class Eastern universities, even adjusted for the lower cost of living in India.’

This is how Pushkar concludes his article: ‘India’s political leaders do not seem to appreciate the extent of the faculty crisis. Mostly, there is a lot of talk and ambitious plans about reforming higher education. They need to first try and change the way Indians think about the profession. That and better salaries, especially to attract qualified faculty for the IITs, IIMs, and the all-too-few other quality institutions. Until then, Indians will prefer to teach on North American, British, and Australian campuses.’

These are my reflections on Pushkar's article:

Except for the sensational headline ('In search of India's "missing" professors), the article is a fairly accurate picture of the abysmal situation in India. Jairam Ramesh's observation about the so-called excellence of the IITs and the IIMs was not a tongue-in-cheek remark; it was a perceptive observation which the minister had the courage to articulate, even though political compulsions made him retract it later. Several decades ago, one of the Indian Vice-Chancellors, V V John, who never minced words, put it even more bluntly: 'There is nothing high about our higher education.' 'It cannot be brought lower,' he might say if he had lived to see the abysmal depths to which higher education has sunk in India over the past quarter century.

I think it is not just better salaries and better living conditions that have forced talented people to emigrate to countries like the USA, Singapore and the Gulf. Indian higher education doesn't just have the environment in which self-respecting people can breathe easily. One of my friends who is teaching abroad once said, 'I would not go back to teach in India even if they doubled my pay.' And he gave two reasons for not going back to India: political interference and a hierarchical atmosphere in which the head of the department or the Principal acts like a feudal lord. There is room for all this in our academia because it consists predominantly of lowbrows. At the lower rungs of the higher education ladder, where you find State-funded universities and colleges, the situation is much worse. As a teacher in one of those colleges who rejected an opportunity to work in a foreign university early on in my 30-year-long career and stayed behind, I have often been a victim of thuggish brutality for standing up for intellectual freedom.  About a decade ago, I was forced to resign as the Head of the Department of English in my college, and, a few months ago, I was abused ("Bloody fellow!" shouted a lecturer, advancing menacingly towards me) by some of my colleagues at an official meeting in my college and threatened with violence.  This is by no means an isolated incident; colleges and universities have by and large become a haven for idle gossip, calumny, slander and what have you.

Research, which Pushkar’s article talks about in passing, is one of the sordid aspects of Indian higher education. Some years ago, I spent a few days with Professor Helen Christiansen from Canada who was an authority on second language acquisition and who was a research examiner for some of the prestigious Indian universities. When I asked her about her perception of the state of research in India, she told me with no hesitation that, without a single exception, the PhD dissertations she had received for assessment from India were third rate. And she took pains to justify her remark. 

Helen was blunt. And what she said hurt my national pride. But the fact remains that we, Indians, are a nation of third-rate researchers. Much of what goes on in the name of research in our universities cannot stand up to close scrutiny. The recently-reported case of plagiarism in Indian academia is just a tip of the iceberg. I have refused to evaluate several MPhil and PhD dissertations and asked the universities which had sent them to spare me the agony in future.


I shall conclude with an amusing anecdote which can demonstrate how appallingly lowbrow Indian academia is. Once I attended a scholarly lecture on research methodology which, I thought, was brilliant. The audience consisted of college teachers most of whom were engaged in either MPhil or PhD research. Behind me was a row of lecturers who launched into an hour-long natter minutes after the lecture began. In front of me were several rows of teachers, some chatting, some snoozing, and some with a bored expression of their faces. My own row was kept awake by the loud snores that came from a senior lecturer seated beside me!