Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Chancellor's Cabbie and Ours by Chance!

“The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly - it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” 

Joseph Goebbels

This, as we all know has been the operational plank of the FYUP (task) force headed by the Vice -Chancellor of Delhi University. Today, as part of a discussion on FYUP we had the privilege of listening to the Vice -Chancellor in person as opposed to hearing him speak out of the idiot-box. Many people want to know why some of us continue to protest and turn up for rallies and demonstrations and television shows when the writing on the wall is so clear.

Teachers responsible for enabling young adults to think and learn in a free and unbiased space, have consented to be part of a decision making process that is neither free nor fair. When the mantle of greatness fell upon them, they wrapped it around themselves leaving everything else out in the cold. Expediency and pragmatism aside, the good that comes from collective energy has been lost.
It is inconceivable that teachers are not saddened by the short shrift given to syllabi framing or by the inter-departmental and intra-departmental ugliness this has generated. So for all those who received the gift of an extraordinary education from Delhi University, this continues to be time for introspection and action.

Today's talk show, after several repetitive points had been aired, unveiled a new story. A taxi-driver of Indian origin had a heart to heart with our Vice Chancellor. Discovering that he was speaking to the first citizen of Delhi University,the taxi driver divulged that he was a DU graduate! In an unnamed American city , this DU alumnus egged the VC on to do something about the undergraduate programs at Delhi University.

One quick thinking young lad responded that this taxi -driver had changed the course of Delhi University.The VC replied correctly on principle that it was important to factor the opinion of taxi drivers as higher education must be accessible to every citizen of this country, whatever occupation s\ he chooses.

 Post- show, we were dropped home in a taxi by the media channel that had invited us and while we discussed the story of the American cabbie animatedly, the man at the wheel introduced himself as a graduate from Delhi university. This is a story of a taxi driver from Delhi Universty who never made it to America.
Bhim Raj passed out of the B.Com program in 1982, worked as a sales representative for two years, and then set up a rubber roller unit. This industrial unit shut shop due to the Pollution Control Act of 1996. Subsequently, Bhimraj did trading in rubber rollers for a while but made little money. Despite owning some land he lacks the capital to set up a new industrial unit.

Bhimraj has been  with Aaj Tak since 2004. Coming from a very modest background, (he mentioned that his father was a labourer) Bhimraj has been unable to send his son Sachin to college. Sachin works as a pest controller after having completed class XII. Bhimraj's daughter Anjali is in the first year of college. Her college fees, Bhimraj disclosed took away a whole month's earnings. When we explained the FYUP to him, his response was, "It is very difficult to send children to college , how will we be able to afford the burden of an extra year?" How we wished Bhimraj had been on the show. A graduate and entrepreneur; Delhi University's three year annual course, without the improved program courses  had worked for him! (The pollution board and cash registers still remain outside the university's domain.)

This more pertinent story must be brought to the notice of the VC and his classmates in law(Sibal) politics(Tharoor) and news(Dasgupta). FYUP, gentlemen can do very little for Bhimraj's sons and daughters. There is little data on the countless Indians whom the university has nurtured and enabled, but maybe you need to sift through it? Else, university education will become costlier and inaccessible for the many. It will hold in thrall for an extra year the few that can afford the luxury. These few will be poorly trained as all the disciplines have been watered down and lack  academic rigor.

Why is this being allowed to happen?
Not good enough,  Tharoor, to say that universities must be allowed to experiment and fail. We are dealing with real lives here, Sir, not lobotomized laboratory rats( now in disuse)!
Best time for teachers and students says the University Don who has been away from undergraduate teaching for over thirty years! With truncated syllabi, made in haste and secrecy and zero infrastructure? We really think not!
Teachers shirk and don't teach says the journalist. Take your eyes off the old cliches of news-speak and understand that teaching time has shrunk from the annual mode to the semester! It is poised to shrink further under FYUP!

FYUP is part of a game plan that is much bigger and much larger than we think. This should explain why on TV and in the media, the Vice chancellor acquits himself very poorly. Strong belief in the system that has produced him, lends credibility to the possibility that the VC himself has little idea what this is all about. Possibly, he is following orders? His inability to answer questions, his propensity to fudge facts and provide anecdotal trivia to support the unconstitutional implementation of FYUP, all seem in keeping with this. Is it because he is a front-line pawn in a very large game of aggressive shatranj?  Delhi University's Teachers and the rest of India deserve an explanation. Answers anybody?

Monday, May 20, 2013

ShowTime \Bleak Magic

 Our vice chancellor is becoming more and more of a magician. Over his viceregal lodge hat, he waves his wand and brings forth rabbits out of thin air. His stage assistants, the task-forcers, sway and make every wish of the VC's their ultimate command. They herd  the rabbits pulled out of the hat. These rabbits that were once real  principals are summoned from their offices and placed in the Viceregal lodge and have secrets whispered to them. Then they are whisked back into their own little holes out of which they emerge,  principally  hypnotized, to make pronouncements to members of constituted college committees.

The earlier  magic show was about how to make the Program courses disappear, resurface as  DSI courses and then quickly make posts disappear into thin air by increasing student strength in classrooms. Magic, we must remember, always defies logic. So never mind pedagogical concern that  an optimal number of students per classroom is paramount to make classroom teaching   effective or viable. The  wand has also  waved dismissively over shortage of rooms for teaching and tutorials. An increase in the optimal number of students in classrooms and  tutorial groups  was the next step into magic. After all the trick is to have everything down to the last calculation on paper. Magic has never been about ground realities!

The theme for  the  current show is the new Indrajal:  FYUP foundation courses which promise to enthrall a diverse audience. Eleven compulsory courses, purportedly offering  great choice and inter-disciplinary skill are to be studied by students across all disciplines. Hastily and shoddily cobbled, these courses  form part of the magician's quick trick repertoire and continue to elude comprehension.

  To popularize them principals have  been  given  new magic words: "versatility" and "diversity" in the classroom. This is not to be provided by the courses themselves. Instead, students from three disparate streams are to be bizarrely assembled together in combinations of twenty apiece per section . Since the course content is not challenging, the challenge is to create disparity and distraction and make way for student melees during each lecture period.  This student cocktail of three parts will then be served up as starters during Project operation  which will be orchestrated  by teachers  providing special effects in the form of  marks. What joy and jollity this proposed event will generate is anybody's guess.

 At my college,  members of the Academic Planning Committee  and Teachers-in -Charge have found this practically unfeasible.  Shortage of space has prevented us from including students in  the game of musical chairs  currently reserved for faculty members in the university curriculum.  We recorded  the pedagogic non-advisability of such procedure despite our understanding  that  Magic Shows are about  razzle-dazzle and never  about good teaching or learning practice.

 The grand finale of the magic show is scheduled for July when the latest version of the Great Indian  Rope Trick will be staged. Ringside seats will be available in June and laptops will be distributed as gifts at the gala opening.  This time  V.C. Sorcar  will  be using the university as a prop in lieu  of a rope.  The bad news is that instead of  the  VC's disappearance, as  is customary,  the finale hinges on obliterating the  entire  university in the twinkling of an eye. E-classes on laptops will be the only Virtual  Reality left.

Monday, May 13, 2013

March of The Right Wing

University News BULL-etin : All words within quotation marks have been sourced from the VC's Discourse.

As we have been told recently, the VC's time is not his own. Ever since the Annual Convocation, the VC  has been redesigning the purple velvet gowns donned by DU's big league. Avid event watchers will recall that Pallam Raju opined that the existing  costumes were inappropriate for our tropical climate. When Ministers notice matters of such grave import at a Central University, faux pas of this magnitude needs to be rectified instantaneously. As long as the convocation costumes are in order,  the harmony of mind, body and heart  is assured. Under such circumstances, the state will not interfere in the vice chancellor's affairs but will allocate junior ministers as cheerleaders to sashay beside the Vice-chancellor on his victory-march. Never mind that  a considerable amount of the VC's energies are  focused on  allowing  India's Premier Central University to self destruct. Despite all this, he has not allowed the moss to grow beneath his feet.

  Cabal meetings with an unknown company that flew in secretly to assess 1100 of our undergraduates and pronounced all but three, unemployable, have also occupied  a considerable chunk of the VC's time. Reportedly, the VC is stymied that the said company  viewed  the exercise as a waste of time and vowed "off the record" never to return. This is a matter of National talk show importance as all employees of this company are  Bhatnagar Award Winners. Possession of this distinguished award   renders everything and everyone else inconsequential. For this express reason,  all of us in the  teaching  discipline must no longer refuse to care about secret reports presented by mysterious placement companies.  All of us must also be aware of the  double jeopardy: our current  undergraduates  are unemployable  and there is no future for those who will graduate subsequently since everyone who missed out on the VC's talk shows would have been informed by his secret company about the intrinsic worthlessness of the DU graduate.

The VC is also distraught over the fact that hundreds of Noam Chomskys have been lost to us because our Sanskrit Honours students were denied a training in linguistics. This happened  because nobody had access to  information regarding Chomsky's secret study of  Panini's grammar. The VC himself learnt  of this from  a book written by Charles. To rectify this criminal oversight, Innovative Cluster Programmes are hard at work, fine tuning  data collected for the purpose of  cloning  Sanskrit students into Chomskys.
 "Make no mistake," The VC is especially concerned about the 50 percent unemployable graduates of  SRCC. He is hard at work trying to  salvage their futures  by juggling data he has personally collected out of his head. Unfortunately,  Charles has been of little help in this regard, being rather  dim at  connecting vedic mathematics with Einstein. A connection between Einstein and TS Eliot exists, by the way. Other equally able collectors of anecdotal trivia have proved that  both  Eliot and Einstein worked as clerks but this research input has been rendered irrelevant since  all clerical work is under the aegis  of  the  DU Registrar who traverses across all orbits as a constellation in her own right.

The thirty per cent drop out rate at the university will now be speedily stemmed. All students enrolled in science disciplines who  moved on to engineering, IT and medical options at the end of  their first year when the VC wasn't looking will now be halted in their tracks. "Make no mistake', the VC is hard at work setting up companies all over India, where employable graduates are to be supplied. This will be every undergraduate's  final destination.

Those  who have been left out comprise the majority of Delhi University's undergraduate and graduate teachers. It matters little  whether they are right. It matters even less that they have rights. "Make no mistake". You cannot be right if you do not have a Bhatnagar award, if you have not read Charles and if you are not in a position to inquire about electrical maintenance at foreign universities from their Presidents. You cannot be right if the game plan is to have you  left behind in the process of malforming millions of young adult minds. Those of us, left in shock and disbelief, need to regroup away from the right wing and ensure that sanity prevails once again at Delhi University. Amen.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

(FY)UP In The Air

 Breaking News

Late last evening Shashi Tharoor  twittered at the Vice Chancellor of Delhi University.
" The University  on Wheels is a good plan,  but we need to fast track."  .

  " Nothing could be faster than this"  the VC  twittered back, taking his eyes off the stopwatch with which he was masterminding Delhi University's demolition.
Tharoor : This is the space age. Trains are a no-no even for  cattle class.

"What  is your  input?" smsed  the VC who believed in strategic planning and consultation with  Experts-at -Nothing.

  Tharoor : The finance bill has been passed,
                 Government  is plush with funds.
                Dont sink money in  Cluster Non-Innovative Projects.
                Buy  up an Airline!

How will that help, queried the VC, following his time tested policy of obstructing  any idea that was not his own.

Tharoor: We can have classrooms in the air.
 Mallya is ready to sell. We support him and Air India, remember?

VC: That is one Ass-stounding Innovation Idea!
      Will make it part of new eligibility criteria.
       Students can  directly apply to the Kingfisher offices for admission.
       Specializations will be area based.
        Air-view of  the area will ensure jobs for  all FYUP applicants  as Travel Guides.

Tharoor: Virendra Bhardwaj  can be given sanctuary. We will   fly him  from airbase to airbase to escape lynching by marriageable women and  all  unwell persons suffering from family mishaps who are  incapable of  completing their graduation

VC . The SOL is also stirring up. Never mind . Every young person not going to America and enrolled for FYUP will support us.

Tharoor: If the numbers add up this is going to be one  Dreamliner of a University.
 In solidarity!

VC: Up Up and Away!

Editorial Comment: The Dreamliner Project is now grounded owing  to considerations of safety and viability. The FYUP seems to be charting similar territories.

Distress Call from  Pilot in Cockpit: Cant Fly this  machine! Is it true that  no safety  check  measures  are in place for FYUP?.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Labouring To Undeceive

In July 2013 Delhi university plans to launch its four year program. This is scheduled to transform higher education as we know it. Instead of a three year undergraduate program which provided an optimal education that was also value for money, a time intensive and cost intensive education is now being introduced in its stead.   In fact, India is probably one of the very few countries in the world where a liberal university education did not until recently exacerbate student debt for a lifetime. All this is set to change for the worse when the gloves are pulled off and the four year undergraduate program is set into operation. The federal structure of the university will collapse and individual colleges will stand or fall by the wayside.  Higher education is now going to be of a longer duration and much much costlier.

Until this academic year, students could choose to study a range of disciplines and get a degree after three years, in science, commerce and humanities. Alternately, by opting for Honours in a specific subject alongside interdisciplinary credit courses that the university offered as part of syllabus revision, a student could go off into various career trajectories, ranging from post graduation, law civil services, management and so on. Students under the annual mode of examinations in the three year graduate program traveled far and wide and excelled in universities all over the world in post graduate studies.

 Suddenly, this system that had served us well for over 80 years, despite being plagued by systemic problems such as lack of infrastructure and overcrowding , is being disbanded and a four year program, ill-conceived and unprecedented in its violation of National Education Policy Guidelines  and academic procedures for syllabi making instituted at the university is being pushed into place. This has been masterminded by the current Vice Chancellor who is supported by the ruling party which is hurriedly divesting itself of its role in education both at the school level and at the level of the university. A large number of teachers have been left out the process of discussion and dissemination which should form an integral part of the academic life of the university. It is doubly disturbing when one recognizes that it is these teachers who are expected to carry the teaching burden of the four year system at the undergraduate colleges.

 For those parents and students who believe that teachers do not teach and shirk work, it is time to point out that  teachers are not  protesting over the increase in work or asking for better salaries.  In fact, the semester system has shrunk teaching time, over the last two three years. So those of us who take teaching seriously are really talking about a system that is unfriendly and will be a deterrent to teaching and learning.  At undergraduate colleges we are all grappling with overcrowding in the classrooms and lack of infrastructure in terms of rooms, laboratories, reading spaces in the library and so on. For the last few years, no permanent posts have been filled in the university. More than half of its teachers are employed in ad-hoc or guest lecturer capacity. This is true of every discipline taught at the university. Contract jobs in lieu of the stability of service conditions cannot be the carrots and sticks dangled before young people in search of a vocation or academic\career options.

 While doing very little to address all this, the university has embarked upon a four year program in which students no longer have the option of leaving the university at the end of three years, to pursue  life options. Instead the university is embarking upon subjecting them  to  compulsory foundation courses under the pretext of interdisciplinary learning. School education   under the 10+2 scheme has been geared to choosing disciplines and directing students towards their chosen streams. To suggest that students need mandatory foundation courses is to undermine India’s schooling systems in their entirety.  

Eighteen year olds who come to the university prepared to learn a subject or a discipline of their choice are being told that they are not ready for it. They have to take eleven compulsory foundation courses which are a far cry from the range of choices offered in American universities that the FYUP is pretending to model itself upon.  The university provided interdisciplinary credit courses to students even in the annual mode.  In place of these well researched and carefully worked out options, dumbed down, compulsory foundation courses  can contribute very little to developing  student interest.

Disturbingly, the FYUP  has indiscriminately hacked away at course content so that whatever Discipline I course the student does over four years,  s/he will know far less about the discipline when compared to students who  studied the same specialization under the three year program.  The truncation of syllabi across all Discipline I courses, the dumbing down of interdisciplinary courses  into scurrilously constituted foundation courses of  dubious pedagogy and the addition of one extra year at the university  now  ensures  four years with far less learning and teaching.  

 All the courses across the university report a drastic reduction and truncation of syllabus content. This incidentally is the feedback coming in from teachers who have been roped in to revise the syllabus.  No university in the world can hope to have a pedagogy which is not built upon the ferment of ideas and debates. To summon a few teachers and bulldoze them into fixing curriculum is an indication of intellectual and academic bankruptcy.  The only places where rules and procedures can be overlooked are within functions held privately inside of families. Unfortunately the university administration is behaving as if it is engaged in some elaborate marriage proceedings  which  authorize it to restrict the entry of invitees. What has been set in process is a  dilution and attenuation of academic standards  and integrity that  is deeply disrespectful of the  spaces  real teachers occupy.

Students who could  earlier join a Masters program at the end of three years after graduating with Honours  will now need to wait a fourth year for a baccalaureate with Honours to do a Masters Program at Delhi University. The FYUP is being touted as an opportunity  on par  with international systems for students who cannot afford to study abroad.  In fact, what it guarantees is a downsizing and down grading of all existing national standards.  It must be remembered that we are a poor country with a burgeoning student influx.  The proposed fourth year will be of little use to the student who does not wish to specialize in a particular subject in the first place. S/he has the option of leaving at the end of the third year.  What will be the value of this three year degree anywhere in the country or in the world? No answers are forthcoming on this. 
 Students need to analyse whether they need  such vocationalization at centres of liberal learning. Again, when most postgraduate courses  in Indian Universities  ask for a three year graduation program, exactly how does it benefit a student to do four years at Delhi University where the syllabi  itself has shrunk noticeably?

Alienating serious teachers in the workspace and undercutting serious teaching methodologies can benefit neither  teaching  nor learning.  Small classrooms crammed with enormous numbers of young adults with no real choices cannot be the future that is being promised to India’s young students.   Instead of ensuring a nationwide debate, the MHRD  has ministers making public proclamations to the effect that they are going to stand by and watch the university collapse in order to facilitate self-financing in higher education.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Yellow and Green

I remember summer vacations in  my maternal grandparents' home at Sripuram, in the Madras of yore.  Early mornings were quiet, interrupted by bird calls at the mango tree and around the coconut palms. The women in the house bustled around, cooking the first full course  meal of the day. By nine am we all sat down to a splendid repast, that even the gods had partaken of. There was abundant hot rice, a little paruppu( thick cooked dal) and ghee,  followed by sambaar, rasam and two kinds of vegetables.   This would be enhanced by pickles and appalams(papads) and  followed by curd  . Some mornings we would have buttermilk and  vadaams(fryums) and fresh  thayir pachdis, (vegetables grated or ground into curd) but invariably there would be a dry vegetable; potatoes or finely chopped beans garnished with coconut. However,  greens were mandatory consumption in the daily routine.

Somedays it was ara-keerai or spinach leaves cooked alone into a thoran, or with  moong and arhar lentils. Other days it could be amaranth, red or green. There was also the paruppu-keerai that is called kulfa in North India that paati made, often with moong dal. One of us would be handed a small bowl of steamed kulfa and moong that we quickly ground on the stone-grinder in the backyard, while she tempered a hot oil garnish of  whole red chilly, mustard seeds , urad and asafoetida. The kulfa had a gooey texture and the raw leaves had a slight sour taste, " Remember to eat a portion of greens everyday," Paati would instruct us, while we hurried in and out of the kitchen carrying out the odd chore.

 This was an instruction that we took seriously, since she was a culinary expert extraordinary. It is over fourteen years since she died and well over twenty-five since she dispensed with daily cooking, but  I can never pass a line-up of greens without  stopping to gaze at the fresh green leaves tied into compact bundles. I also end up buying them, experimenting with  varieties like arugula and bok-choy which were outside of Paati's repertoire.

 Last week at the local friday bazaar I stopped in front of a large pile of greens and found kulfa, which comes in quietly and leaves with out much fanfare and bought some. I tried to recreate the version my grandmother used to make, and also experimented with a new tamarind version, Both versions were consumed by the family with varying degrees of acceptance.  In the middle of my reminiscence about the  smells and flavours emanating from my grandmother's kitchen, my next door neighbor telephoned. She turns out great food and in the early years she made her own ketchup and jams, bottles and bottles of them, to say nothing of endless pickles, kanji and cake.

She had called however to discuss kulfa, which she too had picked up from the local market. She confided that this was something her mother used to  make with bengal gram dal all through her childhood and she had  wanted to run the idea by me before recreating it after many years. Her mother had died a few years ago, and  she  too was cooking up a storm of memories. We have shared the odd culinary experience and encouraged each other through the odd  cooking experiment for over a decade now. I egged her on to make the chana dal  kulfa version and she promised to bring me some later in the day, when she was done.

The moong dal version  is very light with the coconut and toasted black gram garnish adding  to the subtle  summer-is-in-the-air flavour. It would please  Shikha Sharma both  for freshness and lightness of taste while it would be therapeutic for all those with weak stomachs. The tamarind version is a great pick-me-up and goes rather well with both rice and dosas. It can be easily  modified into  kulfa sambaar if pigeon pea lentils (arhar dal)  and whole little onions were added to it.  Chopped kulfa leaves and stems  added  to adais(thick lentil dosas) make them delectable.  I tried out  the chana-kulfa that Rita brought me with both rice and chapppatis. This is a dish, worthy of a permanent  seat at any wedding repast. It is rich, creamy and aromatic and could even double up as a  winter broth.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Holy Intoxication

Holi arrived in  late March  in the middle of the week  and was almost overlooked by the pleasant  weather which showed little signs of  allowing the hot season to take over. Mornings remain cool and nippy even a week after and late night weather continues to remains pleasant.  The change in climatic conditions in the last few years has resulted in everyone relying entirely on the moon based Indian calendar  to quickly tabulate the specific day for revelry. Oddly, as we grow older, festivals usher in nuances that we never attributed to them  at a callow age. This year, a friend's father who  had been admitted to the ICU, passed away on  the morning of Holi. This was a festival he loved  and he had lived a glorious life, both private and public and was dearly loved, valued, revered and mourned. We  went to pay our respects, driving through the still sleepy streets of  New Delhi in the direction of the ridge.

There wasn't much traffic and we paused at the  check posts put in place by the Delhi Police who peered alertly  into car windows which slowed down,  checking for possible  criminals.  This is a drill we are familiar with and in recent times, apologies  printed on the yellow barriers assuage  the less patient among us by explaining that although these metal barriers slow us down they are for our  general safety.
 In the week preceding Diwali, we had been flagged down by the  cops while returning home late in the night. One cop on duty  asked  for the driver's window to be lowered down. The spouse did the needful and the cop  put in his head, moving his face so close to the spouse's mouth, that all of us constrainedly speculated  as to whether the cop had designs upon him. Fortunately, that was not the case. Sniffing pointedly, the cop drew back his head from the car window and  waved us away. Relieved, the spouse exclaimed that he had aced the breathalyzer test and  been certified  as NDUI ( not driving under intoxication)

So this time when the cops flagged down the car in front of us, smiling warmly at us as we waited in the wings, we thought we knew what was in store. However, we had  underestimated the improvisational  skills that our cops multi-task with, in lieu of material resources.
 This cop  thrust his cupped left palm  in front of the mouth of the man in the driving seat and asked him to breathe into it. The man, perhaps another veteran, complied. The cop withdrew his hand, now  a portable  fist, brought it towards his nose and  inhaled deeply of the trapped air.  The breathalyzer check had been completed, the driver was NDUI and therefore dismissed. Grinning at us, who  were witness to  this first sighting, he proceeded to wave us away cheerily without subjecting us to this novel technique of assessment. Possibly our incredulous expression confirmed to him that we were definitively  NDUI !

Friday, March 8, 2013

Island Worship?

At Ross Island,  we wandered past derelict and abandoned rooms and buildings, whose brickwork was now superimposed by large tree roots and stems  that had now  taken over. It was awe-inspiring, especially because  the wind roared and the sea splashed all around the tiny island, and every space that men had tried to claim for themselves seemed to have been taken back, bit by bit, but firmly by nature. There were peacocks and deer on the island whom we met in the course of our rambling walk all over the island. There were beautiful views of the sea from various vantage points, old japanese bunkers, a lily overgrown pond and a cemetery.

 We came upon the entrance to an old Presbytarian church whose plinths had been brought in from Europe to provide a sturdy exterior.The church was now  in disuse and testimonial to an older time when men who had travelled afar from home needed sustenance from a faith that they brought along  to the Indian shores. So many highlanders must have felt thankful for the prayer and strength this building had once provided. Strength that had perhaps provided them with hazy outlines of codes and governance. This particular   presbyterain chapel is  in ruins and  has been around for a long enough time.....but in mainland Port Blair there are other churches, and temples, where worship and prayer are a daily occurrence.

In the heart of Aberdeen Market, back on the mainland  an intriguing sign announces the   Police  Gurudwara.  Next to it is another sign saying Police   Temple.  Ram Biswas whose father is from Bengal and whose mother is from Andaman tells us that there is a Masjid too  and drives us  to another lane parallel to the market road, where we get to view three well maintained structures, a gurudwara, a temple and a mosque, amicably situated next to each other. The gurudwara and the mosque are shining white while the upper structure of the temple is a  brightly painted mosaic of colours.  Has  co-existence  been given concrete impetus by the  State  Police? Possibly a good thing to do, in the peacetime in  quiet and tranquil Andaman since faith continues to move boulders by inches  despite all of Marx's announcements to the contrary.

Island Notes


The Andaman Islands provide breathtaking sea-views, and are home to fascinating flora and

Coconuts and palms abound. Along beaches where there are residual mangroves, enormous tree
trunks taper triangularly to great heights. The picture above is of one such tree which grows on
Mundapahad beach.There are several trees on Mundapahad and all along the drive to Chiditop
which have the outline of stretched out icsoceles triangles. This is some evolution skill that the
trees seem to have carried forward from their mangrove pasts. Even the triangulating trunks
communicate a sense of swirling woods.
The picture below is of giant tree long uprooted by a storm that lies on the Mundapahad beach.

There are fascinating creatures on sea and on land . We stayed at a resort called Megapode
Nest. "Megapode" apparently means large feet in greek and is a fowl sized bird that inhabits the
Nicobar islands. Allowing its egg to incubate in the heat of rotting vegetation and earth , the adult
megapode lets the young chick fend for itself from the moment of birth. The craftsmen at Chatam
Mill had fashioned wooden models of the megapode and its chick, which was the only three
dimensional view that was afforded at Port Blair.

Andaman's chosen animal is the Dugong , otherwise known as sea cow. This is a large aquatic
mammal that is apparently herbivorous. Its bulk and eating habits probably contribute to its popular
We also saw a specimen of the coconut crab at the aquarium, the size of a large crouching cat.
Apparently,the coconut crab, the largest among crabs, lives on land and climbs coconut trees to
extricate the fruit, rip apart the fibrous shell, make a hole to drink coconut water and eat the flesh.
It is also called the robber crab and is among the lesser known of the crab species.

Susan Visvanathan December 31, 2012 at 4:31 AM
Great pictures, Ratna, glad the colours were so amazing, given the drabness of Delhi fog, when
sun gives us a sudden halo of surreal light
srivatsa December 31, 2012 at 5:14 AM
Ritu January 1, 2013 at 3:53 AM
Reallylovely pictures and veryinteresting trivia. :

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Burmeen Pakoras

What do vegetarians do when they visit places where  people  draw a great deal  of their sustenance from the sea? This is not really much of a dilemma when there is an abundance of vegetables and fruit, even though sea food is referred to rather appropriately, as fruit from the sea. Goa allowed us to experiment with abundant  fresh pineapple, breadfruit and delicious perada , a hardened version of guava jelly cut into barfi like pieces.

At Port Blair, we discovered Burmeen pakodas. The name seemed intriguing  and as it was listed under vegetarian snacks, we ordered a plate at the Megapode Nest while we  nursed chilled beers and stared into the turquoise and teal  blue waters. Burmeen pakoras turned out to be julien cut vegetables such as carrot, potato and cauliflower, which were dipped in chickpea batter and deep fried with a smatering of fennel seed or saunf for that distinctive flavour. It  established a  connect with the geography and the history,  because Burma itself is not very far away from Port Blair, hence Burmeen pakoras,  must have evolved from  older and  linked food cultures that wafted along  the coasts.?

There is something about  salt  water and air that sets up a yearning for pakoras, so the following day after a long bout in the water, while we idled at North Bay island and waited for our boat to come back for us, we were struck by pakora-lust yet again. We wandered into a small  enclosure with several stalls selling odds and ends  and  stopped to order tea at a make shift  tea stall. It was late afternoon, so seeing a huge mound of still warm pakodas, we  ordered some. Jasmine, who wo-manned   the stall  plied us with a  newspaper cone full and plenty of  hot sweet tea to wash down the pakoras with.
Soaking up the warm tropical December sun, our bellies full of pakoras and tea, we chatted with her. She was from Kerala and  kept a stall at North Bay during the tourist season. Her husband worked  on North Bay itself, so she could add a little money  to the household by selling tea, biscuits, chips, and cool drinks.
The weather is very nice, Jasmine confided, but vegetables are very costly. Most of it seemed to come from the mainland, from Calcutta. Only  green and yellow tender coconuts, small  local mangoes and spice grew in abundance. On our third day as well we stopped for tea, this time near  Chiditop and partook of  giant green batter dipped  chillies and smaller vegetable pakoras.

We met a lot of people in Port Blair from Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala whose  migrant parents had put down roots on the islands.  There were plenty of shops run by moms at walking distance from the Megapode where several salt and sweet snacks and groceries and provisions were being sold. The Megapode Nest  itself served a selection of meals that  spoke of links  between the north and the south of India, with the occasional gobhi manchurian disguised as fritters. Breakfast comprised  iddlis , chutney, sambaar and oothaapam, and bread, jam,  tiny bananas and eggs. Lentils brown or  yellow, chappatis, rice, and vegetables were around for lunch and dinner., along with a selection of mutton, chicken or fish. Dessert was custard,  gulab jamuns, rasgollas in condensed milk and delicious sevaian and rice kheers.

Also memorable were the kulfis that were sold by solo entrepreneurs at tourist spots all over the islands. These were delicious milk lollies, taken out from the deep recesses of a large earthenware jar. When you ordered one, a  stick was inserted into the tiny plastic container in which the lolly was frozen.  Effortlessly extricated from its mould and   handed over,it  filled the mouth with the  cool, sweet,  cardamom- flavoured secrets of milk and memories of an older time.

The most seamless assimilation of the old and the new, which one member of the scuba diving team  brought to my attention was the logo of (AFC)Andaman Fried Chicken, which occupies pride of place  in Port Blair. A grinning chicken dominates the logo in red and white atop imposing glass exteriors. The chicken, remarked the young man, was rather upbeat about its place in the food consumption chain, unlike its melancholy cousin from the KFC chain.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Delhi University: The Spectacle of the Carnival

It is second semester, fourth semester and sixth semester time at Delhi University. Currently, in the three year semesterized program three years are divided into six portions and these sections of time  are being used up by the first year, second year and third year students of the university. We have had six weeks of teaching, with the occasional holiday thrown in. Actually the national holidays have been rather disciplined announcing themselves around weekends and allowing us to teach.

Now the fun and games have begun. Teaching was thin  in the middle of last week, during the two day bandh, since many students were apprehensive about reaching Sri Venkateswara from distant destinations. Plus, the cultural festival season was on and students had begun the week by rehearsing for various co-curricular activities and staying away from class-rooms. Our vice-chancellor who is bringing about far-reaching changes in higher education which he thinks is some sort of Saturday Club engaged in productive welfare activities and entertainment,  decided to shut down teaching in the university  to propel the  three day North Campus Venture "Antardhvani" to take place.

Before the official shut down, co-ordinators and stall adorners  worked overtime to collect materials to take to the North Campus to display best practice in each college for which  cash awards were being dangled.
To begin with, I am all for cultural activities.  Our country boasts of an extraordinarily rich tradition of music, dance, art and theatre which has classical origins and has gone on to become very inventive. Singing, dancing, artwork, sports, theatre are very exciting activities and more eyeball grabbing than the comparatively less prosaic activity of teaching and learning in the classroom. Given the terrible rooms we teach in, and the absence of any facilities that could add to our teaching skills, the North Campus  certainly provides  happier hunting grounds.

 Yet, has the Vice chancellor brought culture to the heathen and Manna to the  thirsty as the promos suggest?  The students who excelled in all the co-curricular activities they brought to the antardhvani platform have done so because their natal families worked very hard to help them attain such skill and talent. The university had very little to do with their grooming.  Neither did the state. The state doesn't even want to take responsibility for education. Why would it foster  co-curricular activity? The ground reality is that most of these young people do not have rooms  or auditoriums in  colleges where they could practice their skills or share their interests. Despite this, year after year, in the then easily identifiable second term, every college in Delhi university hosted three day festivals  to showcase culture and there was a separate day earmarked for sports. Inter college and intra college exchanges flourished on these occasions.

 These  festivals continue in every college at Delhi University as do smaller two day festivals held by every single department in every college. Perhaps, our vice-chancellor has not found time to do the math, since simple addition would have  enabled him to compute without too much effort the number of teaching days lost per college. Had he been aware of this  low-tech solution, he might have hesitated to add more non-teaching days to the university's already bowdlerized academic calendar.

Delhi University's Annual Flower Show has also  been around for a very long time. In regular years, a half day holiday  enabled interested  teachers and students at the end of a working morning to  look at extraordinary flower displays and  horticultural excellence. Now our vice- chancellor aims to set our sights higher. He has introduced awards to colleges on the basis of excellent practice.  Exactly how will the college with  excellent practice be selected?  And exactly why should undergraduate colleges "compete" for this selection? Do we not have enough of this at the stage of secondary education where a few elite institutions battle it out ?

 Currently, qualified teachers  teach identical syllabi in every discipline  across all colleges in Delhi University. It is shameful then to set up a jostling for excellent practice awards in say, architecture, when St Stephens has had  close to a hundred years of sprawling acreage to build on, as opposed to Sri Venkateswara which struggles with a mere 16 acres, thirty odd years and stringent building bylaws? Not that the other categories are more actionable.  Instead of this divide and rule and carrot and stick policy adopted to wage fractious skirmishes between colleges, it would have been well worth everyone's time if the university had addressed the infrastructural needs of each college.  To get there, however, the very idea needs to be under consideration. My antar dhwani tells me that it is not the purpose of either education or culture  to exacerbate differences and that vice-chancellors as mentors should be  providing level playing fields for every undergraduate institution.

 Also, introducing  an institution which is nowhere in the vicinity through a stall is what academic fairs set up by foreign universities do, maybe because they feel that interpersonal contact is well worth it, even  in  days of satellite transmission. This reductive practice cannot work for Delhi University's undergraduate colleges, which can be visited by aspiring students from Delhi schools, on any working day. As a matter of fact we are reeling under student over subscription. We are not really in a position to solicit students, unlike the stall owners in international academic fairs.

 No wait! This is  a rather thankless response to all the largess the university is offering us, is it not? How remiss of me to be complaining about  inadequate classrooms and tutorial rooms and overcrowding and absence of infrastructure. How hard the vice chancellor is working at creating a classless society. First he introduced the idea of a meta university where students would spend their time commuting from one university to another.The next stroke of  brilliance was  to  transmit one knowledgeable lecture to every citadel of higher education via satellite.   We need to think out of the box and stop complaining about posts falling vacant in the university.The Knowledge Revolution is  in process. After all, the industrial revolution merely  ensured that one  machine could do the work of many men.  Our vice chancellor has ably demonstrated that one lecture by one mind  can substitute  or replace 500, maybe 5000 minds  at the same time. This will definitely take the work pressure off all of us and adequately bring down student teacher  ratios.

How thoughtless of me to forget that  from now on  daily work  will  only involve  hand-wrestling with a dozen colleagues over a solitary department  laptop,  equipped not with audiovisual aids to enhance teaching, but  with downloaded software  for punching in  soft-copy attendance for a class of eighty students or more. Should technology fail, backup exists  in the form of loose attendance sheets, so that project monthly upload may be upheld, since that is the singular duty  expected of college teachers.  After all, we are probably the only university in the world where five percent  of the marks in every paper in every discipline  are tabulated on  the basis of classroom attendance percentages.  So when we are done with double verification of attendance in one classroom, it will be time to go to the next.!

Those who  haven't received laptops must not despair. Exactly what are young and energetic Ad-Hocs around for?  There is no plan to regularize their jobs since satellite transmissions will be the order of the day.With no permanent jobs on the anvil, they might as well as earn their pay  by working as Attendance-Punching-Teaching-Assistants to Associate Professors. Why should such a facility only be available to university teachers in America, especially when we are the ones with  the numbers?  Of course, even this small task at hand will be taken away from the Ad-Hocs when five years from now the MA is whittled down to one year instead of two. Then all our mighty University Dons, who left their undergraduate institutions behind for even more higher learning, will probably be sent back  to their colleges, because MA teaching would have halved? Then  attendance punching  duties will be the sole responsibility of permanent faculty in colleges, while the prodigal dons ( who anyway don't take attendance) will provide inspirational teaching. By then maybe each one of us will have our very own attendance laptop? Meanwhile, here is to a brand new university whose only casualties will be teachers and learners.