Thursday, 22 December 2011

Report on the recently concluded workshop at Goettingen

I recently organised a workshop titled ‘Performing Identity: Ethnicity and Ethno-nationalism in the South-east Asian Borderland Region of North-east India’ 15-17 Dec. 2011 at Göttingen, Germany. When I first started toying with the idea of organising a workshop in spring this year, it was mainly with the aim of connecting with scholars working on north-east India in other European universities. In its final form in mid December it grew into much more than that -- thanks to the very enthusiastic response I received from scholars from Europe, the US and India, to the generous sponsorship we received and to the immense support that was extended by Professor Lauser and her DORISEA team at the University of Goettingen. A (rather impersonal) report of the highlights follows.

The workshop was hosted by the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology in co-operation with the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen. The BMBF-funded competence network "Dynamics of Religion in Southeast Asia" at Göttingen University was actively involved in the local organisation of the workshop. The workshop was sponsored by the Volkswagen Foundation, the University of Göttingen and the Asian Borderlands Research Network.

The event was inaugurated on Thursday, 15 Dec. afternoon, jointly by the Dean of the Social Science Faculty of Göttingen Univeristy, Professor Roman Loimeier and the Cultural Attaché at the Indian Embassy in Berlin, Professor H.S. Shivaprakash, who is also a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New-Delhi. The event also included a special screening of the film ‘A Measure of Impunity’ produced and introduced by Professor Sanjoy Hazarika, a renowned media personality, columnist and intellectual from Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi. Furthermore, screening of two ethnographic films from the region, a book exhibition, a photo exhibition on the Asian Borderlands and a book-reading (of a recent publication: Unruly Hills by BG Karlsson) were also organised within the framework of this workshop.

The interdisciplinary workshop brought together more than forty social scientists, including several leading experts and many young researchers, from over a dozen countries and over thirty universities world-wide, working on issues of identity and ethnicity in North-east India, and provided them a platform for sharing and discussing their field-work experiences and ongoing projects, and for making contacts for future collaboration. The main speakers included Professor Barend Jan Terwiel, an established expert on the Tai-Ahoms in Assam, Professor Sanjib Baruah, a distinguished political scientist from Bard College, New York, Professor Guido Sprenger, a well-known South-east Asia expert from Heidelberg University, Professor Ülo Valk, a reputed folklorist and religion expert from the University of Tartu in Estonia and Dr. Philippe Ramirez, a distinguished anthropologist working on the region at CNRS, Paris.

Besides the five special lectures delivered by the distinguished experts named above, the 21 papers accepted for presentation at the workshop was divided thematically into 7 panels, each led by a discussant. Only one paper-presenter could not attend (due to passport problems) and his paper was read out in absentia. All the papers had been submitted earlier so that participants were expected to have read and to come prepared for the discussion. Papers on the themes politics of identity, dynamics of religious conversions, belief narratives, new approaches, performance of identity as well as on the immediate region beyond the north-east, and belonging to the disciplines of anthropology, political science, sociology, folklore and religion, history, geography and literature were presented.

The principal objective of the workshop of bringing together European scholars – both beginners and established scholars -- working on the north-east was really fulfilled as an overwhelming majority of the participants were from Europe. Since most of them were sole representatives of their home institutions, the initial assumption that European scholars working on north-east India were often working in very small groups in their departments and hence were rather isolated within their research environments was confirmed. Moreover, there were a dozen Indian scholars, about half of them actually native to north-east India, and this brought in a new dimension to the deliberations. There were many new faces, and lots of interaction between the experts and the beginners, the ones from the region and those form outside, all united by their common interest in the region.

Professor Sanjib Baruah’s talk titled provocatively ‘After Identity: Hydropower and the Politics of Anxiety in the Eastern Himalayas' in which he claimed that it is no longer ethnicity and identity issues but issues like dams, earthquakes and floods that are and will bring people from the north-east together, started the proceedings on Friday morning while Dr. Ramirez’s catchy title, ‘Did the British Really Invent the Northeastern Tribes?’ in which he maintained that the north-east forms a consistent regional system – an idea worth exploring in itself and which might form the basis of a lot of future work on the north-east -- brought up the end on Saturday afternoon. Several excellent student presentations, especially those by Kaustubh Deka (JNU, New Delhi) on the role of student organisations in ethnicity formation, by Miriam Bishokarma (Zuerich) on the Gorkhaland state demand issue, by Margaret Lyngdoh (Tartu, Estonia) on the Name Magic of the Khasis and by Andreas Kuechle (Berlin) on using Bourdieu’s theory to understand Naga village society were the highlights of the workshop. The participation of native researchers like Dr. Abraham Lotha (Nagaland) and Charisma Lepcha (Sikkim) added depth and value to the discussions and the well-researched and illuminating papers of European researchers like Dr. Erik de Maaker (Leiden) and Professor Gunnel Cederloef (Uppsala) ensured the high academic standards of the meet. Several new research projects, book projects and Ph.D. projects were also presented and discussed during the meet.On the whole, it was a great learning experience for everyone.

Of course there were also faults and shortcomings. Despite the great diversity of themes represented, some disciplines like philosophy, languages and the humanities were not well-represented. Another issue was that the workshop schedule was just too tight and the half an hour time allotted for discussions at the end of the panels was never enough to do justice to the many issues that the papers brought up. But then there was a lot of support for the single session format as it enabled people to get introduced to each other’s work. These views were expressed at the Round Table Discussion which took place just before the closing and there were many suggestions for venues and locations for the next workshop, also in India, as well as announcements of a few forthcoming conferences.

The workshop ended with the hope that this kind of initiative would be taken by others at other locations in the future and that a network of scholars working on the north-east could be formed, perhaps using the ABRN site or the Brahmaputra Studies site as the means. It was also quite a pleasure to hear that this was the very first time that a workshop focussing on Northeast India had been organised in Europe, and as the organiser, I can only hope and wish that it will not be the last.

For more on the workshop, please go to


Thursday, 10 November 2011

The jajabor moves on

The news of Bhupenda's death came as a shock -- you expect some things and some people to last forever, one simply does not reckon with their not being there. I was numbed by the news but reasoned with myself, if he was sufferring in hospital for so many months, then it was better for him to be spared more pain. In any case, he was living in Mumbai for the last years, and although he did come to Assam often he seemed to have somehow moved on. In fact I doubt how many people in Assam really knew (or really cared about the fact) that he was in hospital for the last so many months.

But the Assamese people did not seem ready to let go of him,even in death,

if the unbelievable public outpouring of grief of the Assamese people at the news, is any indication. I could not restrain my tears either, but asked myself what it was about Bhupenda or about the Asamiya people that had brought about this incredibly emotional reaction from so many. True his songs had touched many hearts, true his deep melodious voice was haunting and unforgettable, true he had become a legend in his lifetime by singlehandedly winning Assam a place of pride at the national level,true he had achieved much more than any other Asamiya has in postindependent India, but still... it is hard to really understand or explain what one saw happening in Guwahati these last days.

Some time back I had tried to write a dissertation about Assamese identity and what it could be. Playing back and listening to some of Bhupenda's songs again these last days I think I know now what was missing in my dissertation -- for the events of the last days have made it clear that if any one person could be thought to be representative of and to symbolise Assamese-ness today to the rest of the world, then it was Bhupenda -- he was Assam's identity in the big world outside. And to the Asamiya, he was their conscience-keeper. He often said unpleasant and harsh things about the Asamiya, but they could not be offended by him, because they knew that he spoke the truth, he was like an X-ray that laid the Asamiya bare -- there was nothing they could hide from him... Assam has not always treated him well, he has also not always been loyal to Assam, but in death, no quarrels remain, by shedding so many tears the people of Assam have told him that everything is forgiven, and that they will always remember and cherish him in their hearts, for all that he has given them.

I do not know what he would have made of this massive show of love and respect if he could have known while he was still alive that this would happen. Would he have been happy? Although one can only respect and be astounded by this spontaneous outpouring of grief, it does have a sense of belatedness about it, doesn't it? After all, how many of us made any effort to tell him that we cared while he was still alive? What good can all our tears do him now? Why then are we crying? Are we crying today because we are feeling sorry, not just for him, but also for ourselves? Is it because we are feeling orphaned, vulnerable, insecure, because we no longer have his strict yet loving and caring hand over us? And if that is the case, does it not show how selfish and small we all are? And with this present demonstration we have proved once more what we already knew for a fact, that we are a very emotional people...

But are we nothing more? Is it enough to be just emotional? If we really wanted to show him our respect and admiration,one thing we could do besides crying is to resolve to listen to and to follow his message -- his message about what is wrong with our society and how we could rectify it, his message of love, of humanity and of brotherhood, his message of fighting against injustice and against all kinds of oppression...only then would we have made sure that he did not sing his heart out in vain, and that he will live on even in death... if we really love him so much he deserves much more than just our tears, we have to promise that we shall not let him down... that even without him to show us the way and to remind us of our duty, we will strive towards creating that Xonar Assam that he dreamt of and wanted to conjure up to gift to all of us... But are we ready for this?


Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Four countries in a month

Between mid September and mid October 2011 I visited four countries, physically perhaps not very far from each other, but each with their own unique and very different story to tell...

First stop was the splendid city of Vienna, which once again made me stand and stare speechless at the quiet and dignified grandeur of many of its avenues, its buildings and its public places. I was there to attend the annual conference of the German Anthropologists and there was plenty of food for thought and discussion. Sitting in the anonymous comfort of being at such a large gathering and listening to some excellent lectures I couldn't help feeling that it was only appropriate that Vienna was hosting such an event -- a city with so much history, so much to offer in terms of culture and the arts, hosting a meeting to dicuss what culture and civilisation could mean... it really did seem as if one only needed to look around that astonishing city to be able to fill such terms with sense and meaning...

However, we were a bunch of anthropologists trying to understand not only the high culture that Vienna had to offer but also 'other cultures'. But if anyone had asked me if I understood anything at all about Afghan culture I would have had to shake my head and try to change the subject. More so after this last trip to Herat and Kabul -- the second stop in my travels. I have not been back in Afghanistan in the last three years -- but the change I saw there this time really broke my heart -- I am a coward, I know, but I doubt that I will ever find the courage to go back there again. It is natural to be stunned by a beautiful building or be moved by a fantastic piece of art, but how does one cope with so much unnecessary and totally avoidable tragedy? I know I'm not making sense, perhaps its better to just stop here.

Many things went wrong right from the moment we landed there (with the assassination of Rabbani taking place right on our first day) but still it would have been okay if I somehow could convince myself that no matter what their leaders or the fundamentalists did, the ordinary Afghans are good and innocent people. But unfortunately I can't. There is a lot that does not make any sense to me, and it is not just that I do not trust my understanding of the Afghans I am not sure I understand anyone else any better either. I came back with an overpowering sense of sadness, sadness at the incredible waste, sadness at the destruction of so much that was good, sadness at the loss of innocence of a simple and loving people...

Before I could recover from that I was off to Helsinki to attend another conference, this time of the Finnish anthropologists. And the difference was not just the weather; the quiet unhurried calm of the Finns, which can only come from an assurance and confidence in their futures, made starker the contrast between a world at peace and one at war with itself. More than being able to savour and relish those crisp and clear autumn days in Helsinki, more than being able to enjoy the lovely day out mushroom-picking with old friends in the woods just outside the city, whatever I did there only served to deepen my sense of tragedy at the senselessless and idiocy of most of what I had seen and heard in Herat and Kabul.

So it was good to have a few days off to sort myself out, sitting in the book-filled library of the religion and folklore department in the University of Tartu,enjoying the friendly but not demanding company of my host and his colleagues, living those few days like a student again, responsible only for myself. Being told that my work was good after I had made my presentations, and being left alone at other times to do as I pleased in that pretty little university city, shimmering golden in the autumn sunshine, did me good -- I worked in the library mornings and afternoons, went for walks, visited quaint little museums, chatted with friendly colleagues and students, and just let myself be...

By the time Stephan joined me in Tartu I was back to being able to feel and be happy again. We spent the last two days in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and believe me, it is hard to iamgine a prettier, more lovable city -- Tallinn has everything -- history, the sea, incredibly nice people, intriguingly different sights with amazing stories connected with them, old and new, traditional and modern -- I can't think of a nicer place at the moment.

So much so that by the time I got back home, my faith in human beings again and in the essential goodness of the human heart and the kindness of the human spirit had been more or less restored. But while this therapy worked for me, I wonder what, if anything at all, can work in that beautiful but unhappy land called Afghanistan...


Wednesday, 25 May 2011

An alternative to our present education system

Here are some observations about our education system and some suggestions for changing it in order to make it better-suited to serve the demands of imparting real education, in light on my personal account of 'why I left mathematics' which I have uploaded in another blog.

Being a product of the Indian system of education and having had the chance to see a few other systems in operation in other countries, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it is about our own system that makes it fail in achieving its main objective – that of producing really ‘educated’ adults and adults who are really interested in and are really good at their jobs. I’m not saying that everything is bad or wrong with what is in place right now, it is just that it could be made better.

This is my first attempt to put my thoughts in this regard on paper. I will make many sweeping statements and generalisations below, also grossly over-simplify the picture at certain places, and talk only about certain things in preference to others (for example I will not talk about how to finance education). But I hope you will bear with me because my principal aim of writing this article is to point out where some of the problems lie, and to suggest possible remedies; that there are problems is clear, else we would not be in the sorry mess that we find ourselves today. Most of what I write is based on my personal experience of living in Assam and of being part of the education system prevalent in Assam although many of the issues are equally relevant elsewhere.

Little Geniuses who never make it big
We Assamese love having heroes – barely has a student stood first in his or her Matric or higher-secondary exam that the poor child is made out to be the next Einstein or the next Shakespeare. While praising a child’s excellent performance in school is a good thing there has to be some sense of proportion. Saying too much might put a big extra pressure on the child that can in some cases even wreck him or her. Parents have begun to put so much emphasis on acquisition of bookish knowledge, school exams, results and performance that many other things in life which are equally important, like instilling good values and inculcating good habits, lie neglected along the way [for example, what lesson does a child learn when Mama gets paid hired help to do his summer project for him] .

But much before the child is anywhere near finishing school, parents have already decided what their children will go on to do – they will either appear for the engineering entrance exams or the medical entrance. There are two other professions, perhaps three, that somehow might also pass muster – joining the law school or the civil services or becoming managers. But that is all. Nothing else is good enough. Now there must surely be something very badly wrong in a society where only engineers and managers, doctors and lawyers are valued but not poets, artists, musicians, even scientists.

This has serious consequences on two counts – first of all it creates a vacuum in our quest for real knowledge – in a system that values technical and management education over the social and pure sciences, that values a secure govt. job over individual enterprise, there is no emphasis given to research in the pure sciences – in physics, chemistry and mathematics -- as well as in the liberal arts and the humanities. Subjects like philosophy, sociology, anthropology, political science and education are called the ‘general’ stream. It has minimum currency. What we forget is philosophy is the toughest and most abstract discipline of all; what we do not seem to realise is that devaluing the subject ‘education’ is one of the reasons for this present crisis in our education system.

The emphasis of higher education is no longer on a rigorous study of a subject -- knowledge is packaged in market terms, classified as a commodity, students at a university are called customers – in trying to be modern and techno-savvy we seem to have thrown out the baby with the bath-water.

As consequence is that we have not only a waste of talent that could never be allowed to develop, but also a mismatch between what a person is good at doing or would like to do and what he spends his life doing or is expected to do. Imagine the wastage when a talented singer or a natural sportsperson has to sit all day counting notes as the teller in a bank counter! Or a young child who would rather do English or history is forced to study science and then go on to become an engineer. The result -- many of us are stuck in jobs that do not interest us and for which we have no special talent while other things like music or sport which perhaps mean a lot more to us are relegated to the status of hobbies at best, to be indulged in in one’s free time. Small wonder then that this country of more than one billion does so badly in the Olympics or in the world stage of art and music.

And imagine what it all means for the poor child who has just finished school. Perhaps it is the very ambitious parents who are most to blame for this situation. They have to help their child discover his or her own talents and help him or her to find a profession which will not only be thought to be respectable and financially secure but is also mentally satisfying and challenging for the child.

From the point of view of the students, the school teachers must take on the role of mentors and help their students decide, once they get to Class XI or XII whether they should get into a professional course, whether they should opt for higher studies (at a university) or they should join a vocational training school. It should only be a small fraction who should go to university and professional schools, not everybody. There should be provision for proper counselling, not just for students but also for their over-ambitious parents, at the school leaving stage. And each of the institutes of higher learning should have trained counsellors to help their students cope with the rigours of their courses as well as their doubts and concerns about life in general.

Colleges as Time-Pass...
And what about all those many students who do not make it into any of the technical schools, medical schools, law schools or business schools in the country despite their best attempts. They very unwillingly join one or the other college to do their graduation, even while hoping to give the entrance exams another shot the following year. Therefore their participation in the college studies is at best perfunctory. But the college system doesn’t offer very much to win their loyalty either.

Generally, students who have just finished their XII from a school system and have just entered a college are eager to use their new found freedom to experiment, to try out everything – they are full of energy, enthusiasm and expectation . Even more so those few who join the college system deliberately, as a matter of choice, over all the other professional schools. But what is in store for them? They are met by a system which is based on indifference, inertia and complete lack of direction. By having dull uninterested and uninspiring teachers in our colleges we not only waste the immense potential of those students but also maim them for life – turn them into copies of their teachers. I am not saying that all college teachers are equally dull, but the chances of their failing to live up to the expectations of the students are so high that this is nothing short of a real disaster and needs serious rethinking.

And a teacher could be forgiven for everything else if one could say that she at least knew her subject well. But that cannot be expected from someone who has been teaching the same courses year after year from the same frayed notes that they had written up ages ago when they had first started to teach. Small wonder then that college teachers wake up only to register their protest against any change in syllabus! And what does the system require college teachers to do in order to upgrade their ancient knowledge? They are required to attend Orientation courses or Refresher Courses from time to time. And college teachers are often seen showing some enthusiasm to do so. But if one thought that they do so because of their love for the subject, one is mistaken. Most of them do so because it is necessary to do so to get promotions. In my opinion this is the biggest tragedy in our education system –

I have always believed that colleges are redundant – there are no colleges in the Indian sense in most other places of the world. What can colleges do that cannot be done in universities? If the argument is that in a country like India many stop after graduation and hence the under-graduate level has to be handled separately, then it begs the question -- what do we want to do with so many graduates? Is it not better for only those who really want to pursue higher studies (or those who want to sit for competitive exams at a higher level) to do their graduation (and this lot should join the university straightaway and work their way through graduation, post-grad. etc).

Vocational skills rather than useless degrees
For the rest, there is no sense in spending 3 years of their lives getting a degree that helps them to become nothing more than clerks in govt. offices or receptionists. Would it not be better if their education at the post XII level was more focussed on the occupation they want to take up later? I am thinking of vocational colleges, ITIs and polytechnics where diploma courses can be offered for a vast range of occupations. In short, I am all for dismantling the colleges, and instead strengthening the universities at the one end and also setting up many more vocational colleges where quality theoretical and practical education is imparted to students, in professions of their choice.

Of course I also find the idea of having junior colleges for just those two years also a colossal waste of resources – the +2 stage must be clubbed with the high school stage and the PGT subject teachers should be put in charge so that they will then have a little more to do than at most 2 classes per day and no other worry in this universe! Once that is done we shall have a more streamlined system with three types of educational institutes – schools, vocational colleges and universities, with the latter two institutions taking charge of two non-overlapping student populations after the XII standard. Of course I am restricting myself here only of the general streams, and leaving out all discussion with respect to professional and technical institutes like engineering schools, medical schools, law schools etc.

Beyond classroom teaching
As I have said before, a necessary prerequisite for a college or university teacher to be able to teach well, is that he must know his or her subject well, and must be in touch with the recent developments with the subject. But that is not sufficient, for there are at least two components to being a good teacher. The first is the academic component where the teacher has to first be in a position to help and guide his or her students learn the subject (not just to pass examinations with good marks) but also to develop an abiding interest in the subject. The student needs to be told not just what the answers are but also how to go about finding answers, by reading books, by reading papers and journals, by searching the net, through discussion and other methods. Then there is the other half – the social component – a teacher must be able to help his or her students not just to learn the subject but also to become good human beings, to be able to shoulder responsibility, to learn the values of integrity, hard work and honesty. At the college and university level, students should become friends, and teachers should be accessible enough for students to want to open up and tell them their problems, both personal and work related.

The way in which we teach our students and the way in which institutes with huge intakes every year of young bright youngsters take care of them – educational institutes are supposed to be places where they learn their subjects true, but they are also places where the all-round development of these young minds have to take place, and they are given the freedom to ask questions, even unrelated to their immediate lessons. They need care, they need someone to listen to them, they need counselling, they need other platforms for debate and discussion as much as they need instruction. And for all this to happen one does not need extra people – all this should ideally happen within the teacher-student community. Teachers need to play a more organic role and extend their hands to come closer to their students in more real ways. They have to try to become their students’ friends. Some of my former colleagues have done this and have really made a great difference to their students, but I wish many more would follow.

Research only for career promotion?
So much on the subject of teaching, now on to research. It is a myth that someone who shows excellent results in college and university will necessarily turn out into an excellent teacher and researcher in the subject. It requires other skills than just being able to be a disciplined learner to be able to teach well, or to be able to get into serious research. Furthermore, a person who has just obtained his or her Ph.D. (under the guidance of a supervisor) needs a few years before he or she can find her feet, and become independent researchers. Only then should he or she start taking on Ph.D. students of their own. The post-doc stage in most universities of the world is meant to cater to exactly that period. But in India, if you get a Ph.D. today, tomorrow you can be eligible to guide students. What is even more surprising is that you are even expected to do so. As a result the quality of research and training suffers very badly.

I speak only about mathematics but it might be a more general phenomenon: I believe there is something wrong with the Indian higher education system because many university teachers (all having Ph.D.s and producing many more) in many Indian universities do not have very many clues what research is all about – and this I can say because I have been a researcher myself. In the Indian system, a lot of trash that passes as research is published only because of the immense pressure of showing results – the whole business of accumulating credits by college and university teachers (for applying for promotion and higher salaries) by publishing papers and attending or organising symposia is a good and necessary thing, but only if it is done in the right spirit and not reduced to the hollow but very expensive farce that it has become now – publish for the sake of publishing, the appearance of spurious and sub-standard journals where the motto is ‘you publish my paper, I will publish yours and both will be happy’, organising workshops and symposia that do not achieve anything... There are a handful institutes in India where excellent research is being done, but they have not been able to show the way to the rest.

In summary, I believe a few basic structural changes might make our education system more efficient, more student-friendly and more in keeping with the need of our times:

1. At the school level there should be a concerted effort from school teachers to figure out the natural talents and inclinations of their students. Parents and teachers must work together to make sure that the children land up pursuing a career that interests them and also doing what they are good at.
And society must regain its sense of proportion about how they react to someone being a topper (I remember my parents have received a marriage proposal for me just after our B.Sc. results were declared!).
2. Junior colleges should be done away with – the school-system should be revitalised so they all go upto the higher secondary level and the last four years of school (IX to XII) should be given a special status and put in charge of the PGT teachers. All children should be required to attend school till Cl. VIII (which corresponds to our universal education in any case).
3. All undergraduate-colleges should be disbanded. Instead a three-year undergraduate programme should be introduced additionally in all universities. Universities should be suitably strengthened to be able to take charge of undergraduate and postgraduate education. Admission to the under-graduate programme should be based strictly on aptitude and future prospects.
4. Besides the professional schools – technical, managerial, business, medicine, law etc. -- that are already in existence there is also a lot more to be done in areas like sports, music, art, architecture and drama.
Educational institutes at all levels have to recognise that students have other needs apart from the strictly academic – teachers and counsellors should be in place to help students cope with their bigger problems and worries too.
5. The most important new component is the creation of a number of vocational schools and training institutes where high-quality education and training is imparted. The existing Polytechniques and the ITIs are the closest approximations of this new genre of educational –cum-training institutes which should aim to take charge of the vast majority of youngsters who after their Class XII want to learn some skill or craft which will enable them to find a job at the end of it – plumbers, tailors, masons, mechanics, electricians, carpenters, gardeners, as well as beauticians, cooks, baby-sitters and house-maids; all the way up to and including fashion models, designers, chat-show hostesses and flight stewards.
The existing institutes which cater for this like the ITIs and the Polytechniques, as well as secretarial schools to train secretaries and clerks, nursing schools for nurses and carers also need to be seriously restructured and refurbished to make them attractive as well as competitive. These vocational courses (of varying duration depending on the subject) should lead to a diploma and give rigorous theoretical as well as hands-on training to their students to enable them to really learn all the necessary and relevant aspects of their jobs.
6. Decisions on educational teaching and research policy need to seriously reviewed and reconsidered. After all there is no point in persisting with systems (like that of collecting credits for promotion of college and university teachers) which everyone knows has been reduced to a farce with the collusion of and for the benefit of all those involved. Decisions that can be implemented only on paper and cannot be enforced in spirit cause greater damage and wastage in the long run than doing nothing at all.

I admit that what I am suggesting is almost a complete overhaul of the education system –my suggestions will be not easy to implement, and will be met with a lot of resistance and opposition from all quarters I know, but facing these unpleasant truths and effecting these changes seem to me to be the only way forward if our education system has to win back some of its prestige and respect before our own eyes and before that of the world community. I am not claiming for a moment that what I am offering here as an alternative is the best possible – I am sure there are improvements possible – by writing this article I only want to point out that it is high time we stopped pretending everything is all-right with our education system and started talking about some of the real problems that are staring us in our faces.

Before I end, there is one final thing which has to change before everything else and that is the change of mind-set of everyone involved – parents have to accept that their children have a right to choose what they want to pursue as a career, teachers have to realise that being a teacher is something more than just a job because the lives of every student who he or she teaches is affected by it, researchers have to accept that it is not quantity but quality that really matters and that it is not good enough to be clever enough just to be able to fool the system, and our politicians, educationists and policy-makers have to somehow send out a clear signal that they understand what it means for a person to be really educated and that they are serious about ensuring that that is what our education system is meant to do even if it means in order to get the system back on rail. My head will not be spared, I am sure for having said all this, but that is my problem; as long as reading this article provokes you in some way or the other, a beginning would have been made.


Why I left Mathematics

This article is a personal account of why I left mathematics to retrain as an anthropologist after being trained in Oxford and after having taught mathematics for more than 10 years at the Gauhati University and at IIT Guwahati. In another blog I will discuss some implications of this story on our education system and will also make some suggestions.

Why did I leave mathematics? There are quite a few reasons for that. But I wouldn’t have written this article but for the fact when I recently went to meet a retired principal of a college in Upper Assam to talk to him about ethnic communities in the area, all he could do for the greater part of our meeting was to repeatedly express first his disbelief and then his deep regret that I had left mathematics. He kept saying that while people working with ethnic communities would be easy to find, the world had lost a great mathematician with my decision to change subjects!

Although I was touched and humbled by his immense faith in me and my mathematical abilities, the intensity of his disappointment really took me by surprise, coming from a person who I had never met before, and whose only grounds for thinking I was good in mathematics were my college and university results, because honestly speaking, after standing first in college and university, I have not had very much to show to vindicate his opinion. The reasons for my choosing to do maths in the first place were completely accidental. It was by elimination. I chose science in my +2 level because I didn’t want to continue with history. And then I landed with maths for my graduation because I couldn’t manage any of the subjects involving lab work. And one thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was at Oxford doing my D.Phil. in pure mathematics.

But temperamentally I was not suited for mathematics. I liked being with people, I found mathematics too isolating, too ‘unsocial’. And although I liked the subject, mathematics was not an all-consuming passion for me. I had many other interests. And soon, very early on in my stay in Oxford, it became clear to me and to my supervisor, that although I was fairly good at my work, that spark of inspiration was missing in me. But he told me that I should finish what I had started, because besides everything else, an Oxford degree would help me get better jobs later. I followed his advice, and enjoyed it too, and learnt a lot and made many new friends in the process. My supervisor was right -- after I got back, thanks to my Oxford degree, there was not much trouble getting a job – first at the University and then at IIT. And I could have lived happily ever after. If it were not for all the doubts that were to follow.

I had already realised, during the course of my studies at Oxford and my initial years doing mathematics after coming back that I could not ever be a researcher at that international level which I had seen and had been trained for at Oxford. I found the idea of doing mathematics fascinating and very challenging, no doubt, but that rarified realm of pure abstract thought, when mathematics started to become exciting and beautiful, was simply beyond my reach. I simply did not understand the subject well enough, not even my own little exclusive corner of it. And as proof of that, if ever I needed it, came the news, a few years after I had returned from Oxford, that the problem on which I had worked for my doctoral work (but could answer only partially in my thesis) had been finally and completely resolved by two mathematicians using very different techniques. In that sense, even my thesis stood superseded very quickly.

My work atmosphere at IIT Guwahati was such that although we were given all the facilities we needed, I could not hope for further research guidance and intellectual support which implied that unless I had it in me to raise myself, nobody else was going to help me do it. We did not have anyone in our immediate surroundings to look up to for guidance. Of course there was Jyoti Medhi Sir in Guwahati but our disciplines were too far apart.

I could see that the best I would be able to do is to churn out routine uninspired stuff (both in my own work and in the work of my research students) which would not meet any high international standards. I have done some good work over the years but it was all done together with very able collaborators. On my own I would not be able to sustain that. I realised that my research output would serve no other real purpose than to lengthen my CV and help me to get promotions. I just could not cope with the idea of spending my whole life doing something at a level which was boringly mediocre, and where I would constantly fail to realise even my own expectations from myself.

What was even worse I knew that I could not dare to say all this aloud, given all the adulation and praise that was constantly being heaped on me. I was terrified of being put to the test and being found out someday but there was no way out -- the show had to go on. I was forced to pretend to be clever and knowledgeable and interested no matter how little I knew or cared; it all seemed wrong somehow. Not just wrong but also dishonest, to ask for and spend tax payers money to attend conferences and seminars, on the basis on my hollow credentials. I felt like an imposter, a fraud.

But still I felt obliged to continue with my job because I felt that since I had gone to Oxford on a scholarship, I owed it to whoever selected me to give back at least what it had given me before I quit. There was also another saving grace – while I was not sure of my research abilities I knew I was a reasonably good teacher of mathematics. Moreover I loved being with students. But I ran into trouble with that too. Those problems, however, had more with the system as well as with my colleagues who had other views on the duties and responsibilities of being a teacher.

When I first started teaching mathematics after returning from Oxford, I was certain that, regardless of how pathetic my future research output would be, I would be able to justify my being a teacher because I would be able to make a positive difference for my students. As a teacher of mathematics at the university I had imagined that I would have the freedom to introduce a few changes to the method of teaching at least in the courses I was offering, like introducing problem classes and giving assignments, but there I met with resistance from my colleagues since at that time the system expected teachers to only lecture to their students and do nothing else (the system has since changed, I am told, after the introduction of the semester system).

There was yet another dimension to my problem. From what I had seen from my own Oxford supervisor’s relations to his students I had understood that being a teacher had to become an organic component of the rest of my life, that there was nothing like a nine-to-five teacher, that as a teacher, I was supposed to be there not only to supervise how my students performed in their studies but also to help them cope with their own lives in a much more general sense. But soon after getting back, I found out that the culture back home was somewhat different – the teachers were expected to maintain hierarchies and not get too friendly with the students.

The system of teaching was thankfully much more to my liking at IIT. But the division of work rule was in place also there – as a faculty member I was required to just teach my courses but not really interact with the undergraduate students. But in those initial years of Guwahati IIT, with so many bright young students leaving home for the first time to come to the supposedly dangerous Indian northeast, one couldn’t help getting involved with the students and their personal problems. There were more than a couple of cases, where I felt the system had failed to respond and had been insensitive to the needs of the students. I realised that in an institution like IIT, one one needed besides medical care was also competent and trained counselling, and that was completely missing at that time. I saw a few bright students lose out and give up in front of my eyes simply because the system failed to help them when they needed it. One time I was even asked if I had any other personal reasons for supporting a student (who had failed to achieve the requisite marks by a whisker)! That student was not given admission, but he went on to do very well in another institution, vindicating my faith in him.

Slowly I realised that the system would carry on like a juggernaut, completely blind to all those who are crushed along the way, but seeing this happen and knowing that I am also part of the system, would drive me crazy with guilt. Almost all the youngsters who came to join our IIT, having made it in the tough and extremely competitive JEE, were clever and bright, but also very innocent, trusting and naive. I do not know what we did wrong but in the time they stayed with us, we managed to turn quite a few of them, in the worst cases, either into unstable and strange creatures or into bitter and angry young men who had very little respect or trust left for anyone. Since there was nothing I could do to change things, I thought it best to quit before the system devoured me too.

But what about repayment of the debt of my 3-year Ph.D. scholarship? I had spent nearly ten years already teaching and doing mathematics after getting back from Oxford, surely that was enough. But there was one last thing left for me to do – a couple of my colleagues and I got together and organised a 3-week long international workshop and conference in IIT Guwahati in my area of research to which I invited many of those mathematicians who I had met and whose work I admired. Many accepted my invitation and came, almost all of them for the first time to India’s north-east. It was a wonderful feeling to see that all the hard work we had put in had paid off – for due to the excellent quality of the mathematics and the interactions, we had also succeeded in putting the NE and IIT Guwahati on the international maths world map.

Strangely, this feeling of elation was also very liberating – I realised that I had paid back enough, there was no need for me to feel indebted anymore – I was free to leave. Once that came home to me it did not take me long to decide to resign and to start all over again – this time doing something that I felt suited my nature and my talents better – being with people, talking to them, trying to find out what makes them tick. More about why I chose to do anthropology instead some other time...

What all this has to say about our education system I will write up in another blog. But for now I want to end with the following thought. At some stage of our lives, we might find ourselves stuck in jobs which, even though they might seem to be best possible, do not make us happy anymore or with which we have some serious problem. While it is best not to make a mistake about one’s choice of career in the first place, it is never too late to start again. We should not allow the prestige or the security of our present jobs bind us if we feel that we are not really happy with what we are doing. Of course I am talking of a very thin section of the population who have the financial security to make these choices, but if one has them, then one should exercise them. One lives only once, and one must make the best of it. I gave up mathematics and started again at the ripe old age of 40 and have not regretted it. And if it is possible for me, it must be possible for others as well. You only have to take your fate in your hands and take the plunge – whatever you may or may not achieve in the end, at least you would have been true to yourself.


Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Another season with the Tangsa

I had planned to spend half a year with the Tangsa this time, in order to get all that I needed to start writing my dissertation. Well... in the end I did stay for six months, and I did collect a lot of material; I also made many new experiences, met many new people, visited many new places -- for what it will all be good for is yet to be seen, but being with them for so long has changed my attitude towards the Tangsa -- I'm not sure any longer that I'm qualified to talk about them. And even if I could persuade myself to do so, I don't know what I should be talking about. I guess it will take a while for me to be able to put everything into perspective -- for now let me just write up the high points and the lows during my time in the field in the last season.

I set off on Diwali evening by train from Guwahati in order to be in Malugaon in good time for the Hakhun Festival scheduled for the 8th November. The festival was a bigger affair than last time, stage-managed almost entirely by the shrewd Gaonbura, Tehon Hakhun, and his band of loyal villagers. And although their star performer, the one and only Phulim Hakhun, was not present, nobody seemed to bother too much and it did not make too much of a difference in the end. What really annoyed me was the attitude of some of the VIP guests, in this case a couple of Assamese AGP politicians, who came from Digboi to attend the festival. Their main reason for coming was of course the forthcoming elections and not any real concern for the Tangsa. But then if they had a hidden agenda, the Gaonbura was also not totally innocent either. I'll tell you why I think so before I end.

From Malugaon I went to spend some time in Chamro basti in Arunachal to talk to the amazing Gaonbura Phanglim Kimching. The grand old man is very impressive, not only because of what he has achieved in his life (and still wants to do), but also because of all that he knows, his wisdom and good sense shining through in every sentence he uttered. It was just great to have had the chance to spend a few days with him and to get him to tell me a little bit of his thoughts and views about different things. I learnt a lot about what it means to be truly brave and to take pride in being a proud Tangsa from him.

My next stop was Mokukchung in Nagaland where I met yet another larger-than-life old man, the Sema Gaonbura of Lumami village, where the campus of Nagaland University is located. This Naga gentleman was also close to a hundred, had suffered unimaginable hardships during his lifetime, but had gone on to become one of the richest people in the area. But none of all that had not touched him, it had only taught him to be generous and modest -- he told me amazing stories of what he had actually witnessed and experienced first hand during the troubled Naga years. And when one day I asked him why he trusted me, why he was telling me so much without bothering to first find out if I was a government spy, he looked straight at me and said 'I haven't grown so old for nothing, you know.' That was that. When I left he made me promise that next time I came to Mokukchung, I would stay at least three days in his house -- that will never be, for he is dead. He died after being taken ill soon after I met him and if eye-witnesses are to be believed, his funeral was the biggest anyone had ever seen in that area.

I also visited Impur where the very serene and beautifully maintained headquarters of the Baptist Mission in Nagaland is located. That was where I learnt how the British administrators (who were keen that the Nagas kept their indigneous culture even while trying to civilise them) came into conflict with the American Baptist missionaries (who wanted the Nagas to give up everything of their old ways of life when they converted to Christianity). The Baptists had started the Tangsa mission in 1972. I was surprised at how openly and easily Reverend Walling admitted that Baptist pastors in the 70s and 80s were responsible for misguiding the people to give up their own culture when they converted -- he also spoke of how the view of the church has changed in recent years and how the church was now actively playing a role in preservation of the indigenous culture of the tribal people.

At the Nagaland University I met many Naga teachers and also a few activists and leaders, and I was most impressed by their knowledge, their commitment to their own people, and also their rationality and pragmatism -- they were not just sitting there building castles in the air or blaming the central government for all that went wrong, they were actually thinking of constructive ways to go forward and of concrete steps to get out of the present impasse between the two NSCN factions. Those few days in Lumami and the week in December in Kohima were enough to assure me that Nagaland was indeed in good hands and that ther Nagas were completely able and competent to take charge of their own affairs. Of course I could sense that the Naga tribes are still pretty much divided and this big hype about Naga unity etc. is still a myth. I also did not get much of a clue about the connection between the Naga and the Tangsa more than what I already knew -- that the closest amongst the Naga tribes related to the Tangsa would be the Konyaks in the continuum via the Noctes, the Wanchos and now also the Tutsas living in the Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh.

My next trip was to the heart of Tangsaland -- to the village of Phulbari close to the Assam-Arunachal border where I planned to spend Christmas and New Year. It was very nice to be among friends again and it felt like coming home. The Rera Tangsa in Phulbari are almost all Baptists and I tried to participate in the celebrations as much as I could. I thoroughly enjoyed going carol singing with the village youth on the evenings of the 23rd and the 24th December. I also attended the services, which were solemn occasions and longer than usual, with a lot of singing both of hymns during the service and newly-composed ones at the end. The village was nicely decorated with the church as the focal centre for all the activities. A true sense of community and brotherhood could be felt among the village people at that time with community feasts organised both on Christmas day (sponsored by the most politically active Rera in Phulbari, Molu Rera) as well as on New Year's Day with sports and games for everyone thrown in. What was remarkable was the big role played by the village youth and the womenfolk in the organisation. Feasting, praying and singing were what Christmas at Phulbari was mainly about. While there I could also really start the process of getting ready for publication a book of Rera history and stories. Sadly though, Shimo Rera, one of the village leaders who was so supportive of this project, will not be there to see the printed book -- he died suddenly early in April.

Between Christmas and New year I made a quick trip to Kharangkong, my other home in Tangsaland, to be present when Lukam Tonglum's 5th daughter, who had recently eloped with and married a Christian Tangsa youth, came home for the first time with her husband. Lukam Tonglum, the self-styled chief of the Tangsa Nagas in Assam, is perhaps one of the last upholders of the old order. It was almost tragic to see this fiercely proud old man brought to his knees by this act of defiance of his most-loved daughter. He had pinned great hopes on her and had secretly hoped that she would take on the mantle of leadership of the Tangsa at least as far as upholding Tangsa culture went. Her reason for running away was that her father would have never agreed to her marrying a Christian otherwise. He seemed to suffer not only under the hurt that his daughter had inflicted to his pride by running away but also with the worry that some harm may come to his new son-in-law who worked in the army and was posted in strife-torn Kashmir.

After attending the Wihukuh festival once again in Kharangkong I went off on a long and complicated 15 day tour of some remote areas of the Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh -- there I learnt about the old and new forms of the Rangfrah religion, there I visited a house in which the walls of the open sitting area in front was lined with hundreds of skulls of animals of various kinds. Talking to people living in the hills beyond Manmau one could begin to imagine how life for the Tangsa could have been in the days when they still lived in the hills, with no contact with the outside world. This trip opened my eyes to all that I did not know about the Tangsa and made me realise how incomplete my analysis would be if I did not include the Tangsa from Arunachal, and perhaps by the same logic, also those Tangsa who still live across the border in Burma. To have spent three seasons in the field only to find out that one had actually got the address wrong was a feeling that I could have done well without. Anyway, it told me that I had no time to waste. The Tangsa in the more remote areas of Arunachal are more 'tribal' and their lifestyle is still quite a lot different from that of the modernised Tangsa living in the plains of Assam. But what was I was really looking for?

I was supposed to be working on Tangsa festivals -- and to that end I had already attended three different festivals plus Christmas and New Year by that stage. The state-sponsored three-day Dihing Patkai Festival that happened in mid-January was the third and biggest of them all. It was supposed to showcase the culture of all the people living in that area of Assam, and the Tangsa were only one of the several groups represented. But what culture could one hope to find in an event of that scale? Well... everything and nothing, I guess; it all depended on what one thought of as culture. For instance, our Nocte taxi driver came running up to me when he saw a group of Nocte dancers performing on stage, and exclaimed excitedly,'Baidew, look, look, that is our Nocte culture!'

And what of rituals in such a newly-concocted and multi-ethnic festival -- there was a Tipam pooja conducted in the morning of the first day of the festival to propitiate the gods of that area. I tried hard to ask around what Tipam meant, and also to figure out why that particular ritual was selected to get things going for that festival. But as is with many such questions, most of the people who were involved with it did not know very much. All I got were vague and tentative answers with nobody wanting to take responsibility but nobody wanting to appear ignorant either. I thought this reaction was quite typical of many such events that an anthropologist could want to explore in the course of one's work. But when a dreadful storm blew off the huge pandal of the festival area and wrecked havoc on all the stalls later in the day, everyone (and that included many Christian people as well) very happily claimed that there was some fault in the performance of the Tipam pooja in the morning that had angered the gods who had justifiably shown their wrath by destroying everything!

The much-hyped 'authentic' demostration of indigenous culture and way of life at that festival only left me with more questions than answers. Was I missing something? Why did it all seem not to fit? Wanting a break to figure out a few things for myself first I went to attend the NEILS conference at Tezpur, with the hope that talking to others working in the region might help me cope with my own worries better. My paper there as well as in Kohima (at the Indian Folklore Congress) earlier received a lot of response but it didn't help me sort the bigger picture. I understood that research is essentially a lonely journey, be it in mathematics, be it in anthropology. I would have to sort out by myself what to do with my festivals and what they might be good for.

From Tezpur I went on to Itanagar, the capital of Arunchal. Talking to people there I realised that though Itanagar was the capital of the state where most Tangsa lived, the two eastern-most districts of Tirap and Changlang were somewhat neglected despite being the most troubled, infested as they were with NSCN camps spilling over from neighbouring Nagaland. Being so far away from Itanagar and being so numerically weak, the Tangsa as well as the other tribes living in those two districts did not really have much say in the government of that state. But there are a couple of very high-powered Tangsa in place in Itanagar -- the state finance minister is a Kimching gentleman and he is perhaps one of the most dynamic people I met on this trip. The Chairman of the State Women's Commission is also a Tangsa -- a very outspoken and down-to-earth Mossang lady from Jairampur. Both of them cared deeply about the Tangsa and were very keen on preservation and revival of Tangsa language and culture. They were very happy to have our team join that effort and assured me of every possible help. They were also very keen that the Tangsa get better educated (for instance, the facts that there wasn't a single science graduate, nor an IAS officer from amongst the Tanga so far bothered them) and claim their place in the national mainstream.

For me, it was very good to have a chance to see how far the Tangsa have made it on the one hand while also observing how the ones who had made it still retained their strong sense of belonging and responsibility for their own community. I also understood that for the Tangsa there was only one way forward from here -- education, development, progress, modernisation,... -- they had come too far already, soon they would become like the rest of us, their difference lying only in their mostly unrecorded and soon to be forgotten past. Well... a pity maybe in some respects, but then it was their choice, and would have to be respected. After all, haven't we all made the same choice too at some point in our past. Mulling over those thoughts in Itanagar, and also while interacting first with the teachers and students at the Tribal Studies Institute of the Rajiv Gandhi University and later with many well-to-do and educated Tangsa at the residence of the Finance Minister, I realised that my attitude towards the Tangsa had changed -- that within these six months I had somehow stopped thinking of them as objects of study, they had become my friends. That I could no longer just be a neutral observer while talking to them, I had become part of their families, as much as they had become part of my life.

How that will impact on my work and my understanding of the data I have collected so far will have to be seen. But it does not worry me too much, for by that point I had come to an important realisation -- that one must not try to find additional meaning in things simply because one had originally hoped them to be more important than what they turned out to be. If festivals are nothing more than simply occasions to come together, to eat, drink, dance, sing and be merry, then I will have to be happy with that. If culture is just song, dance and dress for the people themselves then I would have to accept that. And if in the end, being honest about what I found in the field implies that my dissertation does not have anything profound to say about the Tangsa or their festivals, then I would have to live with that.

Towards the end of March came the big news that a Development Council had been awarded to the Tangsa, the Singpho and a few other tribal groups. While it was seen by many as just an election stunt by the outgoing government, the tribal groups were jubilant. Lukam Tonglung was elected the Deputy Chairman of the Council while Tehon Hakhun and Molu Rera were inducted as the Tangsa members of the Council. While one could have guessed Lukam Tonglung and Molu Rera to be part of any Tangsa leadership, the fact that Tehon Hakhun was also in showed how well he had played his cards, and what his own personal agenda was in organising those annual festivals in Malugaon.

As such I gave up my plans to go back to Tangsaland (as many of my Tangsa consultants had become totally preoccupied with their plans for the Council) and spent the rest of my time working in libraries, archives and with books, attending conferences, interviewing people, many of them Tangsa, many of them people who had worked on the Tangsa. Most of that time I was in Guwahati but I also used the opportunities to go to Shillong (to attend the Interim Conference of International Society for Folk Narrative Research) and to Delhi (to speak at the newly started Ambedkar University) to get some important interviews.

But it was just after I had finished my presentation at a seminar hosted by the Indian Council for Historical Research in Guwahati that I was put to the hardest test -- when a young man stood up and asked me 'So what is so special about your Tangsa that we need to know about them at all?' If I wasn't so stumped by his brazenness I could have thrown a glass of water at him and replied, 'What is so special about you that I have to bother to reply?' But later when I thought about it I realised that I had no honest answer. Given what I know so far, I do not know if there is anything so very special about the Tangsa that might have convinced the young researcher to lend me his ear. But why do they have to be special -- is it not special enough to be ordinary yet perhaps just a wee bit different?


Thursday, 21 April 2011

My time in Guwahati

This time I was in India for long enough to be able to do a little more than I have been able to in the preceding few years. And since I could plan my time, I could also make sure I was able to attend a few events in Guwahati, even though I was away from Guwahati on work for long stretches at a time.

The first event of that kind was Confluence, the South-east Asian Literary Festival, hosted by the North-east Writers Forum (NEWF) in Guwahati early in December. As I have been a NEWF member from day one, the event was like a huge reunion of old friends for me, besides giving me the chance to meet greats like Mark Tully and Mahesh Dattani. And since I have been away from the Forum for many years now, I got treated like a guest, so much so that I did not have to do any of the organising and could just sit back and enjoy myself. In any case, it was really great to be back in that world again. Pity that I didn't really manage to be present at any of the Forum meetings after that, and in the process missed meeting Mitra baidew, for example, again. But I did meet Mamang again in Itanganar, that too, after she had been awarded the Padma Shri, and was thrilled to find her as unassuming and as friendly as ever.

Even before Confluence was over I had begun to wonder about Upasana's idea of starting a community college in Guwahati. Not knowing how else to go about making it happen I wrote a 'letter to the editor' and sent it to both the Assam Tribune and the Sentinel. You wouldn't believe the response we got to that letter! At least 20 people responded over phone, maybe an equal number over e-mail, and as a result of all of that, Upasana managed to put together a group of like-minded people to get a programme to train domestic workers started already by mid January! And though their group Xahai is a long way from setting up a community college in the form we had originally envisaged, still a beginning has been made. The fact that neither she, nor I, nor Smita, the very enterprising young lady based in the US who has done a lot of work with domestic workers in Assam, actually live in Guwahati is probably part of the problem. But I am hopeful that there will be better things to report on that front in the days to come.

One event that I couldn't attend, despite wanting desperately to do so was the going on-line of the Saurav Kumar Chaliha website on New Year's Day in Guwahati (more about this in a previous blog). I have been associated with that effort right from the very beginning but just could not be in Guwahati on that day as my work and job demanded I be with my Tangsa people. However, there was a sense of real achievement as the website actually took shape and we were all very happy to have been able to put on record our admiration and respect for the great master of the Asamiya short story through this little gesture. I've brought back a few more stories to translate, but translating SKC can be quite a challenge, as you all know.

Between my field trips I was also desperately trying to get ready for publication, two books in English, that were already in the pipe-line and would be good to have released in the next award meeting of the Munin Barkotoki Memorial Trust scheduled for early March. The first was a book of short biographies of some important Assamese men of letters. This book had been more than 10 years in the making and was still not ready. The second was a book of selected short-stories and poems, in translation, written by the Munin Barkotoki Awardees 1995-2004. While I was not directly involved with the production of the first book (except for helping with expediting things wherever I could) I had translated all the prose pieces for the second book and was also responsible for getting it ready for publication. To cut the long story short, both books appeared in time for the Award Meeting; but the first one was so full of mistakes that it will have to be re-done, and due to some misunderstanding with the publisher the second one is still not really published (at the last moment we had to get a few copies printed so as to be able to release it at the meeting) though we are hopeful it will happen soon. But I have learnt one simple lesson from this major exercise which cost me a lot of time, energy and money -- that one cannot really push things beyond a certain point -- things will happen in their own good time; if you push too hard -- things will just fall through.

The award meeting was fixed for 5th March 2011 and we did manage to put up a reasonably good show (read my earlier blog). But I could see that the strain of organising this event was beginning to become a bit too much for Ma. I tried to do what I could to help, however, I am not sure how we will keep this going in the years to come especially with the centenary around the corner in 2015.

There were other jobs like doing tax returns, renovating the two bathrooms in my flat, redoing the furniture and curtains in Ma's living room, and so on which can only happen when one is in Guwahati for long enough. I also took Ma for a medical check-up to Delhi. Of course there were many other things that I did not manage to do despite being there for so long -- visiting Khura, Arindam and Misiki in Nagaon and, Mimli's parents and Shishugram in Guwahati among them. I hope to be forgiven for it was not intentional -- I kept meaning to visit but kept postponing till it was too late. Since I have been away for many years now people have stopped inviting me for weddings, birthdays and the like. And I am not exactly sorry about that. But I was happy that I could attend one very nice Asamiya wedding partially and it was really good to find that the old Assamese traditions still live on.

That wedding also took me to Rangiya and I was pleasantly surprised to find how nicely village life has adapted to modern conveniences without losing its wholesome and thriving character. That feeling was reinforced in my trips to Adabari and Barpeta Road. From Barpeta Road, our friend Monica took us to visit the Satra at Barpeta. And that was perhaps the most beautiful and most impressive of all the places I have been to this time. Of course the fact that women are still not allowed in seems more like an anachronism than anything else to me and I tried not to allow my irritation over that prohibition mar my appreciation of the serene beauty of the place.

Besides all that Stephan and I had a wonderful holiday in Dharamshala in March -- it was nice to see a new part of India and also nice to get away from the daily grind for a bit. It was amazing to discover that Macleodganj near Dharamshala, where the Dalai Lama lives, is so overrun by Tibetan refugees, north-Indian businessmen and foreign tourists that one only rarely sees any Himachalis around. Nature in the Kangra hills and valley is simply breath-taking although the towns and cities are nothing to write home about. Work also took me to Mokukchung, Kohima, Itanagar and Shillong this time and I can say this in all sincerity -- the hills and people of the north-east are as wonderful, if not better, than anywhere else in India.

One of the nicest things that happened during my long stay in India this time was getting back in contact with my school and college friends both in Guwahati and in Delhi. It started right on the very first day on my arrival in Delhi with a really big reunion of my Carmel school friends after 28 years! That was really a very happy occasion and I tried to do the same in Guwahati with my St. Mary's, Cotton College and University friends. Miraculously things worked and it was just wonderful to have had the chance this time to reconnect with so many of my old friends from school and college with whom I share so many unforgettable memories. As I look back on those wonderfully happy get-togethers I can only feel blessed and be grateful for having been given the chance to meet them all again.

While on friends, there were a few old friends, Roshini and Liza amongst them, who I could not reach or find despite repeated efforts, and I kept wondering what the matter could be. I still don't know but maybe it is just that as time goes by people change and with it change their preferences for friends. To make up for the ones I have lost, I also made a few new ones, and that made me very happy -- Lisa from Itanagar, Bhaskar in Margherita, Altafda and Nazrul in Guwahati to name just a few. I also had a few amazing experiences and also met and got to know some incredibly nice and impressive people. More about all of that, in my note on the Tangsa that is to follow. And as I now begin the process of figuring out which of my friends in Europe I have lost, and which ones I still have left after so many months of no contact, I can only tell myself that no matter what the outcome is, these were six months in India well spent.


Back again in Volkach

Just to say that I am back home again in Volkach, after almost six months away. Most of the time I was in Upper Assam working with the Tangsas. I also spent a lot of time in Guwahati and got involved in many things -- some new and some old. But about all that later -- just wanted to record a few things I noticed immediately after getting back before I forget them.

Almost the first thing that Stephan did as we tried to board a taxi at the train station was to open the driver's door to sit down! Even he, although he had been away for just a month, had forgotten that cars are left-hand-drive in Germany. I chuckled and teased him about it but the next morning when Inez, Stephan's sister, called and started listing all the flowers that were blooming in her garden and describing how lovely the weather was, and I found it all a little unusual, I realised that even I had got a little out of sync. For when was it, if at all, during the last six months in India that anyone had spoken about flowers and weather and garden in the same vein? Okay some people in India also had pretty gardens but flowers and lovely weather were never so crucial to a person's general well-being there as it is here. But we don't need to continue this discussion any further -- in a few days I will also be chattering away about the flowers and the weather like Inez, I am sure.

We had timed our return to be in time for Easter in Germany. And it was lovely to have an invitation -- but coming back to find a world decked up in yellow and orange with Easter eggs everywhere, and the impossible attempts to find the right presents to take along, were not easy to take in one's stride. It was Bihu in Guwahati just before we left and even there we had had to worry no end about presents for everyone around us. There were also japis and gamochas to be seen on many shop-windows in Guwahati and loud Bihu music everywhere -- come to think of it, Bihu there and Easter here were not all that different, and we seemed to have inadvertently landed up having to do the same things twice -- no wonder it was beginning to pale.

Well... in any case I shouldn't be complaining for even after being away for six months I found this world here, as well as our house and garden, more or less as I had left it. That is one of the nicest things about Germany -- nothing changes, or at least, not very quickly. In six months certain streets in Guwahati can change beyond recognition, but not here. The friendly shopkeepers were all still in place and acknowledged my presence after so long in their usual friendly and polite way -- if they were surprised to see me back after so long, they did not show it. Our housekeeper was there looking very much the same as ever, her usual efficient self -- she was the one who had kept this house going all this while. The kitchen, the sofas, my table, the bed-side lamp, my little gosain-ghar, the owl at the front-door,...looked very much the same -- it was all very comforting.

Of course the huge stack of letters (and Christmas cards) waiting to be opened did tell a story of their own. Also the plants in our garden had lived through another very severe winter since I was here last -- not all of them have survived, but still... Now that that spring is in the air and I am back, I have to make sure the garden looks good again... it gives me something I enjoy doing to do, something familiar to hold on to, as I try to find my feet again in this world, so different from the one I have left behind in India. The telephone does not ring all the time here, friends do not keep dropping in all the time, the neighbours don't come to smother you with affection and food the moment they see you arrive, even the silences are longer here, but still I do feel very welcome. I could not but be grateful for the happy chatter of the birds in our garden as I woke up in the morning to the soft chiming of the church bells and told myself that I had really come home.


Saturday, 5 March 2011

Munin Barkotoki Award Meeting

My first thoughts after the Munin Barkotoki Award Meeting on 5th March 2011

The Munin Barkotoki Awards for 2009 and 2010 were given away by distinguished Asamiya literateur Arun Sarma, in the presence, amongst many others, of distinguished Manipuri poet Robin Ngangom and my mother Renuka Devi Barkatati in a well-attended meeting at the Lakhiram Barooah Sadan in Guwahati. Arun Sarma khura spoke eloquently and very emotionally about his personal assocation with Baba and read out a few excerpts from Baba's Bismrita Byatikram. Robin Ngangom delivered a very powerful and excellently-crafted invited lecture on 'Poetry in the Time of Terror'. For me, however...

the personal high point was my first ever public speech in Assamese -- I had taken Upen Khura's help to write it down and had tried to rehearse it once, but the whole things was forgotten in a flurry of other activity till moments before I had to actually speak. Thankfully I found my sheet of paper on time and somehow managed to do my job. The occasion was the release of the book titled 'Winners All' comprising English translations of select pieces from the Prize winning entries of the first ten years (1995-2004). Pradip Acharya, the editor, had translated the poems and I had done the prose. Since Pradipda could not be present at the meeting, I had to speak. Another book in English titled 'Pensive Pioneers' edited by Dr. Sivanath Barman containing biographical sketches of some of the foremost Assamese men of letters was also released at the meeting.

The meeting also helped me to see more clearly a few facts -- first that the Munin Barkotoki Award has become widely known and established over the years and that it had moved out from being just a private initiative of the Trust to achieving a much wider level of acceptance and recognition. It was very gratifying indeed to see, besides many of our well-wishers and friends, so many distinguished Assamese men of letters, turning up for the meeting and happily sitting through the two-hour long meeting. And I felt very happy that Baba is not forgotten, at least till today. The next very happy realisation was the fact that I still had very many friends -- amazing people who had gone out of the way to help me get this meeting right, and shown once again that they still care. To balance these two very happy thoughts was the rather unhappy realisation that Ma was getting rather old -- she had done everything that was required of her for yesterday's meet but it was hard for her to cope with the pressure. I'll have to find a way to manage things without burdening her too much in the years to come.

And that is a very sobering thought because a big event is ahead of us -- Baba's centenary celebrations are due in 2015. I hope I will somehow be able to see my way forward...

For the moment just want to say a big thank you to everyone who helped yesterday in so many different ways to make the meeting a success...


Saturday, 12 February 2011

Saurav Kumar Chaliha on the web

For those of you who have not already done so, please visit the website SKC. I do not want to say more about the great SKC -- the website says it all... just want to say how happy I am that this website has really happened and pay my tribute to two true and noble SKC fans who 'double-handedly' made this happening possible -- renowned filmmaker Altaf Majid da and young enterpreneur Nazrul Haque. My hats off to both of them!

Comments for improvement are welcome. We'd also be grateful to hear from more SKC fans and also from those SKC fans who can and are willing to translate some of SKC's untranslated stories ... there is a lot still left to do before the work will be come and strengthen our hands...