Tuesday, 10 February 2015

A catalogue of failures

This last year has been a lesson for me -- I had started out with a number of projects related to celebrating my father's birth centenary. What has become of some of them in the course of the year is a veritable catalogue of things that went wrong and proof of the fact that perhaps the problem does not lie out there but somehwere within me... perhaps I have become a misfit in this world I thought was and which I still call my home.
Some details follow...

First there were a few books projects; I will tell you the stories of only three such, without naming the people involved.

1. The first project which we started to work on more than two years back was the task of translating important essays from Baba's two books of biographical sketches Bismrita Byatikram and Bandita Barenya. Two well known translators from Asamiya to English agreed to do the job and we hoped to put the essays together and publish them as a book. Now after all this time and countless reminders, a few meetings, many promises to deliver etc. we are still nowhere. 

The problem as far as I understand it lies in the fact that people find it difficult to admit the fact that they find something difficult to do, or that they don't want to continue with the project, for whatever reasons. So rather than make a clean break and opt out, they just delay, refuse to pick up phone calls, say they are busy, unwell, etc etc. and the few times one actually reaches them they try to find ways to explain the delay without mentioning the actual problem.  This problem gets worse when there are two people involved, because one can then neatly ride on the back of the other -- why should I do my work if the other one hasn't done his? Fair enough, but this eternal ping-pong game does not take the project forward. Furthermore, I do not enjoy being used as the ping-pong ball having to hear complaints from both sides... as if I was the one to blame...as if I was the one who did not do the work...it is almost as if I am being blamed for asking them to do something that they had agreed to do voluntarily... I'm not sure how else I could have proceeded in this matter, and what I should do to see this project reach completion.

2. Then there was the other project of writing a kind of  partly biographical and partly socio-historical book on my father and the times in which he lived... The job was entrusted to a highly respected and distinguished scholar of Assam more than a year back with mention of by when it should be ready etc etc. Of course he is a very busy man with a million other projects. So we felt it best to not keep badgering him with reminders, since he had already committed himself to it. Now when the deadlines are over, the fact that an earlier project he had underatken had taken much longer than it should have has implied that although he has got started with the work, and a rough outline is done, the book is not written yet. We shall have something that we can release at our end Feb. meeting, I have been assured, but it won't be the real thing. That will come only later, 

While I can sympathise and see the problem, I find it hard, personally, to cope with delays and broken assurances. But that can happen I know. People are not machines.  Perhaps I am being too harsh, too strict, too fussy... even too German, as many of my friends keep reminding me. Perhaps it is again my fault that I am disappointed that this person whom I respect and admire so much has failed to deliver when he said he would. But I ask why is it that here delays are more often the rule than the exception -- why is it that most things don't happen when they are supposed to, as mutually agreed upon? Is it because we take commitments too causally and make too many of them, or is it because we can't be bothered? I'm not sure.

3. A compilation of my father's  published works was to be published by the Assam Publication Board. Since all the material was there, all that was required was an editor who would write a preface for this new volume. The book was to be released at the Publication Board Book Fair at the end of the year. Early this year, one of the sharpest minds of our times agreed to do the job. I was thrilled. But he was busy, very busy, and he would also be travelling. He told us to give him the material later. But everytime someone from the Publication Board went to give him the material he would send it back saying that the material would get lost if they gave it to him then, so they should bring it back some other time. But when I asked him about the matter he told me that since he had not got the material he could not do the job. With only days left for the book release, the problem was resolved only after my mother went to meet him personally, stood waiting at the foot of the steps for long waiting for the great man to give `darshan', and renewed the request we had all made earlier. The book was put together hurriedly and released on the last day of the Book Fair. I haven't seen it yet -- they say that it was such a rush at the last moment that they could only print a few copies. 

Well... at least it is a project that I can tick off now and don't have to worry about any more but I still find it hard to cope with the fact that even the best of minds in Assam find it hard to keep their word, once given. I can see that they are badgered from all directions at any given point of time and perhaps have to constantly worry about which of the many competing deadlines they will honour, but still... I wish these great people would give me no reason to be unhappy about... perhaps that is asking for too much...again it is essentially my problem, I guess, not anyone else's.

So much for books, now about three seminar projects we had set out to organise...We had hoped to hold three seminars/workshops/lectures on three areas that were dear to Baba, one on theatre, one on literary criticism and the third on journalism. The theatre/drama project never took off, I don't know why, even though the Chairman of our Birth Centenary Celebration Committee is the most renowned contemporary dramatist and playwright of Assam. Maybe he could forsee the problems and decided to nip it in the bud -- that was a bit of smart thinking and I can only thank him for this.

For journalism, we wanted to invite a reputed national level journalist to speak on some  aspects of journalism relevant to the northeast. We started looking for possible speakers already last October. But despite our best efforts and despite firm initial assurances, things have not worked out. It seems everybody is busy on the 28th Feb. and cannot make it to our programme. Hence we have temporarily postponed the whole thing to sometime in October when hopefully things will work better.

The third seminar on literary criticism was supposed to be the big thing,  Since we wanted it to be a two day affair at least we decided to submit a proposal to do it in collobaration with the Sahitya Akademi. That was last Feb, I mean Feb 2014. Our proposal was accepted by the Akademi with a few changes in the end of the summer and I submitted the revised proposal in September. Then I waited....In the meanwhile I had started the work of collecting stories and asking the authors to get them translated with the hope that things would fall in place at some point. It was not until the first week January that I heard from the Akademi, and suddenly, the dates were fixed (for the 31st Jan and 1st Feb) and I was told to ask participants to buy their tickets, book halls and hotels, send out invitations. I did all that as asked as quickly as I could. But a few days later I was peremptorily told that since the Akademi officials in Kolkata have to go to attend the Kolkata Book Fair on the 31st Jan. I should co-operate and postpone the whole programme by a day! Why did they agree on these dates if they had to go to the Kolkata Book Fair? The dates for the Kolkata Book fair must have been known months in advance. But nobody bothered to reply.

That was the first time that I realised that it was absolutely imperative for the Kolkata officials to be present at our event. That same official had earlier agreed with me over phone  that we could start on the 31st and he would join us on the 1st. Well... I asked around, half of the participants would not be able to come if we changed dates, the other half were not too happy to have to change dates. I wrote back to the Akademi explaining all this and requesting them to reconsider their position given the fact that the change would throw our whole carefully crafted programme out of gear. But no, there was no response, not one line. Despite writing repeatedly to the Akademi, I got no response from them after that last message instructing me to change dates. They did not even honour the request of their own language convenor to allow the programme to go ahead as originally planned.

So, in the end, we ended up having a wonderful programme on the original dates, but at a huge additional  and sudden expense to the Trust, since we had embarked on this project only with the understanding that the Akademi would  finance most of the programme. And I believe this fell through, simply because the highest literary body in the country considers the convenience of their officials (and their last minute engagements) to be more important than the convenience of the distinguished writers, academics and intellectuals who attend their programmes. Moreover they think nothing of  not honouring commitments already made, changing dates at the last minute and then, as if it was nothing at all, ordering others to co-operate with them!

Many of those who came told me that it was my fault that we did not manage to persuade the Akademi. That it was my language that was all wrong, that I should have begged and scraped and told them how great they are and how impossible it would be for us  to go ahead without them. Then they would have relented and been kind and benevolent, because they would feel so good about helping this poor woman who is in such deep trouble. But my tone was different, I  had written to  them reminding them that this was a collaboration and that they could not really order me around and demand that I cooperate. I had also told them that since it was on my request that people had gone ahead and bought tickets, I would keep my commitments and go ahead with the programme as planned, with or without the Akademi! It was clear to all that I was being punished for talking like that.  'It was clear to me after reading your message that you have not lived in India for a long time,' our keynote speaker told me. `You should have asked someone living in India to reply to the Akademi. Then everything would have been fine.'

I guess that is really the problem with me, I have always been head-strong. But living in Germany all these years have made me forget how strongly hierarchial systems in India still are; I have forgotten that you might be equal  in terms of intellectual capacity or even qualifications but still the man sitting behind the desk has priority -- he still calls the shots, whether you like it or not. If you address  him as Sir and flatter and praise him to let him know how great you think he is, he might decide to humour you, but if you address him as an equal, and speak your mind in not impolite but plain language you are lost. I have had to learn the hard way that any behaviour like that will be considered to be arrogance, and  punished summarily.

This is getting long, so let me end this piece by just telling you about a third project -- that of making a documentary film on my father. We are lucky to have a very good and talented director. But even he does not really believe in doing something and finishing it before or even in good time. We started more than a year back. But since it was not yet the centenary year, there was a kind of casualness about the whole thing, so shootings would happen most often when I was in town, and things would grind to a stop when I was gone. So much so that we had to give up on our original plan to screen the film at the opening event of the birth centenary last October. It was not ready then, but it would  certainly be ready for the end Feb. event in Guwahati I was told. Today is the 11th Feb. The editing is not complete. The sound has yet to be synchronised. Forget about translation into English. He was planning to work non-stop till it was done, I was told, but the Director has been called away on a prestigious important engagement till the 23rd Feb. He still hopes that he will be able to finish in time for the 28th Feb. event.

This is the kind of last-minute thing that I really find very hard to cope with. There is something hugely unsatisfactory to have to be at the receiving end, after having paid through the nose to make it all  happen in the first place. But one is completely helpless -- at the mercy of people whose sense of time and space is apparently different from yours. If we get to see the film for the first time on the 28th and not before, when is the time to suggest and make changes, when is the chance to make corrections to factual errors, where is the time to improve on the first cut. Given the fact that this has been a very costly affair, do we not have a right to put in a word about the final outcome? But given how things are, we will have to consider ourselves incredibly lucky if we get to see something on the 28th.

The story why we had to finance the film ourselves is another long story -- I am too tired to go into details now, suffices to say that our application to get it funded from the government fell through, not because our proposal was bad, but again because we were too straight about it, we just submitted it and expected it to be accepted, We did not lobby, we did not go to meet the Chief Minister, requesting him to intervene, neither have we been doing the rounds of the offices and the officers, begging. We have been hoping, rather foolishly, I must now admit, that things would take their proper and due course and that the proposal would be judged on its merits, and would be accepted.

In which world do you live in, my friends have been teasing me. Living in Germany has turned you into an idiot. Maybe they are right, for I have no other way to explain why so many things, almost everything that I have embarked on this year, have gone wrong so badly, despite my trying so hard. I really don't know what it is that I do wrong. There are a few more things still left to do... I am very worried how those will turn out. For the moment... I am just hoping that the Feb 28 event will come and go without any fresh  major disasters. I will report back after then.

For now, I am feeling really angry with myself, for being such a fool, for not being able to make thing happen or bring things to a proper conclusion... do wish me luck for the coming days... my poor father for whom I am doing all this must be having the last laugh wherever he is -- if anything, he was worse than me in all of this. He must be hugely amused seeing me being pushed around from all sides. Anyway it has been a very big learning experience for me... and I can see that I have nobody to blame for the mess I am in but myself, but still it is hard for me to change my colours, because, despite all that has happened, I am still not convinced that I really should do so.


  1. Dr. Bibhash Chowdhury, from Gauhati University, who was one of the `experts' who were actively involved in the seminar on literary criticism mentioned above, wrote the lines below after reading my blog: Thank you Bibhash for your support. If you remember, the title of the seminar was `Munin Barkotoki's failed dream?' Your sober analysis of the situation indicates that his dream has indeed failed. In which case, it also means that there is a lot still to be done... thank you for your offer to join hands in this effort.

    This is what Bibhash wrote:

    I fully appreciate and hold in the highest regard the values you have referred to in your blog. Only you, as one who has been through such a difficult year, will be feeling the real hurt, and I can only see it from a distance, but I can sense the pain you have gone through in pursuing these projects. The failure is not yours at all Baideu, it is a reflection of a crisis that we have wonderfully managed as a people (I am referring to the Assamese as a people) to package as something that is unique to us, our much-vaunted easy-going nature. Under the veneer of such an epithet, works of importance get postponed and many just fizzle out, quickly erased from public memory.

    It hurts when the world you are doing it for, the world Munin Barkotoki believed in fails to live up to what has always appeared so promising: the presence of talent to match the best in the world. But have we been able to provide evidence of this talent, and to what extent? We haven't, and it does not seem likely.

    The younger generation, smarter and street savvy, may push through the crowd by pursuing the visibility track, but that is contrary to what actual scholarship is. From what I have read of Munin Barkotoki's writings I believe that he was the first modern Assamese critic to envisage an idiom that would address our literary culture. Have we been able to take that forward? The answer is, no.

    As a people, we have cultivated the culture of unstudying, of knowing without getting into the thick of the text, and this is what hurts so much.

    For those who face the hard paths and venture forward, there won't be many following the same route. But you are not alone Baideu. I am sure you will have a few whom you can trust and believe in, they will stand by you for good.

    In case there is anything in which you may envisage for me in any of the projects I would be glad to be involved, just let me know.

  2. Another dear friend, Margaret Zama, who, like Bibhash, was also one of the experts at the lit. crit. seminar wrote to say this after reading the blog:
    Just read your blog and have this to say: i agree that people often commit but fail to deliver- believe me, I have been there! But I have also learnt to not beat myself too hard for the sake of undeserving people. Take it as lesson learnt the hard way. I do agree that it is a misery to have occasional self doubts about oneself - but I tell myself that without the checks and balances of life, things would be too easy all the time, and I am one who welcomes the occasional challenges. I don't want to sound like an agony aunt but Meenaxi, maybe you are taking yourself too seriously. Why not give yourself a break. Honestly, let's admit it, your PR may be wanting and most people are not going to live up to your expectations anyway!
    Thanks, Margaret, for the reality check.

  3. Just heard that the Assamese department of Dibrugarh University organised a seminar on literary criticism sponsored by the Sahitya Akademi at the end of March 2015. Upen Khura was invited, but nobody bothered to inform either Ma or me about the seminar. I am completely outraged, also because I believe this seminar has been held with the money that the Akademi had originally committed to give to the Trust to hold the seminar of literary criticism in Guwahati in the end of January 2015. Halleluah...