Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sanskrit, German and Owls in Athens

After a long time, India has a right wing nationalist government, that does believe in the supremacy of the ancient Hindu culture. And, just in case you don't know, the ancient Hindu religion was often known as "Arya-Dharma", or the way of life of the Aryans, who used a specific religious symbol, the Swastika, quite frequently. It is said that Adolph Hitler was quite influenced by this religion, and incorporated bits and pieces of it into his Nazi ideology. But, that is where the similarity ends.

Decades before Hitler, a scholar with his head screwed on right (as opposed to Hitler), had come to some startling conclusions about the cultural roots of the ancient Indian tribes, and those of Germania. Max Muller, with his comparative studies of ancient religions, had concluded that the Nordic and Indian concepts of God, could be traced back to abstract descriptions, that were later incarnated into "beings" that became gods. Today, Max Muller is celebrated as a scholar who brought two ancient cultures together, and showed them how similar they were, in more ways than one can imagine.

And today, those two cultures are involved in a very public display of discord.

A few years ago, the Indian government had decided to teach German in a chain of government funded schools. In order to stop the "linguistic indigestion" associated with the instruction of too many languages, they had allowed the children to choose between Sanskrit and German, two languages that Max Muller had shown to be more similar than different.  And, it seemed to be working quite well.

As the new government assumed charge, it decided to enforce its old ideology that things ancient and Indian, were superior to things foreign, and that a thorough cultural grounding was required for all Indian kids.  And so, all instruction of German was to be stopped immediately, and replaced with Sanskrit. This has triggered a nationwide debate over if students can choose a language that improves their prospects of employment in a global world, as opposed to choosing a language that provides them with a strong cultural grounding.

Trust me when I tell you that it is an extremely difficult question to answer. I say this with some authority as I have formally studied both Sanskrit and German, and I personally feel that both had a positive influence on me, during my formative years.

Sanskrit was a compulsory language for my generation, which saw very little of a "non-English" foreign language, taught in schools. When we went to college however, we could study such a language, but it would typically be French or German. And by that time, we would already know all the Sanskrit that we could ever learn -- the Shabd Roop of Deva would still occasionally appear in our nightmares, and German would let us understand what the Nazi general in the war movie was up to, when he addressed his secretary as "Meine Liebchen". Both langauges, it seems had their own use, and they were never in direct conflict with each other.

By allowing the replacement of Sanskrit with German, the previous government made an important statement -- that Sanskrit, was expendable. Depending on what you believe in, it may or may not be. One has to ask if the Germans, whose culture we are so willing to adopt, would so easily allow the instruction of an Indian language in their schools, where most of the curriculum is taught in German. If this reciprocal arrangement is not possible, we have to seriously analyze what our kids gain from letting go of a piece of their heritage, in exchange for a language that was never truly theirs. There is a lot of talk about educational and employment opportunities in Germany, but those can still be pursued if someone takes up German in college.  A short course is all one needs to understand what is being said, when it is Auf Deutsch Gesagt.

So, this debate should not be about Sanskrit or German, but about what the policy makers are going to do about the poor kids, who studied German for a couple of years, and would face significant hardship now, if they had to switch to Sanskrit. This is a delicate matter, that can only be remedied with empathy and lenience. And German could still be offered as an optional foreign language, for those, who would like to learn it.

One of the funniest phrases that I ever learned in German was "Eulen nach Athen tragen". Roughly translated, it means "carrying owls to Athens". Apparently, there was once a time when there were too many owls in Athens, and carrying any to this ancient seat of culture was considered a futile exercise. In some ways, this phrase means the same as our famous Indian equivalent of "Ulte bans Bareily Ko", that I once wrote about. Both phrases, refer to a wasteful expense of time, that no one needs to indulge in.

This entire debate on Sanskrit versus German, has indeed been a wasteful expense of time. Perhaps, it is time for us to move on to things, that are more productive. All an owl needs, is a rat to feed on, it doesn't really need to know if the rat is Indian, or German. And it certainly does not mind, if it is taken all the way to Athens, before it is fed.

Monday, August 11, 2014

First Field Marshal

In my years in the land of the free, whenever the conversation turned to India's freedom movement, my American friends would ask me if Mahatma Gandhi was our "George Washington". My answer would always be an emphatic no.

To me, George Washington was the general on horseback who drove the redcoats to the north. "In the rockets' red glare and the bombs bursting in the air." Of all the founding fathers of the United States, he is the most revered. His military skills were so valued that it is said that long after he ceased to be president, the reigning president, John Adams wanted to bring him back as a General during the Quasi-war with France -- to "scare the French."

George Washington was the only American leader, who could "scare" a reigning superpower at the time.

And that, always brought me back to our own founding fathers and the empire that they took on. Having read all I have about Bapu, I understand that he worried the British a lot. But scaring was reserved for only one national leader, with the same stature as Gandhi. If the British were truly scared of an Indian independence leader, it was Netaji Subhash, because, he wanted a military end to the freedom struggle. The last thing that the British ever wanted, was another 1857, and so, Netaji scared them -- like no other leader did.

During the second world war, Netaji's INA was charging on India's north-eastern frontier.  For a few months, in a small part of Indian territory, the Indian national flag flew. That part of India (Hind) was made independent (Azad), and Netaji became the Indian general on horseback, who took on the redcoats and drove them out. To me, the leader from India's freedom struggle who was the closest to what General George Washington was to the Americans, is Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. No one even comes a close second.

And that brings me to the fresh controversy that is brewing in the air. The newly elected Indian government, wants to honor Netaji Subhash with India's highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India). And since Netaji has never been honored (posthumously) due to a controversy surrounding his death, the new government feels that it is time to give Netaji his due. The people who oppose this thinking say that Netaji was way above this award, and giving him the award after it has been conferred on "lesser mortals", would tarnish his stature. So, I thought that I would give you Desi Babu's opinion in this regard.  

The only other Indian leader of that stature who has never been given the Bharat Ratna is Mahatma Gandhi, since the father of the nation is "above" the award. It is well known that the person who conferred that title on the Mahatma was Netaji Subhash. In addition, Netaji gave a modern perspective to India's freedom struggle and was known to be responsible for India's state symbol and the state salutation (Jai Hind). The only person in the history of the Indian National Congress that ever took on Mahatma Gandhi (and defeated him) was Netaji.

So, if Netaji has the same stature as Gandhiji, how exactly should we honor him?

One option is to do nothing, like we do in Bapu's case. We do not confer posthumous awards on Bapu, although, we do give out awards in his name. Perhaps, we could do the same for Netaji.
The other option, is to confer a military honor (bold emphasis needed) on Netaji. The highest civilian honor does not quite cut it, but honoring Netaji, who always considered himself a military man, should be a military matter.

In the year 1976, during the American bicentennial, General George Washington, the General on horseback who drove the redcoats to the north, was promoted by a special act of Congress to "General of the Armies" (equivalent to Indian Field Marshal), the highest military rank. Only one serving officer in American military history, received the honor before. This posthumous conferral was unprecedented, but if any American deserved this stature, then it would be Washington.   

So, in Desi Babu's opinion, the government should consult the military top brass and through an act of parliament, create an honorary title of "First Field Marshal". India has two field marshals already, but in the order of precedence, as the first general in command of the army of Azad Hind, Netaji needs to be first.

The Bharat Ratna is an award for civilians. A soldier of Netaji's stature, deserves a military honor of the highest category. And, as the Americans showed two hundred years after their independence,  it is never too late to do the right thing.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Those Bundles of Papyrus

Recently, I read an intriguing comment on this blog, asking me what my favorite books were.  It has been a while since I have thought about that question.

All my life, I have read a lot of books. I have liked some, but never hated any. Books are the fruits of love and labor, and like you don't scorn someone Else's child, you don't scorn their books either. However, the word "favorite" conjures up a completely different set of emotions. The ones, that come from being awake all night.

I have always divided my books into the ones that can keep me completely oblivious of the need to sleep at night -- and, the ones that don't. One can understand the need to complete the journey, if a voluminous account of an arctic adventure on a sledge through a blizzard, is given in a larger number of pages, than a single night allows to complete. But, the ones that used to keep me awake, were always short stories. Somerset Maugham had a knack for spinning a web around characters, living in the most nondescript islands in the pacific, and keeping me awake till I would find out their fates. One story always ended into another, but the night never did. It was much later, that I got somewhat tired of his stories -- his times suddenly seemed remote, so remote, that I couldn't stretch and touch the characters any more.

The writings of Sir Vidiadhar, have always appealed to me. In spite of the times when he referred to me, and a countless number of my compatriots, as denizens of a land of darkness. I forgave him, for he makes me see the things, that I am otherwise quite blind to.

No other British writer has ever appealed to me, not even the great bard, whose plays, I do like to watch.

Among American writers, Hemingway has always been a favorite. F. Scott Fitzgerald is fun to read, and James Michener, for some reason, makes me reach out to the people across time, that Maugham made too distant to touch.

I have no favorites from the Russian, East European and Latin corners of the world. Not because I don't like reading translations, but because a lot gets lost in translation.

Of all the Indian writers that I have ever read, I have three favorites. R. K. Narayan, though from times that are long gone, stirs the soul. Khushwant Singh, now gone, will forever be the only writer that has scolded me, and made me laugh in the same page. And Ruskin Bond has made me cry -- many times.

Of the new crop of "famous" Indian writers, I don't like any. Some are too bombastic with their choice of words, and some are simply too commercial. Biswanath Ghosh, has great potential, for he writes from his heart, but unlike the great sardar, Mr. Ghosh, seems to have a drink too many, when he writes. He does make me laugh and cry though -- sometimes -- alternately.

One more writer that deserves a special mention, is Shobha De. I have read too many Indian writers who like to impress with what they know. Mrs. De, is quite the opposite -- she lets the reader discover what she already knows. She writes beautifully, and the impact of each word is carefully measured. Her language is deliberately kept simple, something, that the new crop of Indian writers can learn from. Her stories, though sometimes shocking, awake me to some aspects of India, that Sir Vidiadhar was perhaps too reluctant to experience and write about. And, being the gracious writer she is, she always responds to my emails.

Other than Maugham, the only ones that have kept me awake through the night are R. K. Narayan and Ruskin Bond. Both, with their short stories, some of which, have also made me cry.