Mind

Showcasing My Friends-6

(For the sixth post in this series, for which I have interviewed people I am close to, I emailed Uma Shankar Pandey a set of questions. His responses have been reproduced here. I hope that you would like the idea and enjoy the conversation. The series is to be continued with other friends as and when possible. Sincere thanks to all readers who commented on and appreciated the earlier posts).

viewerUma Shankar Pandey is my newly found friend on the blogosphere. What initially attracted me to his blog was a kind of poetic prose that is so characteristic of whatever he writes- short stories, reminiscences or book reviews. I find him to be an avid reader, a fiercely attentive writer who has all the concern possible for details and above all a very gentle and endearing individual, interacting with whom can be a real source of joy and inspiration. The vocabulary he employs in his expression is rich and classical to the core, to say the least. In this interview, I plan to dig slightly deeper into the person that Uma is. He says on his blog page that he is a “A banker by profession and a writer by confession” and that he shoots when “…the sordid pursuit of livelihood condones such indulgence”. A minute more with some of his lines that linger in my head each time his blog comes to mind should be in order here.

Reviewing a book he says about the author:  “She is a quiet writer of the human disquiet”. Describing in fascinating terms one of his childhood visits to a temple in the city of Varanasi, he writes : “There was no priest in sight and we had to deal with the Goddess without the luxury of a bailiff.” Goes Uma at another point in one of his short stories: “A month passed and the April suddenly started getting intolerably hot and stuffy. I fell to my old habit of pulling out a mattress on the terrace, fixing up a mosquito net on sticks and sleeping under the open sky. The nights were hot to start with but once past the midnight, the wind would pick up thick with the fragrance of night jasmine.” For more of the lovely stuff he writes please do visit uspandey.com. I promise you would not be disappointed!

With that glimpse into the world of his words and musings, on to him directly!

————–

 

Personal Concerns- Benaras to start with- I wanted to know of your take on the charm and mystique that this ancient city is sort of emblematic of.

Uma Shankar Pandey- I have conflicting memories of Banaras.

Ganges River, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India.

 We used to live in a house on the riverbank. I remember peals of bells, many, many of them, ringing, every morning and evening. Then I remember a boat ride where I almost drowned. It was a serene evening and the wind was picking up. People had started scrambling into the boat and I tried to make it on my own and slipped into the river. I was retrieved quickly and someone took off my trousers. I believe I was embarrassed but I was quickly enraptured as the boat pulled into the river, merrily swaying to and fro. Soon, all that stretched out from the boat was rippling water. Ghat after ghat slid past and the chanting grew louder. Beating of drums and cymbals grew and faded as we closed in on temples and then moved away. The women in the boat started singing.

 

I grew up with the perennial awareness of the huge river in which I could drown and on which stood a distant bridge. And all the meandering lanes invariably led to temples milling with people murmuring with half-shut eyes and bowing and falling flat in front of idols. I was more conscious of monkeys gliding across ledges and rooftops than the cows with menacing horns. What hounded my thoughts often though were the human shapes being carried away on bamboo stretchers, the quartets ushering those chanting dully. As a child, I soon learnt what it meant when a group of grim looking men from our paternal village stood at our doors, refusing to come in, demanding to see our father urgently. Draped in shrouds shining red and orange, someone surely awaited the final fire at a ghat nearby. The river of life was filling me with shivers for life.

 

People visited us when they wanted to take a holy dip in Ganges too.  I was told about Kal Bhairava, an incarnation of Shiva who in a fit of anger had severed one of the heads of Brahma and the head had clung to him and accompanied him everywhere. The skull dropped off his hand only when he visited Kashi, or Banaras as it was known then. It is the legacy of deliverance that prompts the sinners among Hindus, and who isn’t a sinner among Hindus, to trudge their way to the holy city by the river ever so often to drop their baggage of misdeeds. And the Ganges has remained a mute witness, a perennial cleanser of the physical and mental excretions of the sinners.

 

Those are the thoughts that sweep my mind when I think of Banaras. Death, because that is what humans fear but actually succumb to; deprivation, because that is why humans pray but to no avail; hope, because that is what humans pray for and their success may vary; delusion, because that is how humans pray and there really isn’t anything out there.

 

PC- During one of my conversations with you, I got to know about your unfinished Ph.D at Lucknow University. I was interested in knowing more about your research. 

USP- My guide, Prof R N Srivastava, had a mysterious brush with T. S. Eliot. He’d get dreamy talking about it, breaking into a vicious American accent. He had a book gifted to him by the towering litterateur and he cherished it like his life. During my stay in Lucknow University as a student he had taken a liking to me and would trust me immensely and that is why I was once lent the very same book which I went on to possess for an unduly long period. I was never truly forgiven for the sin.

Professor Srivastava was a man of honour and a man of words who clung to what he professed come hail or high water. He was kind enough to take me under his fold and suggested ‘Comic Apocalyptic Fiction with Special Reference to Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon and John Barth’ as a topic for the doctoral thesis. Of all those names, Joseph Heller’s masterpiece Catch 22 readily rings a bell to many. I was done with reading Heller and had started writing my critical interpretations. Prof Srivastava, however, wanted me to consult certain tomes even before I put my pen to the paper. I, on the other hand, feared reading other’s works about the genre may perchance sneak in a bias in me or worse, nip my original ideas in the bud. I was afraid I’d be overwhelmed. I did express my apprehension to the professor but he would not budge. It was not that I was adamant or I was sworn not to check out the works my guide wanted me to, much as I was in awe of him anyway. But, it being American Literature, the British Council Library at Lucknow would yield nearly nothing on those authors. The other libraries in Lucknow claimed never to have heard of those, whatsoever.  It was the early 1990s and Internet was not yet born to us. My only option was to go to Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages (CIEFL), Hyderabad., down south. It was a long way off, Hyderabad, two nights away, not earth shattering but a deterrent nonetheless. That, I was a Research Assistant associated with a critical project at IIM Lucknow didn’t help matters much. Eventually, the impasse became insurmountable.


PC- How do the profession of banking and the urge to read, write and blog go together? Since when do you blog?

USP- My earlier job at Indian Institute of Management Lucknow was contractual in nature. I was fervently looking out for teaching positions in Lucknow University and its associated colleges. Unfortunately, it was a complex system being controlled by non-transparent machinery. I am not sure when, if ever I would have ended up in the coveted vocation. Meanwhile, the sordid saga of livelihood started gaining the upper hand with each passing day. Calls for cracking the commonly held recruitment tests started getting shrill. Even Professor Srivastava opined that I should be able to sail through competitions such as those for probationary officers for banks. I did write a few of them and cleared a couple of them and joined my present employer in 1994. For many years after that I was a rolling stone, moving from one branch of the bank to the other, forgetting everything about writing. But I did put up a ‘Homepage’ in 1999, when ‘TCP/IP’ Internet connections became common. Prior to that, I had been trying my luck with publications like Pioneer, TOI, Gentleman, Dharmyug and Saptahik Hindustan. But once my own website was up, I started posting sporadic works there. I started dabbling with ‘Blogger’ circa 2004. I have preserved my first post, ‘Soliloquy’ at uspandey.net. I have been writing intermittently on my current blog One Grain Amongst the Storm at uspandey.com since 2007.


PC- Who are your favorite authors? Any specific novel that you wish to talk about?

USP- It is impossible to have just one favourite author. Some of the authors I love to read are as under:

Shakespeare
Thomas Hardy
Emily Bronte
D H Lawrence
Ernest Hemingway
Mikhail Bulgakov
Boris Pasternak
Joseph Brodsky
Anita Desai
Shashi Deshpande
Arundhati Roy
Rohinton Mistry
Vikram Seth
Manju Kapur
Phanishwar Nath Renu
Janice Pariat
Jeet Thayil

And many more! Hamlet, Jude the Obscure, Wuthering Heights, A Farewell to Arms, Doctor Zhivago, Fire on the Mountain, God of Small Things, Small Remedies, The Immigrant, Boats on Land, Narcopolis are some of my favourite books.

PC- Is communalism ( I am referring to Hindu Muslim animosity/ events of violent conflict in particular) in Uttar Pradesh entirely a political problem?

USP- It is a complex problem. It is impossible to singularly pinpoint at an agent that is at the vortex of the persisting hurricane. I am afraid the seeds of discord may have been sown way back in our history.  I do not intend to invoke the communally subversive strategies of many a Muslim ruler of this land, nor do I wish to invoke the ghost of Jinnah, who have been redeemed by none less than the top faces of a party with a prominently ‘saffron’ bias. What I do believe in is that alarmingly low level of poverty and the resultant illiteracy in people constitute a fertile ground for superstitions and excitable emotions. It is the avarice for power that propels the communal, religious and political leaders to perpetuate the status quo of the preacher and the preached. Enlightenment will mean an adverse shift in power in favour of the populace.  I find the holy altar of so-called secularism more alarming than the bogey of communalism. These pseudo-intellectuals tend to impose themselves where they are not only not needed but are wholly unwelcome too.  They are like the bad conscience that kept egging Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. The underlying equations are overwhelmingly common to both Kandhar and Uttar Pradesh.


PC- Tell us something about your plans regarding the upcoming book?

USP- All I can say is that it is a recurring old dream that grips me off and on with varying force.

PC- I have discussed this with you once. What according to you is the strength of the stream of consciousness style of writing?

USP- The Stream of consciousness mimics the human mind at work. Emotions like pain, anguish, love, hate, sorrow and joy have contextual rather than chronological existence. The fabric of memories is woven of people, places, objects, suffering and happiness, free of temporality. It is one of the most effective tools to explore the psychological landscape of characters and render a meaningful structure to the whole as well.


PC- Favorite film/ song of all time?

USP- I cannot have a favourite film/song for ever. Yet, my favourite singers are Mukesh, Ghulam Ali, Paul Simon and Norah Jones. Some of the best films I have enjoyed and still think highly of them are following:


Enter T
he Dragon (I was a child then, but then still!)

Gone With the Wind

Casablanca

Star Wars

Terminator II

Ben Hur

An Officer and a Gentleman

All Quiet on the Western Front

Ghost

Gladiator

The Ghost and the Darkness

Forrest Gump

Bazar

Saransh

Parinda

Dor

Welcome to Sajjanpur

Khosla ka Ghosla

Well, that is just an indicative list!


PC- A scene from a Shakespearean play that you love. What makes it worth a mention here?

USP- It is from Macbeth’s soliloquy (Act V Scene V)

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

Well, the bard has said it all. We are but a small cog in the big scheme of things. Overarching ambition? Greatness? Where am I headed to? ‘Quis hic locus, quae regio, quae mundi plaga?’

—–

At the end of the interview, Uma also sent me in writing this added small gift- a short note about Personal Concerns. Just made my day!

USP

Your blog

“I have recently started reading your blog and am often stung by the breathtaking evocativeness and sensitivity of your posts. I have read ‘Sleepy Men’ several time over and am mesmerized anew every time.  I wish the best to your muse and I’d love to see your art blooming into a valley of flowers. That said, I’d like you to write oftener.

Yours truly,

Umashankar Pandey”

 ——-

(All comments and suggestions about the format and the presentation of the interview would be deeply appreciated. Friends who wish to be included in this series, please let me know. It would be lovely to have you here on my blog. Cheers!)

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Showcasing My Friends-5

(For the fifth post in this series, for which I have interviewed people I am close to, I emailed Sharmishtha a set of questions. Her responses have been reproduced here. I hope that you would like the idea and enjoy the conversation. The series is to be continued with other friends as and when possible. Sincere thanks to all readers who commented on and appreciated the earlier posts).

Three posts ago, I wrote a few things about the person Sharmishtha Basu is- an artist, a nice friend and above all an active blogger who is not just regular but also remarkably consistent with regard to the quality of her posts. I hope this interview serves as a little window and brings us face to face with some of the unnoticed aspects of the person behind the lovely colors that she employs to illustrate the rhymes of her delicate words.

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Personal Concerns- To start with, I would like to ask you something about your blogs and your experiences with WordPress?

Sharmishtha BasuAs you already know, I am obsessed with writing. I started with Mydomainpvt, so I could use my blog in Intent.com properly, the posts of WordPress can be copied in intent without any editing. Then intent.com shifted to Facebook and I concentrated on WordPress. Two of my earlier blogging experiences- with MSN ( a mixed experience) and Blogspot (horrible) initially made me a bit skeptic about WordPress. Now I feel that WordPress is the place every writer who loves to write and wants genuine readership should be in. It’s an amazing site, the more I compliment WordPress the little it shall be. I have found the very best people of the world both at intent.com and here. I just love the readers and writers at WordPress. They are amazing.

PC- For you, how is Haiku special as a form of poetry?

SB Haiku is the form that unleashes the dreamer in me fully. I love writing Haiku because its main concept is to capture nature, being a great lover of mother earth I really love to play with this form, trying my best to capture mother earth’s beauty in every way I can.

PC- You have lived both in Delhi and Kolkata. In what ways do you find the two experiences different?

SB-I love Kolkata because of its people. It’s the best place for a single woman to live in. Delhi is the scariest place in India I believe. Even when I left Delhi at the age of sixteen, I could feel the scariness of that place. The worst part is that one had to be cautious about family men, neighbours – something which fortunately is still absent in Kolkata. Most probably because Bengali men respect their wives…. Ha ha. They don’t want to get spanked by their wives for eve teasing. Kolkata is full of warm people who let others live in peace.

PC- How many languages do you know? and which of them are you the most comfortable with?

SBBengali, Hindi and English. I am equally comfortable in Hindi and Bengali. I love Bengali the most because it’s a very sweet language. It really sounds sweet to the ears. I have heard a lot of languages, some of them with a little bit of understanding and some without any understanding at all. Bengali really sounds sweet to my ears more than most of the languages, and a lot of my non bengali friends say the same. My English is not bad I believe.

PC- Sharmishtha is a nice sounding name. What does it mean ? Do you also have a nick name?

SB– Sharmishtha means extremely lucky- which I am. My self-given pet name is Trisha.

PC- Who is/are your favorite poets? Any particular poem that you would like to share with us?Kuakata, Bangladesh. Tomb of Kazi Nazrul Islam...

SB-My favourite most poet is Rabindranath Tagore, then comes Kazi Nazrul Islam, Wordsworth, Frost, Shakespeare (I love his sonnets). Its tough for me to look for one poem, song, movie etc. but one that touches me very deeply is Tagore’s Jethay Thaake Sabar adham (where the poorest of poorest dwells)

Your feet dwells

Where the lowest of the low dwells

In the lowest place of all

With Those without anything at all

When I lower my head at your feet

It stops somewhere midway

It cant reach the place

That lowest of low place

Where your feet dwells

My arrogance cant reach you

Down there where you dwell

Like the poorest of poor

Amongst the poorest of poor

I seek your company

Sitting on my pile of wealth

Surrounded by loved ones

But my heart never reaches

Down there where you dwell

Amongst those without anyone

Amongst those without anything.

PC-Any memory from school/college that strikes you as special ?

SB- I was a student at Burdwan Raj College, two of my fondest memories of that college are that of our history teacher Alok Chakraborty- India really needs such teachers, and the five girl gang we had formed- me and Nilanjana, Rimita, Shampa and Swagata. We used to have so much fun. I graduated in 1995 and my combinations were Economics, Political Science and History. Well, Alok Chakrabarti confirmed my firm belief that even the rowdiest students respect the sincere teacher. Quite a handful of the students were older than him, yet the moment he walked inside the class it fell silent and his students almost never missed his class. He was not just an amazing teacher but he gave us suggestions that worked so well. 

Well, we used to spend a lot of time together, I used to visit Swagata at her house regularly, and Rimita, Nilanjana and me went to the same tutor. It was girlish fun mostly, both Rimita and Nilanjana had boyfriends and we had to lie to their parents 🙂

One day Nilanjana did not come, we went to her house to ask how she was and to give her the notes of that day. Her mother opened the door and was shocked to know that Nilanjana had not been to the classes…because as she knew it, Nilanjana had gone for the tuitions. It took a lot for us to convince her that actually it was us who had bunked the classes and were looking for her notes. We used to go out together, and Nilanjana was the one with tight purse strings, always trying to convince us not to spend 🙂

PC- Censorship on the Internet has become an issue around which there are so many opinions. What do you think?

SB- I am absolutely against it. The websites may keep an eye on their content but not the governments. I believe they are scared for the way truth is spread through the internet and the manner in which it has resulted in the collapse of so many corrupt governments.

PC- What have you been reading these days?
SB- Recently I was reading Reader’s Digest, this magazine has been in our home since 1949, way before my birth. My father was its regular subscriber. Heaven only knows as to when did I start reading it. After 1985 I started reading them all, from the start till the end. It is amazing, but now it seems to be slowly disappearing, mostly because it’s not trying to glamorize itself, I hope it doesn’t and I also wish that it gets back its readership once again. My favourite section in the same was that of the real life drama, it was an amazing section, that was so spirit lifting- to know how brave human beings can be. Apart from that I love its various humour sections which have one thing in common- they are not vulgar and really funny.
PC- I wanted to know about one of your favorite films.

SB- I have favorite films and the films that move me the most. There are too many in the ‘favorite’ section starting from all Jurassic Park movies, The Lord of the Ring, some horror films, some thrillers and quite a number of Bengali movies.

The movies that moved me the most are fewer. I am afraid I will not watch most of these movies again. Schindler’s List, Shawshank Redemption, Dead Man Walking, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Edward Scissorhands, My Fair Lady, Twelve Angry Men, Hirok Rajar Deshe, Sound of Music- I can watch these any day anytime.

PC-Please share with us a song of your choice. I would like to know what makes it stand apart?

SB-The same song that I added as a poem above- its lyrics; it’s amazing in Bengali, it touches your soul in its deepest place and moves it, asks you whether you have such humility?

PC-Do you consider yourself a good cook? Which are your most favorite Bengali recipes?
 

SB- I am a horrible cook, I cook a lot and have been into full fledged cooking since the age of sixteen…a thing really uncommon for Bengali girls fortunately to juggle between cooking and studies, my expertise is some day to day Bengali cookings such as the poshto (poppy seed paste) and jhol (mixed vegetable curry)- just two out of many others. 

(All comments and suggestions about the format and the presentation of the interview would be deeply appreciated. Friends who wish to be included in this series, please let me know. It would be lovely to have you here on my blog. Cheers!)

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Showcasing My Friends-4

(For the fourth post in this series, for which I have interviewed people I am close to, I emailed Vishwanath Ji a set of questions. His responses have been reproduced here. I hope that you would like the idea and enjoy the conversation. The series is to be continued with other friends as and when possible. Sincere thanks to all readers who commented on and appreciated the earlier posts).

My friend with us for today’s post is someone very special. Mr. Vishwanath Gopalakrishna is one of those very nice people whom interestingly, I have known for a very few months. Being acquainted with him is for me a clear evidence of the rich meaningfulness that online interactions can be a source of. I have read a number of his extremely pleasant writings on a whole range of issues- short, amazing memoirs, reflections on the changing social institutions such as marriage and still interestingly his lovely, insightful comments and suggestions on a number of blogs and other online fora which he regularly reads and contributes to. A Civil Engineer by profession, I see in him a flair for continuously exploring and attempting to make sense of the ever-changing world. Vishwanath Ji’s articulations on some of the issues I just mentioned are instances of brevity meeting wisdom and wit. For the short duration that I have known him, he has already become a source of warmth and inspiration. In this extremely enjoyable interview he talks about various aspects of life and its changing course. I hope my association with him becomes an everlasting one and that this exchange of ideas and information continues unabated.

Vishwanath Ji currently lives in Bangalore where his engagements with technology, life and society continue to flourish.

———

Personal Concerns – Thank you Vishwanath Ji for agreeing to respond. To start with, I would like to ask you something about your days as an Engineering student at Roorkee. What was it like in those days to be a student of Engineering?

Vishwanath JiRoorkee (1972 to 1974) evokes pleasant memories. I had just obtained a BE(Hons) degree in Civil Engineering from BITS (Pilani) in 1972. But the best institute for Civil engineering and all its branches was Roorkee University at that time. I badly wanted the Roorkee “Chaap” on my degree.

Roorkee was the oldest Engineering college and it was the post-independence successor to the legendary Thomson College of Civil Engineering set up by the British more than 150 years ago. Most of the well-known Civil engineers of the country had studied at Roorkee and I remember that most of the text books on Civil Engineering were written by Professors from Roorkee.

The Civil engineering department of University of Roorkee  was the biggest in the country with over 70 teaching staff, nearly all of them PhD’s in Engineering and offering the widest options to civil engineering graduates to specialize. Getting into the Structures section was the toughest of all and they selected only 10 from the hundreds of students from all over the country who applied. I got through and have never regretted my decision to postpone entering the job market by two  years in order to specialize and get a Masters degree in Structural engineering from the University of Roorkee. It is now called IIT Roorkee.

Roorkee had a special attraction for Civil engineers. The place housed not just the University of Roorkee with its internationally famed Civil Engineering Department but also several prestigious Civil engineering institutions like the Central Building Research Institute, The Structural Engineering Research Center, The School of Research and Training in Earthquake Engineering, the Water Resources Development and Training Centre and the Irrigation Research Institute. All these were located in adjacent campuses. Not for nothing was Roorkee called the Mecca for Civil Engineers.

The one regret I have was that the PG scholarship offered by the UGC was just Rs 250/- those days and it had remained at that figure for several years before I enrolled there.  Several batches of students had been agitating and representing to the Govt of India for enhancing the scholarship to prevent hardship to the students. We were the last batch who were given this paltry sum. The next batch, after I passed out got Rs 400/- per month.

PC – You belong to the very first set of citizens of the country who turned netizens. How has the online world changed in these years?

Vishwanath JiOh! It is unrecognisable! We have all heard of the Industrial revolution which changed the lives of millions of people initially in Europe and later all over the world. That revolution is nothing compared to the second Computer/Software/Internet/Communication revolution that I am fortunate to be part of. I still don’t know whether today we are still at the beginning of the revolution and have yet to see most of it or if we are somewhere in the middle or if we have come close to exhausting the possibilities.  For the generation or two that preceded mine, electricity, the automobile,  printing press, aeroplanes  and radio represented the wonders of modern technology. I grew up without being amazed or impressed by any of it.During my childhood long distance telephony,  supersonic aircraft, black and white movies (35 mm), and the gramophone and tape recorder, typewriters, telegrams and later telexes and modern nuclear weapons and missiles, and the amazing advances in health care, vaccination, birth control, antibiotics and the elimination of small pox and polio etc  and modern methods of  methods of surgery like the first heart transplant represented advanced technology.

In my youth technology was represented by feats like space travel, orbiting and landing on the moon, and military advances and modern weapons like missiles and hydrogen bombs, and neutron bombs.

During my early adulthood (age 20 to 30)  TV, VCRs, PCs, even the humble calculator, Photocopying machine, colour photography, 70 mm movies etc were all unknown and they all made an entry one by one and I watched these developments unfolding and experienced the thrills. I later actually experienced the computer revolution starting in India in the late sixties. I learned Fortran programming on the IBM main frame computers in the late sixties at BITS Pilani, moved over to using minicomputers and later graduated to the personal computers in the Nineties. I was part of the internet revolution right from 1998 onwards and have enjoyed and benefited from the amazing progress we have achieved and are still achieving in this area. I never dreamed 15 years ago that mobile telephony will be a reality and become so cheap and widespread. I think more than anything the cell phone is the device of the century and has done the maximum to influence our life in a positive way. I envisage the gradual amalgamation of entertainment, information, communication and computation into one device in the years to come.

PC – To what extent do you think that technological advancement should be taken to be an indicator of human progress and development as these terms are commonly used and understood?

Vishwanath JiI would say the extent could be 50 percent. When I say this I mean technological advancement is not the only reliable and complete indicator of progress. India with practically no technology (as we understand it today) was considered a country where enormous progress and development had been achieved by the heroes like Ashoka, Chandragupta, and later by the emperors who ruled from Delhi. Prior to this we have accounts from the Mahabharata and Ramayana too about the progress made by human beings.

Today, we need technology but it must be balanced with concern for the environment. I would rate those countries as the best to live in where it is not technological advancement but political stability, security, health and general quality of life of the average citizen that is the criterion. I would not rate USA at the top in spite of all its miraculous advancements in space and war technology but would choose countries like Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, Netherlands etc.

PC – In case you believe that to be the case, how are south and north India different from each other?

Vishwanath JiThe idea of India as a nation is slowly still sinking in. The North-South Divide is still to be completely bridged. The successful  interchange of food habits  and clothing fashions are not enough. We need to go further. Idli / Dosa and Vada are relished in the North, the North Indian cuisine is a treat for South Indian families. The Salwar Kameez of the north has swept South India and the younger generation in the south prefer it to the petticoat and half saree that our generation wore. I was happy that Kolaveri Di and earlier Hema Malini, Sridevi, Rekha and today Vidya Balan were warmly welcomed and enjoyed in North India and
Hindi Movies and North Indian film stars are welcome in the South.
I love it when the whole country roots for our cricket team. I remember the song from Tezaab – Ek Do Teen taught millions of South Indians in just a minute, how to count in Hindi from 1 to 13 at least, something the Central Hindi Directorate of the Govt of India had failed for decades. We still have some fissures which we have loosely papered over and these need to be cemented. The sixties presented a real danger when on the issue of Hindi, the state of Tamil Nadu was showing tendencies to secede. The North East still feels alienated.  Kashmir is only physically part of the nation. The hearts of the people there are not with us entirely. Naxalism and Terrorism are new dangers threatening us. I think it may take another fifty years before India as a nation becomes a well established idea.

We can live with and perhaps celebrate some differences also. It is fact that the South is in general less aggressive. May be the wars in the North have influenced people’s behavior. The south has not suffered as much from wars as the North  (particularly  Punjab) have. I also believe crime in the South is less than crime in the North both in severity and number of incidences.

I don’t believe some myths that the south  (and Bengal) is more “intellectual” and that hospitality in the north is warmer. I am willing to believe that  the average North Indian is physically taller, and stronger and some shades fairer  in complexion than the average South Indian. I believe literacy levels are better in the Southern states than in the north.
I have lived both in North, West and South India and feel perfectly at home in all these regions and enjoy the advantages and tolerate the disadvantages of each.

PC – How many languages do you know? Which one is the most special?

Vishwanath JiIn decreasing degrees of proficiency, the languages are English, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Gujarati and Malayalam and French.

By birth I belong to a community that has its origins in  Paalakkad District of Kerala near the Tamil Nadu border and as a child I was exposed to a strange lingo that my parents used. It was a mix of Tamil and Malayalam. The sentence structure of the language was grammatically closer to Tamil but Malayalam words were generously used and the spoken accent was totally Malayalee and my parents wrote in the Paalakkad Tamil dialect using the Malayalam script. This was my first exposure to any language, learnt sitting in my mother’s lap.

Later, having been brought up in a Gujarati speaking neighbourhood in Mumbai, I was exposed during my childhood to Bombaiya Hindi,  and Gujarati. The school I went to was an English Medium School run by Catholic Missionaries and I developed a taste for English and it was my favorite subject in school. I did extraordinarily well in English in school and was the favorite of my teachers. I read voraciously in English.

I learned Hindi as a compulsory subject in school but I polished up my Hindi during the five years I spent at Pilani and later two more years at Roorkee and developed a taste for the language courtesy Bollywood film songs. Starting much later, I worked hard at reading and writing Hindi and read voraciously in Hindi to catch up. Starting with pulp fiction of Gulshan Nanda I graduated to more high brow reading of authors like Premchand. My Hindi speaking skills improved due to close interaction with Rajasthani friends at Pilani and later UPite friends in Roorkee.  I can now talk almost like a native Hindi speaker and you won’t be able to detect a south Indian accent in my Hindi. The only dead giveaway is my occasional gender error. This ka and ki of Hindi still sometimes flummoxes me.  But the language I communicate best is English and this is the result of not merely an English medium education in School but the fact that my profession used no language other than English for nearly 37 years.

In addition I can speak colloquial Tamil and a smattering of Gujarati and Malayalam and Kannada and I manage to  communicate with the servants, taxi or auto drivers, and street hawkers in these languages. I can also read and write slowly and haltingly in these languages. I can read hoardings and sign boards in these scripts but would be unwilling to exert myself to read a book or periodical in these languages.

I learned French for four years in School and got good marks in the matriculation exam in 1966 (90 percent) but due to lack of opportunities to use it later, have totally forgotten it. I can now only sprinkle a few popular French words and phrases in my written English and can read simple French.

I admit I have  artificially inflated my list of languages here. To be really honest, the languages I can rightfully claim to know are English and Hindi. English and  Hindi are both special to me. I value English as my ticket to the world beyond India and my proficiency in this language has helped me advance in my profession and also build up an international network.   I value Hindi as it has enabled me to reach out to the largest number of my fellow citizens in this country. I love to read technical literature only in English but I don’t fancy reading about our myths , scriptures, culture and tradition in English and always prefer Hindi. I love reading poems in Hindi and listen only to Hindi Songs, never English. I respect the west for some technically great movies they have produced but I can’t relate to the story in English movies. I ALWAYS prefer watching a good Hindi Movie or Teleserial  to an English Movie or TV serial if I  have the choice.

PC – Do you believe in what is commonly referred to as generation gap? If yes, can or should that be bridged?

Vishwanath JiYes, of course, there is a generation gap and there has always been one and perhaps there will always be. The youth of today will be the elderly tomorrow. The issues may differ from age to age but the gap will always exist.  It is not a bad thing. It is natural. I am quite comfortable with it and I tolerate it and do try to bridge it without sacrificing what I cannot give up and without imposing my views or prejudices on another generation.  I don’t feel comfortable with some of the beliefs, tendencies and practices of the younger generation but I live and let live.

In particular, I do not approve of youngsters tattooing their skins. While I am comfortable with both love marriages and properly arranged marriages I am not comfortable with living together relationships particularly when children are born to such couples. I am not comfortable with sex outside marriage.  I don’t like both men and women smoking and drinking and consuming drugs and I shun night clubs and night life in general. I believe night is the time for sleeping.  I have adjusted to the  fact that the joint family is dying and do not mourn it, though I recall with nostalgia some great moments in my life when we lived as a joint family. I could cite more examples.

PC – Who are your favorite authors and artists ?

Vishwanath JiI am unable to give an honest answer. I can’t single out any one. I can only narrow down the list.I have been heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s thinking and also by Jawaharlal Nehru, but in the last ten years, I have begun questioning some of their policies and beliefs. I have loved reading several authors but cannot pick out any one as my favourite. I have absolutely no knowledge of painting and art. I love classical Music and light semi classical music but have no favourites. I don’t fancy western music, pop music, or rock music. In the field of arts and culture, I am a pakka  Desi and nothing in the western world attracts me. I believe our classical dances and our Yoga are better than anything they have to offer. My choice if I am asked to pick the most  beautiful woman in the world would be a Sari clad  woman from India, never a western lady in their dresses however tall and fair they may be. But I readily admit their overwhelming superiority in sports.

PC – I wanted to know about your favorite films/ books.

Vishwanath JiAgain, I can’t pick just one. I loved the movie Mackenna’s Gold released in the late sixties or early seventies for sheer technical brilliance during those less technologically advanced times. There are too many Hindi/Tamil/Malayalam films that I can list as my favourites and it is impossible for me to decide which was best. My favourite books include the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

PC – Please share with us a song of your choice. I would like to know what makes it stand apart?

Vishwanath JiI admit my failure here also. I can’t name any one. There are just too many and depending on my mood, each one lingers in and torments my mind at various times. An example (just an example) is the Magudi tune played by the late Carnatic Violinist Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan. It was mind-blowing. There are others too that captured my imagination and made my hair stand on end when I listened. I have been enthralled by Bismillah Khan‘s Shehnai, and the Saxophone played by Kadri Gopalnath. I love flautists T R Mahalingam, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ronu Mazumdar, My favourite singer is Lata Mangeshkar for light music and I have too many favourites in Carnatic Vocal music. It would be sacrilegious to compare them. They are all simply great. In Light instrumental Music I have been impressed by flutist Praveen Godkhindi.

PC – Towards the end I want to know about your views on tradition and culture? Will these notions soon be a thing of the past?

Vishwanath Ji – Tradition and culture will never be a thing of the past. Yesterday’ customs and practices are today’s traditions. Today’s customs and practices will become tomorrow’s traditions. What will change is the actual customs and practices that qualify as tradition.

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(All comments and suggestions about the format and the presentation of the interview would be deeply appreciated. Friends who wish to be included in this series, please let me know. It would be lovely to have you here on my blog. Cheers!)

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Showcasing My Friends-2

(For the second post in this series, for which I have been interviewing people I am close to, I emailed Lokesh a set of questions. His responses have been reproduced here. I hope that you would like the idea and enjoy the conversation. The series is to be continued with other friends as and when possible. Sincere thanks to all readers who commented on and appreciated the earlier post). 

Dharaji, a village facing submergence by Omkareshwar Dam project

It was some fourteen years ago that we finished high school. Lakkhu Bhai Pathak – as most of the classmates called him, was everyone’s friend . Often seated on the back benches, I remember him as a quiet and shy but not so shy student lost in thoughts about everything other than what was being immediately taught. His ‘areas’ were quite varied- international affairs, literature, art, cinema and sports! At least that is what I can recall right now. I could be wrong and Lokesh should excuse me for any exaggerations here J

Having finished school, both of us came to Delhi for higher studies. Lokesh studied Political science (he had to!) and then went for a degree in law. In all these years, the occasions on which we met each other can actually now be counted on fingertips. In spite of such an apparent gap in communication, we have remained so much in touch. Looking at the thinker and the artist that Lokesh has evolved into, I have realized the package of talent and creativity he is. His simplicity and the “I am lost in this world” look that he wears all the time impress me the most. A voracious reader, painter and now an equally accomplished photographer (all the photos in the post are his own!) he is someone who continually chooses to defy most conventions. On the occasion of the new year, it is my sincere wish that Lokesh succeeds in all his ‘out of the box’ endeavours and continue to be the amazing individual and friend he has always been.

Lokesh now lives in Bhopal where his projects-actually several of them- continue to take shape.

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Personal Concerns- Thank you Lokesh for agreeing to respond. To begin with, I want to mention to the readers that you recently changed a part of your name. Could you tell us something about this journey- from Lokesh Pathak to Lokesh Malti Prakash?

Lokesh- Adding Malti Prakash required lots of deliberation and overcoming certain hesitations. It required rejecting certain norms and accepting certain others over and above them. To put it straight, what I love most about this journey from Lokesh Pathak  to  Lokesh Malti Prakash is this element of choice and challenge. It’s definitely about standing against caste and patriarchy though it might be symbolic. In a way it is. The fight against caste or patriarchy lies at many levels and that at the levels of symbols (and languages, and names….) is no less important.

It’s also an intimate personal journey of constantly trying to regain myself, to imagine myself in a way I like. Just another milestone of a long journey!

PC- How are you liking Bhopal? How is life over there different from that in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh?

Lokesh- I love to be in Bhopal. Delhi has perfectly imbibed the new culture of the globalised India. It has become monstrous in the process. I know Bhopal is no escape. No place is an escape from this predicament unless it chooses to resist. But still, Bhopal retains something of the charm of its peculiar character.

More than this, my love for being in Bhopal is in a way related to my journey that we talked earlier. It is this particular fact that has made my life different from what it was in Delhi. Personally, Delhi was like a lost decade. In a way it’s like redeeming myself as I could be. It’s not a nostalgic longing for Deoria. It’s more like living and reimagining a lost imagination.

At a rally of Narmada Bachao Andolan in Bhopal

PC-  How do you react to a commonly held belief of our times that the national language- Hindi,  is facing a challenge and therefore is in a state of crisis?

Lokesh- I don’t care about the “national language”. But yes, the language Hindi that belongs to its people more than the nation is facing a challenge. But again it’s not in a crisis because of this challenge. The crisis itself is a challenge. A challenge more to the people than a language. A crisis of a society that is unable to accept anything except English as a language of erudition, status and power. I have nothing against English. I have loved my Shakespeare and Shelley in English. But in India and especially in our Hindi-belt English is not merely a language it is more a power-system. And I am very clear that the Hindi of Bollywood and TV ads won’t change this situation.

PC- In case you feel that to be the case, what was so remarkable about the year that just went by?

Lokesh- Personally, Lokesh Pathak became Lokesh Malti Prakash.

For the world at large, (as) you might have expected. The most remarkable about 2011 was not the crisis of neo-liberal order. That’s a stale story. Capitalism has never been free of crises. What is really remarkable is that we are witnessing the rise of resistance that is increasingly globalising. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy. The resentment is maturing into resistance. I wish in 2012 it turns into rebellion.

PC- Which book have you been reading these days? How are you liking it?

Lokesh- Most recently I started reading Hind Swaraj. I am still reading it and I love my disagreements with this marvellously frank book by Mahatma Gandhi. Though my disagreement over specific prescriptions of Gandhi do not preclude me from agreeing with some general principles I am able to discern from what I have read till now.

There is one thing called civilization, there is another thing called modernity and there is a third thing called capitalism. Privileging Marx over Gandhi I would argue against capitalism retaining modernity and civilisation. At the same time, privileging Gandhi over Marx I would argue industrialism as the means of developing the ‘productive forces’ of human society has long outlived its utility and is now threatening life.

PC- Please tell us something about your favourite artists. Who among them impresses or inspires you the most?

Lokesh-This is a very long list. There are painters, poets, writers, film-makers. To name a few….Chittaprosad, Monet, von Gough, Rivera, Picasso, Cartier Bresson, Yeats, Muktibodh, Mayakovski, Kumar Gandharva….

It’s very difficult to say what impresses or inspires me. It can be the beauty, the aesthetics of expression, the politics of expression, desire, nostalgia, love……

PC- You are passionate about photography. In what ways do you consider the photographic image to be significant?

Lokesh- I love the medium of photography. For me the photographic image is significant just like any other image. There is one peculiarity though, the certain tension in the photographic image between the apparent factual depiction (of what was there at a certain point of time) and the loaded interpretative subjectivity that it can’t avoid.

From the same rally in Bhopal

PC- What are your views regarding the need of the institution of an ombudsman in India and the movement led by Anna Hazare?

Lokesh- The movement led by Anna Hazare has obfuscated the issue of corruption in its thoughtless hyper-nationalism with reactionary right-wing leanings. An institution like ‘ombudsman’ might be suitable for checking corruption in a legal sense. But what if corruption is endemic to the system …. I mean it’s structural and beyond scope of ‘ombudsman’. We have had an activist Supreme Court at a point of time. But it could not save the system. Can the Lokpal do anything if the Parliament passes an act privatising the water resources of this country? At best the Lokpal will ensure that this is done without the need of anyone bribing the MP’s.

Anna’s movement is reactionary also because it has raised this hoopla at a time when the market driven policies of governments are increasingly being challenged and resisted. It’s a good safety valve. If the government is not listening it is not because of any revolutionary potential of the proposed Jan-Lokpal it’s only that they want to save their necks.

PC- What are your plans for this year? 

Lokesh- Read, write and shoot!

PC- One event from school days that you are reminded of- mention it here 🙂

Lokesh-Pandey sir, maths, Mrs. Sakhuja, chemistry, physics, Mrs. Ifat, samosa-wale bhaiyya, our cycle journeys!

From my ancestral village Sajaon

(All comments and suggestions regarding the format and the presentation of the interview would be deeply appreciated. Friends who wish to be included in this series, please let me know. It would be lovely to have you here on my blog. Cheers!)

 


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Showcasing My Friends-1

(For the purposes of this series where I shall be posting interviews with people I am close to, I emailed Faisal a set of questions that I wanted him to respond to. I have reproduced the responses here. I hope that you would like the idea and enjoy the conversation. It is my plan to continue the series with other friends as and when that becomes a possibility). 

A lean bodied young man seemingly lost in an intense conversation on his cell phone walked a couple of steps ahead of me. It was a hot summer afternoon of 2007 and I was at the headquarters of the organisation that I had chosen to study for my Ph.D. thesis. It was months before I got to meet him in person. We had a very formal conversation at that time. I remember that we spoke to each other about such things as my research and the university departments where both of us were then enrolled-Jamia Millia Islamia and University of Delhi.

It was not until July of the following year that we met again. He had come to Delhi University as an applicant for the M.Phil program. He soon joined the program and it was not long before a never-ending exchange began between the both of us. What I call exchange has in effect been a precious experience, special because it has always transcended and at the same time overlapped varying categories in terms of which we tend to generally think of relationships. I find it difficult to think of an instance where we have had any talk that was either just intellectually serious or nonsensically humorous. Being with him and talking to him has always been that unique moment wherein laughter and intellect intertwine. I cherish all that I have shared and learned from him and I hope that this friendship deepens further and takes so many more roots in our minds.

Faisal finished his M.Phil thesis in 2010 and left Delhi for Bangalore where he now works as a researcher for the Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy.

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Personal Concerns- Thanks Faisal for agreeing to respond. To begin with, I would like to ask you something about your name. What does it mean and what do you think of it?

Faisal- My Dad named me. The name is OK. My name is stupid….I am the most confused and the weakest when it comes to taking decisions in personal life…But still it means ‘the one who takes good decisions’!

PC- You know a number of languages. Is there any one of them that you find special?

Faisal- Urdu is special to me as I am the most expressive in it. Urdu is also the most accessible of languages in terms of audience. No matter if a person doesn’t fully understand Urdu, a properly delivered talk can make sense to most Indians. The language has a lot of ‘expressional’ merit. Also for a language which has developed in last three to four centuries, it has travelled a credible career, in terms of literature and in its reach.

PC- Could you please tell us something about the kind of literature, music and sports you enjoy the most? 

Faisal-I like poetry and sports/sports persons who are more artistic like tennis/Roger Federer, Cricket/Laxman and Jayawardhane. Firstly, to appreciate any music I need to understand the lyrics. I can’t hum away a song if it doesn’t make full sense to me. My musical senses hit a road block if they can’t digest lyrics. I enjoy plain instrumental, mostly the classical type. Especially (the ones) filled with emotions. 

Federer

I think Begum Akhtar is one of the greatest singers. Unlike any other singer she does not try to match up to the music direction or even to the lyrics for that matter. She owns the raag and the song she is singing because her voice is the medium of her emotions. To my mind, the instruments playing around her voice come to life and all of them unconsciously decide to tune to her voice almost like those disciplined and drunk rats following the bagpiper. She is the Singer Sorceress. 

My favorite of Begum Akhtar’s Dadra is ‘Hamri Atariya pe Aao Sanwariya…’- such lyrics! Very few actually, but the way she repeats them with layers of emotions coming to the fore with each recitation is just magical. She is someone who has mastered the classical art and has reached a state where she need not care for the classical form. The form is a slave to her voice, emotions and persona. Total Be-nayazi, still the most classical of them all!


PC- If I ask you to name two of your most favourite sociological thinkers, who would they be? 

Faisal- (Emile) Durkheim for his emphasis on a scientific method and (Max) Weber for his breadth and depth. I don’t know about August Comte. But to me founding fathers of sociology are only two- Weber and Durkheim. Marx is a great thinker, a greater satirist too but I don’t think his contributions to critical theory have developed Sociology as a discipline. Without Durkheim and Weber there wouldn’t have been Sociology. Only with Marx, Sociology wouldn’t come to life either. People who can’t make this distinction in the founding fathers’ contribution are called Marxists in the Indian academia. Marx set out to make political economy as a method of inquiry and not to build an academic discipline from scratch.

To my mind the earliest foundations of Sociology are in Durkheim’s Suicide- solid empirical data, spatial as well as temporal. And the ways in which it helps him come up with concepts and make generalisation on the nature of social cohesion in nineteenth century Western Europe.  Durkheim made the difference between mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity and for the first time made the nature of social cohesion in modern societies more discernible, saying that in modern times people’s inter dependencies increase due to division of labour.

Emile Durkheim
Emile Durkheim

I think Weber, though famously called as some one who always fought against the ghost of Marx, was precisely making this point. Marx introduced a method, but it cannot encompass a whole discipline, for God’s sake! He carried it forward and made Sociology a prophetic discipline, if you want to call it, by explaining the missing ingredient of modern societies, Enchantment! Made it more decisive by proclaiming an ‘Iron Cage’  if instrumental rationality increasingly rules the world. Somewhere here between these debates we started to understand the meaning of being social or a collective.Weber enriched and carried forward that emphasis on empirical data. But more than anyone else he was a critical theorist trying to critique and understand the role of religion in human societies. Grappling with the idea of what is now called the interpretative method, broaching the subject of Objectivity and Interpretation. (He never defends subjectivity, or whatever it is!) and giving those fine touches to what would be a sociological method. I wish I get a chance to revisit Marx, Weber and Durkheim.

PC- Which film did you recently watch and how did you like it?

Faisal- I saw Don 2. Its awesome. Don 2 epitomizes what Shahrukh Khan is in Bollywood. He romances his audience- the ones who like and do not like him. The way he romances in the film! To my mind, he is not a great actor, not a good one either. At times he doesn’t even make an effort to act.  But no one has better capitalised the need for a superstar for the Indian cinematic mind/eye than SRK. He has a face, not necessarily the most beautiful, that the camera cannot take its lens off from! Most importantly he maintains an intriguing balance between his religious/social identity. A conscious Muslim, throwing in Inshaallah’s here and there in conversations, married to a Hindu and seemingly comfortable with it. Mind you someone with no family background in Indian cinema the career he has built for himself is just incredible. Most importantly, from a fan’s point of view, he doesn’t make those annoying distinctions like Amir Khan between private and public life! Neither is his life up for sale. Sorry, I speak more about SRK than the film. Frankly, there is no Don sans SRK. He was born to be a Super Star.    

PC- What is on your mind these days?

Faisal- Confusion about what to plan for the next few years.

PC- How do you react to the notion of being an Indian? In other words, what about India impresses you the most?

Faisal- I don’t know….

PC- Which book, if any, have you been reading these days? 

Faisal- No book actually.

PC- If there is anything you would like to say about the time we spent together, do it here 🙂

Faisal-Time spent with you is very valuable and lovely. It is one of those moments which I remember when alone.

(All comments and suggestions regarding the format and the presentation of the interview would be deeply appreciated. Friends who wish to be included in this series, please let me know. It would be lovely to have you here on my blog. Cheers!)