Thursday, March 3, 2016

TYPICALLY ODIA: PAKHALA



Friends and fellow travellers in a lazy mood in second AC compartments of long distance trains would occasionally ask me a “time pass” question: is there some food item that is typically Odia? Nothing odd about this question; after all, food is a good subject for lazy talk, and in a relaxed mood talking about food can be as appetizing as the food itself.  That apart, because of a certain history, which need not concern us here, Odias often tend to view it as a rather loaded question, meaning whether there is some food item that Odias eat but their neighbour Bengalis don’t, and more generally, whether Odia culture is not just an extension of Bengali culture. This of course is not to say that every person who asked me this question had the above in mind. However the fact remains that most of us, urban educated Odias, have, more often than not, tended to take this question far more seriously than it deserves. In fact, it is often taken as almost a challenge thrown to the Odias; it is seen as a prestige issue. It is hardly ever realized that this question is based on a fundamentally flawed notion that political and cultural boundaries are sharp and clear. The fact is that political, linguistic and cultural boundaries do not often converge. And as for the specific case of Odisha and Bengal, for hundreds of years, people have migrated from one state to the other. As a result, there has been close interaction between them at many levels. Under the circumstances it would be a futile exercise to look for cultural uniqueness of any one community at the level of day-to-day life, say, at the level of food or dress. However, since culture, like language, is not a homogeneous entity, having subcultures, and even sub-subcultures - like a language has social and geographical dialects - attempt to answer such a question may not really be all that pointless.

   In any case, I have always named three food items – in the secular context - which I believe are typically Odia: pakhala (pronounced as pakhaala), dalma (pronounced as daalmaa), and a sweet called khira (pronounced as khiraa). Pakhala is rice-in-water, and is called panta bhat (pronounced paantaa bhaat) in Bengali, and has been condemned as a worthless, unhealthy food. It is said in both Odisha and Bengal that pakhala is a tamasik food, which causes dullness and stupidity; “eater of pakhala” is an abuse in both places.  Some fifty years ago, I knew of people, mainly social climbers, who would not say in front of others that they had eaten pakhala at home that day. Things have changed now. The status of pakhala is high these days. In star hotels these days one can get it - the posh variety, with curd, small pieces of green chillies, ginger, coconut, among others, and elegantly cut coriander leaves, etc. added to it. It is now recognized as a great summer food.

   Pakhala is basically a poor man’s food. It is this, more than anything else that explains its negative image. It can be eaten with just some salt, one or two green or red chillies, and an onion, if there is one at home. In the villages during the monsoon, people take simple homemade achar with pakhala. A little chutney of roasted dry fish goes well with it, but many educated people dismiss it with a sneer as a poor man’s taste, often quite pretentiously, I think.   In Odia rural literature, a farmer’s wife carrying pakhala to her husband working in the field is a symbol of Odia peasant life. For decades at least, no food item has been the target of so much indignity as pakhala, and with the exception of dry fish, no food has been associated with so much hypocrisy as pakhala. I like it, in its simple, unsophisticated form, not just for its taste, but also for the richness of meanings it has come to be associated with down the years.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

ABOUT OUR SCHOOL EDUCATION



The other day the great entrepreneur Mr. Narayana Murthy observed (see The Times of India, Bengaluru edition, 17.11.2015) that whereas RTE (Right To Education) is a progressive step, it is unlikely to yield the expected results. What is needed, he rightly said, is that the government schools, where the children of the poor study, must impart quality instruction. 

I have never been very optimistic about RTE. I have talked to quite a few who are directly or indirectly connected with school education and have noted that  hardly any of them seriously believes that this initiative will yield results. It seems the best that can be said about it is that it is well intentioned. For the successful implementation of RTE, the social environment has to be conducive, which is not the case as of now. The reasons are many but are rather too obvious to need a detailed telling. Schools may be opened but if parents are disinclined to send their children to school because they contribute to the family’s earnings, what can be effectively done by the State? No legislative solution, say, in the form of an Act that would force the parents to send their children to school, can work because it is immensely difficult to implement the relevant law when the poor are concerned. 

But where are the schools in the first place? In many parts of rural India children have to walk considerable distances to reach their school braving all odds including hostile weather, bad pathways, etc. The Odia  television channel, OTV, has, quite a few times, shown children walking on a rope bridge made of just a couple of ropes in order to cross a small river in spate to reach their school. And in all likelihood this situation may not be specific to Odisha. And in such areas more often than not schools have leaking roof. So goes the Odia proverb “nahi mamu tharu kana mamu bhala (better to have a blind uncle than have no uncle)”, that is, something is better than nothing. But when it comes to the roof, one is not sure whether, when it rains and when it comes to children,  the difference between no roof and a leaking roof is really all that great!

Coming to teachers, where are the teachers? Then where are the class rooms? Almost without exception in the rural areas in particular, the number of teachers in our primary, upper primary and even high schools is grossly inadequate. Sometimes there is just one teacher at a primary school. He teaches students of various classes in one room. If he is absent one day, the school becomes non-functional. School teaching is a low-salaried job, so it is not a career option for a young, qualified person; it is often a compulsion. Living conditions can be challenging in the interior rural areas; so no teacher wants to go there.  The children there enjoy the privileges of RTE only technically.

For some years now, in Odisha, as a matter of policy, no student, till the Board examination in class X,  is being detained because of poor performance in the annual examination. Promotion to the next higher class is automatic. And mid day meal system with an egg for every child has been introduced, which is some real affirmative action. There is, however, no clear evidence that the egg market as flourished to the extent expected as a consequence, at least in Odisha. Going by OTV again, the mid day meal scheme isn’t working even satisfactorily, let alone “well” - for the children, that is. The monitoring of this well intentioned scheme is by no means a small matter. However, the “no-detention policy” has been very successfully implemented. Fear of examination and anxiety about promotion to the next higher class has disappeared and so has teaching and learning. The teachers and the taught are both relaxed at school and the former have time to get engaged in other lucrative activities. Teaching is now done at the teacher’s home or the coaching centres in the form of private tuition. But this is a learning facility that the poor and the marginalized cannot afford. (It seems the government of Odisha is presently reviewing the no-detention policy, as is  the government of Maharastra.)

One can go on enumerating the problems, but there is no need. Not just that. It would amount to engaging in an act of self-pity, which can be destructively comforting. The school situation is known to everyone. And everyone has the same solution as Mr. Narayana Murthy’s: the government must act to improve the situation. Let us be absolutely clear about this: for the government to act, no fact finding committee needs to be set up, no survey is needed, statistical data are not necessary - there is no reason for comfort if one knows from the report of such a committee that, say, seventy percent, not eighty percent of our schools are in particularly bad shape. No research is needed to arrive at significant ideas; there is no need for insights from social or pedagogical theories. The issue here is not about availability of information or knowledge creation; it is about doing what is doable effectively.  As for money, it is certainly needed; plenty of it, but it is not that there is a serious dearth of funds today. It is just that it is not reaching where it is meant to reach – the familiar problem!

What is needed is will – social will, not just political will, as the cliché in modern discourse goes. Governmental intervention will always prove to be inadequate without people’s sincere involvement. Conscious effort must be made by all those who have benefited from education to contribute in some way to the task of increasing the awareness of the people living in remote areas with regard to the empowering potential of education. With awareness will come involvement. But this is only the necessary condition. 

Positive change in school education, it must be strongly emphasized, cannot be brought about by the government alone. For even some noticeable improvement to take place, active participation of all those who have been in positions of privilege in our society is needed. Instead of setting up their own private schools, the most privileged and the most visible must sincerely cooperate with the government for setting up government schools where needed and for the improvement of the quality of instruction in the existing government schools. One thing is certain: well meaning words are not enough, neither is purely individual effort. .

Saturday, November 14, 2015

LITERACY IN INDIA



Recently the Hon. Odisha High Court upheld a lower court decision to the effect that if one does not know how to read and write in Odia, one cannot be the chairperson of a gram panchayat in Odisha. The one who had to resign her chairpersonship because of this judgement is said to have made spelling mistakes in writing and to have failed to read a passage from a minor class school text book with the expected fluency. She was of course literate, but there is no incongruity here because the definition of literacy that we have for the purposes of Census is generous: if one who is seven and above can read and write with understanding in any language, one is literate. Although not specifically mentioned, one would assume that “write” here means “writing without spelling and grammatical errors” and “read”, “read with the expected fluency”. In terms of this literal definition of literacy, one is literate if one can read and write his name and the names of his family members and read some headlines of a newspaper haltingly. One hopes that those who declare themselves literate to the Census volunteers are capable of a good deal more! The chairperson under reference is literate and at the same time didn’t have the language competence in Odia of a minor school student in order to remain in her position.

One is tempted to guess why India chose to have such a generous definition of literacy. When India became independent, the literacy figures of the country were very low - not unexpectedly though, for literacy for the colonized was not among the objectives of the colonial administration. A country can hardly be taken seriously by other countries if a very large number of its people are illiterate. But people cannot become literate overnight, let alone literate in a meaningful sense, especially in the case of a newly independent and a big country like India. At that time making people literate in the literal sense of the term might have appeared to be a manageable objective. The literacy figures soon started improving.  

Today when India feels mature and confident and aspires to play a significant role on the world stage, the country needs to rethink the idea of literacy. It must not feel satisfied with even hundred percent literacy when this term is defined in its literal sense. The Literacy programme of the country does have a reasonable notion of literacy in terms of three R’s, but one does not know the literacy rate of its citizens with respect to this notion of literacy. This is what the country needs to know. We need to be informed in every ten years about the percentage of literacy in this sense as well. Literacy need not be conceptualized so as to be associated with a certain stage of education: primary, upper primary, middle school, etc. A definition of literacy that is close to the UNESCO definition should suffice: the "ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society". We must not fail to note in this definition the point that there cannot be an unchanging notion of “functional” or what we prefer to call “empowering” literacy. It is not literal, technical literacy that will really help the citizen; it is empowering literacy that will. 

The implementation of this extremely important initiative will require strong social and political will. Literacy volunteers can successfully implement a technical literacy programme, but not a working or empowering literacy programme. For the latter to happen, every child has to attend school – school in the right sense of the term, where there are class rooms with roof and blackboards and there are teachers to teach. And school education has to go beyond “no failure” model – the unsaid thing is that not just pass-fail examinations have been dispensed with; along with that teaching has also been largely dispensed with. "Lunch with an egg” is fine but school has to become again the place where learning takes place.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

THINKING ABOUT RATHA YATRA - 2015



Ratha Yatra of 2015, the year of nabakalebara, was held (or if you like, started, Ratha Yatra is often described as a nine-day festival but one can also think of it as a twelve day festival, ending with the return of the Deities to the garva griha or the sanctum sanctorum of the Temple) on July 18. The rituals were performed on time. The rathas did not reach Gundicha Ghara, their destination, that day, but neither the servitors nor the temple administration could be held responsible. With so many people on the Bada danda (Grand Road) to pull the rathas, it cannot be regarded as unexpected. In any case, it is not the first time that this happened. However, an Odia newspaper mentioned that the rathas had reached Gundicha Ghara on time in 1996, when the last nabakalebara was held. Whatever purpose such a comparison might serve, on this particular matter, an earlier experience cannot amount to much. Once the pulling of the rathas start, over all administrative efficiency cannot guarantee that the rathas would reach their destination on time. This year, only Sri Balabhadra’s ratha reached Gundicha Ghara on the day of Ratha Yatra. Devi Subhadra’s and Sri Jagannath’s reached there on the following day. The love and devotion of lakhs of devotees – some said, fifteen lakhs this year, some, twenty; one estimate put the figure still higher, another, much lower - made the unholy mess that had taken place on the brahmaparibartan day a thing of a long-forgotten past. Once the devotee’s eyes meet Jagannath’s eyes, that’s the ultimate fulfillment for him. Everything else fades into insignificance. One wonders if Jagannath isn’t the very manifestation of this boundless love and devotion and even attachment of not only millions who are alive but hundreds of millions who lived in the bygone centuries as well. Isn’t it people’s love because of which some perceived Him as Vishnu, some as Siva, some as  Nrusingha, Vamana, Rama and Krishna, and some as Ganesha, etc? Isn’t this then the Formless Essence of Him – Brahma that continues to exist as generations die and new generations are born? 

This piece is about mainly about sparsha darshana (touching the Deities). Last year, sparsha darshana  was not allowed to devotees, implementing the view of the Sankaracharya of Puri that touching the Deities is sinful, which was supported by the Gajapati maharaja of Puri, in his capacity as the first in the hierarchy of the servitors of the Temple. This was followed this year, reportedly even more strictly. This time there was a decision of the Odisha High Court in this regard.

Ignoring details, the context is roughly this: the Temple administration had decided that on the day before Ratha Yatra, known as the day of nabajoubana (literally naba is new and joubana is youth), only the servitors (daitas and non-daitas), their families, the VVIPs, the VIPs and the members of the Temple administration would be allowed to have darshan of the Deities. This special favour to the politicians and the bureaucrats invited people’s disgust and anger and there was protest. A citizen of the city of Cuttack approached the Odisha High Court. Before the Court decided the case, the Temple administration modified its decision and announced that only the servitors and their families, and those members of the Temple administration who would be on duty in the Temple on that day would be allowed to have darshan. A day before nabajoubana, the Hon’able High Court decided that only those who would be needed in connection with the performance of the rituals on that day would be allowed into the garva griha inside the Temple and non else. It directed the administration to ensure that the order be strictly followed. It was. Reportedly the Court decision was observed in spirit on the rathas too. 

Devotees have been happy that they have had clear darshan of the Deities from the ground. Since they cannot climb the rathas for sparsa darshan, servitors are not there on the rathas either, except those involved in the rituals. There are no unseemly jostling and fighting and shouting right in front of the Deities, no quarreling and no manhandling of any devotee by some servitor and no crowd in front of the Deity. Last year there was some opposition to denial of sparsa darshan to the devotees. But that was before the Ratha Yatra started; once it was implemented during the Yatra, the vast majority of people were happy. They had praised the government for introducing that system. (For some details, see Ratha Yatra – 2014 in this blog.)  

A little about darshan on the day of nabajoubana, which is called nabajoubana darshana. After fifteen (forty five in the nabakalebara year) days after Snana Yatra (called the anasara period), one can have the darshan of the Deities on this day. Some believe it to be very auspicious, bestowing great religious merit on those who have darshana. Punya (religious merit)or no punya, some simply wish to see their most beloved Deities after missing Them for so many days. Some believe that if one watched the bathing of the Deities on Snana Yatra, one must have a darshan of Them on this day. Incidentally, it is said that during the fifteen days referred to above, Sri Chaitanya used to walk to a place some forty kilometers from Puri to have darshan of Bhagawan Alarnath (Narayana). Following Sri Chaitanya, some still go to Brahmagiri for Alarnath darshan at least once during the fifteen anasara days. 

Sometimes two days after and sometimes just one day after the day of nabajoubana darshana,  Ratha Yatra is held. In the latter case often people, except the servitors and their families and the VIPs and the VVIPs, are not allowed to have the darshan of the Deities. In 1969, the Temple administration decided that only those among the ordinary devotees who would pay a certain amount of money (five rupees, if I remember correctly) as parimanika (roughly, fee for special darshan) would be allowed to enter the Temple to have darshan. Incidentally, parimanika system was not an innovation of that year. It had been, ignoring details, part of the daily routine in the Temple for years. Likewise the free darshan, called sahana mela. During sahana mela and parimanika darshan, one could enter the garva griha. Otherwise one could have darshan from the hall called jagamohana. It is believed that Sri Chaitanya never entered the garva griha. He chose to have darshan from jagamohana. Some local people still choose not to enter the sanctum sanctorum. But their reasons are not exactly the same as Sri Chaitanya’s. Anyway, the point to note is that no one can be asked to pay money to have darshan, if darshan is possible (for instance, Temple is open and a ritual is in progress during which the door of the sanctum sanctorum is not closed). This is the tradition.

The decision of the Temple authorities violated this tradition in 1969 because, as mentioned above; only parimanika darshan was allowed. At that time I was teaching in SCS College in Puri. I recall that a senior colleague of mine, Satyabadi Mishra, an inhabitant of the town, went to Court against this decision. He won, but I am not sure whether the free nabajoubana darshana was implemented that year. If it wasn’t, it was surely due to the Court order reaching the authorities too late for that. I do not recall which year, but once paramanika darshan was allowed for only an hour or so, but free darshan was allowed too, for may be, just half an hour. I clearly recall a poor, old woman, bent with age and with wrinkles on her face, walking with a stick, entering the Temple all alone for free darshan. When she came out, I felt a sense of fulfillment exuding from her. 

Just as there is provision for free darshan, there is provision for sparsha darshana too. On certain days (Dola purnima, the day before Holi, the day following padma vesha and a few others)during parimanik and sadharana darshana (public darshan, i.e, free darshan) devotees can, during the free darshan period, touch the Deities in the sanctum sanctorum. That is, in the Jagannath Temple tradition, touching the Deities is not a sin, contrary to what Sri Shankaracharya of Puri maintains, or a great sin, as Gajapati maharaja of Puri said last year, agreeing with him. Sparsha darshan has been allowed for a limited period during nabajoubana darshana and during Ratha Yatra. This surely has the support of age-old tradition or a convention over many years. The authentic pictures of the earliest Ratha Yatra I have seen are of those of the 1932 Ratha Yatra and sparsha darshana on the rathas was very much there.  I have no reason to assume that it had originated that year. 

I can say it with confidence that the feeling of papa (sin) or adharma would be in no one’s mind when one touches the Deities (i.e., has  sparsha darshana). This year as well as last year, whoever was in a situation where touching the Deities was possible (like one had a cordon pass), did. It is possible that after a few decades of the denial of sparsha darshana on the Rathas, which started last year, people might have come to believe that touching the Deities is sinful. 

Talking about 1932 Ratha Yatra, much has changed. That year 12000 devotees were in Puri for the Yatra. This Nabakalebara year so many lakhs were there. In an ordinary year, from the nineteen eighties to 2013 or 14, not less than some three to five lakhs, by a very conservative estimate, would attend this annual Yatra. There is the problem of managing so many people and there is the additional and serious problem of safety. These apart, the kind of insensitivity, indiscipline, swindling and violence that has been reported in the more recent years on the floor of the rathas have deeply hurt the feelings of lakhs of devotees. In such a situation, people have found great merit in the denial of sparsha darshana on the rathas. It is seen as something which has enabled everyone, not just a few, to have a clear darshan of the Deities. Privileging in darshan is entirely unjustified and obnoxious.

All the same, I must say I have felt something is missing. When this restriction was not there, the Deities were surrounded by people. They touched Them, caressed Them, embraced Them, especially Jagannath, the way they would someone, they deeply cared for, loved or profoundly attached to.  Theirs was an act as much of bhakti as of prema and sraddha – reminiscent of the way the gopis of Vrindaban treated Krishna as celebrated in Vaishnavite literature. It is a beautiful sight to see Bhagawan Jagannath surrounded by bhaktas, jostling with one another to go near Him to feel Him. Last year there were no devotees on the Rathas. As mentioned earlier, people standing on the ground had clear darshan and said that they were very happy with this arrangement. However, I liked to think that the Deities on the rathas looked as though They were missing the people, and I certainly missed so very much the beautiful sight of Bhagawan in the midst of His bhaktas.

(Bahuda Yatra, Nabakalebara – 2015)