Wednesday, December 10, 2008


why doesn’t Chomsky leave America?” This is the question I have been asked whenever I presented Chomsky’s political writings, whether in a classroom or at a seminar. The same happened in the recent seminar on Chosmky in Pondicherry too. I had never any problem in answering it, because Chomsky has answered it himself. What he has said is essentially the following: there is space for dissent in America, and it is still a great country as far as freedom of expression is concerned. Terry Eagleton writes that Chomsky is “offered a bodyguard when he speaks on US campuses”. The article does not say anything about whether security is provided to him at his request, or it is a State initiative, etc. Of course more often than not, bodyguards mean hardly anything more than symbolic. Not that symbols do not matter. In this case it clearly does. There may not be many countries in the world where an intellectual dissenter is provided security to disseminate his views - the one who has been relentlessly criticizing the State policy, especially its foreign policy, for about four decades. In any case, some delegates in the Pondicherry seminar were dissatisfied with Chomsky’s answer. They felt that he was somewhat cynically exploiting the decency and generosity of the State.

Actually it is not why Chomsky lives where he does, that is of interest to me here, it is the attitude of those who ask this question that does, which is this: if you think this place is so bad, leave!

There is arguably nothing very unusual about it. Sometimes one dissociates oneself from one’s family when one finds the atmosphere unbearable. Many support this attitude; they think that instead of constantly finding fault with others in the family, even with the best of intentions, one should leave. It is better to part in peace than stay and create an unhappy environment. Whatever merit there may be to this attitude, there is a problem when one has the same attitude towards a dissenter in the larger context of the State.

There are well known intellectuals in our country who criticize the policies of the State and the Union government. Should we ask them to leave the state or the country, as the case may be, I asked those delegates in Pondicherry. They didn’t say “no”, neither of course did they say “yes”; they just didn’t answer, and that’s something that I find worrisome.

India is the best example of a plural country; no country in the world shows so much variety as does India. Here it is not at all unexpected that the interests of two groups would sometimes clash. Exclusion of someone for his views because some others find them unacceptable is something that our country cannot just afford.

However, whatever they may say in private, I do not know of anyone in India who in public has demanded that a critic of the Indian state should leave the country. Americans may ask that question to Chomsky, but why must we accord legitimacy to that question here by raising it, even at a seminar?

Monday, December 8, 2008


The recent terrorist attacks on the CST railway station, Taj Hotel, Oberoi-Trident hotel, and Nariman House a week ago have visibly upset the metropolitan population of India; they are “angry and hurt as never before”, as the headline of The Hindu of December 6, 2008 puts it, reporting the Prime Minister’s words. In the meantime, the Union home minister, the Maharashtra chief minister and the deputy chief minister, all resigned on “moral” grounds. Such moral upsurge in our leaders was awe-inspiring. But the cynics felt all this was mere whimper. If there was any noise, it was in the Minister of external affairs’ and the Congress President’s tough talk against the hostile neighbour from where, it was strongly believed, had come those terrible people who created havoc in Mumbai.

Anyway, all the talk about steps to be taken to prevent such occurrences increase the safety that we heard on television during those terrible hours could hardly leave an ordinary old Indian like me reassured. Thanks to the Internet, one has access these days to information disseminated elsewhere. According to a report in The New York Times of December 2, 2008, US had warned India in mid-October about the possibility of terror attacks on tourist places in Mumbai which attract foreigners. Apparently it was too general for our security agencies at some high level to act on, although the likes of me fail to see how. In any case, the local Mumbai police top brass seemed to have alerted the five star hotels, who do not seem to have taken all this seriously either. After all, isn’t it only trains and crowded markets that interest the terrorists, they might have thought. In course of the sixty plus hour non-stop electronic media coverage we got to know that in addition to the all-too familiar intelligence failure, there were such complications as the coastline being unguarded, the police hopelessly under-equipped, the bulletproof jackets given to them of very poor quality, the terrorists more well informed than the police in every relevant way, NSG personnel arriving too late, and they being poorly informed about the layout of the buildings under seize, and much else. Considering their severe limitations, what the police and the NSG did was simply remarkable.

After a terrorist attack there is almost a routine demand for tough laws to deal with terrorists. But this time, the demand was for hot pursuit, since the terrorists were believed to be Pakistanis. But what laws can protect the citizens if the coastline is unguarded or the police is ill trained and under-equipped? Is hot pursuit really a solution when new training camps can be set up elsewhere? International diplomatic pressure can help, but it has its limitations. For ordinary citizens, naive about the diplomatic discourse, the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, came and assured her government’s support for India, and on the following day, went to Pakistan, and reportedly felt pleased with the anti-terrorist steps that the Pakistani government assured her of taking.

India has known terrorist attacks for more than fifteen years now. But this has not lead to improvement in the functioning of the intelligence network to the required level. This has not lead to a better-trained police force to deal with this particular menace. This has not lead to shunning corruption at least in buying arms and ammunitions for our police. What a shame that our policemen went to fight terrorists not knowing that their bulletproof jackets were fake. During the 60 odd hour media engagement with terrorists, one hardly noted any strong demand that corruption in buying ammunition be probed and the guilty be exposed. No one asked why the coastline was left unguarded.

We are intensely aware that India is a soft state. We know that the problem is complicated manifold because of dishonesty, corruption, inefficiency, and lackadaisical approach to things. These have become acceptable part of our public life. Our country, we are afraid, will remain an unsafe place unless there is significant improvement in this area.


When asked at a meeting with newspersons in Kolkata yesterday which was the best goal he ever scored, Diego Maradona said “Hand of God goal”. Probably it was said rather jocularly, but not all the newspersons present seem to have taken it that way. In any case, this is one of the two goals that have become part of football legend, the other being the one he scored minutes after this goal. The first one was ugly, and the second, sublime. But where the ugly scored over the sublime is the discourse of football, which acquired the phrase “hand of God goal”. In fact, almost fittingly, Maradona is the one responsible for the phrase too – he described it as a goal that was scored “a little with the head of Maradona, and a little with the hand of God”. The phrase has the force of a proper noun - since the great man’s, surely goals have been scored through cheating, and will continue to be, but the phrase will not refer to any other.

I think not many would have cared to remember the first goal if he hadn’t scored within minutes that absolutely unbelievable second goal, which has been voted as the first best goal of the century. Some even said he made amends with this goal. He scored a good goal in the semi-final, but didn’t score in the final of that World Cup, which Argentina won under his captainship. However, had he not scored that great goal, and someone else had scored the team’s second goal, taking Argentina to the semi-final, the infamous goal would have been forgotten amidst the victory celebrations of the World Cup. Who would have really worried about one illegitimate goal of the World Cup winning team, except of course the team that had lost out. Even now, two decades after the incident, there is at least one player of that English team, who is still bitter about that goal and has not forgiven Maradona.

We might like to see the “hand of God” goal in a different context. Just four years before they played that World Cup quarterfinal match, Argentina had suffered humiliation in the hands of England in the Falklands War, and the nation was deeply hurt - some say it still is; it sees UK as having occupied the islands that actually belong to it. Against this background, the football field had become an extension of the battlefield, and the match an opportunity for Argentina to redeem some honour. After 50 minutes of play when Maradona scored with his hand, and the goal was allowed, it was the turning point in that match. With that goal, England sank, as of course did the referee. Before England could recover from the frustration, helpless anger, and distress, Maradona scored his second. One cannot help feeling that the dazzle of that legendary goal was due in part to the psychological state of the English players at that stage. England recovered late and the brilliant Lineker scored and reduced the margin of defeat. It was actually with that “hand of God” goal that Maradona had sealed England’s fate. That goal may not be Maradona’s best, but it was certainly the most effective goal he ever scored.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


The temple city of Puri is in some sense a dual city: there is an inner Puri, and there is an outer Puri - “inner” and “outer”, both spatially and culturally. The servitors of, and others associated in one way or the other with, the temple of Lord Jagannath are the inhabitants of the old, inner city. They are the original locals. A hundred years ago, Puri must have been a small and serene place. The wide beach must have been quiet and lovely. In fact it is still possible to spend an hour or two on the beach undisturbed, if only one knows which part of the beach to go to. A hundred years ago, medical professionals would ask their patients to spend time in the healthy climate of Puri to regain their heath. Thus the moneyed came from far away Calcutta – Kolkata of today, not just to recuperate, but to live a quality life as well, and built spacious houses along the seashore. The outer Puri came into being. In due course came affluent, retired employees, people working in educational institutions, hospitals, and government offices, hoteliers and others following secular, modern professions. The outer Puri flourished. The two Puris belonged to two different cultures; the inhabitants of the inner Puri considered those of outer Puri outsiders, and the latter looked upon the former as different. But there was no tension; there just couldn’t be, because the outsider-locals would go to the temple, and many of them every day, and the original locals in due course would join schools, and colleges, watch films in theatres, eat in hotels, and participate in the day-to-day life of the modernizing city.

One cultural artifact that has an uncertain future is “Puri boli”, a variety of Oriya, spoken by the original locals. Outer Puri by and large speaks standard Oriya. And as the outer Puri flourished, Puri boli felt the heat. Speakers of standard Oriya found it rude, often abusive, crude, and uncultivated. Even outsider-locals, let alone outsiders, have always found embarrassing the ease and unconcern with which it uses some words considered taboo in standard Oriya. Many call it dismissively as pandaa padhiari bhaasa, the language of the temple people. The standard Oriya speaking elite has succeeded, to a considerable extent, in persuading the speakers of Puri boli that they need to change - they must use polite language while dealing with the others. It didn’t surely impress anybody when some of them said that what the others called vulgar and abusive language is not so at all, and that such language is not excluded from even their home domain. We know that words are not taboo or acceptable, it is the powerful elite that decides which words are what. In a few years as the original locals would realize that the traditional temple-centred economic activities are not going to provide them a decent living, they would join modern professions, and in two or three generations would come to look upon Puri boli exactly as others today do.

Puri boli is a colourful style: exuberant, imaginative, witty, and metaphorical. When sarcastic, it can be devastating, and when friendly and welcoming, it can be charming, almost embarrassingly so, and in either case, it can be colourful. Quite apart from all this, it is the carrier of a rich history and culture built around Jagannath temple. In these times and with such hostile attitudes its future is uncertain. Hopefully some will be concerned.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


I am not exactly a cricket fan, although I enjoy reading short articles about cricket – not just cricket matches; I read about cricket politics too, which, in the subcontinent in particular, can indeed be much more fun than many cricket matches. I have sometimes watched international cricket matches for an hour or two, especially when India was playing. And when it comes to Sourav Ganguli, I have always been interested in him, which should not be surprising - me coming from the neighbourhood of West Bengal. But I am no fan of his – not at all! Perhaps he is a great cricketer, perhaps he is not; I am not one who is knowledgeable about the nuances of the game to say anything with confidence in this regard, but if records are anything to go by, then he is certainly someone to be reckoned with. When he announced his retirement from international cricket, I knew I was going to miss him.

It’s not that he will readily fade into oblivion as far as cricket is concerned. Far from it. He will appear, perhaps more often and considerably longer, than he often did as he batted. He will be seen in the commentator’s box, and in the cricket field too offering expert advice to players, and telling children in cricket academies how to improve their game, and he will give expert opinion after the day’s match. We will know his views on cricketing matters, not excluding cricket politics, hopefully, from the columns he will write, and from the numerous interviews he will surely give to many channels.

Where I am going to miss him is in the discourse on cricket. There was ever so much talk around him. He was the subject of talk when he played well, and he was equally the subject of talk when he did not. His selection for the national team was as much the subject of debate as his non-selection. What he said was as much something to write about as what he did not, and what he evaded. Soon after he announced his retirement a distinguished parliamentarian from his home state made a statement suggesting that he had literally been forced into it, thereby opening up possibilities of some debate. One hardly knows, let alone talk about, the godfathers and detractors, real or perceived, of cricketers except when it came to Sourav’s. His spat with Greg Chapell was interesting discourse because of him; if many more wanted to hear his story rather than Greg’s, it probably had little or even nothing to do with cricket.

He attracted controversy, generated debate, and he was the one to talk about. And I must say with confidence that he had absolutely no competition from any cricketer who played with him (and who did not, too) in this respect. When he retires from international cricket, he will cease to be the subject of cricketing discourse in India. And this is where I am going to miss him.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Languages can be under threat in many ways. My language, Oriya, is under a particular kind of threat – a rather dangerous kind, because it goes unnoticed by speakers and specialists alike. It is a language which has arguably a thousand year old literary tradition. It is a scheduled language, and is therefore viewed as a privileged language. There are structures to support the language in the form of Sahitya Academy, publishing houses, university departments of Oriya, etc. Therefore the observation that it is under threat might appear strange.

It is now widely believed in Orissa and elsewhere in the country that English is the language of opportunity and empowerment. So parents want to send their children to English medium schools. There is demand for introducing English in the curriculum in non-English medium schools as early as possible. Urban Oriya speaking children these days become literate in English and Hindi before they become literate in Oriya. No one seems to mind. There is societal encouragement for children to learn English. It might appear to be an exaggeration, but it looks as though many have come to believe that more than half the battle in life is won if one acquires command of English. And exposure to it does not come from the classroom alone any more.

For information and knowledge the younger generation is no more dependent on the classroom. There is a growing tendency among the young to minimize reading for information, and explore other resources for the same, such as the Internet and television. This is what takes them to English. Then thanks to various reasons, including corruption, alongside of the formal education system, there has developed a fairly strong informal one, quite efficient and organized, in the form of coaching classes, for primarily science subjects, at all levels. Most who are willing to spend money for some quality education, join the informal system while still enrolled in the formal one. In the informal system the language of study tends to be English, of whatever quality – English, because it is the language of science and technical education in India.

Now if for our high school generation English is the language of information and knowledge, Hindi for them is the language of entertainment, thanks to Hindi cinema and television serials. And then Hindi is being increasingly viewed as a language that considerably facilitates mobility in India. People know that learning Hindi helps.

So what motivation is there for the generation at high school to study Oriya for purposes other than passing the school examination? He knows his Oriya and speaks the language in day-to-day life. If he still has time after private coaching and of course money, he is willing to spend the same to improve his communication skills in English.

If this situation persists, then in two or three generations the domain of use of Oriya would largely shrink, and it would become just the language for informal communication. That would be terrible for the language with such a glorious tradition. Nothing will give me greater happiness than the reassurance that my apprehensions entirely baseless.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Recently I attended a three-day seminar at the university of Pondicherry organized by their department of Philosophy on “Noam Chomsky and the Contemporary World”, but this is not a piece on the proceedings. It is about a demonstration that demanded cancellation of the seminar.

In the evening on the second day, we were told that that morning the local BJP activists had organized a demonstration at the university demanding the cancellation of the seminar. Reasons: Chomsky is a foreigner and he is anti-India. He has called India “a terrorist state”, and the university must not honour him by organizing a national seminar on his work. The organizers looked visibly worried, probably apprehending the situation to worsen on the third day. It was averted apparently by a press release by the university which seems to have mentioned that the seminar was not eulogizing Chomsky but was sharply critical of him too. There was indeed some eminently avoidable Chomsky bashing by one or two persons, and this was what really seemed to have helped the university, and of course the seminar! It seems that the seminar in the process received a good deal of publicity in the media, but let it not be said that things were stage managed for this.

Quite a few didn’t know what Chomsky had actually said, and in what context. If “all states are terrorist states”, India is a terrorist state, but such an observation certainly does not amount to any special censor of any one particular state on this account. In any case, most at the seminar didn’t seem particularly interested to find out. They were not hostile to Chomsky, on the contrary, many of them supported or were at least sympathetic to his political views. Almost none of them were sympathetic towards the demonstrators, but they were of the opinion that if Chomsky indeed said such a thing, it was understandable that a nationalist party had taken offence. And no one seemed interested in explaining the context of the “offensive” statement to the activists; the feeling was that it would be a futile exercise. No one would be willing to listen because they had made up their mind.

Therefore the university did not strongly construct its response around the right to speak, academic freedom, and its right to freely discuss ideas on any issue in an academic manner; what it did by way of justification of this academic event was project the fact that the seminar criticized Chomsky too! But who can fault the university for this – which university today wants additional problems, as though it does not already have plenty? That way the seminar was saved, and there was no demonstration and no unpleasant incident in the campus.

Many obvious and disturbing questions arise in this connection. Are we becoming increasingly more intolerant ? Do we lack in self-confidence? We call ourselves a self-confident country; then why are we so upset about an opinion? Is it because it comes from an outsider? That is, we might say whatever negative things we wish to about ourselves but will not tolerate a thing from an outsider. If this is true, then it’s a mindset out of sync with the liberal outlook that we must necessarily have, for the collective well being of our plural society, if for nothing else!