Monday, August 2, 2010


India is a multilingual country; by a rough estimate more than two hundred languages are spoken here, not counting the dialects, which can be viewed as potential languages. These languages belong to a number of language families. Such linguistic diversity is not found elsewhere in the world. As for the people, quite a few are bilingual and some are multi-lingual, even when we fairly strongly define the concept of “knowing a language”: one can be credited with “knowing a certain language” when one demonstrates that one has the ability to use that language creatively in some domain of activity. People are multilingual in interesting ways; for one instance, one person from, say, Odisha, might know, in addition to his mother tongue, Odia, English, and Tamil, and another, from the same state, the first three languages and Manipuri. This is not an unusual phenomenon in the country. This, hopefully, is a fairly representative picture of the Indian multilingual scenario.

There is an aspect of our linguistic consciousness that deserves attention. Generally one asserts one’s linguistic identity in terms of a single language, although the person concerned may be a truly competent multilingual, being fluent in three or even four languages. It is always like, “I am a Bengali, but I can speak English, Hindi and French too”. A speaker of Marathi or Tamil might be using English in his professional life and also for creative purposes, but he would still identify himself (or herself) as a Marathi or a Tamilian, as the case may be. There would hardly be any who would declare their linguistic identity in terms of two or three languages.

Most states of India have only one official language: the language of the majority of that state. Some states, like Bihar and UP, do have a second language, but that does not seem to have altered the situation very much. Odisha (at that time, Orissa), during Mr. Biju Patnaik’s administration, had declared all the fourteen (at that time, fourteen) Scheduled languages as the official languages of Odisha (then Orissa), but such a decision had no real impact. It couldn’t have been intended to, in all probability. Governance in Odisha even now is carried out in English and Odia, although the official language is Odia. Use of English is considered to be undesirable and demands from various quarters, including the intellectuals, have been made from time to time to conduct administration in Odia alone. There seems to have been no demand in any state by any group for a certain state to use three or four (even two!) languages for purposes of administration, in the true spirit of multilingualism. In this scenario, what has been recognized, probably informally rather than formally, is that one has the right to reach the State or the Union government in any Indian language and has the right to receive the government’s response in the same language. This is arguably the only significant implementation of multilingualism at the level of law and administration.

No language movement in India has ever been organized to demand privilege for more than one language (currently in use): according official / second language status to a language, inclusion in the Eighth Schedule of the constitution, according the status of “language” to a “dialect”, according classical language status to a language, among others. There are linguistic minorities in every state, but how often have the linguistic majority in a state demanded that the same privileges that they enjoy in say, education, be accorded to the minority population in the state? How often have the speakers of a language (really the “standard dialect”) asked for similar linguistic privileges to be given to the speakers of a dialect (of that language)? In fact, the “linguistic” relation between the so-called dialect and language speakers is never very relaxed.

Despite our multilingual reality, are we then temperamentally monolinguals, irrespective of how many languages we know? It is reminiscent of the “‘us’ versus ‘them’” attitude. “Them” we can respect, and live comfortably with, but they are still “them”. Is multilingualism in harmony with this attitude?


It is often said in one language or the other that the present has to pay for the sins of the past. That is some form of justice. “Only connect”, as E.M.Forster put it, and you will see how justice works in the world of football. Think of just the World Cup!

Brazil was playing Turkey at the league stage in WC 2002. Rivaldo, who eventually had a great WC, did some mean acting that directly led to the Turkish international, Hakan Unsal’s dismissal. The referee was deceived into believing that Rivaldo was badly hurt on his face. The player later admitted his pretension, and said that he had wanted Unsal out. He was lucky; he escaped with the relatively mild punishment of a fine. The teams played again in the semi-final; it was a tough but incident-free match, which Brazil won by the narrowest of margins. In WC 2010, Kaka, the creative midfielder and a gentleman footballer, who was expected to play a pivotal role for Brazil, had to pay the penalty that Rivaldo had escaped paying. Kaka was the victim. Abdul Kader Keita of Ivory Coast did some acting to get the Brazilian red-carded.

Still on Brazil, the equalizing goal against Brazil by Holland in the quarter-final match was clearly a self-goal. It was the first ever self-goal scored against Brazil in the eighty year history of WC, in every edition of which this country had participated. It was of course later credited to the Holland midfielder Sneijder, but many thought it was only a technical award. Now whether Brazil was spared the disgrace of a self-goal or not became a matter of opinion. Now was that self-goal an act of justice for Luis Fabiano’s double hand goal in Brazil’s match against Chile?

WC 1966 gave football narrative a term: “Wimbley goal”. A Wimbley goal is a “strike which bounces down on or over the goal line”. In WC 1966, England won the final match against Germany by a disputed (as far as the Germans were concerned, a dubious) goal – a Wimbley goal, scored by Hurst. Incidentally, the relevant rules have changed: for a goal, the whole of the ball must cross the line. The Germans never got over their hurt. Until recently, to some measure at least.

Going by some press reports, Germans seemed to have rejoiced over Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal more than England’s humiliating defeat by their national team. Jorge Larrionda, the referee and his assistants, had failed to see the ball having crossed the goal line. Lampard believed, as did the English team’s coach, Fabio Capello, and many others that had that goal not been disallowed, the results of the match might have been different. It is this view, rather than the English captain Steven Gerrard’s (that the goal would not really have made any difference in the outcome), that warmed the German hearts so much. They had felt cheated, more than forty years ago, and felt compensated that a legitimate goal that was disallowed, showed the English the exit gate of WC 2010. “Now we are quits” is what Westdeutsch Allgemeine and Welt newspapers reportedly said.

An Iranian minister is supposed to have seen some justice in the fact that those who had worked for sanctions against Iran had an early exit from WC 2010. If one does not subscribe to this view, then one might consider the case of France in this WC. France had come to South Africa by elbowing out Ireland unfairly through Gallas’s goal from Henry’s double handball pass, unnoticed by the Swedish referee Martin Haussoon. They had usurped Ireland’s place at the WC. Quite understandably, the Irish rejoiced at France’s early exit. But early exit was only the less important aspect of France’s predicament in South Africa. There was indiscipline in the team, the players and the coach were at loggerheads with each other, they refused to practice, they were not playing as a team, and one or two players were later found to have indulged in sexual misdemeanour. The team brought their country disrepute, and was thoroughly condemned by the country.

Cristiano Ronaldo manipulated the dismissal of Rooney in WC 2006. There was no room for doubt about his complicity in it - after Rooney was shown the red card, he winked at the Portugal bench, and got caught in the camera. England lost the match and was out of the WC. Ronaldo became the World Footballer of the year in 2008, and he went to WC 2010 as a celebrity footballer, and as the captain of the Portugal team. He was expected to sparkle in the tournament. He did nothing of the sort; his performance was a shining example of a “damp squib”. He scored just one goal, which arguably was the silliest in the competition. Now, in this WC, was he paying for what he had done to Rooney in the last?


Some narratives have only a beginning, their end not in sight. These are the narratives that seem to grow as the world they depict develops. The hand goal in FIFA World Cup is arguably one such. Whether Maradona’s “hand of God” goal in the 1986 edition of WC was the first hand goal ever in the eighty year history of this celebrated tournament or not we do not know, but it is certainly the most talked about and written about hand goal of the competition.

The world did not see another hand goal in the following five editions of WC. However, the just concluded WC amply made up for the lack. The play-off match between France and Ireland to decide which of these would play WC 2010 finals saw something close to a hand goal: a goal that resulted directly from the pass from the French captain Thierry Henry – the great footballer with a fairly clean record - who had handled the ball twice, not once. This was the goal that put paid to the aspirations of the Irish, and left the country dejected. The French President apologized to the Irish people, as had Henry done before. He had regretted his handball, but insisted that it was not deliberate.

Continuing with the theme of double handball, the WC finals saw something worse: in the match against Ivory Coast, Luis Fabiano handled the ball twice before scoring what was Brazil’s second goal. This did not affect the results of course, and in that sense had no material consequences, but what was hilarious was that the referee had seen it, and even during the match had reportedly asked him (that too, laughingly) why he did what he did. Socrates, the captain of the Brazilian team in WC 1986, was perhaps right when he said that the team that brings crowd to the stands would receive indulgent treatment from the referees at the WC. Far from being apologetic, the player said in a post-match interview that there was a certain attractiveness about things illegitimate! Maradona would not grant him a hand of god goal; that attainment was his alone, he asserted; as far as he was concerned, Fabiano was only a pretender, having scored only an “arm goal”! Fabiano must have felt disappointed that his goal did not inspire must talk; not many cared to censure either him or the referee. In fact, Kaka’s red card in the same match invited more media attention.

Then happened Luis Suarez’s handball that doomed Ghana, and with that the entire continent of Africa. For the first time in the WC history an African team would have been in the same final. That was not to be. The Uruguayan stopped the goal bound ball with his hand in the final minutes of extra time. Instead of a goal, Ghana got only a spot kick, which they missed, and winning the penalty round, Uruguay went to play the semi-final, after many years. Suarez was red-carded, but that hardly mattered to anyone, including Suarez, who celebrated his country’s victory (rather Ghana’s defeat, as some put it), and proudly proclaimed that his was the “hand of god” goal. But Suarez is Suarez, and Maradona is Maradona, so the former’s remains only a hand goal, whereas the latter’s, the “hand of god” goal.

Suarez reportedly became a celebrity in Uruguay (and a villain in the entire African continent) for what he had done. A country needing an occasion to celebrate, celebrated its fourth place in WC 2010. Many would of course condemn him for having brought disrepute to the game. Unlike Maradona, Henry and Fabiano, he justified his hand goal, and did not hesitate saying it was intentional. He said that it was the only way to stop the goal-bound ball. The situation was dealt with by the referee according to rules that punished the player, and gave Ghana a chance to score. But Suarez knew, as everyone does, that the penalty taker would be under tremendous pressure at that stage, and might fail to score, which was precisely what happened. Suarez’s gambling brought Uruguay to the penalty shoot out stage. From his point of view, what he had done was a perfectly rational act, which he had done for his country. He had chosen between loyalty to his country and loyalty to the game. Suarez’s case would remain a classic example of the limits of both rationality and nationalism.


In Shimla last week, a good friend of mine gave me a collection of ghost stories connected with this lovely hill station: Ghost Stories of Shimla Hills by Minakshi Chaudhry. It’s more like a documentation of tales the author heard from the locals; she did not try to interpret what she heard, which is fine for a collection of ghost tales, because this way the stories are not twice removed from the original. One pleasant afternoon during my week-long stay in the city, he was kind enough to show me around some of the places associated with ghosts (most of them British, both male and female): the Ridge, Scandal Point, Lovers’ Lane, the road from Boileauganj junction to Chakkar, among others. The driver of our car was amused at what we were doing; “maybe there were ghosts in Shimla years ago (he said this more for reasons of politeness than conviction), but there are none now”, he said. I didn’t tell him that ghosts have to exist for the ghost stories to sound authentic and therefore exciting. Has anyone heard an interesting ghost story with its author saying that his story was false, and that ghosts do not exist? If one has either heard or read such a story, hasn’t he, honestly, feel cheated in the end by such a fake ghost story?

This apart, variety is always more interesting and exciting than uniformity. At least this is why a world in which bhuta, pishaca, brahma rakshasa, churail, (ghosts, ghouls, goblins, etc. in another culture, another terminology) etc. exist along with human beings has to be more interesting than the one which is inhabited by humans alone. Many ghosts in Chaudhry’s tales have their own life; at least they have their exclusive get-togethers, from which the non-white ghosts are excluded. Death has brought no attitudinal change. Interestingly, ghosts in these stories as well as in others do not always shy away from the humans; they sometimes seek to communicate with the humans or at least look for their company. But most often humans run into them by chance, which is entirely within the range of possibility, since they share the same space, and then if one is alone and the ghost is malevolent, the consequences of a chance meeting could be disastrous for the former. It is of such material that the ghost stories are made. Existence without communication or even desire for communication, gives rise to no tales; Shiva’s ghosts offer no possibilities for innovative ghost narratives.

The more malevolent the ghost, the more gripping is the story. Harmless ghosts do not always yield absorbing tales. Quite understandable; why read a ghost story if it does not give goose-pimples? Now a harmless ghost could become the subject of a fascinating tale if it left behind a colourful life while in the world of the mortals. Most of the ghosts in Chaudhry’s collection are (unfortunately) harmless. One of them in fact is so considerate that he consciously avoids his favourite haunts when humans are expected there. But if a human encountered one of these inoffensive ones and fell sick or unconscious, the poor ghost is not to blame; it is the fear of the living towards the dead and the prejudice of the former against the latter, formed, in part at least, from listening to horrifying (and unempathetic) stories about malicious ghosts, whose malice was often due to the far worse malice he had suffered from some human when alive.

As someone put it, some live as though to become example for others – what others should be or should not be. One can generalize it so as to include ghosts as well; so some ghosts exist to become examples, but “examples” of course for the living, not for their fellow ghosts. For a story teller, ghosts are the stuff of tales, not on account of themselves (remember Shiva’s ghosts?) but of their interaction with the humans. Many ghosts in Chaudhry’s collection have their home in Shimla because while alive, they were deeply attached to this quiet, scenic place, with a friendly, English climate. Unlike most, they did not leave Shimla after India’s independence, and it is because of their attachment to the house they lived in, the avenues they frequented, the Club they liked, etc. that they stayed on and continued to do so even after they slipped to another existence. When alive, they were probably simple, ordinary people who quietly and happily lived their days in that lovely hill town. When dead, they suffered the changes the city underwent after independence: filth all around, loss of greenery on account of reckless cutting down of trees to build ugly concrete houses, renaming of streets after locals and the collapse of landmark English structures because of sheer neglect, a general lack of discipline and order seen all around, etc. They moved around only in the darkness of the midnight, in the cold, the rain, and the mist, unwanted and even hated by humans, feared by humans, being the cause – sometimes unintentionally - of suffering to humans. All this because of their sick attachment to some material things when they were in the mortal world.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


In the time of the World Cup, if one is not watching the matches, one could do the next best thing: read Eduardo Galeano’s classic Soccer in Sun and Shadow. The best time to read this wonderful book is when the tournament is at the rather lazy league stage, when those with the “favourite tag” play far too cautiously to offer pleasing football.

This 240 page book is as much a racy history of football as an illuminating history of the World Cup from 1930 to 1998. Told in 221 short pieces, these two stories blend nicely, as they tell us how from a pastime football became a profession, and then an industry, and how from a strictly local event, in fact, non-event, it became a global spectacle. In the process many things happened. For one thing, “the player became a worker”, but without many rights, as Maradona, Laudrup, Hogo Sanchez, Bebeto, and others would find later, and to fight for the players’ rights they organized a soccer players union. Then rather than creating poetry on the field with the ball, when teams focussed on just winning, the game lost much of its beauty and grace. But a win brought delight to the people of those countries in particular who had little to be happy about. Such a country looked up to its players to redeem her honour in the football field which it had lost in other far more important playing fields – this indeed was the story of Argentina’s humiliation in the FalkIand war, and its victory over England in the 1986 World Cup, no matter that it was achieved through deceit. Maradona never apologized for his “hand of God” goal, neither did Argentina, and that defeat still rankles England. Galeano notes the contribution of the dictators in making winning virtually the sole goal. When a team receives the message “Win or die” from the ruler, as did the Italian team from was Mussolini before playing the final match in the 1938 World cup, all space for beautiful play disappears. In due course people took over this role from the dictator; a Columbian defender had to pay for his life for the self-goal he scored in the 1994 World Cup match. Doesn’t the traditional Brazilian attitude, rejecting defensive football – “Brazil must attack, it is for its opponent to defend” - look like an anachronism in today’s football, at least at the World Cup level? As the game moved into the society from its periphery, it soon became a commercial institution with a complex structure and governance. As transnational bodies took over football administration, the game’s corporatization was complete. Business interests would supersede national interests, if it came to that, and even winning would become secondary, no matter what consequences, as it did, when Brazil had to play an unfit Ronaldo for the entire duration of the final match when it played France in 1998 World Cup. Players became resources or commodities to be used by the establishment; they were reduced to “monkeys in a circus”. Even the language changed; thus Maradona was spoken of as the employer’s “investment”. Of football, Camus, who played as a goal keeper in Algeria, once said, “Everything I know about morals, I owe to soccer”, but that was a different age, remarks Galeano.

In the pages of Galeano’s book one reads about creative artists of the great game, and about aspects of their personality too - one reads about the sheer magic of Pele, Garrincha, Puskas, Cruyff, Eusebio, Beckenbauer, Maradona, and a host of others, and also about how Maradona spoke “truth to power”, as the author puts it, and was made to pay for it. One reads about Gullit’s speaking out against the money culture in football, his protesting against apartheid in sports, and also Pele’s self-centredness, and lack of empathy for the poor (“...a coin never fell from his pocket”). In 1978, the creative Holland team lost to Argentina in the final, but Galeano does not end the story of the great Dutch footballers with that defeat; he notes how in the award ceremony, these brave men refused to “salute the leaders of the Argentina’s dictatorship”. The book informs us about such instances of courage and many more ones of commitment to basic human values of many celebrated footballers.

Galeano is a great master of irony. In his football narrative, the sordid exists with the delightful, and the depressing with the spectacle. The contrast is as illuminating as it is painful. As the opening ceremonies of the 1978 World Cup were being held in Argentina under dictatorship, “A few steps away ... the torture and extermination camp ... was operating at full speed. A few miles beyond that, prisoners were being thrown alive from airplanes into the sea.” One can never be in any doubt about who these prisoners were; they were not ordinary criminals, they were political prisoners. That was when in Argentina, even curiosity was dissent. Nothing brings out the sheer vulgarity of situation more poignantly than Kissinger’s words about Argentina, “This country has a great future in all ways”.

Forget about the unforgettable content. One could read this book for the purity of its prose, and the style of its narrative. In a short piece of less than a hundred and fifty words, the author describes a goal by Zico, and sums up the description with a sentence that captures the magic of that goal so well: “ ‘Tell me about that goal’, pleaded the bind”. In Galeano’s hands, football writing, for the first time in the history of that discourse, achieved the status of art.

I end with a sincere request: if you are not watching Brazil or Argentina or Spain playing, then do read Soccer in Sun and Shadow.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


The Government of India has started a very welcome initiative called ‘National Translation Mission (NTM, for short)”, entrusted with the task of translating knowledge-based (or just “knowledge-“) literature on subjects ranging from sciences to human sciences and humanities, from (the source language) English to the Indian languages, prioritizing the ones on the Eighth Schedule. This is indeed an interventionist step since it does not seem to be in response to any well-articulated demand from any quarters for translated material in the subjects mentioned above; not many have been terribly upset by the fact that the language of the scientific and other technical work (including in the legal domain) used in India is English. The same is true of the quality literature in social sciences and even humanities as well. One would therefore think that one main objective of the government in starting this initiative may have to do with doing some groundwork for making higher education in all subjects available in the Indian languages, which would consequently lead to the real modernization of these languages - going beyond the preparation of bilingual dictionaries and of glossaries of technical terms in the Indian languages on various subjects.

It seems that the translation of some select college and university level text books in science and social science subjects has been prioritized by NTM, probably under the belief that colleges and universities will use them, if not immediately. Translation of higher level text books is not a new project; there are institutions (the text book bureau, for example, in Odisha) supported by various state governments which have been entrusted precisely with this task. So does NTM aim to supplement the effort of these institutions, wherever they exist, by adding to the repertoire of translated text books? Does NTM propose to work in competition with them or in cooperation with them, and if the latter, in what specific ways, and also whether it intends to be informed about their experience and benefit from that knowledge. For instance, who are the buyers of the books published by these institutions apart from the state-funded libraries, and what has been the impact of these publications in specific and general terms both?

Now, are the books to be published by NTM going to be used as text books at the universities? In other words, as a result of the NTM initiative, is there going to be a rethink on higher education leading to the use of Indian language text books (either exclusively or primarily) at this level? Whatever be the merits of such a proposal, it is by no means problem-free. If one wants to be (there is, in fact, no real choice) part of the global or even the Indian knowledge community, one has got to use the language of that knowledge community, i.e., the language in which knowledge is created, discussed and disseminated. For various reasons (including the one of historical accident), that language happens to be English. A novel or a poem written in a certain language does not need attestation of its quality from a readership speaking a different language. It is very different in the case of knowledge or scholarship, be it in physics or biology or economics or linguistics or philosophy or even literary criticism, because knowledge today, be it in the sciences or the humanities, is indeed global.

In the existing educational scenario, there is of course a certain use for the proposed translated texts. If these are of good quality – written in elegant, readable language - they could turn out to be useful learning aids, performing the function of the so-called “key books”. “Key books” are learning aids, which students who need such aid, always found useful, but which the education establishment condemned as cheap “bazaar notes”. This attitude has completely failed to wean the students away from these books. Time has come to recognize the usefulness of these books, and provide to the students quality key books or “supplementary books”, if someone has an objection to the term “key books”. This is where the proposed NTM publications might make a contribution. As for the modernization of the target languages, experience has shown that preparation of glossaries of technical terms, text books, etc. have not really resulted in the emergence of discourses in the relevant knowledge domains. It is by no means obvious that the proposed NTM publications would bring about a change in this respect.

Friday, June 11, 2010


Quite a few members of the IIT faculty still disapprove of the government’s decision, taken some three years ago, to open eight more IITs. They have all the usual apprehensions: the quality of education in the new IITs will be far from satisfactory, and sooner than later, the credibility of IITs at the international level will suffer. One gets the impression that only a very, very small number of faculty members in the IIT system support the government’s decision in principle.

Those in the political and bureaucratic circles who believe that fifteen IITs are grossly inadequate for India are not really wrong. There are indeed many capable students who fail to get into the IITs for reasons of luck rather than merit. It is uncontestable that they too deserve the same quality of education. This would be possible if either the number of seats in the existing IITs is further increased, or some of the existing engineering institutes are upgraded to IITs, or more IITs are set up. The first is obviously not a real option. Upgrading an existing institution, however good, to an IIT is not a sound proposition either. In a certain sense, IIT is an idea of an academic culture; not merely an institute that imparts quality technical education. For instance, whether undergraduate technical education should be broad-based, and if so, how broad-based, is a question of the academic culture of an institute. Whereas IITs execute the idea of broad-based undergraduate education, other engineering colleges in the country by and large seem reluctant to do so; they do not even subscribe to this idea. Upgradation of an institute does not necessarily lead to transformation of its academic culture. Thus establishment of new IITs seems to be the best option. In this context it must be noted that eight new IITs means catering to just about five thousand students. A very small step indeed, one might say, towards the solution of the problem of making available quality technical education to the most deserving in our country.

Now the fact is that in the existing situation even taking this small step is by no means easy to take. With adequate funds, physical infrastructure can be created in about five years, but the same cannot be said of the faculty. Hiring and retaining qualified faculty has always been and still is a problem for the IITs. The apparently simplest, and without doubt, an un satisfactory thing to do is increase the age of retirement of the faculty to even 70, and in addition, make it virtually obligatory for the faculty to remain on job till that age if there are no major health problems. But this somewhat bizarre solution would ease the situation to only a limited extent. In desperation the authority might think of lowering the qualification requirements for hiring for a certain period as an interim measure. But all this would lead to dilution of quality education at the IITs, defeating the very purpose of setting up of more of them.

IITs have to be seen, not just as teaching institutes, but as centres of research in engineering, sciences, and humanities as well. The present Union Minister of HRD seems to view them as such. Now compromise at the level of faculty recruitment, for example, might constitute (or be viewed as) some solution as far as undergraduate teaching is concerned, but it would be detrimental to the cause of research, including graduate research. Research environment is not just a matter of making available to the faculty and graduate students enough funds and even state-of-the art equipment; it is also a matter of availability of time for research to the faculty. It would be a loss if institutions such as the IITs are progressively weakened in terms of research. The proposed world class universities would be hardly able to compensate for this loss.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


In all likelihood it is Mr. Kapil Sibal, our Union Human Resource Development Minister, who, for the first time, brought Nobel Prize into a discourse, at least public, on IITs. When the IIT faculty went on a day’s protest against certain recommendations of the Pay Committee (constituted for the IITs, IIMs, etc.), the minister said (among other things, of course) that it was improper for the prospective Nobel laureates to resort to such methods to voice their protest. We do not know whether a prospective Nobel Prize winner refrains or should refrain from acts of protest, but we do know that there are indeed Nobel laureates who participated in various acts of protest. Bertrand Russell’s is a shining example of it. That apart, it is difficult to agree with the proposition that there is something unacceptable, if not downright demeaning, about registering a protest in a peaceful manner, or participating in a non-violent agitation.

There is almost nothing in the public domain about how the IIT faculty responded to the Minister’s statement. We heard that some sought to inform the minister that IITs were institutes of technology, and there are no Nobel Prizes for work in technology. If there is any truth in it, it is disappointing, because at one stroke, they almost disowned disciplines such as Physics, Chemistry and Economics at their Institutes. In any case, the Minister’s remark did evoke some media discussion. It had to! At least one television channel organized a short discussion on IIT faculty’s failure to win a Nobel, and among the experts was a former member of the faculty of an IIT. They blamed the lack of infrastructure, proper research environment, etc. at these Institutes. Anyway, as for us, we are unconcerned about why IIT faculty has not yet won a Nobel or who all have missed it, and how narrowly, and for what reasons, what conspiracies!

We view the Minister’s remarks as an instance of the language of power. The language that power uses has many forms. Albert Camus’s play Caligula provides an excellent example of one: foul, abusive, rude, cynical, and violent. Power has not ceased to use such language, but the contexts and the targets are different. The civil society in many parts of the world has almost ensured that distinctly unpleasant language is not used in a public platform.

Power now tends to use a different language; call it “indirect language”, that makes use of irony, satire, sarcasm, and metaphor, among other rhetorical devices. Indirect language is essentially about saying one thing in terms of another, and also about both concealing and revealing the meaning of one’s say. The obvious advantage it has over direct language is that whereas one commits oneself by using direct language, one escapes commitment and possible criticism by using indirect language. When the purpose is to hurt, it is served with the advantages of a smile. Such an expressive device can be very useful for power.

The Minister, the intelligent and efficient person that he is, surely knew that the achievements and contributions of an educational institution such as an IIT could not be meaningfully measured in terms of whether it had a Nobel on its faculty, and that a member of the faculty who is not a Nobel laureate could not be seriously thought of as mediocre for that reason. Mr. Al Gore, the US Vice-President during Mr. Clinton’s presidency, took just eight years to get the Nobel Peace Prize after staying away from active politics. Now does it constitute a serious argument that the politicians who have not got a Nobel after their retirement from public office are just no good? It took President Obama just a few months to win the Nobel Prize, after assuming Presidency; is it really a comment on those Heads of State who have not won a Nobel months or years after assuming office?

But when does power care for logic. It knows it can get away with whatever it says. Logic is for the powerless, if it wishes to engage with power. The Minister wanted the IIT faculty to know that he didn’t think much of them, and the country to note that the members of the IIT faculty think too much of themselves. He just did not say these in so many words. As for the Nobel Prize, it was just rhetoric.

Friday, April 9, 2010


In the recently concluded World Cup Hockey Tournament, India finished eighth among the twelve elite national hockey teams in the world. It won one match, against Pakistan, drew one with South Africa, lost three matches at the league stage, to Australia, the eventual champions, England, the semi-finalists, Spain, the fifth place team, and later, to Argentina, who, by defeating India, occupied the seventh place. India conceded more goals than any other team in the edition of the World Cup, and did not score a reassuring number of goals.

Having said this, I thought India did not do badly at all; in fact, one could say it did rather well. India is not playing in the coming Olympics. It is not one of the best two teams in Asia, and one must not forget that it did not participate in the 2010 World Cup tournament on merit, but only as the host team. The first six in this World Cup, Australia, Germany, Holland, England, Spain, and South Korea, were clearly better teams. Argentina was not decisively better than India, but was not decisively worse either. Since one match decides things, the eighth position for India is not disappointing.

But if the country felt disappointed, the reason is India’s awesome past record: eight Olympic gold medals, one World Cup gold, undisputed supremacy for thirty two years continuously from 1928, because of which it was accorded the status of the national game of the country, and then one of the top two or three teams for another twenty years or so. One tends to forget that it has not been among the very best teams in the world for about two decades now. On the global stage, the eighth position in the World Cup is perhaps our best achievement during the last sixteen years. This must be taken as encouraging, and we should compliment the team and its coach.

There need not be a podium finish each time a country plays an international tournament at the highest level; the Indian hockey team in 1984 Olympics was better than its fifth place finish. The Brazilian football team in 1982 World Cup was arguably the best in the competition, but it did not even reach the quarterfinal stage. I consider it sufficient achievement for a team at the global level if it is taken seriously and seen as a potential podium finisher by the other teams of the tournament. Like Brazil in Football World Cup – “the eternal favourites” from 1930 till date. This does not hold for India in hockey any more.

As far as I am concerned, the real downslide started with the introduction of the synthetic turf. India finished seventh in 1976 Olympics when for the first time the game was played on such turf. For almost more than a decade Indian hockey players hardly had adequate practice on synthetic turf before they went to participate in international tournaments. And equally importantly, our hockey experts completely failed to study the change that this, and the changes in the rules of the game were likely to bring about in the game. We satisfied ourselves saying that all this was Western conspiracy to end the supremacy of the subcontinent in the game. The basically uninformed debate, whenever it took place (and not often, I’m afraid), was about whether India should play its traditional style or change, and related to this, whether or not India should have foreign coaches, and the decision was almost always against change, and foreign coaches. India continued to play the game in the same old style, continued to forget that it is a team game, and continued to lose, and reach new lows. We did see some (only some) encouraging change in the style in 2010 World Cup, most players not hanging on to the ball too long, for example. But we are way behind the best in this, and one surely did not fail to notice that the team did depend on individual brilliance (not that much “brilliance” was in view, to be realistic), and other traditional habits. Hopefully things will change for the better.