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.