Thursday, September 29, 2011


About sixty years ago, in my boyhood days I used to read the food related lines in the almanac, which I liked reading, and which, I suspect, were probably the only part of an entry about a day in the almanac that I understood. Born into a family in which the elders were believers in soft astrology and were amateur practitioners of it, I was familiar with the almanac at from early age. These lines about food were always in the nature of restrictions and they were never about cooked food or non-indigenous fruits and vegetables: adya alaabu bhakshaana nishedha (today, eating alaabu, i.e., bottle gourd, is prohibited), adya kusmaanda bhakshana nishedha (today, eating pumkin is prohibited), etc. I used to find the words very funny. Bottle gourd and pumpkin – of any variety – popularly known as laau and kakhaaru were looked upon as the ordinary among the ordinary vegetables, and it was hilarious the way these were distanced by being referred to in the text in Sanskritized terms in Sanskritized sentences. Incidentally these days in the almanac these are referred to in their popular names and the sentences are in colloquial Odia. The almanac never mentioned any particular vegetable or fruit to be consumed on some particular day, such as the following: adya alaabu bhakshana vidheya (today, eating bottle gourd is recommended). This is interesting; generally speaking, the prohibition strategy is the most economical form of stating the characteristics of a good life. “Economical”, because otherwise one ends up giving, for all practical purposes, an endless list!

In brata kathaas too food is a part of the discourse on moral life. A brata kathaa is a tale that depicts the glory of a god or a goddess, more often a goddess, and more often a local god or goddess. Part of it deals with how to worship the goddess, what benefits come to one who worships her in the proper way and what sufferings await one who offends her by not worshipping her duly. And built into all these are statements about how to lead a moral life. These are a series of prohibitions, many of these women-centric, concerning many domains of day-to-day living, including that of food. A brata kathaaa shares one characteristic with a proverb, which is that it is really concerned more with a comfortable life in this world than progress in the other world.

In Lakshmi Purana (which is indeed a brata kathaa and not a purana), an immensely popular tale throughout Odisha, the following are among the prohibitions listed with respect to food. On a Thursday which is dedicated to goddesss Lakshmi, a woman must not eat curd rice at night, non-vegetarian food, remains of the food from someone’s plate, roasted food, burnt food and non-vegetarian food cooked with bottle gourd. This last one may constitute a bit of careless writing, but popular tales are not free from this blemish. On Thursdays, amaabasyaas and sankraantis, one must not eat at night. There are other food-related restrictions pertaining to the manner of cooking, the mode of eating, etc. For instance, a woman must not fry uncooked rice grains on Thursdays.

Sometimes Puranas and often brata kathaas describe good meals – in fact, define what a good meal is, and a good meal is always a sumptuous meal. What is the point of a good dish if three quarters of the dish is empty? – the meal that goddess Parvati cooked for Lord Shiva or the meal that the guests in Draupadi’s wedding were served, for example. Both these occur in the fifteenth century Odia poet, Sarala Dasa’s Mahabharata. Another example is the meal that goddess Lakshmi cooked for her consort Jagannatha and her elder brother-in-law, Balabhadra in Balarama Dasa’s Lakshmi Purana, a sixteenth century composition. In each case, the items are many: different types of rice preparations, pancakes, vegetable preparations, sweets made of milk, such as khirs and the like. Each has a name. Incidentally, Lakshmi’s meal has a distinct identity from the others’, if not in terms of the dishes, in the manner of her serving them. At the end, she serves poda pithaa, a salted pancake roasted in embers.

Now, what explains this preoccupation with food in these cultural texts? There are well known, traditional explanations for the food-oriented prohibitions in our culture. Broadly speaking, our tradition postulated a connection between food and attitudes, inclinations and mental states; tamasik food was believed to create a negative attitude, satwik food, a positive mindset - this is just one aspect of the impact of food on personality, other aspects involving quantity of intake, etc. need not detain us here. So certain foods which were believed to arouse inappropriate inclinations and desires were forbidden on auspicious days, although it is entirely unclear to us today how bottle gourds, brinjals and pumpkins could matter in the relevant respect.

Such elaborate descriptions of food served in the weddings and other occasions, both festive and auspicious, might have a different explanation. My own understanding is as follows: a food loving people wanted to talk about food. Smelling food is half-eating it, as the saying in Sanskritized Odia goes: aaghraana ardha bhojana. In the same way, talking about a dish is like relishing that dish. It is commonplace to hear utterances like maacha bhajaa kathaa sunile taa paatiru laala gade (if he just hears about fish fry, his mouth salivates”). It suggests the power of talk. The food narratives could also be, partly at least, an expression of longing for some grand dishes that one almost never gets to eat at home or at others’ places even on festive occasions. One indulges in the pleasures of the palate by talking (or even writing) about the dishes of one’s desire.


Recently Mr. N.R.Narayana Murthy is reported to have said that the IITs have "lost their sheen” and are no more the Institutes they were in the sixties and the seventies. Talking about the PhD students in the Electrical Engineering department of IIT Kanpur, he said that their number has gone down rather drastically in the last two or three decades. China produces a much larger number of PhD’s in Computer Science than India does in a year, he said. I have not seen responses to his views in either the print or the electronic media. Incidentally, some members of the faculty of IIT Kanpur do not agree with his observation about the number of PhD students in the Electrical Engineering department some two or three decades ago and now, but it is essentially a minor matter in view of the total context of Narayana Murthy’s observations. The contrast with China in terms of qualified manpower that India has is glaring indeed.

However it is unclear how IITs have lost their sheen. Do students in India prefer other institutes of technology for their undergraduate education? How many who qualify for admission to the IITs go or even prefer to go abroad for their undergraduate education? Don’t the post-graduate students of engineering in our country choose IITs as their first preference, in case they decide to do their post-graduation in India? Are the IIT students doing their post-graduation abroad performing unsatisfactorily there in comparison to students of other nationalities? In the absence of reliable data one can have only intuitive answers to these. What one is relatively sure of is that in terms of research IITs do not figure among the top hundred or even two hundred institutions in the world. However, I do not know where they figure in a list of the institutes or universities of technology alone. As for Bhatnagar (setting aside the familiar scepticism of the relevant academic community about such recognition for the present) and similar awards, more came to the IIT faculty some twenty five or thirty years ago than today, but there are more research institutes now with better research facilities than the IITs have than was the case three decades ago. And then the IITs have never been pure research institutes; they were not intended to be. In any case, the very fact that going abroad, especially to US, for PhD has, always been the preferred choice of the IIT students (there are exceptions, though), shows that the IITs do not have a global reputation as centres of doctoral and post-doctoral research. But is research the “sheen” Narayana Murthy had in mind? Does he believe that the IITs were once the world class research institutes which they are not today?

Educational institutions, like other institutions, flourish and wane, and if nothing is done to arrest the decline, they effectively die - some faster than others. Some might appear to be flourishing, in which case, it might take time for the outsiders to know that they are actually on the decline. It is possible that those on the downward path might include some that one has valued, has cared for and has been committed to. One’s expression of concern is entirely justifiable and understandable.

Bringing one’s concerns to the people at large and making financial contributions to the institute are important, but there is more to do. One has to carefully study the situation and arrive at a sound explanation for the unsatisfactory performance of the relevant institutions - in the present case, the IITs, and place the same in the public domain. In the eighties the duration of the academic programmes including the research programmes was reduced by the government. In those IITs where research programmes had a course work component, like IIT Kanpur, the number of courses the post-graduate students had to do was reduced. Did the reduction of the duration of the research programmes affect the quality of the research output? More recently the student intake at the undergraduate level was considerably increased in order to implement a social justice initiative of the government. But there was the problem of the paucity of faculty. The undergraduate work load of the faculty went up considerably. Did the research programmes suffer as a consequence? How good are the M.Tech programmes at the institutes that work as feeders to the IITs’ doctoral research programmes? Apart from these, why don’t the IIT undergraduates return to do research in appreciable numbers? Many M.Tech students also do not seem to return to the IITs for their PhD. They go for jobs. What is the situation in China in this respect? The Chinese too go abroad for research. But then surely there are a number of students who come to do their doctoral research in Chinese universities. Narayana Murthy mentioned the students of Computer Science. Where do the IIT B.Techs in Computer Science go? Not all, not even the majority of them go abroad for their PhD. Where do the M.Techs of NIITs go? Does a sizable number of all such potential doctoral researchers go for corporate jobs ,for Management studies or non-technical jobs like IAS? How often does it happen in the comparable elsewhere that trained technical manpower is depleted because they migrate to different sectors? In India, it appears that research is not the first option of the Computer Science students. Incidentally, the situation is not very different in other areas of engineering as well.

It is understandable that China enters into this discourse. But it can help if we can have some authentic knowledge of the possible reasons of China’s success. One must try to have an understanding of both the decline and the success stories of the bench mark institutions. It is only then that useful steps can be taken to redeem those on the downward path. From successful, serious-minded, honest intellectuals, who think for the country, one expects a much richer response than the ones under reference, especially when the persons concerned are among the distinguished alumni of their respective institutes.