Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The price of genius

“Make your child a genius!” This hoarding on a Bengaluru bus grabbed my attention. The advertisers promised to make your kid, anybody’s kid, a master of general knowledge, elocution, creative writing, art, dramatics, fashion designing, film making and heaven knows what esoteric else. A universe of knowledge and talent, stuffed into your kid in just six weeks for a fancy price. The savvy promoters knew that busy people like us will refuse to waste our time to think. Can talent and genius be bought like potatoes or chappals? Who cares as long as we can keep up with boastful neighbours? Superficial glitz can readily be bought and cobbled together. No wonder they score over hard-earned substance. We ourselves are busy scrambling up the slippery ladder to ‘success.’ Who has time to nurture their own children these days? The problem is not with training courses and camps, which can indeed be useful. The problem is with our own attitude. By forcing our children into countless extra-curricular programmes, we expect them to become multi-faceted geniuses overnight. Buying talent, genius, all-round development and sundry mind-blowing intellectual accomplishments for our precious darlings, seems to be the latest craze in shortcut privileged parenting.
Heavy schoolbags and endless exams are no longer enough to satisfy ambitious educationists and parents. A lady proudly shared how her child, enrolled in an exclusive school, even had library exams! What on earth is that? The sixth standard student did not know or have the energy left after a deluge of edifying activities, to care. She simply ticked random choices and submitted her paper to the teacher. Children fare best in extra-curricular activities if they pursue them out of interest, and not external pressures. A rigid and compulsive approach kills any natural curiosity and joy of discovering fascinating and fun activities. A hollow sham of all-round development is the end result.
Many Indian children are denied even primary education due to poverty. A global report tracking nutritional status of children worldwide, states that half of Indian children below five years are stunted. One fifth of Indian children are wasted, and a large number of them don’t even get ORS when suffering from diarrhoea. On the other hand, privileged Indian children are denied childhood joys and holistic growth by having an avalanche of curricular and extracurricular activities shoved down their throats .While pouring money to buy such education and accomplishments for our children, we seem hell-bent upon turning them into mindless robots and dysfunctional, disgruntled future adults.
Educated urban Indians like us are a hard-nosed, materialistic lot. Our houses, cars, clothes and other possessions certify our ‘success’ in life, which in turn defines our sense of self-worth. We live vicariously through our children, projecting our own unfulfilled ambitions on them even before they have grown out of diapers. Modern Indian parents strive to buy education as a commodity for their children .The more privileged ones vie to also buy every sort of accomplishment for their precious darlings. This begins when children are starting to walk and speak a few words. We push them into play homes, prep schools and tutorials before they can remember their own names. In the good or bad old days, Indian kids bent under schoolbags heavier than themselves. Youngsters routinely took their own lives, unable to cope with the pressure of eternal exams, and the compulsion to get that vital half mark more than the next kid. That’s now become an accepted part of ordinary Indian life. Meanwhile, people like us strive to rise above the average herd by pushing our children into a bottomless quagmire of structured extra-curricular activities. We insist on regimenting every moment of their residual time after academics, and drag them into courses, camps and classes to hammer all-round intellectual development into them.
Vacations are when tiger dads and lion moms go on the rampage. We enrol children into swimming and horse-riding camps, followed by Bharatnatyam and sign language classes. We won’t allow them to waste a precious second, for there’s also coaching for singing and dance contests on TV.  To meet the skyrocketing demand, creative coaches will soon launch courses for mushroom cultivation, sand grain carving and grave digging.  We ensure that the miserable young ones are given no breathing space. God forbid they should have choices or a few moments to reflect and ask uncomfortable questions.
To meet the growing demand from well-heeled, busy parents, a new crop of fancy schools promise fast-track all-round development of the child.  I’ve written books for children, among other things. Times were when committed librarians and teachers invited me to interact with their students, taking care to familiarize themselves with my work. Together we encouraged students to read and enjoy books of their choice, and freely explore many ideas outside the academic curriculum while having fun. It was an exciting experience for youngsters to actually meet and talk to someone who had written a book they enjoyed. Such breaks from the routine helped recharge the children’s’ spirits and excite their curiosity.
Times are changing. During a recent visit to a posh school, the teachers’ demands dampened my excitement. I had to teach the kids to become authors in the space of a half hour session! I spent many years improving my writing and working on those books, and I still feel there is much more to learn. I began my journey as an avid reader. Even as a pre-school toddler, my parents left me free to choose my favourite picture books. But my experiences were irrelevant here. These children from privileged backgrounds had no time for books, the teachers explained. They only needed to learn to become authors themselves. They had far too many enlightening and personality building activities to keep them busy, and dazzle the world with their accomplishments. Meanwhile, their guardians and instructors saw no sense in allowing them time to understand, absorb or enjoy any of it. They were so busy manufacturing budding geniuses, neither the students nor most of the teachers even knew who I was! I realized how my presence was part of a marketing gimmick. The parents would be informed of the school’s efforts to expose children to experts in various fields. And this would justify a hike in school fees. Since many among us earn a living by providing various goods and services, we will appreciate this innovative concept of selling Mt Everest to busy parents with no time to bring up their children. Parents are squarely to blame. Genius shops are selling what they desperately want to buy. Something that cannot be bought. But we try to overcompensate for our own lack of involvement, by pushing our hapless children into an endless whirlpool of activities.
Research by scientists is confirming what wise parents have known all along. Babies and young children have immense potential for learning. Findings by Carolyn Rovee-Collier, a psychologist at Rutgers University, suggest that "even at two and a half months, an infant's memory is very developed, very specific and incredibly detailed." Language skills and emotional responses to the world around them, also begin developing early. Early and sustained nurturing is vital in shaping intelligent, balanced, and emotionally healthy adults of the future. Parental involvement is essential for a child’s ongoing development. Parents are the first and most important teachers long before a child begins school. The sincerest teachers in the best schools have to deal with many children. They cannot give each child individual attention like the parent. Yet a growing number of educated young Indian parents are too busy to spare enough quality time and attention for their children.
Helping children to develop their intelligence and skills does not mean tossing textbooks of Medieval History and Trigonometry into the cradle to produce precocious geniuses. Nor is enrolling kindergarteners into the friendly neighbourhood creative writing school likely to manufacture many bestselling Nobel laureates. We need to adopt the right attitude and not allow ourselves and our children to get trapped in rigid and unimaginative training programmes. As caring and concerned parents, we need to carve time out of our busy schedules to enjoy watching and participating in activities that interest and stimulate our children. Reading aloud, for example, is a joy shared by both parent and child. And you don’t need to pay hefty fees for it. Far from being a waste of time, reading encourages children to explore and learn. When parents read to their children during the first three years of life, the foundation is laid for a lifelong interest in learning. While vital for building brains, reading to young children while they cuddle up to a loving parent or elder also nurtures children emotionally, and lays the foundations for trusting and close emotional relationships as adults.
Reading books to children opens their mind to new things and places in the outside world. When children learn that books contain exciting stories and pictures, they want to read more. They do far better in school, as books are not something to be dreaded, but a thing of joy. They can understand their textbooks better, and organically improve their vocabulary and writing. As the child grows older, reading expands their horizons of knowledge. Children who are allowed to spontaneously enjoy and take interest in reading, painting, music and other activities, become independent learners and thinkers. They can attend their school work with minimum help, and entertain themselves when they are alone. Once a child enjoys such an activity of her choice, the habit will serve her well for the rest of her life. A child who can think independently will be more competent to deal with the challenges of adult life.
Studies and life haven't become harder these days. It's the attitudes that have changed. Kids habitually cram lessons, and go to private tutors for spoon-feeding of fixed notes. Then parents and schools herd children into activities such as film appreciation, chess or piano playing, without taking their choices into account. If we allow children to play, to think and decide for themselves, then they will derive maximum joy and benefits from extra-curricular activities. Extra professional coaching certainly is helpful, but parents and teachers need to motivate the children first.
Unstructured play time is also essential for children. As parents and educationists, it’s up to us to allow young people some time to breathe freely, and even play in the mud if they wish to. When children explore something that interests them, they learn more quickly and readily remember what they enjoyed learning. By allowing children choices, we can help nurture important skills such as making decisions, solving problems and forging healthy bonds with others. By encouraging children’s questions and curiosity, we can boost complex thinking.
Pushing children into strictly regimented activities is a reflection of our own fear of failure. We all need to overcome that fear of falling and getting dirty, of failing, if we are to ultimately succeed. Success cannot come quickly simply from unimaginatively planned, one-size-fits-all tutorials forced upon exhausted children. We cannot buy our way into genuine achievements, or expect our children to become perfect at one shot.  Let’s take a tip from American author Toni Morrison, whose impressive awards list include the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature. “As a writer, a failure is just information. It’s something that I’ve done wrong in writing, or is inaccurate or unclear. I recognize failure—which is important; some people don’t—and fix it, because it is data, it is information, knowledge of what does not work… then you have to pay very close attention to it, rather than get depressed or unnerved or feel ashamed. …What you do is you identify the procedure and what went wrong and then correct it.” Even for such a towering, world-renowned literary figure, success and confidence came with time, introspection and constant effort. Who are we, then, to bamboozle our children into camps and courses with the ambition of turning them into TV stars or authors overnight?
Are we turning our children into intellectual bonsais by dumping our unrealistic expectations upon their tender shoulders? Is it so difficult to appreciate our children for themselves? Do we have to push them into endless courses and camps in order to transform them into star performers overnight? It would be better if we try to bring light and joy into children's lives. If only we could allow them some space to play freely, let them figure things out for themselves and guide them to activities they find interesting and refreshing. 
This is published in Sunday Herald

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Wishes for the new year

 People light candles forming the words 'Happy new year 2015' on New Year's eve in Allahabad.  PTI photoAs another year ends and a new year begins, we look forward with hope, and with some trepidation. Will acchhe din be here to stay? Will we finally have rainbows day after day?

Which one of us wouldn’t wish for a world with rising pay packets and dwindling inflation? Bigger malls with even bigger discounts; smarter and cheaper gizmos to make life breezier; accommodating bosses and more opportunities for all of us to become bosses; a swachh Bharat free of garbage and pollution; friendlier neighbours across the road and borders; miracle pills to make us all beautiful and super brainy for a reasonable price; that’s just the beginning of our collective daydreams. Along with fresh hopes, each year also brings newer and recycled fears. This year too, we will need to grapple with various threats, such as deadly viruses, noxious chemicals, wayward comets, trigger-happy extremists or hostile aliens out to wipe us off the face of the earth. 
Indians excelled in many spheres in the year gone by. Kidambi Srikanth and Saina Nehwal bagged both the men’s and women’s titles at a major badminton tournament in China. Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Sister Euphrasia of India were conferred sainthood by Pope Francis at the Vatican. Our scientists’ efforts culminated in Mangalyaan, which was listed by Time magazine among the 25 best inventions of 2014. India’s Kailash Satyarthi won the Nobel Peace Prize. May we continue to shine and innovate, and do our very best.

However, we hope Indians will cease to outperform in the scams department. With so many thousands of crores of unaccounted money stashed away, who says we are a poor country? Yet the rich-poor divide continues to grow. Impoverished farmers commit suicide every day, sometimes honoured with tiny news items. In our cities, street children and migrant labourers lead harsh and deprived lives. The Rs 2,500 crore Saradha scam showcases our native talent as cheaters par excellence. Small wonder then that last year’s annual nation branding survey by research firm Anholt-GfK ranked India at a pathetic 31st among 50 countries. Efforts are on to curb our skulduggery. 

While signing a global treaty on sharing information to track black money, the government has decided to streamline resource-sharing between the investigative wings under the revenue department. The SIT probe has already brought under the tax net Rs 3,000 crore undisclosed money lying in Geneva. Eleven cases related to undervaluation of iron ore exports have been acknowledged by the traders, who have now paid up around Rs 117 crore due to the government. In another welcome move, all life-saving drugs will now come with a bold red-tag indicator of government-fixed rates, so that needy patients do not easily get cheated. May the coming year bring more such effective checks and balances, and may our scoundrels and crooks go out of business. While the rich prosper, may there be more equitable distribution of wealth so that our poor can also afford better lives.
May advancing technology offer us wonderful new ways to spread peace and healing. Science and technology are but neutral tools in human hands. We can use technology to create lethal machines of destruction, or to explore new worlds and new ways to fight death and disease. So, away with bombs and guns, and more innovations like robotic surgeries, please. We also expect more impressive forays into the vast unknown. European Space Agency’s Rosetta just landed on a comet. Our very own super smart MOM dazzled the world by reaching Mars on its very first attempt. Space exploration gives fresh hope to humanity. We seem hell-bent bombing and polluting our planet to death. Thanks to new discoveries in space, we can now aspire to junk the old home and move on to exploit new planets.  Meanwhile, we will never cease to be delighted by new ingenious gadgets that make chores easier, or simply make life a little more fun.  

Freedom reigns

We are fortunate to be living in a free country. We can rant and rave about the ‘system’ and the powers that be, without being packed off to concentration camps and gas chambers. May democracy continue to prosper, and may we use our rights and freedom with responsibility. 

Writers, intellectuals and the media have a vital role to play in disseminating information, moulding public opinion, and positively influencing those in power. Noted American author Ursula K. Le Guin foresees hard times, and the need for “the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope.” Let us echo her plea for responsible book publishing and authorship. May they rise boldly beyond the narrow bounds of commercial interests, sales strategies and advertising revenue. 

There is a growing public impression that the Indian media is no longer an impartial observer, but a participant in the power-games between commercial and political interests. Senior journalist Shekhar Gupta feels that “the media definitely has to do a lot of introspection.” He notes how Parliament recently “passed a major constitutional amendment without discussion. The entire political class got together against the judiciary. And there was no public protest... Today, sometimes, you get the sense that people are willing to crawl when nobody is bothering to ask us to even bend.” Let us hope for undying integrity among our opinion makers. May they continue to show us the light freely and without fear.

While technology and commerce are bringing the world closer as a global village, there continue to be enough divisive elements out to pit people against each other. Discrimination keeps rearing its ugly head in various ways. We Indians are masters at communalism, sexism, and all sorts of groupisms. We can be nasty racists too. 

Women students are arbitrarily banned from university libraries and rapes are an everyday occurrence. Meanwhile, anti-dowry laws are being misused by some wives to threaten and settle scores with husbands and elderly in-laws. So much so that the Supreme Court recently observed that the dreaded Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code had “dubious place of pride amongst the provisions that are used as weapons rather than shield by disgruntled wives.” Discrimination and bigotry in any form can hurt us all. As individuals, we should shun snap judgements and the urge to bully or deprive those who are different in any way. Let us work together towards gender equality and social justice.

Last September saw a mob assault on three African men — two from Gabon and one from Burkina Faso — at New Delhi’s Rajiv Chowk metro station. Would those men have been beaten less brutally, if they looked more acceptable to the bystanders who rapidly turned into a violent mob? The fact is, we Indians are more accepting of foreigners with lighter complexions, while African visitors can find it painful to overcome racial prejudices, and being stereotyped as criminals and drug dealers. In the coming year, may the spirit of tolerance and unity prosper, and narrow-minded prejudices be kept at bay. Neatly consigning people into categories robs them of their individuality. It also smacks of our own intellectual poverty. 

All men are not rapists, just as all Indian women are not Sitas or Savitris. All members of religions other than our own are not rabid fanatics. Let’s do away with the ‘us against them’ attitude and see others as fellow human beings, no matter where they come from. This is one area in which each of us can make a difference. 

Our rapacious greed is bleeding the life out of the environment. Pollution is increasing, and water tables plummeting as borewells run dry. The flora and fauna of the unique Sunderbans is threatened by a massive oil spill in the Bay of Bengal. Petition website Avaaz is mobilising public opinion against an Indian industrialist’s bid to raise a billion dollar loan from State Bank of India to build a coal port near the Great Barrier Reef. World heritage agency UNESCO has warned that the proposed project would endanger the world’s largest and most diverse oceanic ecosystem. Due to public pressure, Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan, Goldman, Citi, HSBC, RBS and Morgan Stanley have already opted not to be associated with this controversial project. Let us hope for more transparency and public debate over such environmental issues. Only then will the best decisions be taken for the long term benefit of us and our home planet.
What else shall we wish for? I, for one, would want a year filled with cheerful news headlines. Why limit your wishes to specifics, when fate and the ingenuity of other people can sometimes throw up undreamt of gems? But our dreams will remain daydreams in this fragmented and strife-torn world. Good news will be the norm only when the world is more peaceful and stable. We can of course wish for world peace, but that will be as improbable as a beauty contestant’s dream of becoming another Mother Teresa. What we can realistically wish for is that humanity learns its lessons and takes positive steps to atone for mistakes from the past. 

2014 marked the centenary of the beginning of World War II, and a quarter century after the fall of that grim symbol of Cold War, the Berlin Wall. The first Great War introduced innovative killing machines and strategies. Poisonous gases, battles with armoured tanks, and planes built to fight and kill from the skies, all began here. Empires and countries disintegrated, and new ones rose from their ashes. In times when there were far fewer people, the casualties of the war was the most stupendous faced by humanity. Around 16 million people were estimated to have died. Millions more were wounded and maimed. 

This “war to end all wars” unfortunately became the forerunner of more and fiercer wars, with newer and more lethal high-tech purveyors of death and mayhem. People, and those who lead them, seem to never tire of destruction and death. Friction and armed antagonism still simmers today in many parts of our planet. Ongoing conflict continues to claim innocent lives in Gaza. ISIS militants are spreading horror over West Asia.

Innocent aid workers, who chose to believe in the goodness of mankind, are being executed in the most gruesome manner. As the Human Rights Watch has pointed out, “Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, children have suffered the horrors of detention and torture.” The fate of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 brought home to people around the world, the terrible effects of war. 

That plane with 298 civilian passengers was shot down in mid-flight over Ukraine, a nation ripped apart. The dead are from various countries, ordinary citizens of nations at peace. A family looking forward to a vacation in Bali, a pilot on his way to celebrate his child’s birthday, a healer pursuing pathbreaking research on AIDS, all fell in a war which they were probably not even aware of. Such tragedies drive home the fact that we are all interconnected. Strife in a remote and little-known land like Ukraine can result in immediate and disastrous loss to people like us. 

May this coming year see less conflict, and strengthen the spirit of peace. Let’s keep in our hearts the sentiments memorably expressed by Bob Dylan:
Yes, ’n’ how many times must
the cannonballs fly 
Before they’re forever banned?... 
Yes, ’n’ how many years can
some people exist 
Before they’re allowed to be free? 
Yes, ’n’ how many times can a
man turn his head 
Pretending he just doesn’t see?...
Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one
man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it
take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’
in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Let’s hope for those winds of change, and that leaders around the world move closer to finding those answers. Let’s salute the voters of J&K, who came out with hope and courage during the recent elections. Braving boycott calls by separatists, the residents of Chrar-e-Sharif, once a hotbed of terrorism, registered an outstanding 82.14 per cent voter turnout. May their spirit inspire us to make our own individual efforts to bring about a better common future.
This essay is published in Sunday Herald


Thursday, December 04, 2014

Shashi Deshpande: an interview

Shashi Deshpande’s dignified presence, her innate warmth and grace, can win the hearts and minds of anyone from aspiring writers to intellectual opponents. Her twinkling eyes belie a razor-sharp mind; one who sees through human subterfuges and smiles at the quirks and ironies of life.Shashi

This prolific author began her career with short stories and has gone on to pen nine short story collections, twelve novels and four books for children.  She has also written essays on topics such as feminism, literature and language. Translations are another part of her rich repertoire, and her own work has been translated into several languages. Among her many honours, is India’s prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award for her novel That Long Silence. Her latest novel, Shadow Play, has been shortlisted for The Hindu Prize, 2014. She was honoured by the Indian Government with the Padma Shri in 2008.
Deshpande’s fiction is rife with women who display uncommon inner strength as they cope with frustrations and disappointments in love, marriage, family life, and come to terms with thwarted personal aspirations. As they struggle within the constraints of their daily lives, they realise truths about themselves and strive to rise above their circumstances. Their personalities evolve as they test the boundaries of their resilience and courage. In That Long Silence, Jaya's life crumbles around her as aspersions are cast on her husband’s professional reputation. He loses his job and the foundations of Jaya’s seventeen-year-old marriage and family are rocked. Jaya is haunted by her memories of a repressed childhood, her failure as a writer, and of growing disenchantment with her marriage and her children. In A Matter of Time, Gopal, a respected academician and caring father and husband, abandons his family without warning, for reasons even he cannot articulate. His wife Sumi is compelled to seek shelter with her three daughters, in the home of her parents. The silent ancestral home unveils its mysteries, stories of sorrow and loss. This tale spanning three generations, weaves an intricate tapestry of the characters’ passages through love, loss, endurance and glimpses of hope. The Binding Vine[M1]  is another moving exploration of the dignity and forbearance shown by women as they face the daily challenges of life. The lives of three women who are "haunted by fears, secrets, and deep grief" (Washington Post) are bound together by strands of life and hope—a binding vine of love, concern, and connection that spreads across chasms of time, social class, and even death. The Baltimore Sun declared the novel, "Chekhovian . . . Deshpande’s story of a woman who loses a daughter is linked to the politics of India and its tradition of patriarchy."
The range and variety of Deshpande’s work is displayed in novels such as Come Up and Be Dead, which can be termed a literary mystery. A school is shaken from its normal routine by the suicide of one of its young students. Rumours and speculations thicken the atmosphere around characters who could very well be our neighbours or relatives. The Narayanpur Incident is a novel for children set in the heady days of India’s freedom movement against British colonial rule. Babu and Manju find themselves swept up in the popular protests during the Quit India Movement of 1942. Their schools close down, their father is imprisoned, and their older brother Mohan goes underground to join the freedom fighters. The children move with other family members to the obscure village of Naryanpur. Waves of turbulence rocking the nation reach even this remote place, where children fall victim to police atrocities, and a group of children gather the courage to stand up to the colonial police.
There is so much more to say about her work, which is best expressed by the author herself. We at Kitaab thank Shashi Deshpande for being with us and sharing exclusive insights with our readers. This interview is published in Kitaab

1.     How much did your environment shape your writing? As the daughter of renowned Kannada dramatist and man of letters Sriranga, you would have grown up in the lap of literature. Might your interests have taken a different turn if you had been nurtured in a more mundane milieu? Any anecdotes you would like to share about your first experiences in writing?

SD:  It is always difficult to answer hypothetical questions like this one. The facts are that my father was a writer, our house was full of books, there were often literary friends visiting and literary conversations going on. But the huge passion for reading, for words, for language -  these were mine. I read everything I could lay my hands on, including dictionaries  and self-teaching books, like books that  taught    French, German, Hindi  and so on. The interest in people was also my own. So I guess I was born to be a writer. In fact my father was troubled by my habit of reading books other than texts and that,  unlike my sister, I never got a first or second rank. He often said that I would grow up to become a clerk in the Collector’s office! (I’m grateful he took it for granted that I would shape my own future, that it did not depend on who I married.) In fact, there was a time when my father  asked my teachers not to allow me to borrow books from the school library. Did that help? Not at all. My friends borrowed the books I wanted and handed them over to me.
As for writing, it took me a long time to  begin writing, though  I do remember entering a writing competition run by the Illustrated Weekly  of India and getting a prize. And writing a story for a school exercise. That was all. But I wrote diaries (soppy ones, I’m sure) and letters to pen pals. Real writing began after I was married and had two children.

2      Among the many memorable characters you have created, which is your personal favourite? If you were to begin writing that same story today, how would your own subsequent life experiences impact that character and her story?
SD: It is very hard to say who is my favourite character. It’s like asking a parent about her/his favourite child. However  I suppose I can say that the character closest to my heart is Aru, who first appeared in A Matter of Time. I admired her greatly but was unable to make her the heroine in that novel. I made a kind of promise at the end of the book that I would make her the heroine next time. And nearly twenty years later Shadow Play came to me in which Aru played the major role. Generally characters make a graceful exit once the novel has been written. The fact that Aru stayed with me for such a long time shows how much she meant to me.
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3.      Your fiction is widely appreciated for your ability to weave complex nuances and intricate layers of significance into what might appear at first glance as tales of ordinary people leading ordinary Indian lives. Did you consciously choose your subjects, or did the stories choose you?
SD: There are two questions here. The first  one is whether I consciously choose my subjects or do the stories choose me. No, I never choose a subject and then begin writing.  I could not and would not do that. The people  come first to me and lead me into their lives, and then their stories evolve through their characters, through their interactions with others, through the choices they make. Actually, I don’t  even know how the novel will end when I begin writing.
But  the point I really want to make is about your comment  that  my stories are of `ordinary people leading ordinary lives’. In the 5th question, once again my stories and novels have been described as `revolving around ordinary middle class women’. I am a little intrigued by the word `ordinary’. I would have thought that all, or, at least most writers, write about ordinary people. Extraordinary people are few, maybe a handful in an  entire generation. Besides, however ordinary we may seem to others, to ourselves we are always extraordinary, we are unique, we treasure that `special-ness’ of ours greatly. It is this special-ness that the fiction writer looks for in human beings, it is this uniqueness that the fiction writer finds. Therefore I do not understand why my work is often singled out as being about `ordinary people’. So too, `middle-class’. I often wonder what class  of people other writers write about, whether any writer thinks of class at all! Most writers write about the people they know best,  that’s all!

4.       One of the Nobel Prize judges for literature judges, Horace Engdahl, stirred a debate very recently when he pointed out that we are endangering literary fiction when we treat it at par with commercial fiction. Publishers say that commercial fiction pays the bills while literary fiction brings awards and accolades. Do you think the balance between literary fiction and commercial fiction has been lost, even here in India?
SD:  Yes, I read some of his statements. But I am not able to understand why there should be a conflict between  literary fiction and commercial fiction. And I’m not sure that he meant that only literary fiction is endangered by treating it on a par with commercial fiction. I think that literature itself is  harmed by such a treatment, if it really happens. It’s true we need all kinds of books, not only because the publisher needs to make money but because of the vast number of readers with a vast number of tastes out there.  All readers cannot appreciate the same kind of books. The problem, as I see it, especially in India, is that  we seem to confuse fast-selling fiction with significant writing and  then giving it undue importance. Until now, our country has not seen  the kind of sales figures some books now have and the media  has gone overboard celebrating this success.  The publicity and hype attracts more readers and not-very-knowing readers think these books are  a must-read. That we are not able to draw a line between writing which sells well and writing which is good and will last, that we allow statements about the need to dumb down the language for readers,  doesn’t augur well for the future of good writing in India. We need  literary books, we also need well-written books which are not so literary, but certainly we don’t really need badly written books.

5.      You have written several volumes of short stories and novels for adults, which often revolve around ordinary middle class Indian women striving to break free from a painful past, and seeking dignity and grace in their lives as they deal with the constraints of their present day existence. You’ve also written books for children. Come Up and Be Dead is a mystery set around the suicide of a schoolgirl, followed by the death of Pratap, the brother of Kshama, a teacher. What are your impressions about the comparative challenges posed by these diverse genres of writing? Does alternating between different genres give you a respite from the monotony of focusing upon only one? Does this help you to gain fresh insights?
SD: All writing is a challenge.  Whether it’s a short story, a poem, an essay,  a drama or a novel – each genre poses some challenges. And there never is any monotony in writing just one genre. For instance, I prefer the novel to all other forms and I am at ease and comfortable with it. But I started with short stories and then, when I felt I could, I wrote a novel.  For quite some time I wrote both short stories and novels, but slowly the novel, being a more demanding form, in terms of time, took over. Then I wrote short stories only when commissioned. I also wrote  a large number of prose pieces, either for talks or as essays. These too came out of my feeling that there were things I wanted to say about  Indian Writing in English, about language, about women’s writing, feminism etc. Now I feel I have  said all that I want to say, but still write reviews when asked. So it is a question of wanting to write about a subject and using the form the subject demands.  As far as insights are concerned, these can come through any form of writing.
 shashi3
6.      Recently, a Malayalam language writer said that Indian writers focus on personal agonies and that denies them place in world literature. Do you agree?
SD:  I dislike generalisations and I don’t take such statements seriously. Why single out Indian writers as focussing on personal agonies? Writers everywhere have done and will do that. According to me, what makes it difficult for Indian writers to find a place in world literature is the plethora of languages, the `frog in a pond’ attitude that the small readership gives and the lack of world-class translators.

7.      What do you feel about the proliferation of literary festivals? Are they a welcome move to bring authors closer to their readers? Or do they distract readers as well as authors from the very private enjoyment of reading and writing?
SD: Literary festivals can be fun and  they are a good place for writers and readers to meet – no doubt about that at all. But there can be too much of a good thing and that’s what literary festivals are becoming in India. Every little town now wants to host one. A literary festival  has become a celebrity and wannabe writers jamboree. It has become a place to celebrate celebrities and you find the same writers moving from festival to festival. I often wonder: when do they write?

8.      What advice would you offer to upcoming writers?
SD: I would say read, read and read. Then write, read your own work and  be honestly self-critical. Never feel complacent about your work. That’s death for a writer.

9.      What are you working on now?
SD : A novel – what else?




Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Technology and humanity

DH photo-illustration: Ashwin HaldipurTechnology is advancing by the nanosecond, sweeping us into the tide of change. New gizmos and gadgets are radically transforming our lives. Electronic devices are our closest companions today. Wherever we go, the network follows. Social networks in the virtual world are overshadowing reality. We have no time to look at or speak to each other, though we tweet and text eternally. Recent research in Birmingham Business School (UK) shows that frequent posters of selfie photos or self-portraits on social networks alienate those close to them, thus weakening supportive human bonds. Is interaction between people and lifeless gadgets becoming more important than connections between human beings? Are we placing more value on technology and prepared to offer less to each other?
Rapid strides in technology improves our lives and offers hope for a better tomorrow. While scientific advances can have a backlash, technology can also help us find new remedies. Infections resistant to antibiotics, for example, are a matter of growing concern. But a new gene-editing system developed by scientists in MIT promises to selectively kill bacteria carrying harmful genes that cause antibiotic resistance and disease.  Human technology interferes with fragile ecosystems. This can trigger floods, landslides and other disasters. But technology is also helping concerned people join hands and volunteer for rescue work. It’s up to us to choose how to use technology.
In the good or bad old days, people cared and looked out for each other. Everyone cultivated their neighbours, colleagues and members of their communities. These people were a priceless social support network; sharing information and lending a sympathetic hand in times of need. Apartment dwellers in our metros now give murderous looks if you smile at them. Run out of sugar? Why disturb dragons next-door, when you can order grocery on-line and get doorstep delivery? Searching for an unfamiliar address? Locals can send you on wild goose chases. Why bother for random oafs, when the magical technology of Google maps lies in the palm of your hand? Jobs are no longer places where people grow roots, and colleagues become lifelong friends. The rat-race is everything, and our hunger to acquire expensive gadgets drives us.
High-tech playthings are radically altering our perceptions. They create the illusion of being connected, while isolating us. We all have thousands of ‘friends’ on social networking sites. But how many do we actually know beyond fleeting virtual contacts? Would we really bother to do more than click a mouse for each-other? When my father passed away last year, members of a local internet-based network of women professionals sent their condolences via sms and e-mails. Though we have met many times in real life also, only one of them personally met me. Social media is a delightfully convenient way to make us feel righteous and uplifted, without getting involved. All we have to do to demonstrate our concern is click the ‘like’ button or forward some e-mail, before we move on to the next cause of the moment. Meanwhile, one wonders about all those dazzling social lives on Facebook. If they really were enjoying life eternally, would they have so much time for Facebook?
Technology is a neutral tool in itself. What we can get from it, depends upon how we choose to use it. Social media can make us indifferent and even dehumanize us. As a wise person said, people are meant to be loved, and things are meant to be used. Much of today’s troubles arise because we love things and use people. But weren’t enough people callous and self-absorbed even in the technology-free past? If we want to, we can also use technology to draw people closer and increase intimacy. That’s what my school friend did, when she made a long internet phone call from the other side of the planet. Those words of solace from a friend who genuinely cared, compensated for the many who had only beeps and pings to spare.
Thanks to technology, you don’t have to be consistently helpful, caring or jovial any more to have a social life. Witty and enlightened conversation? It’s simpler to post selfies with your tongue sticking out and attract hundreds of appreciative ‘likes’ from virtual ‘friends’. Cocooned in an illusion of popularity, we are busy clicking, tweeting, pinging and beeping. We won’t notice if the man walking next to us on the street gets mugged or mowed down by a bus. People have been known to get run over by trains and cars, while they were busy on their cell phones. We have never been so constantly connected, and never so alone.
The virtual world is distorting our lives in the most surprising ways. Before we jump to blame corrupting western influences and praise our own culture, let’s make a reality check. According to recent news reports, a Bareilly college student decided that a woman from Kerala whom he met on Facebook, was better suited than his real parents to be his ‘mother’. The lady electronically transferred Rs22,000 into his account, and the young man used it to go and stay with her.
 If you think this is a crazy isolated incident, think again. Indian marriages are routinely made not in heaven, but in matrimonial portals.  Educated young Indians are too busy checking WhatsApp and Viber to compose an attractive and relevant profile. If they don’t care to write a few meaningful sentences about themselves, one can only imagine how they will treat their future partners and marriages. Everyone knows that Indian men lag behind orang-utans in the behaviour and intellect departments. Today’s tech-savvy Indian ladies are striving to outshine men in every way. Here are a few exact quotes (including bad grammar etc.) from actual profiles of professionally qualified young Indian women on marriage websites:
“Hi. am a v. simple gal doing M. A in English. I love 2 hv spicy foods, spending tym with frends&family, lstng music, dancing etc.”
 Brevity is the soul of wit for this 24-year-old woman doctor, whose complete bio note reads; ”i like France. I like saudi arabia.i like to watch movies”.
The woman who writes this one-liner, is refreshingly honest: “I am a Fun Loving Person who don't prefer to think much before doing anything.”
Another emancipated young lady writes this sparkling one-liner to define her personality: “I love to do shopping, gossiping, eating, watching latest movies.” Such profiles are a dime-a-dozen, making one wonder how many understand the importance of marriage in fulfilling the human need for intimacy and emotional support. A healthy marriage can beat the stresses of today’s hectic lifestyle by binding two equal partners in a caring and nurturing relationship. But can such technology-dazed young people spare the effort and attention needed to build a healthy understanding with others? Relationships today are being made and trashed with sms, tweets and Facebook status updates. Can such a shallow approach enable people to seriously deal with life’s problems?
 Will future generations be able to strike the right balance between isolation and connectivity? Many toddlers in middle class Indian families are hooked on to shiny, noisy gadgets. Parents boast how kids can operate laptops before learning to speak sentences.  Even underprivileged domestic helpers use cell phones to amuse their children, while going about their chores. Such children tend to mimic the behaviour of characters in cartoons and video games, and confuse the imaginary world of electronic sounds and flashing images with reality. Children are spending more time viewing screens, than interacting with other children. This hampers the growth of their human relationships, and affects their development into responsible adults. Busy making money and keeping up with the twitterati, parents have little time to draw their children close and find out what is going on in their lives.
News today travels at the speed of light. Images of bomb blasts, beheadings, epidemics and war are served every morning with our breakfast. Technology thus interweaves violence into our daily lives. Are violent TV programmes and video games behind today’s culture of blood and mayhem? Or is the issue more complex? Electronic images aren’t monsters empowered to corrupt normal humans into killing machines. Well-produced TV programmes can educate and spread positive values while entertaining children. Video games can develop children’s motor skills and alertness, prevent them from feeling bored and lonely, and falling into bad company. Violence on screens is only part of a larger problem which makes children today more aggressive.  Rather than policing children, adults can proactively guide them to make the right choices. And leading by example is the best way. As parents, we can try to spend more quality time understanding and engaging our children, instead of posting selfies and status updates.
We don’t yet live in a world of unfeeling robots. Even when we surf the net or watch TV, the content has been created by humans, and is meant to interest other humans. We may connect with electronic signals to social networking sites in cyberspace. But we exchange texts and images with real people, even if they are not physically before us. Die-hard technology freaks haven’t yet completely forsaken human connections. Those cell phone calls and messages are made to other humans. On-line game players may spend hours in imaginary worlds. But they interact with fellow gamers there, and together they influence those worlds. Most LAN, WAN, and internet activity still needs human inputs although signals are transmitted by machines.
The future may change with advances in automation and artificial intelligence. Intelligent machines are already learning to pilot planes and cars, babysit children and prepare food. Someday, machines may fuel the main thrust to our progress. Robots could replace human friends, bosses, children and lovers. Robots could program themselves to evolve intelligence and abilities superior to humans, rendering humanity useless and powerless. They could turn into monsters out to exterminate their original human creators.
Such terrifying scenarios could, but need not necessarily translate into reality. Humanity can stay on the right track if we do not forsake our morals and principles in order to get ahead. Progress and ethics do not have to be mutually exclusive. Moral people need not be impractical dreamers. And crooked means need not be the only path to solid achievements. Striking the right balance and showing concern for our fellow human beings can be one route to improving our lives.
We have every right to try to fill our brief lives with joy. Technology opens up multiple worlds, adding fun and excitement to our existence. These worlds can be closely linked to reality, such as groups of former school and college mates. These worlds may be imaginary and fantastic, such as gaming and TV shows. Whichever options we choose to explore, we can gain new information and perspectives, and also simply enjoy ourselves. Learning, being productive and having fun need not be contradictory. Technology can broaden our perceptions in countless ways, helping unleash our creative potential. The best ideas and innovations are most likely to thrive when we have some liberty to explore and play with new concepts and experiences.
Today’s technology constantly swamps us with information. The noise and confusion can overwhelm us. We need to think clearly and choose how to best use our time and resources. When faced with conflicting options, we need to evade loud but misguiding voices vying for our attention. We must cultivate healthy scepticism and not believe everything we see and hear in cyberspace. Once we do that, technology can offer wonderful rewards.
By overcoming our self-centeredness, we can use technology to understand others, their lives and thought processes. Understanding others is about listening carefully to what they have to say, and analysing its significance. This helps us to be better parents, employees, bosses and spouses. We will also know how to persuade others to our way of thinking. This isn’t only about goody-goody altruism. If we can learn how other people think, the world can be ours. Ad and marketing men are already using social media to identify markets, and figure out the most appealing and convincing approach to sell Mt Everest. Terrorists are using social media to coordinate and plan attacks, and spread fear among the populace. Who do we want to be?

Technology can help us understand others and be more innovative and effective in whatever we choose to do. It’s up to us to sustain our own principles. As Isaac Asimov rightly said, technology is but a neutral tool at our command. If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them.
This is published in Sunday Herald

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: book review




This well-crafted tale examines the essence of what it means to be a family. The author explores the exquisite beauty and human flaws of parental love. Where does sibling rivalry make way for deep loyalties?
How different are we from other creatures, who also have their own distinctive personalities and thought processes? What are the deeper significances of being human? Incisive yet tempered with gentle humour, this Booker-shortlisted novel probes the connections among all sentient beings.

Rosemary, an American college student, seems yet another intelligent but socially awkward youngster. Her brushes with the law and getting into scrapes with wayward companions, her references to her trying-hard-to-appear-normal family do not initially unsettle us. Indeed the author succeeds in making us smile, and even laugh. But they create the preamble for some startling revelations.

“My parents persisted in pretending we were a close-knit family, a family who enjoyed a good heart-to-heart, a family who turned to each other in times of trial. In light of my two missing siblings, this was an astonishing triumph of wishful thinking; I could almost admire it. At the same time, I am very clear in my own mind. We were never that family.”

As is true of many families, antagonism in Rosemary’s family “comes wrapped in layers of code, sideways feints, full deniability.” Their efforts to maintain peace make us smile in recognition. “No more politics, Grandma Donna had said as a permanent new rule, since we wouldn’t agree to disagree and all of us had access to cutlery.”

Rosemary’s psychologist father turns out to be a propagator of “science’s excesses, like cloning or whisking up a bunch of genes to make your own animal.” “Was my father kind to animals? I thought so as a child, but I knew less about the lives of lab rats then.”

Rosemary’s father makes his family part of an already dubious and discredited experiment. He raises Rosemary along with an adopted sister named Fern, ostensibly to compare and contrast their developing abilities. Rosemary’s childhood world is ripped apart with the sudden disappearance of Fern. Only in page 99 is the truth finally revealed.

Fern is a chimpanzee. While her mother regresses into mourning, her older brother Lowell no longer believes that their parents’ love was unconditional. “He’d been told to care for Fern as a sister. He’d done so, only to see her cast from the family.”

Lowell nurses deep resentment and finally leaves home for good to seek his sister Fern, and champion the cause of mistreated animals. Rosemary realises that she “had been valuable only in the context of my sister.” One day, she was the subject of study.
“The next, I was just a little girl, strange in her way, but of no scientific interest to anyone.”

Rosemary finally leaves behind the ignominy of her ‘chimpanzee girl’ past when she enters a far-off university. Her roommate Scully echoes her sentiments when she confides, “You know how everything seems so normal when you’re growing up, and then comes the moment when you realise that your whole family is nuts.”

Are humans truly superior to other animals? “Dad’s experiments suggested that contrary to our metaphors, humans are much more imitative than the other apes... Human children overimitate, reproducing each step (in a puzzle) regardless of its necessity.

There is some reason why, now that it’s our behaviour, being slavishly imitative is superior to being thoughtful and efficient, but I forget exactly what that reason is.” There’s a hilarious reference to humans’ capability to govern themselves. “The only way to make sense of the United States Congress, my father told me once, is to view it as a two-hundred-year-long primate study. He didn’t live to see the ongoing revolution in our thinking regarding nonhuman animal cognition. But he wasn’t wrong about Congress.”

Rosemary observes that every time we humans announce that “here is the thing that makes us unique — our featherless bipedality, our tool-using, our language — some other species comes along to snatch it away.”

This novel is memorable for raising far-reaching questions, for daring us to push the boundaries, and reconsider our sense of being ‘superior’ human beings. All the characters, including chimpanzee Fern, are portrayed with compassion. The author’s sense of humour makes this a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Some passages discussing the failings of humans, references to scientific laboratories, farms and slaughterhouses, the indignation at those who profit from the misery of animals do weigh heavy and can come across as propaganda. “In 2004, Jacques Derrida said that a change was under way. Torture damages the inflicter as well as the inflicted.

It’s no coincidence that one of the Abu Ghraib torturers came to the military directly from a job as a chicken processor.” While this enhances the overall impact of the message the author intends to convey, it also makes us conscious that there is indeed a message which sometimes overshadows the narrative.
This review is published in Sunday Herald