Archive: November, 2014

Life of the text and that of the city…(my presentation to the India-China Writers meet organised by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi 28th nov. 2014.)

Life of the text and that of the city…

          By Purushottam Agrawal.




Brian Clark’s play, ‘Whose life is it anyway…’ , is about the agency of choice. Who will decide whether a person suffering from paralysis neck down should be ‘allowed’ to end his ‘miserable’ existence or must continue to live, as life per se is ‘sacred’ and under no circumstances the individual himself can be given the authority to end it; even if it is his own.

Why should my mind have gone back to the performance I watched almost three decades back in Delhi? As a matter of fact, whenever I think of life and its inevitable corollary- death, the play comes back to me; even if I am thinking only of the influence of life on the creation of literature.  The question is valid here also- whose life we are thinking about when we talk of the ‘influence’ on literature?

Is it author’s own life or life of the text? The text has a pre-life even before it takes shape in the words chosen and arranged by the author. And, every writer and reader knows for a fact, that once having come into being a work of art surpasses the life of its creator.  We are concerned here with life which influences the process of this coming into being. Hence the question—whose life?

Is it only the author’s life limited as it is both by time and space or is it a life larger than the one experienced by the author? Is it only the ‘real’ life or something ‘more than real’ to recall the title of David Shulman’s recently published, fascinating history of imagination in south India?

Does the life directly experienced by writer alone influence the act of writing? Does the ‘direct’ experience really make a description or reflection more authentic? The ‘authenticity’ claims rooted in the ‘real, direct’ experience of the author are not exactly new. In the late fifties and early sixties, many writers were justifying exclusively middle class concerns and ethos of their writings  in the name of ‘authenticity of feeling’. Once again, it is claimed by many these days that only s/he who has suffered on the margins, as a woman, as a colored person or as a Dalit can relate ‘authentically’ with that experience and reflect upon its cultural importance. This stance might sound politically correct at the first glance, but will it sound so under a serious philosophical scrutiny? So far as literature is concerned, does this ‘aesthetics of authenticity’ really point to the way of authentic creation and reception?

In the first place, any writing is actually writing of the memory. You do not right the experience per se; you commit its recall to words and that with an obvious gap between the moment of experience and the moment of its recall. Some additions and deletions are natural corollaries of such recall. The moment of experience outgrows its raw ‘authenticity’ in the very process of creative recall. A writer might have suffered in his life on the margins of the society, but in most of the cases, at the moment of writing, s/he is already part of the middle classes. Writer’s vocation as a rule is a middle class one, and one’s identity by definition consists of multiple social roles and relations.  Emphasizing only the ‘cultural’ or ‘ethnic’ aspect of identity might be tempting as a strategic stance, and precisely because of this, it hides more than it reveals. The middle class writer recalls the experience of margins from the vintage point of middle class status. Does this fact have a bearing on her choice or not?

Any sense of ‘identity’ (in literature or in politics) is bound to lack in authenticity, if it is confined only to the cultural or ethnic aspects, ignoring the social class part of the story. To be frank, the identity discourse without a reference to the political economy of class-system is bound to end up in the company of historically reactionary politics, because it rejects the very idea of the commonalities of those sufferings which emanate from the social structures, and hence can be ameliorated only by a shared struggle. The politics of cultural identity with its exclusive emphasis on the difference has contributed to waning of shared dreams of emancipation.  Moreover, we all know only too well that a piece of writing is ultimately judged on the basis of the depth and width, which the writer has been able to give her/ his memories of life-experiences.

And it is not just the writer’s life and experience. The whole point of writing is the perspective you put your experience in; perspective which includes your consciousness of the collective memory as codified in the language of your choice, your sense of being in flow of a continuous praxis called tradition, and the acute, mostly agonizing dialogue with the moment of history you are placed in. Realizing the significance of such dialogue, Aristotle tried to make amends for his guru’s act of expelling the poet from the ‘City’. He recognized that, ‘poetry is more subtle and philosophical as compared to history as poem is a universal expression while history expresses a certain context’.

In other words, it is not your individual life, its experiences and memories, but the potential life of the literary work which plays the determining role in the act of writing. The writer has to go beyond his own life to bring creative work to life. The very act of writing and of reading as well, is an act of trans-migration of ‘self’- an act of ‘par-kaya pravesh’ (assuming the body of other) – to recall a telling phrase from the cultural vocabulary of India. (Incidentally, I had articulated this idea way back in 2000, in an essay written in order to ‘face’ the question- ‘what is literature?’).  The primary tool of this act of ‘assuming the body of other’ is of course, imagination which must be in the process of constant refinement. The classical Indian poetics has the right term for such imagination-Pratibha- etymologically signifying ‘illumination’. This illumination works on what the ends of literature and art- creative as well as receptive.

Those who know the Hindi  novel ‘Tamas’  by Bhisham Sahni can never forget the opening sequence wherein a character is slaughtering  a pig and the text is setting the tone of the disturbing narrative the novel is going to unfold. The scene was praised by everyone not only for its metaphoric suggestion but also for its vividness; in fact, it would not be that suggestive if it were not that vivid.

And the writer himself has this to say about the sequence, “I never had the opportunity to know someone in the profession of skinning the animals, neither had I ever witnessed a pig being slaughtered, had no idea of the process at all. In fact, before writing this episode, even after, I continued to try to get some idea, how a pig is actually slaughtered.”

It is the agonised dialogue between the imagination (both at writer’s and reader’s ends); the cultural memory and the sense of location in tradition and the concerns and ambitions of the individual writer that makes the life of the text possible.

Meer Taqi Meer active in the 18th century, witnessing the tumultuous events that condensed in themselves  historical cataclysm put it most succinctly. Let me end with that succinct and poignant admonition from the poet:

“O tearful eye, still in deep slumber/ open the eyelids a bit, deluge has inundated the city”.

(किन नींदों सोती है, चश्म-ए-गिर्यानाक़, मिज़गाँ तो खोल, शहर को सैलाब ले गया।)

We all have to open the eyelids to the deluges that are inundating the city…it is not just my life, but the life of the text and that of the city….













कबीर की कविताई पर व्याख्यान गार्गी कालेज, दिल्ली में

A look at state of higher education under Smriti Irani

my column in Governance Now


Asking for the moon…

-Purushottam Agrawal


The minister for Human Resource Development along with her mandarins and the vice-chancellors of all central universities was in two days retreat in September in Chandigarh. It is not surprising that the electronic media neither reported nor discussed the event. After all, it has fast ‘evolved’ from infotainment to unabashed comedy and live cockfighting. But, it did come as a surprise that this meeting was not reported adequately even in large sections of the print media.

Well, in defence of our journalistic class one has to say nothing dramatic or curious happened at this retreat. Given Modi’s ballistic campaigning and general pretense that his government is ‘different’ from all regimes independent India has seen (after all, ‘nothing’ happened in 60 years), the media was probably looking for some dramatic departures, some important disjunctions from the UPA policy framework on education.

What we got instead was smooth continuity, informed by a mindless technocracy, as far as higher education policy is concerned.

From the point of view of the future of our higher education, this continuity of perspective is very important. Departures would of course have been interesting, but continuity is curious, to say the least. One recalls the great detective who reminded Inspector Gregory, while working on ‘The silver Blaze’ case, that the fact that the dog ‘did nothing in the night-time’, was in fact the curious incident.

The continuity of UPA and NDA policies in many areas is becoming increasingly clear. In case of education the consensus amongst the ‘forward looking’ ruling elite had become clear decades ago when the nomenclature of the ministry was changed from education to human resources. Now, the state is not looking at educating its citizens, it is not investing in human individuals; rather it is investing in resources which happen to be ‘human’.

The liberal framework gave way to the managerial one even without a whimper in political circles, just as education was sought to be reduced to ‘science, technology and management’. In fact, there is little scope in such an approach even for science in its fundamental sense. There is hardly any enthusiastic encouragement from the official side for fundamental and ‘non-pragmatic’ research in science. For the ruling elite, corporate bosses and most of the middle classes in India these days, ‘science’ is nothing but a euphemism for useful technology.

Another shared trait between the NGO friendly, ‘inclusive’ UPA government and ‘no-nonsense’ nationalist one under PM Modi is the obsession with controlling everything  and propagating the great ideal of  ‘one size fits all’, in the sphere of  ‘human resource development’. The present minister, while paying lip-service to the idea of autonomy of universities, still got a draft ‘single act’ for all central universities circulated for ‘suggestions’. This act is based on the recommendations of the Pathan Committee, which was formed in 2013 (while Kapil Sibal was minister) with the clear mandate of suggesting ways of implementing the ministerial motto of one size fits all and had recommended, inter alia, doing away with the office of Chancellor, and having in its place a council of Vice-Chancellors headed by, no prizes for guessing, the minister for HRD!

There is not even the veneer of autonomy here – the government must control all aspects of university life. Another brain-wave, ostensibly ‘egalitarian’ and ‘democratic’ (and common to UPA and NDA dispensations) is to have common admission and common curriculum for all the central universities in order to facilitate ‘student and faculty mobility’. Again, the idea of only ‘Technology and Management’ being worthy of any serious consideration is implicit here. In the field of Humanities and Social Sciences, it will be an extremely harmful step. Even in science, technology and management, the inclinations and orientations of various departments do and should influence their research programmes and priorities.

In social sciences and humanities, at any rate, interpretations matter a lot, and institutions of higher learning make their distinct marks by offering different interpretations to the same or similar data. This diversity of views and approaches enliven the field of knowledge and enrich the collective wisdom of society. In education systems the world over, individual teachers are encouraged to offer new courses and identify new focus areas in the on-going teaching programmes every semester. In contrast, our political and administrative bosses want forty central universities to teach the same text, same poets, same set of research questions, same priorities to each and every student. If, by ‘common curriculum’, something else is meant, I would love to be enlightened.

Mr. Kapil Sibal also has to his credit the great idea of appointing vice-chancellors through advertisements and interviews. There is a whole world of difference between someone being nominated without having applied, and someone getting through after an interview. The Supreme Court has categorically stated that notwithstanding the funding from government, the relationship between government and university professors and vice-chancellors is not that of master and servant. Under the guidance of Mr. Sibal, for the newly established central universities, the nomination method was replaced with selection method in order to make the master-servant point in a subtle psychological manner to be followed with legal steps in due course. Once the idea of a single act and a council headed by the minister, governing the matters of all the central universities is put in practice, the Sibelian dream of ‘one size fits all’ would be happily realised. The gods of efficiency and good governance would have slayed the demons of independent and critical research and teaching.

If she wants to reform education, Ms Irani would do well to break from this Sibelian mould. Participating in a couple of TV debates about her suitability as the minister of HRD, as she does not possess higher degrees, I had made two points. First, in any democracy, ministers are supposed to provide direction and perspective, and this has nothing to do with higher degrees. In fact, the question of formal qualification is more pertinent in the context of high-level bureaucrats, i.e. IAS officers, who having passed one examination in life supposedly acquire expertise on everything from agricultural policy to rocketry to the finer points of pedagogy. Incidentally, in the mid-fifties, the administration in the education ministry was headed by a professor. Maulana Azad, as education minister, had appointed the distinguished academic Prof. Humayun Kabir as education secretary. It would be interesting to know when and how the IAS lobby captured this position. Ms Irani may look at the idea of reviving the practice of having experts run higher education in the country.

The second point I made, was about the standards of education, I believe that no human being can create more drift and confusion in our education system than what has been achieved by USA trained top class ‘intellectuals’ under the benign guidance of PM Manmohan Singh. Ms Irani can only take things in a better direction, provided she chooses to act differently and see through the designs of control-freak bureaucrats.

But, given the convergence of thinking on higher education between UPA and NDA as reflected during the Chandigarh retreat, one is probably asking for the moon.

talking with darling daughter on Kabir…