Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sitting on the Offence: Sunday Mid-day column Nov. 25

Outrage might not have been an inappropriate response to the discovery that a Class VI CBSE text book published by S.Chand and Sons and titled New Healthway: Health, Hygiene, Physiology, Safety, Sex Education, Games and Exercises says that non-vegetarians "easily cheat, tell lies, they forget promises, they are dishonest and tell bad words, steal, fight and turn to violence and commit sex crimes."

But perhaps we should be more concerned that while the book has been in circulation, no one thought it fit to point out its problematic content, which also included pronouncements like “to get married without earning a bad name is every girl’s dream.”

Did no one point it out because these prejudices more or less synced with the average school teacher’s world view or because no one is actually reading any text books in schools? Who cares?

Not the educational establishment apparently. On TV, one school principal declared they would discontinue the book because “This book has definitely offended some community.” This was echoed by the HRD Minister Pallam Raju’s response when he said that "sensitivities of communities have to be kept in mind.”

Let us not even get into what community these gentlemen mean. Like anyone else they are entitled to their stereotypes and preconceptions as long as they don’t act on them.
The real issue is not whether they are prejudiced but that prejudice is not the same as fact.  The central issue is not whether or not a community will be offended but that school books are not supposed to include nonsensical, non-verifiable prejudices parading as facts. It’s not about causing offence, but merely about what is accurate and arguable.

But moral flailing on left and right has become an all-pervasive disease and to see it so embedded in the educational machinery’s mindset at least partly explains the dire improverishment and stupidity of our public conversation and television programs which are petulant schoolyard fights rather than a provocative debate of ideas.

Community sensitivity has been elevated to such a level that it allows us to give gold stars to Shiv Sainiks for not rioting when bereaved. t allows people to feel justified in perceiving every question as an insult and then responding to this with venom and violence rather than considered argument or even intelligent satire

In this context is it at all surprising that the police think it is reasonable to arrest two young women in Palghar for posting a facebook status questioning the unofficial bandh on the day of Bal Thackeray’s funeral, because it apparently has or might offend a community, in this case Shiv Sainiks? After all to offend a community is apparently the central offence in our culture now and a mitigating explanation for violence. Which is why, the destruction of the girl’s uncle’s clinic, resulting in a 20 lakh rupee loss to him does not seem to warrant instant police response. In fact, yet again, only outrage, managed to get the police to respond, not an understanding of legality or fairness.

This is not to say that community offence does not or cannot exist. But by sacralising it in this fashion we have become incapable of responding to anything without the baggage of identity politics.
Education reform in our country needs to keep this in the centre of their vision – to equip citizens with the tools to weave the strands of fact and opinion together without confusing one with the other. That might take us further than the value education kits, semesterisation and privatization that are being offered up by the HRD ministry as the winds of change.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Old (boys) Skool

This week's Mid-day column.

By the time this appears, Karan Johar’s new film, Student of the Year will be out and probably have been declared a box office hit, endorsing Ram Gopal Varma’s remark, made with his customary affection for KJo that it will out-hit "3 Idiots."

I don’t plan on watching this film. That’s not because it is KJo’s first without Shah Rukh to whom love has tied me for life, despite recent misdemeanours and meltdowns. I think the film will be quite ok with me not watching it, because we both know, I was not one of the people the marketing people were counting on as audience. Yaniki, it is not made for people like me. Which is supposed to be part of the film’s merit. Yaniki, it’s not for the arty farts but the ‘general public’, implying they are the majority, hence this is like democracy, right? Wrong. The multiplex going audience does not constitute a majority of the country, just the majority of a certain elite, but theek hai, to each their own.

Another, more obvious reason the movie is not made for people like me is because, I’m, well, old enough that I don’t properly remember school anymore. But I am not so old that I don’t know what young looks like.

And that’s one of the reasons I am not going to see the movie. Because I’m finding it very hard to believe in the youth of those hulking main leads of the film. If they are still in school, then they must have been flunking for several years or had two triple demotions. This is my main takeaway from the promos, other than the fact that Mallory Towers has been replaced by Hogwarts in the Indian boarding school fantasy. That must explain all that snow and two boys and a girl, just like Harry, Ron and Hermione, except more grown-up and dressed in their parents old clothes.
I’m not one of those who thinks that youth equals rebellion. It may be so for a certain section, but there’s loads of young people who wish to be just like their mummy daddies, except richer, thinner and more American. Still, the very least you expect from a ‘new generation’ is a little newness, some cool new clothes on ye olde formula.  Frankly, it’s not only the people in the film who look old, know what I mean?

The other reason I won’t be watching the film is because I’ve already seen the viral video which nails the feeling of the film with a perfect mixture of timepass, madness and incisiveness.

This video, which many will have seen by now, is called Gana Wala Song. Fresh vocals have been laid on the video of Ishq Wala Love with lyrics like Sharhrukh wala template leke, vahi pose hai karaya – Sad wala Dukh.

It’s funniest and most accurate line, comes when KJo deploys his time tested (and time-failed) trick for dressing the hero-heroine in co-ordinated colours: Jinke parents hain director, voh penhenge same colour. It’s a line that tells you that this not so much about school as the old boys from the school. A film by, for and of the children of filmi elites, happily preserving the status quo.

I laughed so hard when I saw this video, it was my entertainment for the week. So, there are other types of young people who don’t wear turtle necks in teenage, who make these funny, irreverent, unfettered pieces of work. I will wait for them to make a film that reminds me what it is to be young and go see that.