A state of disquiet.

•September 9, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Three incidents in the past few weeks have left me in disquietude. I am not a big news person – I don’t devour each line of the newspaper every day or watch the news channels obsessively. A glance through the headlines online on BBC and NDTV on intermittent days is all I do. However, these three reports progressively added to my mental unrest.

The first was the death of Anitha, the student from Tamil Nadu who took her own life when the Supreme Court refused to exempt Tamil Nadu from NEET. A student coming from an economically challenged background, Anitha scored extremely well in her Class XII exams scoring 196.75/200 and would have been eligible for a medical school admission if NEET had not been imposed on the state. NEET, a common entrance examination for aspiring medical/dental students was created to present a level playing field for all aspirants. But the undeniable fact is that it has failed to do that. The NEET is heavily skewed towards the CBSE syllabus and barring the very exceptional, most students will need intensive coaching to crack these exams. Coaching classes are expensive ranging from 1 to 2 lakhs depending on their reputation! Most of these classes are available only in urban areas. Therefore a non-CBSE candidate coming from a rural area (like Anitha) has virtually no chance of cracking the test in spite of getting excellent marks in their XIIth exams. This is purely because of lack of training –  I do not doubt for a moment that if she had access to these coaching classes Anitha would have qualified for a medical seat in a premier institute. Add to this fact, that students from Tamil Nadu did not have time to prepare for this changed scenario. Those coaching classes were simply out of access for this young girl and plunged her in despair. Seeing no recourse, she took her own life. A tragedy, and one that will be buried as a meaningless statistic in the course of time because it seems that no one cares.

Entrance examinations for professional courses like medicine rely on purely multiple choice questions. This was introduced to do away with rampant corruption and the sale of medical seats when admissions were based on XIIth standard marks where the institution management had a significant ‘say’. MCQ based question papers aren’t fool proof. It tests a limited type of knowledge and does not even attempt to assess aptitude for the course. All it takes is a certain level of intelligence and focused training to crack the test. Case in point are the entrance boot camps which have sprung up which stuff this kind of training down students’ throats – and I may add, with excellent results! However, the all-important qualifying characteristic of aptitude is simply ignored.

With the Supreme Court fixing tuition fees in Medical Colleges at 11 lakhs, private colleges could very well be on the Himalayas for most of the students writing the NEET. Thousands of students with reasonable ranks who couldn’t afford spending 11 lakhs annually watched haplessly as the seats were given to others who were literally hundreds of thousands ranks below them. Naïve of them to think that money didn’t matter. It’s the only thing which does… Surprised that young students feel suicidal? I wonder when they will turn homicidal…

The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893

The second was the statement by the Indian minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju on Aug 9th which sought to deport the Rohingya refugees from India. Frankly, the situation in Myanmar is one step removed from my mind. Events happening in another country, news which I read, and commiserate shaking my head and move on. But when my own country becomes directly involved then I can’t sustain the denial. Deporting the so called illegal immigrant Rohingyas would be like a death sentence for them, at the very least we are condemning them to extreme suffering and trauma. Mani Shankar Aiyar in an article on NDTV wrote, “…The first signpost of our march towards a Hindutva India was Modi’s promise during the Assam elections that any Hindu from Bangladesh would have an automatic right of residence in India, but certainly not any Bangladeshi Muslim. This was a manifest contradiction of our millennial traditions……the Home Ministry’s September 2015 notification under the Passports Act and the Foreigners Act exempts from usual entry and residential procedures “Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists” facing persecution in neighbouring countries – but, specifically, not Muslims……Moreover, the Supreme Court has made clear, in their 1996 judgement in NHRC v/s Arunachal Pradesh, that the expression “any person” applies not only to bona fide Indian citizens, but anyone for the moment residing in India, Indian or not: “the State”, the court has decreed, “is bound to protect the life and liberty of every human being, be he a citizen or otherwise.””

What adds to my sense of disquiet is the fact that this has not come from a rabid Hindutva fanatic – Kiran Rijiju has a reputation of being a “gentle and civilized person. What chance does the country have when the educated and seemingly rational become mouth pieces of non-inclusive fanaticism?  How can anyone deny the pluralistic identity of India? And yet it is happening.

The third was the murder of Gauri Lankesh. Chilling in its ruthlessness. A cold-blooded transition from rhetoric to actual execution. This is just a couple of steps away from ethnic cleansing. All it takes is some time and fuel for the cascade to grow and this is what we will end up with. The systematic murder of all those who dissent, of all those who don’t fit in, of all those who eat wrong, pray wrong, love wrong…

Gauri Lankesh

The only way to prevent this is by a wave of righteous indignation. This is the time when every rational person in the country needs to react, for apathy is the worst kind of sin that can happen. And the condemnation has to start from the highest authority. However, the silence from Him, is deafening. Does the PM really care about a dead journalist? And a troublesome one at that? Apparently not…

And so my country becomes a state of disquiet…

 

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Social Media and Gratification

•July 14, 2017 • 1 Comment

Responsible social media use is a rather oxymoronic term considering the kind of posts and forwards that one sees today. From fake news to magic cures to fantastic facts, we are bombarded each day with a dizzying amount of false data which we promptly forward and inflate to a geometric progression!

What induces people to forward stuff? It obviously has to do with gratification and a bit of background into the neurology of it wouldn’t be out of place.now later

The key is that humans are hardwired for gratification and researchers have identified the nucleus accumbens as the centre which mediates instant gratification where immediate rewards are sought.

Nucl accumbens

Nucleus accumbens

Delayed gratification needs the hippocampus (associated with memory) to work with the nucleus accumbens.

Delayed gratification requires a trade-off where gratification is deferred for a period of time with the expectation of a larger reward. This is crucial that the delay should result in a larger reward otherwise the subject will not find the delay acceptable. The size of the reward also matters and test subjects were found to slip back into ‘instant gratification’ mode when the rewards for delayed gratification weren’t large enough.

My point is that, we are hardwired for gratification and in a world increasingly driven by social media, the ‘like’ button or approving emoticons are the new stimuli for fulfilment.  A qualitative classification of ‘posts’ would be in order here. I would like to specify here that we are talking about posts by regular people here, celebrity posts follow an entirely different dynamic. Broadly, people put up two kinds of posts:

  1. Original posts
  2. Forwards

Original posts can again be sub-categorised into

  1. Creative posts- this needs the most creativity and I believe generally generates the highest number of likes. These include posts which show original artwork, music, writing, craftwork, cooking etc.
  2. Unique posts – these are posts which do not showcase creativity but are still unique to the individual posting it. An example would be an Instagram picture of a meal in a restaurant. It declares, “Hey, it’s me and I am eating this! How cool!” It isn’t going to generate as many likes as a creative posts but is still exclusive to the individual.

Forwards happen when you don’t have an original post to put up. A forward is the next best thing. There is a definite timeline for a forward which influences the likes that it gets. Here, truly the early bird catches the worm and the initial forwarders would be the ones to get the lion’s share of the likes.

Creative posts understandably are few. They need effort and time to be created and represent delayed gratification.  The rewards here are more but the effort needed to craft that post is much more too.

Forwards and Unique posts (to a lesser degree) represent instant gratification. All it takes for a forward is a click and it’s done. And if you are indeed the early worm, the rewards are ripe!Social Media Logotype Background

Original posts are ‘authentic’ posts (unless you have stolen somebody’s work and posted it – in which case it becomes sort of another forward) where the credentials are established. It’s your work, your photograph, your article, your recipe and it carries a certain responsibility and accountability with it.

Forwards have no such accountability. It is the digital equivalent of words carried by the wind. Words spoken by strangers. It can become authentic if verified and confirmed but then hardly anyone who forwards does that. So you have urban legends of poisonous spiders in your loo, cancer cures, created history, doctored photographs, death announcements etc.

The lack of accountability and the ease with which a forward can be done create a compulsive need to click on that button. Instant gratification all over again. Verifying a post for its authenticity before forwarding it doesn’t enhance significantly the reward that is expected. In other words, the incentive of a larger return doesn’t exist with this delay in gratification and hence the mode goes into that of instant gratification. Why bother with checking veracity, just click away!

One way of limiting this would be to dis-incentivise instant gratification. This is where accountability can matter. If a person can be held accountable for the authenticity of his posts even if it’s a forward, perhaps people would think twice before doing it.

Do like this post. It’s delayed gratification :))) !!

© Sebastian Mathew 2017

Distance…

•July 11, 2017 • Leave a Comment

solitude, my friend

why bring  thy trying partner

loneliness to me..

IMG_20160806_140003913

© Sebastian Mathew

High Strung

•June 25, 2017 • Leave a Comment
Image courtesy: Pinterest (edited)
Image courtesy: Pinterest (edited)

 

To console I tried

Knowing that it was a falsehood

Stupidly fascinated

Grief surrounding, unfolded

 

I watch myself, the marionette

Going through the motions, jerky

Drawing the crowd, yet

Surprised, the strings remain unseen

 

The cords lie slack at times

But the limbs do move, still, eluding

The Self breaking through, in dribbles

The strings tire, weary of moving

 

Which is the mind?

The puppet or the puppeteer

The lines blur, the strings intertwine

The mirror doesn’t reflect.

 

Or perhaps, the eyes refuse to see

Likeness refusing to conform

What images hold in frames dear

Creating a convenient daily reality.

 

Denial denied, the layers confound

Infinite masks, melding with face

Forget the without, when the within

Fails to untangle the string bound.

–In My Need.

 

 

 

 © Sebastian Mathew

The ‘Beef’ in the Constitution

•June 1, 2017 • 1 Comment

 

I thought the beef ‘ban’ was silly. One of those laughable reforms over which friends would shake their heads while clinking their glasses and reaching for the next cocktail beef sausage. And yet when I see the emotions stirred up on social media, I worry. I would’ve thought that support for this would be limited to the rabid, extreme right wing tribe whose intelligentsia spout statements on peacock parthenogenesis. But no, I see the seemingly rational argue for this, justifying it with angles ranging from dietary ‘science’ to purported prevention of cruelty. I have had friends exit social media groups over arguments on this, friends from school days… A few days ago, I read (again on social media) about calls for a ‘Dravidanad’, the United States of South India, urging the South to unite together to prevent the imposition of Hindi and the beef ban. Has this issue polarised people so much that sedition is actually being discussed??

Article 48 of the Indian Constitution mandates the State to prohibit the slaughter of cows, calves and other milch and draught cattle. Article 48 is a Directive Principle of State Policy (DPSP) which is a guideline or principle given to the federal institutes governing the state of India, to be kept in citation while framing laws and policies

48. Organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle”

This should include cows, buffalos, oxen, donkeys, goats, camels, elephants, horses etc. as they are either milch or draught cattle. In 2005, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of laws prohibiting the slaughter of cattle – which was a no-brainer as the court had only followed the directive written in article 48 of the constitution.

But why was this article written into the Constitution in the first place? I thought I would find the answer in recent history around the time that the constitution of India took shape, but the fact is that the roots to this run way deeper than one would imagine.

Most of the first millennia didn’t present much of a problem. The Vedic period saw buffalos and cows slaughtered frequently for consumption and in sacrifice. Sacrificial slaughter in the jhatka tradition continues today also all over India especially in West Bengal during Durga Puja. The latter part of the first millennia saw laws emerging against the slaughter of cows and the eating of beef. The cow had by then become a symbol of a ‘benevolent giver’ providing much needed nutrition in the form of dairy products, fuel and fertiliser from dung and being the draft animal to plough the fields or to pull a cart. This symbol was an easy one to project and to identify with and the concept of the gau mata became entrenched mostly within the North Indian Hindu psyche.

The medieval ages saw rulers bow down to this symbol either due to personal devotion to the gua mata or due to the shrewd recognition of the cow as a unifying cause to rally against a common enemy. Indian kingdoms and empires ruled by the Islamic rulers of Arab and Turkish origin had allowed the slaughter of cattle. For local rulers and those opposed to these Islamic rulers, the cow became a symbol of the cultural overthrow which had taken place. It would have been easy to brand the killers of a ‘benevolent giver of life’ as the enemy and unite factions against them. The Maratha empire for instance although inclusive of various religious minorities enforced a strict ban on the slaughter of cattle. Ranjit Singh the founder of the Sikh empire, had strict laws against the slaughter of cows in his domains. Establishing the Sikh empire by defeating the last of the Mughals and by resisting various invading Afghan armies, Maharaja Ranit Singh would have found the cow a uniting cause to fight against his largely Islamic enemies. It was not just Hindu and Sikh kings who found upholding the cow useful, the Mughals too, Humayun, Jahangir and Akbar recognised the importance of deference to all creatures bovine and established some degree of restrictions to their slaughter.

The arrival of British rule changed things. The hegemony of British rule meant that policy could be autarchic. Slaughter houses were established all over India, the first one in Calcutta by Robert Clive. Discontent over British rule was simmering and the veneration to the holy cow was a major cause of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.

Cow slaughter was used as a rallying cry by Gandhiji, Bal Ganghadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and others. The leaders of the Swaraj movement repeatedly assured the Indian masses that on achieving Swaraj, the first action of the Swadeshi Government would be to pass laws banning the slaughter of cows and their progeny. Gandhiji revered the cow and has even stated that, “As for me, not even to win Swaraj, will I renounce my principle of cow protection.” However, in all fairness, Gandhiji did not believe in a total ban on cow slaughter and also stated that, “I do not doubt that Hindus are forbidden the slaughter of cows. I have been long pledged to serve the cow but how can my religion also be the religion of the rest of the Indians? It will mean coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus. We have been shouting from the house-tops that there will be no coercion in the matter of religion. …if anyone were to force me (religiously) I would not like it. How can I force anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed?”

The British also brought in certain controls to the slaughter of cattle when they found themselves facing a shortage of cattle. Young cattle and those capable of producing milk were not allowed to be slaughtered. This decision was purely an economic one to encourage the rearing of cattle for purposes other than that for meat.

Every ruler would have recognised the delicate nature of the cow in India. On the one hand was a religious symbol who had inspired and rallied the masses for centuries and on the other hand was an easily available and relatively cheap source of meat for a huge population on the brink of starvation. Although the leaders of the Freedom struggle promised to pass laws banning cow slaughter, the basic premise of the Constitution to be a secular nation triumphed and the lawmakers stopped short. However, a significant concession was made and article 48 was born. The existing British rule about restrictions on slaughter would have definitely helped. Indian writers of the Constitution relied heavily on British principles after all. Article 48 would have been piggy backed onto this existing rule. If at all any dissent existed, it would have been waved away with the argument that it was only a Directive Principle of State Policy and not a law. Therefore, the individual States were free to formulate their own law with regard to cow slaughter.

Status_of_cow_slaughter_in_India

And it happened exactly like that, states like Gujarat and Rajasthan banned all forms of cattle slaughter, and most of the other states brought in selective rules of cattle slaughter except for Kerala and the states of the North-East where all cattle can be slaughtered and consumed. The ambiguity was left in the Constitution because no Government wanted to pass a law which would go either way. It was a sure shot way to lose vote banks on either side of the beef divide.

However, with a right wing Government in power and one which suddenly realised its muscle after the U.P. election it was a sort of inevitable outcome. But even then, an overt ban has been avoided so that the Government can justify its actions citing prevention of cruelty and the application of health norms. In reality, the restrictions on sale and slaughter houses have effectively crippled the beef industry.

I believe firmly that in a democratic, secular nation, the choice of what I eat should not be dictated by the whims of a political party. This is a basic freedom which is to be guaranteed by the Constitution. No less.

India produced 3.643 million metric tons of beef in 2012, of which 1.963 million metric tons was consumed domestically and 1.680 million metric tons was exported. India ranks 5th in the world in beef production, 7th in domestic consumption and 1st in exporting. In this context, Article 48 is as hypocritical as it gets but no lawmaker will dare to attempt to remove it and no political party has the will or the strength to do it. I wonder, when it was drafted, the creators of the Constitution ever dreamed of the consequences of their actions.

Touching the heart…

•April 8, 2017 • 2 Comments

Once in a while, something profound comes across and touches the heart providing -at the least – some moments of oneness with the divine. And even if it were just a few moments, one does realise that this is the kind of experience which has in it the power to change lives and to be a sustaining force forever.

Last night I had the good fortune to witness the arangettam ceremony of a group of children. There were different groups ranging from beginners to seasoned dancers, my daughter also being part of them. As Methil Devika, the guest of honour at the ceremony said, when art touches the heart of the beholder it achieves its highest level of communication. Indeed, it transcends the physical form and turns into a spiritual experience for both the performer and the viewer.

I am frankly an ignoramus when it comes to classical dance and though my daughter does often patiently explain what she does, the finer nuances are lost most of the time. And yet, last night, I could see that I was witnessing something deep and intense and I yearned to let it resonate within me. The artiste, her art and music melting and coalescing into a singular entity which could only be worship. Worship for what is perfect, unadulterated and sacred.

I was frankly envious of those performing because the inner joy that comes from their art was there to see. In this day and age when fulfilment has become another word for the shallowest of gratifications, to truly feel fulfilled is rare. I do believe that there is something wrong in our society when self-worth starts being measured in the number of ‘likes’ it earns per hour. Training our children to delay gratification, to work patiently towards it with discipline and dedication is something we all ought to do. This does exactly that. I know that my daughter is a better person because of this. She was graceful in her acceptance of our compliments on yesterday’s performance but admitted that she had miles to go. That probably is the core of what art is, that one doesn’t finish ‘learning’ it but that it is a continuing journey and that is the joy in it.

Vineeth Radhakrishnan, himself a dancer par excellence and silver screen star, who was the chief guest said last night that it is indeed good fortune to be invited to these ‘Saraswatinilayams’ . I am so glad I got invited too! Methil Devika also said that art becomes a companion for life, by your side forever no matter what. I do hope and pray that it does for all these young students, enriching their lives always.

Keep calm…It’s just a mid-life crisis

•January 7, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Talking about random stuff with friends (where else? On Whatsapp:) –
The conversation was on aging and the things which were rapidly becoming more difficult to do.
True, as our bodies and minds age, our options in life seem to narrow down and the things we used to take for granted either need loads of effort or are plain impossible.
There were friends who were in denial about it. Who frantically joined gyms (for the first time in their lives), dyed what hair remained and were on a rush to try out things like a bee on caffeine.
I guess that’s fine and I hope they can sustain it.  Although the very young may disagree, the thirties, I feel are still within the periphery of youth. Its when one hits the big four-O that things do change. I thought that it was just a myth but my body did change when I hit 40. My eyes were the first to tell me that… I kept wondering about the crappy quality of the mobile phone display until it dawned that the problem was the onset of presbyopia. I was never an athletic one but I was reasonably fit and could reasonably hold my own in any physical activity. That did change! I found myself out of breath and wheezing out like an old steam engine.
Mentally too a deep restlessness seemed to take hold. The feeling that life had been wasted, that I hadn’t done enough, a sense of being stuck in the same spot, of being in limbo. I got around that – it wasn’t easy and probably is the topic of another blog by itself.
The fact is that after a while you get used to it – the absolutely fantastic ability of an organism to adapt. It suddenly dawned that I find the unequivocal realisation that I am no longer young refreshingly liberating.

40s
I was no longer slave to being young or acting young. I no longer screw my eyes while trying to read, I have my set of reading glasses which are wonderful. Three or four days at the pool in a week used to be shameful in my youth but now they are three or four days in a week. I am careful with my workouts, no impulse games of football at picnics, no sir, I prefer the frisbee, or watching from the sidelines and smirking at the wheezing hippos. Swimming is my preferred mode of exercise, the almost zero risk of injury, the solitude it provides, the zen rhythm of the lapping water… I did start to get numbing in my fingers, which was quickly diagnosed as an irritated ulnar nerve at my elbow – kind of a repetitive stress injury. A subtle message that I was overdoing it. The gentle reminder of the body that I was trying to be young again. 80 laps aren’t needed, or need breaks in between.
I am not denying the fact that there are people out there who will vehemently disagree, that youth is all about attitude and sticking to it. Sure, but I think I will try to grow old…as well as I can.