Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Macaulay: Misrepresented and unappreciated genius.

Thomas Babbington Macaulay is the most reviled name in Indian history and ironically the most enduring name too. 165 years after his famous (or notorious depending your politics) 'minute on Indian education' his legacy still lives. There are portions of Indian Penal Code that still retain the laws laid down my Macaulay. Recently I happen to chance upon a collection of his writings and read in full his 'minute on Indian education ' and his 'address on India'. In this blog I shall focus only on his educational legacy. Macaulay has been blamed for the Indian student's lack of appreciation for India's rich cultural heritage and instead for being supposedly 'indoctrinated' in the western civilization. Before I plunge headlong I'll cite a conversation I had with my cousin recently. My cousin and several friends of his, staunch DK/DMK activists, support Tamil as medium of instruction. They fund schools that are Tamil medium. I told him that very soon they will be knocking the doors of the government for some quota for these students. Presto, Karunanidhi did just that recently.

A very important note is that India, when Macaulay wrote his minute in 1835, was still administered by the "East India Company" and 22 years before the "Sepoy Mutiny" (or, as Indians love to call it, 'First War of Independence').

At Macaulay's disposal are funds to educate Indians. The dilemma before him is to choose the medium of instruction. His choices are a)English or b)Arabic or Sanskrit (depending on the religion of the pupil). Macaulay wades into the literary merits of each medium and very tellingly into what would be "good" for pupils.

It is his arguments on the literary merits, or lack there of, of Sanskrit and Arabic that stirred quite the hornets nest and. "A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia". Without exaggerating I can affirm that those words continue to irritate Indians to this day. Indians, reflexively, ask "what does Macaulay know of Indian literature. Macaulay answers "I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. .....when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable. It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England. In every branch of physical or moral philosophy, the relative position of the two nations is nearly the same."

Even conceding the claim of Indians on 'literary value' of their epics Macaulay clearly rips into pride by showing that there is nothing more worthy in Indian literature when it comes to the sciences. This is only a blog and I cannot digress into every claim and counterclaim of Indians. I know the usual arguments that would be trotted out, Arthasastra, Bhaskara, Aryabhatta, Susruta etc but in 1835 India was an intellectually arid country. By then England had seen Shakespeare, Oxford, Cambridge, Shelley, Byron, Milton, Newton, Bacon, John Stuart Mill, Voltaire, Royal Society etc.

Macaulay is introspective too, "Had our ancestors acted as the Committee of Public Instruction has hitherto noted, had they neglected the language of Thucydides and Plato, and the language of Cicero and Tacitus, had they confined their attention to the old dialects of our own island, had they printed nothing and taught nothing at the universities but chronicles in Anglo-Saxon and romances in Norman French, --would England ever have been what she now is? What the Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of More and Ascham, our tongue is to the people of India. "

. In 1990 when I did my +2 at a Government aided private school (Up to 10th I was at Don Bosco) the school, under government rules, would charge English medium students Rs20 per month while the Tamil medium students studied free. The schools, under regulations, could have only one English medium section but as many Tamil medium sections as desired. Thus the government "created" a scarcity and made access to English medium sections difficult for the common man under the pretext of protecting Tamil (while M.K.Stalin studied in MCC, Kanimozhi in Church Park, Maran brother in Don Bosco etc etc etc).

Macaulay is at his best when he lays bare the ground realities and the hypocrisies. Even in his day students studying in Sanskrit and Arabic had to be paid the government whereas a pupil in English medium classes paid the government, "we are forced to pay our Arabic and Sanscrit students while those who learn English are willing to pay us. All the declamations in the world about the love and reverence of the natives for their sacred dialects will never, in the mind of any impartial person, outweigh this undisputed fact, that we cannot find in all our vast empire a single student who will let us teach him those dialects, unless we will pay him." 165 years ago the average parent rejected his children being taught in Sanskrit or Arabic and CHOSE TO PAY FOR ENGLISH MEDIUM.

"Why then is it necessary to pay people to learn Sanscrit and Arabic? Evidently because it is universally felt that the Sanscrit and Arabic are languages the knowledge of which does not compensate for the trouble of acquiring them. On all such subjects the state of the market is the detective test." Macaulay sounds very much like a right wing conservative of modern day America talking about the 'market as the detective test'.

Even today Tamil Nadu government acquires so called scholarly works of Tamil scholars and stuffs libraries with them irrespective of literary merit. Here is Macaulay in 1865 lamenting, "The committee have thought fit to lay out above a lakh of rupees in printing Arabic and Sanscrit books. Those books find no purchasers. It is very rarely that a single copy is disposed of. Twenty-three thousand volumes, most of them folios and quartos, fill the libraries or rather the lumber-rooms of this body." WHEREAS "the School Book Society is selling seven or eight thousand English volumes every year, and not only pays the expenses of printing but realizes a profit of twenty per cent. on its outlay."

To the oft repeated canard of Indians never being able to master English as a Englishman could Macaulay speaks warmly of the educated Indian, "It is taken for granted by the advocates of oriental learning that no native of this country can possibly attain more than a mere smattering of English. They do not attempt to prove this. But they perpetually insinuate it. They designate the education which their opponents recommend as a mere spelling-book education...Less than half the time which enables an English youth to read Herodotus and Sophocles ought to enable a Hindoo to read Hume and Milton."

Coming to the vulgar claim of quotas for Tamil medium graduates. Here is Macaulay 165 years ago and this passage needs to be quoted in full for the brilliance and clairvoyance. Here he talks about how students educated in Arabic and Sanskrit, at Government expense, come pleading to the same government for jobs. " These are surely the first petitioners who ever demanded compensation for having been educated gratis, for having been supported by the public during twelve years, and then sent forth into the world well furnished with literature and science. They represent their education as an injury which gives them a claim on the Government for redress, as an injury for which the stipends paid to them during the infliction were a very inadequate compensation. And I doubt not that they are in the right. They have wasted the best years of life in learning what procures for them neither bread nor respect."

Tamil chauvinists (masquerading as enthusiasts) clamor for being educated (that too educated free mostly) in Tamil and then present the same education as if it was an injury to claim compensation (jobs) from the government. I always hated this premise but until I read Macaulay I was not able to frame it clearly.

Deciding upon whether to further spend public money on supposed encouragement of Sanskrit and Arabic Macaulay is categorical "I would at once stop the printing of Arabic and Sanscrit books."

To mollify Indians he nevertheless agrees to allowing a college each to teach students in Sanskrit and Arabic BUT the conservative republican in Macaulay refuses to subsidise any such education, in shining prose he declares, "I would at least recommend that no stipends shall be given to any students who may hereafter repair thither, but that the people shall be left to make their own choice between the rival systems of education without being bribed by us to learn what they have no desire to know.

What did Macaulay hope to achieve by his educational policy, "We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,  --a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population."

So why did Macaulay want to educate the Indians at all? Indians have been fed a staple diet of looking at East India Company as mere 'conquerors' and people like Macaulay as 'unapologetic imperialists' suffering from the proverbial 'white man's burden'. I shall answer these in my next blog in detail.

165 years and each word rings true till today and what is sad they have GAINED much more relevance today. Macaulay's policy of taking education out of the hands of priestly classes which clamored for Sanskrit and Arabic shook the foundations of 1000 year caste heirarchy and laid  the foundations on which a century later India would raise its English speaking citizenry. A citizenry that is fueling India's economic surge. But for that accident of history India would not be where it is today.

I'd suggest erecting a statue for Macaulay in every town and hamlet.



Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hiroshima: Should America Apologize?

Of course not. Recently Hiroshima and Nagasaki observed the 65th anniversary of being destroyed by atom bombs. I feel sorry for the thousands of people who were killed and had to suffer the after effects of radiation. When I say I feel sorry I say it in the same manner as I'd feel for the millions who got killed or were left crippled due to war time bombings. No more, no less.For the first time US ambassador to Japan attended the memorial service. The service featured UN Secretary General Ban-Ki-Moon bowing solemnly in memory of the victims. World press noted the presence of US Ambassador and many columnist wrote ruefully that the ambassador did not offer any words of contrition.

Seen from any angle this is patent foolishness and sheer hypocrisy. Lets be clear it was war time. It was a war that the US did not start and was brought into screaming and kicking. What is worse the supposed victim, Japan, was the aggressor to begin with. Does anyone remember Pearl Harbor? Also lets look closer at how the events unfolded in the run up to the dropping of the bomb.

Hitler was dead, Germany had surrendered. Mussolini was hung from a lamp post and Italy lay prostrate. Russia and US had divided up Europe. America turned its gaze eastward. Japan refused to end the war. On the sideline of the war both Germany and America were pursuing the atom bomb. Scientists who fled Nazi Germany pleaded with Einstein to write the famous letter that gave birth to the "Manhattan Project". Recent research points to evidence that Germany was indeed close  to devising the atom bomb.

Japan vowed to fight and fight bitterly. The 'Battle of Iwo Jima' showed their resolve in no uncertain terms. It was a very costly victory, in terms of casualties, for the US. Truman conferred with his generals about the invasion of mainland Japan. The projection for US casualties was staggering. Equally staggering was projected civilian casualties. Meantime Oppenheimer had delivered the bomb to Truman. As American president Truman had his choice clearly made out.

There has been controversy over whether Hiroshima and Nagasaki were legitimate military targets. Some have suggested that those cities were civilian targets and were chosen to hit the Japanese hard into capitulation. I am no expert on judging that but lets remember this was war time and neither the Japanese nor Germany were coy about terrorizing civilians. Remember Blitzkrieg anyone?

The Japanese were brutal and ruthless in their forays into China and Korea. The Nanking massacres by Japanese army is ranked as horrifying war crime that killed thousands of women and children (by some estimates the figures are close to the combined casualties of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The Bataan death march is equally notorious. I wish Ban Ki Moon who genuflects in Japan would do the same at Nanking. The radiation effects are often talked about sympathetic clucking of mouths but little thought is spared that millions were maimed in many other bombings and war time acts by both sides.

The nature of the weapon, the zero casualty suffered by America in the bombing, the unique after effects for the victims certainly put nuclear weapons in a separate league but given the surrounding factors and circumstances this is not something for which America owes an apology. However our wonderful president who thinks America owes a mea culpa for just being America sent the ambassador to be a mute witness. By sending a mute stand by witness Obama alienated both right and left. The right felt he was being pusillanimous. The left felt why send the ambassador without a directive to offer contrition. Trying to please everyone, as always, he ended up looking as confused as ever.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

E-books : A paradigm shift in reading and publishing.

Gutenberg's invention of the printing press was one of the pivotal moments of human history. The Renaissance and Reformation movements are considered the children of advent of printing press. Without those two the modern western civilization as we know it would be a hypothetical exercise.

For a very long time there have many false starts that were talked about as the death knell for the printing word. Today, with some element of certainty, we can say that we stand, may not be at a pivotal moment,  but surely at the cusp ofa tectonic shift concerning how we read and publish books.

I never warmed up to e-books until I sampled a few books on the IPad. Books, old and new, have their own intoxicating smell. Buying a used book sometimes has its charms, especially when a moderate but discerning reader had underlined some portions it gives a kick to see another persons ideas. The ability to write on the edges, the ability to flip to the 'notes' section to see the source of some study or further expansion of an idea, the charm of just letting the book fall on your lap and to ruminate etc were not well duplicated in e-book formats. E-books were mostly PDF rendering of the printing page, other than the convenience of carrying several of them on a CD/ thumb drive the reading experience was no where near a book.

Steve Jobs entered the e-book scene much behind Amazon's Jeff Bezos' highly successful e-book reader the "Kindle". The Kindle pretty much mimics a reading experience. When I took an IPad to India recently I decided to try out e-books to beat carrying books for the tortuous commute. I chose books that covered the 2008 presidential election and a political memoir. Those books were page turners. I completely got sucked into e-books as the difference was practically nil compared to a printed book (and bunch of air-hostesses chatted me up to see the very hot new toy, well with my 4 year old and my wife next to me that did not go much further). I could highlight passages, I could bookmark, I could write notes.

The IPad is not just a e-book reader its a "tablet PC". From strictly an e-book perspective though Amazon's Kindle beats IPad on feature and total cost of ownership. Kindle DX (9.7 inch diagonally) retailing at under $400 comes with no-fee 3G connectivity (IPad 3G needs a $30 subscription per month, the cheapest Ipad retails at $400). The only thing that KIndle lacks is the color GUI unlike IPad. Amazon offers way more titles than IPad for ebook (well Apple store will eventually catchup or even exceed). With the Kindle we buy a book at anytime and it gets downloaded presto. TO retain foothold for Apple fans Bezos in a wily move has made a Kindle app for IPad too. So you can use Kindle books bought for Kindle device on IPad too.

The one feature that blew me off with Kindle is finding what most readers had highlighted when they read a book. So you get an idea of what passages most readers think are key to be highlighted. However I wonder how the data is collected and how is privacy maintained???? Other features like downloading chapters for sampling, ability to 'lend' a book electronically to another kindle user, user ratings etc all make the e-book experience not just close enough to a book store experience but in some respect even exceed that.By the way for the past month for the first time Amazon Kindle books outsold hardcover editions.

To be sure the e-book industry has miles to go. The main stumbling block is the format war between e-book device manufacturers. Sony, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Apple, Borders etc all manufacture e-book readers but there is no cross portability. This is where the  printed book still wins hands down.

Thanks, largely, to Itunes and Ipod today the two leading booksellers of USA have sharply cut down the floor space allocated for CD's. Would selling books, hence the book stores themselves, follow that route?  Just 2 days ago 'Barnes and Noble' announced that it is  up for sale. B&N is America's leading bookseller. I often used to point that a book store with a healthy stock price shows how much America loves books and music. That is still true except that there is a new kid in the block. Why would I go to a book store if I can read New York Times book review online and browse sample chapters sitting at home (or a park or a train) sipping the same Starbucks coffee. In fact I can do all that sitting at a coffee store with wi-fi.

All that I said until now only shows how e-books come close to reading a printing book, help give the experience of browsing at a book store and in some incremental way enhance those two experiences. Unlike the Kindle,today, the IPad is redefining publishing industry and how we read.

Publishers are now designing multi-media interlaced books for Ipad. e-books with embedded video and hyperlinks are being designed exploiting the potential of an internet connected tablet PC. Encyclopedia Britannica has cut down sharply its famed printed encyclopedia because doing a research tracing hyperlinks on the net is more fun and I need not stack 30 volumes of books that could contain outdated data.

Publishers were grumbling how Amazon compelled them to drive down prices of kindle editions for new hardcovers when Apple entered the arena they breathed a sigh of relief. However, Apple too, for competitiveness started driving down prices in tandem. Today there is an investigation if Apple and Amazon are indulging in price fixing. That aside, what has enthused publishers is that thanks to electronic formatting they can now sell various "VERSIONS" of the same book at different price levels.

It is a common practice in DVD retailing to sell a "director's cut" with some more extras than the usual DVD. The "Directors Cut" or "Special Edition" would usually be released later than the initial release prompting movie affficionados to buy the same movie twice. This is rarely done for books. Even with a mega-blockbuster like Harry Potter the maximum they could do when the last book came out was to re-issue all the earlier editions and come up with a "boxed set of 7" but that sales was practically nil. Who would waste tens of dollars buying a boxed set when almost everybody had religiously bought each issue and was holding on to it?

Rare exceptions do occur but still with less success than the DVD world. Stephen Hawking's cult classic "A brief History of Time" has been re-issued with pictures and glossy printing. I could see that book make a splash in a very special IPad edition. Imagine reading about curvature of space time alongside an animation of a ball in a trampoline. Any kid would fall in love with science. Reading is never a linear activity but with this kind of reading the mind would race in way more directions and the reading experience itself is elevated to a much higher plane.

Would all this mean the death knell for Gutenberg's invention? Not at all. Still the book remains cheaper and easy to acquire, more universal in format. Broadband connectivity, affordability etc still constrain the e-book industry. Of one thing we can be sure though. We are at the cusp of a new wave.