Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Chicken run: The IIPM affair (2)

This was the second post:

Consider this. A youth magazine runs a standard feature checking out the very tall claims made by an institute that offers high-priced management degrees. The claims don’t check out; the magazine prints its findings. The institute sues the magazine. It sues the magazine’s editor. Vicious and obscene comments pop up on her blog. A set of fake blogs praising the institute appear from nowhere. Another blogger comments on the institute and, substantiating his rhetoric, calls its claims “crap”. He gets sued. Then the institute complains to the organisation he works for about the posts he’s made in his personal capacity; then it threatens that its students will burn the laptops provided by that organisation. Gaurav Sabnis, the blogger in question, decides to quit rather than cause his organisation more grief—or back down on his posts.

This is what IIPM wants.
A ban on any criticism, however valid, of its claims, its facilities, and the worth of the degrees it provides. It doesn’t want students evaluating any of this. It doesn’t want a student magazine evaluating any of this. It doesn’t want bloggers evaluating any of this.

And I’m thinking, for an institute that’s supposed to specialise in management, they haven’t done a very good job, have they?
Because until Bansal was barracked on her blog by a bunch of perverts, until she and JAM had lawsuits chucked at them, until Sabnis was sent legal notices and then forced to choose between his job and his beliefs, the truth is that I didn’t really think much about IIPM or what they stood for or their claims or whether they were any good.
Now I’m very, very interested. And so is DesiPundit, who's been holding the reins of the campaign for free speech. And India Uncut. And the whole bunch of Indian bloggers named in DesiPundit's post.
Now we really do want to know what makes IIPM tick. And what makes it think it’s going to get away with using bluster, force and blackmail to shut down the right of every Indian citizen to discuss, dissect and, occasionally, dismiss a public institution.
Gaurav Sabnis didn’t lose his job because he’d done anything wrong. All he did was to call IIPM on its claims and suggest you really might want to look at its claims very hard before you applied for admission or sent your kids there.
He didn’t lose his job because his organisation told him they couldn’t deal with the pressure, even though it was clear that IBM was worried about where this was heading: IIPM’s threats weren’t, shall we say, on the level that constitutes a civilised discussion.
He lost his job because a bully said, I’m going to twist your arm till you take down those posts, because I don’t like what you said, and most of all because I can. And Gaurav’s response was to see to it that IBM didn’t get hurt, and to say, No, you can’t. I won’t let you.
I know how much anger this issue is going to raise. I know that some of our responses are going to be off the wall, I know that it takes considerable restraint to keep the rant nice and pure and invective-free.
But in the end, there are just two things to remember. One is that every citizen of this country has a right to express his opinion, that IIPM is trying to shut down free speech, and that it would be very, very nice if every blogger from India saw to it that we made their job that much harder for them.
And the second is that Gaurav Sabnis is standing up for his principles in one of the hardest ways any of us can. Give him all the support you can provide. IIPM doesn’t just owe him an apology; it owes him his life back.

Chicken run: The IIPM affair

(Crossposted on Kitabkhana. India Uncut, DesiPundit and Sambhar Mafia were the first to speak out and have been monitoring the situation; Gaurav Sabnis' Vantage Point is here, Rashmi Bansal's Youth Curry is here.)

This was the first post. It's just a summary of what's been happening; please do visit the blogs listed above for the full story.

It started off innocuously. JAM Mag, aimed at teenagers and college students, has a regular feature called MBA Corner. Some months ago, it evaluated IIPM, the institute run by Arindam Chaudhuri, which claims to be one of the top ten B-schools in India. JAM’s correspondent discovered that the rankings IIPM used in its ad were taken from the Outlook-C fore rankings in 2003. The C fore website says: “IIPM has been removed from ranking as we received serious complaints about the veracity of information given by them.” JAM asked: “So how can IIPM continue using these rankings, AFTER they’ve been removed from them?” JAM also reported that many of IIPM's other claims were dubious, to say the least.
In June, Rashmi Bansal, who edits and publishes JAM, mentioned the story on her blog, Youth Curry. Among the responses it drew were two vitriolic responses from people who seemed to have fake IDs; one said she was an IIPM student, the other called himself Real Gaurav Sabnis, referring to another blogger who had also posted about IIPM.
In August, Gaurav Sabnis, who runs Vantage Point, posted about IIPM. He wrote:
“You all must have seen full-page IIPM ads in all national dailies, asking student to "dare to dream beyond the IIMs". If one went by the ads, one could be forgiven for thinking that IIPM is the institute with the best possible infrastructure, faculty, and placements in the country.
Scratch a bit and you realise what a load of crap it all is.”
Quoting, mind you, from the company’s own ads, he noted:
“At the end of every IIPM ad, there is a fine print which goes -
IIPM conducts its own programmes in Planning & Entrepreneurship (a non professional course) and does not teach any foreign institute’s courses... The MBA/BBA degrees are conferred by IMI, Europe and is internationally renowned and does not come under the purview of AICTE, UGC or other state acts.
Which means the so-called MBAs from IIPM are not even MBAs."

On 6th October, Sabnis received, and posted, a “legal notice” from IIPM that had him almost falling off his chair laughing.
(I particularly liked the lawyer’s demand that Sabnis “Refrain in the future from releasing any news item containing IIPM's reference without the prior explicit written approval of IIPM.” Wow. So now colleges get to censor their own news? Even the PM can't do that!)
On October 10, Sabnis posted. IIPM had been in touch again. IIPM, incidentally, has very serious marketing muscle. It appears it's not shy about using it.
In response to Sabnis' posts about IIPM, posts in which he’d raised very legitimate questions about the institute’s claims and functioning, guess what IIPM had done? They’d gone after his employer, IBM.
Writes Sabnis: “But apparently, the Dean of IIPM wrote [a senior colleague at IBM] a mail saying that the IIPM Students Union had decided that if my blog posts were not deleted, then they would gather all the Thinkpads they had been given by the institute, and burn them in front of the IBM office in Delhi. Yes, that's right. Burn laptops!”
His superiors and colleagues at IBM didn’t ask him to remove the posts. They didn’t ask him to resign. But Gaurav, faced with a pretty serious dilemma, thought it through and made his decision. He didn’t want to remove the posts; as a citizen, he felt he had the right to comment on the functioning of an institution of learning. Nor did he want to drag IBM, an organisation that had treated him well, into this ugly mess. So, he quit his job.

The BS Column: The Booker shocker

(There I was up at 4 am IST waiting to see who'd win the Booker, thinking I had all the bases covered: Ishiguro was my frontrunner for this year's prize, Barnes my backup and I had outside bets on Smith n' Smith. And they gave it to Banville--great writer, wrong year--for a book only a critic could love? Sheesh.)

There's just one question I have for this year's Booker judges: what were they smoking?

I come not to bury John Banville. Banville is an honourable writer, an austere but impeccable critic. It's true that his books remind me a bit of Gerald Durrell's description of Argentinian tangos: this one is about a man who is grieving, he is very sad and he asks the meaning of life; this one is about a man who has suffered, he is very sad and he asks the meaning of life; the next one is, well, the same. But the quality and the depth of his prose, the weight of experience with which he writes, these always carry me through.

There is no doubt that John Banville deserves the respect of his peers. To use that nasty phrase literature holds out as compliment and kiss of death combined, he is a writer's writer. He probably wrote the best description of his own writing in Ghosts : "Such suffering, such grief: unimaginable. No, that's not right. I can imagine it. I can imagine anything."

In the seventies and the eighties, he wrote a series of intense, haunted portraits of scientists—Copernicus, Newton, Kepler. Between 1989 and 1995, he wrote a classic trilogy-- Ghosts , The Book of Evidence and Athena --a study in part of the mind of a man whose obsession with a particular painter leads him into murder. The act of murder was not the focal point of the trilogy; it was the cold heat of obsession that Banville found fascinating. In The Untouchable , he based his protagonist on the Cambridge spy Anthony Blunt. Shroud was a grim, dark exploration of identity, juxtaposing a professor who may not be what he seems and a woman whose madness does not make her necessarily less in possession of the truth.

You cannot fault his prose, you cannot deny the courage with which he lays bare the most pathetic, most obscure corners of the human heart. Should John Banville have won the Booker Prize? Of course.

But not this year. With The Sea , Banville penned a complex tale about a man who had lost his wife to cancer, returning to the childhood resort on the Irish coast where disturbing memories of a family he knew as a child begin to surface. It is an axiom that all of Banville's narrators are flawed; in Max Morden he has created not just an unreliable narrator, but an almost unbearably mannered one. Critical consensus on The Sea was mixed, but Tibor Fischer caught the problems best when he said reading the novel felt like "sitting an exam": "There's lots of lovely language, but no novel."

In a different year, with a weaker shortlist, The Sea might yet have been an honourable winner: it is exactly the kind of high-literary novel so beloved of Booker judges. But 2005 has been an extraordinary year for the novel, and the Booker judges controversially left three of the biggest names in the literary firmament off the shortlist—J M Coetzee, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan. They've all won Bookers before; Rushdie won the Booker of Bookers, in fact, and Coetzee, aside from winning the Booker twice, is a Nobel laureate. By omitting them, the judges were sending out a message: it would be only the book that mattered this year, not the reputation of the writer.

Of the other works on the shortlist, four at least were extraordinary. Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is a poignant but unsentimental exploration of what it would mean to be a clone in our world; Julian Barnes' Arthur and George blends biography and fiction as he impeccably recreates the strange case of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, a lawyer of Indian descent falsely accused of maiming farm animals. Zadie Smith's On Beauty is tongue-in-cheek homage to Howard's End , beautifully contemporarised; and Ali Smith's The Accidental is an incandescent tale of a stranger who crashes into the life of a family, told from the perspective of a 12-year-old. I have no hesitation in saying that if you're looking for the best book of the year, any of these fit the bill far better than Banville's overwritten work.

John Banville was in great company, and he deserves to be there. But The Sea didn't deserve to win. The Booker judges called it wrong, and this year, they had absolutely no excuse.

Last word: All about us

(What can I say? It's a soppy column. I'm still a cynical bastard deep down inside, where it really counts. Written for The Kolkata Telegraph, October 2005)

This one's for all the women in my life, from the toddlers to the grandmothers. But most of all, it's for the thirtysomethings, those of us who've survived the teens and twenties and don't know what the fifties and sixties will bring. Have a great puja.

This is what we inherited. The belief that we could earn our own paycheques; the ability to switch from saris to silk sheaths in a second; the knowledge that the best friends are those with whom you laugh till tears come to your eyes.

From our mothers and sisters, we inherited strength and grace, histories of abuse and violence, histories of growth and nurturing, stories and poems, tips on makeup and tips on how to handle office politics. They put us on the road to independence, the road on which so many of them had made long or short journeys; they handed us maps and the car keys, and waved us goodbye.

From our fathers and brothers, we inherited the knowledge that men were not the enemy, were not aliens. They let us see their force and their vulnerability. They taught us how to dance, how to shoot and how to cook; they shared our bad hair days and our losses on the stockmarket, they shared their problems and they picked us up when we stumbled. They let us go down our various roads, and sometimes, they made the journey with us.

This is what we learned. We learned to handle our own taxes, we learned what it feels like to hold the first paycheck; we learned to be many different women while holding on to the one we really wanted to be. We survived pain, grief, abuse, addiction, loss; we embraced joy, comfort, maturity, love, friendship--and chocolate. We learned how to pack a suitcase, how to make many cities or continents our homes, how to stay in one place.

We learned how to love men, and some of us learned how to love women, too. We learned how to lead the busy lives of mothers while holding on to ourselves, we learned to refuse motherhood without fearing emptiness. We learned how to dial an old friend whom we hadn't seen for years, we learned how to sms new friends. We learned enough to want to kill our policymakers, legislators and bureaucrats for messing this country up; then we learned more, and started to become all those things ourselves in order to turn it around.

This is what we're looking for. We're wondering what secrets those women in their fifties know, the ones who dye their hair defiantly, the ones who let the silver show. The ones who for the first time are taking that Spanish course, taking the flight to foreign places that were always waiting for them, the ones who have their book groups and their Fortune 500 companies, who're always on the move but who know when to sit back and cackle with their friends and lovers.

We want what those gorgeous women in their seventies and eighties have, the ones with the laugh lines and sorrow lines marking their faces, the ones who can still jive, still love their great-grandchildren, still cook, still love watching soaps on TV, the ones who still know how to hold their arms out to the world. Some day, we'll be them; here's to all of us.

The BS Column: The Colour of Magick

(Published in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, October 4, 2005)

One of the perks of my job is that I can return to the surreptitious pleasure of reading "kid lit" with my halo intact: of course I'm not enjoying reading about dragons and novice girl magicians, this is hard work. (Heh!)

The children's titles that look promising this season are all variations on the classic quest story. This is probably one of the oldest stories humans told each other, from Beowulf and Jason and the Golden Fleece to the quest for the Holy Grail; you can make the case that the first truly modern novel, Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote , had to break new ground for itself by subverting the conventions of the quest. The basic ingredients of the epic haven't changed for millennia: a hero or a being with heroic powers who must be tested, often through perilous journeys in order to find either an object of power or to unleash the powers within himself, pitted against and often aided by gods and demons.

Children's books are perhaps the last bastion of the true epic in our time. We're so steeped in irony, ennui and apathy that an attempt to write a straight epic narrative for adults comes across a bit like Prince Bolo in Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories --it's dashing, but a little foolish. When you're writing for children, though, you can play it straight, knowing that your audience hasn't yet been hardened to wonder, doesn't yet scoff at magic, and still, despite all that guff about the growing cynicism of youth, cherishes the firm belief that Good will kick the pants off Evil in the end.

One of the most promising new series is Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians . Percy Jackson has ADHD, an absentee father who is one of the gods of Olympus, and is being hunted by Zeus, Hades and a few other immortals you really wouldn't want to annoy. Since the non-divine part of him is also just a 12-year-old kid who's stuck with Ugly Gabe as a stepfather, he has pre-teen problems—but his best friends are a satyr and Annabeth, daughter of Athena, so it all balances out. Riordan makes the assumption that his audience knows absolutely nothing about the Greek myths, which is deeply annoying if you had them stuffed down your throat as a child, but otherwise this is a fun debut.

Christopher Paolini's Eldest , the second in his trilogy starring a dragon warrior, is pretty promising, though absolutely humourless. Paolini is one of the youngest authors to experience overnight fame (in the way of overnight fame, it actually took about six months to happen, but never let the facts spoil a great publicity story), and in volume two, he shows some growth. His dragon hero has won his great battle, but is now in training as the Empire gathers its strength for bout number two. Eragorn and Eldest are classic fantasy novels—perhaps too classic for my taste, given that the pawprints of Lord of the Rings and a dozen other sagas are all over the manuscript—but Paolini does a nice, old-fashioned job of telling his story.

Trudi Canavan's The Magicians' Guild is an interesting riff on the usual wizards-in-robes routine. In a city called Imardin, a young urchin accidentally discovers her magical talents. Sonea's powers almost destroy her, until she reluctantly joins the magicians whom she and the other denizens of the slums of Imardin hate. The Magicians' Guild is entertaining, but reads as though Canavan is just warming up for book two. (The demise of the three-volume-novel was greatly exaggerated: in today's publishing world, kid lit sells best in multiple volumes.)

I have to admit to favouritism here, since I'm a diehard Neil Gaiman fan, but Gaiman's latest, the relatively lighthearted Anansi Boys makes even this bunch of promising debutants look like the talented amateurs they are. Meet Fat Charlie, whose father is the African trickster god Anansi, and whose brother is the equally charming, equally tricky Spider. Then stand back and give thanks for your family: they might drive you up the wall, but they're not in the same league as trickster gods.

I could go on, but next week is when both the Booker and the Nobel prize winners will be announced. That means having to get back to literary giants—a pity, it's been really hard work reading kickass sagas and sword-and-sorcery fantasies, but someone has to do it.

Last Word: The ostrich approach

(Published in The Kolkata Telegraph, September 2005)

Once upon a time, there was a young man who decided to do something special for the woman he loved. That night, he stood outside her window and serenaded her with a violin concerto. He played so well, she and her family came out and applauded. The next night, he was back to serenade her on the flute. She and her family were warm in their praise. The third night, he arrived with a saxophone and began to play. Her family came out, shouting abuses; they thrashed him, she threw her engagement ring in his face.

"Why'd you do that?" he asked from the pavement. "Young man," said her father, "shame on you. We don't believe in premarital sax for women."

We'd like to dedicate this shaggy-dog story to Khushboo, the actress who's been in the news this week for casting aspersions on the moral character of Tamil—and by extension, Indian—womanhood.

Khushboo told a magazine that society had to free itself from the "outdated thinking that a woman has to be a virgin at the time of her marriage". She suggested, too, that Tamil women "should know to protect themselves from pregnancy and AIDS if they chose to have sex before marriage. Educated men these days do not expect their spouses to be virgins at the time of marriage". A few days later, harassed by groups protesting the slur she had cast on Tamil womanhood, picketed and facing a firestorm of righteous indignation, Khushboo withdrew her comments and made an apology.

Khushboo's comments were refreshing, in an industry where all starlets feel obliged to explain that they only "expose" when "the role demands it". She didn't feel the need to suggest, as her blinkered critics did, that premarital sex was against Indian culture; instead she accepted the prevailing reality, which is that men and women can have guilt-free relationships without the benefit of a mangalsutra.

I particularly liked her emphasis on protection and sexual health: the unembarrassed and empowering acceptance that if you're going to have sex, you need to be responsible about it. And she paid a definite compliment to today's men when she pointed out that male attitudes to virginity might have changed. I like the idea of a man who is unthreatened by the fact that his future wife might actually have experienced a genuine relationship before she met him.

The guardians of Tamil Nadu's culture might want to consider some other statistics: like many Indian states, TN lags behind in several areas. The rate of female infanticide has gone up sharply in TN over the last five years. While boys and girls join school in high numbers, the percentage of girls who drop out is uncomfortably high. And, oh yes, the abortion rate in TN's cities suggest strongly that whether they're against or for that mythical beast known as "Indian culture", women aren't exactly against premarital sex.

Khushboo's views could have led to a more open discussion about sexuality, about the growing ease between men and women, about responsibilities in adult sexual relationships, about the new Indian man who's comfortable with independent women, and so different from his repressed, repressive stereotype. Instead, she's the target of a bunch of hysterical prudes who're desperate to pretend that women are still legless angels. Now that's the ultimate shaggy dog story.

The BS Column: (Contra) banned

It's fitting that the Calcutta High Court lifted the ban on Taslima Nasreen's Dwikhondita on the same day that Banned Books Week was kicked off in the US. Banned Books Week, the brainchild of the American Library Association, is an annual event that draws attention to freedom of speech issues.

In the US, book bans are most often demanded by conservative parents who don't want their children to be exposed to "unChristian magic" (the Harry Potter book ban), discussions of teenage sexuality (the Judy Blume books) or racial issues (Toni Morrison's books).

In India, it's the state that usually decides whether or not to ban a book. Most books on the censored list are there because they might offend a religious community or because they're detrimental to the country in some way. And we're very easily offended.

India set a deeply dubious example in 1998 by being the first country to ban Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, while issuing a statement that the ban should not be construed as criticism of the book's literary qualities. This was disingenuous: I can't think of a more decisive act of criticism than a book ban, nor one more readily guaranteed to muzzle the author.

Other books on the banned list have included Katherine Mayo's Mother India, which Gandhi famously dubbed "a drain inspector's report". Again, the ban seems an over-reaction. Mayo's travelogue deserved to be censured on grounds of cruelty to the reader; she had little regard for either accuracy or literary style. But to ban Mother India was to accord the book an importance it didn't deserve. Stanley Wolpert's Nine Hours to Rama, a classic account of the events that led to Gandhi's assassination, exemplified the over-protectiveness of the state. It was banned because the government didn't think it would be healthy for the Indian people to read it. This deeply paternalistic attitude, the sarkar protecting a volatile, inflammable, infantile public, remains ingrained in the Indian ethos.

Many of the books on the banned list are panting, heaving works of near-pornography set in a wildly exaggerated Land of the Kamasutra; often they were works of evangelism where the authors frothed at the mouth at our godless, pagan ways Hindu Heaven, Land of the Lingam). The ban on The Scented Garden, a narcoleptic exploration of sexual anthropology in the Levant, has never been rescinded, though the passage of time has rendered the book's revelations thoroughly harmless.

In recent years, the track record of the Indian government with book bans has been wildly varied. While it is unlikely, as one newspaper has speculated, that the Indian government will ban The Mitrokhin Archive because of the controversy that the late KGB officer's disclosures about Indira Gandhi and Leftist parties has occasioned, we still seem to be happy to reach for a ban, at least as a temporary measure.

D N Jha's The Myth of the Holy Cow is a scholarly, academic examination of the sacredness of cows in India. Jha uncovered many references to animal sacrifice--and cow slaughter--in the scriptures while arguing that the demand for cow slaughter was a contemporary development. The book was banned in 2001, not because Jha's research was incorrect, but on the grounds that it might hurt religious sentiments.

The reasons for the ban on Dwikhondita were the usual: Ms Nasreen's frank approach to autobiography deeply disconcerted the guardians of morality in Bengal. The Left Front government banned the book "for the sake of maintenance of democracy" in Bengal, a puzzling statement given that Nasreen had hardly prescribed anarchy or bloody revolutions. The book was condemned as "pornographic", and as being likely to "offend the sentiments of Muslims": I would have condemned it merely on the grounds of mediocrity, which is unfortunately not a ban-worthy offence. The Calcutta High Court observed that the ban was "unjustified" and "untenable".

This is just a humble suggestion, but it seems to me that we would have a much easier time of it--and more reading material--if we stopped banning books on the grounds that they would hurt religious sentiments. Instead, I want a ban on anyone whose sentiments, religious or otherwise, are so excessively sensitive that they might be hurt by a book that they can always exercise the choice not to buy, or read, or even discuss.
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