Sunday, June 29, 2008

The decline of Mumbai's university

Bombay University, undated photo (taken after 1878). Image source:

It's official: the University of Mumbai attracts flies.

The Times of India recently reported that the University Grants Commission (UGC), the government body that oversees and funds higher education in India, may take direct control of University of Mumbai. The Times quoted the head of a UGC review committee as saying, "There has been a huge drop in faculty members, which has affected the quality of teaching and research. While the number of students has steadily gone up, over 200 faculty positions are lying vacant. Also, with 600 colleges affiliated to it, the focus is more on administration than academics."

Like many things that have recast themselves from Bombay to Mumbai, this 150-year-old university, which counts historic figures among its alumni, has putrefied. But even 20 years ago, when I got my undergraduate degree from there, I was not proud of it because I considered it mediocre. I was saved by the fact that I went to elite colleges where dedicated teachers went way beyond the required curriculum, to give students a real education.

The university did not offer a major in Anthropology, so I had to major half in Anthropology and half in Psychology. (Digression: when I graduated, they forgot to write "Anthropology" on my degree certificate, but luckily the calligrapher was sitting right there when I went to collect the document, and he obligingly added it in at my request, without question.) For such Anthropology as I did study, the books prescribed by the university were not available in bookstores -- you just had to read the one copy in the St. Xavier's College library, or photocopy what you could (copiers were quaintly mechanical in the mid-1980s -- it took several minutes to print a page, as I recall). For assignments (required by our professors, but not by the university), we referred to colonial missionaries' accounts (about criminal tribes with cannibalistic pasts). In retrospect, I think we read them shockingly uncritically, but even so, it was these that led me to regard "norms" from a distance, and truly broadened my teenaged mind. Besides reading and research assignments, we also had field trips (also not required by the university). I was enthused enough about a research assignment to track down the Institute of Indian Culture in Mahakali Caves Road (back of beyond in those days), meet Stephen Fuchs, the elderly Jesuit priest who had written one of our textbooks, and use the library there to research one assignment. It astonishes me now that I was so motivated, and it says a great deal about Father John Macia, who taught me Anthropology. All these activities counted for nothing in the final assessment for the degree, and yet, they were my true education. I still have my handwritten assignments, and, having taught undergraduates myself now, I'm amazed by my own (very interesting!) choice of topics. I am so grateful to my Anthropology professors, especially Eddie Rodrigues and Father Macia, for not leaving my education to the University of Bombay!

The other half of my undergraduate degree was in Psychology. The textbooks weren't bad, but that's because they were American college textbooks! They were, of course, not available in the bookstores. Besides, the curriculum was lousy -- while an excruciatingly boring course on industrial psychology was mandatory for even the half-major, Freud and psychoanalysis were not! Thank goodness for my driven, if not wildly interesting, professor Maureen Almeida. I was very lucky also to be a student of the excellent Jennie Mendes in junior college (class 11 and 12) at Sophia, and to be able to borrow my older sibling's college textbooks to write Jennie's Psychology assignments. Of course, I was fortunate to have enough curiosity to devour those excellent books -- I can never forget Clifford Morgan & Richard King (Introduction to Psychology), Henry Clay Lindgren (An Introduction to Social Psychology), and James C. Coleman (Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life)! By the time I got to degree college myself, the textbooks had changed (they probably changed them every 15 years!). The new ones were American, too, but I don't recall the authors. All I recall is that there was now DSM IV, that psychology had become extremely physiological (which I found utterly boring), that Solomon Snyder was doing cutting-edge work on neurotransmitters, and that I was deeply impressed by Milgram's experiments on destructive obedience. But -- Freud was a frill that a Psychology degree could easily do without, according to the pedagogues at the University of Bombay.

My undergraduate days are ancient history, true. But a much more recent experience -- unmediated by the dedication of college professors -- gave rise to unalloyed dismay. In 2005, on a research trip to India from the US, for my doctoral dissertation, I had a fellowship that required me to have an institutional affiliation. Mumbai is such an intellectually atrophied city that I had little choice. I contacted the head of the relevant department at the University of Mumbai. He was all wide-eyed, and seemed to consider my topic some whole new sphere of study (as anyone who peruses Modern Asian Studies or Economic and Political Weekly would know, my field of study is certainly not "unique", even though -- surprisingly -- there's no work that's even close to my topic that focuses on Bombay/Mumbai. So the department head invited me to give a talk. I thanked him and said I'd look forward to feedback from not just faculty but also graduate students. He goggled incredulously, as if I had asked to be chauffeured in a gold-plated limousine. He said, "Those duffers!" (well, some words to that effect). He appeared sincere in his belief that an M.A. or Ph.D student is not competent to comment on or ask a useful question about someone's work. My talk was arranged as somebody's in-class event (they didn't think to tell me whose, nor the title of the course). The room was full. After the talk, I invited questions. A faculty member launched into a lengthy question, tangential to my topic and ostensibly designed to probe whether I was ignorant of major debates in the field. Then, another senior faculty member asked a question, but didn't wait for an answer before launching into a long harangue about my allegedly racist and colonial perspective. He thundered against my description of a particular community organization as conservative. (I had given several examples to explain exactly what I meant. It's my own community, by the way.) He ended his schtick with an accusation and a flourish. A large group of students applauded. I had the distinct feeling they were eager to show up the Amreekawalli (I was studying in the US, true, but I'm an Indian, from Bombay. I look and sound Indian, and don't believe I come across as putting side on. I speak several Indian languages fluently, with an Indian accent. I'm not the stereotype tank-top-wearing South Bombay monolingual Anglophone chick who gibbers when attempting to speak in Hindi). They seemed not to have registered the fact that I was presenting unprocessed raw data, from which I was only beginning to build a theory. The senior faculty member appeared to be coming from the Subaltern perspective which gained ground in the 1980s, but which has been critiqued (although, of course, still remains hugely important and relevant). I guess I have the same perspective but from the post-critique stage, and am post-colonial enough to call Indians conservative if that's what they were (one can be critical, after all, without giving up sympathy for those one studies). But nuance was clearly not the order of the day in Ranade Bhuvan that afternoon.

I would rather not get a Ph.D at all than get it from University of Mumbai.

In 2007, Time Out's excellent Mumbai edition ran a cover story (Friday, July 27, 2007) on people studying Mumbai/Bombay. It mentioned many people (including me) who were studying the city through various lenses. We were all from institutions outside Mumbai, and many outside India. But, Time Out noted, the University of Mumbai has no initiative to promote the study of Mumbai, despite the city's vital role in the country's history and economy for over 300 years.

Institutions of higher learning are the hallmark of civilization. With this chronic apology of a university, Mumbai has no claim to being an evolved and civilized city. It will go on selling medical college admissions to the highest bidders, cranking out hundreds of thousands of semi-employable B.Com. and B.Sc. graduates each year, and producing EngLit graduates and journalists who can't write a sentence to save their lives. Forget about History, Philosophy, and other disciplines that demand abstract and critical thinking! This once-great city, today riddled with potholes, feces, spit, garbage, worse sanitation than bombed-out Baghdad, corruption, poverty, multiplex cinemas, the bizarre but unshakeable corporate and middle-class delusion that it's going to be a "global" city, and the constant fatuous revelry of the insanely selfish rich, has got the university it deserves.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Why Indra Sinha is on hunger strike

I don't usually copy entire articles here, but I'm making an exception this time. The following is from the Guardian online.

Why I'm going on hunger strike for Bhopal

Victims of the Union Carbide gas leak continue to suffer, their injuries and deaths uncompensated. We must support them

By Indra Sinha, author of Animal's People, which was short-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize

On July 26 2006, my friend Sathyu Sarangi called me in tears from Bhopal to tell me that our mutual friend, Sunil Kumar, had taken his life. Sathyu said that when they lifted Sunil down from the ceiling fan from which he had hanged himself, he was wearing a T-shirt that said, "No More Bhopals".

Sunil was an orphan of the Union Carbide mass-gassing of Bhopal, losing his parents and three siblings on that night of terror. Aged 12, he began doing two jobs a day to bring up his surviving sister and baby brother Sanjay. He became a leader of the survivors' struggle for justice and was one of the people I loved most in Bhopal.

The BBC reported, wrongly, that Sunil was the inspiration for Animal in my novel Animal's People, but Animal certainly benefited from Sunil's courage, sense of humour and ability to live on 4 rupees (£0.05) a day. Like Animal, Sunil heard voices in his head, and suffered nightmarish visions. You can read his story here.

On the day that Sunil died, Dow Chemical's CEO Andrew Liveris visited the UN to deliver a much-publicised speech. Fireboats hired by Dow's public relations agency jetted huge sprays aloft over the Hudson River as Liveris told the assembled diplomats "Lack of clean water is the single largest cause of disease in the world and more than 4,500 children die each day because of it … We are determined to win a victory over the problem of access to clean water for every person on earth … we need to bring to the fight the kinds of things companies like Dow do best."

Stirring words. But when asked if he would clean up Bhopal, where the drinking wells of 20,000 people have been poisoned by chemicals abandoned by Dow's subsidiary Union Carbide, causing an epidemic of cancers and hundreds of children to be born malformed and with brain damage, Liveris replied, "We don't feel this is our responsibility".

Liveris couldn't be more wrong. Under the "polluter pays" principle enshrined in both Indian and US law, Union Carbide is responsible for cleaning up the contamination and compensating the thousands whose lives have been ruined. In buying Union Carbide's assets, Dow also acquired its liabilities. Dow set aside $2.3bn to settle Union Carbide's US asbestos liabilities. How then can it refuse to accept Union Carbide's Indian liabilities?

The hard answer is that Indians are not quite as human as Americans. Dow paid $10m to settle out-of-court with an American child damaged by Dursban, a pesticide so dangerous that it has been banned for domestic use in the US. But Dow employees were found to have bribed Indian Ministry of Agriculture officials to license Dursban as safe for home use in India. If an Indian child dies I doubt if there'll be $10m or even $10,000. As a Dow public affairs chief famously remarked of the paltry compensation paid to Union Carbide's victims, "$500 is plenty good for an Indian".

Why doesn't the Indian government force Dow to clean up Bhopal? The Indian law ministry has advised Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that Dow is indeed liable for Union Carbide's misdeeds in Bhopal. It's exactly what he doesn't wish to hear. He and his ministers are in contortions to appease Dow, which has offered to invest $1bn in India if freed from its Bhopal liabilities. When news broke of this sordid backroom hustling, 280 legal professionals, among them retired judges and eminent lawyers, said the attempts to exculpate Dow were unconstitutional and illegal.

Earlier this year, 50 Bhopali survivors, many old and sick, walked 500 miles to Delhi to ask the prime minister for safe drinking water and to make Dow clean the factory. For two months Manmohan Singh left them camped on a sweltering pavement without a reply. When Bhopali women brought their damaged children to his house and chained themselves to his railings, he had them arrested. The policewomen who led them away wept.

When India's prime minister finally gave a reply, it was all prevarication, no substance. The Bhopalis then declared that they would launch an indefinite hunger strike until their demand for justice was met.

On the eve of the fast, police beat up women and children as young as six years old who had gone to protest outside the prime minister's office. The police said they'd been told to get tough. Many of us around the world rang to protest and I asked a Mr Muthukumaran of the prime minister's office if Manmohan Singh had ordered the beatings. "Are you joking?" he replied. On the contrary, I had rarely been more serious.

As I write this the Bhopalis are still in jail, and we hear that Dow Chemical is sponsoring an exhibition called The Gallery of Good at the Cannes advertising festival. Next Monday, Dow will present The Chemistry of Socially Responsible Marketing, which is presumably the advertising campaign on which it has lavished upwards of $100m. But telling lies beautifully does not make them true. Wouldn't it have more socially responsible to use the money for cleaning up Bhopal?

I have spent much of the last five years writing a novel in which victims of a chemical disaster caused by a rogue corporation are sold out by their own politicians, triggering a desperate hunger strike. Animal's People is set in the fictional city of Khaufpur, but whatever success it has had, it owes to the inspiring courage and spirit of the Bhopalis, and the descriptions of the hunger strike were drawn directly from the experiences of my friends.

Sunil is dead, but on their small stretch of pavement in Delhi, now battered by monsoon rain, nine others have sat down to begin an indefinite fast for justice. Among them are my old friend Sathyu and, grown up into a fine young man, Sunil's baby brother, Sanjay.

How can I not join them? How can we all not support them?

• To join the fast for a period, or to register your support, please visit Donations for medical care in Bhopal may be made at

Photos: Indra Sinha image from, and hunger strike image and Dirty Dow logo from

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

More Mumbai summer

Bougainvillea. Photo by moi. If you'd like to use it for any reason, please let me know!

Bougainvillea (Bougainvillea brasilensis) is named after an eighteenth-century French navigator who discovered the colorful and very thorny vine in southern America. This would be the chap Diderot alluded to in his "Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville", which was not really about travel but a critique of French society and politics.

The pink papery part isn't the real flower, the little white thingies are, although I've no idea on what basis botanists decide these things (if you do, please leave a comment). Based on the pictures I've seen of French colonies in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean, and my own sojourn in Pondicherry, it seems French colonists liked to cheer up whitewashed architecture with pink, white, and deep orange variants of bougainvillea. And although Mumbai was never French territory, bougainvillea has always been part of my landscape here. It clung to a stretch of chicken wire along my school boundary, creating a shady canopy under which you could sit on the low garden wall. And there was also a big jumble of it in a corner of the garden around my parents' home. Sadly, that went when the railways took a strip of land from our landlord to widen the rail corridor. Can't think why the landlord didn't put it back inside the new property boundary, because it's pretty easy to grow. The photo above was taken on May 17, at the gates of the "haunted house" at the end of the street.

Photo of anthurium below, taken on the same day, outside the building next door to ours.

Anthurium. Photo by moi. If you'd like to use it for any reason, please let me know!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Mumbai summer ends

Mumbai has been intolerably humid. The air was so still and thick with humidity that I felt I simply couldn't bear it. Neither my nor my friends' homes have air conditioning. Nor do the buses, trains, nor most taxis. But bear it I did, simply because there was nothing else to do. These past few weeks, the air conditioning at my workplace was a sort-of incentive to go to work. (I say "sort of" because they crank the damn thing up until your brain freezes and your fingers stop moving. That's not very pleasant, either.)

A couple of hours ago, it rained -- a heavy shower for a good 20 minutes. It's like someone turned the air conditioning on for the whole neighborhood. It's dark now, and although tomorrow Mumbai is sure to be back to its nasty muggy self, at least the dust will have washed off the leaves, and the air, normally a yellowy-brown despite the year-round coastal breeze, will be a little clearer.

For the rest, here are a few glimpses of Mumbai's summer. Photos by yours truly. If you want to use them, ask me, okay?