Do I get fooled in some QnA sessions?

There are these colloquium lectures organized by our college at regular intervals which I try to attend, with much curiosity. The lecturer/panel delivers the talk and a question & answer session follows – the interactive part of the session.

I also try to ask questions in these sessions. However, it is difficult for the hosts to accommodate all the questions, from the large number of people who raise hands for that opportunity after the lecture and after each question is answered from the dais. What I find very interesting is the way the people who ask questions are chosen.

Suppose the hall is organized into three blocks of seats. What I have often observed is that one person is chosen from each block successively. Then if time permits, a person is chosen from the front/back/middle of the hall, depending on where the previous questions and especially the last did not come from. Sometimes, the speaker insists on having a male-female alternation, which is rare.

The people who actually get the microphone to ask a question are often flocked by other ‘aspirants’, who almost never get the chance to ask (sometimes they do if they can snatch the microphone from the previous person after s/he’s done). This has happened to me too sometimes (I try to get the microphone immediately after my neighbor has asked the question – often this doesn’t work as I have to yield to the politeness of volunteers). Sometimes, no person in my vicinity gets an opportunity to ask a question. That’s when I feel very little regret but the process seems unfair. However, when someone in my vicinity does get to ask (and I don’t) I feel more regret – because my neighbor who got the opportunity could just have been me. However, it doesn’t seem to be unfair to me.

Recently, I read about the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky – behavioral scientists who have explored the quirks of human thinking. They set out a theory of regret.

The researchers write, ‘the general point is that the same state of affairs (objectively) can be experienced with very different degrees of misery’, depending on how easy it is to imagine that things might have turned out differently.

Logically, the odds of getting an opportunity to ask increases only slightly as the number of persons who haven’t asked a question decrease one by one…no matter my location in the crowd. However, the further I am from the chosen person, the less regret I feel. There is that sense of having come closer to getting that opportunity when my neighbor gets an opportunity.

When I can observe that not all areas of the hall have been covered, I feel that the process is unfair. Especially so, if no one from my vicinity gets an opportunity.

I wonder if I get fooled by my feeling of having come close. I wonder how the way of choosing questioners can be made fairer, or is that just a stupid ask?

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What will you say to him?

What will you say to him,
Who died without a hym,
Who is dead but telecast live,
On whom flies swarmed from their hives?

You who butcher another being,
With much more regard for a thing,
You who doesn’t even cloak a dagger,
And roam around rinsed of swagger.

Did you feel your blood,cold,
When with pride, the story you told?
Were you still hot with hate,
Many others still to eliminate?

What will you say to him,
To your nephew who recorded the film,
When he grows a bit trim,
Or in your image, will we find him?

A Muslim migrant worker from West Bengal was killed in Rajasthan by a man who made his nephew record the murder while ranting against Islam (here). Both West Bengal and Rajasthan are states in North India.

The Limits of Tolerance

Tolerance has become a quite divisive political word in India these days. After every lynching, mob-violence and murder, we are asked by our supposed thought-leaders to be tolerant of others. After every aggressive collective outburst on social media, there is a call to become more tolerant. More tolerant of the other religion, more tolerant of the other political side, more tolerant of the other point of view, more tolerant of the other gender or sex – so forth and so on. Whatever its philosophical connotations, tolerating someone or something, in a colloquial sense, seems a pretty low bar to have set for ourselves.

But tolerance is ‘bearing hardship, or the ability to bear pain and hardship’. It is inherently an individual character of a person in that it is psychological hardship that an individual faces while tolerating someone/thing else. It asks of us to control our religious, gender, cultural or political morality that we might otherwise impose on others if we were to be ‘intolerant’. It does not even go so far enough as to acknowledge the violence of that morality, much less address it in any positive meaningful manner. It just says, if you cannot respect the other, at least tolerate him/her.

Tolerance is a brilliant management tool out of a long list of ready-made ones, to ‘manage’ difference in society. But it shifts the politics of the violence and micro-aggression into the realm of individual psychology. It does not ask of the ‘intolerant’ individuals to accept a share of responsibility of the oppression committed by their peers and ancestors. It just asks them to turn a blind eye to what they still see as acts of very visible violations of majoritarian code. It says nothing of, nor does it bring positive changes to, cultural-socio-economic-political conditions that have historically been colored as suspicious, deviant or provocative, with the sanction of the law and society.

In effect, it depoliticizes the very basis on which the politics of identity, inequality, injustice, exclusion, oppression, and conflict, is fought regularly – all of which a result of cultural, religious, economic, social and political factors that have worked historically to the detriment of those who the we now seek to tolerate. It reduces that very brutal oppression to a mere misunderstanding among individuals, acquitting the majority of any responsibility. The readily available tools of cultural knowledge – TV and social media (since we are reading lesser each day) and its army- that preach this tolerance do nothing to sensitize us to the spectacular violence. At best, they desensitizes us of the oppression we cause and at its worst, it propels paranoia, fear and violence in all its thrill and grandeur.

What use is this ‘tolerance’ of when the tolerant still view and observe the present conditions as natural order – as pre-existing, which should not be changed. While it is laudable to make society more hospitable for others through tolerance, it will be an exercise in futility if this stops there and does not address the reasons why it had been historically inhospitable for a vast population. Tolerance alone cannot be enough. The point of tolerance is not to address the injustice and violence but rather to mold the mindset of individuals to tolerate others even though they still view the other as suspicious, deviant or provocative. Unless those legacies of oppression are meaningfully addressed, tolerance will just be a line in the sand.

Angels & Demons

Progress and development have become such ubiquitous terms these days that we have come somewhat oblivious to whether we are any of them. In fact, we often mistake change for progress – how bored are we! Certainly progress is not something that has a unanimous acceptance, neither does change. But this loss of a sense of the difference between what is progress and what is change seems to have become a narrative we hold dear to our selves – politically, socially, technologically, financially and increasingly religiously. It most definitely relieves us of the responsibility that comes with recognition of the very important difference – that one is subset of the other.

With technological “development” and innovation, we have exerted our control on a vast variety of life aspects, so much so that we feel, to the point of surity, that we can shape life and lives as we like. The accomodation of the unknown or the oulier event seldom figures in our thinking, not when it matters. At the same time, we have become accepting of large, complex and mementic narratives that perpetuate a sense of progress – whether or not we it happens.

Solutions to our problems seem to be inevitably found in deterministic structures of simplified and engineered models without regard to the social and emotional flux of social tensions that invisibly, but boldly, underline the superficial waiting to pour over the skeletons that line our closets. The ultimate solutions are digital – either angels or demons.

Angels – who save us from the dangers of thinking freely and informedly, who save us from the dangers of counter-narratives, who question those who question us or our like, who limit our own sense of self by making us unaware of the reality we face, who seldom talk to us directly but make hypnotic speeches, who lie to us because we are too limited and timid to face realities, who make us feel as if we have a purpose – that we belong here , who eventually possess us.

Demons – who think thoughts we do not think, who let us shrink in the counter-narratives, who question our assumptions and narratives, who hear our views and agree to disagree, who let us decide for ourselves what we think, who question our purpose, who make us liberated, dispossessed.

Let Us Not Suspend Disbelief

Every year since our ‘tryst with destiny’, a person has stood on the pedestal of Red Fort and exhorted us to embark on the path of ‘nation-building’. Every few years, we see, or rather imagine, the dawn of a ‘New India’ – one where there is freedom from involuntary dependence, not just ‘independence’.

This year was no different. 200 kms from the capital, in Gorakhpur, a cruel tragedy unfolded, as it does every year. Newton would have felt insulted to see the inertia of bodies, stillness of momentum, lack of actions and abundance of reactions. Neglect of public health and sanitation weighed heavily on the strings of flags as they unfurled pompously. There are laws to punish denigration of flags and disrespect of anthems. Alas, babies are too lightweight to seek vengeance. Will our nation building have enough oxygen and vaccines next year? Let us believe what we must!

Further down the much worshipped banks of our filthy river, lives and livelihoods have been lost to floods, which are more regular than good monsoons. It is claimed that there is insufficient funds for relief operations and rehabilitation. Well, let’s just say – priorities matter. Fleets of helicopters took politicians over the flooded areas, ‘surveying’ – a euphemism for looking down – on the disruption. Once, the scene of havoc appearing in the window of the chopper had to photoshopped, just to make sure that people, not the affected but the unaffected, know that their leader was there. Perhaps, certain ‘reshaping’ of political expressions are needed when aired publicly, like the once demanded by Prasar Bharti as a condition for airing the speech of a chief minister. Is our notion of ‘nation building’ is too narrow in its considerations? Let us believe what we must!

A regulator suspends trading of some ‘suspected’ companies on stock exchanges and the financial press goes berserk. They find it an ‘ill-considered’ move by an ‘overzealous’ regulator, intruding without being given an opportunity to explain the innocence on the part of companies. The same press was all cheerful and exuberant when a few months ago, the currency supply of the country was left in tatters ‘at the stroke of the midnight hour’. The intrusive nature of the change was only scantily acknowledge, if only apologetically so. The depressive effects are still visible in remote villages. When decisions of ‘nation building’ are examined, will we be equally touchy in our assessment of its microaggressions and of it macro-objectives? Lets us believe what we must!

We are perhaps like the inebriate, looking for the lost keys under the streetlight because that is where all the light it. The effect is such that we don’t see occasional, now regular, flares that happen outside the narrow radius of that streetlight. We are inebriated by a pied piper, that controls not just the confines of the streetlight, and hence our vision, but also whether we will ultimately, however untimely, find those lost keys – keys to the chains that still confine us into self-assigned silos. We are too invested in the belief that we are independent. Let us believe what we must!

More importantly, let us not suspend disbelief.

Origins of Indifference

Recently, I was selected by a think tank for a research internship in public policy. I was hoping to be placed in New Delhi and I had told my parents just that. But they placed me in Patna. I instantly felt a little sad about being placed in a small city. My parents were even more concerned about what kind of a company was I working in that I would be placed in Patna!

But I practically grew up in Patna and had lived there for eleven years. So, I was shameful at my hypocrital feelings. And my pitiful sorrow wasn’t just about doing my internship in an obviously unrecognized organization. It was much more visceral.


After moving to college in Mumbai I have visited Patna every holiday – how come I didn’t want to work there? Was my affection for the place limited to it being a part of my memory? Did I really think that the city wouldn’t provide me with opportunities to prove myself in the work that I would do?


And the response from my parents and my relatives was also the same. It seems enigmatic that I would do my internship here. Even some people who I have met right here in Patna feel equally surprised. They ask me questions like – “Why didn’t you do ‘something’ in Mumbai itself, it’s a big place?” or “What type of internship did you get in a place like Patna?” And these things have stayed on my mind throughout my stay here.



                                                                          

In mid – June,  I was travelling on a battery-operated rickshaw back home from the office. We were passing by a big conference hall, been built by the state government, when the driver said to me, “Nitish (Chief Minister of Bihar) is wasting money on all these halls in Patna? Of what use is this to the farmers. He should be doing other things. You see Modi (Prime Minister of India) is doing so much for our country.”


“There was a farmer’s conference just a few days ago in this place where Nitish listened to lots of farmers’ grievances”, I said to him.


“But he is not like Modi”, he replied.


“Well, what has Modi done for you? Tell me”, I asked him.


“He is going to so many foreign countries. Our image is getting stronger in the world. He is bringing GST”, he said glancing at me.


“Will you pay taxes by GST?” I asked.


“Of course, not”, he said as he spit outside by the road, something not quite contributing to Swaccha Bharat.


“So, what exactly has he done for you which has improved your life?” I asked him. He put up an awkward smile and we just kept silent the rest of the journey. My intention was not to praise Nitish or criticize Modi. I was trying to get to why he saw this spending on a conference hall as a waste of money and not the foreign trips. I will not delve into either.


However, I was struck by this unusual ‘farsightedness’ that I found in his words. And it is a theme that is quite common in the northern plains of India – the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. At tea stalls and in restaurants, you’ll come across people talking about some big event in a distant place, very skeptical, or unaware, of the local developments because it is not as flashy.



                                                                    

I will focus on Bihar here. The state contributes about 10 % of the IIT and civil service population every year. If you take a walk in the evening along Boring Road in Patna, you will find a sea of students coming out of or going into coaching institutions. Similarly, there are coaching hubs in Gaya, Muzaffarpur, Bhagalpur etc. That students are going to elite institutions is a good thing.


But where is Bihar? The per capita income of Bihar in 2015-16 was only 35 % ( Rs. 37000) of the national per capita income. There are islands of tall buildings in towns and a few in villages surrounded by slums of abject poverty. It is quite common to find a child or two comes to come to you begging as you step out of the rickshaw or your car. There are huge waste dumps in scattered across places – open and unrestricted – to the mercy of rag-pickers and the irregular pickup trucks. There are large number of flyovers that will take you from one place to another, but the sea that they shed indifferently is often unseen. Is that also a purpose of these flyovers?

                                                                     

Walking under one such bridge, I found a row of vehicles – small and big parked in the aisle of the road. In between batches of these cars are people lying on mats, some cooking food by burning waste paper and few chunks of coal, some selling edibles like corn, fish. Earlier, the fish market used to be on the roadside to the inconvenience of shops and shoppers, whose entry would get blocked. Now since they is in the middle under the bridge, the flying-over vehicles don’t get annoyed while the shoppers swipe away comfortably.


I am tempted to think that the revulsion that I felt when I was first informed about my internship in Patna was due to this unhygienic surroundings here. But I do not go to these places every day. Where I have to go regularly is a decent place, no worse than some pocket of Andheri. So, I would be disingenuous to reason that I felt unhappy because of the lack of cleanliness in Patna.



                                                                       

My family wants me compete for UPSC and I too think it would be a good place to work for the betterment of the country. I do sometimes feel like trying it out. But sometimes I feel like I should open a low-fee school in my village and teach students there. That would be more useful to the place where I come from because not a single good school has opened there in the last fifteen years, while temples have proliferated. But the privileged elite in me overlooks that idea more often.


And so I think. The people who do become civil servants, do they contribute? Of course they do.They keep the system running. Some even bring about changes in the way things happen, help the society. But what legacy do they leave – not an institutional one but an individual one, on the minds of young children in places where news of their success spreads like fire? When a young entrant into civil service from a small village from Bihar, it is so glorious to the village community that people arrive at railway stations to welcome the twenty-something newly-minted to-be-civil servant with garland and sweets. I have heard numerous such stories in the last few years. It becomes the stuff of the news where reporters talk to villagers about these. But nothing really changes thereafter – until a year later when somebody else qualifies.


However, these toppers become false role models for many parents and students – a symbol of guaranteed job and a presumably stable career – least equipped to change anything. We talk about our national brain drain so often. So many brilliant Indian minds fly off to America, Europe and elsewhere. We find these stories of high paying foreign placements from ours and other colleges every year – flashed across our newspapers and television screens, and yes our social media notifications. What we do not hear is the inter-state brain drain which has had significant impacts on various states, particularly the poor ones like Bihar. The stream of engineers, doctors and civil servants that are constantly advertised in media, how long will this stream flow? Or will it dry out ?



                                                           

Metro cities have something about them that is magnetic, in a deliberate sort of way. You might be imagining their loud bars, their cascading traffic, their callous culture, their poor-rich dichotomy, and their screen stuck eyeballs…As deliberate as these things might be, a very subtle but deliberate change has also evolved, that is, we depict cities in such positive light that our places of origin appear to be less so, especially if it is not a city.


In Mumbai, I have found a good many Bihari drivers and workers, settled with their families in the outskirts of the city – deprived of the local familiarity. When I ask them why they migrate, the answer is usually to do with economic conditions. Many say that life is difficult away from their community in their native place and it feels good when they visit. And that they hope that they will return permanently someday but know that they may never.


And I think maybe I am this way too. Maybe I prefer to bask in the adulation of being an IITian (or a civil servant) to my village neighbors, a little uncomfortable to tell them about my internship in Patna – they equally surprised to hear about it – both conveniently refusing to negotiate the dust and sweat of the village in order to improve its conditions, even though it has been the source of money for my education up to the present day.

Humanity

We focus too much on the good nature of people –  kindness, loyalty, reverence etc. We often coax ourselves into not looking at our darker side – our vanities – if you will. 

Doesn’t that make humanity too?