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Missed opportunity

Syama Prasad Mookerjee His Vision of Education - Anirban Ganguly & Avadhesh Kumar Singh, Wisdom Tree books; Rs.995; Pages 316

Widely ignored during the Nehru-Indira dynasty years for his Hindu Mahasabha connections, Syama Prasad Mookerjee was nevertheless an iconic figure of the pan-independence era. A learned academic and polymath, he strode over the landscape of Bengal with the likes of Rabindranath Tagore, Jagdish Chandra Bose, Satyendra Nath Bose and Bepin Behari Ghose among other luminaries in the worlds of literature, education and science. But from among them, he was the only one to enter politics.

Born in 1901, he graduated from Presidency College and Calcutta University, went on to study law in England and was called to the Bar of Lincoln’s Inn in 1927. In 1934, at the young age of 33, he was appointed vice chancellor of Calcutta University, serving till 1938. In 1937, he was elected to the Bengal legislative assembly. He joined the Hindu Mahasabha, and played a prominent role in the 21st session of the All-India Hindu Mahasabha at Calcutta under the leadership of Veer Savarkar.

Mookerjee himself was elected working president of the All-India Hindu Mahasabha in 1940, and rose high in Indian politics, serving as a member of the Constituent Assembly which drafted the Constitution of India. In 1947, he was inducted into independent India’s first Union cabinet as minister for industry and supply but resigned three years later mainly because of his opposition to Article 370 (which provides for the special status of Kashmir) and Nehru’s left/socialist policies. In October 1951, he founded the Bharatiya Jan Sangh party, the parent of the BJP which more than half a century later, swept General Election 2014 with a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha. 

This book purports to provide a commentary and critique of Mookerjee’s contribution to education, and attempts to splice together his vision for education in India. The authors have compiled 24 speeches, most of them delivered at university convocations and two chapters contain his speeches in Parliament and the Bengal assembly.

The cover has only one blurb, not from an educationist, but from the incumbent prime minister of India Narendra Modi, who has also provided a one-page commendation of the authors, written on the PMO letterhead, much like the messages adorning the front pages of souvenirs brought out at government jubilee functions. It’s hard to escape the thought that the publication of the book has a political purpose.

Unfortunately, this critique of Mookerjee’s precepts of education is shallow with the authors’ comments filling a mere 27 pages of the book. The remaining 290-plus pages are Mookerjee’s own writings and speeches. Those who buy the book with the intention of acquiring well-analysed insights and conclusions of Mookerjee on Indian education will be disappointed.

However, from a reading of his speeches included in the compendium, it’s clear that Mookerjee grasped the broad historical sweep of Indian education through the ages. His vision of education was staunchly nationalist, a model that would be best suited to the needs of India’s development in preparation for and after independence. India’s new-found freedom would be reflected in the unhindered curriculum and discourse of India’s universities liberated from parochial control and petty regulation.

In one of his most inspirational passages, he delivers a clarion call to the ideals of education. “…we must produce, through educational institutions, a race of men and women, strong in body and mind, true, resolute and self-reliant, burning with hefty patriotism and idealism, not carried away by emotions but capable of exercising critical and reasonable judgement, trained both to be leaders and soldiers, amenable to discipline, devoted to duty, determined to work not as a class or community but in a spirit of corporate service and ever-willing to place their services, humble and great for the good of society and for the advancement of the highest interest of the nation.”

For the University of Calcutta, reduced to pitiful condition during 34 years (1977-2011) of uninterrupted rule over West Bengal of the CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist)-led Left Front government, he envisaged: “The revival of a great seat of learning where Indian culture and civilization would receive their due homage from Indian scholars, of a seat of learning where the highest scientific training would be imparted with the help of Indians, where east and west would meet on a footing of perfect equality and an Indian would be taught to feel proud of his national achievement without hesitating to imbibe the best elements of western knowledge and skill.”
Since then, this forward-looking leader of the Indian Right has been misrepresented by the RSS, BJP and authors of this compilation. The authors fall over themselves in hagiographic praise, soaking the book in servile sycophancy. The conclusion starts with the phrase, “Since it is not possible to better his views…” These are comments from the authors, both of whom are professors, and one a former vice chancellor. A description of Mookerjee’s childhood and personal life, testifying to possible influences on his thinking that prompted him to espouse the causes he did, is missing from this narrative. 

If the authors expected this publication to be of interest to academics, educational administrators and policy makers, they are likely to be disappointed because the arrangement of the book material is quite frankly, shoddy. The few references that have been provided aren’t cited in the text, so we are left wondering about the source of such quotes or passages. The bibliography is sparse and again leaves the reader clueless in the absence of any cross-referencing. The dates of the debates in the Bengal legislative assembly aren’t given, so chronological context is lost. The book seems to have been brought out in a hurry, with the result that academic rigour is given short shrift. Given the author’s scholarly background, these are surprising lapses.

In a rush to present a politically slanted account, the authors have missed an opportunity to provide readers with a balanced critique. An educationist of formidable proportions, Mookerjee’s legacy deserves a far better evaluation. Irrespective of one’s educational or political leanings, there can be no doubt about his brilliance and perspicacity on educational issues, and his burning patriotism shines through his vision for India. The colour of Mookerjee’s political affiliations may not be attractive to some, but the integrity and relevance of the vision he had for Indian education — alas unrealised — can’t be contradicted.

Glenn Christo 


Excellent collection

Manto: Selected Short Stories, Sadat Hasan Manto; Translated by Aatish Taseer, Vintage; Rs.250, Pages 158

The toughest job for any editor or compiler of Manto’s short stories is which stories to include and which to leave out. The job is more vexing in these times when everyone is claiming a piece of Manto depending on requirement. 

There is a specific type of Manto that is celebrated in academia, the one who writes about Partition and violence. Then there is the Manto who is the publishers’ favourite, the one who writes on controversial issues that can easily be marketed. There is also the Manto who shines in private elite gatherings of artists, one who writes about sex and sexuality with ease and fearlessness. People bent on slicing Manto forget that he is all of these. It is here that Aatish Taseer’s Manto: Selected Short Stories comes as a relief. 

Taseer’s Manto emerges as an important collection with the finest selection from the whole corpus of Manto’s writing. This selection of stories doesn’t pigeonhole Manto. It offers a wide array of colours that Manto loves to play with. This small potent collection of 12 stories celebrates every hue of Manto as well as his dark shades. They touch almost every major theme that one finds in his stories.

While ‘Toba Tek Singh’ depicts the insanity of Partition within a mental asylum, ‘Ten Rupees’ depicts the innocence of Sarita amidst a predatory sexual tension. While ‘Khalid Mian’ painfully depicts a father’s emotions for his dying child, ‘Blouse’ deals with the first sexual awakenings of an adolescent. All these stories deal with one or the other major preoccupations of Manto. 

In his introduction Taseer is highly critical of Khalid Hasan’s English translation of Manto’s ‘Bitter Fruit’. According to Taseer, Hasan is “guilty of the greatest crime any translator can commit, the crime of trying to improve upon the writer”. And this is something that Taseer has masterfully avoided in his translation and most of the time he goes for a literal translation of words and sentences originally in Urdu. By doing that Taseer is successfully able to convey the Urdu temperament in English, something that Zafar Moradabadi, his teacher and guide for Urdu language had cautioned him: “One’s mizaaj (temperament) is contained in one’s script.” 

Taseer’s introduction to the collection titled ‘Travellers of the Last Night’ is a loose translation of Aakhir e shab kay humsafar, a line from Faiz’s poem Shaam-e-Firaq and it serves as a brilliant background to these English translations of Urdu stories.

Taseer shows the decay of the Urdu language through the concerns and preoccupations of Zafar Moradabadi to whom the book is dedicated along with his grandfather Dr. M.D. Taseer. Zafar has an acute post-Partition political sense of the Urdu language. The way Taseer describes Zafar’s Delhi reminds one of Anita Desai’s Nur and his Chandni Chowk in the novel In Custody. Zafar’s proclamation, “I’m not saying you should write poetry. I would never send you into poetry. It’s finished” echoes Nur’s lament “Urdu poetry?... How can there be Urdu poetry when there is no Urdu language left? It is dead, finished. The defeat of the Moghuls by the British threw a noose over its head, and the defeat of the British by the Hindi-wallahs tightened it. So now you see its corpse lying here, waiting to be buried.” 

No one should be reminded of Desai’s Nur while reading about Zafar Moradabadi as it blurs the boundary between fact and fiction. But if it does, it shows the sorry state of affairs that surround the Urdu language. Zafar Moradabadi’s vocation (other than being a poet) as a ghostwriter of Ph D theses for mere survival, is enough to indicate the condition of an Urdu poet and the Urdu language. In the same way, Taseer’s positive proposition that “In Pakistan, Manto’s world, crowded with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims would feel very foreign. It is only in India, still plural, not symmetrically Hindu, that it continues to have relevance” is ironic given the situation of India in 2017.

The relevance of Taseer’s collection is not because of “still plural” India but because of the fact that still plural India is spirally descending into a mob-lynching India. What this collection reminds us is that when madness runs amok in public spaces, sanity can be found within people like Toba Tek Singh. Even when Kishori, the pimp from ‘Ten Rupees’ brings in three customers, innocence can be found in people like Sarita.

When politics becomes a synonym for violence, even people like Ram Khilavan can lose their innocence. Apart from being a good introduction to Manto’s world, the collection with its varied range of themes also emerges as a cautionary reminder for present times. 

Muzaffar Karim (The Book Review, October 2017)

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