The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 24, 2000
Speaking generally

Partners in backwardness!
By Chanchal Sarkar

IN the early mornings nowadays I am much more satisfied with radio than with TV. Of course I am speaking of BBC radio from which I get much more news and discussion than its TV. Between 5.30 and 7 a.m. there is World News in slots with well-picked items from Latin America as well as the important views from Europe and the USA. From 6 there’s a lot of news from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, not from all the countries every day so that what there comes arrives in depth with lots of interviews thrown in. I would strongly recommend that 90-minute chunk, to listen to as much as one has time for. It cuts to size our own feeble efforts to provide news indepth.

The other morning I heard a programme on primary education in Pakistan, through the work of an NGO based in Karachi and now spreading gradually throughout Pakistan. The figures of children in school are less than in India but we were never truthfully told of how many children survive in the schools after some months. Dropouts in India, too, are large. What I must confess is that the longish item on Pakistani education sounded exactly as if it was from India and demanded the same amount of empathy and Pakistani children might well have been children next door. Indian television depends very little on the head. Entertainment is all and that of a low, brainless variety. If you switch from channel to channel, the programmes seem identical whether in Bengali, Tamil, Hindi, or Telegu and there are many numbers of song, and dance and ‘luv luv luv’ programmes which one can scarcely bear to watch. As for things like Kaun Banega Krorepati they are really the pits, no celebrated actor should be seen in such shows even if it helps to pay off income tax debts. At a dinner the other night I asked if Alec Guinness (just dead), John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, or Ralph Richardson would ever take part in a Krorepati-style programme. My friends, even those who are firm admirers of Amitabh Bachchan had to agree that they wouldn’t.


Tagore’s poetry

The rain seemed to do something to Tagore’s poetry and songs. Written from Shelaidah on the Padma river from the Tagores’ Zamindari Kuthibari, from his boat tied to the shore or coursing down the river or from Santiniketan, there are a myriad beauties. Writing this I feel something of that inner beauty as the delayed and fragmented monsoon seems to hurl itself on the windows and our dog, sleeping peacefully on the bed sheds her sleep for a few second and looks up, puzzled.

Unfortunately the mayhem that we have practised on our trees means that the rains are no more beautiful, to the villagers they now spill floods from swollen rivers. Houses are demolished, people run to higher ground. The soil is gauged out and often become useless.

A friend of mine is passionately tied to the concept of water harvesting, preserving the rain water by a variety of means — ponds water holes and so on. Dragged by him I have visited parts of West Bengal and Punjab trying to see if villagers aim to preserve the rain water of the monsoons. In Punjab the farmers have mastered the technique by diverting river water and putting up check dams and this has meant an enormous increase in their quality of life. In West Bengal little has been done and the villages often stand on worn-away soil.

A tale well-told

A friend of mine from Darbhanga district in Bihar has taught in Patna, Kathmandu and, occasionally, in some American universities. His own tongue is, of course, Maithili but he also knows Sanskrit, Hindi, Nepali and Bengali. Just the other day he was awarded a Sahitya Akademi award for the translation into Maithili of Tara Shankar Bandopadhyaya’s splendid novel Arogya Niketan. It is about a vaid from a long continuing family of vaids called Moshais. He was the kind of vaid who was never frightened to tell his patients the truth. He was also of the kind who rose from his son’s bedside and went to visit the sick son of a Muslim neighbour. His wife was heartbroken but he told her "I cannot do anything here because he cannot live, let me try to help someone who might".

His son had married a nurse in Calcutta and there had been a son who became a doctor practising modern medicine. By coincidence the son got a job in a small rural hospital in the same village where his grandfather lived. His mother had never told him who his grandfather was. Being a total believer in modern medicine he was contemptuous of his grandfather’s practice of medicine. Eventually, after many twists and turns, they were reconciled on the eve of the old man’s death. He had also came to recognise how powerful ayurveda could be.

It’s a cracking good tale (which has also been made into a good Bengali film) and my friend found it very enjoyable to translate. He also told me a "funny" story. My friend is a contemporary of Amartya Sen though they had not studied together. When Sen won the Nobel Prize he felt he ought to write and congratulate him. The letter was written and just at the time there arrived in Patna a doctor-nephew who was working in a hospital in England. My friend thought that if the young nephew hand-carried the letter to Cambridge and gave it personally to Amartaya Sen it would be very appropriate. When he told his nephew about this the young man asked, in Maithili, Shey Ka Chhe? meaning "Who is he?"!

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