Speaking Truth to the Pinkos

Preamble: Today, I am in a “bad” “mood.” … (Marathi) “aataa maajhi saTakli!”

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I saw this article by Ramachandra Guha [^] highlighted at Prof. Abinandanan’s nanopolitan blog [^].

I went through the first two comments to Abi’s post, and immediately later, also went through Guha’s article. As I began reading the latter, it seemed to me way before finishing it that the author does have some kind an axe to grind here. The question was which one, but the answer was not immediately obvious within the first 10 seconds, and so, I had to find it out… Realize, both Guha and Abi reside in Bangalore; Abi highlighted the excerpt containing the Mashelkar name in his post (and has done so in the past on his blog, too); and there is this Marathi Theatre Meet currently going on in the Marathi town of BeLgao (aka Belgaum/Belagavi) currently in the state of Karnataka. … I did finally find it—the nature of the axe.

Alert: I write at length (more than 4000 words in all).

Spoiler Alert: What I found isn’t about [not] restoring BeLgao back to Maharashtra, but something else. And this something else is what I found to be even more interesting. So, here we go.

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Guha begins his article with Modi, but his writing became interesting to me only when he came to Mashelkar. [Ummm, yes, Mr. Modi… But that is a fact!]. Guha begins his take on Mashelkar with:

Next only to Rao in the hierarchy of Indian science is R. A. Mashelkar.

That was the line which engaged me in a real sense for the first time while reading this article. “Watch the action, now!,” I involuntarily said to myself, “this is going to be interesting.” … To think of the hierarchy of Indian science, and still to skip over Sarabhai—the relocator of the IIM Ahmedabad to Ahmedabad and a Gujju, in a piece that begins with Modi and written by Guha—had to get very interesting. … And sure enough, I soon found my first reference point in Guha’s article. Guha says:

Entitled ‘”Indovation” for affordable excellence’, [Mashelkar’s article] is mostly about the author himself [i.e. Mashelkar].’

Interrupting my reading of Guha’s article, I immediately did a Google search (Guha does not provide a link) and checked out Mashelkar’s article in the Current Science, here [^].

Saying so might perhaps be a bit too harsh on Guha, yet, I did get a definite feeling that perhaps he was counting on the fact that very few of his readers would bother to actually go through Mashelkar’s article from the Current Science. Guha could even be counting on the fact that people also find it difficult to hold on to context whenever they read a very brief article on a very complex topic—esp. in the middle of a casual browsing on NDTV’s Web site (and even more so, while reading anything on the Web site where the article was first published, viz., The Telegraph of Kolkata/Calcutta). The Bengali-named Doon-educated Bangalore-residing author could easily have, in some way, counted on that.

Getting back to the issue at hand: No, Mashelkar’s article isn’t mostly about himself. Check out the article for yourself right away, and observe the places where Mashelkar’s self-references appear and the flow of the writing in which they do. Nothing extra-ordinary here—certainly not for a man of Mashelkar’s accomplishments.

(In case you don’t know it already, purely metrics-wise, check out what arguably is the biggest metric in favour of Mashelkar, viz., the sheer dramatic rise in the of number of patents filed by the CSIR labs under his leadership, and the sustainable way in which he came to implement this program of his. For the latter, check out also the number of patents filed after he retired from the DG-ship of CSIR. As to the very idea of patents and all, I suspect that Guha should have an opinion about it, though he avoids any mention of this point while writing this particular opinion piece, and so, let’s not pursue that angle any further.)

If some leftist experiences some highly intolerable kind of reaction in the very process of going through a piece by Mashelkar, then, to get at the real issue at hand, let him also go through Rajendra Singh’s articles; as an example, the one here [^]. Guha does not mention Singh. [In case you don’t know, Singh started out as a committed socialist in his youth. He has not filed any patents or made any profit.]

IMO, the best way to approach this controversy of self-references is to begin, not by going through its worst practitioners but those who at least arguably are its best—and IMO, both Mashelkar and Singh fall in this latter category.

Observe that whenever people who have achieved success under very trying or difficult circumstances are later on invited to talk/write about their insights and their plans for the future, they invariably make salient references to their own experiences. By definition, when they began, and while they were at it—making that success happen—no outside agent more important than their own self—their own resolute, unyielding, rationality—was available to them, in order to effect the positive changes which they did come to effect.

They must make reference to their experiences, and as a part of that, yes, also to their very personal experiences. Yes, even in “science.” The self does have a causal efficacy; if it did not, no science would at all be possible because no knowledge would be. … Who else but a leftist/materialist sort of a fool could have told Guha that science is supposed to be apersonal?

But coming back to making references to one’s own achievements and plans, the richness to the perspective that this practice brings is far too valuable in its own way for the reader/listener (assuming, again, that it comes from a man of authentic achievements).

Science sure is objective, but “doing” science also is an art—it’s a skill, a very demanding skill. And, it is a very personal skill. Each individual differs in his own skills-set. And the world—the reality—is far too complex. When significant success is at all achieved by a person, such advancement comes about only through those personal skills-sets of that particular, thinking individual. The resulting science, management practice, or achievement does carry over this personal “imprint” of his, as a background context to his work. Given the complex and delicate nature of the process, knowing more about that personal context does have an objective value. It not just a spiritual value by itself—it’s not just an inspiration to the others. It is also not just a social value—a knowledge of the kind of society that made that success either possible, or, more difficult to achieve. Apart from these and similar values, personal notes also have a cognitive function or value—precisely because achievement of success is so complex, these personal notes become helpful in putting in context the nature of the achievement itself—the kind of objective science that has been done, the kind of lasting institution-building that has been effected.

Mashelkar’s article runs so contrary to the spirit of science that I wonder how it was accepted for publication. How did the editor of Current Science allow the essay to pass without major cuts and changes?

Yeah, right.

Either the editor is plain incompetent, or, what is more likely, too intimidated by Mashelkar’s reputation and influence to have asked him to revise his essay. Founded by C.V. Raman, Current Science is modelled on the American journal, Science, and the British journal, Nature. Like them, it publishes original scientific papers as well as shorter commentaries, book reviews, and obituaries. But one would never find in Nature or Science editorials remotely as self-promoting as this.

Really? Guha assiduously reads scientific papers and editorials from both Nature and Science?

Sure then he would know that one wouldn’t find an article like this in Nature or Science—or, for that matter, probably even on arXiv: N. P. Dharmadhikari, D. C. Meshram, S. D. Kulkarni, S. M. Hambarde, A. P. Rao, S. S. Pimplikar, A. G. Kharat, and P. T. Patil (2010) “Geopathic stress: a study to understand its nature using Light Interference Technique,” Current Science, vol. 98, no. 5, pp. 695–697.

Guha doth elevate Current Science too much, methinks.

But science begins with an interest in the world outside yourself.

Observe how this quote has been used out of its context. [I told you, Guha must rely on [your] ability to drop context.]

In particular, there are only two possibilities here:

(I) Possibility 1: (i) Guha first takes an unknown Indian student, say in his twenties, talking about some irrelevant personal things of absolutely no imaginable consequence to the development of science as such, even while talking up to a senior British scientist in his sixties who has come to India to help build an institution of science, and then, (ii) Guha takes a retired Indian FRS (etc.) of notable achievements and track record, who, now in his sixties, is supposed to share via an editorial piece his personal experiences, further achievements and ideas for the future, with a view to engage the younger working scientist in their common quest of further development, and (iii) Guha then equates the two: the senior British scientist with the audience of Mashelkar’s piece at the Current Science, and the inconsequential young Indian student with Mashelkar himself.

Don’t believe me? Re-read what Guha writes once again, and pay attention to the order in which what kind of reference appears to which man—in particular, who has been saying what personal things to whom in what kind of settings. Such things too are included when you say “context.” Going by the context, Guha equates Mashelkar to that inexperienced student.

Either Guha does that, or he does this:

(II) Possibility 2: Guha takes a respectable British name from science, and then relying at least on the argument from the association if not the argument from the authority, he tries to elevate the idea that pursuing objective science consists of wiping out any trace of the self as its crucial precondition.

I can’t think of a third possibility.

Does Guha habitually quote his quotes this way? to this kind of an effect? I have no good idea, though I wouldn’t have thought so. But then, he mostly writes about the things from the humanities, not sciences, and so, one wouldn’t really know all that well, and all that easily.

Still, observe the actual context here, the nature of each of the only two possibilities that can at all explain how Guha deploys that quote the way he does in this article. Then, take a moment to consider what it is that he must count on, in order to subtly advance his argument in this kind of a way: he must rely on your dropping of the context. [I told you so!]

I always thought that Guha was merely an enormously water- or fog-diluted—but not a white oil paint-diluted—shade of a pink. And I did also think that he wrote well—in a lucid kind of a way, even if not always in effect very persuasively. These two attributes—the colour and the quality of his writing—taken together made his articles an interesting sort of a reading, as far as I was concerned. But I also thought, with good reasons, that Guha also fairly regularly did his homework well, before embarking on lucidly painting the world in those watered down pinks. …In contrast, in the current piece, he doesn’t even care on that count of first doing his homework well. Interesting turn this, don’t you think?

One of my own intellectual heroes […] He nurtured an atmosphere of egalitarianism in the NCBS, where juniors could fearlessly challenge seniors and where honorifics such as ‘Sir’, ‘Professor’. were rigorously eschewed. Sadly, not many Indian scientists are cut of the same cloth as Obaid Siddiqi.

His acute observation about the usual sort of Indian scientists notwithstanding, realize, Guha now advances equating an informal and collegial atmosphere with … egalitarianism.

Guha is no enthusiastic graduate student, say of science or engineering, one who has just begun dabbling in writing blog posts that gush with impressive-sounding philosophical words. He is a much published intellectual from the humanities. At this point, we are still somewhere in the middle of his article. Therefore, this construct must eventually find its uses, some time later in his article. … For the time being, it might perhaps be worth noticing that among those who encouraged a nice academic/research atmosphere in India, Guha informs us Siddiqi as one of his intellectual heroes. But, in particular, Guha does not mention that other contemporary of Siddiqqi, viz., Narlikar—whom every one at IUCAA (or TIFR) would call by his first name, Jayant. …. “Gee, where is it going now? Could BeLgao come in at least now?,” I did catch myself wondering at this point. And, in comes, not Narlikar, but a different Marathi manoos! One from the humanities:

B. R. Ambedkar famously said that hero-worship is antithetical to the democratic spirit.

Another quote being quoted by Guha!

Now, this quote itself is objectively quite accurate: unlimited democracy is the rule by the mob, and it does thereby serve to annihilate, via the political means, any possibilities of any worship of any hero.

But Guha couldn’t possibly have meant it in this sense—not at this juncture in this article. Still, given the better [and actually mistaken] sense of the term “democracy” in which Ambedkar probably accepted and used it (he probably would have thought it to mean a civilized form of government on the lines of the British model, certainly not the rule by the mob—and such a meaning of the term is what both American and British intellectuals would have been arguing even in his times), it seems unlikely that Ambedkar could have meant this quote quite in the same sense as Guha now uses it. Possible, but unlikely.

But still, here, I didn’t bother to check the context in which Ambedkar might have said it. Checking and all wasn’t any more necessary. I knew by now how the author was using his quotes here in this article, and finding out the subtle viewpoint from which he comes, was now getting far too interesting a goal by itself. And so I thought: “May be a hero, to Guha, is one who reifies himself out to his own annihilation in a democratic manner? … Must read on… As a temporary note: The author has heroes but he indicates no hero-worship. Either these supposed heroes actually are just zeroes who cannot at all be worshipped, or he himself tends towards being a zero that couldn’t possibly worship an actual hero, or, both are/tend to the respective zeroes. …  Must find out what is the truth, here.” That’s what I thought. Gripping, this stuff had by now become!

Respect for senior scholars for what they have achieved is fine; but when respect shades into deference and even reverence, it is not conducive to independent and original thinking.

Reverence for senior scholars kills independent and original thinking? Says who? Blank-out. On what basis? Blank-out.

Quoting someone heroic, even if in an out-of-context sort of a way, Guha no longer finds necessary at this stage in his article. He apparently has found his form, and now he can take on any one, make any general assertion, without finding any need to support it with any sort of argumentation—before, during, or after asserting it.

But leaving aside Guha for a moment, why must reverence hinder independent and original thinking? Is there any fact of reality, man’s nature included, that makes this statement compelling? … If you have an honest doubt, let me give you just one counter-example: Read what Poincare, Einstein or Feynman (and if you want an example closer to the Indian genes, Chandrasekar) have said about Newton and his theory—the kind of terms they used while expressing their respective evaluations of Newton.

Either Guha’s reading of science is very limited, or, counting on his abilities of persuasion, at this point in his article, he no longer needs to use the crutches of mentioning science—not even some vague anecdotes about it. He can now “generalize” expansively, while taking care to drop just a hint here and there to the effect that some critical sort of thinking has gone in making those generalizations. So, he now turns to generously letting us have some further pinkish pearls of wisdom, concerning what to think of a person of eminence who is found handing out some prize named after himself:

…These were are the pertinent questions, and I suspect that in each case the answer is `No’.

Why must a scientist retire, or better still, die, before a chair or an award in his name may be instituted? What benevolent/desirable metaphysical prowesses does the fact of retirement—or better still, of death—possess, which makes this practice acceptable to people like Guha? What precise value does the fact of death [or of retirement] endow on a chair/award that was not already within the powers of the life [or the work-career] preceding it? Blank-out.

Any way, the author now ostensibly does not even think that questions like these need to be pursued with full clarity. As far as such issues go, mere suspicions residing in his mind should be perfectly acceptable alternatives to stand in for any objective answers. …

Hmmm… Even if I don’t care to counter his implicit argument in more detail than I have, I could—and I think I must—supply at least a few examples going counter to the answer that his suspicion derives: Check out the name of the highest award in applied mechanics, the name of its first recipient, and his life-span, starting here [^]. Also, check out the Belytschko Award (2008–2014), here [^]. Closer home and closer to Guha’s primary expertize (viz. humanities, India), how about the Lata Mangeshkar Award for Lifetime Achievement? Think: Possibly leaving aside intellectuals, do you know of any Indian—either the man on the street or the one from those innumerable government offices, either in the agricultural fields or in the urban IT parks, either in the coaching classes here in Kota or in the research labs there in the USA—who has ever had a problem with Lata Mangeshkar “in the flesh” handing out the Lata Mangeshkar Lifetime Achievement Awards? [… Oh well, but then, what I have done is to drop a Marathi name here, haven’t I?]

In allowing (or encouraging) things to be named after themselves, C.N.R. Rao, Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati have not done anything that is illegal. What they have done is not even immoral. But it is unquestionably in poor taste.

Ah! Now I get it. Guha really, really transcends the BeLgao issue. Also the science issue. Also the hero-worship issue.

Instead, it has only been just a matter of tastes! The issue is tastes. Not aesthetic standards or their applications, but mere tastes!

And, reading further, the author seems to have so badly fallen in love (if it can be called that) with his own tastes that he would somehow arise, awake, and write for the public consumption an intellectual defence of those very tastes—his own. But not before pre-emptying the possibility that a question or two may be raised about it. The instance of his tastes which he supplies is, by his own prior declaration, unquestionable.

It’s all just a matter of taste. So what, if a recognizable eminent name or two begins to get seen in an unseemly light, in this entirely “tastefully” done process.

The author may be Indian, but he is no leader in any field. What is to his taste is both unquestionable and for public consumption, esp. of Indians. So, they should follow him…err… they should have the same tastes as his.

… Just imagine how India would be like, only if his kind of tastes were to be carried by every Indian who has achieved eminence. How much for the better the whole world would turn, if only his tastes were to be carried by all the rest of us. Tastes, such as wiping out any references to ourselves, should we ever come to write any science-related article.

Taking the essentials of Guha’s basic logic and extending it just so slightly further, even a scientific article written with the pedestrian “we” would of course be in a bad taste. And, note, I am not even talking about the royal “we” at all, let alone writing a research paper in the grammatical first person singular [^]! How disgustingly lacking in taste would that be, if it came not just from a hapless graduate student but also from a leader of science, can you imagine?

It’s so damn tasteless to have any other tastes, and so, may be, we should think of imposing his tastes on every one else? To be fair, Guha himself doesn’t at all even hint at anything like this prescription. But since it is all in a fine taste to pull down a name or two, and since he writes of his tastes with such gusto and boldness, may be, we wouldn’t be too far off the mark if we begin to think along those lines?

But of course, as the author himself would sure know, imposition of mere personal tastes on other individuals would be a very hopeless kind of an enterprise—that is, if the very nature of the enterprise were to be spelt out in a forthright manner. One must therefore first drop some prior hints to the effect that a very reasonable sort of argument is and has been in progress, and thereby make the spelling out of the tastes in the end, say, a little more palatable. And, if such a flow of the writing, if such arguments, seem to require staying clear of anything to do with morality, then all the more power to… to his personal tastes—what else?

The kind of vision he by implication seems to keep, of an India transformed thusly—i.e., in keeping with his tastes—also explains the nature of the “research” he did, before sitting down to spilling all that electronic ink. It was all only in the name of that good taste of his, of course.

Nope. I got it [at least somewhat] wrong, once again!

In societies whose spirit and form are egalitarian, or where the aesthetic ethos is one of refined understatement, what [Modi] did would be completely out of place…

If you have read both Guha’s article and my commentary on it this far, you would know by now that this article by Guha is not about Modi the person or the kind of taste which he did come to display. BTW, given the genius of Modi’s image consultants, I do wonder how they at all recommended that sort of a suit to him, in the first place. Did they intentionally mean humour, by any chance?

But, coming back to the main point, even though Guha both begins and ends his article with the customary mention of Modi, an obvious fact of the matter is, Modi’s taste actually doesn’t matter much to Guha. Certainly not at all to his more basic and abstract argument. And, as it so happens, for exactly the same reason, Modi’s mention also does not matter much to me either.

Therefore, read that quoted line of Guha’s once again, keeping the entire context of the article thus far, but now dropping just for a moment this weaved-in instance of Modi’s name. If you do that, you will then immediately come to know that, above all, the article has always been rather about the “spirit” and the “form” of societies. And what does our author have to say about these things?

Not much, really speaking! He is already near the end of his article. And so, a hint or so is all the rest of us should now expect from him.

Thankfully, Guha, a some-time professor at LSE, Yale, Stanford and Berkeley, does deliver at least on that last count, viz., that of a hint. He is at least willing to grant us a glimpse into his ideal world—the sort of ethos in which his aesthetic tastes would find themselves perfectly at home.

That world is ruled by egalitarianism!

Phheewwww…. That explains it!

Going by the logic of the entire article and the way it has progressed, obviously, by now, no understatements are necessary on Guha’s part. His position is unquestionably refined, and he tells you about it quite explicitly, clearly, unequivocally, and boldly:

It is about forming the society according to the egalitarian ideals.

The aesthetics and tastes and all that was merely a stepping stone to leap to this grand finale, the overarching purpose.

… Poor me… I just thought that it was just about this and that…. About Mashelkar or Modi, or about science or economics, or at least about articles in the Current Science and the practice of naming traffic islands near IISc Bangalore by the names of professors who are currently employed in Bengaluru… But, in the final analysis, it was to be none of these things! … [And, no, it didn’t even turn out to be anything about the state and the State of BeLgao either!] … And, for that matter, it wasn’t even about this shade of the pink versus that. … Lying underneath and also simultaneously transcending beyond all those issues and all those shades of pinks, it actually was only about egalitarianism.

Egalitarianism, as the ideal spirit and the form of the society!

These humanities folks… They always make you read so many unnecessary words, before coming to unequivocally telling you where they come from. Pheeewwwww…. Hey, did I tell you that Guha has taught in the humanities at LSE, Yale, Stanford and Berkeley? … No, he did not mention that part in his article. But I found out, anyway. That part, as well as this part about egalitarianism.

And as to the ideal of egalitarianism itself, well, check out Ayn Rand [^].

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To the NDTV editors: Yes, there was a click originating from my IP address to Guha’s article at your site (originally published at The Telegraph, Calcutta/Kolkata, West Bengal, India). No, the aforementioned page at your site was not closed within one minute. Thanks, but no, I won’t take a survey about your Web site, its presentation, or its contents. Yes, I should be visiting back your site once in a while.

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See, see, how things get totally out of control whenever they touch on anything philosophical or deeply fundamental? That was the reason why I didn’t want to participate in that FQXi essay contest either, and, indeed wasn’t even sure if I should be writing even just an informal document by way of my answers (I mean even without participating in the contest). …

Well, I have begun writing the document—my brief answers to the FQXi questions, but without forging them together into a coherent essay. Yet, I am also deliberately taking pauses… I don’t want it to grow and eat into all my time. I don’t want it to get out of control, say, the way this post has. When I began writing this post, it was going to be just a simple two or three short paragraphs’ reply, at Abi’s blog! … It always happens. I don’t know why….

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A Song I Don’t Like:

Hindi(?)/Marathi(?) “aataa maajhi saTakli, malaa raag yetoya!”

[E&OE]

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