The quest for the perfect bride

Bride-hunting is fun, especially when you are not the bride. Bridegroom hunting is even more fun, am sure. Only, I don’t know it yet. But this is not about me. It’s about one person’s quest for the perfect bride. Let’s call him X. Now in his thirties, he decided it was time to try and contribute to our country’s ever-burgeoning population. To his credit, it really was because of his mother’s insistence on daughter-in-law and kudumba vaarisu.

And so began the Great Indian Bride Hunt. At the end of which, there would be a Big Fat Indian Wedding, complete with mappillai azhaippu, kasi yatrai, uruttani and the like. Now, the Big Fat Indian Wedding is no problem. However, for that to happen was the minor requirement of a bride. My conversation with X went something like this.

X: I have registered in TM. Hopefully I’ll get some enquiries soon.

Me: (Alien to the world of bride and groom-hunting) Eh…at the risk of sounding illiterate, what is TM?

X: Enna ponnu nee? TM-na, Tamil Matrimony. The website.

Me: Ah! types?

X: Che! Nee ellam oru tamizh ponnu? No shaadi-vaadi for us. Wonly Tamil matrimony.

Me: Seri seri… And you put up your profile on that?

(Author’s note: Note my incredulous tone, unable and unwilling to believe that my beloved friend could stoop to such depths)

X: (Looking rather pleased with himself) Yessssss!

Me: Uh. Ok. Onnu mattum sollu. What kind of bride do you want?

X: Idhu kelvi…listen. Requirement No. 1 – She must be TamBram.

Me: (Interrupting, mundhiri-kottai style) Why why? Why Brahmin? And why TamBram?

X: Wait! Let me complete. I like women who are traditional. She must be a madisanji from a small town in Tamil Nadu. She can speak Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada or Urdu for all I care. But, she must be from a Tamil Nadu small town.

Me: Enna logic idhu?

X: Keludi-nna? Oru pakkam Cauvery-karai, innoru pakkam Sivan Koil. And yes, she must wear a saree. She must braid her waist-length hair, with lots of coconut oil. Thalai niraiya malli poo and a bindi the size of a fifty-paise coin.

Me: (Now unable to resist interrupting) Unakku kalyanathukku ponnu venuma, illai samayalukku maami venuma?

X: Pinney? Everyone is not like you. Nee thaan, jeans, short tops, three-fourths-nu…sagikkalai! You are in your late twenties. Dress your age.

Me: Dei! I am a china-ponnu. The clothes suit me. Am so pretty and fabulous. (Batting my eyelashes for added effect)

X: Aiyo! Mummy! Bayama irukku… (By now, both of us are in splits, and the conversation lost.)

Me: (Pausing to catch my breath.) Ok, ok. Now, stop teasing me. Back to the point. You want a traditional TamBram girl, who will serve you sojji-bajji in a gorgeous Kancheevaram saree during the Ponnu Pakkara Ceremony, and will play paandi in the agrahaaram. Right?

X: Right! Anaalum nee romba cinema pakkarey.

Me: Athu seri! But, I am sorry to say this. My perception of you as a non-conformist, TamBram communist takes a beating. 🙁

X: What the hell? Don’t tell me you don’t know why? There is a technical problem here. Genes contaminated by non-Brahmin lineages automatically make me ineligible for performing certain religious rituals.

Me: Idhu enna pudhu kathai? Contamination, my ass!

X: Eppovavadhu naan oru third-rated middle class Brahmin fascist society-yila pirandha paiyan-nu kaatta vendama? That’s why…

Me: What the f***? Whatever! Now tell me, are you going to expect your bride to serve you Kumbakonam Filter Coffee dressed in a gorgeous Kancheevaram and a shy smile, daring not to look at your face?

X: Who told you? It doesn’t always work that way. By the way, make it athula karantha mattu palai thala thala-nu katchi…… pudusa varutha kapikotai-la dicoction filter-la eraki….. Mootu davara – tumbler-la konduvanthu kodukanum.

Me: (By now unable to control laughter, and stomach hurting) Yeah? Then?

X: Nowadays, girl and boy meet at random coffee shop. They are given exactly 5 minutes to get to know each other, while distantly-related aunties, grandmothers and the like, all dressed in shimmering Kancheevarams sip cappuccino while waiting for the pair to finish. At the end of it, they barge into the scene and ask, “Ellam pesi mudichuttela?”

Me: (Laughing uncontrollably, tears in my eyes) What the hell? But then, can I join the fun? Please please?

X: En kashtam unakku sirippa irukka?

Me: Pinney? You? Ponnu pakkara ceremony? Five minutes in a coffee shop? Impossible. Unakku thaan pesa arambicha, mudikka theriyathey.

X: That’s why you have the coterie of maamis in shimmering silks. That’s the only purpose to their lives. Ensuring the couple gets no privacy whatsoever.

Me: Hmm…good point.

This conversation happened a good two months ago. There is no definite change in his relationship status yet. Apparently, saree-clad beautiful girls playing paandi in the agrahaarams of Tanjavur and Mayavaram are an endangered species. He will probably land up with a handbag-toting, jeans-clad sleeveless Saraswati. Or a spaghetti Sundari maybe!

The great science-humanities debate

I was pointed to two articles that contribute to the great science vs. humanities debate, by Abi. The author, Shreesh Chaudhary is a professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in IIT-Madras. He raises some very pertinent, and thought-provoking questions, even as he identifies three basic reasons for the lack of prominence of Humanities and social sciences insitutions in India, compared to the Science and Technology institutions. The most pertinent question is why insitutions of higher education in the humanities and social sciences do not enjoy as much visibility or funding as the IITs or the IISc.

The problems, as Chaudhary points out, may be structural, financial or managerial, but they are not the only ones. There are sociological problems associated with the funding of Humanities and Social Sciences institutions. Science and technology have long occupied pride of place in the collective psyche of the nation. Nehru’s “temples of Modern India” were factories manufacturing iron, steel, coal and every other conceivable product. Never once did he think of producing a world-class institution of humanities, social sciences or philosophy. The earliest IIT, in Kharagpur, was created barely 4 years after independence, aiming to provide technology education to a country where capital alone was not enough for progress. (Source) But, somehow, educational insitutions catering to the humanities and social sciences were always put on the back burner.

The IITs and other such institutions of higher education in science and technology are perceived by the general public as a talent pool. Companies, IT and core industry alike, vie for a slice of the pie. Campus recruitments are at an all-time high in these institutions, and pay packages, especially for IIT/IIM graduates run into crores. Public spending on such intitutions are considered, both by politicians and the tax-payer, as an investment, rather than as expediture. Any improvements to infrastructure, sanctioning of additional funds for these insitutions or radical structural changes are met with immediate approval and are easier to justify from a political perspective.

Now, compare this with institutions like the Jawaharlal Nehru University or the Jamia Millia Islamia. JNU, although prestigious and widely-respected, still suffers from lack of attention and funding in critical sectors. The state of less-prestigious (in comparison with JNU) universities like the EFLU (formerly CIEFL) and Jamia Millia is even more pathetic. Even good universities like the Madras University, Bombay University and even Delhi University are woefully inadequate in imparting quality education. In Madras University for instance, faculty positions remain unfilled for years on end, either due to lack of effort on the part of the administration in finding suitable candidates, or because of the near-total absence of personal growth for the lecturer concerned. These problems need to be addressed if we want our social sciences universities to be as widely recognized as our IITs and IIMs.

But, why must we fund, out of taxpayers’ money, a university teaching the liberal arts or philosophy? The reasons are manifold.

Engineering education alone does not make a nation. While technology might contribute to industrial progress and wealth generation, liberal arts like political science and economics are paramount to ensure just distribution and management of the wealth created. Let the industry generate wealth. But, leave it to the government to distribute it. And we need educated people in government. Or rather, people educated in the humanities and liberal arts.

Deserving and intelligent students who want to pursue the liberal arts, without spending a fortune to go abroad must have somewhere to go. There are no universities comparable to the IITs in status or quality. Although humanities education will not help people make millions, and although a graduate in the arts or social sciences will not get that 7-figure salary an MBA commands today, it can by no means considered lesser in worth. Because, education cannot and must not be judged by the monetary benefit we derive from it.

The liberal arts and humanities cultivate a wider world view. This wider world view is necessary for anyone who wishes to be really successful. Because the best entrepreneurs and the most successful professionals are those who look beyond their chosen fields and take unconventional decisions.

This bias against humanities and the social sciences needs to go. Philosophy, politics, economics, and history may not fetch money, but they still deserve attention and funding. This is simply because no field of knowledge, however obscure, is useless. Let’s not lose track of humanities completely, in our zeal to create new IITs and NITs. Let’s at least make the effort to upgrade our JNUs and EFLUs to meet international standards.

Higher education and Budget 2009

In the Finance Bill 2009, nearly 9 billion INR (approx. $189 million) has been allocated to spending on higher education. This is a 36% hike on spending for higher education over the previous financial year. Let’s first look at the actual provisions of the budget. All information below has been taken from the official budget site (PDF link) of the Government of India.

  1. Student loans for the economically weaker sections of society: Full interest subsidy for the moratorium period for loans taken from scheduled banks to study any approved course in any recognized institution in India. This basically translates as an exemption from payment of interest for any loan taken, until one year (usually) after the end of studies. In other words, if I take a loan for pursuing an MBA degree, I don’t pay it back until I get a job, or for one year after the end of my studies (whichever is earlier.)
  2. INR 900 crores (INR 9 billion) for education and INR 495 crores (4.9 billion) to set up and upgrade polytechnics.
  3. About 9 billion to set-up Central Universities in states that don’t have any.
  4. About 20 billion for IITs and NITs of which 4.5 billion is for setting up of new IITs and NITs.

That’s the only information we have about proposed budgetary spending for education in India. This table (PDF link) details the total expenditure by department/ministry. Here is the summary of the department relevant to this post.

As you can see, total expenditure on school education and literacy is around 20,000 crores (200 billion), in 2007-08. It increased to about 260 billion in 2008-09. Total planned expenditure for 2009-10 is around 290 billion. In comparison, spending on higher education has gone up from 62 billion in 2007-08 to around 159 billion in 2009-10. In other words, there has been a 130% increase in total spending on higher education over the last 3 years, compared to a mere 40% for school education and literacy.

Now, there seems to be a basic problem in this spending pattern. Although, in absolute terms, spending on primary education exceeds spending on higher education, it still works out to very less. Consider this, in 2001, roughly 35 percent of India’s billion-strong population was less than 15 years of age. (Source) This is the section of the population that is concerned with primary education. The total number of persons concerned is thus about 350 million. A total expenditure of about 30 billion for 350 million persons is about 85 rupees per person. This amount is negligible by almost all standards. Considering the abnormally high drop-out rates in India, the challenge of achieving total literacy is even higher.

Now, it’s not as if spending on higher education must be cut. However, it is important to remember that primary education is the stepping stone to progress. Unless children go to school and get educated, spending on higher education will be meaningless. Also, subsidizing higher education makes no sense to me. Giving fee concessions for students in universities does not solve the problem. This is especially true with the IITs and NITs. Making credit freely available and encouraging banks to check only the capacity of the student to get a job and pay the money back will go a long way in getting students from underprivileged families into college. It is not important to give free education. It is more important to impart quality education, especially in the tertiary education sector.

Facilitating access to centres of excellence in higher education, especially for economically backward sections of society can be done simply by removing the financial hurdles that exist today. The IITs are a case in point. It is extremely difficult to gain access to any of the IITs. The creation of new IITs and NITs will only solve this problem to a certain extent. It is more important to ensure that the existing IITs and NITs do not lose their relevance and quality in the endeavour to create new ones. In other words, an increase in the number of such institutions must not compromise quality. To ensure this, spending on upgradation and maintenance of infrastructure is essential. What is neither required nor advisable is subsidising the tuition fee, or lowering the entry barrier by relaxing the norms for reserved categories.

Much can be done for higher education within the existing framework. Primary education, on the other hand, requires a complete overhaul. The National Literacy Missions don’t seem to be working too well. The school dropout rates are still alarmingly high, and show no signs of dropping. Female literacy is abysmal, especially in rural areas and in the BIMARU states. Correcting these anomalies require, not just money, but also political will. Sadly, for our government, it seems to be taking a back seat. Catering to the IT and ITeS sectors seem to take priority, with the government going out of its way to provide engineering education and training at the cost of basic literacy programmes.

The need of the hour is to address basic concerns regarding primary education. Ensuring that primary schools exist and function in rural areas (at least one in every village) is essential. Even the one-room schools that do exist suffer from lack of amenities and even teachers. Providing of drinking water, sanitation and a comfortable learning environment will also greatly help. Of these, sanitation is especially important if we want to keep girls in schools at least until they are 14. Many girls drop out of schools due to the complete absence of toilets in the schools. The noon-meal scheme that worked so well in some Indian states needs to be properly implemented, ensuring that the children get a nutritious and well-cooked meal, at least once a day. These measures are already in place. It just requires budgetary allocation, and more importantly, political will to function properly. Whether it will actually happen is the million-dollar question.