Saturday, April 05, 2003

On Returning To Desh


Book Review: A Long Day’s Night, by Pradip Ghosh, Srishti Publishers and Distributors (2002) Rs. 295/- Reissued by Rupa (2009). Available on Amazon.


As a grad student, whenever I was with a few of my friends, three pegs down, discussing this and that—work, courses, the Buddha (I mean, of course, the advisor), teaching, research, the job scene, or whatever—we often brought up the topic of returning to desh.

We talked about the systems in oosa, and the lack of them in desh; of the good times we had in the hostel, the fundu guys we grew up with (now all in the US) and the Ajit jokes they had invented. Those who had “worked” in India were determined not to return, the others were not so sure. The nature of ABCDs was discussed, and horrors of having ABCDs as children listed. (The children were yet to come: most of us were not even married.)

I read a book recently that reminded me of these discussions.

The book is “A Long Day’s Night”, written by Professor Pradip Ghosh—formerly of IIT-Kanpur, and currently in the University of Hawaii. It is about being a research scientist in India. One day in the life of Professor Virendra Chauhan, our hero, should convince most people that the probability of returning to India AND hoping to have a research career—without considerable misery—is vanishingly small.



***


The setting of the story is the campus of an engineering school. IITK junta might find it somewhat familiar. The story is about an experimental research scientist who has bought a major piece of equipment for the lab, and found that it never met the specs. An engineer from the company is visiting to solve all problems, and the story is all about the day of this visit.

It was a long day. The visiting engineer first tried to convince Professor Chauhan that the company had made no mistakes, and the equipment meets the specs. But he dodged these arguments and constrained the engineer to admit the lapses of the company. Work began on the equipment.

And then they began facing other difficulties, all of which had to be overcome in a few hours, since the engineer had to take a flight back in the evening. Professor Chauhan doggedly refused to allow the visitor any excuse to leave the task undone. He even undertook a trip to the city in the hot afternoon, to get work done by a capable machinist.

You will have to read the book to find out whether the piece of equipment worked or not, and for the reasons why the faulty equipment was bought in the first place.

And about the night that followed the long day.



***

Pradip Ghosh’s book is just delectable. Once I began the book, I couldn’t stop, and as soon as I finished it, I just HAD to re-read the end.

I found myself really respecting the character of Professor Chauhan. So much so, that I feel calling him Virendra in this review might offend him, though I know he is a big enough guy to know that addressing him by his first name has nothing to do with the respect I have for him. This shows the skill of the author, in creating such an impression about his characters.



***

Reading about Professor Chauhan’s hot, tiring day, I came out with a lot of respect for those who are able to do good work under our desi system. I bailed out after only one year in an Indian research institution—and that too when my work was theoretical, only requiring pencil, paper, TeX and Mathematica. And here was this scientist who goes on and on. Even after buying the equipment his research requires, he is unable to make it work for years. Still, he goes on.

I have no doubt that most scientists working in Indian institutions face these difficulties. It is remarkable that so many still have the energy to continue doing good work.



***

The book also has advice for budding scientists—about choosing an area of study, an advisor, a research problem, etc., etc. Gyan dispensed by the wise Professor Chauhan, while having chai with his US bound students.

There are many other issues there that I have not described, but you may find interesting. Consider the story of Harjinder Singh, a colleague of Professor Chauhan:

Harjinder Singh, on the other hand, was a totally different kind of character. An electrical engineer specializing in circuits, thoroughly domesticated with a family of wife, two daughters, and a son, involved and astute in family matters, socially conscious, professionally active, almost perpetually unhappy about the milieu in which he lived. He struggled in a set-up in which he found that it was the system that determined and limited his professional accomplishment and not his innate and acquired abilities. He rejected, he rebelled, but totally because of social and economic constraints, could not kick and leave the system. Beyond this anguish, which was not limited to Harjinder but to many colleagues of Virendra, Harjinder was a person of much sensitivity.


***
Harjinder once told Virendra that he wanted to study history formally, but there were social forces that worked against it. Relatives, even his father, first asserted and then ruled that he should study engineering, because of better job prospects. He did well in the entrance examination to a regional engineering college, and that sealed his fate forever.
How many Harjinders do you know? I can identify many from my own friends.


***

After reading the book, you may wonder if anyone will want to return to desh. But still people do. Why do they return? Why did I return?

People keep asking me why I returned to India. Other people whom I meet, who have studied or worked in the US and have returned, are also asked this question all the time.

I really don’t know how to answer this question. Sometimes I answer: I wonder, man, I wish I had more sense. Sometimes I throw it right back and say: Why do you wish to stay in another country? Many times I just stay quiet, and leave the question unanswered.

There is only one thing that I am sure of. In our long discussions with other desi friends, we always missed the point.


***

Here is an extract from Eric Segal’s The Class explaining the urge to return home. In the words of Professor Finley, discussing Odysseus’ decision to return home from the enchanted isle of the nymph Calypso:
"Imagine our hero is offered an unending idyll with a nymph who will remain
forever young. Yet he forsakes it all to return to a poor island and a woman who, Calypso explicitly reminds him, is fast approaching middle age, which no cosmetic can embellish. A rare, tempting proposition, one cannot deny. But what is Odysseus’ reaction?”

“Goddess, I know that everything you say is true and that clever Penelope is no match for your face and figure. But she is after all a mortal and you divine and ageless. Yet despite all this I yearn for home and for the day of my returning.”


“Here,” he said, at a whisper that was nonetheless audible in the farthest corner, “is the quintessential message of the Odyssey…”


A thousand pencils poised in readiness to transcribe the crucial words to come.


“In, as it were, leaving an enchanted—and one must presume pleasantly tropical—isle to return to the cold winter winds of, shall we say, Brookline, Massachusetts, Odysseus forsakes immortality for—identity.”


***
All in all, I don’t think Professor Chauhan is unhappy in India, despite facing long days as a research scientist. This is where he belongs. He enjoys the natural beauty around him, and enjoys the company of his students and colleagues. This is evident from the author’s description of the world around him. The author is silent about the happiness that Professor Chauhan’s family brings him. But they are there. As the author says: “His is a mixed lot, like everybody else’s.”

***

I think that is enough about Professor Chauhan. Lets let him be for now.

But maybe the next occasion where you are with friends, three pegs down, discussing this and that—the invasion of Iraq, black and white, colonialism, the linear or cyclic nature of time—you will bring up A Long Day’s Night for discussion.



Pradip Ghosh, A long day's night, book review

Book Review: A Long Day’s Night, by Pradip Ghosh, Srishti Publishers and Distributors (2002) Rs. 295/- Reissued by Rupa (2009). Available on Amazon.

1 comment:

RBK's Realm said...

Excellent post and writing Gaurav!
Enjoyed it very much and plan to visit again. I agree with a lot of your views.

I am glad I discovered your blog through your comment on FB.