Thursday, September 4, 2014

My School Teachers: Portraits in Miniature

(Written for The Teachers' Day, September 5, 2014)

By Rajesh Sharma

For days I have been rummaging my mind – its chests and cabinets, bureaus and bins, school bags, backpacks, pouches, knotted handkerchiefs, match-boxes, teeny brass caskets, rubber-headed metal inkpots, slim little corked vials of touch-me-not glass, even flyers folded into flying machines grounded like dead butterflies among spiders’ remains and lizards’ egg shells – to pull out memories long since resting, deposited and forgotten like used postage stamps and untouched coins, to blow the dust off them. I do not really know why I am doing this. It might be for ritual gratification. Perhaps it is to propitiate guilt.

Memories can be sticky, smelly things. Or they can turn into powder under the touch, like expiring bones awaiting final dissolution.

But the dust that settles on memories is gold dust. Its shimmer lends them an illusory immortality.

He tied his beard, never tucked his shirt in, taught us Punjabi, and had red eyes. ‘Do not ever take to the bottle,’ he said one late afternoon, a butter slice of the spring sun melting and sliding down his neem-green turban. We were about to leave school to go to college. ‘It has ruined me. Let it not ruin you, my children.’

That is all I remember of Master Gurmel Singh. And of the red eyes bedewed with love.

Sat Pal Master taught mathematics. A short, dark man with bulging, buttony eyes which we sometimes caught regarding us with a parrot’s wonder. His absolute precision with the kinetic geometry of physical punishment struck terror.

He tutored privately also, for money. Many boys went to his home, racing against time before the winter dawn broke. He lived in Bajwara, a nearby historical town, home – in Emperor Akbar’s day – to the legendary singer Baiju. But he also taught extra hours in school, for free. ‘Those I do not tutor privately will do better, let me tell you,’ he would warn.

Year after year he would be proved right.

Datta Sir must have been a wrestler once upon a time. His muscular arms said it. And he was happiest munching fruits and uncooked vegetables during the break. Having finished off his portion of bananas, he would ask other teachers to pass on their banana peels to him. ‘They contain many nutrients,’ we had heard him say.

Todi would sometimes take out his beating stick from the coat’s inside pocket, after the boys sent out to find a stick had returned empty-handed and smiling. He was a cool punisher: he talked – admonishing and praising with an even hand – while bringing the stick down on your palm.

The palm exploded with chilly bombs.

He shaved daily and always wore a river-blue turban. Whatever your credentials, even a minor, occasional slip would invite his severe justice.

In the streets, you knew him from the tinkle of his bicycle’s bell. Here too he was a perfectionist.

Master Beas Dev was known to wield his right hand like a dhobi’s bat. That bat landed on my back once – I was screaming through a window, the back to the door. Everybody was screaming, the teacher being on chhutti. YAAAAAAAA…what a relief!

That day, and I have never screamed.

He was like a bull dog with a bear’s paw.

Outside school, you met in his eyes a foal’s trusting innocence.

I never saw it, but he must have possessed a soft, velvet soul.

Harbans Singh Drawingiya – the diminutive fine arts teacher. Working on a canvas, he hovered so close that his moustache threatened to brush the wet surface. He had a little squint, the kind that gently fires the vanity of some self-nominated intellectuals who have looked long at ideas. Seasoned with myopia, the squint lent a strange pathos to his skull which turned at unusual angles on its perch.

He taught geometry too. When we went up, sternly commanded, to the black board to draw a figure, our minds went suddenly blank – we knew he was itching all over to thrash us. Before we could even begin, the scale would hit the bum. And a flood of mumbled curses, as often unmerited as earned, would follow and mingle in the general ridicule and laughter of the entire class. The victim would drown in shame.

A portrait of the martyr Udham Singh hung in the school entrance. Masterji used to boast it was his work.

It did not bear his signature. Perhaps the Head Master had not allowed it.

The boy who gave him, to be preserved for ever after like pickle in a funerary urn, that unforgettable, singular name, must have been fascinated by his grace.


We first saw him through this name.

The Reptile.

His face looked scaly, though it was merely oversigned by pimples, like a paper on which a teenager scribbles the dripping fruit of his discovery of the fancied bridge between signature and singularity.

His gait had poise and firmness, and a reptilian fluidity. His wardrobe bespoke of a sartorial discrimination that placed him far above the crowd of tasteless colleagues.

He was said to be a teacher of Physical Education, but he had never been seen teaching. He looked after his sprawling farm. He owned a scooter when most school teachers rode bicycles.

His heart, legend had it, had a tender pimple which bloomed at the sight of Kali Auntie, a dark spinster who entered our field of vision only during rehearsals, in the town's parade ground, for the Republic Day show. She taught in a local girls-only school. Old boys told of how older boys had serendipitously hit upon the name - Kali Auntie was the word for a black glass marble with a milky flame.

In one of the exercises, we placed our hands behind our heads and slowly bent forward, to the beat of drums, bringing our noses down to nearly touch the ground. As the noses went down, the mouths opened just enough to let out a collective Ka-a-a-a-li Aun-tie-e-e.

It rose like the murmur from a bee-hive that has been upset, on a hot and drowsy afternoon, by a naughty gang of stone-throwing school boys returning home from school.

(To be continued)

Friday, June 27, 2014

South Asian Ensemble Winter-Spring 2014


Editor’s Note

A lot of good South Asian writing is taking place outside the dominant circuits of recognition. It was our assumption when we started SAE. Five years down the road, it is a conclusion.
Leafing through pages from the past, we see many installed stereotypes crumbling. Yet much survives that seems to identify us.
            What is still awaited is a radical mobilization of the elements of the ensemble that is us and our experience, a mobilization that dislocates, disassembles and creates afresh beyond merely reproducing. This would require infusion of energies from outside the ensemble’s boundaries.
But haven’t cultures always outsourced? Isn’t imagination the great outsourcing machine? Isn’t literature always in another place, always already elsewhere?
            South Asia is a horizon that must be transcended. Only when it begins to be transcended – with freedom, without guilt, with responsibility – shall great writing again begin to find home here. De-domestication is a pre-requisite. Homelessness, a necessity.
Perhaps we should seek our singularity in losing ourselves in one’s own ways.

Rajesh Sharma

Website here:

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Where is governance in Punjab, Mr. Chief Minister?

By Rajesh Sharma

When I discovered the online public grievance portal of the Punjab government - - about a year ago, I thought we had definitively advanced from ‘d’ to ‘e’, from democracy to e-democracy. It was quite a leap, I believed, recalling my early struggle with the alphabet.

                I had been nursing a grievance for years. I licked it for one last time – like an old wound you have begun to cherish because it has become a part of your existence – with the hope that it would finally heal and close. I spent several hours drafting afresh the grievance in suitable fashion for the digital club and sent it off with a click. ‘At last, justice is now just a click away,’ the good citizen in me whistled.

                Now began my nervous wait for a response. I would visit the portal two or three times a day to check the status of my grievance. The tense waiting melted the lid off memories of teenage when hope was so overpowering that I would check the letter-box several times a day. My teenage had not been very dismaying; so I assumed I could reasonably be optimistic in middle age too. Finally, after a few days, a response flashed on the status window. The grievance had been forwarded, and with a remark: ‘In view of the facts stated in the complaint it is requested to get the matter inquired and take appropriate necessary action immediately.’ I read and re-read the long remark. I counted the words: twenty three. Happiness danced in the tears welling up in my eyes. Some sensitive soul out there in cyber-sarkar had cared to answer my cry so generously, firmly and commendably.

                Another period of waiting began. ‘Not all souls are equally sensitive,’ I consoled myself. ‘Give them some time.’ And I often dreamed of my e-grievance migrating from PC to PC of a hierarchy of angelic public servants, each one bending solicitously over it with a physician’s attentiveness, reading it sympathetically and augmenting it with a kind and strong forwarding remark. My grievance was growing like a happy pregnancy.

Nine months passed. The pregnancy stopped growing. There were no more forwarding remarks. The only thing that showed signs of life and still kept growing was the extraneous flesh of my reminders. These were growing harsher and bitterer by the day. As the pregnancy did not mature, nothing was delivered.

So I redrafted the grievance, added a reference to the previous one, and dispatched it – this time in hard copy through speed post as well – to the next and highest public servant in the state, the Chief Minister himself.

Within minutes of clicking, the status window flashed. Happiness was beckoning again. I read the words; I counted them. Twenty three. I read them again: not even the arrangement had changed.

The pregnancy may not have delivered anything, but I have matured. I have been cured of my enchantment with ‘e’. I now understand that there are no sensitive souls in cyber-sarkar. That both sensitivity and souls out there are synthetic and programmed. That transparency is virtual, not real. And that the ‘e’ in e-governance stands not for effective governance but for deceptive effects of governance – for simulation, not for substance.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

To my students of the batch of 2012-14

Four semesters have ended. 


Yet this ‘again’ is more than itself; it has an element of the unrepeatable. I have learnt so much and unlearnt so much. All this thanks to you. 

Education happens on trust. I trusted you; I could just not doubt your abilities to accompany me on the adventure of learning and thinking, of wondering and suspecting, of discerning and judging. And you never let me down. What many high-minded people thought would be beyond your grasp, you held lightly with your simple courage and lucid curiosity. What appeared opaque to the ‘unbelievers’ became translucent in your sure hands.

And you trusted me. I did not, and did not have to, conceal my ignorance from you. I faced you without any mask of the Great and Remote Professor. Still you thought it worthwhile to listen to me and talk to me every day. 

I told you to try and understand, instead of seeking to impress through cleverness disguised as intelligence. 

I asked you to approach the text honestly and directly.I asked you to ask it the right questions – the questions that tell that you are honestly listening to the text. 

I asked you to confront your limitations so that you may overcome them. 

I asked you to see knowledge as a lived reality. Knowledge is not just of the world, but also in the world. And of oneself in the world. And of the worlds in oneself. 

I wanted you to believe that you are more than, greater than, profounder and richer than you think yourself to be. And I saw you becoming more than, greater than, profounder and richer than, and sometimes even other than you were. You changed. You did not just grow up. You created yourselves afresh with your will and effort: you became twice-born, born into critical self-awareness.

I, too, saw myself changing. I underwent self-renewal, and became somewhat another. Thanks to you. 

Learning is a flame that gives light and warmth. It also burns and destroys – for good. A flame that never dies out. 

I hope you will keep that flame alive. In you and around you.

To the bearer of this flame, life is a joy. Even in the darkest nights of struggle.

Be happy, and live well!
Rajesh Sharma
Friday, May 3, 2014

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Slash that divides and bridges: Rajesh Sharma on his ‘in/disciplines’

1. How How did you get to write these essays? What motivated you?
I believe I am also responsible for the world in which we find ourselves. I have tried to respond to this world from time to time. As a person who teaches – and who can read and write – I think I have an obligation to make some sense of it and to share the resulting attempts with others, and so contribute to the dialogues that are the motors of civilization.

2. Rajesh, why in/disciplines for a title?
Though the title is explained in the Introduction towards the end, let me add (and repeat) that education, culture and politics are ‘in/disciplines’. That they nevertheless require a disciplined effort to study them. That they demand that the disciplinary boundaries between them be challenged in order to reveal how none of them is self-constituted and self-limited/limiting. The slash is an enabling line that divides and bridges at the same time.

3. There is so much of Punjab in it. What is your take on the search for a Punjabi identity? What do you think of its (Punjab’s) multiple divisions and existing fissures? By the way I notice there is a painting on the cover by the great Punjabi abstractionist Rajinder Singh Dhawan.
Punjab today badly needs critical reflexivity. The discourse of Punjabiyat has progressively regressed over the decades. It has been turning on ethnocentrism, sectarianism, jatt-centred casteism, linguistic fanaticism, religious fundamentalism. Also, the actual Punjab is transforming ‘terribly’, but songs continue to be sung of a stereotyped, mythical Punjab of unmatched glory. These might be signs of a nascent fascism.
Punjabi identity, even after the partition, remains Punj-abi, where the fifth ab/river/current is the principle of dynamism as against stasis. Punjabi identity, to me, is essentially anti-essentialist. Freedom, love, quest – these define the adventure called Punjabiyat. And this Punjabiyat needs voices more than ever today.

4. At what angle the Punjabi intellectual stand in relation to the power structure?
The Punjabi intellectual, in Punjab particularly, has been largely (not wholly) coopted by the dominant power structures. Dissent has been reduced to a bargaining tool for profit and self-promotion.

5. As an intellectual on the campus, how do you you see yourself and the role you play?
I am a student and teacher, not an intellectual. I believe we have the task of building critical capabilities, of creating and guarding over spaces for criticism and critique, of linking our expertise with the lay person’s discourse. We must believe in a better world and write and speak for making it possible. The young are amazingly receptive to the challenge of thinking; we must not fail them ‘any more’.

6. What next (after this book)?
I am working on Blood Flowers, a translation of Harbhajan Singh Hundal’s selected poetry. The translation of Sohan Qadri-Amarjit Chandan conversatiions – The Now Moment – is in press. Another book of essays – on literature and theory – should be ready before the end of this year.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The candidate who flunked the interview

By Rajesh Sharma

Indian TV’s greatest event of 2014 – Rahul Gandhi interviewed by Arnab Goswami, telecast on 27 January – as the Times Now Channel repeatedly flashed the ad (as if the year was going to end that evening) had just begun when I switched the channels after dinner. 

Hoping there would be something refreshing, if not important, to see and hear, I settled down like a tame idiot before the box. In fact, I even raised the TV’s volume so as not to miss a word of what would be said.


The unsteady and shifting eyes of Rahul were already hinting how the interview would go. I still told myself he would speak with better confidence once he was a few minutes into the show. But that never happened.

The boy had not been properly trained. I want to whip his trainers.  He had memorized a few stock phrases and thought he would be able to field all questions. He did not seem to have visualized that he could be faced with someone other than a Congressman, much less a journalist who flaunts aggression. Yet, to be fair to Arnab, he was this time sufficiently polite in speech, sporting his characteristic aggression only through facial musculature. 

What did I expect of Rahul?

I expected Rahul to be candid and courageous. 

I expected something of the flaming dream that had marked Nehru. Or a shadow of it that lingered in Rajiv. 

I was not worried Rahul would fumble and say a few politically incorrect, even embarrassing, things. 

I believed he was young.

But he spoke like he was already too old to offer hope.

And he spoke of harnessing the young Indians’ energy to change ‘the system’.  Could inauthenticity be more authentically incarnated? And what does one mean by ‘the system’? Isn’t ‘system’ now the easy refuge of the out-of-date, shallow-minded pseudo-thinkers?

Rahul spoke like a candidate from one of India’s many private management-diploma shops, who have never known a good book, who have no hands-on experience, who rely on second-hand notes. On thoughtless plagiarism.

If women can be empowered with three additional LPG cylinders, I will sponsor 30.

If Modi’s government machinery actively contributed to the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, ‘my’ party’s government at the centre should have dismissed ‘his’ government, whatever the consequences. 

If Congressmen were involved in the massacre of the Sikhs on the capital’s streets, as Rahul almost admitted they ‘could be’, he should have not only apologized (he had a great opportunity) but vowed to bring the killers to justice within a specific time frame by promising to fast-track the cases. 

Rahul had a chance to heal the wounds that have festered for thirty years. He refused to heal. 

But then only a man – who humbly accepts his mortal condition, against all the splendor of royalty – can be a healer. Not one who is less than a man.  

I expected Rahul to be a man. I expected him to be a gentleman.

He disappointed me. 

Not that he cannot become a PM. He may, given the way some ‘democracies’ work. So what if he becomes a PM? It will be just another plastic feather in mediocrity’s cap. 

Thanks to Manmohan Singh, we know beyond doubt that no office, howsoever high, can make you a leader. You either are a leader, or are not. 

And these days, who knows we may have leaders who are not even men. Much less gentlemen.