Archive for the ‘humour’ Category

The Castor-Chomu dynamics in Indian society

I was introduced to the Castor-Chomu classification of individuals when I visited BITS-Pilani in 1975 to participate in its cultural festival, OASIS ’75. Apparently, the city-bred, convent educated students, whose lingua franca was English and who favoured Western pop and rock music constituted the Castors. In contradistinction were the Chomus, the students drawn from mofussil towns, who were patrons of Vividh Bharati and Hindi film music and communicated with each other to a large extent in the vernacular tongue, especially Hindi. This distinction struck a chord in me, a person who fitted into neither mould. To avoid being accused of a class bias, Castor, for the purposes of this blog, refers to the largely metro-based individual who received education in ‘elite’ institutions in India and abroad, coming from families that qualify as upper/upper middle class, securely employed or possessed of inherited wealth. Chomu covers those from medium to low income families, educated mostly in vernacular medium schools, whose parents sweat and toil to give them access to quality education that will open up remunerative job avenues for their wards. The distinction I employ here resonates with my classification of two elites in an earlier blog, the Lutyens ‘47 gang and the Lutyens ‘92 group (see The Lutyens’ Class Wars).

Although educated in a ‘mission’ school, I was nowhere near constituting part of the Castor elite. I still remember my first appearance for my school team in the Bournvita Quiz Contest when, in reply to a question on my hobbies from that doyen of quizmasters, Hamid Sayani, I mentioned Hindi film music, only to see the opposing girls’ school team dissolve in a fit of giggles at my plebeian choice. This dichotomy continued when I joined St. Stephen’s College (or Mission College) to pursue my undergraduate studies. A significant number of Stephanians were from public schools (a more correct term would be ‘private’ schools) like Doon School and Mayo College. Aping our colonial forebears, those of us in hostels were deemed to be “in residence”. The English-vernacular dichotomy was again quite pronounced: it was more fashionable to attend English debates and Western music shows rather than listen to Hindi film music and Hindi debates. The election for the President of the College Union Society (Stephanian isolation from the rest of the University did not allow for sullying one’s hands in sordid University politics) saw a metro-based candidate pitted against a rival from what we would today call a Tier-2 town. The former could be said to have to have broadly had the support of the Castors and the latter of the Chomus, though in the best of democratic traditions, there was a fair amount of floor crossing and cross voting. As it transpired, the metro man won.

History reversed itself in 1980, which I consider a watershed year in the Castor-Chomu epic struggle. I qualified for the civil services in the first year when a new system of examinations were introduced, which gave candidates from hinterland areas a far better chance of being successful. The Castor-Chomu conflict manifested itself in the Mussoorie training academy during the election to the Presidentship of the Mess Committee. The Castor nominee, supported largely by Delhi-bred and educated probationers lost to his Chomu rival from a second tier town, supported by the officers from small town and rural backgrounds. More significantly, the civil services, in the years to follow, saw the entrance of officers from smaller towns from all over India and a large influx of professionals from the engineering, management and medical fields. The hegemony of the Delhi University history postgraduate in the civil services literally became history.

Even though the social composition of the younger echelons of the civil services underwent a radical change, the veterans were still the old urban-based class, most comfortable with English and tied to each other by the common bonds of an elite university education and membership of a closed Delhi group which had access to the rarefied portals of the Delhi Gymkhana, the India International Centre and the Delhi Golf Club. Coveted positions in the bureaucracy, especially choice foreign assignments, still went to those younger officers who were the protégés of these venerable worthies. Journalism and academia were two other areas where the Castor influence was still evident, with those educated in Delhi’s premier universities dominating the landscape. The bureaucrat, journalist, academic and the increasingly ubiquitous representative of international organisations formed a cosy set which frequented the same watering holes, attended the same seminars and went on junkets abroad, financed by the aforesaid international organisations.

1992 marked the second watershed in the upward ascent of the Chomu. The demolition of the Babri Masjid gave cheer to a large number of Indians who had never been accepted in the rarefied environments of Lutyens Delhi or South Bombay (as it was then). The eclipse of the Congress in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections paved the way for governments that comprised persons removed to at least some extent from the Castor influence. Gradually, those who would, in the normal course of events, have comfortably continued in the Castor group shifted their allegiance to the Chomus. The years 1998 to 2004 saw this internal churn in the Castor group, with a goodly number of educated intellectuals, especially those who felt they had been bypassed in the issue of just rewards in terms of high office and posts in government, moving firmly to the ranks of the party that was seen as espousing and supporting Chomu aspirations to a more exalted position in society and in the political framework.

But it was undoubtedly 2014 that ushered in the decisive shift in the balance of power to the Chomus. The previous decade of UPA rule had witnessed a gradual disillusionment about the Congress party in influential sections of the Castors, who pined for a decisive leader and a party that was not tainted by widespread allegations of corruption. (That they forgot to imbibe the lessons of George Orwell’s Animal Farm is another matter altogether). The last seven years have seen many who would earlier have been visualised only as Castors casting their lot with a party that relies to a considerable extent on Chomu support and makes no bones about its dislike for the descendants of the Castor class, pejoratively referring to them as the Khan Market gang (for those not familiar with Delhi, Khan Market is supposed to be the watering hole of the swish, westernised set of Delhi).

Little wonder then that there have been systematic efforts in recent years to create a new weltanschauung in the Indian psyche. Universities, under enthusiastic Vice-Chancellors, have sought to reframe the academic curriculum, long seen by right-wing academics as overly influenced by liberal and Marxist thought. The Indian middle class from the majority community has been inundated with a surfeit of rhetoric and propaganda designed to stir its nationalist instincts and invoke pride in its cultural heritage spread over millennia. The Central Vista project to redesign and rebuild the entire architecture of Lutyens-designed New Delhi represents the apogee of the aspirations of those who seek to give a specific shape to the Chomu identity. India’s masses will no longer have to genuflect to the symbols created by an imperial power and by those who, though Indian in name, represented the same world view.

As the Castor-Chomu dynamics of politics and social power play out on the Indian landscape, there is only one crucial issue that remains to be kept in mind, namely the Holy Grail that represents the Constitution of India. If Abrahamic religions can be said to rely on a holy book, the Indian nation has come into being on the foundations of this document. Having drawn on the best principles of different Constitutions from around the world and on healthy democratic practices, the Constitution of India came into existence as the result of the informed deliberations of an august body of individuals in the years immediately preceding and following India’s independence. This is a Constitution that is meant to be followed not just in letter, but in spirit. As Dr. Ambedkar stressed in his speech to the Constituent Assembly on 25 November 1949 “The first thingwe must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives.” He also emphasised the close interrelation of the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity enunciated in the Preamble to the Constitution of India. It is the manner in which citizens of India abide by these cardinal precepts of democratic behaviour, in thought, word and deed, which will determine the future of India as a haven for democracy, in a world buffeted by the storms of autocratic practices.

 

Brevity is the soul…

As an undergraduate economics student in Delhi University, I was required to submit tutorials every Monday to my tutors on subjects ranging from Soviet economic development to the problems of economic development in the Indian economy. As always, I postponed getting down to writing one of these tutorials till late Sunday evening. Fortified by strong South Indian coffee, I completed my 21 page magnum opus at 2 AM on Monday morning. My tutor, a former debater in the university, gave me an excellent grade for my effort, along with a rather wry comment “Brevity is the soul not only of wit, but also of exams.”

I took this message to heart for my subsequent postgraduate venture. But where it really paid dividends was in the examinations for the Indian National Lottery, also known as the Civil Services. I had resolved to stick to four or five handwritten pages per question: I felt the poor evaluator would be fed up reading regurgitated knowledge on reams and reams of paper. I was just comfortably reaching the end of my first answer (forty minutes or so after the start) when a loud shout for extra sheets of paper from an old classmate of mine jolted me. In the next hour, there were many such requests, when I was barely through ten pages or so. I must mention here that the answer sheet provided to us in the beginning was twenty pages, so people had crossed the 100% margin when I was still to cross 50%. My faith in brevity was not jolted at this point by a recollection that it was the time honoured tradition in British varsities for the senior don to collect all answer papers the night before results were to be declared and climb to the top of a flight of stairs. From there, he would throw the papers down the staircase. Answer papers that lodged on the nearest landing were failed, with progressively better grades being given to papers as they progressed further and further down. The papers that reached the bottom of the staircase were evaluated “first class first.” Presumably, the heaviest papers, obeying the laws of gravity, were expected to make it to the lowest landing. Be that as it may, I did not waver in my resolve and, thanks to lady luck (and possibly a relieved examiner) managed to make it into service. Since then, attempts at brevity have been my constant companions in my travels through the minefields of government file noting and letter drafting. Of course, I do recognise the limits to brevity, exemplified by this tale you may have heard before:

A man set up a fish stall displaying the advertising signboard FRESH FISH SOLD HERE. His first customer said “Why do you have to say ‘fresh’? Surely you are not selling rotten or stale fish!” Out went the word FRESH. Another bystander remarked “Why mention the word fish! Anyone can smell your wares a hundred feet away.” FISH joined FRESH in the dustbin. It was the turn of a well-wisher next “There is no need for the word SOLD. You are obviously not giving it away free.” SOLD met the same fate as its two word-brothers. The final nail in the coffin came from a cousin “Why mention HERE? You could hardly be selling it anywhere else!” With HERE gone, there was nothing left on the advertising signboard.

NOTE: There is no indication whether the fish seller prospered in the absence of advertising.

My philosophy of KISS (Keep It Short and Sweet) has stood me in good stead on many occasions. Never more so than when the Secretary of my Department informed me at ten in the morning that he wanted a note to be presented to the Cabinet that very afternoon. Placing my trust in brevity, I stuck to a three page Cabinet note, in an age when no respectable Cabinet note was less than twenty pages in length. The proposal went through, probably because the Finance Minister was the learned Dr. Manmohan Singh and the Prime Minister the well-read Narasimha Rao. The same applied to speeches to be made by the Minister: find out the allotted time at the international conference and prepare a speech that finished within the given time slot.

Brevity, however, can be reflected not just in the written word but in actions as well. I have always been a strong votary of the Minimum Energy Movement. Since all matter is energy, what does it matter anyway? The advent of the personal computer (PC) in ministries of the Government of India by the early 1990s had already revolutionised the Cabinet note. There was no need to check the full retyped version for errors: cut and paste ensured that amendments suggested by the bosses could be incorporated in the draft in minutes. I carried the revolution a little further in the matter of preparing the Note for Supplementaries to Starred Questions to be answered by the Minister in the two Houses of Parliament. Since Starred Questions allowed MPs to ask supplementary questions to clarify the written answers given to them, which the Minister had to answer on the floor of the House, it was necessary to brief him on the answers to possible (generally uncomfortable) questions that might be raised. Since these supplementary questions could be on themes tangential to the main issue, my Ministry colleagues and I devised a master copy of answers to supplementary questions. The subject that was the immediate focus of the question was dealt with in the first part of the Note for Supplementaries, with the rest of the material being attached thereafter. The PC played its cut and paste role well, so we were always ready to trot out the note at a moments’ notice.

Since “brevity” is the subject matter of this blog, I must be mindful of the length of this piece. With apologies to what Shakespeare wrote in another context, nothing in my career became me so much as the manner of my leaving service. True to my commitment to brevity in words, my notice for voluntary retirement from service was just three lines, as below:

“I propose to retire from government service with effect from xxxx. As required by Rule 16(2) of the All India Services (Death-Cum-Retirement Benefits) Rules, 1958, I am giving notice more than three months in advance of the date of retirement.”

My tutor, who passed away over a decade ago, must, from his perch somewhere on high, have smiled approvingly at his former student.