Friday, October 3, 2014

Churning the mind

It is one thing to sit home and watch Ted-like talks. A totally different experience sitting in the crowd and see such luminaries talk on the stage a few feet from you. First of all, the fact that you have made an effort to move out of the comfort of your zone and travel to the venue brings a certain importance to the proceedings. Then the fact that you are sitting among all those interested participants who listen with rapt attention and ask incisive questions excites and humbles you which the self-centric world of the internet in the isolation of your house cannot. Most importantly, seeing the speakers so close to you, eating or conversing, doing things that they do beyond the stage, breaks a huge barrier of disconnect between your world and theirs which any video medium creates. Yogendra Yadav is not some figure of mythic proportions who argues on TV but a very amiable, gentle man who smiles at strangers who stare at him and answers questions with dignity. Vandana Shiva is not the woman you've read about in The NewYorker and who fights with the likes of Monsanto but a graceful lady who tirelessly tries to educate people in what she believes in. Also, being in the physical presence of such people brings a sense of authenticity and immediacy to the content of their talks and affects you deeply.

Yesterday, I had a great time in Manthan Samvaad. Vikranth Ananthula casually mentioned it sometime last week, I looked it up and since it seemed interesting, I signed up. I had a vague idea of what the talks were going to be like and I wasn't proved wrong but I had underestimated the magnitude of the impact. Without an exception, each of the six talks basically dealt with the need for civilized debate and the need to question the mainstream.

It was a slow start. After Jaywant Naidu's rendition on the Hawaiin Guitar, and the organiser's talks, Kalpana Kannabiram spoke about the need to protect women's rights and how we as a society were faring worse at making our women feel secure. She spoke with feeling and conviction but somehow I didn't find anything new that wasn't already a part of general public discourse. One stat that stood out of all the ones she was giving was that the average age of women at marriage, which kept rising after the child marriages of the early 20th century, have been getting lower in the last couple of decades. And she said that is because of the "re-enslavement of women in the guise of Tradition, Culture and Honour". I was surprised with myself for never having realised that most social atrocities take place under the masks of upholding culture and tradition. Once she said it, it seemed obvious but when she did, it came as quite a revelation. Of the other things that I scribbled down during her talk was BR Ambedkar's Constitutional Morality and Public Morality which was prescient because similar concerns were aired during other talks.

Arun Maira started off with the dryness of a bureaucrat, out of habit I guess since he's on the Planning Commission, but he spoke with clarity and insight about the need to redesign our institutions. The basis for his argument was what's already known, that India's economic growth is neither fair nor sustainable, but his linking of the discrepancy between the rich and the poor and its relation to the government institutions was informing and his ready acceptance that he didn't really know how to fix it but that he would like to present a few 'humble' suggestions was a great gesture of a man in such a position. He spoke about the tug-of-war between the Capitalistic need of the country to increase GDP and the Socialist need to subsidize and elevate the poor to better their lives. It was an interesting talk, sprinkled with the list of books he kept referring to, and so was his analogy of repairing the aeroplane while flying it. At the end, I felt a deep respect for him.

Then came on Yogendra Yadav who spoke about Alternative Politics and his ideas for deepening the democracy of the country by getting every citizen to actively participate in Politics. He spoke with the solemnity of a Political Science professor, with his Presentation Slides which I found distracting, but he spoke with candidness about the Aam Aadmi Party's stint and instead of defending himself from its detractors, he faced them, accepted their mistakes but also made a point to tell the crowd that they were trying hard to improve but at most the Aam Aadmi party was an imperfect vehicle to carry forward the ideals of a new, thriving, alternative political movement. The Q&A session was inevitably filled with questions on the AAP's future and I marveled at his calm demeanor even when taking the flak. Here was a man who acted on his beliefs and seemed to be having a great time doing what he was doing.

I've always loved listening to Shekhar Gupta talk, mostly from his Walk the Talk interviews where he came across a man who was knowledgeable, respected and articulate, but to see him yesterday talk like that was a fantastic experience. He seemed the least prepared of all the speakers, stringing his talk with a series of anecdotes but for me it was the most eye-opening talk of the day probably because it was a topic I deeply identified with. He spoke casually, with irreverence, with honesty and feeling, with good humour and unmasked criticism. He spoke not with an agenda but with a purpose, with immense erudition that always only served the point at hand and he spoke with the frankness of a man we're not used to in public discourses. I recommend you to watch his talk because the points he brings up are very relevant- "Never switch off the Bullshit Meter"

KT Ravindran's talk was the most underwhelming because there was an overdose of information and though all that was probably important, he did not manage to bring up the levels of enthusiasm of the crowd as the other speakers had. On the other hand, Vandana Shiva can never be accused of being a dull speaker. Having probably given thousands of talks across the world all her life, she speaks with the confidence of a veteran, with the practiced dramatic pauses of a thespian and with raw emotion of anger and pity flowing alternatively through such a booming voice. It's a great experience seeing her talk and though the talk dealt with elements that I've read her talk about, I couldn't help but feel sympathy for the Indian farmer, shame at myself for letting those atrocities happen and a deep contempt for Monsanto. She does that to you. When Vandana Shiva wants you to feel something, wants you to think about something in a certain way, you damned well can think about it only that way. She's a fervent woman and spirited. It was some experience.

Having attended a few other similar events, I understand that these talks are targeted at a general audience who don't necessarily have an interest in any particular subject, are motivated by the eclecticism, but those who come with a readiness to listen and think. Which is why if you happen to know the work of the speaker beforehand, the talk can seem redundant but I suppose that's the only way they can capture the interest of the uninitiated person who when inspired by the talk will go home and delve deep into the subject. Like those audit classes in American universities I guess. I had a great time, with the delicious Biryani and all that, but more with the talks, Shekhar Gupta's especially, that reminded me to think, question and participate actively in public life. What a lot of us have been doing is consuming whatever the mainstream is feeding us. Just because something is accepted by many, doesn't make it right and you don't have to conform to it. I can air my opinions, skepticism and beliefs- I, after all, like Arun Maira succinctly pointed, am not a consumer but a citizen.

The complete talks can be viewed from this link.

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