Saturday, November 19, 2011

Philosophical Encounters

I normally keep to myself in my journeys but indulge in long conversations when, sometimes, there is a matching interest in a fellow traveler. While heading for the airport from Orchid Hotel there was an elderly gentleman sitting next to me in the bus. Somehow he figured that I, like him, came from Pune and asked me the standard Puneri question - where do you live in Pune? 

"Camp area. Salisbudy Park. How about you?"
"You must be with a DRDO lab then", I ventured
"No, I teach in University"
"What do you teach?"

It turned out that he is the just-retiring head of the Department of Philosophy in University of Pune - Prof Subhashchandra Bhelke. My eyes must have lit up. I have ventured to study some material in philosophy and have formally studied a couple of disciplines of logic during engineering. I have had some curiosities and questions and here was an experienced academic largely at my disposal as the queue was going to take a couple of hours to its completion.

I asked him a series of questions for nearly 2 hours and here is a gist that you may find interesting.

How is the state of education in Philosophy in India? Very bad, he said. There is a serious dearth of quality teachers and the younger lot is not devoted to the field. A lot of poor crop is thrust into the system due to reservations. The policy itself may be debated but the implementation is such that the Vice Chancellors and Heads of Departments have no choice but to recruit literally anyone applying from those categories.

There is an equal dearth of students. They do not necessarily come because of their interest but because they could not find anything else. He himself started with research in Hindi Literature but got bored after a few years. Then he moved to philosophy later and he finds the thirst for the quest for reality is still not quenched despite having spent some four decades in the field.

I told him that although I have a Masters degree in engineering the system barely exposed philosophy as a subject to me except in IIT Kanpur where there were several electives to choose from. He said IIT Kanpur actually had one of the top 5 departments in philosophy in the country and named some professors to me. I had been taught by a couple of them. One of them, Prof Rajendra Prasad, had been a mentor to him as well. When we talked in some detail he explained that there are few universities in India that could teach some of the more sophisticated fields of logic while these were offered as electives to undergraduate students in Kanpur.

I mentioned my favorite book 'The Story of Philosophy' by Will Durant. This book is meant for common folks and is very approachable. In its preface the author mentioned hearing from the librarian of New York Public Library that the circulation of their books on philosophy had increased after their readers had read this book. I told him that I had also read Bertrand Russel's 'History of Western Philosophy' but liked Duran's book better. Prof Bhelke said that Russel's standard was much higher but Durant is accurate and yet approachable. I have read some books by S Radhakrishnan but none of his books is like Will Durant's What is the equivalent for Indian philosophy? He told me to read The Essentials of Indian Philosophy by M Hiriyanna. I just started and it's nice so far.

During my professional years I have come around to the view that study of philosophy is quite essential for a matured view on anything. I have toyed with the idea of having a brief training for staff in Cygnus on philosophy. Why is our education system so stingy about teaching philosophy at junior levels? Prof Bhelke thought that although it is there in the syllabi of boards but schools do not see the demand nor do they encourage it.

The university has attempted to create some brief courses for the public and there has been some interest but the university treats all departments with the same brush. So they require that students be charged in similar ways as MBA students are charged and so on. University is quite bureaucratic and freedom of professors is restricted. They have installed a biometric system that monitors the amount of time spent in the university. Many professors feel disappointed as they pursue the profession as a matter of love for the field and deserve academic freedom. They actually spent more time in campus before the monitoring system got installed. He was also not very happy with the recent Vice Chancellors of the university as they are more interested in advancing their careers than work for the university.

I asked him of his views on Chinese and other eastern philosophies. He said that their system are primarily based on Buddhist philosophy although there are some earlier strands. He pleaded ignorance of Islamic philosophy but he said that it did not excite him for the reason that it presupposes a finality of the Quran and the Prophet. This goes against the grain of academic scrutiny. I told him that Indian system is accommodating of diverse, even conflicting, viewpoints. And that I found many similarities between Bhagwadgita and the Quran. He agreed but said that interpreting the Gita is common but not so with the Quran.

Sometime around here we were directed to different counters. I did not see him after that. He would have headed to Frankfurt and I spent another day at Doha.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

अँधियारा गहराया

कुछ ऐसे लम्हे रहे हैं मेरे जीवन में जब अभिव्यक्ति के लिए शब्द नहीं मिलते

'सारांश' फिल्म का यह गीत मुझे ऐसे में अक्सर याद आता है. इसके बोल मैंने ढूंढें पर मिले नहीं. सुन कर नीचे लिखा है. दो तीन त्रुटियाँ हैं शायद. 

इसका संगीत अजीत वर्मन का है और बोल वसंत देव के.

अँधियारा गहराया, 
सूनापन घिर आया, 
घबराया मन मेरा,
चरणों में आया 

क्यों हो तुम, 
यूँ गुमसुम,
किरणों को आने दो
पत्थर की आँखों से,
करुणा को झरने दो

अँधियारा गहराया,
सूनापन घिर आया,
घबराया मन मेरा,
चरणों में आया 

पत्तों तिनकों का
बना था घर मेरा, 
ढह गया, बह गया 
अब कहाँ बसेरा
भीगा है मन पाखी
मंजरी में पलने दो

अँधियारा गहराया,
सूनापन घिर आया,
घबराया मन मेरा,
चरणों में आया 

ये उदासी, अगर, छाई है मेरे लिए
पीर की वाहनी, है बनी मेरे लिए 
सह लूं मैं हर जनम  
चन्दन वो पलने दो

अँधियारा गहराया,
सूनापन घिर आया,
घबराया मन मेरा,
चरणों में आया 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Doing Ph D

Saw a post from Prof Dheeraj Sanghi on Ph D programs in IITs. This is not a counterpoint but just a perspective.

  1. The importance of research for any country, society, or economy is critical in developing its reservoir of ingenuity as the key tool for survival, sustenance, and growth. Ph D programs need to contribute to that reservoir significantly
  2. As Ph D programs are long drawn the trade off between the 'real' world and the 'academic' one is a very hard choice. One wishes for an ecosystem where cutting off from the 'real' for 3-5 years is not the only way to do a Ph D. What is more important than the degree is the contribution to research whose cumulative effect should weigh more than the degree itself
  3. Perhaps a collaborative program between institutions and industry where a series of research efforts is reasonably directed and can be deemed to be equivalent to nano, micro, mini or mega Ph D may be a workable way of encouraging a culture of research
  4. I recall a comment by Late Prof V K Deshpande of IIT/K in one of those student/faculty discussions (how I loved IIT/K for that openness) where he mentioned that he must have learned at least five times since his Ph D. Clearly Ph D is not an end but the start of a mindset that empowers with tools for investigation and problem-solving. Cultivating that mindset in undergraduate and postgraduate programs is equally critical
  5. Horror stories of dictatorial culture in universities abound where Ph D scholars are often supposed to be at the mercy of their guides/supervisors
  6. When I finished my B Tech I did not fancy doing more of academics without having seen the 'real' world as I was not convinced of doing Master or Doctoral work without getting one's hands dirty was the right thing. The 'real' world was a mixed bag that kept one extremely busy with responsibilities leaving little time to do anything else. I 'escaped' after some time to do M Tech at another IIT. But when it came to doing a Ph D I told myself that there has to be a topic that I must fall in love with to do a Ph D. That love never came! There must have been dozens of smaller flings but not one that would entice me enough to go away with it for a few years! I suspect that being in a community that included academics may have helped find such a love
  7. I met Prof Singaperumal in Santa Clara in PanIIT 2007. He had taught pneumatics to us in IIT Madras. His advice/request was to come to IIT M for a Ph D. He said you don't need to come to campus much for doing this. So there is hope I guess
  8. I guess 25 years of career should count for a little more than GATE as far as doing Ph D is concerned. Institutes that are restrictive in getting research fellows on the basis of GATE scores certainly need to prioritize slightly differently. Universities need to lead not follow rules blindly