Om Shantih! Shantih! Shantih Om!
Festschrift for Prof Norman Foo
Sydney Chatashali -- Oriya Language and Culture Down Under
Samachar -- Indian News
An Autobiographical Note
It is hard to look back at your past, and provide a relatively objective summary of who you are. It is harder if you have very modest beginnings: deciding what to reveal -- and to what extent -- becomes somewhat of a touchy issue. It is a lot harder, if, as in my case, you did not have clearly identified goals during your formative years.
I was born and brought up in a small village in Orissa, India. I studied at several institutions, including Ravenshaw College (Cuttack, India), Utkal University (Bhubaneswar, India), IIT Kanpur (India), University of Rochester (USA) and the University of New South Wales (Australia). I have worked largely in the Australian academia. Institutions I have worked for include Sydney University, University of New South Wales, University of NewCastle and Macquarie University. What follows is a rather longish bio-sketch.
I was born in a farming (peasant) family in the village of Similipur, under Banki sub-division, Cuttak district, state of Orissa, India. My mother tongue is Oriya, the language of the people of Orissa, also called Oriyas.
Orissa remains one of the most beautiful but poorest states in India. Cuttack, the business capital of Orissa, is about fifty kilometers North East of Banki, which is the nearest (small) town to my village. To people from Orissa, I tell that I am from Banki; to Indians out side Orissa, I tell I am from Cuttack.
Most villages in Banki (including my village, Similipur) have grown on the bank of Mahanadi, the largest river in Orissa. People here depend on agriculture, and the mercy of Mahanadi. If you search for Banki in the internet, most relevant documents you fetch would probably deal with recent flood and relief efforts in the area. People here have seen floods repeatedly foiling their plans to eke out a modest living from cultivation. Year after year, with a Sisyphusian tenacity, they restart the whole process following a devastating flood -- till the land, sow the grains, and so on. This has developed in the people in this region a stoic character that many peddlers of spiritualism would consider worth dying for. I am told some of this stoicism has rubbed into me during my growing years.
My parents are simple village folks. I believe my mother never went to school. My father had minimal education -- he can read, write and do his numbers. Not many among his peers had had that privilege. He had however an innate leadership quality and native intelligence that helped him earn the respect of people in the neighouring eight or ten villages. At ninety plus, he is now probably the eldest person in Banki. At this old age, he has developed interest in cricket news -- last time I visited him, he was surprised that I knew so little about cricket!
My elder brother and his family live in my ancestral village and take care of the land. They continue to take fantastic care of my old parents. It is difficult to see what I would do without my brother's willing help. I am very much obliged to him and his family.
In his younger years, my father was engaged in a small business. It involved buying goods from Banki and surrounding areas, taking them on a boat along Mahanadi to Cuttack and selling them there. The profit made through this business bettered his lot -- he managed to buy a few acres of land in addition to what he had inherited. So we were one of the few households in the village that were self-sufficient in rice. That actually counted being rich!
When I was about eight, a classmate explained me the difference between being rich and poor. My parents didn't have to buy rice any time in the year; so we were rich. His family bought rice (more often flour since it came out cheaper) from the "control shop" (rationed food store) for the large part of a year; so they were poor. I learnt later that a few of those days they could not even afford the rice at the control shop, and starved.
Many drastic changes took place in my village during my early childhood. Electricity became available for domestic consumption in the area -- three families in the village got electricity (not us). Alongwith electrification came lift irrigation -- water could now be lifted from Mahanadi for irrigation purpose -- a substantial portion of the tillable land in the area could now avoid drought. Two or three families in the village bought radios. A few families bought bicycles as a mode of transportation. Important people such as school teachers and contractors owned watches. A part of the road between Banki and Cuttack got concreted. At this time, it was a great privilege to be allowed to be near a radio. Very soon, however, a bicycle and/or a radio and/or a watch became standard gift(s) from the parents of a bride to the bridegroom. One of the unintended but good side effects of the Dowry system in India is that one of the early seeds of information revolution in India germinated under the shadow of this system.
When you grow up in a poor village in India, you pick up many practical skills. Such as:
At different times, in different states of India, there have been different types of educational systems. The track I went through is the following:
I had my first five years of primary education at the local Upper Primary School in Similipur. It was a few classrooms plus an office room with mud floor, mud wall and thatch roof. It has been replaced by a more respectable building after the flood 1982 when the embankment of Mahanadi gave away, and washed away the old school along with a very big temple and a local bank.
People often make a big deal in India about the open-air education introduced by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) at Santiniketan. It is really not such a big deal. We often had open-air education in the primary school without much fan-fare: if the rooms were being repaired, for instance, the classes would be held outdoor under the trees! Since the walls were mud-walls, portable blackboards were being used in the school. Furthermore, only the class teacher had a chair -- students could not imagine such luxury. So the quality of education was in no way being compromised by holding classes under the trees -- the teacher's chair and the black board were easily moved outdoor. It was often a lot more fun to be part of such out-door classes.
Occasionally apart from learning standard stuff such as alphabets and numbers, we were also taught many other arts. For instance, on a hot, humid day, it is only natural that the class teacher would badly feel the need of a well-deserved siesta. The teacher could then nominate two or three favourite pupils to fan him in turn, using a palm-leaf sitting mat, while the teacher enjoys a short siesta sitting on his chair. The class monitor (captain) would often be responsible to ensure that the hapless students fan the teacher in due turn.
Most of the teachers in our primary school came from nearby villages. They used bicycles as a mode of transportation. By the time we completed the primary school, we had become expert at the cleaning and maintenance of bicycles. An interesting anecdote that I cannot forget. In year four or five, the teacher asked me and a friend to clean his bicycle -- which means essentially removing the mud from the tyres and the mud-guards, dust the bike and polish it with coconut oil. When we were cleaning the wheels, Ravi noticed the "Made in India" claim on the rim. We of course did not know that "India" referred to India that, in our vernacular, we referred to as "Bharat". We thought "India" is some foreign country, probably England. Our respect for that particular teacher went up, because he was riding a "foreign" bicycle. Strangely enough, it never occurred to us to check the antecedence of the bicycles belonging to the other teachers.
The schools, like other state government institutions, were open six days a week; Sunday was the holiday. The Saturday was, however, only a "half-day". It was the fun day devoted to physical education. The teachers had developed a system for harnessing the energy of the pupils to some useful end. Roughly, each class was given the responsibility of keeping their classroom clean, and in good working order. Each class also had a vegetable patch to take care of. So come Saturday, the class teacher will distribute the tasks -- you two, go collect a basket of cow-dung; you three, get a bucket of water each; you guys, your job is to mix the dung with the water properly, and then wipe the floor with the mixture evenly. You three -- your job is to water the class cabbage patch in the back yard; and so on. I remember once I and a friend were given the task of obtaining from the bamboo-bush appropriate bamboo sticks that could work as railings since a few of the railings were missing from the classroom windows!
I have heard from many friends that I must have been really smart, else, coming from this school, I won't be where I am now. I tell them, I was not really that smart. In this Upper Primary school, I was coming out second or third in the annual exams. The boy who was coming out first had to drop out after year three, so he could help his folks in the field. This boy was from a very poor family, and from a "scheduled caste" (harijan). He received free books and other study materials from the government (that made us jealous). But the fact is, his parents were too poor to afford an eight year old away from the working field! It is sad that such a wonderful mind now earns his bread pulling cycle-rickshaw in Banki.
I have often discussed with friends that just making the education free is not enough given the disparity among people in India. Even, giving free accommodation and food to the students is not enough. The government has an obligation to give necessary economic incentive to the parents. When the family risks starving without the helping hand of a child, promising free books to the child is not going to solve the problem.
The fact is, the Indian government has always favoured investing in the higher education at the cost of the primary school education. The IIT's and IIM's provide world-class education; but most of the students attending them come from privileged background. Such selective investment has paid off -- India is highly rated in the global knowledge economy. But the cost incurred is difficult to quantify.
There was no Middle English school in Similipur. So we had to go to the next village Harirajpur for the final two years of my primary education. It was a nice walk of about half a kilometer. It was harder for some students who had to walk for two to three kilometers. Some of them lived in villages that were barely accessible in the monsoon season.
During this period, I belonged to a group of eight or nine children who received extra tuition from two of my cousins who had just completed the High School. I fondly remember the summer schedule:
Changing school is a big affair. Going from the UP school to the ME school was not a big deal. The UP school had children from 2-3 villages - all the children were children of peasants. The ME school comprised students from the neighouring 8-10 villages. But the student body was still the same -- more or less.
High School was a different ball game. The school was in the Banki "town". Banki is the sub-divisional headquarters. So there were a lot of people here who are NOT peasants -- you have doctors, lawyers, civil servants, vets, academics, engineers, businessmen, plus the peasants. The student population showed that diversity. There were children of powerful bureaucrats, respectable doctors, rich businessmen and learned academics, AND children of peasants. You are now a no-name non-entity in this big school teaming with children of big-shots, wearing black-polished shoes, well-ironed school uniform, exuding the aroma of expensive perfumes.
The school was about four kilometers from my village. My elder brother had a bicycle that was handed down to me; I was riding this bicycle to the school and back. I was a bit worried that I might be completely ignored in this school. There was one thing that changed all that. At the end of year seven, I had been selected to appear for a special scholarship exam, the National Rural Talent Search (NRTS) Exam. In the middle of year eight, I came to know that I had passed this exam.
This was a lucrative scholarship -- one thousand rupees per year for four years. This came to a hundred rupees a month, excluding the two summer months. That was a lot of money in 1970's. The plan was a nice one. The government has identified some selective schools in rural areas. This lucrative scholarship was given to promising students from rural areas so that they could afford to attend the selective schools (in rural towns) away from their home. There were two conditions attached to the scholarship:
In my case, it was a difficult situation. I was already enrolled in this selective school that is barely four Kilometers from my home. So there was no real need for me to go to the hostel. However, my father and brother decided that the hostel would provide a better atmosphere for my study. My mother was not very excited by this idea. But my father explained her that I would be visiting her every week end, and that if she did not allow me to go to the hostel, I would end up becoming a good-for-nothing fellow like most kids in the village. It was very hard for my mother to say bye to me. She probably knew that from then on, whenever I visited the family home, it would be only as a guest. For my education, my folks have sacrificed a lot; but my mother has probably sacrificed more than any one else.
The three and half years I spent at the high school hostel were probably the best three and half years of my life. The superintendent of the hostel was Mr. Manoranjan Samal, one of the most loving, caring and wonderful teachers at the school. Since he was Christian, he was in a lot better position to treat the students in the hostel in an equitable manner than many other teachers would have been. He treated all the students as if they were his own children. His four children mingled with the students as if it was a big family.
On a monthly basis, one hundred rupees was more than enough to cover the accommodation, food and pocket money of a high school student. In fact, the accommodation and food at the hostel in Banki High School was between forty and forty-five rupees. Ten rupees was considered sufficient pocket money for a month. So most residents of the hostel managed with a budget well below sixty rupees. Only the most extravagant (and rich) among them had a budget of seventy rupees!
The life in the hostel was routine, but not monotonous. There is a bell at six in the morning. All the residents wake up and assemble in the verandah attaching the superindent's bedroom. There would be a prayer; the purpose being Mr Samal could notice if any student is missing. After the prayer, we had about one hour to finish all the morning chores, including a bath in the river and breakfast (your own). There would always be a couple of us who enjoyed bathing in the river a bit too much. But by 7 AM, you could see Mr. Samal on the riverbank to ensure that all children were safely back at their study desk on time.
Since there was no electricity in the hostel, we used kerosene lanterns for lighting purpose. Keeping the globe clean in those lanterns was a difficult task. Because of carbon deposit on the burner, often the flame produced in the lantern was lop-sided, not of the expected uniformly roundish shape. If you raised the wick in order to get sufficient light, and the flame is lop-sided, then the globe became dirty very quickly because of the soot. Many of us never learnt how to uniformly produce a decent lantern flame, and spent a lot of time cleaning the globe (and experimenting with the burner and the wick).
The management of the mess was by the students. Every month, Mr. Samal would elect two managers from the students. One senior student called a "money manager", and a junior student called a "rice manager". Roughly, money manager is the accountant for the month; the rice manager keeps account of the goods. The rice manager has the key to the storeroom. In the morning and evening, the rice manager ensures that the right amount of grains, vegetables, etc. are handed out to the cook. If any one is sick, the rice manager is responsible to organize "sick meals". On the market days (Tuesday and Saturday) the rice manager makes an estimate of what needs to be bought and provides a list of it to the money manager. The job of the money manager is to collect monthly dues from each student, and deposit them with the superintendent. He keeps track of the expenses throughout the month. Organises "turners" -- students whose turn it is to do the shopping on the market days; gives the shopping list plus the appropriate amount of money to the turners, and in the evening receive an account of the shopping made and the money refunded. At the end of the month, the rice manager, the money manager and the superintendent will sit down, do the numbers and find out how much was it really per head. It was good training!
The other good thing that happened at the hostel was the quality friendship I received from some of the residents. My best friend Basanta Pradhan, currently Chief Economist at the Indian Council of Applied Economic Research in New Delhi, had joined the Banki High School hostel again as an NRTS scholarship holder. His background is very similar to mine; his village is right on the other side of Mahanadi relative to my village. We hit off well right from the start -- we were lazy, rustic, stubborn, and took enormous pleasure in off-colour jokes. Those three and half years were years of pranks, humour and practical jokes punctuated with periods of study.
We were also eager to receive good mark in the exams. Just like the students today, we used to go to any length to receive an extra mark. Here is a sample attempt by my friend Basanta to get an extra mark in science -- it was so good, the teacher could not resist reading it aloud to the class while Basanta was asked to stand up during this period. The question in the exam asked to explain how blood coagulation takes place. Basanta's answer went somewhat along the following line: There is something in the blood. When there is a rupture in the skin, this thing comes in contact with something that is available in the air. As a result, a net like thing is produced in the blood. There are some other things in the blood that get entangled in this net like thing just like flies get entangled in the spider web and cannot get out. We call it blood coagulation. You can see there is no dearth of understanding here; only Basanta could not recall the names of these different things, namely, "fibrinogen", "fibrin", "blood corrupscles" and "oxygen" in the exam. We thought it was important to understand the process, and not get too much worried about names which are only incidental. Basanta seemed to have taken our principle to an extreme.
Very few of us that time knew why we were doing what we were doing. We had no goal of becoming a space scientist or a doctor or an engineer; we were studying because (1) that is what was expected of us, and (2) it was fun. We had different strengths; but we enjoyed what we were doing. I fondly remember an occasion in year eight. In the school, if the designated teacher for a particular "period" was not available, an "arrangement teacher" looked after the class. But most often the arrangement teacher, having no expertise in the area, would find inventive ways to cover that period. In one of those arrangement classes, the teacher decided to probe into the interior of the students' minds. So he popped the question, "What is your goal in life"? It was a hard question, since not many of us had thought about it.
It was not really true that we never gave a hoot as to what we really wanted to do. It was our hobby to read the Oriya mystery novels. Most of them had one of the two benevolent bandits -- Deepak and Robin -- as the main character. And those books were really fiery; Robin was my role model; my village chum Kahnu had Deepak as his role model. It had occurred to me that I could suggest the career of a benevolent bandit like Robin as my career goal in life, but I quickly rejected that option anticipating how the teacher will react. I had hit the panic button.
Many students obviously were way ahead in the game. Some said they will be doctors; some wanted to be engineers. Some were more specific -- they wanted to become chief engineers. Some wanted to be scientists. When it was my turn, I had still not decided what my goals should be. In a rush, I said that my goal in life was to serve my country. The teacher was not amused -- he wanted specific answer, not this sort of mumbo jumbo. Luckily he let it pass. But wait. Next to me was sitting Kahnu, always cool and composed (he always got 100/100 in math), now a senior geologist at the Geological Survey of India (GSI). He noticed that in the panic I gave an untruthful answer. You of course don't expect Kahnu to panic; he gave the truthful answer, "I will be a bandit". There was a moment of dead silence, followed by a tremendous uproar. Some smarties then picked up "Bandit" as the nickname for Kahnu. I felt bad for Kahnu. He has stuck out his neck to save mine many more times than I have to save his.
Talking of books, the school also had a decent library. My pastime was to borrow interesting books from the library. That is how I got introduced to world literature -- I read full Oriya translations of Pearl S. Buck's Good Earth, John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent and The Pearl, apart from abridged translations of a number of classics like The Three Musketeers. I also read a number of classics in Oriya. The hardest was reading Gopinath Mohanty's Mati Matal that had recently received the prestigious Jnanapitha award. I managed to go through this torture due to a convincing argument from my friend Ram Rout (currently a well respected physician in Banki) that reading one page from that book is equivalent to earning one hundred rupees! (The book is about a thousand pages, and the award that time was 100,000 rupees.)
The most infamous period in India's half a century of independent history was the period when Mrs. Gandhi declared National Emergency (1975-77). I was in the High School during this period. It did not seriously affect us, except that once in a while we had to participate in the local administration's sloganeering. The headmaster of the school also decided during this period that having long side-burns was not allowed. Nor any other "style". I had a "stylish" friend who was diagnosed myopic. He started wearing glasses to the class. But the headmaster would have none of it: he was very confident that this boy was wearing glasses because they were stylish! This friend continued wearing gasses; so I believe he must have shown some documentary evidence that it was really required of him to wear glasses.
After the high school, I had to decide what to study, and where. We had decided we should study science -- all good students are supposed to study science. Kahnu decided right away that he would study in Banki College. (He had always a very simple view of everything; he would take quick decision and stick to it without any regret later. Basanta and me were different.) Basanta and I had decided to enroll in the Ravenshaw College in Cuttack, the oldest and most prestigious college in Orissa. But at the last moment I changed my mind, and enrolled in Banki College instead. Basanta enrolled in Ravenshaw, looked around for me for a couple of days. Having realised that I backed out, in a week he left Ravenshaw and joined Banki College as well.
In college life, we got the freedom that we lacked in school. We could now go to watch a movie without seeking permission from the superintendent, for instance. Besides, the college had both male and female students, while the school was a Boys school. So there was more anticipation, and more to gossip. We even had code names for our classmates!
But there were matters of more practical concern. So far, the medium of instruction had been in Oriya. In the college the medium of instruction became English. Furthermore, now we had both male instructors as well as female instructors. The following incident shows the predicament we were facing. Kahnu had enrolled early enough -- so his "roll number" was 7 (mine was way below -- 64.) A female lecturer comes in the first lecture, and starts taking roll call. Students 1-6 are absent. The lecturer then calls out: "Seven". So far, we knew how to respond to a male teacher in a High School: "Present Sir!" or "Yes Sir!". But it is college, and the instructor is female. Of course you cannot respond, "Yes Sir!". But what on earth is the right response? Kahnu decided to play it safe -- he stood up, said "Yes!" in a low voice, and quickly sat down. The instructor perhaps was not sure if some one was proxying some one else. She repeated, somewhat loudly, "Seven!". Kahnu stood up (again), said loudly, "Yes", and sat down. The instructor stared at Kahnu, then to the class (so others could hear her properly), then back at Kahnu, and slowly and clearly uttered those two words, syllable by syllable, "YES MA'M!"
Banki College was both good and bad. The good thing is, we three, being relatively good students, received personal attention from the lecturers. The bad thing is, some of the lecturers were not the best. The following anecdote is one that I will never forget. In Physical Chemistry, the lecturer had taught us the Charles' Law -- that under constant pressure, volume is proportional to the temperature (for ideal gas). I had some how ignored the parenthetic condition. I checked the rule against water. It's true that when you increase the temperature, the volume increases. Similarly decreasing the temperature decreases the volume, except that the highest density of water is achieved at 4 degree Celsius. Below 4, water becomes less dense; it is most clear when water becomes ice -- it floats! It was very puzzling. I was clearly missing something. I discussed the matter with Basanta and Kahnu; I demonstrated my position to them using Archimedes' Principles and all that. They were also puzzled. We figured, the best thing is to clear it up during the lecture.
Come next lecture, I pop my hand to ask a question. The lecturer ignores me. But I persist, and finally I am granted an audition. This is roughly how the conversation went in the lecture:
So we had to solve the problem ourselves. It was Basanta who finally figured it out -- that the Charles' Law (and Boyle's Law and all that) is applicable only to gases, that too ideal gases. This is one case when I noticed that Basanta was after the fundamental stuff. I have noticed this in many cases later on.
It was during this period that I accidentally discovered my bad eyesight. A friend was visiting. I put on his glasses in jest, and was surprised that I could see a fly on the ceiling. My friend exclaimed, "If you cannot see that fly on the ceiling, you better get some glasses". That explained a lot of things -- I was always having trouble deciphering the lecturer's handwriting on the black board, for instance. In the next break, Basanta and I went to Cuttack to have a good time at the big city, and to get glasses for me, since there were no optometrists in Banki.
It was during this period that we had to make a decision about our career paths. I had started reading some fictions in English, by now -- no, not the classics; the raunchier, Harold Robbins type -- but had not acquired much speed. Basanta and I decided that we would probably become engineers, else physicists. We were particularly interested in physics because we found it interesting. Also, there was a perception that "good" science students study physics -- particularly, theoretical physics. Here is my pet theory as to why good students study theoretical physics. Indian educational institutions could not afford expensive experimental set-ups. So the smart guys who specialised in theoretical areas did well, but those who ended up in more experimental areas were not as successful. There is then the feedback loop. So India has been traditionally strong in theoretical areas like theoretical physics, economics, mathematics and statistics -- but not so well in more experimental disciplines.
I was also somewhat interested to become a writer -- so I was inclined to major in English literature if possible. So we still had no clear agenda.
Typically, in the summer vacation after the final exam of Intermediate College, you sit for different entrance exams for Engineering, medical College, and other technological institutions. The results of these entrance exams don't come out until after the enrollment to colleges offering basic education. So Basanta, Kahnu and I sat for the entrance exams for engineering. Kahnu bombed it because he did not have a watch to keep track of the time -- he completely missed the last section, the verbal section I guess. Kahnu had also taken the entrance for agricultural engineering. I had filled out forms for medical science but didn't take the entrance exam.
All three of us had decided to study at the Ravenshaw College if we did not get into any technical institution. So we had applied for admission at Ravenshaw College. Kahnu had applied for admission to BSc program, with preference for GPM (Geology honours, pass in Physics and Mathematics), one of the very sought after combination, with almost job guarantee afterwards. Basanta had, I believe, done the same. I had applied for both BSc and BA program -- sitting on the fence. I had received two notifications -- one to enroll in the BSc program on date n, and the other to enroll in the BA program on day n+1. All three of us were in Cuttack, for admission. On day n, I enrolled in the BSc program (PCM -- Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics). I sought but did not get the guarantee of physics as my honours subject. So the next day I showed up with my invitation for admission to the BA program. The same set of faculty members were in the admissions committee. They were a bit disturbed that I wanted to give up my seat in the BSc Programme and take a seat in the BA program with English Literature Honours (that had a lot lower cutoff). They tried to convince me that it was a wrong decision that I was taking; but I was not convinced. So they gave me one week to decide on it. It was a very difficult week. I discussed the matter with many friends, thought it over and decided to study English literature. The admissions committee gave up.
In the mean time the results of the entrance exams trickled in. Both Basanta and I were offered seats to study Civil Engineering. Kahnu was feeling bad that he did not make it. Basanta came to my village. We picked up two bicycles and rode to Banki bazaar. On the way we discussed what to do with the engineering offers. Both of us had the same, unexpressed, worry. If we pushed, our parents would allow us to join the engineering programs. But we were not sure if they could support the living expenses in Engineering College. We skirted around the issue for a while. Then Basanta said, "Engineering will be expensive". I said, "Yeah. English literature is more fun." It was a very simple decision. A few weeks later, Kahnu received admission offer for Agricultural Engineering. He was very intent. However, his parents thought that since we (Basanta and me) decided against Engineering, Kahnu should as well. That was the end of Kahnu's engineering aspirations.
Cuttack is the largest city in Orissa, way, way bigger than Banki. There was a lot to do there -- more restaurants, more movies, more shops, and more space. I also had the impression that in humanities you do not have to work as hard as in the sciences -- you have to become an extrovert. You have to observe people, observe nature, write poems and stories -- things you can hardly do if you spend all your time in the library like the science students. And what better way to do that than walking around this great city! So that is what I did -- I spent most of my time except the lecture hours exploring the city, visiting this library here, attending that writers' conference there, and so on. Basanta, naturally, got a bit concerned about me. He asked me how come he did not see me in the library. I convinced him that studying "Arts" was fun -- it did not involve too much study. One could spend the daytime roaming around the city, and the evening reading the literature you love. He got tempted, and left science (Geology) to study English Literature as well. We had tried out different combinations, but settled for philosophy as our minor area of study.
It was fun time. But we were not going anywhere with English. We were finding it difficult to read those Shakespearean plays. The romance was over by mid-year. I decided to take philosophy as my major, because I was finding analytic philosophy a lot more interesting than literary criticism. Basanta wanted to do major in economics.
The two years in Ravenshaw college passed very quickly. There were not many students in philosophy. Most of my friends were from economics, physics and geology. I don't think I was studying that hard -- since there were so few students in philosophy, I expected I would do well. Basanta utilised his time more wisely, since there was more competition in economics.
This is the period when I started reading popular writings of Bertrand Russell, such as "Unpopular Essays", "Marriages and Morals" and "Why I am not a Christian". I liked his style of writing. I believe subconsciously, my writing style has been influenced by Russell's. (One of my professor at Rochester, Professor Meerbote, would later remark that my writing was as precise as Hume's; I told him that I was more influenced by Russell's writings than by Hume's style.) I believe, Russell's views have influenced my views as well.
After BA, I joined Utkal University in Bhubaneswar, 25 KM away from Cuttack, to do my MA in philosophy. Basanta joined the Delhi School of Economics (DSE, Delhi) with scholarship to do his MA in economics. Kahnu joined the Indian School of Mines (ISM, Dhanbad, with scholarship ) to do his MSc. I was a bit depressed in this period, because both Basanta and Kahnu joined institutes of national eminence, but I joined a regional university. For them, there was more or less a guaranteed job after they completed the program. In my case the future was very uncertain. There were frequent closure of the Utkal University due to student strikes. The programme, designed to be two years, in reality took three years due to administrative problems.
Academically speaking, those three years were a complete wastage. On hind sight, however, those three years at Utkal University were invaluable since I got first hand knowledge of the aspirations and struggles of a normal Indian student in a normal Indian university -- a depressing environment. This is the end of the student career, and the beginning of a worker's life. Many students see this period as a period in which they have to get a starting job. In early Eighties, Information Technology was un-heard-of in India. So the major employment opportunity for people without rigorous technical training was provided by the Civil Service sector and the Banking Sector. For most (male) students, these two to three years provided the opportunity to prepare and sit for different competitive exams for jobs. Not many people really cared whether the job you get is a decent job. The general principle is: a job in hand is twice in the bush. Only those who were interested in academics took the study seriously. But academic jobs were not very forthcoming!
The campus was crawling with people who wanted to be viewed as intellectuals. So a few of us friends formed our own group of intellectuals. We regularly smoked, occasionally drank, and discussed Marx, Camus, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Sartre, and Russell. We read poetry and wrote poetry. Like others, we also occasionally appeared in the competitive exams, but were not all that serious. Most of us thought we would eventually end up in academics.
I had taken two or three competitive exams. I was not terribly interested in a non-academic job, but took those tests for experience (and to avoid potential guilty feeling later). I had been successful in one of them -- to become a sort of auditor under the central government. But that year, there was apparently some irregularity; someone had obtained a stay order on those appointments. So I did not get an appointment letter on time to take up that position. Time was running out.
Different IIT's in India have postgraduate programmes. They gave a fellowship of 600 rupees per month to the PhD students. IIT Bombay and IIT Kanpur had postgraduate programmes in philosophy, and IIT Kanpur had a good reputation in philosophy. Arindam and I had both planned to try our luck at IIT Kanpur. It so happened that both of us were selected to PhD at IIT Kanpur, Arindam in math and me in philosophy. So two of the intellectuals from our club ended up at IIT Kanpur; most of the others in the club became bank officers.
Soon after I accepted the offer from IIT Kanpur to enroll the PhD programme, I got a job offer from the Government of India as an auditor, posted in the Andamans and Nicobar Islands. Under the British Raj, these islands were used to house the exiles from India. These islands are considered the most beautiful in India. It was very tempting -- I thought if I have to write poems or fictions, that would provide the best environment. But in the mean time, doing PhD at prestigious IIT Kanpur looked a lot more appealing. So I declined the offer.
When people mention "the subcontinent", they refer to India. India is like Europe -- you drive pass a few hundred kilometers, you are in a very different territory. People talk in a different language, eat different sort of food, wear different clothes and so on. Kanpur is about 1400 kilometers from Cuttack, and the train journey is close to twenty four hours. People here speak Hindi, which, like Oriya, has its roots in Sanskrit. People can probably understand each other to some extent.
With the information explosion through TV (and not IT), people have a better appreciation of the differences and similarities. People are now a lot more comfortable with Hindi, for instance. But the current national TV network was set up on the occasion of the ASIAD games (Delhi, late 1982). Before that TV was confined to only the metropolises, with only the very rich that could afford to have a TV set. So people in Orissa, for instance, had very little knowledge of what a different state, say Bihar, is like.
While studying in Orissa, although the language of instruction was English, I hardly spoke in any language other than Oriya. So the first difference of studying in a state other than yours is learning to speak in a language other than your own language. Kanpur provided me the opportunity to speak Hindi and English. But picking up the nuances of a language is not easy, as seen in the following hilarious case.
I was once asked to help a professor in the conduct of an undergraduate exam. I go with the professor to the exam theatre. We agree on the procedure. The professor distributes the exams, and asks me, "Nayak! Can you distribute the answer books?" "Yes Ma'm", I reply, thinking what a silly question it is (questioning my ability to distribute the answer books). The professor finishes distributing the exams, looks at the pile of answer books on the desk, and me lost in my thought. She then starts distributing the answer books! I ask myself, "What's wrong with her? Why didn't she ask me to distribute the answer books? Did I miss some cue?" At the end of the exam, she is really furious: "You are more of a problem than anything! Who gave you admission at IIT Kanpur? You cannot even understand simple English!" I later on discussed this with senior students in the department. They got really upset at this sort of behaviour from a professor. But I learnt the distinction between semantics and pragmatics in the hard way.
I enjoyed my short stint in Kanpur quite a lot. Here I met Rashmi Rajnan Mishra (now at Birla Institute of Technology (BITS), Pilani) who is probably one of the smartest and most unassuming persons I have come across. He was doing his PhD in physics, and it was well known that he was a superb mathematician. Rashmi, Arindam and I became very good friends. Arindam and I also used the available opportunity to catch up with our lost childhood: apart from doing research, we read Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Asterix and Tintin comics and the fictions by PG Wodehouse.
Kanpur had the American model of graduate studies. There was a year of course work plus a thesis. After the course work I decided to do my thesis in the Philosophy of Language under the supervision of Professor Rajendra Prasad. I had done a fair bit of study in the philosophy of language. The concept of truth and meaning have always played singular roles in the history of philosophy. There is a tradition in philosophy that the meaning of a sentence is given by the condition that makes the sentence true. Thus, for instance, the two sentences, "sausage is red" and "les saussicons et rouge", being true under exactly the same conditions, mean the same thing. Those conditions, namely the sausages being red, constitute the meaning of these sentences.
This theory is called the extensional theory of meaning. It is good only if we are talking of a very sanitised concept of language. But day-to-day language is not as clean -- it has idiomatic usages that fly on the face of such theory. Eg., what is the meaning of the sentence, "Sachin is a gem"? Many people will consider this sentence true, although Sachin Tendulkar is a human being, and not an expensive stone. Can the extensional theory of meaning be extended to take care of such metaphorical use of language? That is what I took to be the topic for my PhD research.
In fact I had come up with some solution. I had developed a very naive account of how language evolves, and how metaphors play a crucial role in the linguistic evolution. In case of living metaphors, due to a principle of charity, a complicated mechanism is used to obtain the meaning of a metaphorical text. As the metaphors die, the semantics of the language undergoes substantial change. I had some sketchy idea of how this change takes place. I had written up a short paper on this as part of my progress report. I had been looking for an opportunity to get some feedback on that draft, since I was not sure if there was any content in what I had written, or it was pure nonsense!
Professor Biswambar Pahi, of the University of Rajsthan, was, during that period, oranising regular logic summer schools in Jaipur. These summer schools were funded by a grant that University of Rajsthan had obtained as advanced research center. Professor Pahi had completed his PhD in logic at Yale, then taught for a while at the University of Notre Dame before taking up a position at the University of Rajasthan. He had started advocating the teaching and research in modal logic with a messianic zeal. In my view he has contributed more than anybody else to the development of formal logic in Indian academia. For the 1985 summer school, he had invited eminent logician Professor Krister Segerberg (then at the University of Auckland, New Zealand) to teach modal logic. I was one of the few participants at the school. Krister was very kind -- apart from the regular classes he took, he also gave a lecture on a game theoretic approach to morality. (It was very topical, since Robert Axelrod's Evolution of Cooperation had just been published in 1984.)
One day during that summer school, I asked Krister if he would be kind enough to look at a draft I had written on the semantics of metaphor. Krister said he would be delighted to look at it, and give any comments if possible. I was very excited. I lost no time in getting my draft to him. The next day Krister told me that he indeed had some comments. There were a few things he did not like about my style. It was symbol heavy, and the symbolism could be substantially simplified, for one. He also did not like some ideas I had borrowed from a popular science/psychology book, terming that approach as "hippyist". But he saw a lot of promise in the paper. He asked me if I have heard of Peter Gärdenfors, or David Makinson. I had not heard of Peter, but I was aware of David, since I had written a term paper on one of his papers in deontic logic. Then he pointed at some paragraphs in my draft, and explained that the idea in there is central to an area of research called belief change or theory change. He recommended that I focus in that idea instead of getting carried away by the hippyist ideas. He suggested that since no one in India worked in the area, it would be a good idea to apply to universities in the USA, and that he would be happy to write referene letters. So in another year, I ended up as a graduate student at the University of Rochester with a university fellowship.
One good thing at Rochester was the International Friendship Program. Rochester International Friendship Council, together with the International Students Office, assigned to new international students, if they wanted, a friendship family. The Brown family, consisting of Nancy and Ron, were fantastic friends. At a given time they would have about ten international students as their current friends. These would include students from Africa, Japan, India, Mexico and so on. All these students would be invited to the Browns' for Christmas, Easter, Thanks Giving Day and other festivals. Whenever necessary, You can count upon Ron and Nancy for help. It was like a home away from home. It was a fantastic system, and something that International Students Office at Australian universities should try to implement.
At Rochester I had the privilege of studying under many fantastic teachers, including the late Professor Lewis White Beck. Professor Beck had already retired, but regularly came to his office for research and teaching. I had written a term paper on Kant for Professor Ralf Meerbote that I was rather proud of. (I never claimed to understand Kant, but Professor Meerbote was very impressed with my term paper.) Later, I had given a copy of this paper to Professor Beck for his opinion on it. It appears that Professor Beck also liked it. He asked Predrag Cicovacki, a friend who was writing his thesis on Kant, "Predrag! This young Indian gentleman here gave me an interesting paper to read. Is he a Kant scholar?" Predrag reportedly replied, "Oh Professor Beck! The young Indian researcher you are referring to is neither a Kantian nor a scholar." Professor Beck none the less invited me to join his privatisimum, a private seminar that you attend by invitation only. We had many discussion sessions on that paper I had written. Professor Beck would give copious comments and suggest corrections. Eventually, Eric Sotnak joined in the effort, and this paper was published in the Journal of Philosophical and Phenomenological Research. This is my only published work in traditional philosophy, so far.
I had the privilege to study logic with Professor Rolf Eberle. Professor Eberle had done his graduate research at UCLA with Richard Montague. He offered many research courses on logic and philosophy of mathematics. He put a lot of emphasis on rigour and clarity. As Professor Henry Kyburg used to joke, "Professor Eberle would be happy to give a talk on anything. You ask him to give a talk on, say, Morality and War. He would start -- Let us assume from the outset the First Order Logic with Identity...". Had I not been committed to write my thesis on theory change, I would have worked with Professor Eberle on Montague grammar.
While a student at Rochester, I came back married from a trip to India. My wife Kamalinee had a background in biology. She received financial aid to study biology at SUNY (Brockport), about twenty five miles from Rochester. So we lived in Brockport for the most part of my graduate studies at Rochester. While in Brockport, we came across a lady from Chili, Barbara Hidalgo. She had a son, Nicki, from her ex-husband. The ex-husband was an Indian, settled in US. Barbara was trying to get some child support, but was unable to track him down. She was carrying out a difficult life. I wrote a longish account of it in Soc.Culture.India. Many Indian students in US were moved by the story and sent financial help to Barbara. In fact, one student had sent a check of $500, if I remember correctly. Barbara was very thankful to me. She considered this help from the students as a loan, and intended to return all that money when things turn better. I have lost touch with Barbara; but hope she and Nicki are doing well.
After completing my course works, I decided to work for the thesis with Professor Henry E. Kyburg, Jr. who had a joint position in philosophy and computer science. Professor Kyburg was probably the most well known philosopher at Rochester. He had done his PhD at Columbia with Ernst Nagel, as did other well known philosophers such as Isaac Levi and Patrick Suppes . When I had Professor Kyburg as my official supervisor, I had the intention of working in the area of theory change. However, I was not sure if that intention was consistent with professor Kyburg's. So soon afterwards, I asked him if he had a research project in mind. Professor Kyburg replied. "No! I want my students to work on their own projects". I thought that was a very good approach to research. If you let the research students find a research topic on their own, they would develop a sense of ownership that they would lack otherwise. By the time PhD is completed, such students will be capable of doing research very independently. Unfortunately, the current push in Australia to complete PhD within four years does not allow such luxurious approach to research.
Part of the precondition for becoming a PhD candidate is that you submit a research proposal. I had submitted a three page research proposal. It was essentially a promise to complete everything that Peter Gärdenfors in his book Knowledge in Flux left as "future work". Kyburg's comment on my proposal was, "A bit ambitious, but will do for the moment". Only towards the end of my student career did I realise what an understatement it was. If I had done all that I promised in that three page proposal, I would have gotten ten or fifteen PhD's. I give this example to students to illustrate how important it is to narrow down a PhD topic. Many students think they need to solve a real, "big" problem as part of their PhD thesis. There is nothing wrong in solving "big" problems; but then they get confused between a big problem and a broad area of research. People some times refuse to believe that big problems can be very clearly defined, well specified problems. Many PhD students will do well to accept that completion of their PhD is merely the beginning, and not the end, of their research career.
It took a while for me to identify a concrete problem to work on. While still struggling to identify a problem, Jeff Pelletier from University of Alberta joined Rochester as the director of a cognitive science programme that was being developed. I used to discuss with Jeff about my research problems. Jeff happened to have a copy of the PhD thesis of André Fuhrman. André had completed his PhD at ANU, and was very well regarded. Jeff asked me to look at the thesis, so that I might be able to get some idea of what problems in the area that people were working on. I started reading André's thesis with a lot of enthusiasm. It was a very good suggestion from Jeff.
André's thesis was on an approach to theory change where theories are finitely represented; the traditional approach to theory change does not worry about finite representation at all. (His approach was also couched in relevance logic, while the traditional model assumes a form of classical logic.) Given finite representation, the problem becomes more difficult in many ways. I noticed that he had left an open problem -- namely, whether his model of theory contraction satisfied a particular property that the traditional model of theory contraction satisfied.
I did not know much about relevance logic. So I modelled André's approach in classical logic, and noticed that his open problem still remains a problem in classical logic. I understood classical logic fairly well. I thought I should be able to solve this problem. I intensely worked on that problem for two or three months. During this period, Jeff introduced me to Professor Randy Goebel from the University of Alberta who was visiting Rochester. I remember all three of us sweating over part of this problem over a whole afternoon. We did not solve the problem, but I learnt some technical terms -- eg., "literal" -- that are hardly used by philosophers. Randy and I have since remained good friends.
After quite a struggle, I managed to show that that particular condition is not satisfied. The demonstration was rather tedious. Later on I managed to substantially simplify the demonstration. I also proposed a different construction of theory contraction based on finite representation of belief states that satisfies all traditional properties of theory contraction. I maintained correspondence with many international researchers in the area regarding my research progress. They include Peter Gärdenfors, André Fuhrman, Sven Ove Hansson and Bernhard Nebel. Their comments and suggestions, in a sense, guided my research direction.
This work was finally accepted for publication in the Journal of Philosophical Logic, a well respected journal. When Professor Kyburg heard of it, he said I should now write up the dissertation since I was ready. In the mean time I also received a job offer as a post-doctoral research fellow with Professor Norman Foo, then at the Basser Department of Computer Science, University of Sydney. I was very happy with this offer, since it promised a research environment in a group, while so far my research was a one-man affair.
I was pretty much done with the dissertation. I was writing the introduction to complete it. While writing the introduction, I came across a problem that I thought I must address in my dissertation. I noticed that the available account of theory change could not account for sequential theory change. I mentioned Professor Kyburg that I was working on this new problem, and must address this in the thesis. He was not very keen. He knew that solving a serious problem could take a substantial amount of time, and I might lose the job in the mean time. However, by this time I had better grip over my research since I understood the material more thoroughly. I completed this account relatively quickly, and showed it to Professor Kyburg. He was very happy with the result. This work was later substantially improved with suggestions from Hans Rott, and was published in the journal Erkenntnis in 1994.
The defense of my PhD dissertation was rather smooth. Other members of my dissertation committee were: Jeff Pelletier who had already left Rochester to join Alberta again, Len Schubert from the Department of computer Science, and John Bennett. Professor Bennett was very well acquainted with my PhD since he had gone through every draft of every chapter of my thesis. He had no obligation to help me with my research, but his unconditional help with my research work has earned my eternal gratitude. Soon after the defense, I left Rochester in August 1993 to join the Knowledge Systems Group at Basser that Norman had set up. Kamalinee joined me in November.
I have been living in Sydney since 1993, and have never seriously thought of moving elsewhere. You never feel out-of-place in here.
Some of the best years of my life have been spent as a research scholar in the Knowledge Systems Group. The founding father of KSG, Professor Norman Foo, has been a fantastic mentor and a rare friend.
I have also been lucky in other ways. Apart from my wife Kamalinee, I have as my immediate family my son Smarak who is very understanding for his age. He used to say he would become a soccer playing mathematician. I am not quite sure whether he still is committed to that plan; but I am sure he will be happy with whatever life he picks up.
I worked as a post doctoral research fellow in the Knowledge Systems Group, initially in the University of Sydney, and then in the University of the New South Wales. During this period, I completed Masters in Information Science at the University of the New South wales. After my post-doc research, I joined the University of Newcastle as a lecturer in the school of management. After a short stint there, I have been teaching in the Department of Computing at Macquarie University. I have been lucky in having a set of very dependable friends who are ALSO my colleagues. This makes work-place a lot more exciting -- some might say, tolerable -- than it would otherwise be. Needless to say, without such friends, life as an expatriate will be very hard.