Sunday, December 21, 2014

Conversations 24: Why I am Kolkata

In Annie Hall (1977), Annie tells Alvy, "You don't know how to enjoy life. You are New York!" 

I came back home last Friday, but, as always, I remain really confused where home is. Pico Iyer doubts that home is really any place at all, but rather where you take your guards down. My home in London ticks that box, as I have not lived in Kolkata for more than a decade and feel besieged when I am there. 

But, then, I think all too often when I shall be doing practical stuff. I live an emotional, engaged, life, dreaming away most of the time. I carry this change-the-world optimism with me alongside the repulsion for narrowness of people I have to do business with. I feel almost good when people say I have unfulfilled potential. I start all too often - make new beginnings as if past never existed. I feel proud of my dilapidated being because it indicates a tradition, long forsaken, that I want to belong to. I eschew all the company that will have me for company, in a homage to Groucho Marx, and aspire to belong to some place nonexistent. Well, I am Kolkata then.

It is not home anymore but it lives in me. Migrants like me are known for as much the journey they made as the journey of return they never end up making. It is the promise of that journey, its unfulfilled, fragmented, dream, expressed in awkward and out of place celebrations of festivities, the assorted souvenirs that adorn our homes, stories of childhood that live with us and which we want to pass on to our children (only to be rebuffed), that makes a migrant's home. Even when I let my guard down only in Croydon, I do so in this little circle of nostalgia and make-believe place of little Kolkata, a place that doesn't really exist but is a matter of imagination.

Some say ambivalence isn't good, not knowing what to do: That is indeed so in a migrant's life when we can't take anything for granted and must continually try to establish a foothold. It is about striving all the time, working round the clock, imagining only for very practical considerations of imagination. But there is nothing practical to dream about Kolkata: It is a hot, humid, poor, dirty, sweaty, rude place, full of people who let the life drift and others too busy coning everyone else. For all the talk of unfulfilled potential, the practicality of never having realised it mustn't be considered a rude reminder. It is a place that is going down: One of the first cities in Asia to have reached a million population (the other one being Tokyo), it is the only metropolis in the world whose population decreased in the last ten years. For all our non-resident indulgence, people who live there obviously have chosen to vote with their feet.

And, yet, ambivalence is key to love; it is that feeling that overcome all the practical, as it must be, to touch one's soul. There is no practicality in the soul, no pharmaceutical company will ever endeavour to research it, and yet, our hopes of the future must come thence. Kolkata is that ambivalence, a practical rejection of practicality, a tough love of sorts, an acquired taste like the Jaljeera in Peter Cat, an imagination like a cold winter to make everyone run for jumpers when the temperature touches 20 degrees, Celcius! Even its drift, so tragic in its consequences, is so poignant in its rejection of the mouth-clasp of consumer civilisation. The coexistence of the kind and the rude, the splendid and the squalid, the snob and the revolutionary, the past and the future - with almost no hint of the present or the normal - that make Kolkata the place it is. 

So, I sign off with love, a love that can only belong to one place. I love, therefore, I am Kolkata. The day I lose the place, hopefully I never will, I shall lose the capacity to love, deeply, passionately, dreamingly, impractically. For all the grossness I overlook, for all the transgressions I brush aside, for all the rudeness I silently absorb and for all the dirt that I must cleanse with love - there is only one explanation: That one must belong to someplace, that cozy place called home, which must belong to one's heart, rather than the other way round.



Saturday, December 20, 2014

Global Workforce Crisis: Case For A Creative Education

Global Workforce Crisis is real, going by plain demographic numbers. The solutions available, immigration, offshoring and extending the retirement age, are politically difficult. The only available option is improving mass education, but there are entrenched interests, of power and privileges, that seeks to undermine the case for a good public education. If this does not make the problem look bad enough, there is more: It is not more of the same education that would solve the problem and we may need to think about the educational model as well.

This new educational model, I shall argue, needs to put creative and cultural education at the heart of the educational process, at all levels. Our current model of education assumes that culture is a rich man's thing, leaving out all the museum visits and piano lessons as expensive add-ons to schooling. Mass education, as we see it, is a rough-and-ready thing about literacy and numeracy, which will allow the pupils a shot at all the various process-based jobs. This thinking is particularly acute in the developing countries, who have benefitted greatly in the last two decades from the emergence of global workflows, which has created many such process-based jobs in these countries. 

But such offshoring was only a temporary solution to the Global Workforce Crisis, as we now see the convergence of globalisation and automation that is creating new kinds of opportunities. Automation is destroying the old jobs and creating new ones, but we are still educating people for the old jobs in the old ways. Educating more people like this isn't going to solve the problem, and these jobs are not going to come back just because there are more people available and wages would fall farther. The 'Crisis' is going to be worse not just because we just don't have enough numbers to fill the positions, but also because the numbers we have will be ready for work we don't any longer need.

The case for a mass provision of creative and cultural education is, therefore, urgent. In The Virtuous Circle: Why Creativity and Cultural Education Count (2014), John Sorrell et al define 'creative and cultural education' as education covering a range of disciplines, archeology, architecture and the built environment, archives, craft, dance, design, digital arts, drama and theatre, film and cinemas, galleries, heritage, libraries, literature, live performance, museums, music, poetry and the visual arts. Now, in a lot of places, that entire gamut of activities will be considered leisure rather than work, to be attended to when one is rich and successful: Till then, all children will be expected to study engineering and get some kind of programming job. The point missed is indeed that now the computers can generate a large part of the code (all the visual programming environments point to this) and we may not need as many programmers in the future, but a lot more people doing higher level of work, thinking about software architecture, design, user interfaces, business problem solving and communication. One needs these abilities over and above programming skills, and even an engineer/ programmer will be well served if they are exposed to the world of culture and communication.
I follow the work of Sorrell Foundation's Saturday Club in the UK with interest, which exposes young people to creative and cultural work using the available infrastructure in local institutions. This is a great model - low cost, inclusive access - which can be used to initiate more and more people to cultural education and open up their possibilities. While the public money support may be limited in developing nations, as their governments remain transfixed to the illusive possibility of outsourcing economy, such initiatives can indeed be funded as an outreach programme for an educational institution or a For-profit start-up initiative, structured around a freemium model. Indeed, this could be one big idea for all those seeking to create Employability programmes, as abilities to judge, create and communicate are central to twenty-first century employability, and an appropriate response to the Global Workforce Crisis.

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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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