The Great Journalists are all Dissidents

The Great Journalists are all Dissidents.

via The Great Journalists are all Dissidents.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

JBS Haldane: On being the right size

The most obvious differences between different animals are differences of size, but for some reason the zoologists have paid singularly little attention to them. In a large textbook of zoology before me I find no indication that the eagle is larger than the sparrow, or the hippopotamus bigger than the hare, though some grudging admissions are made in the case of the mouse and the whale. But yet it is easy to show that a hare could not be as large as a hippopotamus, or a whale as small as a herring. For every type of animal there is a most convenient size, and a large change in size inevitably carries with it a change of form.

Let us take the most obvious of possible cases, and consider a giant man sixty feet high—about the height of Giant Pope and Giant Pagan in the illustrated Pilgrim’s Progress of my childhood. These monsters were not only ten times as high as Christian, but ten times as wide and ten times as thick, so that their total weight was a thousand times his, or about eighty to ninety tons. Unfortunately the cross sections of their bones were only a hundred times those of Christian, so that every square inch of giant bone had to support ten times the weight borne by a square inch of human bone. As the human thigh-bone breaks under about ten times the human weight, Pope and Pagan would have broken their thighs every time they took a step. This was doubtless why they were sitting down in the picture I remember. But it lessens one’s respect for Christian and Jack the Giant Killer.

To turn to zoology, suppose that a gazelle, a graceful little creature with long thin legs, is to become large, it will break its bones unless it does one of two things. It may make its legs short and thick, like the rhinoceros, so that every pound of weight has still about the same area of bone to support it. Or it can compress its body and stretch out its legs obliquely to gain stability, like the giraffe. I mention these two beasts because they happen to belong to the same order as the gazelle, and both are quite successful mechanically, being remarkably fast runners.

Gravity, a mere nuisance to Christian, was a terror to Pope, Pagan, and Despair. To the mouse and any smaller animal it presents practically no dangers. You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away, provided that the ground is fairly soft. A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes. For the resistance presented to movement by the air is proportional to the surface of the moving object. Divide an animal’s length, breadth, and height each by ten; its weight is reduced to a thousandth, but its surface only to a hundredth. So the resistance to falling in the case of the small animal is relatively ten times greater than the driving force.

An insect, therefore, is not afraid of gravity; it can fall without danger, and can cling to the ceiling with remarkably little trouble. It can go in for elegant and fantastic forms of support like that of the daddy-longlegs. But there is a force which is as formidable to an insect as gravitation to a mammal. This is surface tension. A man coming out of a bath carries with him a film of water of about one-fiftieth of an inch in thickness. This weighs roughly a pound. A wet mouse has to carry about its own weight of water. A wet fly has to lift many times its own weight and, as everyone knows, a fly once wetted by water or any other liquid is in a very serious position indeed. An insect going for a drink is in as great danger as a man leaning out over a precipice in search of food. If it once falls into the grip of the surface tension of the water—that is to say, gets wet—it is likely to remain so until it drowns. A few insects, such as water-beetles, contrive to be unwettable; the majority keep well away from their drink by means of a long proboscis.

Of course tall land animals have other difficulties. They have to pump their blood to greater heights than a man, and, therefore, require a larger blood pressure and tougher blood-vessels. A great many men die from burst arteries, greater for an elephant or a giraffe. But animals of all kinds find difficulties in size for the following reason. A typical small animal, say a microscopic worm or rotifer, has a smooth skin through which all the oxygen it requires can soak in, a straight gut with sufficient surface to absorb its food, and a single kidney. Increase its dimensions tenfold in every direction, and its weight is increased a thousand times, so that if it is to use its muscles as efficiently as its miniature counterpart, it will need a thousand times as much food and oxygen per day and will excrete a thousand times as much of waste products.

Now if its shape is unaltered its surface will be increased only a hundredfold, and ten times as much oxygen must enter per minute through each square millimetre of skin, ten times as much food through each square millimetre of intestine. When a limit is reached to their absorptive powers their surface has to be increased by some special device. For example, a part of the skin may be drawn out into tufts to make gills or pushed in to make lungs, thus increasing the oxygen-absorbing surface in proportion to the animal’s bulk. A man, for example, has a hundred square yards of lung. Similarly, the gut, instead of being smooth and straight, becomes coiled and develops a velvety surface, and other organs increase in complication. The higher animals are not larger than the lower because they are more complicated. They are more complicated because they are larger. Just the same is true of plants. The simplest plants, such as the green algae growing in stagnant water or on the bark of trees, are mere round cells. The higher plants increase their surface by putting out leaves and roots. Comparative anatomy is largely the story of the struggle to increase surface in proportion to volume. Some of the methods of increasing the surface are useful up to a point, but not capable of a very wide adaptation. For example, while vertebrates carry the oxygen from the gills or lungs all over the body in the blood, insects take air directly to every part of their body by tiny blind tubes called tracheae which open to the surface at many different points. Now, although by their breathing movements they can renew the air in the outer part of the tracheal system, the oxygen has to penetrate the finer branches by means of diffusion. Gases can diffuse easily through very small distances, not many times larger than the average length traveled by a gas molecule between collisions with other molecules. But when such vast journeys—from the point of view of a molecule—as a quarter of an inch have to be made, the process becomes slow. So the portions of an insect’s body more than a quarter of an inch from the air would always be short of oxygen. In consequence hardly any insects are much more than half an inch thick. Land crabs are built on the same general plan as insects, but are much clumsier. Yet like ourselves they carry oxygen around in their blood, and are therefore able to grow far larger than any insects. If the insects had hit on a plan for driving air through their tissues instead of letting it soak in, they might well have become as large as lobsters, though other considerations would have prevented them from becoming as large as man.

Exactly the same difficulties attach to flying. It is an elementary principle of aeronautics that the minimum speed needed to keep an aeroplane of a given shape in the air varies as the square root of its length. If its linear dimensions are increased four times, it must fly twice as fast. Now the power needed for the minimum speed increases more rapidly than the weight of the machine. So the larger aeroplane, which weighs sixty-four times as much as the smaller, needs one hundred and twenty-eight times its horsepower to keep up. Applying the same principle to the birds, we find that the limit to their size is soon reached. An angel whose muscles developed no more power weight for weight than those of an eagle or a pigeon would require a breast projecting for about four feet to house the muscles engaged in working its wings, while to economize in weight, its legs would have to be reduced to mere stilts. Actually a large bird such as an eagle or kite does not keep in the air mainly by moving its wings. It is generally to be seen soaring, that is to say balanced on a rising column of air. And even soaring becomes more and more difficult with increasing size. Were this not the case eagles might be as large as tigers and as formidable to man as hostile aeroplanes.

But it is time that we pass to some of the advantages of size. One of the most obvious is that it enables one to keep warm. All warmblooded animals at rest lose the same amount of heat from a unit area of skin, for which purpose they need a food-supply proportional to their surface and not to their weight. Five thousand mice weigh as much as a man. Their combined surface and food or oxygen consumption are about seventeen times a man’s. In fact a mouse eats about one quarter its own weight of food every day, which is mainly used in keeping it warm. For the same reason small animals cannot live in cold countries. In the arctic regions there are no reptiles or amphibians, and no small mammals. The smallest mammal in Spitzbergen is the fox. The small birds fly away in winter, while the insects die, though their eggs can survive six months or more of frost. The most successful mammals are bears, seals, and walruses.

Similarly, the eye is a rather inefficient organ until it reaches a large size. The back of the human eye on which an image of the outside world is thrown, and which corresponds to the film of a camera, is composed of a mosaic of “rods and cones” whose diameter is little more than a length of an average light wave. Each eye has about a half a million, and for two objects to be distinguishable their images must fall on separate rods or cones. It is obvious that with fewer but larger rods and cones we should see less distinctly. If they were twice as broad two points would have to be twice as far apart before we could distinguish them at a given distance. But if their size were diminished and their number increased we should see no better. For it is impossible to form a definite image smaller than a wave-length of light. Hence a mouse’s eye is not a small-scale model of a human eye. Its rods and cones are not much smaller than ours, and therefore there are far fewer of them. A mouse could not distinguish one human face from another six feet away. In order that they should be of any use at all the eyes of small animals have to be much larger in proportion to their bodies than our own. Large animals on the other hand only require relatively small eyes, and those of the whale and elephant are little larger than our own. For rather more recondite reasons the same general principle holds true of the brain. If we compare the brain-weights of a set of very similar animals such as the cat, cheetah, leopard, and tiger, we find that as we quadruple the body-weight the brain-weight is only doubled. The larger animal with proportionately larger bones can economize on brain, eyes, and certain other organs.

Such are a very few of the considerations which show that for every type of animal there is an optimum size. Yet although Galileo demonstrated the contrary more than three hundred years ago, people still believe that if a flea were as large as a man it could jump a thousand feet into the air. As a matter of fact the height to which an animal can jump is more nearly independent of its size than proportional to it. A flea can jump about two feet, a man about five. To jump a given height, if we neglect the resistance of air, requires an expenditure of energy proportional to the jumper’s weight. But if the jumping muscles form a constant fraction of the animal’s body, the energy developed per ounce of muscle is independent of the size, provided it can be developed quickly enough in the small animal. As a matter of fact an insect’s muscles, although they can contract more quickly than our own, appear to be less efficient; as otherwise a flea or grasshopper could rise six feet into the air.

And just as there is a best size for every animal, so the same is true for every human institution. In the Greek type of democracy all the citizens could listen to a series of orators and vote directly on questions of legislation. Hence their philosophers held that a small city was the largest possible democratic state. The English invention of representative government made a democratic nation possible, and the possibility was first realized in the United States, and later elsewhere. With the development of broadcasting it has once more become possible for every citizen to listen to the political views of representative orators, and the future may perhaps see the return of the national state to the Greek form of democracy. Even the referendum has been made possible only by the institution of daily newspapers.

To the biologist the problem of socialism appears largely as a problem of size. The extreme socialists desire to run every nation as a single business concern. I do not suppose that Henry Ford would find much difficulty in running Andorra or Luxembourg on a socialistic basis. He has already more men on his pay-roll than their population. It is conceivable that a syndicate of Fords, if we could find them, would make Belgium Ltd or Denmark Inc. pay their way. But while nationalization of certain industries is an obvious possibility in the largest of states, I find it no easier to picture a completely socialized British Empire or United States than an elephant turning somersaults or a hippopotamus jumping a hedge.

Posted in Biology, JBS Haldane | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Lenin the lizard by M. Krishnan

Peeping from under a rafter in the ceiling, I see a pair of eyes — cold, beady eyes that search every nook and corner of the room for something to eat. And I know that Lenin, the fat and rascally lizard who patrols the walls of my room is out on his nightly rounds.

Lenin has been there ever since I can remember. Once, long ago, he was small and lithe, and moved with a swift, easy grace. His tail would twist nervously from side to side, specially when some insect was near, for Lenin was eager and excitable in those days. His body would shine a warm, translucent orange in the glare of the wall lamp, as your fingers would if you closed them over the bulb of a powerful electric torch. At times he was almost beautiful.

All that is gone. Tonight (for he comes out only in night) he is fat and repulsive. His tail is thick and rigid, with a kink at the end of it, and he is no longer translucent. I never liked Lenin, but in the old days, I used to admire his sinuous speed as he raced about the walls on his career of rapine and murder. Now he has no saving grace: he is just six inches of squat, warty ugliness.

Lenin lives to eat. I have followed his career from time when he was three inches long. He has grown older and bigger, and more expert in the art of catching and eating insects, but he does nothing else. He is silent, and unsociable, resenting acquaintance except with moths. Lizards are not noted for their passionate and affectionate nature, but I feel that Lenin would be considered a sour old recluse even by these cold-blooded reptiles. Once, another lizard came into Lenin’s province — a much smaller, much younger lizard: a lizard whose delicately curved tail and elegance of carriage lent a vague feminine touch to the walls.

For a moment I was distress by a vision of Lenin, his wife, and a young family of Lenins crowding the walls of my room, but this passed like all visions. Lenins’s attitude towards the fair visitor was shockingly ungallant and cannibalistic. He chased her round and round, and only her youth and superior speed saved her from a most unhappy end, for lizard are cannibals, and will eat their kith and kin if they are small enough to be eaten. Other lizards might indulge in friendship and family life but not Lenin. I’m afraid he is a confirmed misogynist. He never gave up trying to eat her. That brave little lizard, she stuck it out for a week, defying Lenin. In fact she almost conquered the territory for, being quicker than Lenin, she either got the insects or drove them away before he could move. But it was a short-lived triumph. One night Lenin planned a cunning rear attack, and before she knew where she was, he had her firmly by her tail. There was a terrific struggle, and then down she fell, with a whack on the floor, leaving squirming tail in Lenin’s mouth. I was reminded of Tom O’Shanter’s mare and the devil

The Divil caught her by the rump.
And left puir Maggie scarce a stump.

It is a curious provision of Nature that the tail of lizard, normally pliant, becomes quite bristle when anyone lays hold of it. ‘Aha!’ cries your inexperienced lizard-catcher as he grabs the tail of his victim, "I’ve got you at last!" And the tail, suddenly fragile, comes away in his hand while the rest of the lizard scuttles hastily away to safer regions. And so ‘puir Maggie’ escaped. I never saw her again. Perhaps she went into hiding — into some dark and secluded corner — till she’d grown another tail, before venturing elegantly out again in the full splendour of a new-grown one. For it is an even more curious provision of Nature that lizards which have lost their tails grow new ones.

Which brings us to the question, "Do lizards really need tails?" Of course, the do — in fact, I think that they would be utterly lost without tails. The tail is the only organ of emotional expression that lizard has. It compensates for his voicelessness. There are frogs that pipe shrill tunes and crickets that chirp quite half a dozen different notes, but everyone knows that the Lizard on the Wall never says anything beyond laconic "Tchut, Thcut". But then, he has, in his tail, an organ that expresses the entire gamut of a lizard’s emotions. Whenever he is excited by any feeling, he twitches his tail. It is true that very few things outside the imminence of food excite him, but that is truly beside the point. Watch a lizard as he stalks a moth and you’ll know what I mean. Only the tip of his tail twitches as he advances, carefully, inch by inch, upon his unsuspecting victim. The rest of him is tense and rigid — only the tail betrays his eagerness. Or again, watch him as he passes another lizard and note the gay, friendly wave of his tail as he salutes her. He has another use of his tail — a far more practical use. He clings to the sheer faces of the walls by the suckers in his pads and the tail is his rudder. Without it, his progress against the force of gravity, as he races along the wall, would be more erratic….

I have wandered far from Lenin. Lenin is so unemotional, and unsociable, the perhaps he does not need a tail. Life, for him, is one continuous orgy. Beetles, moths and garden bugs are, to the zoologists, widely different things. But to Lenin they are the same: all things to be gobbled up. Once I saw him actually swallow a small scorpion, with no more fuss than a child would make over sugar candy! It’s during the monsoon that he is truly happy, for with the rain the insects come and cluster round the wall lamp. Just now, as I write, a moth has come in, and settled on a rafter just above the fatal lamp; one of those brown-and-yellow, mottled moths that look, when at rest, exactly like a chunk of wood. Indeed I can scarcely believe that it is not a piece wood, but Lenin will not be deceived. However still that ill-fated moth may stay, however much it may imitate a chunk of wood, Lenin will get it; for Lenin eats everything that comes his way, chunks of wood included. Why, only the other day, he gobbled up a big, nickel four-anna bit I’d left carelessly behind the table! You do not believe it? Only Lenin and my servant could have got it; and my servant swears that he has never, in all his life, seen such a coin — it seems the poor, ignorant man simply did not know that the government of India struck nickel four-anna bits!

M. Krishnan 1938

Posted in M. Krishnan | Tagged

Andre Beteille: Academic Autonomy

The subject of academic autonomy may be discussed in more than one way. There is firstly the autonomy of the academic institution — the university or college — in relation to the government or other organ of society. Closely related to this is the autonomy of the academic profession, involving a particular kind of work viewed as a service by society as a whole. In the latter case the problems are similar to those of the legal and medical professions, although lawyers, doctors and academics function in institutional settings that differ considerably from each other.

There are self-employed doctors and lawyers, but hardly any self-employed academics. Doctors certainly recognize that when they give up their private practice to work in a public hospital, they give up a part of their autonomy in return for other considerations, including those of security. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learnt from this about professional life in general: it may not be possible beyond a point maximize both professional autonomy and occupational security at the same time.

It may be argued that doctors and lawyers who value their independence above everything else should work as self-employed professionals. At the same time, even when they seek employment in public institutions, they should not be made to surrender their autonomy as professionals, because that would harm those whom they serve and not just themselves. The demand for professional autonomy is based on something more than trade union rights of the ordinary sort. It is recognized in so far as there is a link between the strength of professional autonomy and the quality of professional service. I am not sure how widely this link is recognized in our society, or how far doctors, lawyers and other professionals employed in public institutions carry conviction when they claim that they want more autonomy for themselves in order to be able to serve others better.

In cannot be too strongly emphasized that the strength of academic autonomy will depend ultimately on the value assigned by society as a whole to independence in academic life. This value is formally acknowledged by making academic institutions self-governing. In India universities are not department of government, they are governed by own Acts, statues and ordinances. It is not always relaized that at least formally Indian universities enjoys greater institutional autonomy than universities in many other countries, including some European countries with strong academic traditions.

Even in the best of times universities have not enjoyed complete autonomy anywhere. Because the institutional autonomy of the university can never be complete, it can never be fully secure. In Europe, the principal threat to university autonomy in the past was the church, now it is the state. The long arm of government has reached into the inner recess or universities in one European country after another, and I have heard academics in Belgium, Holland and England say that their government are determined to destroy their universities. Without yielding to hysteria, one has to take note of the changes taking place in the relations between universities and government throughout the world today.

In India, the government is making its presence increasingly felt in the universities even though it has not shut down university department as in Holland or told university professors to take early retirement as in England. The main instrument of intervention, whether it is applied directly by government of through the University Grant Commission, is the financial sanction; if universities were not perpetually in need of more money, the intervention would probably be less odious. The justification most commonly given for intervention is the affairs of the universities is that they are not able on their own either maintain standards or control corruption.

Indian universities would be able to protect their autonomy better if they were less open to charges of corruption and inefficiency. No public institution can insist on enlarged rights of self-governance against universal suspicion of corruption and inefficiency. The university’s right of self-governance is damaged most when the strongest charges against the authorities of the university came not from outside but from university teachers themselves. A growing number of young and talented teachers have convinced themselves that professors, head of departments and deans, not to speak of vice-chancellors and the pro-vice-chancellors, are corrupt as well as inept. A very common argument in support of time-bound promotions is that academic selection committee can not trusted to either recognize or reward merit. When academic selection committee cannot be trusted by new entrants to the professions, what happens to the academic self-governance and university autonomy?

While it is undeniable that corruption and inefficiency are widespread in self-governing institutions, it would be foolish to tar all universities or all sections of any university with the same brush. In talking about corruption and inefficiency, we must never forget that universities are perhaps the most exposed among institutions and therefore their faults are always exposed to public gaze. And if it be argued that these particular faults in our universities must be corrected by tightening government control over them, who is to say that our governmental bureaucracy is lily-white in its purity? It will be very hard indeed to prove that our better universities — like the University of Delhi or Jawaharlal Nehru University — are more corrupt or more inefficient than the University Grant Commission.

Denigration of their own profession has become a way of life with our academics, and it sits ill with their plea for greater academic autonomy. The attack from within on the university’s organs of governance has acquired a new character with the development of an active, vigorous and militant trade union movement among college and university teachers. Whereas in the past vice-chancellor, the academic council and the executive councils were criticized privately and discreetly, the onslaught against them is now direct and open. The indefinite strike provides an occasion to otherwise sedate men and women to express themselves without let of hindrance against the constituted authorities of the university.

Where a union of college and university teachers is particularly strong and self-confident, it might seek to negotiate directly with the education secretary or even the education minister, over the heads of the vice-chancellor and the executive council. An irresponsible government might even encourage this as a way of setting one part of the university against the other. The union defines the university in the image of capitalist enterprise and other, willy-nilly, come to acknowledge the definition. To the extent that teachers play their part in accordance with such a definition, the case for autonomy and self-governance becomes weakened.

It can of course be argued that by union leadership that the constituted authorities of the universities are so inept that they are forced to bypass them the enter into direct negotiations with the government. This way well turn out to true in future, although I do not believe it to be true today. But when it does turn out to be true, if it does, the university will hardly be in position to ask for greater powers of self-governance. No vice-chancellor should be above criticism, but university teachers must recognize the damage done to the case of autonomy when they allow their unions to undermine the dignity of the vice-chancellor’s office.

Unionization has not only led to increasing confrontation between elected leadership and the constituted authorities of the university, it has also provided a foothold to political parties within the university. Our political parties being what they are, it would be surprise for them to miss an opportunity, while in opposition, to embarrass the constituted authorities. Moreover some parties are committed to the view that in a class-divided society every institution conceals a division of interests as in a capitalist enterprise.

University teachers have the freedom to join political parties of their choice. This is a part of their professional autonomy, and it is a good thing that they enjoy the freedom, provided they respect their non-partisan colleagues and provided that they do not always put loyalty to their party above loyalty to their university. We must surely acknowledge that if interference by civil servants in the affairs of the university is a violation of university autonomy, so too is intervention by leaders of political parties. Throughout the strike of August-September 1987 major decisions concerning the resumption of normal academic work were taken not in the universities but in the offices of political parties. The record of these parties do not inspire much confidence int heir commitment to the principle of academic autonomy. And it is one thing for academics to be unwilling victims of bureaucratic hight-handedness, but quite another for them to court party leaders and seek direction from them in the conduct of their own affairs.

Andre Beteille

Times of India, February 6, 1988

Posted in Andre Beteille | Leave a comment

On village Deities

Chandan Gowda: How did you become interested in village deities?

Siddalingaiah: I was always curious about gods. I often went to fairs and festivals with my grandmother and used to participate in the festivals of village deities as an onlooker. I was also interested in the ‘possession’ by gods. A relative of mine would often get possessed by a god, and I would sit next to him on such occasions. Since he was closely related, we felt safe that no problems would befall us. Also, there was tremendous intimacy between the devotees and the gods. The devotees spoke to them as if they were their brother, father, mother, grandmother or friend. I particularly liked how they questioned and challenged the gods. The gods too did not mind and spoke back as if they were indeed their friends and relatives.

I realized when I was young that the god-human relation is intimate and humane among the lower castes, villagers and farmers. Among the upper-castes, purohits and poojaris mediate relations between the god and devotees. In fact, only the priests can enter the temple’s inner sanctum; the devotees offer their respects from a distance. A big distance exists between the god and the devotees. In folk (janapada) religion, the distance is much less, if not non-existent. There is freedom to scold, condemn and even criticize god. An elderly person once asked a deity on behalf of the people: ‘Where were you all these days? Have you forgotten us?’ The god answered calmly: ‘Is yours the only village? I need to look after the seven worlds. Do you know how difficult my task is?’ The elderly person hit back: ‘We work so hard – don’t you see that!’ The god replied: ‘Am I working any less? Even I’m working hard.’ The relation where the god and humans share their hardships with each other is an intimate one. The distance between them is erased. The context that allows for this interested me.

Referring to your book, Avataragalu (Incarnations), you once told me that it was a crude rational approach to understanding folk religion. How would you understand village deities now?

Mockery was central to Avataragalu. Because of my rationalist background, I used to make fun of gods for a few years. That’s when Avataragalu was published, which appealed to rationalist youth. But, I don’t think like that any more. For example, people suddenly start lashing themselves with a whip. I probably would have made fun of this earlier. I would like to look at it differently now. This person is inflicting self-violence (sva-himse). Why is he doing this? What are its origins? I would ask such questions now.

Some devotees took me to a forest to show their deity who was supposed to have great powers. They showed me a round stone with turmeric and kumkuma. I asked, ‘She is such a powerful deity. Why haven’t you built a shrine for her?’ They replied: ‘We tried to do it. But she asked us not to.’ Some of them strongly felt that she had to have a shrine and tried to build one. She asked them to stop building it. They demanded to know why. She asked, ‘Do each of you have a house?’ One of them replied that he didn’t have one. She then said: ‘See, he doesn’t have a house, and you’re asking me to have one. No, I cannot have a house; don’t build one for me.’

Many deities in and around Bangalore don’t have shrines. And, the shrines of many deities have no roof. A deity called Bisilamma said: ‘I want to burn under the sun, shiver in the cold and get drenched in the rain.’ Her demand might mean that she wants to be part of nature or, that she wants to face hardships. Braving nature goes against the history of civilization itself which has tried to conquer and escape nature’s hardships. Unusual conceptions lurk behind village deities. Freedom is very dear to village deities – ‘I want to be free to roam the plains’. If ‘refined’ deities like to be in a well-built shrine, village deities wish to freely roam the plains. A doorless shrine exists near Bangalore. The deity had protested against having a shrine, but the devotees forcibly built one for her. The deity begged them later, ‘You’ve already built a shrine, but please don’t build the door.’ They asked why, to which she replied: ‘I would like to go and come as I please.’


Posted in Anthropology, Culture, Indian History, Religion | Leave a comment

The King Crow: M. Krishnan

THERE were some 30 cows in the grazing herd, four bull calves and two buffaloes. And once again I noticed that the king crows rode the coloured beasts, not the white ones. For a moment I thought I had confirmed a trend in the more obscure habits of these bold black birds. Then I realised how easily false conclusions can be reached in the field.
It was in the same tract that, earlier in the year, I had twice observed the liking of king crows for coloured coats on their mobile perches. The cattle of this flat scrubland are stunted and black or brown, the brown varying from fawn to a rich, deep chestnut, very few of them are white and these, presumably “imported” milch-cows, are much larger; the chances of finding king crows on the backs of coloured cows are about five times as good as on white ones, considerably better in view of the fact that the birds like to ride low.
This latter preference is real. King crows perch on small cows, yearling calves, buffaloes and even goats rather than on tall cattle, where, choice offers. It  is mainly for the sake of the insects flushed from cover by the  lumbering hooves that they go riding grazing cattle, and obviously the closer they are to the grass the surer their hunting.
It is remarkable with what certainty and speed they can take prey in the air. I have repeatedly seen a king crow take a vaulting grasshopper in mid-leap, swooping down on the quarry, snatching it up and returning to the hump of its mount in one smooth movement. But if you want to know with what acrobatic speed and ease the bird can twist and turn in the air, you should watch it chasing some fast-flying insect.
The deeply forked tail and broadly triangular wings are spread out into translucent brown fans as the bird brakes in the air, half-shut and black again as it dives headlong almost to the earth or shoots up obliquely on the impetus of the dive. You can actually hear the zip and rustle of the tail and pinions being flicked open and shut if you are near enough, but the bird seldom flutters its wings — the entire dizzy and complicated manoeuvre is sustained by the initial momentum, till the prey is plucked from the air and the king crow flies off, whirring and swinging by turns, to its perch.
Undoubtedly, the fishtail helps in these aerial acrobatics, other birds notable for their deftness of wing also depend heavily on their forked tails, kites and swallows for example. It is its speed and dexterity in twisting around in full flight that enables the king crow to attack much larger birds like hawks, kites and crows that venture too close to its nest.

The  chorus of king crows heralding the dawn can be heard in the jungles as well as in rural areas where they roost close to the human settlement. Even, I, who, like these birds so much, cannot say that they have musical voices (though some of their cousins do), but in the chill, grey clearness preceding daybreak, their calls have an exuberant, confident cheeriness, at least to the human ear. A famous set of stanzas by the Vaishnavite poetess Aandaal, addressed to a girl still asleep after promising to wake the others early (so that they could be in time for the early morning worship), refers to the pre-dawn chorus of king crows.
Do you not hear the high-pitched conversation of Harsh-voiced king crows!

Yes, there is a certain harshness in the king crows’ calls,  in spite of the carrying shrillness, but it is pointless analyzing sounds that belong so very much to the open air in cloistered print, incongruous as it may read, it is still true that it is this very vigour and rasping vivacity in the morning voices of these birds that makes the experience of being awakened by them so pleasant.

Before roosting, the birds fly about actively and call to one another again, and the sharp double whistle can often be heard then. King crows are said to mimic the shikra in this call; it is true that the shrikes and drongoes have imitative talent and that some of them are wonderful mimics; it is also true that this double whistle is exactly like the shikra’s call, except for the lack of a tonal quality that I can indicate only by the word “querulous”. But all the same I beg to differ from the experts who consider this call imitative. I think it is one of the king crow’s authentic calls, and that its similarity to the shikra’s is purely a coincidence. Otherwise, I cannot understand why this is so frequently indulged in by king crows all over the country, just before roosting.

Incidently, the open beaks of the king crows in the pictures do not show them calling. The afternoon sun was parchingly hot overhead when I took the photographs accompanying this article, and the birds were panting. Many birds pant in such heat and no doubt gain considerable relief thereby.

— Published in The Sunday Statesman, 1956

Posted in M. Krishnan | Leave a comment

Andre Beteille: Language and civilization

A FEW years ago at a dinner in Tokyo, hosted by the Japanese anthropologist, Prof. Chie Nakane, I said somewhat light- heartedly to a Cambridge academic seated next to me that I did not think the English were a particularly civilised people. My Cambridge friend took up the banter and asked me to give him a defensible definition of a civilised person. I accepted his challenge and said a civilised person was simply one who was at home in at least two different languages: having one language makes us human, being at home in more than one is what makes us civilised. Prof. Nakane, who had been listening to the interchange with amusement, turned to me and said, `Ah, that is a very Indian way of looking at civilisation’. I was a little embarrassed because the Japanese are, if anything, even more inept than the English at handling languages other than their own.

The Japanese do very efficiently many things at which the Indians are rather inept, but the latter have an undeniable advantage over the former in the matter of languages. My Japanese students in Delhi often told me that while in Japan the students were very hard working, in India they were more intelligent, but what they really meant was the Indians were more articulate. It is a fact that an Indian can make a public speech at the drop of a hat whereas, I am told, in Japan even a seasoned politician finds it hard to speak at a stretch for more than 10 or 15 minutes.

Indians owe their aptitude for languages not to any superiority of racial or genetic endowment but to specific social and historical circumstances. They have for long lived in an environment which has tolerated and even encouraged a diversity of social and cultural practices, including linguistic practices. The linguistic diversity of India is truly remarkable. In the past when a family, a kin group or a community moved from one region to another, its members acquired the language of their domicile without giving up the language of their ancestors. Bilingualism was widespread in both rural and urban areas, and even among the unlettered. In a village in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district, where I did fieldwork in 1960s, Telugu, Kannada and Marathi were spoken in some homes, in addition to Tamil that was spoken and understood by all.

To be sure, people do not learn new languages only because they are available for learning. Sometimes they are obliged to learn them out of compulsions of one kind or another. But when the compulsion arises, a favourable disposition towards other languages goes a long way in meeting it. Although a favourable disposition towards other languages has been part of the Indian cultural tradition, it faces threats from various quarters. The politics of language tends to create hostility towards other languages in the name of attachment and loyalty to the mother tongue.

It is self-limiting to view other languages as threats to one’s mother tongue and a mistake to believe that human beings were created to express themselves or communicate with others in only one language. English has now come to occupy a pre-eminent place throughout the world. It is read, spoken and understood by more people than any language has ever been in human history. No doubt, the spread of the language in the 19th century was driven by the expansion of the British empire. Had some other nation, instead of the British, extended its power, some other language would have been the predominant language of the 20th century. The fact is that the predominance of the English language has outlived the dissolution of the British empire, and there is little indication of a decline in its influence for the foreseeable future.

Learning English became very important for education and employment from the middle of the 19th century. A new middle class began to emerge in the presidency centres in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras and it gradually spread its influence throughout the country. Its members found places for themselves in a new occupational system, in the services of the government, and in law, medicine, teaching and other professions. The new middle class played a momentous part in shaping the economic, political and other institutions of contemporary India. Facility with the English language contributed much to the formation of all those modern institutions we value today, although it did not come easily or without cost.

In some parts of the world the existing languages declined or died out with the advance of dominant languages such as English, French and Spanish, but that did not happen in India. On the contrary, literary and journalistic writing in Bengali, Marathi and Tamil was enriched by the influence of English. The two great literary figures of 19th century Bengal, Michael Madhusudan Datta and Bankimchandra Chatterjee, not only acquired an effective command of English but also tried their hand at literary compositions in that language. Their mastery of the English language and literature enabled them to experiment successfully with new literary forms in their own language.

Knowledge of the English language was sought because it gave access to gainful employment, but that was not its only attraction. It opened a window to a new world. English books and periodicals brought on the doorstep of the Indian intelligentsia a whole new system of ideas, beliefs and values. Its social and political categories were different from the ones to which educated Indians had been accustomed for centuries. It is not as if reflective Indians never thought about equality, liberty or progress, but they thought about them in a language whose concepts and categories had become set in a particular mould. Their growing intimacy with a new language and idiom stimulated them to rethink their old categories and explore new ones.


For all its troubles with alien rulers, an alien language and alien ways of life and thought, the Indian intelligentsia did not turn its back on the modern world. Modernisation is today inescapable, but it is not a painless process and it penalises latecomers severely. Modernity does not presuppose a homogeneous world in which everybody does the same thing, thinks the same thoughts and speaks the same language; on the contrary, it requires and encourages knowledge and appreciation of alternative ways of life. India is fortunate in having an educated middle class whose origins go back 150 years in time. This middle class is now very large and differentiated. Despite regularly losing many of its ablest members to outward migration, it is replenished by increasing numbers of professional persons who are able to draw upon more than one intellectual tradition. The accumulated intellectual capital of this class is an asset whose value to society is not sufficiently appreciated and whose role is often thoughtlessly denigrated by the intelligentsia itself.

Differences of language divide people from one another, but there is nothing inevitable about these divisions. Politics may be used for either deepening the divisions or building bridges across them. The main point to bear in mind is that loyalty to language need not be singular since the same person may be attached to more than one language. This has been a common practice in India for a long time, and there is no reason why it cannot become more extensive in the future.

Their social tradition has given Indians an aptitude for languages that is sometimes better appreciated by others than by themselves. Prof. Max Gluckman, a British social anthropoligist of South African origin, once told me that the best English he had ever heard spoken was by an Indian, Srinivasa Shastri. But, whereas I could pronounce English names clearly and easily, Prof. Gluckman had the greatest difficulty in pronouncing the name of the silver-tongued orator. That of course confirmed the point he was making, that the British were hopeless when it came to languages other than their own.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment