A couple of weeks ago in Bhopal, Minister for Global Warming and Heated Exchanges Jairam Ramesh lost his cool yet again. He denounced as ‘barbaric’ the convocation gown and mortarboard cap in which he was handing out degrees at the Indian Institute of Forest Management. I would give way to academic hesitation before calling the garb of the scholastic fathers ‘barbaric’ but nevertheless, if I had a mortarboard, I would have chucked it in the air. What is the use of this play-acting in Bhopal when in certain ancient Oxford colleges, the coveted high table dinner may translate into a meal of fish and chips, eaten with silverware?
A gown designed for unheated medieval England is an absurd wear for the Indian summer. And what use is the mortarboard? I personally believe the surface like a schoolboy’s slate was for academics to write down notes to themselves which they could carry on their person for ready reference. Farras on the indivisibility of the Trinity, or perhaps the decimal value of pi. Or perhaps their bar tab. Unpaid medieval bar bills were politically explosive, triggering battles between ‘town and gown’, when people in regular clothes fought people in funny clothes.
Ramesh could have enlarged on the theme while he was about it and attacked yet another barbaric artefact of academia — the lecture. I have strong personal feelings about this, because the institution of the lecture prevented me from pursuing a career in academics for which I was eminently suited, being endowed with a razor-sharp yet sensitive intellect coupled with a prehensile, Australopithecine grasp on petty, vulgar politics.
My tragic flaw is that I fall asleep the moment someone begins to read out loud something they have written on a sheet of paper. Since it is difficult not to notice someone who is fast asleep in a small seminar room containing perhaps five alert academics, I was constitutionally disbarred from academia.
Why do I fall asleep at lectures? In protest I find the institution of the lecture deeply insulting because it suggests that I am illiterate. The lecture — from the Latin legere, to read — is an artefact dating from early medieval times in Europe, when everything had to be read out because audiences were illiterate. Even scribes who copied the holy texts in the scriptoria of monasteries were sometimes uneducated. One can’t call them unlettered, because they were artists who worked with the alphabet, but frequently they did not understand what they were copying. Making sense of it was the province of the exegete, who explained the text, and the hermeneut, who translated it into the local tongue and idiom.
That was in the past. This is the present, Indian Standard Time. I can legere. I myself am the exegete. I am the hermeneut, too. I can even spell ‘polyphiloprogenitive’ without faltering. So my intellectual capabilities are legion, and I fail to appreciate why I must be harangued by a guy who has written something down on a piece of paper when I can read it myself, at my convenience. Perhaps in the loo, speaking of conveniences.
That’s it! That’s probably why academics still give lectures. For fear that if the audience got their hands on the text, they would read it in the loo.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine
The views expressed by the author are personal