Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Tale of Two University Visits

Following a son's footsteps is the greatest joy of a father. So when Dr, Ramesh Rao, Chair, Communication Studies and Theatre Department of the Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, invited me to deliver the same lecture that my son, Sreenath, delivered last year, I was more than excited. The long journey from Thiruvananthapuram to Farmville did not seem tedious at all as it was interspersed with meeting the family and friends in several cities and celebrations of Kerala Day in Washington DC, New York and New Jersey.

The Kerala Day celebrations were true to form with food and cultural festivals and speeches galore. I tried to introduce a certain focus by suggesting that a group of Malayalee achievers in the United States should be set up to advise the relevant people in Kerala on development. The idea was generally supported, but the focus was essentially on festivities.

A bumpy plane ride from New York to Richmond ended in a warm welcome by Dr. Ramesh Rao, who drove me to his charming home in Farmville to be greeted by his wife, Sujaya and his wide-eyed and smart four year old son. As ardent Hindus, they treated me fully in accordance with the dictum, "Adhiti devo bhava". Dr. Rao was characterised by an American scholar as a "Hindu militant", but he turned out to be a scholar rather than an activist.

Classes in American Universities are dramatically different from those of my student days in India. For one, they are informal and interactive, with the teacher being just a guide and not the embodiment of all wisdom. I went to four classes, two by Dr. Rao on public speaking and communications and two by others on water issues and international relations. The easy informality of the class rooms facilitate exchange of views and the students are encouraged to do their own research rather than take down the teachers' notes, even in under-graduate classes. One amusing discussion was on whether students should be allowed access to pornographic material on the Internet link provided by the University. Both girls and boys were for a liberal approach and one of them argued that pornography promoted abstinence!
The questions on India from students, which I answered, were well researched, sympathetic and intelligent. Speaking to young Americans on India was a refreshing experience.

In an unusual gesture, the President of Longwood, Dr.Patricia Cormier, invited me to a lunch at her magnificent home, on the edge of a golf course, with the senior faculty. Her probing questions led to a delightful conversation on a variety of subjects. The entire faculty was alert, courteous and well-informed.

I was in Longwood to participate in an International Awareness Week and the other Indian event was the screening of an engaging documentary on outsourcing, "Nalini By Day, Nancy By Night" by Sonali Gulati of the University of Virginia. I have written elsewhere on the sensitive and humourous portrayal of the call centre workers in the film.

My lecture itself was on "India and the US- Two Democracies on the World Stage", an amalgam of the three topics that Dr.Rao had suggested originally. He wanted me to cover the points that unite India and the US and the factors that divide them, Indian democracy and India's experience and vision of the United Nations. I traced the various historic events that led to the estrangement of the two democracies, despite their common colonial past and values and aspirations. Speaking on a couple of days before the Senate considered the nuclear deal, I presented an optimistic picture of the future of bilateral relations. The questioning from the audience showed that they heard me with interest and understanding. The President herself was there and her compliments were flattering indeed.

Dr. Rao drove me for a couple of hours the next day to the neighbouring James Madison University (JMU), where our first meeting was with Dr. Sushil Mittal, Director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Global Non-violence and Associate Professor of Hinduism. Dr. Mittal was born in Canada, but was brought up as an ardent Hindu and became a great scholar on Gandhi and Hinduism. As a true scholar, he has no links with Hindutva movements in any part of the world and he focuses on academic studies and lives as a Hindu and a Gandhian. He has built up the Gandhi Centre in AMU and believes that there is something called the Gandhi magic that brings him resources and opportunities to promote Gandhiji and Hinduism world wide. In his advocacy, he is forceful and convincing, just as he is uncompromising with obscurantism in any faith. The time we spent with him was most rewarding and enlightening.

Dr.Peter Pham Director, The Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs of JMU, a political analyst and thinker with strong Republican credentials, much sought after by the media, hosted two events for me, one round table with the faculty and a public lecture on "Indo-US Strategic Relationship". The nuclear deal figured prominently in both, since the Senate was close to considering it when we were discussing it. We also looked beyond the deal and looked at the scenarios with and without the deal in place. My optimism was shared by the audience. The response from the students was exhilarating.

After three wonderful and sunny days, I spent a day at the Richmond airport, waiting for the storms to clear for my flight back to New York. It gave me the time to think over the experience. Once again, I was convinced that it is the liberal education that the American Universities provide that makes the United States a strong and prosperous nation.

1 comment:

Commander GVK Unnithan said...

Your description of the meetings are so natural that I thought I was experiencing it myself. It is defenitely a honour to represent one's own country and even religion. Glad to know that the average American's GK is improving. It is high time that our authorities have learnt a lesson or two from their academic concept. Commander GVK Unnithan, Indian Navy, (Retd)