Monday, March 12, 2012

Pangs of Publishing

By T.P.Sreenivasan

Every creative person carries in his head a number of ideas about writing books. But only some manage to write books and fewer actually publish them. Still there are millions of books in the market on any conceivable subject under the sun. Had it not been for the need for discipline required to put things down in a systematic way and the hassles of publishing, there would have been many more authors on the face of the earth.

Writing is possibly the easiest part of publishing a book. It is a lonely exercise and the art of creation is exhilarating. Whether it is a memoir for which recollection is important or fiction, for which creativity is the key or technical or scientific books, for which research is of utmost importance, the author has to devote considerable attention. But the joy generated by the art of creation is reward in itself. The sense of exhilaration on the completion of a book is beyond words.

The scene changes the moment when the author begins looking around for a publisher. He realizes that publishers are ruthless in applying their standards before they accept a book for publication. Blessed are those who have publishers lined up before the books are written. It is even better if the book is commissioned and an advance of the royalty is paid. But for those who write their first book, publishing and marketing are harder than writing.

I had no idea who my publisher would be when I began to write my first book, inevitably an account of my life, including the details of the important negotiations that I was involved in. I thought that my experiences in the Indian Foreign Service would be of interest to scholars as well as general readers as nowhere else they could find the original source materials on the specific issues I dealt with. I had no diaries or notes, but a number of stray papers I had set aside for use. I felt a sense of accomplishment when I completed it, but every time I read and reread the text, I had to rewrite portions of the book. Finally, I decided not to read it again, for fear that the book would never be complete.

I happened to be in New York when I finished the book and I decided to explore the possibility of publishing my book there. Armed with introductions from my son, a Columbia Professor of Journalism, I met a couple of publishers to learn the harsh reality that a new writer stood no chance of being considered, not to speak of getting published. Legends like a publisher getting enthused after reading a manuscript of Arundhati Roy inspire new writers till they find that it is hard enough even to get someone to read a manuscript.

Speaking of my own manuscript, a publisher told me that people would read memoirs of celebrities, but they would not be interested in professional lives. He told me helpfully that if I were to write about how to be a successful diplomat, he would be interested. Readers, he said, would like to improve their lives by acquiring new skills and therefore the “How To” books were particularly popular. The clear message I got was that I should try publishing my book in my own home country.

During my travels, I almost lost my manuscript in an airport theft. The brief case in which I normally carried the floppies of those times was stolen, but I had packed the floppies in my main suitcase this time as my briefcase was full with other documents and goodies. On arrival in India, I saw a book by my erstwhile boss in New York, Ambassador Chinmaya Gharekhan, on the UN Security Council. I was quite impressed with its production and Ambassador Gharekhan introduced me to Pearson and its helpful and friendly executive, K.P.R. Nair, who had published a number of books by Indian diplomats. He lost no time in accepting the manuscript for Pearson and even with his best effort, it took a full year for the book to see the light of day.

The editor was a young and energetic young lady, who did not understand much of the intricacies of foreign policy or its vocabulary. But she improved the text in many ways, removing repetitions and correcting the sequence of events. But once she was done with the text, I had to reinstate many of my expressions and words. She gracefully accepted my revisions and the manuscript was ready. But the greatest difficulties arose in finalizing the title and choosing the pictures.

My title, “Words, Words, Words” was much older than the book itself and I had made up my mind that this definition of a book by Shakespeare was a masterpiece and that it would be the title of my memoir, as diplomacy is all about words, written, spoken and unspoken. I was told, however, that the book would appear to be a book on etymology and hence the sub-title, “Adventures in Diplomacy” was added. Pearson was still doubtful, but they decided to stick to the original title when I suggested an altogether new name, “Never A Dull Moment.”

The cover design too took a lot of work. I had thought that it would carry a portrait of mine like it happens in the case of memoirs. But we finally settled for a graphic design for the hard cover and a portrait of mine for the paperback.

I managed a high profile release for my book as my erstwhile boss in New York, who figured in the book, was elected the Vice-President of India just then and he hosted the event in his own house. Then began the hunt for reviews, another hard task. Considering the number of books that come out in India, it is hard to get the major journals to review books. But India Today, the Hindu and several other journals gave excellent reviews for my book. That made a big difference to the sales and the first edition was sold out, leading to a paperback print.

The royalties on the book, it turned out, was an illusion, as I had to pay more than the 15% royalty that the publisher offered me to order copies for presentation. My hope now is that one day I will earn enough royalty to pay for the copies I order for presents. No one offers to pay for the book you offer and most people feel that they are doing you a favour by carrying the book home.

Publishers are losing out when authors are able to reach the readers directly through e-books and other new media. But publishers still remain key players in book production and they lend value and prestige to books. The pangs of publishing do produce quality books and enrich the world of knowledge.

All India Radio Talk

March 8, 2012

Challenges In Higher Education


Vice-Chairman & Executive Head, Kerala State Higher Education Council.

Addressing the Kerala Legislative Assembly a few days ago, the Governor of Kerala, H.E. Shri. H.R.Bharadwaj, stated: “My Government recognizes that higher education is a powerful instrument of economic and social transformation and will aim to ensure quality education based on access, equity and excellence. My Government realizes the importance of regaining the primacy of our state in the field of higher education. The thrust of our Government will be on encouraging setting up of world class institutions and infrastructure in the state.”

Indeed, the challenge is to fashion an education system, which will provide access, ensure equity and maintain excellence. Today, none of the Indian universities figures in any list of a hundred or more world-class universities identified by different assessment agencies. The wide gap between our universities and world-class universities must be bridged so that our graduates can compete with their peers in India and abroad.

Higher education system in the state has succeeded in increasing quantity to meet the aspirations of the youth. The enrollment rate in Kerala is higher than the national average. No one needs to deny himself higher education for want of accessibility, though he may not get the course or college of his choice. Of late, even engineering colleges have vacancies. We have also risen to the occasion when it comes to offering new courses, including cutting edge technologies in some colleges and universities. Compared to the situation when I was a student at the Kerala University till 1966, there is a world of difference in quantity, diversity and quality in higher education today. Modern methods of teaching, including use of technology, have been introduced. Internet connectivity has opened a new world of knowledge. In other words, the system has much to claim credit for.

But Kerala seems to have lagged behind in competitiveness. This is evident from the fact that our graduates have only a small share of seats in specialized institutions in Kerala and outside, for which national competition is necessary. Similarly, the share of our graduates in the IT industry worldwide is low. We need to reform our higher education in such a way that it matches the highest standards in the world and makes our graduates competitive.

We should recognize that reform in the field of higher education would be slow and painful. Innovation gurus concede that it is hard to introduce innovation in the so-called “mature enterprises” as innovations can be risky and expensive. Past successes can also be a disincentive. Higher education is in this category of enterprises. Any failed innovation may put a whole generation into jeopardy. The available teachers may not be well equipped to impart the new system of education. Introduction of reforms should be after due deliberation and preparation. Any wrong step can be costly.

Inadequate infrastructure, particularly in the Government institutions is an immediate challenge. Low living and high thinking may be a good dictum, but our educational institutions should have the minimum comforts and conveniences to enable the teachers and students to perform at the optimum level. The disparities among the facilities available should also be a matter of concern. Libraries, laboratories and other facilities need modernization and upgrading as new courses are introduced. Internet connectivity, which remains low, is also crucial in higher education. Massive infusion of funds is necessary to improve the infrastructural facilities.

Teachers are the backbone of any system of education. The better the teachers, the better the students. Much has been done to improve the wages of teachers, but the wages are not linked to performance and the security of service tends to make some of them lethargic. There should be a system of evaluation to provide incentives and disincentives to teachers. The strength of the faculty must also increase to give teachers time to learn more and take time off to reinvigorate them. They should also have enough time to evaluate answer books and interact with their students. The present teacher-student ratio does not meet the basic academic requirements. Teachers training programmes and exchange programmes must be developed.

The basic weakness of our higher education system is that teaching and learning methods continue unchanged from schools to post-graduate studies. Teachers are the sources of all knowledge and the students merely imbibe knowledge. In higher education, the initiative for learning should come from the students and the teachers should be guides, evaluators and motivators. The spirit of enquiry should be encouraged in planning the curriculum and prescribing textbooks. As HE the Governor stated, “Our universities must not only impart knowledge, but also create knowledge through research and innovation. New products and processes must emerge from our campuses, giving the industry a stake in our education system.” Today, industry merely recruits graduates. Instead, they should invest in education and participate in its planning so that the graduates meet the requirements of the industry without sacrificing the basic academic standards and overall development of their personalities.

Fluency in English language, particularly its spoken variety, is lacking among our graduates and it militates against the acceptability of our graduates outside Kerala. Stress should be given to articulation of ideas in English as well as in the mother tongue and opportunities should be given to them to use the language in every day life. A special effort to develop linguistic skills must be made.

The Government of India is in the process of enacting laws to facilitate and regulate the operation of foreign universities in India. Since profit making is prohibited, only those universities, which have an interest in Indian knowledge and talents, will come to India. Kerala should equip itself for the advent of foreign universities by establishing links with some of them in advance in anticipation. Emulating the best practices in foreign education is the first step towards building world-class universities.

Continuous assessment of institutions and teachers is absolutely essential to determine the amount of autonomy that individual institutions should enjoy. Institutions of excellence can be developed in the state by identifying the potential of each institution. A state assessment and accreditation mechanism is being planned to meet this requirement.

Two reforms introduced in higher education recently have shown how problems develop in implementation of reforms, even when they are sound in objectives. The introduction of the semester system at the graduate level was long overdue in the state and it has proved valuable nationally and internationally. It aims at broader acquisition of knowledge, encourages the spirit of enquiry and transforms the relationship between the teachers and the students. It certainly increases the workload of the students and teachers, particularly since the number of examinations multiplies. The system was introduced rather hastily and without consequential changes in the curricula and the student-teacher ratio. As a result, several anomalies have cropped up, raising the demand for a return to the old system, which would be a retrograde step. We are in the process of examining the problems through wide consultations among the stakeholders and close examination by experts. The semester system should stay, but with the necessary correctives to make it an instrument of improvement in higher education.

The other reform, which met a similar fate, was the introduction of a cluster of colleges, aimed at sharing of resources among the colleges in the same area. But it has not yet taken off because of the reluctance of the private colleges to share their assets. The scheme is being examined to remove the apprehensions of the reluctant managements.

Everyone agrees with Swami Vivekananda that the purpose of education is “man making”. It should bring out the talents already inherent in every individual. Our own ancient system of education remains a guide and efforts are being made to revive the spirit of Nalanda and Takshasila. But in modern terms, man making will also include equipping the students to stand on their own two feet, another point that Swami Vivekananada had stressed. As the saint Narayana Guru emphasized, education must develop the hand, the head and the heart. The challenge of higher education is to devise a system that will meet the multiple needs of our youth to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world. They should be equipped to seize the opportunities of globalization, without being swept away by its tumultuous impact.

Reflections on Learning English Literature


I could not have expected a greater honour from the Department of English of the Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram, than being invited to deliver the Prof. Hrdya Kumari Endowment Guest Lecture 2011-2012. I had dreamt as a teenager that I would speak English like her one day. Today, at least, I speak in her name, though not like her. I bow my head to this extraordinary teacher and an exceptional human being. To our delight, “Age cannot wither her” and she remains active and engaged.

The topic of this talk to honour Prof.Hrdaya Kumari could not be anything other than “Reflections on Learning English Literature” as she was a towering presence in my five years as a student in the University College. But I must say that the final title of the lecture is a product of hard negotiations with the organisers. The process reminded me of an old Egyptian story of a fish vendor, who put up a board, “Fresh Fish Sold Here”, but ended up without a board as each wise man who passed by suggested one word after the other as redundant. In my case, I managed to retain the main part of the title, though I had to change the scope of the talk each time a word was dropped!

Believe it or not, it was precisely half a century ago that I made a crucial decision in my life. Instead of pursuing a professional course with a clear career option, I decided to chase a Foreign Service dream my father had by joining a course of study in English Language and Literature. I had no idea how it would help me reach my goal and I did not know how it would help in a Foreign Service career itself. I was happy to be rid of science subjects, particularly Mathematics, and nothing else bothered me as I registered myself in the University College for BA (English), which not many others seemed to want. At that time, as of now, the best and the brightest went to professional studies, leaving the rest of the world of opportunities in sciences and humanities to those who did not make the grade. Our protestations that we joined English for the love of literature and to compete for the Civil Services did not carry any conviction. But we claimed elitism over our poor brethren in History and Economics and gloated over our central location in the college and the attention we received by the abundance of the female of the species in our midst. Some of us also dabbled in student politics and became prominent.

Looking back at those years, 1961 to 1966, memories of events, personalities and experiences come to mind in an endless procession. As the most decisive years in shaping our lives, philosophies and thoughts, recalling them is an adventure in itself. Recording them after half a century is hazardous in the extreme, as events and people merge into each other and separating the different strands is difficult to accomplish. I can share only the overall impressions, fully aware that the important events may be hazy and the less consequential ones may get exaggerated. Personalities may emerge in black and white, though they were actually in colour, with the bewitching shades of an artist’s palette.

My overwhelming recollection about those times is that none of us, neither students, nor teachers, appeared to have a vision or mission about the knowledge imparted to us. The prescribed books for both the bachelors and masters courses belonged to different genres and different ages and there were no efforts to establish historic interlinkages either in terms of movements or literary crafts. We focused on texts without their contexts and we were unaware of the vast world of knowledge out there, outside our books.

The biggest weakness of teaching a course in English language and literature was that there was no effort to develop communicative English in the classrooms. We lived in two distinct linguistic worlds. We spoke in Malayalam the whole day except when we spoke to the teachers during lectures. Private conversations were strictly in the mother tongue and we were quite proud that neither our mother nor our tongue was English. In the process, the felicity of spoken English eluded us even after finishing five years of English language and literature. No group discussions were ever organized either to develop the language or the analytical ability of the students either at the graduate or post graduate level. The English Associations, which were supposed to provide such opportunities were mired in politics and were used by the student organizations to bring their favourite people to interact with the students. In fact, the language aspect received no attention. Grammar, usage and idiom were unheard of. We developed a bookish form of English, which should have been conducive to literary writing. But creative writing was totally outside the curriculum. I cannot recall a single significant creative work done by any of the students, even though we had people with the talents and linguistic skills for creative writing. One of them, Mani Jacob, who became an educationist and unfortunately passed away recently, had the skill to add cadence and colour to the most prosaic statements. For instance, I recall that when he had to say that Bacon made skillful use of aphorisms, he wrote, “Bacon was not inadept in the art of incubating aphorisms.” I do not think he developed his creative writing skills in later life. Creative writing, perhaps, had no place in his career as an educationist. I wonder whether Kerala was the only University in the world, where a student could become a Master in English Literature, without writing a dissertation or a literary piece or acquiring proficiency in spoken English.

The focus was on prescribed texts at both the graduate and post-graduate level and there was no incentive to read. The library was stocked with literature and literary criticism of an earlier era and we did not know the contemporary literature in English. The infamous question, supposed to have been asked by a professor of English, “Who on earth is T.S.Eliot?” may be apocryphal, but reflected the reality of the impression that English literature came to a close with the Victorian period. We had a book on British history in the BA class, but it was not linked to the literary movements or the nature of the society in which those movements flourished. How could we understand Shakespeare without the knowledge of what shaped his mind and what his preoccupations were as a playwright?

We had the most talented of teachers in the University College at the time, but we did not have the ability to understand them in the early years. With one year of English medium of instruction behind us, we did not grasp much of what they tried to convey. But they helpfully gave us notes on various topics both at the BA and MA levels to prepare us for the examination. This reduced our involvement further in the learning process. By the time we discovered the talents of our teachers, it was too late to benefit from their abilities.

The English teachers at that time were not anonymous, but people with established reputations, but we could see that their talents were not fully utilized in assigning their work. Two established poets among them taught us most prosaic subjects like British History, English phonetics and Old English. The senior professor, who taught us Shakespeare, was rather prosaic and depended heavily on his old notebook, neatly covered in brown paper and labeled. He was totally lost without his notebook. We tested it by hiding the notebook for a day! At one time we had a head of department, whose passion was not poetry, but ornithology on which he was an authority. He knew who T.S.Eliot was, but when I suggested to him that the English Association must meet to condole the passing away of the famous poet, he did not see any point in it.

When I reflect on the faculty that we had at that time, I distinctly recall what we admired best in each one of them. A teacher with the eloquence of Hrdaya Kumari, the depth of knowledge of Ayyappa Paniker, the creativity of G.Kumara Pillai, the friendliness of Sudhakaran Nair, the motherliness of Chellamma Joseph, the sprightliness of Santhakumari the smile of “Punchiri Mathai”, the good looks of Gopakumar and the simplicity of K.Srinivasan would be a perfect model. But one thing common for all of them was their enthusiasm for teaching. Their sincerity was beyond question. But the system of learning and teaching was such that there was no scope for innovation. They taught us the way they learnt as no thought was given to the nature of the professions for which the graduates were being educated. The skills, which we acquired, were good enough only to turn us into teachers without the special talents our teachers had.

One person, who seemed to care as to whether we will fit into the wide world was not in the English Department, but our Principal, Dr. N.S.Warrier. I remember him calling some of us to his room one day in 1964 to ask whether we had understood the full implications of the Chinese nuclear test that had taken place that day. We had not, and we had not cared. Today, we know how that single incident had transformed the world we would live in. Even our policy makers in Delhi had not grasped its impact as Dr.Warrier had done! The space age had just begun and Dr. Warrier appeared bewildered by it. He asked me once whether I had ever thought of flying in space and landing in a country I knew nothing about. Would I be equipped to deal with that situation, with the education I was receiving, he asked. Indeed, I lived in a dozen countries in different continents and discovered that it was important to develop a global view even when one is young.

The variety among us, the students who spent five years together, was great. They ranged from hard working and ambitious men and women to those with no particular goals in life. Those who came from the Thiruvananthapuram aristocracy had airs about them till the “outsiders” overtook them in the university examinations. I remember a classmate, who was confident about facing an exam on the basis of what I could tell him precisely five minutes before entering the examination hall. He asked me to tell him the story of ‘ The Twelfth Night’ so that he could take the examination. He had neither read the play, nor listened to the lectures on it. I obliged, but when he began telling the story in answer to a specific question, he could not remember what the respective genders of Orsino and Olivia were. The way out he found was to describe them not as ‘he’ or ‘she’, but as ‘it’, much to the consternation of the teacher, who valued the paper.

College was a pastime for some of the students and they fell by the wayside, but found their own way of making a living. We know from experience that dropping out of college need not necessarily a tragedy. Honorary degrees have been awarded to dropouts by the same universities when some of them became millionaires or political leaders. Some among my classmates, who may not have been good students, turned out to be reputed teachers as the years went by. The “glorification” course in the University Department of English gave them a second chance to qualify themselves as teachers.

One thing that puzzled me most was why we were taught Old English as part of the Masters Programme. The effort was as strenuous as learning a new language with no possibility of the dead language being used. If learning of the old literature was important, it could be done in modern English. The option that the University offered to study American Literature in lieu of Old English was not exercised in the University College. I cannot recall having had any use of the Old English we learnt in subsequent years. The other irony was that Dr. Ayyappa Paniker, the most modern of Malayalam poets, taught us Beowulf. We were unaware that even as he was teaching us Old English, he was creating a revolution in Malayalam poetry with his ‘Kurukshetram’. We only heard that he recreated ‘The Wasteland’ in Malayalam and we were not even inquisitive about his contribution. Now, many years later, we are discovering Ayyappa Paniker and finding the meaning of what he said to us half a century ago.

Learning literature for the joy of it was rare those days. It turned out that our graduation coincided with the advent of junior colleges in the state and all of us found jobs as lecturers even without applying for them. I was invited to teach in the Mar Ivanios College even before the results of my MA examination came out for a princely sum of Rs.125 per month. Privately, I taught a group of school teachers, most of them double my age, who wanted to move from school to college with a Masters degree in English. English MA Degree was an employment bonanza without much learning of literature. If employability was the purpose of a masters degree, nothing was better than an English degree at that time.

In my Foreign Service career, I often wished I had done politics, economics or international law in college, as these were the disciplines one needed on a daily basis in the business of diplomacy. But it is also true that many inadequacies can be covered with felicity of language. To speak without saying much, an art that is the hall mark of diplomacy, one can resort to flowery language and quotes from Milton and Shakespeare. Moreover, learning of literature expands your vocabulary and linguistic skills to your advantage. I can recall many situations in which I got away with language what I could not have accomplished with substance. But I have also seen an Ambassador, who filled his dispatches with literary embellishments being considered a man without substance.

I have no doubt that learning of English Literature in Kerala has undergone many changes since 1966. I understand that there is greater emphasis on spoken English and creative writing. Modern Indian writing in English, rather than Old English, is part of the curriculum. Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth should be part of any English literature course. I would go further and say that contemporary writing in Malayalam should also be familiar to the students of literature. The focus should be on research and innovative thinking.

The Kerala Higher Education Council intends to promote clustering of colleges in different cities and one of the activities that we are planning is to encourage lectures by outstanding teachers and men of letters for all post-graduate students. To make a beginning in sharing of intellectual resources among students and teachers, I have invited the heads of departments of English in the city to discuss ways and means of collective learning. The programme will be extended to other departments also. Our “Erudite Programme” will be redesigned in such a way that the availability of renowned scholars benefits as many students as possible. Students and teachers exchange programmes with foreign universities are also on the cards. Prof. Hrdaya Kumari herself is heading a Committee to remove the anomalies in the semester system at the undergraduate level.

In my view, the semester system, which has stabilized elsewhere in India and abroad, permits a broad perspective on the subjects of choice and stimulates thinking and the spirit of enquiry. I had found our system of intensive studies of a few works, instead of a comprehensive knowledge about each author a liability in answering questions in the Civil Services examination. The semester system does impose higher responsibilities on the teachers and the students, but the new teacher-student relationship envisaged in the system will be beneficial to both. I would like to see the system implemented in the state with the necessary correctives that we are in the process of shaping education for the future generations.

I shared my reflections on my own days in the university, not only to savour the old days, but also to show how much we have moved forward in higher education and how much more we have to do to give our students world class education. I am grateful that I have been given this opportunity to share my thoughts with you today.

Thank you.