Friday, December 31, 2010

Ashoke Sen, my uncle

My uncle, Mr. Ashoke Sen died on the 19th of December 2010, in his home at Kolkata.

Ashoke Sen was a scholar in English Literature who graduated from the Bristol University, UK. On returning from UK, he hop-skip-jumped between several lucrative jobs in prestigious organizations, but couldn’t adjust himself to the disciplined regimentation of any of them. He even worked briefly as the editor of a magazine called Point Counter-Point, but this also seemed too much of a routine job for him. He finally quit working within the boundaries of an office administration, and started freelancing which suited his style of working. He wrote for the two well known newspapers, Telegraph and Statesman, initially book reviews, and later graduated to more expansive literary sphere.

During his initial years, uncle interviewed many well known personalities from the literary world, and published these interviews either directly or wrote articles based on these interviews. His interviews were refreshingly different from the usual run-of-the-mill interviews taken by professional journalists with their set of stereotyped questionnaires. Uncles interviews were conducted after immense preparations and had a lot of background information . What, however, gave his interviews their unique flavour was that these interviews were actually an exchange of literary thoughts between two academicians on an equal footing. They were radically different from mere documentation of the conversation between a celebrity and an eager-to-please journalist. I still remember the immensely readable interviews of Stephen Splendor and Lila Mazumdar.

Subsequently, he became a known name quite well known for his English and Bengali essay writings amongst the scholarly circles in Kolkata, and got involved in editing several Bengali anthologies. He had the natural advantage of being an incredibly avid reader with a phenomenal memory. His forte was his knowledge on old Bengali literature – especially Children’s literature. He was loosely attached to Shishu Sahitya Sansad – the agency responsible for promoting children’s literature in Bengali. He was a leading authority on Buddhadev Bose and his literature, a fact acknowledged by none other than Pratibha Bose (wife of Buddhadev Bose). He can truly be described as a Kolkata intellectual with a wide knowledge on films, theatres, music (Bengali as well as Western) and books but not the usual stereotype leftist-existentialist intellectual (the kind who swears by Kafka-Satre- Camus- Marx etc).

My uncle had a habit of reading anything and everything under the sun. He was not one who would accept someone else’s judgement about anything and would prefer to form his own judgement about everything. I recall one incident, when I, a the then smart-alec teenager, tried to impress him with my fledging knowledge on Existentialism and Albert Camus. It came as a rude shock when he started taking out books on these subjects including the legendary book of Kaufmann called “Existentialism”. Subsequently I rummaged through his library to discover that though he was not a great fan of Camus, he had at least 3-4 books of Camus. Likewise, my ramblings on Satre led to me getting a book on the development of Philosophy from Socrates and Satre, and then having to sit with him for a session on philosophical studies.

Uncle had an encyclopaedic knowledge on Bengali children’s literature. He could recall with ease, as to which the year a particular novel or a short story was published and in which particular edition of a “Puja Barshiki” – a capability which was exploited time and again by the various publishing houses. His favourite children’s authors were Shibram Chakrabarty, Hemendra Kumar Ray, Premendra Mitra, Buddhadev Bose and Kamakshiprasad. What was interesting was the fact that he did not like the conventional popular stories written by these authors but preferred some lesser known well written stories. For example, my uncle did not like “Harshavardhan and Govardhan” series written by Shibram Chakraborti– citing them as coarse low class humour which, according to him, Shibram had written for the masses. Uncle preferred a more subtle, sophisticated form of humour which was expressed better in Shibram’s lesser known stories like “Onko o Shahityer Jogphole (Fusion of Mathematics and Literature)”, “Kalantok Lal Phita (The Deadly Red Tapism)”, “Bibhutibhushon-er Shilalipi (The Stonehenge of Bibhutibhushan)” and “Patale Bochor Paanchek (Five years or so in Hell)”. Likewise, he preferred the Hemen Ray stories / novels like “Pretatyar protishodh”, “Bishalgarh-er Dushwashan”, and "Mrs Kumudini Chowdhury" over the more popular Jayanta-Manik or Bimal-Kumar series. In fact, he thoroughly disliked Jayanta-Manik whom he considered to be a poor copy of Sherlock Holmes series including the bumbling detective Sundarbabu (as Indian version of Lestrade). He advised me to read an obscure series of Hemen Ray – namely Hemanta – Robin, another detective duo, who had featured only in four books (Andhakarer Bondhu, Ratrir Jatri, Mukh aar Mukhosh and Bibhishoner Jagoron). On his advise. I also read and fell in love with the “Mamababu” series of Premendra Mitra (how many people remember that Premendra Mitra also wrote a detective series ?) and the “Chanchal” series of Buddhadev Bose (also a detective series). Other than the famous ones, Uncle also made me read some obscure novels or series of novels by authors who are now forgotten. I read “Sundarbane Saat Bachchar”, "Makorsha" (by Rajat Sen), "Chitragreeb" and "Juthapoti", the war series of Dhirendralal Dhar (Saroj-David series – remember), “Ajaykumar” of Monindralal Bose and "Durgom Pother Jatri".

His influence led me to extensive reading of children’s literature of the yesteryears including the Kanchenjangha and Prahelika series and we spent many a happy afternoon discussing merits and demerits of these children’s stories. In retrospect, I find it rather amusing that a Bristol educated literary personality, who was a leading intellectual in Kolkata, managed to have meaningful discussions with his class 6 nephew, about 30 years his junior on equal footing. This trait in him continued till the very end and consequently most of his friends were far younger than him.

Uncle had a passion for thoroughness and continuity. He seldom used to give any judgment on any author or film maker based on only one book or movie. I recall that he had to write a piece on Graham Greene, a usual run-of-the-mill article, and he bought the complete Graham Greene series just to prepare for this! Likewise he re-read all the Leela Majumdar novels before he took her interview (and me too – along with him; and in the process discovered a wonderful novel called “Tong Ling”, which, surprisingly, does not feature amongst her more famous works). He took me to the British Council for a film festival of Hitchcock but not before I had read “Hitch”, the landmark analysis of Hitchcock and the famous book written by Truffaunt on Hitchcock. I also recall a particular incident when he had discovered a factual mistake on Thakurbari in a magazine called “Sobjanta-Mojaru”. He made me correct it but before that, he made me read the books of Rani Chanda, Mohanlal Gangopadhyay and Abanindranath himself on this subject. Such exposure during the formative years has left a deep and indelible impression on me which probably accounts for my present day love for literature and films.

This thoroughness, of course, had some pitfalls. Quite often, he used to miss his deadlines - a trait which couldn't have made him popular with his editors. Also, when his analysis did not match the opinions expressed by other celebrities, he felt no qualms about ripping that person apart. I recall him criticizing Chidananda Dasgupta, (a legendary figure in film circle who was personally known to my uncle) for trying to put Ray’s Sakha Prasakha on the same pedestal as Charulata. He had no compulsion or inclination to be “politically correct,” and even his closest friends, from time to time were at the receiving end of his acerbic pen.

Uncle also had a remarkable ability of finding co-relations between stories and/or movies, possibly a sign of a good critic. It was refreshing to compare “Batashbari” of Leela Mazumdar and “the Enchanted Forest” of Enid Blyton; Jane Eyre and Rebecca with “Pakhi” by Leela Mazumdar (wonder how many people have read this novel); the multiple narrative style of “Ghare Baire” by Tagore with “Raat Bhore Brishti” of Buddhadev Bose (I also recollect him reminding me that there is a superficial similarity between the plots of “Ghare Baire” and “Raat Bhare Brishti” which is not of much significance). He also could spot the cross discipline similarities and co-relations – about how Dickens has influenced Bergman in “Fanny and Alexander” and how Buddhadev Bose’s “Bipanna Bishmay” is in fact an existential treatment of Jibananda’s legendary poetry “Aat Bachor Ager Ek Din”. He once pointed out to me that when Jibananda had written “Banolata Sen”, Bengali Poetry had also reached its 1000th year – a fact which led me to rethink about the first line of this popular poem (“Hazar Bachhor ami poth hatitechi prithibir pothe”) and wonder whether this was indeed a romantic poem after all.

I am indebted to him for introducing me to one of the greatest authors of the post Tagore era – namely Buddhadev Bose. I was introduced to his writings through his short stories, some of which are possibly the best children’s short stories written in Bengali. “Meenu’r notun juto”, “Prothom Dukkho”, “Hridayranjan-er Sharbanash”, “Haran Jyatha o Sujitda”, “Baba”, are probably the finest examples of children’s short stories in the world, and it is indeed sad that the world will never get to read or even know about the existence of these great stories. Likewise, for adult novels, he made me read “Golap Keno Kaalo” – an incredibly stylized Bengali novel. As per his usual style, he did not push Buddhadev Bose’s hugely popular “Tithidore” onto me (though he acknowledged that it is a great novel) but made me read “Patal Theke Alaap”, “Jedin Phutlo Kamol”, “Bipanna Bishmay” and “Moulinath”. Then came the articles and analysises of Buddhadev – “An Acre of Green Grass”, “Hothat Alor Jholkani”, “Kobi Rabindranath”, “Sanga Nishshangata Rabindranath” and last but not the least “Mahabharat-er Kotha”. Uncle was a great fan of Buddhadev, and was personally very close to him and his family. Yet he never tried to influence me, or force me into loving this author. He, in the strictest sense, brought the horse near the water, leaving him to drink when thirsty.

How was Ashoke Sen as a person? On first glance, he was not a nice person to know. Withdrawn, non-communicative and somewhat serious, he was not an easy person to talk to initially. He lacked normal social skills and would insist in mixing only with people whom he considered to be intellectually at par with him. If, however, one took the effort to break his shell of apparent impregnability, he was a nice person to talk to. He would then come down from his high horse of intellectual superiority, and become a regular guy. He was, in fact, quite a gossip-monger, a fact which he always denied vehemently (of course, gossip being so ‘non-intellectual’ and cheap) and enjoyed sharing the juicy gossips about the le-creme-de-la-creme in the perfect British manner.

I always felt that he never really came out of his teens – an eternal enfant terrible at large. His being the eldest son of a prosperous family (and therefore pampered) and not having an immediate family (and therefore no direct responsibilities) also reinforced this attitude. Thus he had the mood swings, hyper-sensitivity as well as the self-centered, self-indulgent nature of a teenager. This, to many, was difficult to handle - an intellectual giant with the emotional quotient of a child. This led him to become rather lonely during the last phase of his life, when he craved for a normal conversation with the normal people around him but alas, it was probably too late by then.
At the end of the day, one cannot help but feel sorry him. His Peter-Pan psychology coupled with his self created barriers made him lonesome. Despite his immense talents, my uncle somehow could never find the right direction, and thus could never put his abilities to their fullest use. Like “Kach” of Mahabharata, he seemed to possess the knowledge, but besieged by some unbreakable curse which prevented him from putting his knowledge to use. His last journey to the frontier was therefore a lonely one, mourned by his family and friends, not only about who he was but also about what he could have been, had it been otherwise.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

David and Goliath : WikiLeak and the aftermath

"Endowed by the creator with certain inalienable rights among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". The above line and the first amendment (freedom of speech) has been the cornerstone of liberal thinking for most of us. Though the policies of the United States have often not been fair (to put it extremely mildly), at least “open speech” and “communication” were areas, where even their worst critics didn’t have much to say. So we indeed had a country which allowed people to say anything – send hate mails, abusing religions of the minorities and say various "offensive" things.

Not any more.

The recent WikiLeak revelations about the Apache helicopters, the Iraq war logs, the Afganisthan war logs and the US government’s knee-jerk reaction made it apparent how fragile the US concept of “freedom of speech” really is. Sarah Palin, who is heavily tipped to be the next presidential candidate suggests that the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be “hunted down in the way armed forces are targeting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda”. Assange had to practically go into hiding and finally was arrested in London for alleged sexual offences conducted in Sweden. At the very least, he will face an extremely long drawn extradition fight that would drag on for months.

Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall…

The people accustomed to power games are rather good at disposing of fancy garments like ethics and morality. In the present case, they decided to do a “full monty” – and that too at a lightening pace. Those fancy axioms of “innocent till you are proven guilty” and “equal and fair treatment towards one and all” were summarily dumped with a vengeance. There were some rather quiet, strictly verbal “understanding” with some organizations like PayPal, Mastercard, Visa, Amazon etc which ensured that WikiLeak, and by extension Julian Assange had practically no access to their assets. Their bank accounts were frozen, revenue inflow and/or donations blocked and all other financial transactions blocked. Parallelly, at the sub-surface level, a silent “whispering” campaign was started with the target of socially ostracizing WikiLeak. Messages were sent to major schools including Boston University's School of Law, Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs through their alumni cautioning students against commenting on or posting links to the WikiLeak documents on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter. So not only was WikiLeak to be financially paralyzed, they were also to be made an outcast!!

In the process, the actual pertinent question about ethical journalism got covered under several layers of ashes and dust.

The way WikiLeak has exposed things throws up the all important question about finding the right balance in journalism. Who has a right to what? It we try to argue that we have a right to know everything the state is doing on our behalf, then the reverse will also become true and it will become rather difficult to argue about the right to privacy for the individual. This is the crux of the matter and should have been argued and finally the judiciary, in some form or the other, should have been brought into the game to draw the line. The government officials, however, decided to draw the line themselves and take actions on their own.

Quite often there are objectionable things published on the net - like criminal activities, fraud sites, child pornography, copyright offences etc, when the government has to do a very legitimate "notice and takedown" or a straightforward takedown. Incase of information which tend to compromise the national security of the country, there is an absence of a clear judicial process. This, however, should not become an excuse for the government to act in any way they please, thereby making a farce of the constitution and fundamental human rights. By not respecting the law, by not respecting the ethics and by trying to violate the first amendment, they have opened the door for others also to act in an irresponsible manner.

Violence begets violence. In this case, the violence was bloodless, strictly digital and happened in cyber space!

The strike back was led by a group of hacktivists (hackers cum activists) who call themselves “Anonymous” or “Anons” (short for Anonymous). They have came up with their own “manifesto” in an open letter: "We are not a terrorist organization as governments, demagogues, and the media would have you believe. At this time Anonymous is a consciousness focused on campaigning peacefully for Freedom of Speech. We ask the world to support us, not for our sake, but for your own,"

Within a span of two days, Anonymous has attacked, in sequence, the Swiss bank PostFinance (the bank holding Assange’s bank account and had stopped all transactions in this account), Online payment service provider Paypal (who had refused to accept payments to WikiLeak) and the credit card majors, Mastercard as well as Visa (credit card companies who have refused to accept or allow donations made to WikiLeaks). All these companies have experienced a kind of digital Armageddon of requests which has blocked their servers and causing a slowdown or complete stoppage. The Anonymous have also declared their next target – the online book retailer major (who did not allow WikiLeak to store their documents in the Amazon servers but is selling WikiLeak’s top secret United States diplomatic cables online).

What the Anons are doing is technically called Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS). The DDoS uses the social networking sites to gather a substantial following and then provide these followers with small software programs which are designed to repeatedly send messages to the target site. If a large group of people do this simultaneously, and the attacks are carefully timed for maximum effect, the computer servers that host the websites are bound to crash for a period of time. This technique had been used by the Zapatista rebels of Mexico way back in 1994 with the help of a software company called
Electronic Disturbance Theatre. The same company launched the first DDoS software called FloodNet in 1998 and today, this is the biggest artillery in the hands of the hacktivists worldwide.

How would people have reacted to such acts under normal circumstances? I believe most would have categorized such acts as cyber crimes or extremely immature irresponsible acts. In the present context, however, these acts have become protests against the totalitarian establishment. There is a certain romanticism which has also got attached to this ; a bunch of unorganized young computer geeks who have decided to stand up against the big bad wolf – a modern day tale of David and Goliath. This war is now a fight for the freedom of speech, a modern day saga of a freedom struggle where new phrases like “net neutrality” and “information is free” are its slogans and banners.

What the coming days would reveal is that it is far more difficult to contain the Djinni once it has come out of the bottle. These computer geeks, who are usually recluse and socially inept mavericks are experiencing their first taste of power. And nothing corrupts people more than unchecked power. We would have to wait and see whether these hacktivists limit themselves only to this or similar causes or start using their newly gained power to become the next terror on the net.

We are in the midst of the first Cyber world war which is going on between the establishment and the free spirited netizens. As a strong believer of freedom of speech, an ardent netizen and a romantic at heart myself, my sympathies are naturally with these techno-nerds who have taken the American bull by its horn. But what will happen after the twilight?

Only time will tell.