Archive for April, 2008

Target B-school, blind to the world

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

Apr 20, 2008

For some years now, I have been interviewing candidates for admission to one of India’s top business schools. It’s just half a day’s work in a year, and I started volunteering for the job because I thought it would be nice to meet young people and see how and what they think. But every year, I come back worried.

These are young men and women who have outscored 99 per cent of all the people who sat for the written test, which is the toughest of its type on the planet. Only then can you reach the interview stage. They are the fittest who have survived. Yet, in the eight or so years that I have been doing this, though I have met some marvelous minds, the majority appears to be singularly unaware, unidimensional, and armed with only academic knowledge. And before you decide I am just another grumpy old man, let me explain.

The group discussion is usually on a global or political issue. The interview is very general; the aim is to check for the aptitude to be a successful manager through questions that probe intelligence, well-roundedness and life skills. So questions could range from cricket to philosophy to hobbies; anything at all. And the first thing you discover is that hardly any of them read anything but their textbooks.

One classic example. We asked a candidate (an IITian) whether he read books. Management books, he said promptly, though the fact that he was reading them even before he had got into B-school was perplexing (many of us didn’t read management books even when we were in B-school!). Does he read any fiction? No. Has he ever read any fiction? The young man thought hard and deep, till we feared he would pop the veins on his forehead. Finally, he surfaced from googling his memory, and said: “When I was in Class V, I read a book called The Valley Of Adventure.” Ah, Enid Blyton, we said.

“Sir, author’s name I don’t remember,” he replied apologetically.

One young lady was asked whether she watched films. Yes, she did, but only “fiction films”. That’s OK, we assured her, what percentage of people watch documentaries anyway? Then, seeing some confusion on her face, we asked what she meant. “Fiction films have stories that can’t happen in real life, and non-fiction films are close to reality.” Example of fiction film? Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. And non-fiction? Lagaan.

A few years ago, the group discussion topic was: “The state is the biggest terrorist of all.” A young woman took the lead and spoke impassionedly for half a minute, but we on the panel, for the life of us, couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. Then it dawned. She was arguing that the United States was the biggest terrorist nation on earth! The very concept, The State, was something she had never heard of!

I can give many more such examples. Yet, you ask them what their ambition is, and most tell you that they want to head a multinational corporation. How do you explain to them that those positions don’t come to people with zero awareness of the world, that these are extremely complex jobs where your academic knowledge won’t help you much? These young men and women are good people, ambitious and competitive, but a lifelong blinkered pursuit of topping exams has made their minds and experiences extremely skewed. We, as a society, have put so much pressure on them to excel in studies that we are creating generations of Indians who are curiously stunted. Do they go out and play? Do they go on dates, or at least try and fail? Have they ever tried to build a radio or write poetry? Sadly, their characters seem to be missing, other than mere characteristics.

In fact, one wonders if many of the better minds of this generation are not being able to get into the country’s best institutes simply because they have a life apart from just swotting away like beavers. The coaching classes for these entrance tests have, also, I think, cracked the format of the test papers. So a person of average intelligence but a capacity for dogged hard work can just mug his way through while the brilliant multifaceted candidate ends up scoring less. I hope I am wrong, and that the sample of interviewees I have seen is not a representative one. But I wonder. Or maybe I am just another grumpy old man.

Inside the books of James Lee Burke

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

Apr 06, 2008

This is a shameless plug for an author who isn’t too popular in India, a man who I have never interacted with, and who will never know of or read this column. So no ulterior motives here; I just want to share a secret of mine. James Lee Burke. He writes detective novels that can bring a tear to your eye.

He writes whodunits, but has been called “America’s best novelist”. A writer in The Observer was moved to write: “That James Lee Burke has been consigned to the literary ghetto called ‘crime fiction’ is itself an offence . . . Burke is an exceptional writer, no qualification necessary.” The Washington Post believes that “Burke can touch you in ways few writers can”. And a critic in The Times mused: “At times Burke’s writing and atmosphere remind one of William Faulkner, at other moments Raymond Carver. I cannot think of much higher praise that can be accorded a novel.” OK, so now, hopefully, I have proved that I am not a freak or a huckster.

Like Faulkner, Burke is essentially a chronicler of the American South: a society scarred indelibly by racism, plagued by economic disparity, where the wealth of elite white families hides horrific ancient injustices that went casually unpunished. The novels usually begin with a murder and it is left to policeman Dave Robicheaux (who features in most of Burke’s books) to piece together the jigsaw where the last piece is almost always an obscene truth that has been carefully hidden for decades. It’s Greek tragedy masquerading as detective fiction and beginning with the last act.

Like all great detective fiction writers — like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett —the pleasure (and the pain) Burke offers the reader is about much more than figuring out who the murderer is. One reads Burke for the language (pure poetry), the evocation of the heat and the rain on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, and for the character of Dave Robicheaux, a deeply flawed and profoundly moral man.

If a reader returns to a detective novel, knowing who the murderer is, and reads it again just to savour all that is proffered other than its final secret, that novel belongs to the shelf reserved for literature, not, with all due apologies to the fans, Agatha Christie or John Grisham.

Robicheaux is a character of mythic proportions. Filled with a dangerous rage at the appalling injustice of this universe, he is a recovering alcoholic who has married four times (once divorced, one wife murdered, one dead from an incurable blood disease), and is forever haunted by demons from his past: his mother who abandoned him as a child and ran off with a gambler, his war memories from Vietnam, his knowledge that he is still within an arm’s reach of debilitating alcoholism. Often he has to fight to stay sane, trying to conquer his own fallibilities while facing up to pure inexplicable Evil.

No author I have ever read has portrayed Evil as chillingly as James Lee Burke.

Burke’s nasties live in a moral vacuum, extreme sociopaths whose contempt for humanity is startling, their brutality sickening. The sadistic Slim Grissom from James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish is a boy scout compared with some of these men. By creating Evil on such a scale, Burke makes his novels also a rumination on the human condition and yes, whether there is any divine force that mankind has been taught about. The novels only pretend to be crime fiction, and they carry off their pretence very well. But they are actually about the unfathomable mysteries that we try to keep on the fringes of our nightmares.

The Louisiana geography is described masterfully, yet the stories are all really set inside Robicheaux’s ravaged and conflicted soul that seeks redemption with a savage hunger. The question that the novels repeatedly confront the reader with is whether there is any chance that there is a higher purpose to existence, whether there is any state a moral person can reach other than absolute despair. And at the end of each novel, Burke answers that question, with a half-empty yet hopeful yes.

The books are very well-plotted too.

But this is not crime fiction. It’s literature on an epic scale, where darkness keeps gaining ground over light, the good are the most confused, there are no really happy endings, yet hope is justified, and salvation possible. I would love to see this man read by more people.