Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Australia and racism – 2 : Brainwashing by media

Previous post : Australia and racism – 1 : A media blunder

When the first instances of 'attacks on Indian students' were reported in May 2009, around Melbourne, most Indian media took the easy and short route to labelling the attacks as ‘racial’ from the word go. They seemed to have succumbed to the Fallacy of Hasty Generalisation. They did not consider that Melbourne is a big city, that there are bound to be ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ areas with different crime rates. In some cases exploring the time of the crime would have been helpful. Such aspects escaped mention in the haste to generate a sensational piece of news which would sell.

The Australian authorities (Victorian Police to start with) expectedly went into denial. This was partly understandable, for two reasons. The more practical reason, it appears to me, was that they deal with a lot of late night crime and are aware of the patterns.  The second reason probably was that no one likes to admit to racism. In multicultural Australia, racist abuse or violence is a serious matter. Whether racism exists in Australia or not is a separate issue and I shall certainly return to it.

I heard from friends and relatives in India that the electronic media went into a 24-hour frenzy about the racist attacks. We received phone calls and emails asking whether we were safe. It was as if the Indian public was led into believing that mobs of fanatic youngsters are storming the streets of Australian cities, singling out Indians for beating up. Had it not been for the implications, I would have had a big laugh at the joke.

By early June of 2009, the attacks were firmly embedded in public memory and opinion as racial or racist. A headline from a ‘leading Indian newspaper reported the fresh attack in these words :  “…xxx, who was attacked on last Monday night in one of several racial attacks on Indian students in Australia, was discharged from the … hospital”. The newspaper did not bother to report that in many attacks the assailants were not Caucasian (“white”) at all. In some attacks the perpetrators were in fact Indian! I sat up in consternation when the local media reported a horrible stabbing attack in Perth, where I live. It was too close for comfort, but soon it came to light that the attack was the outcome of a money feud among Indians, and that the suspect/s had fled the country before they could be apprehended.

The place of honour must be awarded to the case where an Indian claimed to have been attacked by Australians who also set his car on fire and that he suffered burns in the attack. It turned out that he was trying to lay a false insurance claim by setting his own car on fire and was burnt in the process! Marital discord and old rivalries have also figured in instances of violence within the Indian community.

In reality each attack should have been treated as a separate instance. It defies my imagination why the Indian media ignored simple logic and resorted to frenzied drum-beating. In some cases the locality of the attack was also important. Some of the late night attacks happened in areas of dubious reputation. Local residents, regardless of their ethnicity, often commented that they would not go to such areas alone, and certainly not at night. Responsible parents advise their children not to travel alone at night on certain routes. At least two of the reported attacks happened in such locations, around midnight or later.

If the media coverage was deplorable, “readers’ comments” in most cases were shocking beyond belief. Abysmal ignorance and bigotry at its worst surfaced here. It is very easy to spew venom under the cloak of anonymity that the web generously offers. Leading newspapers claim that they moderate readers’ comments – something that seemed to be totally missing in this case. Many Indian readers were full of choice expressions like Aussies being descendants of criminals, halfwits, drunkards and more. In this fury, sane and rational comments were just drowned. Even worse, if a person of Indian origin in Australia attempted any sanity, he/she was quickly denounced as servile, dollar-hungry bootlicker or some such.

“Resident” bloggers in newspapers, some of them on the editorial staff, did not help much. One such blogger opened his post with five opinions from Indian-Australians stating that these events do not reflect racism. Then he quickly changed his tune to his ‘non-acceptance’ of these comments and proceeded to give his own take that the attacks are indeed racist. I questioned some of his assumptions giving examples from my personal experience – he did not respond. He did respond to another ‘rational’ opinion with the statement that the 5000 students who protested in Melbourne perceived it differently. Aha! Therein lies the rub. The “5000” protesters blocked peak-hour traffic in the heart of the city, shouted slogans, swore at Australians passing-by (there is YouTube footage of this)… heritage property was damaged. The protesters naturally say that their ‘peaceful protest’ was hijacked by ‘others’. Did they expect it to be otherwise? The blogger ignored a very simple fact of life – individual psychology and perception differ greatly from mob psychology and perception. The mob had a preconceived notion that whatever was happening was purely racial. The leaders of the protest, despite having lived in Australia, did not wake up to the fact that protests here are very different from what they are in India.

One reporter wrote a very telling article, titled "भय्ये - मुंबईचे आणि मेलबर्नचे"  (Bhaiyas – from Mumbai and from Melbourne) in a Marathi Daily. I for one, would not compare racism (real or alleged) elsewhere with parochialism or casteism in India (well, some time I may feel compelled to do so!). Still, the article did make a lot of sense. However, the reporter slipped on one vital point. The article was written before the two deaths had occurred. Yet the reporter wrote (loosely translated) : “Our kids are being beaten mercilessly – some dead bodies have reached India…”. I commented, asking him where he discovered the dead bodies. There was no reply. The folly of irresponsible journalism was compounded by the lack of will to correct oneself.

Finally, I must say something about the reaction on social networking sites. I took part in discussions on at least three ‘communities’ on Orkut. I emerged with a feeling of having banged my head against a stone wall. Once again, pure vitriol against NRIs, stereotyping of NRIs as selfish, snobbish, dollar-hungry… it was the same story again. What is even more painful is that most of these ‘commentators’ have been furiously pounding their keyboards, sitting in their homes built of walls of ignorance.

I am aware of the possibility that this post of mine would generate more questions than answers. In order to keep this post within reasonable limits, I shall just highlight some such questions with leads to my further discussion.

Some sample questions :
  • Do I mean to say that there is NO racism in Australia? Answer : There is NO place without racism. Perceptions can differ vastly from person to person.
  • Aren’t Australians descendants of criminals? This question can only arise out of monumental ignorance. The issue is really simple, all one needs is patience and willingness to understand some history.
  • Why do Indian youngsters go to Australia to study? This will reveal some very, very interesting facts.
  • What Australia really like? I shall give my take on this.
And many, many more.


Australia and racism – 1 : A media blunder

About the next few posts (on this topic)…

The idea of blogging occurred to me for the first time in 2009, following the “racist attacks on Indian students” in Australia. The subject came under intense discussion on some of the Orkut ‘communities’ that I am a member of. (For those who may not know – Orkut is a social networking site!) I often posted on these communities a different viewpoint and was roundly attacked and condemned for these. The discussions went on and on in circles until I found them too repetitive. Work commitments, leading to lack of time, prevented me from starting the blog. When I did start recently, I realised that the fire generated by those episodes had died out.

Did it really die? During my recent trip to India I realised that the embers still smouldered. I once again faced questions on the topic of racism in Australia. To my utter surprise, I discovered that the idea of ‘racist’ attacks is so deep-rooted that it refuses to die. I was equally surprised to see that often the questions came from the highly educated, professional class. Indian media have truly done a great job of brainwashing – people never speak of ‘attacks on Indian students’, they speak of ‘racist / racial attacks on Indian students’. Such questions almost provoked me into writing about this issue even after two years.

My arguments were, and are, that the Indian media blew the issue out of all proportion, that the picture they created of Australia being racist and Australians being stereotyped as racist was all wrong, and most important, the media and those indulging in mudslinging did not have a faintest idea of the complexities of the situation. The last bit was further compounded by an abysmal ignorance of what Australia really is.

Before writing on the subject itself I must state that I do not believe in blind faith especially in media portrayals of events, and that I like to see in a rational manner all that is positive and negative in any situation. I am Indian-born, have lived in Australia for almost ten years and hold a dual citizenship. It is easy for me to be branded by others as an Indophobe suffering from the NRI syndrome. I just call a spade a spade. I welcome comments, but have strong distaste for emotional fireworks and abuses.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Australia 2

(Follows "Australia 1").

Glimpses of Malaysia and Australia – from the perspective of an Indian-born.
As a part of saying our goodbyes before leaving for Malaysia, I met a senior physician in Bombay. When he heard that I am going to Malaysia he expressed surprise and asked, “Why are you going to Malaysia? These are such corrupt countries”. His statement was probably a generic one for south-east Asian countries… I did not react.
A few days later we landed at Kota Bharu. The university had arranged for accommodation for three days in a respectable hotel. During this period we were expected to prepare for the move into a house allotted by the university. The university owned some houses which were rented to employees who wished to avail of them. My good friend Amol was already working there, and helped us get the essentials – a refrigerator, washing machine, gas stove and more. The house had a basic telephone instrument – all I had to do was to go to the Telecom office, complete some formalities and the phone was functional. For the year 1994, this was a big surprise for me. But this was just the beginning. The local grocery shop also functioned as an agent for domestic gas. All we had to do was to pay a deposit equivalent to the cost of one refill, plus the cost of the first cylinder (bottle) and that was all. With recent Bombay and Nashik experiences so fresh in our minds, this was another shock.
The university also had a scheme for employees to purchase cars – a loan at a ridiculously low rate of interest. For expatriate employees the EMI (equated monthly instalment) was calculated for full repayment over the period of one contract of three years. University jobs are government jobs in Malaysia (Ministry of Education). That a government employer runs such a scheme was a novelty.  We booked a car – there was a short (about five weeks) waiting period, during which I had to obtain a Malaysian Driver’s Licence. My road experience in India was limited to a two wheeler (Enfield Bullet) and I had no international licence. There was a written test, driving lessons and a road test. The day I finished the driving test I went to the Transport Office, armed with the test result, photographs and copies of my passport. In five minutes I had my licence in my hands. This was indeed a shock.
Expatriate workers were subject to an “Immigration Levy” in Malaysia, but University staff were exempt. However, the exemption became operational retrospectively after the filing of the first tax returns. With great apprehension (natural for an Indian!) I went to the tax office. The officer studied my documents and said, “Well, you see, I am on leave tomorrow, and a weekend follows. You will have to come on the next working day”. I thought, “ah – at last… this the beginning!” on my next visit, the receptionist began with “the officer has gone for a medical check-up today, he is not well”. I prepared myself for multiple trips to the tax office or… Just then the lady said, “wait! Is your name Avinash?”. I affirmed it was. “Oh – my apologies – here’s your letter”. She handed me a sealed envelope with my name on it, along with the day and time I was expected to collect it.
I could not see corruption as an Indian understood it. This is not to say that it does not exist. Greed is a human attribute, and no place can be exempt. Compared to the Indian milieu, in Malaysia it does not hit the common man at every step. It is possible that in the small city of Kota Bharu, expatriates were held in esteem, because the only expats living there (at least then) were doctors, either at the University or at the General Hospital (Ministry of Health).
Malaysia is a “developing country”. It has its rich and poor; and there is a significant gap between the very rich and the very poor. Yet, the basic necessities of life are available to everyone. In Kota Bharu there were hardly any beggars. Nor were there any in other cities. Metropolitan areas like Kuala Lumpur did have some, but far fewer than you would see in Mumbai.
Most Government and public utility offices were pleasant. And they were air-conditioned. Hardly anyone honked on the road, even with traffic jams. There are two rainy seasons – effectively, it rains all round the year. Yet there are no potholes on the roads. Public toilets were generally very clean, even at petrol stations on highways. Driving 500 km to Kuala Lumpur in a day was a pleasure, even though a major part of the road was in mountainous territory. Telephone failures were extremely rare, and power failures were attended to with great speed.
During the economic crisis (allegedly engineered by George Soros), Malaysia suffered, but not to the extent of Thailand or Korea. Prices did go up, especially those of imported goods. Some industries suffered, notably hospitality. But Malaysia overcame that by heavily promoting domestic tourism. Day-to-day life was largely unaffected.
During this five-year period of my job in Kota Bharu, we visited India twice. By 1997 the winds of globalisation and liberalisation were blowing strong in India. I do not understand concepts like GDP and GNP. But what I experienced was this : most prices were comparable to those in terms of dollars, but the income of the common man did not keep pace with them. If I had been a medical college teacher in India in those days, I would have been disappointed. I heard that private tuitions would take care of the inflation, but private tuitions in medical colleges had other undercurrents that I did not find compatible with my temperament. (This is not a criticism of many of my friends, nor is it ‘stereotyping’. No misunderstanding please!)
During later visits I realised that things had not really changed. In a ‘public utility’ office in Pune, a clerk bluntly told me : “go to that man outside the office (an ‘agent’) – he will guide you”. Obviously there was a ‘surcharge’ (read ‘bribe’) involved.
As I said earlier, we reached Australia in 2002. According to the rules then, we had Malaysian driving licences, and were required to pass only a ‘written’ (computerised) test. I wentin for the test, completed it and came out to see the officer. He checked my results on the computer and told me to pay the fee for the licence, the licence would be sent by post. And it did come in less than a week. After we got our PR visa (Permanent Residence, like the US Green Card) we purchased a house on loan. No ‘black and white’ there, the entire transaction was conducted by an authorised ‘settlement agent’ in the presence of a bank officer. Later we needed to add a room to our house. We got the plans certified by a licenced engineer and submitted them to the planning officer of the local council (municipality). The planning officer pointed out that our extension did not fit into certain rules and advised a slight modification. We did that and resubmitted the plans. The officer informed us that the new plan was OK, and that we shall receive the building permission by post within a week. That was all. Income tax refunds are credited to the bank account within a week. The healthcare system works by rules. One cannot have a pathology test or a specialist appointment without the referral letter from a GP (family physician). Prescription medicines are dispensed strictly by prescription and the sale is recorded on a computer. This is not to say that the healthcare system is perfect – but any shortcomings are those of the system, mostly due to shortage of medical manpower.
Contrast this with my very recent experience in India : During one visit I needed to take antibiotics (I usually avoid them!). I went to the chemist and asked for the antibiotic. It is my usual practice to tell the chemist that I am a doctor and that this is a self-prescription, and give the chemist my Indian registration number. When I did this on this occasion, the chemist remarked : “Oh that’s OK. Agreed, you are honest and want to keep my record straight. But even if I keep all records, what happens? The inspector visits my shops, takes 5000 Rs,, picks up some expensive deodorants and perfumes… that’s it”.
I often hear from my friends that all this will change. There is now a mass awakening. I have heard of this ‘change’ for the last forty years. Some thirty years ago, I had a flat. One day the neighbours informed me that the municipal officer would visit within a week to assess the taxable area of each flat. It was ‘agreed’ that each flat owner should contribute 50 rupees (not a small sum in the 1970s!) and in return the officer would reduce the taxable area. I said that I would rather pay tax on the correct area. A friend of mine gave me sagacious advice : “You are honest, fine! Don’t accept bribes. But there is no escape from giving bribes”. Recently I heard that in one of the smaller municipalities, the ‘going rate’ for approaching a corporator for any work is Rs 7000, and that people rarely go to the municipal offices for their work – they approach the corporator!
I often wonder – how many of these people wore Anna Hajare caps during the recent tamasha! Nice to see Anna targeting the big, corrupt politicians, but who will stop the corruption at the common man’s level? I am sure that the sum total of the ‘common man’s corruption’ far exceeds the amounts involved in Adarsh and CWG! Has anybody bothered to imagine this?
I guess one gets ‘used to’ this lifestyle after a while. Even ‘clean’ persons can live in such conditions, maybe with some frustration, a lot of irritation and a phenomenal loss of time and energy. After all, most of friends are ‘straight’, and they manage somehow. Recently in Nashik, after just one day I developed a philosophical attitude to the harassment by autorickshaw drivers. Caste politics seems to get more and more bitter day-by-day. Even in Orkut communities where I follow the discussions regularly, bitter casteism raears its ugly head despite ‘control’ by moderators.
As I have emphasized, I came to Australia by chance, not by predetermined choice. When my friends ask me about a return to the land of my birth, the answer is a sad, unfortunate “no”. I just do not have the energy and the will to accept that bitterness.
Do I still miss the land of my birth? Am I proud of my culture, my heritage? The answer to all these questions is an emphatic YES… But with reservations – there is a large canvas of background, an evolution of a persona. More about that later, soon!

Australia 1

A bit of background :
The Journey to Australia – How and Why
The answer to the question “how” is simple – by coincidence.  It follows that regarding “why”, it is more appropriate to ask why I chose to remain in Australia.
While in India, I had not ‘dreamt’ of living in Australia. In fact, except for half-hearted explorations of possibilities, I never thought strongly about settling overseas. During the later years in India (late eighties and early nineties) dreaming was a luxury. In 1990 I left a ‘stable and steady’ local government job – I taught Anatomy at the LTM Medical College (Sion), run by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Bombay. With desire to free myself of the routine of the job and putting into practice some of my ideas on the teaching of the subject, I joined a private medical college at Nashik – about 200 km from Bombay. Much to the consternation of well-meaning seniors, I had let go of the retirement benefits available after 20 years of service. The event also marked a new beginning, from scratch, of personal life when I was approaching forty. In way I invited uncertainty upon myself. Having done considerable trekking in the ranges around Bombay, this was like a fresh trek in life.
In the early nineties then it was a new College, fresh responsibilities of a new anatomy department, new challenges. Our two daughters were born while at Nashik. Sometime in 1992, Dr Prashant Sathe a former student and a colleague at Nashik, showed me an ad in the Indian Express, from a Malaysian University. Among other positions was one for an anatomist. After some see-sawing, I sent in my papers. I almost forgot about it when one day they asked me why I had not responded to their offer (apparently the offer letter was lost in transit). After some to-and-fro correspondence, the ordeal of getting a passport, the plague epidemic and consequent closure of visa offices, we reached Malaysia in late 1994. Malaysia was not on the Indian tourists’ map then, nor was it on the employment map. Moreover, the medical school was in the small city of Kota Bharu, capital of the state of Kelantan close to the border with Thailand in the northeast corner of the Malayan peninsula. Kelantan was considered ‘backward’ even in Malaysia then!
The first three years were spent in just settling down. Even then there was no chance of long-term planning of any kind. The university’s contracts were drawn for three-year terms. They were usually renewed, but one could not depend on that possibility. One planned for three years at a time. Moreover, children’s education was a big problem. Most Malaysian schools taught in the local language. The bigger cities had expensive “international” schools, but in Kota Bharu the “International” school was one started by an Irish teacher, run mostly by wives of expatriate doctors working at the medical school or the government hospital. The total number of students in the entire school was 60 – yes, sixty. Most Indians felt that after the first six years (“Standard 6” in Indian terms), it was best to go back to India, send the children back to India or send wife and children back, while the husband stayed in Malaysia. Any delay, and the children would be more and more “unfit” for the Indian school system. Moreover, having spent some years outside India, even the doctor had less chances of getting a job ‘back home’ with equal seniority.
Somehow we decided to ignore all the negatives. Malaysia was a new experience, and a wonderful one at that. We plunged ourselves into the “Malaysian experience”. Malaysia had the label of a developing country, but what a contrast! Even in a ‘backward’ little place like Kota Bharu, the roads were good (despite the fact that it rained almost all round the year), the telecommunications system was excellent, the university campus was simply beautiful and the cost of living was very reasonable. A car was affordable – this may sound odd today, but bear in mind that this was 1994-95. Indeed, for a family of four, one’s own car was the most economical form of transport all over peninsular Malaysia. Sometime in 1995 the University provided individual in-office computers to all staff and established a network with email.
One day an Indian colleague announced that he was going to Australia on a job. He is a psychiatrist, a branch that was underserved in Australia then. This stimulated many others to explore Australia, but it was not an easy process. A pure academic like me, engaged largely in teaching, it was even more difficult. A friend in Australia confirmed this.
Another window opened just by coincidence. A colleague told me of a job offer on the internet – this time, in Fiji. One only heard of Fiji (if at all) as a beautiful tropical island country ‘somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, south of the equator. I did have a Fiji Indian student in my class during my student days. The memory only heightened my curiosity. Sneha was always game for another round of international trekking – indeed, she egged me on. So we sat at the new home computer late one night and filled in my details online. We received a phone call three days later form a telephonic interview. To cut a long story short, we landed in the remote Fiji Islands in June 1999. Once we reached Fiji she tried for a job for herself and after six months had a dual appointment at the medical school as a lecturer and the hospital as a dermatologist. As soon as she got in, she started looking for academic conferences with a pathologist friend. They decided to go for a conference at Perth. Less than a year into our stay in Fiji, the coup of 2000 upset all plans. Our house was just a few hundred metres from the Parliament. Luckily we had jobs in Malaysia in the pipeline and after ten tense days we left Fiji to reach Kuching in East Malaysia (Sarawak state on the island of Borneo).
With our departure, Sneha’s sponsors in Fiji backed out. Luckily, the chief organiser in Perth often sponsored one international delegate for these conferences, and Sneha had her chance. Her paper was received so well that the organiser, a leading skin pathologist, advised her to spend some time at Perth to study in his lab. The next year saw us in Perth – just a study visit for six weeks. Since I was deeply involved in curriculum planning and design, I asked if I could spend the time in the Anatomy department at Perth. The department agreed (it was a non-remunerative visit). As a part of my visit I also gave a few lectures and taught in the labs. Somewhere there was good feedback and next year I was asked if I could come for a year or two to fill a temporary vacancy. I had liked Perth as a city during the first short stay, and the Department of Anatomy was a very pleasant place – I agreed. So we landed in Perth on a job in 2002.
The Perth story had just begun! There was tremendous uncertainty regarding the future – there was no guarantee that Malaysia would take us back after this, and the girls would soon reach high-school age and require some degree of stability and continuity. Sneha was in a worse state, since she could enter the medical field without the Australian licensing examination. I did not need to do that as my job did not involve patient care. For two years Sneha went to Kuching as a fly-in, fly-out visiting lecturer to teach dermatology. This too had its limitations as the girls were still primary school. (In Australia Primary school is until year 7).
With the passage of time we felt this was a place we could settle in. but there was no red carpet. As workloads increased at the University, my contract was extended. However, by Australian immigration laws, a person above the age of 45 cannot apply for migration (“PR”) – it has to be supported by an employer. With the advent of another new medical course, I was delegated to represent Anatomy – that earned me the requisite contract and the University nominated me for a Permanent Residence.
Our international trek was over. Lucky coincidences, some risky steps, a lot of pain of uncertainty – regarding the future and financial, the rigorous exercises of winding up households and changing countries… and of course a lot of excitement. Despite interruptions in schooling which also involved different schooling systems, the girls had a great multinational experience at a young age. The ship has dropped anchor…

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Long absence, and welcome 2012

2011 was a whirlwind year. Professional commitments, ever-accumulating deadlines and the fervent wish that day should have at least 30 hours characterised the past year. Well, there were rewards, but the way time trickled out through the sieve of the fabric of life was unbelievable. So much has accumulated during the period from the first posts on this blog and my Marathi blog… I hope that I have the time and energy to share it.
The professional rewards of being nominated for excellence in teaching by a multitude of students from different units that I teach and actually winning an award was one part. On the personal front, one classmate from my alma mater (G S Medical College and King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, Bombay) started a Facebook group. A similar initiative was taken by another person who started a group of alumni of LTM Medical College, Bombay. Through these, the internet was finally being fruitful – found innumerable students and friends and a larger-scale sharing began.
So back to the blog with a new infusion of enthusiasm.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Arrow in the Blue...

Early 1970s… the heady days as a medical student when ‘extracurricular’ reading was as important as medical studies  – at times more so J. My favourite haunt in Bombay, the British Council Library… One afternoon I saw a book titled “The Case of the Midwife Toad” by an author I had not heard of before, Arthur Koestler. In retrospect I might say that my ignorance was deplorable, because Koestler had been a well-known writer since the 1930s. But this book was new then in the early 70s. I was curious… the title sounded Erle-Stanley-Gardnerish, but the jacket has a picture of – what else – a toad. Biology…? I read the back cover. Looked interesting… I picked the book up.
Arthur Koestler was soon one of my top favourites as a writer. The Case of the Midwife Toad was a strange book – it tried to support a theory of evolution long discarded by Darwinian and neo-Darwinian biologists – the inheritance of acquired characters, or, in short, Lamarckism. Molecular Biology had almost come of age then, close to 21 years after the structure of DNA was proposed by Crick and Watson in 1953. In the intervening years, the refreshed understanding of inheritance had supported evolution by natural selection. Why would someone defend Lamarckism? The book ends in a rather inconclusive manner. Yet, it launched me into a journey of exploration with the author, Arthur Koestler.
Very soon I was reading Koestler like a man possessed. My early reading of Koestler included his essay collections with exotic names like “The Trail of the Dinosaur” and “The Yogi and the Commissar”. “Darkness at Noon” soon followed, and so did “The Sleepwalkers”.  My father often made fun of me for my admiration. But I never was – and still am not – a blind ‘follower’ of Koestler.  In fact, I read “The Roots of coincidence” with some degree of scepticism, though I must admit that I still found it interesting. His writing style in English was spellbinding – especially so when one considers that he was born in Hungary, spent a part of his early life in Austria and Germany and wrote in German before adopting England as his home and English as his language.
Koestler is arguably best known for his novel Darkness at Noon – the anti-totalitarian novel written in 1940. But then that again is an injustice to the writer. In the words of the US journalist Anne Applebaum, "It is difficult to think of a single important twentieth-century intellectual who did not cross paths with Arthur Koestler, or a single important twentieth-century intellectual movement that Koestler did not either join or oppose.” Koestler belonged to a generation that witnessed momentous events in science, politics and history. Koestler wrote about most of this.
Born of Jewish parents of mixed Russian-Hungarian ancestry in Hungary in 1905, Koestler went to school in Vienna. He gave up his engineering education just before graduation and went to Palestine, Back in Europe, he worked as a journalist based in Berlin, soon to be the science editor for a prestigious group of publications. He joined the Communist Party in 1931 and in 1938 left it, disillusioned. During this period, he went to Spain in the days of the Spanish Civil War, was arrested and sentenced to death. Released in an ‘exchange’, he returned to France, was imprisoned when France was at war and in 1940 landed in England.
It is not my intention to give a detailed biography or bibliography of Koestler. Suffice it to say that he wrote fiction, he wrote about science and philosophy, politics, on innumerable ‘causes’ and movements and even entered the field of extrasensory perception, coincidences and parapsychology. His writing on science and creativity make somewhat heavy reading, but is absorbing in the extreme. As a science person, I find his “Sleepwalkers” an enormous work – it is a study of mankind’s understanding of the universe as it evolved from the Renaissance.
“Arrow in the Blue” is the title of one of his autobiographical writings, covering the first twenty-six years of his life. Koestler’s own explanation of the concept of the arrow in the blue is engaging. I would not spoil the joy of discovery of any prospective readers – suffice it to say that I have borrowed the phrase for the title of my blog to express my fondness for this “Twentieth Century Skeptic” as a biographer has called him.
Among the ‘causes’ Koestler campaigned for were abolition of capital punishment and euthanasia. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease and leukaemia and on 1 March 1983, he and his wife committed suicide with an overdose of barbiturates.
In Bombay, I was very pleasantly surprised by an editorial in full praise of Koestler, a day after his death. The editorial was in Maharashtra Times, written by another one of my favourite journalists – none other than Govind Talwalkar. I was thrilled at finding the eminent Marathi-speaking journalist to be a fan of Koestler. I went unannounced to the offices of Maharashtra Times. I was then just a young lecturer – I explained the purpose of my visit to the receptionist and timidly knocked at Govindrao’s door. He received me graciously – perhaps he was mildly surprised that his visitor, a young Maharashtrian man had even heard of Koestler! We exchanged notes of our admiration of the just departed writer.
The opening post of this blog is, then, a tribute to Arthur Koestler and an acknowledgment of my debt to him for the title of my blog.