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The Peccator Is Taking Bookings

June 07, 2003 12:08 IST

Three days it took me. Three days of steady, enervating, sleep-fighting reading. That's how long I spent struggling to get through a 30-page paper published in a very serious-looking academic journal published in the UK, only because the author is someone I knew slightly who asked me to read it. The effort exhausted me.

The fine print says the paper is an 'enlarged and updated version' of an address given to the 'International Institute for General Systems Studies,' whatever that may be.

In the text, the author name-drops a broad spectrum of authorities and their works to make his academic point. These range from Kautilya's Arthashastra to Einstein, Aristotle to C Northcote Parkinson. The Hitopadesa is in there too. With what seems like a practiced flourish, he uses such words as 'cyberneticist,' 'teleology' and 'peccator,' whatever those may be. He offers explanatory examples of all sorts. One is the intricate process, richly described over two-and-a-half pages of dense prose, via which a man might reach the 'cherished state' of -- ready for this? -- pressing a button.

Pressing a button. Really. I'm not making this up.

So with all that, what does his paper say? As far as I can tell, it makes this point and this point only: public administrators are fallible. That is, they make mistakes and are sometimes corrupt.

Yes, in the groves of academia where this author and this journal can be found, you apparently need 30 pages that quote Einstein, Kautilya and other great men, that present mystifyingly pedestrian examples in obscure language -- all to say something that the corner paanwalla will tell you without any fuss. And you thought research was about stating and proving deep theories. About long years of hard-nosed study into complex subjects.

It fascinates me, it does: these efforts to describe trifles as meaningful. Now I suppose it stands to reason that in the wide galaxy of academic endeavour, there must be mediocre journals, ordinary professors, banalities dressed up to resemble serious research, not least by rambling over dozens of pages. Besides, not everyone can conduct Einstein-like, earthshaking investigations. Less profound findings have also to be made and reported. And if that's so, perhaps you have to go all the way down the profundity scale to the blaringly trivial. Somebody, I suppose, has to do that too.

It stands to reason, but it still comes as a surprise when you run across it. You don't really expect that a beautifully laid-out scientific journal -- complete with fancy name, esoteric article titles and obligatory web address -- would contain stuff so banal as to be worthless. But it does.

Which reminds you: the world is full of nonsense. Much of it -- maybe most of it -- is disguised well. In fact, I'm quite sure that the disguise, and not the less-than-profound thesis about administrators, is the true achievement this paper represents.

Now you might think gift-wrapping inanity and nonsense is a rare skill. But even judging from this journal alone, many people are startlingly competent at it. This kind of competence shows up all over the place.

Like the long, thin sticker that appeared on many cars some years ago. 'I'm a VDIS taxpayer!' it said in proud 30-point font. That is, the car owner was telling you that he had taken up the government's then current offer: if you have undeclared wealth, pay 30 per cent as tax and go. No questions asked. Thus VDIS, the Voluntary Disclosure Income Scheme.

I mulled it over as I sat behind one such sticker at a traffic signal. Let's see, just what might the car owner be declaring by displaying it? I think this comes closest to capturing the gentle spirit of it: 'Clap for me! I cheated my country of my taxes for years!'

Some time afterwards, I found a company taking bookings for shoes. Yes, shoes, those things you put on your feet when you walk out the door. Reebok had a splashy model of which it would produce -- so Reebok said -- just 1,400 pairs, worldwide. And Reebok wanted you to reserve your pair in advance. Their ad, complete with a photograph of this strangely battleship-like device, told the story.

Want one? Too late, too bad. But if you wanted one then, you had to 'book a pair fast!' And 'send your name, address and shoe size to Nigel Dodge today!' Emphasis on 'fast' and 'today,' because if you waited to think, you would see the idea of booking shoes as the blinking absurdity it is.

Appropriately for these web-enabled times, the ad was thoughtful enough to provide an email address. Think of it: when was the last time you trusted your shoe size to the internet? Still more reason to sign up. Just Do It and all that. And if you did, you would have been one of only 1,400 lucky soles, worldwide, to own one of these pairs. You might even have struck up an undying friendship with Nigel Dodge, who knows.

Of course, you would have also handed over to Reebok the trifling loose change they wanted for the shoe: Rs 4,490.

You're laughing and laughing. I can hear you. Rs 4,490? That's all? For a shoe that has to be booked by email? After all, how many of us can resist the delicious thought that our feet might be wrapped in two of just 2,800 pieces, worldwide, of multicoloured shoe-material, and what's Rs 4,490 for such an extreme privilege? Which is why I know, too, the joy with which Reebok took the money from email jockeys who wrote in. After all, how many companies can resist customers convinced it is a privilege to book a shoe and then hand over Rs 4,490 for it?

More recently, I ran into several large announcements for 'Bhavishya Jyoti' scholarships from NIIT, the computer course people. These scholarships, I read avidly, are 'in the form of fee wavers [sic] ranging from 25% to 100% for NIIT Courses.'

But hold on: these prestigious scholarships are not for just anyone. Only 'College Students, Computer Literates and Family Members of NIIT Alumni' can qualify, said the announcements.

And you want to know if you're part of that extremely exclusive gang? Read on, as I did.

One way to get the scholarship is if you are a 'meritorious college student.' OK, so just how meritorious are we talking about? To the tune of a 60 per cent average in your academic work (55 per cent if you have not studied Mathematics). Whoops, that lofty standard emphatically rules me out, no question. You too? Don't panic. For the scholarships are also available to a select few other sorts of people. These sorts, and I quote:

'Children of serving/retired/deceased employees of Private Sector Public Limited Companies/Public Sector Undertakings/Central Govt/State Govt/Nationalised Banks/Defence Services.'

I am left speechless by how incredibly selective NIIT is. I mean, standards set so high will certainly rule out all but a pitiful several hundred million Indians! How will NIIT find anyone to give these scholarships to? How can aspirants like you and me ever hope to apply?

Luckily, there is a dim ray of hope for aspirants like you and me.

'Additionally,' say the NIIT announcements, 'if you are Computer Literate or a Family Member of an NIIT Alumnus, there is a special offer for you.'

Just for a lark, I'm trying to figure out exactly who in this wide world is ineligible for Bhavishya Jyoti scholarships. A laughably easy job, I know, but -- you're hardly going to believe this -- somehow I haven't found any such unfortunates yet.

But I will, I'm sure. And when I do, I'm going to write a paper about my efforts. It will refer to Winston Churchill, the Rig Veda and Ferdinand Marcos, and will use the word 'vatic' for no clear reason. Want to reserve a copy? Write to me today, now. Then send lots of money.

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Dilip D'Souza