Twenty-one brilliant things only Margaret Atwood could say – and she did

Twenty-one brilliant things only Margaret Atwood could say – and she did
Photo Credit: Jaipur Literature Festival
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At 76, Author, poet, and all-around rockstar Margaret Atwood seems unstoppable. She was unfailingly sharp and wickedly funny through all her public appearances in India, at the Jaipur Literature Festival and then in Delhi. Here are some of our favourite things from all that Atwood said:

On writers being “cheap dates”
All of us authors descend from the village storyteller. As Canadian writer Robertson Davies used to characterise this function, “Give me a silver penny, and I will tell you a golden tale.” Note that it’s only one penny. As I said, [writers are] cheap dates.

On stories and growing older
Your romantic tragedy when you were nineteen becomes a funny anecdote by the time you’re forty five. And then, thirty years later, you can’t remember their name.

On the unfreedom of speech and expression
In an age that persecutes deviants, you can yet lose your life for being the possessor of a dangerous or unacceptable story. Words are powerful, which means that words can also be fatal.

On readers and writers
… For writers and readers are joined at the hip. Every act of writing presupposes a reader, even if it’s your own secret journal that you are writing, and the future reader is you.

On writing being an optimistic act
If you have publication in mind, you are looking at the great unknown. The sea, the ocean, the vast universe of readers into which you plan to throw your tiny bottle of a book, with your very tiny story or poetry enclosed within it. Will anyone ever find it? Will anyone ever read it? If so, will they like it? Will anyone hear your voice telling them a story? You hope so.

What writing can do
Writing is also the primary way in which the unknown, the obscure, the undervalued, and the neglected can become known. All over the world, writing has been the means by which light is shed on darkness. Whether the darkness of oppressive regimes, of lives lived in poverty, of the oppression of women, of discrimination of so many kinds.

On Harper and Trudeau in Canada
I was describing what had happened to Canada during the zombie apocalypse [as part of a guest appearance on the Zombies Run game]. The entire government had become zombified… this was under the Harper regime. It’s come back to life. In fact, we have a Prime Minister that is so cool we can’t get used to it.

On setting her latest dystopia in the USA
Canada’s too difficult a place to set real dystopias, because as we have just seen, Canada’s too shrieking nice to go all the way. When it looked as though we were heading that way, all sorts of Canadians formed citizens’ groups and dis-elected the former government.

There are a lot of areas of Canadian life in which you don’t see this fabled niceness, but I think the previous government had gone a step too far in the other direction for the average Canadian.

On utopia and the US
The United States itself, in its beginning, was a utopian experiment, done by the Puritans. They thought they were going to set up the kingdom of god on earth, they were going to be better than everybody else, they were going to be a city upon a hill, a light to all nations. Has that worked out? Not entirely, although in some areas such as Coca Cola, it kind of has.

On dots
I’m of the generation where there were a lot of dots [in place of sex scenes]. I mourn their passing. We’ve had to become much more explicit since those days. Once upon a time we could say, in romantic novels [and magazines], “And then they were one. Dot dot, dot dot dot.” You didn’t have to go into any details, so it left a lot to the reader’s imagination. And what imaginations they were.

On the future, and on inequality
On the one hand, things are going to get so much better, because think of all the astonishing discoveries we are making. On the other hand, things are going to get a lot worse because think of climate change, food shortages, and all the other things. Which is going to get there first? The utopian or the dystopian? Or is it going to be a mix, utopian for some, dystopian for others – as it is at the moment.

On pushback from her publishers
Either they want me to write agreeable 19th century historical fiction, which we find comforting, because it is in the past. I understand it, right now I’m stuck into Wolf Hall the TV version, and what nice clothing they had in the Renaissance to be sure, but it was unevenly distributed. Or they want me to write social realism, but I don’t see why one can’t write both [realist and speculative fiction].

On being a cat person
I’ve always been a cat person, it was my longing in my youth to have one, but I was not allowed to have one because we lived up in the woods so often. But I finally got my hands on one, immediately dressed it up in a bonnet. I’ve had them through the years.

On Angel Catbird, her new comic book superhero
He has an identity crisis. Half cat, half bird, do I save this, or do I eat it? He’s gotten involved with other people who’re also mutant, some of them having inherited it. One of them is called Count Catula, who is a combination of a cat, a bat, and a vampire. We like him.

On women writers in the 19th century
The novel wasn’t considered an art then, it was a low form. That’s why women wrote novels with impunity. It wasn’t considered too high for them. But there are very few women poets in the 19th century. Poetry was considered too much for our tiny brains.

On women’s empowerment, and writing about women (in response to an audience question)
Looked at as a whole, I would by no means say that the push for better treatment of women has been a failure. I don’t think it has been a total success, but my view of human beings is that these things go by stages and cycles.

I do point out to you where I have one whole novel where the narrator is a man. I wrote that because I keep getting questions like yours – why do you keep writing about women? People don’t notice Oryx and Crake.

On genre
Genres are useful for bookstores so they know what shelf to put them on. People who dismiss books based on the shelf they’re on are not serious readers, in my opinion.

On prisons for profit
There is a long human history of prisons for profit. There is incentive to criminalise more people so you can make more profit, is it not? Yes it is.

On human ingenuity
We’re going to have to invent ourselves out of our own inventions. We’re going to need to be ingenious in order to overcome problems caused by our own ingenuity.

On the origins of The Handmaid’s Tale
(This was in response to Patrick French asking her whether her travels in Afghanistan, Iran and India contributed to her writing the classic The Handmaid’s Tale).

People jump to that conclusion quickly, because they have not gone into the American and European history of the treatment of women. Nobody has a monopoly on the mistreatment of women. Things actually went backward for women in 19th century Europe, and one of the reasons I wrote the book was because at the time, they wanted women back in the home in the USA. They hadn’t figured out how yet, so I did it for them.

On the coffeehouse movement
The one in Canada was called the Bohemian Embassy. Some people thought it was a real embassy, and used to write to it, asking for visas. […] I was twenty. I was there. That was where I first read my rather awful poetry of those days, and learned how to deal with emergencies, such as electrical failures and other poets who were drunk.


‘They already had it in mind.’ Some African students feel that locals were just looking for an excuse to attack them.

Four days of fear among African students, months of mistrust among Bengaluru residents
Photo Credit: Nayantara Narayanan
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African students studying at Acharya Institutes in Bengaluru are still wary of stepping out of their hostels and rented accommodations. Four days after an accident involving a Sudanese driver and a subsequent mob attack on a group of Tanzanians, students at the college from Congo, Malawi, Namibia and other African nations are still worried about backlash.

Called to a meeting of African students with the college management on Thursday afternoon, a group of girls ventured nervously out of their homes. While waiting at a junction for further directions to the meeting, one of them brightened up when she looked towards the bus stop. “I am going to sit near the police man,” she said. “What can anyone do if I sit near the police man?” Her friends followed her to wait at the bus stop next to the man in the khaki uniform.

The incident that had them on tenterhooks occurred on Sunday night. A Sudanese man reportedly speeding down the narrow Acharya Road to the college hit a resident named Shabana Taj killing her on the spot and injuring her husband Sanaullah. A mob gathered at the site of the accident in Ganapathi Nagar. They thrashed the driver and burnt his car.

About half an hour later and half a kilometer away along a same road, a group of Tanzanian students were stopped by a crowd and dragged out of their car. A 21-year-woman told journalists that people in the crowd pushed her around, beat her and tore her t-shirt, leaving her wearing almost nothing. She boarded a bus along with a friend to get away from the crowd but the bus driver refused to move, prolonging the ordeal. While the Tanzanian students escaped into the nearby hospital, the mob set their car afire too.

Looking for scapegoats?

Students in the vicinity heard reports of the violence along with news that angry local residents were stopping vehicles to search African students.

“That night some of the Africans who were working were sent back by some Indian friends who said “you guys don’t go out, it’s unsafe”,” said Tasha (name changed), who is from Malawi and stays at a girls hostel near the college. “There are different reports that came that others were also attacked. I know one of our friends met the mob. They were about to attack him but he reasoned with them and managed to get away.”

The attacks kept most students at Acharya Institutes from African countries indoors on Monday and Tuesday. Some ventured to their classes on Wednesday. But they walked only in big groups when summoned to the college for a meeting with the management and representatives of their respective embassies in India. One student from Zambia, who goes by the name Ajay when in India, messaged directions to this reporter on where to meet him. He added, “It’s not safe for me to walk alone.”

Many like Ajay have chosen to come to Bengaluru to pursue higher degrees in computer applications. “Of course, this is the best place for it having such a big IT industry,” he said. Bengaluru and India are favourite destinations for young Africans aspiring to study engineering and medicine. Many come on scholarships provided by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. Almost all student visitors say that the pleasant weather and much-touted cosmopolitan culture are incentives. “It is not too hot and not too cold, just like back home” remarked Tasha. “And when I Googled, it said the city had friendly people.”

Both Ajay, who has been in the city for two years, and Tasha, who has been here for a few months, said that they hadn’t been scared for their safety in Bengaluru before this. The discrimination has been more insidious, according to Michael from the Democratic Republic of Congo. As he walked up the college walkway he passed two of his classmates. “They are local guys and they have been my classmates for two years,” he said. “If everything was ok then we would have greeted each other normally. But they tend to stay away from the African students.”

What’s making Ganapathi Nagar angry?

Meanwhile, the residents of Ganapathi Nagar say that they are fed up of the rash behaviour of foreign students in the neighbourhood. Salespeople in shops that line Acharya Road, while denying having witnessed the incident on Sunday, say that students driving rashly have caused numerous accidents. “It takes a big event like this when someone dies, for the police to pay attention,” said Umesh from behind the counter of the grocery store.

Relatives gathered at Sanaullah’s house are irked that the Shabana’s death has been overshadowed by the news of violence against the Tanzanian girl. “All these ministers are talking about what happened to the foreign student when they can’t look after the people from here only,” said Sanaullah. “It’s ok. Give compensation, or even give my Aadhaar card to them.”

Sanaullah’s cousin refuses to believe that the mob stripped the Tanzanian student of her clothes. “When the public is angry you know how it gets,” she said. “People would have pulled them out of the car not even realising that she is a girl. These girls all wear such flimsy clothes that somewhere in pushing among the crowd her dress might have torn. All the people here have wives and daughters at home. How will anyone tear a woman’s clothes like that?”

While adamant that none of the local people could have abused the Tanzanian national, the residents of Ganapathi Nagar also maintain that they don’t know who the people in the mob were. “They all must have come from outside,” said Umesh. “We don’t know any of them.”

The police arrested people from Ganapathi Nagar for the attack on the Tanzanians based on CCTV footage, Bengaluru Police Commissioner NS Megharik said on Thursday, though the exact number of those detained was not immediately available.

Ganpath Singh seems to be one of the few people on Acharya Road in sympathy with the African students. A migrant himself who has been in Bengaluru for about six years, Singh runs a stationary and Xerox shop up the road from the site of the attack. “The students from Africa are just like the other students. They are very friendly,” he said. “ Almost 80% of business here comes from these foreign students – in the shops, restaurants and in house rent. It’s good for the locals.”

The perception problem

Sanaullah’s relatives oppose such thought vehemently. “Ever since these foreign students have come there’s only trouble,” one said. “They all drink and do drugs and behave badly and drive rashly here.”

It’s a perception problem Moses Mbwale has resigned himself to. “If they see that you are an African student they always think that you are a drunkard,” he said. “If they see that you are a black person they think that you are Nigerian. We understand that Nigeria has its own reputation. Not all African countries are like that, and not all Nigerians also. There have been locals also who drink and other people who don’t drink.” Mbwae is from Namibia and is the president of the African Committee of Acharya, a group that helps with communication between local students, the college administration and the French-, Arabic and Swahili-speaking students from Africa.

As students consider their security in the coming days, Tasha is worried about a deeper issue. “The way that I see it the mob had its justice by hitting the guy and burning his car. They didn’t have to threaten all of us,” she said. “It shows that they already had it in mind, that they were just waiting for something to happen to gang up.”

A map of the different African countries mentioned in this story.
A map of the different African countries mentioned in this story.


Indians are falling out of love with British universities – and David Cameron is to blame

Indians are falling out of love with British universities – and David Cameron is to blame
Photo Credit: Pool New/Reuters
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A record number of Indian students are enrolling for higher education in the US – in just two years, it rose by 71% to 181,051.

But the trend’s been just the opposite for the UK.

In the last five years, the number of Indian students opting for British universities has more than halved. Data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which collects statistics on public-funded British higher education, shows that the number of Indian students who enrolled there declined from 39,090 in 2010-’11 to 18,320 in 2014-’15. That’s a fall of 53.1%.

Meanwhile, China has seen a sharp increase in the number of its students in British universities – from 67,330 in 2010-’11 to 89,540 in 2014-’15, an increase of 32.9%.

Data: Higher Education Statistics Agency
Data: Higher Education Statistics Agency

China and India remain the largest contributors to the total of 312,010 non-EU students who enrolled in the UK in 2014-15. Nigeria, Malaysia, and the US are among the top five.

Data: Higher Education Statistics Agency
Data: Higher Education Statistics Agency

The decline in the number of Indian students has coincided with the British government’s decision to abolish post-study visa in 2012. The tier-1 (or post-study work visa) permitted students to stay back and work in the UK for at least two years after completing their courses. Recently, on January 13, the UK government rejected Scotland’s demand to reintroduce tier-1.

“Frankly, there are lots of people in our country desperate for jobs. We don’t need the brightest and best of students to come here and then do menial jobs. That’s not what our immigration system is for,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said in the House of Commons.

Moreover, the UK has come down hard on diploma mills – unaccredited universities – which provided students an illegal route to migrate to the country.


Tory MPs call for U-turn on education as school places squeeze looms

Michael Gove said councils should seek sponsors for free schools if extra capacity was needed.
Michael Gove, when education secretary, said councils should seek sponsors for free schools if extra capacity was needed. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA

Leading Tories are demanding change to government education policy and an easing of cuts, amid predictions that councils in Conservative-run heartlands will soon be unable to provide school places for all the children in their areas.

The growing concerns of Tory MPs and council leaders are being relayed to ministers by the Conservative-led Local Government Association, which is calling on the government to hand back powers to councils so that they can expand schools or open new ones. The alternative, it says, will be a crisis of provision across the country.

Such a move would require a major U-turn in government policy. In the last parliament Michael Gove, while education secretary, imposed restrictions on councils’ ability to force academies to expand, arguing that headteachers should be free to run their schools as they wished.

He also said that where new schools were needed, councils should seek sponsors for “free schools” – which are funded by central government but not run by the local education authority.

Last week, however, Cheryl Gillan, the MP for Chesham and Amersham, whose constituency is experiencing rapid housing growth, was one of several Tories to voice concerns in parliament. She said Buckinghamshire county council had warned that it could not “provide the key infrastructure that is required for new schools and additional places”.

She insisted that her main message was about the need for more funding, but made it clear that more flexibility was needed to ensure places could be created where they were needed. “I thought our policy was supposed to be all about responding to demand,” she said.

Other Tory MPs who voiced concerns about looming shortages of places in their areas were Steve Baker (Wycombe) and Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton). Nick Gibb, the schools minister, insisted that enough money was being provided to councils to ensure sufficient school places.

The shadow education secretary, Lucy Powell, said: “With such big rises in demand, the provision of new places needs proper planning and co-ordination. The government’s fixation with free schools as the only solution is stopping extra places being provided where they are needed. They should free up local authorities to open and expand good and outstanding schools as required. Otherwise we will continue to see many more children without any school place, and many, many more crammed into over-large class sizes and being put in unsuitable accommodation.”

One of the main criticisms of Gove’s “free school” programme has been that many of the more than 400 such schools established so far are not in areas of acute need, but where people wish to set up a new school.

The Local Government Association says that in areas of need, councils will often struggle to find people to sponsor “free schools” and believes that local councils are “uniquely situated” to manage demand.

Roy Perry, the Tory leader of Hampshire county council and chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said councils had created 300,000 extra primary school places by expanding class sizes, converting non-classroom space and diverting money from vital school repair programmes, but now needed to be able to expand schools or establish new ones to meet demand.

“If they [schools] are not willing to expand, then powers to create new schools should be returned to local authorities themselves if they are unable to secure high-quality free school sponsors in their communities,” Perry said.

In its 2015 election manifesto, the Conservative party promised 500 new free schools by 2020, which they said would create 270,000 new school places. But Labour argues that there is no guarantee that they will be built in places where demand is highest.

To cater for 615,000 additional pupils expected by 2020, each of the 500 free schools would have to have an average of 1,230 pupils – when the median primary school size is between 200 and 300 pupils, whereas the median secondary school is between 900 and 1,000 pupils.

There are currently 304 free schools, with an additional 116 in the pipeline. According to the New Schools Network, a government-funded body, these 420 free schools will provide more than 235,000 places if they are full. Many of these schools have been significantly undersubscribed.

A department for education spokesman said: “Despite rising pupil numbers, 95 per cent of parents received an offer at one of their top three preferred schools last year and any suggestion to the contrary is nonsense.

“Instead of scaremongering, the LGA need to ensure they use the funds provided by Government to secure enough places. Councils are responsible for ensuring there are sufficient school places in their area, and we expect them to plan effectively and make good investment decisions.

“Where local authorities identify the need for a new school they are required by law to invite proposals for a new free school and then forward these to the Department to decide on the options. We would encourage councils to work with RSCs, using their combined local knowledge, to identify top sponsors for new schools in their area, and are confident there is sufficient quantity of quality sponsors to meet demand. We encourage all good academies to grow, to help give every child the world-class education they deserve.”