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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Socialism calling, part three

So: anyone who will not be persuaded that socialism deserves to be given another chance will have to stand up and be identified as someone who a) either believes the world as it is is perfect or, if it isn’t, cannot be bettered, b) is quite happy with the prospect of seeing a small minority living extremely sybaritic, environmentally damaging, unsocial lives (remember, often with money they have not even earned – to wit the spouses and children of tycoons, and winners of lotteries, or those who have found the proverbial oil well in their gardens, or plain thieves), while the great majority simply scrounges along, their condition at best improving by trickles and at worst steadily growing worse (consider the case of environmental refugees, overwhelmingly from countries which have been ravaged by rampant capitalism), c) is sure that there is nothing wrong with the fact that capitalism increasingly makes a world where everyone becomes nothing more or less than just a buyer and seller – all thought (accumulated over millennia of philosophizing and preaching) of reaching for higher modes of living having been discarded as being either meaningless or unattainable, and d) thinks that political democracy makes a lot of sense in the context of gross and growing economic inequality. Fine, then: I know what sort of person I don’t want to hear from for the rest of my life. If I still retain some zest for living, it is because I still believe that not all people have yet become like that, not the best human beings that are around, pitifully few though they might have become.

My hope springs from the fact that I encounter so many young people who, despite being far wealthier than their ancestors, keep grouching that they can’t find rest, they can’t find security, they can’t find love, they can’t find contentment, they can’t find things to live for. And I have watched so many such youngsters growing old and finally giving up looking, resigned themselves to the idea that though they may buy another car or flat, travel to a few touristy places still, get married for a second or third time, draw out their existences for a few more years in modest comfort or even great luxury counting likes on Facebook and trying ever new video games, will never find these things in their lives: given up on them as people give up on mirages. They will come round, sooner or later (usually happens when it’s too late, when their lives are done, alas!) to the realization that a) money alone, especially when you have been chasing it obsessively in conjunction with the very unhealthy ‘high life’ you have been leading, will never make you happy, b) most people will simply burn out or go to jail trying to make money, and still won’t get significantly rich – that’s the iron rule of capitalism: millions must fail or nearly fail for a handful to become super successful celebrities, c) if great wealth made the happiest people on earth, psychiatrists would have routinely held up the Forbes’ 100 richest persons list as models of happy people, d) making a better world calls for simultaneously improving ourselves as individuals and working to create a world where such increasingly improved people set the standards.

Now however hard that second bit in (d) might sound, it pales in comparison with the earlier. And this is not newfangled wisdom: it is part of very deep human instinct that one tries very hard to deny even that one has faults, let alone trying to rectify them: people interfere desperately in others’ lives trying to change them not only because most of them love to play God, but that is the most effective way of hiding lifelong from one’s own defects (think equally of an average mother or father, a very very common human being, lecturing the son on morals as though they are Sri Ramakrishna reincarnate, and of a typical minister haranguing his constituents to be good in the same vein).  

Changing ourselves is hard, firstly because so much badness, crassness and meanness is hardwired into our genes, and/or absorbed from our parents and immediate family, friends and neighbours while we are still young (think of peeing on the roadside or yelling into phones or telling tales or leching after girls or cheating in exams or spending hours before the mirror or faking love to get and hold someone’s attention). Besides, as one grows up one instinctively gravitates towards people who have the same faults (indeed, are either unconscious about them or deny that they are faults at all – the worst of them shrill ‘oh, come on, we just do that sort of thing for fun!’), because in numbers there is safety and comfort, and thus they make strong resistant groups to any kind of effort at improvement. By the time they reach thirty, they are virtually all like that: zombies for all practical purposes. It is harder still in a country where ‘good’ people are routinely mocked, harassed, ignored and taken advantage of, because good people make the rest feel bad about themselves, and that is unforgiveable. Where does one even start the job of clearing the Augean stables?

Looking at the countries which have gone a long distance in that direction, I feel that it should start with education and policing. And that in turn starts with politics, because everywhere politicians formulate policies about education and policing. Which brings us to a conundrum – if politicians are to start the reform process, who will reform the politicians?

It is easy to give up in despair at this point, but I console myself with the knowledge that all countries which are doing better than us today didn’t use to be so good always, which means they gradually  changed for the better, and if it was possible elsewhere, it could be done here. All it needs is a critical mass of people who agree not only that things need to be changed and can be changed, but also broadly on the basic things that need to be changed. For that to happen, a lot of decent people must get into politics, and that in turn will happen as and when some sweeping electoral reforms a) sharply reduce the role of money and muscle power, b) ensure that legislators can be recalled and political parties banned on proven grounds of corruption and incompetence, and c) assure aspiring politicians of at least a modest living lifelong, so that they are not pulled irresistibly by both greed and insecurity towards corruption. Difficult, and time consuming, but not impossible.

Such a critical mass of politicians is bound to make a change for the better, in the sense that I understand ‘better’: I don’t think they can help it. But only up to a point. Whether they can change things that are fundamentally and very badly wrong with our national psyche, I don’t know, and there I honestly don’t have much hope. Remember that in a democracy people get the kind of government they deserve, a government that reflects them, warts and all. Now that I am growing old, I increasingly tend to think that good people are born in India to suffer purgatory by the decree of karma. And that, alas, is not within human power to change.

For what I think about ‘our national psyche’ and the problems that stem from it, the following earlier blogposts would help to jog your memory: My India, Freedom and responsibility, The world we are making for our children, A small dose of political philosophy, Juvenilia, India twenty years after and chhotolok.

[I should strongly recommend that this trio of essays, ending with this one, be read together, along with all the links provided.]

Friday, April 15, 2016

Socialism calling, part two

I should clarify at the outset that I am not even trying to persuade those who will simply not listen: who, even if they agree (sometimes only inwardly) that much is wrong with the capitalist order, will never admit that there could be a possibility of improving things. This could be because they have benefitted too richly from the current system; they hope to benefit, even if the hope is very tenuous (so many engineer-drudges dreaming of becoming overnight startup-zillionaires, so many stockbrokers hoping to hit the pot of gold); they have been brainwashed into being brain dead (every ideology banks on a huge number of such people) or they are simply too frightened of any kind of serious change.

Secondly, I shall admit at the very start that much of the initial promises were very cruelly and hideously betrayed by the big and small experiments with socialism that were tried between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th, be it Robert Owen’s voluntary commune or Tolstoy’s farms or the USSR and PRC, leave alone tinpot regimes as in Vietnam, Cuba, Korea, Cambodia and so on. The reasons are too many, but I think the most important were a) the early leaders were too romantic, had too poor a grasp of basic human nature (or thought it was much more malleable than it really was), quarreled too much, and tried to change too many things too soon; b) later leaders (often the same ones as they grew older) invariably became mere despots, with little to distinguish them from dictators of the far right except in the rhetoric, whose fundamental aim was simply to hang on to power regardless of the social cost, and c) they all became straddled by slothful, apathetic, self-serving bureaucracies. It will not do to forget, either, that the entire capitalist world ganged up to ensure that they never got a chance to develop their own way in peace. I am not going to write a history lesson here, but do read up on the subject. If the US and Britain, then the dominant world powers, had helped rather than hindered (which is putting it mildly – ‘tried everything possible to destroy’ would be much closer to the truth) Lenin and Sun Yat Sen and later the young Mao, the world would have been a very different and, I dare say, much nicer place today. But of course that would be wishful thinking: how could they not do their utmost to destroy a system that was so great a challenge to their own legitimacy, so great a threat to their own survival?

Thirdly, about real world models. Yes, there are, and not a few. My vote goes to all those social-democracies which consistently rank not only among countries with the highest per capita incomes and human development index ranks, but are also among the highest achievers in terms of clean environments, low crime rates, affirmation of women’s rights, religious tolerance, comprehensive social security and attention to non-material needs. Whether it is Germany or France or Switzerland or Japan, whether it is the Scandinavian countries or Singapore or New Zealand (I should like to include Israel in this list, thanks to the legacy of the kibbutz movement), whether they formally call themselves socialist or not, they have managed to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of the US model and the Soviet model and attain the best possible standards of living as well as quality of life for the vast majority of their citizens. They are also relatively peaceful, ‘unexciting’, not-happening countries (at least they used to be until Islamic terrorism recently began to become a serious problem) – so you read much less about them than about what is happening in the US or India. Their super-rich pay very high taxes, they are not yet so crazed about the pop or techie cultures, but they also have virtually no beggars nor millions scrounging lifelong just to keep their heads above water – and their public facilities, be they sanitation or transport or libraries or child care, are way ahead of US standards, leave alone India’s. And yes, to my mind, that is as close to paradise as we have yet gotten anywhere. And they have achieved all this more or less democratically and with very little violence. They still have scope for improvement, but for the rest of us, why don’t we first get there? One thing is certain: it won’t happen by letting brazen capitalism rule. That is why I worry about India and China, which between them account for almost 40% of humanity: if they take the wrong way, as they seem to be doing, mankind is doomed.

So what is the kind of socialism that I envisage and look forward to? Well, if you have been reading closely, you have a fair idea of it already. It does not deny civil liberties, but keeps strict control over anti-social abuse of such liberties. It does not try to do away with capitalism, because it accepts that capitalism generates wealth – but it sternly guides capitalist urges (‘animal spirits’ in Keynes’ unforgettable words) in the direction of greater and broader social welfare, refusing to put wealth generation permanently over and above all other priorities: ‘the public use of private interests’, to quote the title of an essay once written by a prominent American economist. It will be a system where great private wealth and great inequality will be regarded, just like poverty, as crimes. It will be a state (yes, a state: I have never had any sympathy for anarchists) where the Constitution will spell out clear goals and limitations of government, and the political class will be a class of trained professionals, respected, well-paid, stringently monitored and assessed for performance, the way we expect, say, pilots and doctors to be: opportunists, mad ideologues, narrow-minded selfseekers and plain incompetents will be barred or quickly detected and weeded out. It would be a dispensation where education and policing alike will be oriented primarily towards making reasonable, decent, civic-minded citizens, those who have gradually become convinced that caring and sharing and non-violence make for a far better world than blind, compulsive, lifelong pursuit of self-interest and hedonism. It would be a society where bureaucracy really serves the public as the best private companies do, because their careers depend on that. It would be a society where children grow up persuaded that cultivating the four cardinal principles urged by the Buddha long ago – karuna, maitri, upeksha and mudita – would help all of us far more to live better than cramming a lot of physics, chemistry, math and ‘managerial techniques’, or shopping and partying as if there would be no tomorrow simply because they have never learnt of better things to do. Above all, it will be a society which does away with the false egalitarianism of both the traditional right and left, and distinguishes between the common and the great on the basis not of wealth and muscle and looks and notoriety but in terms of mental attributes alone – remembering that being a mathematical wizard is not the same thing as being a great mind (Bertrand Russell was both, and knew the vital difference) – distinguishes not to humiliate the common, but to prevent them from trying all the time to pull the great down to their own level instead of respecting them and trying to better themselves. As to what I mean by great, look up the relevant chapter in To My Daughter.

Which brings me to a most important point: I do not regard socialism as a purely economic ideal. It must be able to give people a spiritual meaning to life – something that both traditional capitalist and socialist societies fail to do. People in the mass need gods: always done, always will do unless they mutate genetically. In the absence of a true God, they will worship baser and often sick things, such as fuehrer and nation and dialectical materialism, the free market or movie icons or football stars or beer. In this matter, I believe, most capitalist societies, being at least nominally democratic, have done better by practising secularism, meaning that they have tolerated if not encouraged all kinds of faiths, including faithlessness, as long as they do not violently quarrel with one another or otherwise break the laws seriously. But religion sits uncomfortably with a worldview that insists that money-making and self-aggrandizement, even if that calls for turning one’s eyes ruthlessly away from all kinds of suffering and cultivating contempt for all human activity that cannot be turned to commercial profit, are the only real ideals. To quote Tagore again, in most western countries (and now in all countries which have been blindly aping the west, such as ours), it has been church on Sundays, and business as usual the rest of the week. That leads to warped, confused and discontented lives. We need to do better.

Mind you, when I think of a spiritually oriented life, I am neither keen nor insistent that people have to subscribe to some kind of formal organized religion at all, leave alone believe in a traditional God. I don’t myself (some of the religions I have very great respect for, like Jainism and Buddhism, either explicitly deny God or discourage any discourse on the subject among laymen, and the kind of ‘religion of Man’ that Tagore aspired to visualize and practise lifelong, inspired by the sufi and baul traditions, does not insist on any formal God beyond the jeevan devata or moner manush). By spiritual, I mean living as if I have non-material needs too – and that, beyond a certain point (getting adequate air, water, food, shelter, rest and medical care when I am ill), they are far and away the more important needs. Living a good life means having something great and good to live for, not just endlessly indulging my animal appetites to ‘have fun’ – it is a very sick world where people are constantly trying to have fun because they are empty inside, and whole industries are devoted to it. Living for love and not just for sex (without being frigid or puritanical, of course), to cite one example; studying to understand, enjoy and reflect, not just to get a job, to cite another; preferring a good quiet conversation with one or two good friends to partying with a crowd of noisy, silly, half-drunk near-strangers; doing charity with the conviction that it is good for my own soul; pursuing hobbies like art and music and rearing pets and nurturing gardens because they keep you fit in body and mind and make you feel good in relatively inexpensive, socially harmless ways; avoiding all excess in thought, word and deed because one knows it is BAD for everyone including oneself. A spiritual person will not lie or steal or gossip; he will not regard dressing up as an important daily activity; he will not fake emotions; he will not take up an essentially bad job merely because it pays well, whether that means burglary or conning people into buying things they don’t need or cooking news. A spiritual person will always try very hard not to use other human beings merely as instruments to further his personal well-being, but instead deal with everyone – however large the number he has to deal with – as if each of them individually matters, counts for something (it goes without saying that – I am thinking of teachers and doctors here, but this applies to many others – he will try to limit that number to what he can sanely deal with, day in, day out). A spiritual person must live for an ideal – and it goes without saying that something like merely building up a big business organization, however useful a pursuit in many ways, cannot be regarded as an ideal in the sense that building a monastic order could be. A spiritual person habitually tries to make a difference for the better (in non-trivial ways, not merely telling jokes, though I have great regard for good comedians) wherever he goes. He is someone who cultivates courtesy to all because it is good, not just because it helps to attract customers or helps to stay in the boss’ good books, and expects the same from all who deal with him. He is someone who cares for the future, because he cares (really cares, as few of us do) for his children and grandchildren.

What has all this got to do with socialism? Aren’t these all very personal things? Yes and no. These are all very personal attributes, true, but they flourish or wither given the kind of social ambience in which a man has to live and function, and I dream of a social order where all these personal attributes will be publicly lauded and encouraged, their opposites held up to contempt, ridicule and institutionalized discouragement. It will help a very great deal to construct such a society where most men do not feel compelled to run after money to the exclusion of everything else most of the time, where consumption beyond essential needs is no longer regarded as either necessary or admirable, and where both poverty and extreme material inequality have been done away with. In such a world a lot of people will feel more inclined to live good lives, and those who are naturally inclined that way will find it easier to live.


Do I have some hope that the world will evolve towards such a happy situation? A little, yes. Firstly because the best people I have known, in person and through books, have dreamt such a dream. Secondly because some countries have gone very far in that direction already, and many others are tentatively following in their footsteps (despite all the rhetoric against it, government expenditure as a proportion of GDP, to use just one crude measure of social control, has grown relentlessly over almost the entire postwar era even in the US, supposedly the Mecca of capitalism). Thirdly because a lot of people, even if they are not very erudite or deep thinkers, are feeling that all is not well with the world, that it needs a big change. Fourthly because I have some faith in the herd instinct: as soon as a small but influential minority of leaders (in politics, education, business, social work and art of diverse kinds) start determinedly showing the way, the rest follow, and very soon they develop new habits, and then start believing that things were always that way (few Europeans these days can imagine how unclean or how violent their ancestors were just a few generations ago; few middle class Indians today can imagine how their ancestors could live happily yet so much more frugally just forty years ago). Fifthly because things as they are can’t go on for much longer: something is bound to give, by way of war or environmental disaster or something we cannot yet imagine. And lastly because if I cannot hold on to a dream of a better world, what is the point of living any more? I have seen life as it is, and people as they are, and it has left me deeply disappointed, even disgusted. Yet I shall not commit the ultimate sin of losing faith in Man… children keep being born, and surely they cannot be deluded and misguided forever?

P.S., April 22: A newspaper as shallow and as brazenly committed to neo-capitalism as The Telegraph of Kolkata published this editorial on April 10, two days after I wrote the previous blogpost. Sheer meaningless coincidence, this bhooter mukhey raam naam?

Friday, April 08, 2016

Socialism calling

Back to serious writing again.

This time I am going to write at some length about some of my political and economic views.

Let me start off by saying that I am a socialist, albeit of the liberal/democratic persuasion, and I remain committed to the ideal, despite all the history of horror I have read, the failed experiments, the legions of loonies and perverts it has always attracted, and all the black comedy – ‘In capitalism, man exploits man. In socialism, it’s just the reverse’, ‘Socialism is the longest and most tortuous route from capitalism to capitalism’ and that sort of thing. I do believe that, with some essential corrections, it remains the only hope for our long-term survival and civilization. And I am glad that with barely four decades of late-capitalist triumphalism (dating from the death of Mao ze Dong, the rise of the Thatcher-Reagan consensus in the Anglo-Saxon world and the demise of the Soviet Union – it all happened within just fifteen years!), the world is already feeling it’s time to give a hearing again to voices that convey a common message of sanity, voices as diverse as Jane Goodall (see the interview in the March 2016 issue of Reader’s Digest) and Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis – voices that say, essentially, that you cannot have infinite growth in a finite world, that obsessive materialism is a serious sickness, that greed is not good and glorious, that the 95% of the human population that will never be rich matters, that ‘trickle-down’ is neither civilized nor necessarily our best bet for progress, and that only children (of all ages) and men with vested interests believe technology can solve all our problems, so we don’t need politics.

First off, there are a lot of people (especially among those below forty) who simply don’t know that socialism arose once upon a time (mid-19th century onwards) as a ‘cure’ for all the sickness that unbridled capitalism brought about, and no matter what the naysayers claim, all the nominally ‘capitalist’ countries from the US to Britain, Germany and Japan became more civilized because they were forced to make wide-ranging reforms in the face of the huge socialist threat – by way of legislation in favour of the weak and poor (right to form unions, minimum wages, humane working conditions, etc etc), income- and wealth tax on the rich, publicly supported health care and education and infrastructure building (transport, subsidized housing, water supply, sanitation and sewerage, street lighting), pensions, insurance, unemployment allowances, child care … the list is endless. This point bears repetition: the chances that without the socialist challenge to handle all these countries would have taken all such progressive steps on their own are small enough to be laughable: anyone who doubts that only needs to read about the early Poor Laws in the UK, the tragedy of the Paris Commune, the writings of Dickens, Steinbeck, Sinclair and Llewellyn or even Frederick Forsyth (The Dogs of War), John Grisham (The Street Lawyer, The Testament), or Jeffrey Archer’s priceless short story The grass is greener, the movies of Charlie Chaplin, and the kind of political resistance that FDR faced while trying to push through the New Deal to kill the demon called The Great Depression in the 1930s. Indeed, as soon as the great socialist threat retreated in the 1980s, all the above countries, dominated by rampant and unrepentant capitalists once more, have to a greater or less extent started rolling back all the privileges hard won by the not-rich over a century and a half, so that unemployment and poverty and gross inequality have started demonstrably ballooning again everywhere, and Everyman is in many ways less well off and safe than his grandfather was. If that is not a shame, what is? Ignorance is a great evil, willful blindness even worse.

Despite honourable exceptions who have made vast charitable contributions to public welfare (but that too was often done to assuage bad consciences, mind you, as with Alfred Nobel, or because otherwise death duties and inheritance taxes would take away big chunks of their fortunes anyway, as with the likes of Bill Gates – did you know that? Honestly?), your average capitalist (and I have read hundreds of biographies, seen hundreds in real life up close) is only ugly, coarse, greedy and utterly uncaring about the common weal, his credo being ‘I’ll make money by hook or by crook, stop me if you can’ – whether it be through flesh trading or drug running or organizing oil cartels or protection rackets or fixing stock markets or exploiting monopolies or bilking banks of vast sums in the name of doing business (they call them non-performing assets in India, it’s grown into a mountain – and the skunks accuse politicians of feathering their nests while using the same politicians to make and protect all that easy and dirty money!), denuding forests and decimating wildlife in order to live the high life. They do legitimate business for humble profits and for the common good only if that is the only avenue for money-making available (and that is why the need for social control arises); they much prefer Ponzi schemes if they can get away with it. What most people don’t know or forget is that the so-called father of modern apologists for laissez-faire capitalism, Adam Smith himself no less, wrote ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices’! And Jeff Bezos as a slave driver could put a lot of 19th century robber barons to shame: only the current ambience allows him to boast about it!

Secondly – this is the best kept secret – capitalists and their ‘ism’ cannot even survive without socialism of a certain degree. Everywhere the police and the lawcourts exist primarily for their protection. Governments, even in nominally ‘free-enterprise’ countries, fund the kind of education and research and infrastructure that allows capitalist enterprise to flourish (the roads are always built and maintained by governments, while private businessmen make the cars!), yet social control (bureaucracy by another name) gets unrelentingly bad press. Most tellingly, businessmen are gung-ho about ‘free’ enterprise only when the going is good – when bad times come, they are the first to scurry for governmental protection and revival measures, though, they claim, it is always only in the interest of the larger common weal. Between 1929 and 2008, the pattern hasn’t changed. Just wait for the next recession/depression to loom on the horizon…

Thirdly, capitalism, while all the time claiming to encourage creativity and competition, egalitarianism and efficiency, actually runs counter to all the above claims in a lot of different ways: always done. For one thing, it fosters a global outlook of ‘every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost’. That is not competition, it's called dogfighting. Not good for the prospects for civilization, given that honesty, moderation, genuine cooperation (not just to make some money!), fellow feeling and altruism are things that civilization can’t do for long without. For another, it cultivates an obsession with buying things – masses of often trivial or even completely useless things (gold wc-s, diamond studded watches, hundreds of pairs of shoes that often never get worn, surgery to ‘improve your smile’, birthday bashes for kids in luxury resorts, motorbikes fitted with car engines) – just buying them and accumulating them and flaunting them, not even enjoying the use of them (changing phones once every few months) – and with working like maniacs and/or stealing/cheating right and left to make money to the exclusion of all other possible goals in life (love, justice, art, literature, music, charity, real sport for the fun of it, caring for animals, science for the purpose of knowing rather than just manipulating for profit, philosophizing, without which we are just highly sophisticated beasts) so that one can keep on buying things, the whole thing being justified by the insane argument ‘how else will the economy keep running?’ (as though humans must live and die so the economy can keep running, instead of the other way round. Tagore used to say religion must exist for mankind, not the reverse. How true that has become for the capitalistic system!).

It rapes nature to extract every possible resource she can provide for our ‘development’. At one time – for a very long time – that might really have been good for us, all mankind living so close to destitution most of the time. Now that a billion people are seriously obese, and the land and air and water so polluted, and we already produce so much that if things were shared out a little more fairly nobody would have to know grinding poverty at all (again, did you know that?), and we know that it hurts and ruins so many lives, do we have to carry on forever instead of looking for something better?

Next, think of the inequality I keep talking about. First, let us accept that in capitalism it is inevitable – we might debate whether the poor get poorer or not, but there’s no doubt at all that the rich keep getting richer. That is because the system is rigged in favour of the rich – firstly, because the employers and top management are allowed vastly higher earnings than the average employee, secondly because they pay proportionately much less in taxes (I have this on the authority of Warren Buffett), thirdly because they are allowed to leave huge fortunes to their progeny, and worst of all, because the mega-rich acquire power to manipulate the entire machinery of lawmaking and governance in their own (increasingly anti-social) interest. Now I am no subscriber to ideas of absolute equality: in fact I strongly support a dispensation where one man may earn ten or twenty times another (provided the other gets at least a living wage) – a surgeon compared to a ward boy, for instance, a general manager compared to a clerk, a senior lawyer compared to a trainee – but thousands, even tens of thousands of times? If that is not obscene, what is? You really believe that Lionel Messi is so much more ‘valuable’ than, say, Einstein or Florence Nightingale, Mukesh Ambani than any of his engineers? How well does the much vaunted ideal of egalitarianism sit with this state of affairs, either? Who but a fool argues that a tycoon and his chauffeur have become ‘more equal’ because they both have smartphones?

Consider some other social ramifications of this order of things. For one thing, if you remember that beyond basic needs all material wants are largely social constructs (you want them because they are being constantly advertized, and your neighbours have got them already), it creates an atmosphere where most people are always unhappy, not because they are starving, but merely because they are not making enough money as compared to people they know (and nothing is ever enough – I have heard that in contemporary Silicon Valley the man who makes a mere million dollars a year and has a Merc in the garage of his four bedroom fully airconditioned house complete with swimming pool, which puts him among the richest 0.001% of the human population, feels miserably poor because so many of his neighbours make more than a hundred million). It makes for a world where people are mostly motivated by three of the lowest human instincts – jealousy, fear and greed. It talks about people being ‘appropriately rewarded’ for their talents, guts and dogged hard work, but funnily enough, apparently it’s only businessmen who ‘need’ to be rewarded on such a bloated, monstrous scale: so many other people, from soldiers to teachers to zoo keepers, seem to be able to do very good work without! And who will ever explain to me how the spouses and children of successful entrepreneurs, very often the most despicable and useless specimens of humanity, ‘deserve’ such wealth, glamour and power? Besides, in this atmosphere most children from the lower and middle classes grow up into adults convinced beyond repair that there cannot be any goal in life other than making money, no way of measuring success other than by the money one makes – who cares how it is made? And what is sillier and more hypocritical in this social atmosphere than beating our collective breasts every now and then over why so many people are turning to crime and corruption to make money?

Imagine what that is doing to the social need for judges and policemen, teachers and writers and environmentalists, nurses and every other kind of care giver! See what it is doing to education, when people have become increasingly convinced that it has no purpose other to train youngsters in ways of making money, and to the book publishing trade and universities and hospitals, now that they are being increasingly run by ‘managers’ with specializations in sales and finance, who don’t give a damn what the ‘product’ is, shaving blades or hotels, condoms or music. And what it is doing to social tastes, when the only kind of ‘artist’ who ‘succeeds’ is one who performs like a demented monkey on stage in sartorial states far more vulgar than mere nudity (think everything from Madonna’s ‘style’ to SRK doing the lungi dance), given that humans in the large have the greatest appetite for piggery, and that is what capitalism under a democratic-consumerist dispensation most encourages and provides for, simply because it is most profitable, and there cannot be a higher god than Profit!

Finally, look at what this ‘false consciousness’, to use Marx’s once-famous phrase, is doing to culture and manners. Everything has now become commodified and put on sale, from pleasure to marital relationships to the human body itself (I won’t even waste time talking about how feminism, and the great real need for it, has been derailed by the virus of consumerism: I know a lost cause when I see one). And I have to deal day in, day out with creatures who, because they have learnt to chew gum, wear jeans, speak pidgin English and own cars, imagine they have the ‘right’ to talk to me as an equal, though they have brains the size of peas, and slightly less ‘talent’ than some pet dogs I have seen. In the absence of social restrictions of the sort ours was the last generation to be taught (it used to be called civility) only the fear of my tongue keeps them in their places. My favourite old boys will know exactly what I am talking about.

Any sane reader – by which I mean anyone who feels we are not living in the best of all possible worlds – will of course be entitled to ask questions. I can anticipate several: is there really an alternative? Can socialism work? Hasn’t it proved to be a big disappointment, sometimes in horrifying ways? Are there real-world models I can recommend? I believe I can answer every one of them reasonably and with some hope. About that, in the next post. This one is already getting too long and dense for the average reader reared on comic books and twitter…

Monday, April 04, 2016

Filler

Biggest news of the new year: my parents have at long last moved back with me. I am now truly a happy man. I'll put up a photograph when they are in the mood for it...

Next one: a recent family crisis has proved - if I needed proof - that my daughter is not only all grown up, but actually far more grown up than most women twice her age. That is bliss.

The pageviews counter has jumped 10,000 in just a little more than a month. For some reason, a lot of people in a lot of places are reading this blog seriously and regularly. I wonder why, and I wish I could talk more with them.

Summer has set in, my new batches are full, I haven't made any major changes this year. So it will be like always, inshallah. I could do without another accident, though.

I am deep into a long essay on socialism and its necessity and prospects. It's a very adult subject, so all those who like to read about food and clothes and shoes and phones and romance and stuff will, I am afraid, have to stay away. But it will be sometime coming, because it's proving to be slow work. 

The Election Commission is sending around voter slips with photographs this time. A first. And a Booth Level Officer came over to enlist me as a 'non-partisan observer' for poll day. They are obviously taking their job seriously.

Bit news: I have given up one of my two vices. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Technology in a demented age

What I think about technology and its current state and effects on the world is to some extent outlined in the chapter titled On Nature in my book To My Daughter, as well as in the blogpost titled How My World Has Changed. But I keep thinking about it, and meanwhile new children are growing up into thinking beings (!), and not all of them have read the above (or can), so I think it’s time to write on the subject again – for all who are interested in the way I think, and want to understand why.

First, science and technology are not synonymous. Far too many people are forgetting this most vital point, and a lot of them these days never learnt the difference at all (I can’t blame the young, when they hear of institutions with names like Jai Hanuman College of Science and Technology Management). About this, I have written elsewhere – if you don’t want to read that, a little research on your own will do you a world of good.

Second, technology has been with us for thousands of years: it isn’t something that was born a few decades or even a couple of centuries ago. Indeed, any true scholar of the history of science will concur that the most epoch-making technologies evolved long before proper history began to be recorded: little that has been developed in the last fifty years has had the civilization-changing effects of the wheel, fire, the knife, writing, gunpowder, the compass, spectacles, surgery under anesthesia and the sanitary water closet. Anyone who gushes too much about the ‘revolutionary’ apps available on his mobile phone today is merely betraying the fact that a college education does not these days guarantee that you have greater practical wisdom and sense of discrimination than the average rickshawallah.

Thirdly, technology and computer science/IT are neither synonymous nor coterminous, for god’s sake – as an increasing number of even ‘educated’ (heaven help us!) folks seem to imagine. The prosthetics inserted in people’s eyes, hearts and bones involve technology. Shipbuilding and bridge building and aircraft designing call for technology, as much as cooking and scientific irrigation techniques do (and they all developed long before computers came to the aid of engineers). What an age we are living in when people have to be reminded of such things!... and as I have written elsewhere, the fact that technology is stagnating in so many fields, such as agriculture and power generation and automobile engines and pollution control and water recycling and disaster prediction, so that journalists and pop-science writers have to harp ad nauseam on ‘exciting’ developments in IT says nothing either flattering or encouraging about the state of technology today. As I say when I am in a mood for black comedy, we are heading for a dystopian world where we shall have to see if we can live on a diet of phones and TVs, they having become so cheap and simultaneously so ‘advanced’, seeing that normal food, air and water are becoming increasingly unavailable and unaffordable!

Which brings me to another, vital and connected issue. As a very observant man (incidentally both an engineer and a poet) told me back in the 1980s, jugta bigyaner noy, bigyaponer – it’s an age of advertizing, not science. It is in the mass media’s commercial interest to keep gushing about the alleged constant advancement of technology, and manned by millions of hacks and ad copywriters who never qualified for more worthwhile jobs, it bombards the public night and day with either trivial or pseudo-scientific rubbish (just check out the kind of jargon they use for ads of water purifiers and health drinks on TV, and I learnt not long ago that these days news like Kindle is about to introduce a backlit reader qualifies as a ‘scoop’. In my day a leak about Kissinger’s secret visit to China or about the first planned moon mission would have qualified as such. Judge for yourself). Bernard Shaw wrote a century ago about a time ‘when people had minds to think with, rather than a collection of newspapers’. What would he have said if he were alive today?

Net result – the public has become obsessed with junking their perfectly usable and useful possessions, be they phones or cars or hearing aids, to buy the ‘latest’ gizmos on the market, no matter how silly the little ‘improvements’ are, how useless, and how grossly, needlessly expensive (automatic rain sensors in cars that can turn on the windscreen wipers, you know, probably designed on the assumption that the average driver these days is both blind and deaf). Unless you decide never to grow up – in a most unedifying sense – you can get very tired of it. I don’t want to keep ‘updating’ the operating system on my computer every few years: why must I be forced? I don’t want to be told that the very costly camera I bought eight years ago should be trashed in favour of the newest toy – I had meant to leave it for my granddaughter, as grandfathers did with heirlooms in the good old days. It irritates me when gmail changes its layout and I have to re-learn something so trivial all over again, just because they want to stay cool with tweens all over the world. And I hate it when I am told, after I have used Picasa for three or four years, that the service is being closed down and I must switch to Google Photos now – and evidently hold my breath for the next such ‘exciting’ news a couple of years down the line again (in my case, the consequence is that I shall probably stop uploading photos on the net, and go back to a film camera, and I am not the only one thinking that way). Oh, I know, I know there are many hundred million people in the world today with too much money, too much time hanging heavy, too little responsibility, too empty brains and no real passions of any kind, who need to be kept constantly engaged and entertained this way, but what about the rest of us? Or, when is it going to be officially declared that henceforth technology shall progress not for the welfare of humankind as it was understood for thousands of years (as, say, happened when penicillin was discovered and the Pill invented), but only to keep lazy nitwits happy?


One last issue. I read a conversation among morons where someone particularly demented gushed ‘Technology does not discriminate!’ (having apparently read an ad copy to that effect somewhere – where else can such gifted people find their inputs?) Really? Read the whole history of warfare – war has always cruelly, devastatingly discriminated against the side which lacked superior technology, from the days of the chariot and ballista, and then the longbow and then the cannon and rifle and today the robots and drones. In the field of medicine, every time a new technology is born, whole generations suffer and die watching only the rich being able to afford the new procedures, drugs and gadgets, only praying that their children will be more fortunate (I read somewhere that eighty years ago doctors used to impress their dirty-rich patients by carrying around then-exotic ECG machines, and the eye doctor in my neighbourhood who charged Rs. 13,000 for a cataract operation alongwith lens transplant twenty years ago – that would be the equivalent of at least Rs. 35,000 now – does it for Rs. 3,000 today). India cannot go in wholesale for online examinations yet simply because of the fact that several hundred million students are still computer illiterate for no fault of their own, and the system will leave them out in the cold.  A stage actor works a thousand times harder and earns a thousand times less than a movie star for purely technological reasons. And every time a new technology replaces a vast number of specialized workers – be they calligraphists or painters, bank tellers or manual labourers – just where do those people go? Who takes responsibility for feeding them: especially those among them who are elderly, and ill, have families to support, in no condition to learn new skills, and have no savings worth the name to fall back upon? Need still more examples? Technology does not discriminate, indeed. There should be a law against rich, ignorant imbeciles puking all over the net… 

Sunday, March 06, 2016

kaho Kanhaiya re!

I have been sitting out the whole JNU/Kanhaiya Kumar brouhaha, watching silently from the sidelines all this time. And I am not going to break that silence, for very strong reasons of my own. However, I shall take note of two different views on the subject. One, here. The other, I quote from an article published in today's Anandabazar Patrika (Sunday, March 06, edit page bottom, titled Chhilo muri holo michhri):

"...রাজনীতি একটা বিরাট বড় ব্যাপার।  চালাক চালাক কথা বলে টি-শার্টের স্লোগান তৈরি করা রাজনীতিকের কাজই না। তাছাড়া একটা বক্তৃতায় যখন প্রতিটি লাইনের পরে ঝড়ের মত হাততালি পূর্বনির্ধারিত থাকে, তখন পাতিস্য পাতি কথাও হাতিস্য হাতি মনে হয়। হাঁ, হতেই পারে, পরে দেখা গেল কানহাইয়া এদেশের সর্বকালের সর্বশ্রেষ্ঠ নেতা। শুধু বলছি, সেটার জন্য বছর দশেক না হোক, অন্তত মাস ছয়েক অপেক্ষা করতে হবে। তখনও ও প্রাসঙ্গিক থাকবে তো ? নিজেকে প্রাসঙ্গিক রাখতে পারবে তো ? খেলাটা তো এক ওভারের নয়। তাই এখন থেকেই 'ওরে মসিহা এসে গেছে, খাট পেতে দে ভাত বেড়ে দে' ডিগবাজি খাওয়ার কিছু হয়নি। ...সোশ্যাল মিডিয়া এসে এই ঝামেলা করেছে: সব লোক সকালে চোখ খুলেই ভাবতে শুরু করে আজকে কি নিয়ে ঘনঘোর উত্তেজিত হয়ে পড়বে। গোটা পৃথিবীটাকে হাইপার করে ছেড়েছে। তার সারাক্ষণ একটা আদ্রেনালিনের প্লাবন চাই। ই কি রে! জীবনের প্রতিটি দিন প্রতিটি মুহূর্তই প্রচন্ড হাই-পিচে বাঁধা থাকতে পারে না কি ? মনের কানের পর্দা ছিঁড়ে যাবে তো!* কে শোনে কার কথা। হয় কাউকে গালাগাল দিয়ে ভূত ভাগিয়ে দিতে হবে, নয় কাউকে এমন পুজো করতে হবে যে শাঁখ ঘন্টার শব্দে দমকলের গাড়ি ভেবলে  একসা। কেন? না, হিস্টিরিয়ায় মেতে থাকলে সময়টা কাটে জব্বর। তাই আজ কোহলি তো কাল কেজরিবাল পরশু কানহাইয়া। সানি লিওন থেকে অফিসের পিয়ন, সব একই তালে নাচছে। ... 'ভাইরাল হচ্ছে, ভাইরাল হচ্ছে!' রব একবার তুলে দিতে পারলে, সেই তোড়ে ভেসে যাওয়ার জন্যে সবার সত্তা চুলবুল করে ওঠে। 'আমাকেও খেলতে নে' চেঁচাতে চেঁচাতে সবাই ছোটে হামেলিনের বাঁশিওয়ালার পেছনে উল্লসিত ইঁদুরের মত। মঙ্গলে হয়ত সেই স্টেটাস পেল কোলাভেরি ডি, বুধে কানহাইয়া। ... সোশ্যাল মিডিয়া তার স্বভাবধর্মে এমন জোরে তার বাণী ছড়াচ্ছে যেন সুরেন বাঁড়ুজ্যে, বিপিন পাল, উইন্স্টন চার্চিল আর ডেমোসথেনেস এক দেহে হলো লীন।  কিন্তু বাপ... মুড়ি আর মিছরির এক দর হওয়া শুধু দোকানির পক্ষে নয়, শেষ অবধি খদ্দেরের পক্ষেও খারাপ।" 

[* in this connection, look up a five-year old blogpost of mine here]

Monday, February 29, 2016

Admission trauma - make believe?

I have been in Kolkata this week, and was witness to the heaviest February thundershower in a century. For those who weren’t here, it was a deluge, I can tell you.  The temperature dropped sharply, which was a mercy. What I found pleasantly surprising was how little normal life was disrupted, and how quickly the city dried up.

I have also done something that I never gave myself the chance to do for donkey’s years: eating around the city. There is a far greater number and variety of restaurants to choose from than in our time, something to suit almost every pocket. Four nights out in a week, trying all sorts of things from shrimp to squid to lamb and varieties of pork: that’s a whole normal year’s quota for me! It’s such fun to have a grown-up and enthusiastic daughter around, and sometimes a few ex-students…

This news item in today’s paper caught my attention: well-heeled parents in the city are breaking their heads over getting their children admitted into the handful of  ‘elite’ schools (didn’t know that Modern High, where my daughter went, had a much lower vacancy to applicant ratio than La Martiniere!). In some ways God has been truly good to me – from prep school to college, her admissions were always a breeze. At two and a half she was invited by a friend of mine in the next street to join her Montessori classes. At the next step, when it was time to go to a regular school, my wife went to enquire with just two schools, and both agreed to admit my daughter without a fuss of any kind (no question of connections and donations and that kind of rubbish); we simply admitted her to the one whose admission date came first. The so-called interview was a joke, no more than the way we had been determined to treat it (I still vividly recall, though, the anxiety writ large on the stony faces of most of the parents around me, as if their daughters were about to be subjected to major and dicey surgery!) Twelve years later (and I know how snooty this sounds, but I can’t help it – these are the cold facts) I didn’t even go to Kolkata for her class 11 admission. Pupu and her mother went by themselves, applied to just one school, and got through without a fuss again, though the interview was much more substantial this time round. Leave alone strangers, even some members of my own extended family made it obvious that they weren’t believing me when I assured them I had pulled no strings, and paid not a rupee above the standard fees stipulated for every student.  Two years after that, Pupu again did mighty little worrying and even less running around, just getting admission to Scottish Church (being my daughter, she had been advised not to touch a certain college with a bargepole) for safety’s sake until the JU admission clicked (despite all the candidates on the first general category list having scored above 90% in their last board exams), and then she didn’t even bother to go sit for the entrance test at Presidency. As for the next step, she has known for several years now that whatever Master’s course she does, wherever, she must do everything by herself, because she would be old and smart enough by then: daddy will do nothing more than signing some forms if required, and paying whatever he thinks he can afford. So there you are – I am a living example of an ordinary parent in today’s India who has managed to ensure whatever carries the tag of a ‘first-class education’ in this country for his child without ever having to lose any sleep over it. Maybe it’s largely due to the fact that unlike the herd, and very like my own parents, I have all through refused to believe that this ought to be a really very serious issue in an adult’s life. If my daughter has good genes and is taught a few good habits (like studying daily by a routine and reading a lot outside the syllabus), she will get as good an education as she is destined for, period. If I have spent tens of thousands of hours moping, consulting and running around, and sackfuls of cash on a thing like that, it’s simply because I never had anything better to do, and my child is an idiot. But imagine, then, what a terrific number of parents don’t have anything to do, and have idiots for children! And apparently this is not a purely Indian disease, either: Pupu herself told me recently that affluent young American parents these days are ready to kill as well to get their toddlers into elite prep schools, as she saw in some TV serial show recently.


I notice the number of pageviews has crossed the 400,000 mark. I obviously have a large regular readership now, and it’s not too optimistic to think that I’ll still be around and writing when the counter tops half a million. I have become a serious blogger in these last ten years, then. Discounting celebrities, I don’t see many bloggers who have crossed even the 50,000 mark. If only my readers were also frequent, articulate and thought-provoking comment writers, this could have become quite a forum! – in any case, I am urging my faithful- (and curious new) readers to browse through some of the older posts again, not just the ones on the home page (use a tab, or better still, a regular computer – a mobile phone is close to useless for serious reading). Also, tell me what you would like me to write about next. This request is especially pertinent to those who have become ex students in the last three or four years and want to stay in touch.

P.S.: The number of dinners outdoors became five on the last evening, at Oudh 1590. Ambience wise, this was the best - they give you a feel of Nawabi dining, Lucknow style, complete with brass service, waiters in embroidered sherwani  and thumri on the music system...


Friday, February 19, 2016

Sudden trip, two glorious days

Just back from a  two-day, 550-km,  almost entirely unplanned road trip. And did I enjoy it!

Yesterday I rose at dawn, scrambled a breakfast, then Firoz and I topped up the fuel tank and set off westwards along NH2 at about eight in the morning. Off the highway at Asansol, and we decided to explore Garhpanchkot first. Nice place, but the Forest Rest House wouldn't let us in without prior booking, which we didn't have, and it was far too early to settle for the day anyway, so we drove away towards Panchet Dam. Funny I saw it for the first time at this age! Lunch off the NH2 again at Dhanbad, and since it was barely past midday, we decided to head for Giridih. Arrived there at about two, and checked into a very nice hotel. A wash, then off sightseeing. First the Usri waterfalls: the same where my grandfather's little sister nearly drowned almost eighty years ago (there must have been much more water then - neither falls nor river seemed very menacing to me), and where Professor Shonku used to take his morning walks (that must have been at least fifty years ago, too, in Satyajit Ray's mind - the forests would have been much denser). Then off 30 km or so in the opposite direction towards Khandoli lake: a very dusty ride, but well rewarded with an azure blue expanse of water and a mellow gold sunset. Luxurious bath, and dinner with tadka and tandoori roti at a roadside dhaba.Lazed in the evening listening to Hindi classic film songs on TV - something I rarely get to do  - and turned in very early. The afternoon had been hot, but at night there was a nip in the air.

This morning the day started early again. Drove to Madhupur to see the place so many of the Bengali gentry and not a few Englishmen used to go to once upon a time for 'a change of air'. Some of the old crumbling palaces deserve to be preserved.  Another two hours took us to Deoghar. Lacking piety and hating crowds, I gave the old Baba Mandir (Baidyanath Dham) a miss (visited it 42 years ago: enough for one lifetime) and went straight off to Trikoot Hill, of the Tapovan on top of which I still have vague but nice memories. There is a ropeway now, but strangely it wasn't working because of a high wind (first time I heard the excuse). We could have waited, but Firoz is scared of cable cars, and I have ridden enough not to be excited anyway. Climbing a mile of stairs was out of the question, so we drove away. Another lovely ride through beautiful countryside, the sal forests blazing, palash and krishnachura in full bloom, and the rich, sweet, heavy smell of mohua in the air: no one who hasn't taken in a lungful of it will ever know what wickedly-delicious languor means. Lunch just outside Chittaranjan, then we were on the highway again, and it was hardly four p.m. by the time we were back home, after having given the dear car a well-deserved wash on the way. 

This was the first time I have travelled without a plan and all by myself in my own car, though I have had a car for sixteen years - can you believe it? It could have gone horribly wrong in a dozen different ways, but the point is it didn't. The roads almost all along were smooth as glass (kudos to the Jharkhand government); also, my car drove like a dream. And if you can shell out the money, you can get good food and fine hotels almost anywhere you like. I really must do this more often. Is Firoz likely to evolve into something like Sudhirda? One thing I have discovered: one good friend is all one needs. And unless it's someone like Pupu, I'd much rather have a man with me.

This is also the first time that someone wished me well for the trip before I made it and wrote about it. Thanks a ton, Tanmoy.

For photos, click here. Videos, only face to face.

There is something else that I must mention here. The grinding poverty so painfully described in Bibhutibhushan's Aranyak is gone, or at least hardly visible. I saw hundreds of even girls going to school in very remote villages. But the forests are nearly gone, too. We must do something about it while there is still time. Other countries have managed, even some with dense populations, like Germany and Japan. Couldn't we stop aping the Americans before disaster strikes?... and even if it has to be America, can't we remember, no matter what our monkeys think, that America is also about the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (who signed the National Parks into existence), and not just folks as trivial as Steve Jobs?

Whoever looks after me from Up There, thank you for the treat.

P.S., March 14: The US National Park Service is celebrating its centenary this year. In this context, read this essay. As I have observed, America was not always technology drunk, and I firmly believe she was a greater America then...

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Flowers, travel, and interesting women

Here are a few samples of my maiden effort at gardening, ably assisted by a friendly elderly maali. I started late this season, and the vagaries of the weather didn't help. I am wishing myself even better luck next time.

Another 16-year old whose wisdom eye has just opened told me today, 'You know Sir, you are right, just about everybody, no matter what they claim to the contrary, is guided by the herd instinct in everything'. 'Attaboy', I said, and promised myself to write about it here soon.

Since I have got a sudden holiday because all school examinations have begun, I am going to go a-wandering tomorrow morning. Just the car and driver ... haven't decided where I am going yet! I wish I had a few (male, it goes without saying-) ex students to take along. Happy memories, Saikat and Arko?

Summer is about to set in. I am dreading the admission rush, slated to begin in a month's time. But there will be the swimming pool to compensate.

Reading White Mughals. Here is a description of an 18th century Hyderabadi courtesan of high repute: "Mah Laqa Bai (was)... the most celebrated beauty of the age.... (she) was not just glamorous and seductive: she was widely regarded as Hyderabad's greatest contemporary poet (in such a completely so-called patriarchal age, mind you - SC)... she built a famous library... and commissioned the Mahanama, a major new history of the Deccan... later she became an important patron of poets in her own right... such was the Nizam's reliance on her wisdom that alone of the women of Hyderabad she was given the rank of a senior omrah... she also accompanied him to war...and gained a reputation for her riding skills, her accomplishments with the bow, and even with the javelin." (pp. 172-3, Penguin India paperback edition, 2002). Where have all those women gone? (look up Abigail Adams, more or less this lady's contemporary, in my post titled 'Those who love')

Friday, February 12, 2016

Nine Lives – in search of the sacred in modern India

By William Dalrymple

Published by Bloomsbury, Great Britain, 2009, ISBN 978-1-4088-0061-4. Hardcover, £20, pp. 284

[synopsis: Dalrymple has taken a close and sympathetic look at how some non-mainstream people are coping, through religion, with the violent changes that are sweeping through contemporary India. Nine people, located at different points in the sub-continent – one already dead of her own choice since being interviewed – tell him how their traditional faith and practices help, but they do not pretend that life is easy. This book is sure to compel even the well-informed reader to modify his or her views about what really is happening to India, and perhaps make us worry.]

India is in the throes of massive and multi-dimensional socio-economic change. That has already – in some circles at least – become cliché. Also, a lot of people are determined to call this change unqualified progress, a clear sign that India is poised to take her ‘rightful’ position at the world’s high table soon. They make it sound as though everything about India, until very recently, was merely shameful or pitiable; there was no culture before Shahrukh, no technology before IT, no wealthy men before the Ambanis, no philosopher before Nandan Nilekani, and it is only since Manmohan Singh launched his programme of reforms in 1991 – before which there was no history either! – that things started changing suddenly and swiftly for the better. At the same time, a lot of people (myself included) keep pointing out again and again that many things both good and bad about India don’t ever seem to change at all, and that it is blind and silly to claim that every aspect of the currently ongoing change ought to be called progress of a sensible kind. When I read books like Jim Corbett’s My India, written 57 years ago, for instance, I sigh to think where all those proud, hardy, diversely-learned, simple and good folks have vanished – or did they only exist only in Corbett’s imagination?

In Nine Lives – in search of the sacred in modern India, published earlier this year, William Dalrymple of White Mughals and The Last Mughal fame says that if you care to look beyond the neon signs of snazzy and burgeoning metros, some of that India still survives, though maybe more doubtfully than in the past. Instead of poring over historical archives, he has, for a change, dived into the maelstrom of India’s roads to pick out a few non-mainstream (but still quintessentially Indian) people and find out what they have been doing with their lives – a Jain nun calmly starving herself to death in the time-honoured way, a teller of folk tales in Rajasthan who keeps thousands of pages by heart, a builder of idols in Tamil Nadu who has been keeping alive a tradition that dates back to the 11th century, a female sufi practitioner from Bihar who has settled at a shrine in Pakistan, a devadasi whose lot is now much worse since government made the custom illegal, a blind baul at the great mela at Kenduli, West Bengal … nine of them in all, nine highly-skilled, highly interesting people who are struggling to live life and even enjoy it and contribute meaningfully to it without being swallowed by the postmodern-urban-consumerist-passive-apolitical-technodrunk monoculture.

As Dalrymple says in the introduction, the urge to know such people was born in him one day during a trek to the shrine of Kedarnath, when he found out that the naked sadhu who was walking beside him was the son of a well-off politician, an MBA and a marketing manager with a well-known consumer electricals firm in Delhi till only a few years ago. While trying to get under their skins and find out what makes them tick, he has been neither patronizing nor judgmental: he has allowed them, as far as possible, to tell their own stories and justify their existence in their own eyes. And that is precisely what makes the book both readable and disturbing. These characters, for all their strength and adaptability, for all their esoteric skills, can no longer be happy or even at peace, free to live their lives their own way… they are all, like so many birds and beasts, threatened by the bulldozer of ‘development’ and in danger of becoming extinct. The devadasi has got AIDS, the tantrik has been prohibited from giving interviews by his ‘scientifically-educated’ offspring because they find him an embarrassment in their professional circles, the bhopa is chagrined to find that the literate young can no longer memorise tomes, the idol-maker is sad that the lure of easy money has made his son long to become (yet another!) computer programmer, the dalit theyyam dancer who becomes a god for a few days when he is possessed spends the rest of the year digging wells and guarding a prison full of psychopaths for a pittance, and the red fairy will probably be swallowed and crushed soon by the onrushing tide of the Taliban sweeping across Pakistan, who want to cleanse their faith by purging it of heretics who sing and dance and preach an easy universal benevolence…

I have read biologists and environmentalists lamenting that, thanks to rapid and rampant deforestation, we are losing thousands of species of wild flora every year, and very soon the world will be a much poorer place, because we shall have lost so many forms of life whose great utility (as in making medicines) we never had time to explore. Reading this book gave me the feeling (the same feeling I had when I was reading Carlos Castaneda’s The Art of Dreaming, and while watching the movie titled Australia) that the human world is also losing too much of its rich diversity too fast, and it will live to regret it – or, worse still, it won’t. While the UN, I hear, is trying to collect and preserve the traditional skills and wisdom of myriad indigenous peoples around the world, we in India (which, among other things, has the largest and most diverse tribal population in the world), are doing our best to wipe them out, with threats, oppression, neglect, exploitation and blandishments – the siren song of the laid-back, high-on-consumption-low-on-thought culture that is likely to produce such horror scenarios as portrayed in movies like Matrix and Wall-E. And, most disappointing of all, so many of the best ‘educated’ Indians are unconcerned; they find all knowledge of their own peoples and traditional ways ‘backdated’ and ‘uncool’ without ever having tried to find out! I don’t know how many foreigners will read Dalrymple’s work, but I hope a lot of Indians do, and feel ashamed, and go out and meet and learn about some of their fellow-Indians who are not like them, but perhaps better, cleverer, more talented people, even if they cannot write software or manipulate the stock-market and grow fat on bribes in government jobs. And I wish some Indian writers would follow in Dalrymple’s footsteps, rather than in Chetan Bhagat’s.

Postscript: It seems some intellectual types in India are trashing the book as yet another western attempt to stereotype Indian exotica, to portray us in a poor light. I doubt whether such folks have taken the trouble to read the book. They are the same types who criticized Pather Panchali and Slumdog Millionaire for the same reasons, and they believe that we can be proud only to the extent that we can clone all things western (or, more specifically, American) … though I notice that they are not as keen to take over the American attitude to work, and punctuality, and good manners in public, and fondness for museums and libraries, and concern for the cleanliness and beauty of their physical surroundings as they are keen on more Macdonald’s outlets and mobiles and big cars and bigger bombs to bash our neighbours with. India can do better without their wisdom. All I shall tell my readers is, read the book and make up your own minds.



 I reviewed this book shortly after it was published for culturazzi.org at their invitation. Their website seems to have gone phut. I thought I'd post it here for the record.  The book is now available much more cheaply in a paperback edition. Read it.

Dalrymple sent me a thank-you note by email too:

williamdalrymple@gmail.com

12/6/09
to me
Suvro, it's a lovely and perceptive review-- thanks very much indeed. As you note at the end, there have been some slightly bizarre reviews, and it's great to know there are also some appreciative and perceptive readers out there!

Keep well and thanks again,

Will
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